KIERAN GILBERT: Joining me now is the Foreign Minister Julie Bishop.
Minister thanks for your time. What is the latest advice you’ve got on the damage and the death toll in Vanuatu?
JULIE BISHOP: There are unconfirmed reports of eight casualties in Vanuatu, I stress they are unconfirmed, but that seems to be a figure that a number of people are using. There are no Australian casualties among that number. The devastation and destruction is very widespread. Yesterday we announced a package of $5 million in assistance to NGOs, Red Cross, United Nations organisations. In addition we’ve sent three military planes filled with humanitarian supplies and personnel. So we now have teams on the ground including medical teams but also engineers, consular staff and the like and we’ll be able to carry out a much better assessment with our people on the ground.
KIERAN GILBERT: According to the Red Cross the concern is that that number that you referred to is going to escalate once the damage is assessed in the outlying and lower lying islands of that country.
JULIE BISHOP: Well that’s right, we have focussed our efforts on Port Vila which is where the main population centre is but of course there are other areas and people living on the islands around Vanuatu and so our assessment teams will be there as soon as possible. We are sending two more planes today, more military planes so they likewise will be carrying humanitarian supplies as well as personnel to carry out these assessments.
We are working with other partner countries as well – the United Kingdom, New Zealand and France to assist in assessing the damage. So our focus at present is on the short term needs but long term the recovery effort will be substantial.
KIERAN GILBERT: And given the location of Vanuatu the responsibility rests upon New Zealand and Australia really to bear the load here.
JULIE BISHOP: We are certainly working very closely with the Government of Vanuatu to ensure that we are responding to the most immediate needs and we are working very closely with them to meet those requirements but we are very experienced, sadly, in this kind of natural disaster relief and we are working closely with our friends in the Pacific to ensure that we are meeting the needs as they identify them. We are carrying out an assessment of infrastructure needs. The hospital in Port Vila has been pretty badly damaged so we are assisting there but our immediate concern is to get shelter for people who have lost their homes and also medical supplies, food, water, sanitation – basic necessities.
KIERAN GILBERT: And at this stage, you mentioned a bit earlier, no Australians as far as you are advised caught up in this?
JULIE BISHOP: That’s right, there are thousands of Australians in Vanuatu. Over 1400 are registered with the Government but we think that at any one time there could be up to 3000. We are checking hotels and accommodation and places where tourists may well be to ensure that any Australians in Vanuatu are safe. There is a Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade hotline – 1300 555 135 - should anyone have concerns about friends or relatives.
KIERAN GILBERT: We can turn our attention now to other matters, and the Bali 9 - an aid to the Indonesian President has written in the Straits Times critical of Australia’s approach to this. He says the objection is to the manner and tone of the intervention, the warnings and the thinly veiled threats. These are unacceptable. Indonesia does not employ these tactics in its own intervention. What do you say to that?
JULIE BISHOP: I in fact contacted Foreign Minister Marsudi to discuss how Indonesia does manage to get so many of its own citizens off death row and death sentences commuted to life and she said it was a domestic matter for Indonesia. But I have noted how successful Indonesia has been in opposing the death penalty for its citizens overseas, and we are not asking Indonesia to do any more than Indonesia asks other countries.
I believe that we have been most respectful in making our pleas to President Widodo, after all he is the one person who is able to grant clemency to Mr Sukumaran and Mr Chan. We have been very respectful. I have contacted my counterparts. I have not informed the media of those contacts. The information has come from Indonesia, for example, I had a phone call with Vice President Kalla and did not disclose the fact of that telephone call let alone the content but that came through Indonesian media. So I think people should be rather sensitive about the commentary that goes on at present. What we are discussing – the lives of two young Australian citizens, two young men who have been rehabilitated, who have spent 10 years in jail and who now face death, state-sponsored execution by firing squad. So we will continue to make our pleas in the most respectful way possible but we are talking about the lives of two Australians.
KIERAN GILBERT: Indeed we are and this Presidential aid, just before I move on, he makes reference to thinly veiled threats. What is he talking about there if not the conversation that was had about the aid provided to Indonesia in the wake of the Boxing Day Tsunami?
JULIE BISHOP: I made it very clear when I rang Vice President Kalla that the Prime Minister was seeking to underscore the strength of our relationship, that we come to each other’s aid when we are in need, that we are long term friends and partners in many areas, that we have a very strong, longstanding friendship and I made it quite clear that that was what the Prime Minister was referring to.
