TOM TILLEY I’m joined by Foreign Minister Julie Bishop who has returned from Baghdad to talk about Islamic State and the spread of Ebola. She is right in the hot seat at the moment and speaking of hot seats - fresh off the plane from Baghdad, she was also in Europe for a few days before that. I spoke to her just a moment ago.
Julie Bishop, thank you for joining us.
JULIE BISHOP My pleasure, delighted to be with you.
TOM TILLEY First to Gough Whitlam, in Parliament today you paid tribute to what he did on the foreign stage. What’s the lasting contribution that you’ll remember him by?
JULIE BISHOP I think that he is best known in foreign policy circles for his ground-breaking visit to China and then setting up formal diplomatic ties with China at a time when it was in fact the height of the Cold War. So under his leadership he established diplomatic relations much earlier than other countries and of course Australia and China have gone on to establish a very constructive political, economic and trading relationship.
TOM TILLEY One that’s now partly in your hands and the Trade Minister as well.
Now you’re fresh off the plane from Baghdad where you secured an agreement for the 200 Australian Special Forces troops to be deployed to advise and assist the Iraqi Government in building capacity. What exactly will they be doing?
JULIE BISHOP They will be training, advising and assisting the Iraqi Security Forces but the Government of Iraq has invited us in to assist to build their capacity, their capability. They’re not looking for foreign combat troops. They’re looking for assistance to build the skills and capacity of the Iraqi Security Forces and we, and a number of other countries, have offered to provide that kind of training in Iraq other countries in the region are doing that kind of training in their countries. So I secured an agreement for the legal framework which will enable our security advisers, our Special Forces, to go into Iraq.
TOM TILLEY Okay, what did the agreement say about self-defence? At what point would our troops use weapons to defend themselves if they needed to?
JULIE BISHOP The agreement is detailed but the Iraqi Government have asked me to keep it confidential because they do not wish to flag to the enemy - ISIL or Da’esh, as they call it, they don’t wish to let the terrorist organisations know the details of the operations so I’ve agreed with them that we can keep it confidential. It does meet our requirements and it certainly meets their requirements.
TOM TILLEY What were your requirements on self-defence?
JULIE BISHOP That’s another way of asking me the detail of the agreement but obviously we put the safety and security of our troops as a priority. Our Special Forces are amongst the most professional in the world and we certainly are concerned for their security. So we have been satisfied that the arrangements in place are appropriate.
TOM TILLEY Okay, when you were in Baghdad 25 people were killed on one night while you were in that city. It’s pretty scary. What’s the update on the way that the Coalition’s efforts are going in Iraq?
JULIE BISHOP The situation is dire in Baghdad. I was there for the Saturday and Sunday. On the Saturday night a number of bombs went off, about 25 people were killed. In fact, on the Sunday morning I was addressing our embassy staff and those who are protecting our staff in Baghdad and during my talk another bomb went off so the situation is dangerous.
But I’m confident that the efforts that the international Coalition are making are having an impact. The airstrikes are disrupting the momentum of this terrorist organisation. They are no longer able to form as an army as they were. They are no longer travelling into cities with their flags and vehicles. They are going underground but essentially the air strikes are working. The Iraqi Security Forces still need support, still need advice and assistance in order to combat this murderous and brutal terrorist organisation.
TOM TILLEY Okay let’s turn to Ebola, Labor’s Tanya Plibersek and Catherine King have criticised your government for not doing enough to stop the spread of Ebola. If we could secure a sound evacuation plan for Australian medical workers, would you support sending them?
JULIE BISHOP We’re most certainly looking at other options and we have been in constant contact with other countries but until such time as we’re satisfied that we are not taking unnecessary risks, given that we have a duty of care to our health workers, then we won’t be sending them into harm’s way, nor will we be bringing Ebola back to Australia. Now, obviously if we could get an appropriate evacuation and treatment plan in place well then that would be a different matter. We don’t have any guarantees from any other country and we are not able to bring people back to Australia, logistically or clinically.
So we’re contributing to the international effort by providing funding to the World Health Organisation and to other frontline services who are there. And we’re also looking at other options including research and development. Because of course Australia has great strength in medical research. There is currently no vaccine available for Ebola - so I think that’s one area we really have to focus, on and we’re also working to ensure that our region is as prepared as possible to deal with Ebola should any outbreaks or risk of infection occur in our region and this is where our primary responsibility lies.
So our Prime Minister travelled to Papua New Guinea and discussed Ebola with the PNG Prime Minister Peter O’Neill. I made contact with the Fijian Foreign Minister Inoke Kubuabola because Fiji has peacekeepers in West Africa and so we need to ensure that their peacekeepers coming back to our region don’t have the virus, have not contracted it. So there’s work to be done in our region as well.
TOM TILLEY Okay, it’s interesting to hear you talk about trying to coordinate with other countries to be able to evacuate Australians if we were to send them to fight Ebola and that’s the reason given for us not doing that at this stage. Are you doing everything in your power to try and develop an evacuation plan, whether it’s in coordination with another country or our own plan?
