JOURNALIST Minister, thanks so much for your time. Have you offered Philip Ruddock a job as part of the UN?

JULIE BISHOP The Australian Government is seeking a position on the UN Human Rights Council for the period 2018-2020, and I have been campaigning in my role as Foreign Minister for that position but we need assistance and I have announced that Philip Ruddock will be the Special Envoy on Human Rights, particularly to assist us in our campaign to secure a seat on the Human Rights Council. A country like Australia with a multicultural community, a commitment to freedoms, rule of law, democratic institutions, should play its part on being on the Human Rights Council and consistent with the practice of past governments, we are appointing a Special Envoy on Human Rights.

JOURNALIST Why is he the best person for the role or is it just an inducement to move him on out of politics?

JULIE BISHOP Absolutely not. I’ve been discussing this with Philip Ruddock for some time, particularly in his role as Chair of the Joint Standing Committee on Human Rights, and also his 40 years of advocacy; he’s a member of Amnesty International, he has been a leading advocate on the abolition of the death penalty. I cannot think of a more appropriate person to be our Special Envoy in these circumstances, and I look forward to working with him. He’s not being paid, he’s a Member of Parliament, so it’s in addition to his current duties, but we are committed to securing a place on the Human Rights Council and Philip Ruddock has the background, the passion, the experience and the expertise to assist us.

JOURNALIST Can I ask you about Stuart Robert, are you concerned he’s being used as a political prop?

JULIE BISHOP The Prime Minister has said that this issue will be considered by the Secretary of Prime Minister and Cabinet and I have no further comment until such a time as PM&C report to the Prime Minister.

JOURNALIST What box should he have ticked on his visa though?

JULIE BISHOP Well I don’t know the details of that. That’s clearly a matter that the Secretary of Prime Minister and Cabinet will ascertain. Prime Minister Turnbull has indicated that he takes these matters of Ministerial Standards very seriously and he’s asked his Secretary to look into the matter and will report back to Prime Minister Turnbull.

JOURNALIST It sounds like his job could be at risk though?

JULIE BISHOP I don’t accept that that’s the case at all. I’m sure that he’s a very assiduous, careful Minister. This was an issue from a number of years ago but let’s leave it to the Secretary of PM&C to carry out his job and investigate the matter.

JOURNALIST Can I ask you about North Korea now? In Parliament you said you are considering more designations against individuals after this latest provocation, what is at your disposal in terms of pressure on North Korea?

JULIE BISHOP This is a deeply concerning and worrying situation. North Korea seem intent on continuing to develop nuclear weapons and long-range ballistic missiles. That presents a threat not only to our region but globally, and the UN Security Council said as much in its recent statement on North Korea’s long-range ballistic missile test yesterday. So there are already in place UN sanctions against North Korea. We have an autonomous sanctions regime and I will be considering over the next few weeks and months whether there are more sanctions that we can put in place on organisations and individuals so that the North Korean regime is in no doubt that the international community condemns its provocative behaviour and we will do what we can to prevent it from continuing to develop nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles.

JOURNALIST There should already be in no doubt. This is one of their, if not the most heavily sanctioned nation on Earth. So doesn’t this largely depend on China? Yes, it’s part of the UN Security Council but is it concerning that North Korea’s largely ignored China? It not only ignored this after a special delegation was sent to North Korea, the satellite was launched on the eve of Chinese New Year and China really is the country that has control here.

JULIE BISHOP It was very provocative behaviour as far as China was concerned as well. China is in a very difficult position. If there were to be an outpouring of refugees, for example, from North Korea, China would bear the brunt of it and I know that they are deeply conscious of that. But they are as frustrated as other members of the international community about the destabilising behaviour of North Korea, which is dangerous as well as destabilising. So we are urging China to do what it can to get the message to North Korea that it should engage in dialogue with partners in the region, South Korea and Japan and China and the United States and Russia, the UN Security Council as well, and that no good will come of North Korea continuing down this path. As I said in Question Time today, while the regime is focussing on militarisation and developing nuclear weapons, it’s estimated that a third of its people are going hungry, they don’t have enough food and it’s estimated that malnutrition is wide spread and that children are undernourished, there’s stunted growth amongst a massive part of the population of young people in North Korea. So it is a deeply troubling situation.

JOURNALIST Can I ask you more broadly about Australia’s relationship with China and how it balances that relationship going forward with the United States? Now we saw the US conduct a freedom of navigation mission or exercise through the Spratly Islands, was that unnecessary? Was it a provocation or is it something that Australia will consider seriously?

JULIE BISHOP The Australian Government will continue to exercise our rights of freedom of navigation and freedom of overflight in international space, including through the South China Sea. We’ve maintained that position consistently. We don’t take sides in the territorial disputes between China and other nations in the South China Sea but we do urge a de-escalation of tensions, we have urged China not to militarise these structures. There is an arbitration pending between China and The Philippines and I think that that will restate the international rules relating to freedom of navigation and overflight, and so we’re waiting on that Philippines arbitration.