KIERAN GILBERT: The Prime Minister criticised Tanya Plibersek for statements made at the weekend relating to the relationship under the Coalition, the turn back the boats policy. The Prime Minister described them as irresponsible comments. Is that a bit rich given his comments when it comes to aid in the wake of the Boxing Day Tsunami which, according to the feedback out of Indonesia, did not go down well at all, not just with the political class, but more broadly?
JULIE BISHOP: Well I thought those comments over the weekend were crude and ill-informed and showed a complete lack of understanding of the relationship between Australia and Indonesia. But as I said the Prime Minister was highlighting the fact that Australia and Indonesia are friends, that we support each other in times of need, and that we have a very broad, diverse relationship across a whole range of areas.
KIERAN GILBERT: But that’s not the way it was received as you know so is it then a bit rich for him to be criticising Ms Plibersek?
JULIE BISHOP: That is the way it was reported in Indonesian media. I made it quite clear to Vice President Kalla that those reports were wrong, that is not what the Prime Minister was intending and he listened to my statement and thanked me for it.
KIERAN GILBERT: On a few other issues, the China Infrastructure Bank – is Australia now reconsidering our opposition on this? I know..
JULIE BISHOP: It is not a matter of reconsidering, we’ve always had it under consideration and over recent weeks we have been discussing with the Chinese their proposal. We are looking at the fact that other countries are coming on board but we still have a set of requirements that we want met before we would seek to negotiate.
KIERAN GILBERT: Do you still have strategic concerns that China might be able to use financial loans to boost its military influence in the region?
JULIE BISHOP: Well that is an ongoing issue for all nations, even those who have signed up for it, even the United Kingdom still expressed those concerns but there is a belief that if they can be part of the initial negotiations then some of their concerns can be met. We do have issues about the governance. China still has about a 49 per cent shareholding, any other similar multinational, multilateral organisation, or infrastructure bank like this would, at most, have a major shareholding of 20 per cent so there are some issues.
KIERAN GILBERT: It is fair enough for China to be pushing for this architecture I guess given the current financial architecture hasn’t kept up with China’s rise.
JULIE BISHOP: Well we certainly respect and acknowledge China’s entitlement to do this we just have to make sure that we act in our national interest to ensure that if we are putting taxpayers funds into a venture like this then you get the value for money - the levels of accountability in governance and transparency are what we would expect.
KIERAN GILBERT: Are you leaning toward supporting it now? Is that fair to say?
JULIE BISHOP: We have always been very keen to discuss this with China and over recent weeks China has provided a lot of information. More countries coming on board is obviously a good thing for the bank more generally. But we would act in Australia’s national interest, what is good for Australia, and that’s what we’re continuing to review.
KIERAN GILBERT: Counterterrorism officials apparently stopping 400 Australians a day as they try to circumvent individuals heading to Iraq and Syria to fight with IS. 400 a day, that’s an enormous amount.
JULIE BISHOP: Well in the context of the number of people who are travelling overseas, and the number of people who go through screening anyway, I don’t know that it is. But Australia, through its Government, is absolutely determined to stop people travelling to Iraq and Syria and the Middle East to take part in the conflict on the part of the terrorist organisation ISIL and so we will do what we can to prevent those who would pose a security risk to Australia by leaving the country, going over and fighting with terrorist organisations. They are putting their own lives at risk, they are adding to the misery and suffering of the people of Syria and Iraq, they are gaining terrorist skills and experience as terrorists. They could well go to other countries or come back to Australia and carry out terrorist activities here. So we will do what we have to do in terms of screening to ensure that we prevent anyone who is a threat to anyone, who is a threat to our security, from leaving our country.
KIERAN GILBERT: And finally, I want to ask you about a text message that has been reported this morning from Phil Higginson, the senior Liberal on the Federal Executive Council, to another Liberal referring, and I’ll just quote it to you, he texted earlier in the year – “I’m refusing to sign the 2013-14 accounts, its brought the horsewoman of the Apocalypse out of her den, you can imagine black robes flying, stay tuned for the hatchet job on me”. He’s referring to the Prime Minister’s chief of staff. It reflects, I guess, the level of animosity at some levels of the party.
JULIE BISHOP: It is very colourful language. It is deeply unfortunate that it was said, that it has been made public, and I just hope everybody focusses on the fact that we are in government to act in the interests of the Australian people and the less we talk about ourselves and the less the internal workings of the Liberal Party are made public, the better off for everybody.
KIERAN GILBERT: Minister, thanks for your time.
JULIE BISHOP: My pleasure.
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