JULIE BISHOP Yes, we have a whole-of-government taskforce that’s been working on this for weeks. We are in contact at the highest possible level. I have spoken to Prime Minister David Cameron of Great Britain, I’ve spoken to the US Secretary of State John Kerry. Our Prime Minister spoke to John Kerry as well in Jakarta yesterday. So it’s at the highest possible level, all the way down from diplomatic to official levels.
TOM TILLEY Okay so what did you say to those world leaders?
JULIE BISHOP I spoke to them about what we could put in place - what evacuation plans, what treatment options were available and none of them have been able to give me a guarantee yet that would satisfy us but we’re continuing to press them and work with them to see if Australian health workers would be able to be treated in their hospitals.
You see they’re putting their nationals first understandably. I mean they’re much closer to West Africa than we are so Europeans are sending health workers in, or planning to send health workers in, but they are still obviously treating and evacuating their citizens first. Now if Australia is to send health workers in there we want to be assured that they will be treated appropriately to our standards because we wouldn’t want to send them in there without the appropriate treatment and evacuation plans, should it be to a third country.
TOM TILLEY Of course not, but what about sending a boat? The UK are sending a navy boat to look after any medical staff that get evacuated. Is that something you’re considering?
JULIE BISHOP We’re certainly talking to other countries about military assets, aeroplanes, boats and the like but Australia geographically is quite some way from West Africa. It would be much quicker for other countries to deploy their military assets in the region. Just as we wouldn’t expect Britain to send a boat to Fiji if there were an outbreak in Fiji, or PNG, they’re not expecting us to send military equipment. What they’re looking for is money, looking for funding. In fact the money that we provided, it’s $18 million to date, in addition to the more than $40 million we provided to the World Health Organisation, the UN Special Envoy on Ebola Dr Nabarro said that our funding was “exactly the kind of quick and effective response the UN is asking of Member States”. So we’re providing what they’re asking for, which is money to support the frontline services.
TOM TILLEY Now, Julie Bishop did just come from Baghdad, she was there over the weekend but before that she was in Europe where she got an opportunity to ‘shirtfront’ Vladimir Putin, or maybe you could call it – have a conversation.
Alright, let’s turn to Vladimir Putin and the MH17 investigation. You met Vladimir Putin in Milan last week and you had around about a half an hour interaction with him. Was it a 30-minute ‘shirt-fronting’ or more of a conversation?
JULIE BISHOP I approached President Putin during the Asia-Europe Meeting.
TOM TILLEY Did you have your fists up?
JULIE BISHOP I was talking with him in a very diplomatic way. His demeanour was quite warm and engaging. The conversation as you say lasted about 30 minutes, 25/30 minutes. It began in English for about 10 minutes and then one of his interpreters came over for the rest of the conversation.
I raised my concerns regarding getting access to the Malaysian Airlines MH17 crash site because we believe that the Russian-backed separatists are preventing our authorities getting back to the crash-site. He responded constructively. I urged him to cooperate fully with the Dutch-led investigation and the international investigation into the causes of the crash and who is responsible for it and he assured me that Russia would cooperate with the investigation. And then we had quite a discussion about MH17 and he asked me what more we wanted them to do and I told him, and then we talked about other matters including Iraq, Syria.
TOM TILLEY So does this mean Tony Abbott won’t need to ‘shirtfront’ him anymore?
JULIE BISHOP Well I’m sure the Prime Minister will still want to have a very robust conversation with President Putin about the circumstances surrounding the shooting down of Malaysian Airlines MH17.
TOM TILLEY Okay, last week when Tony Abbott made the shirtfront comment he also said that he’d say to Vladimir Putin that Australians were murdered and they were murdered by Russian-backed rebels using Russian-supplied equipment. Do you believe it was Russian supplied equipment?
JULIE BISHOP That has been our view from the outset and nothing I’ve seen to date has changed my view.
TOM TILLEY Okay, there were reports in one of Germany’s most respected papers that their security agency BND had found that the weapons were Ukrainian, not Russian. What do you make of those reports?
JULIE BISHOP Well I think the point they were making is that the Russian separatists had taken them from Ukraine and now that’s at this stage speculation, and that’s precisely what the independent, impartial investigation is to determine. But our view has always been that Russian-backed separatists had fired the missile.
TOM TILLEY Okay but what if that’s wrong? Does that show that we don’t know as much about this as we thought we did and maybe we’ve overstretched on some of the threats we’ve made to Russia about their involvement.
JULIE BISHOP No I said that we believed Russian-backed separatists fired the missile, so where the missile came from may be another issue but our point remains the same, but I’ve not seen any evidence to back the report that was in that German newspaper.
TOM TILLEY Julie Bishop, great to have you on the show, thanks for speaking to us.
JULIE BISHOP Great being with you, thank you.
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