JOURNALIST Australia has been brought into this more recently. The lease of the Port of Darwin did bring a rebuke from Barack Obama to Malcolm Turnbull. There is another issue that could come up and could raise this again and that is the lease of the Port of Fremantle. Now we’ve had groups like ASPI say that there should be a higher national security trigger. Have any more rules been put in place? Are you concerned about the lease of the Port of Fremantle? Is this something that you’ll look at very closely?

JULIE BISHOP Well first may I take issue with your use of the word “rebuke”. I was present when President Obama and Prime Minister Turnbull were discussing this issue and it was a very friendly discussion about a difference of view about a particular matter. It wasn’t a rebuke and nor would I expect that from President Obama. But nevertheless, we are clearly conscious of the fact that there are sensitivities around ports, there are sensitivities around that kind of vital infrastructure and I’m sure that the Australian Government and the Department of Defence and other departments or agencies who are involved in this would be cognisant of those sensitivities.

JOURNALIST And more so than perhaps it was surrounding the lease of the Port of Darwin because we’ve had groups like ASPI, once again, say that there needs to be a special national security trigger inferred. Is that something that should be looked at?

JULIE BISHOP Well there are obviously triggers within the FIRB legislation. We would keep this sort of matter under review but I’m not aware of any plans to change the policy currently.

JOURNALIST Now I know your time is precious but let me ask you about Nauru and Manus Island, it’s certainly been in the headlines as it does seem to be on an almost consistent basis. Do we need to look more seriously at a third party country option? Cambodia has only received three people go, there $40 million spent; are you considering third party options? Are those negotiations happening at the moment?

JULIE BISHOP We have been working on regional solutions for some time. I’ve been in contact with a number of countries who recognise that this is a regional problem. Australia might be the destination at this point but it will be other countries, so countries like New Zealand and others are looking at the implications for them, and so we are having discussions with countries in the region. I am part of the Bali Process Meeting that will be coming up shortly, co-hosted by Australia and Indonesia. That is about finding regional solutions to these types of problems but let me make this point, when the Howard Government left office there were no children in detention who’d arrived via the people smuggling trade and a very small number of asylum seekers in detention. Labor dismantled the policies that we had in place and 50,000 people came via the people smuggling trade and another 1200 men, women and children died at sea that we know of. So we’ve put in place policies that have been proven to dismantle people smuggling and we will not resile from those policies…

JOURNALIST The processing is now taking 445 days so…

JULIE BISHOP We’ve got a caseload that we inherited and there were 2000 children in detention, 2000 under the previous Labor Government, we’ve got that down to under 100 and we’re continuing to work to clear that caseload.

JOURNALIST Sure, there still needs to be a permanent solution thought. Is the Government perhaps re-thinking the Malaysia option? Not the option that Labor put in place but as a third party country?

JULIE BISHOP The Australian Government is discussing several solutions with a number of countries.

JOURNALIST Just finally, Deputy Leader, the GST; is it going to happen? Why won’t the Prime Minister just rule it out?

JULIE BISHOP Isn’t it time we had a mature debate in this country where we can put all options on the table and discuss it and see what is going to provide the best tax system? Previous governments have been cornered into ruling in and ruling out. I think it’s time we had an open debate about the best tax system for Australia. I’ve been overseas recently; I know that we have to be internationally competitive in order to sustain the standard of living that we have in this country. That means our tax system has to be driving incentives for people to work and to save and to invest. Now we are looking at the best possible tax mix for the Australian public.

JOURNALIST Does it include a GST?

JULIE BISHOP Well the GST is just one component but until we have the evidence to show that an increase in the GST would provide the incentives to work, save and invest, well we wouldn’t do it. But we’re not going to play this game of ruling in, ruling out and reacting to every negative headline. We’re trying to have a mature, sophisticated economic debate, not only with the Australian people but with the Opposition who just keep running around scare campaigns, talking about lettuce wars and scaring people in grocery aisles. We want to have a sensible discussion and that’s what we’re seeking to do.

JOURNALIST The point’s been made by the Opposition though, in Question Time today, what’s changed since Tony Abbott in the five months that Malcolm Turnbull has been Prime Minister?

JULIE BISHOP Business confidence has increased dramatically, people are embracing Malcolm Turnbull’s innovation agenda, they see the opportunities that will come from a Government that is prepared to consider all options and come up with a tax system that provides lower, simpler, fairer taxes, that will drive the kind of economic growth that we need to sustain jobs into the future.

JOURNALIST We look forward to seeing that, Minister, thanks so much for your time.

JULIE BISHOP Thank you Laura.

Media enquiries

  • Minister's office: (02) 6277 7500
  • DFAT Media Liaison: (02) 6261 1555