JULIE BISHOP On World Humanitarian Day, I did announce a short while ago that Australia has released a new Humanitarian Strategy to set out the framework from which we will work in our humanitarian program, particularly on risk reduction for natural disasters, particularly in our region, the Pacific.
I also announced some new scholarships that are to be carried out for Pacific risk reduction managers and a $1 million Humanitarian Supplies Challenge to seek ideas and new ways, innovative ways, of responding to natural disasters in the Pacific.
So, a fitting tribute to World Humanitarian Day, which is designed to recognise the sacrifice, efforts and courage of those who carry out humanitarian work around the world.
JOURNALIST Foreign Minister you were asked out there about cuts to the foreign aid budget and you’ve just announced this new strategy, how difficult it is it actually achieve given there’s been over a billion cuts?
JULIE BISHOP We are able to achieve a considerable amount with our aid budget, as I indicated; we are the 12th largest donor amongst OECD countries with comparable economies.
We have targeted our aid budget where we can make the biggest difference and I’ve been very pleased with the outcomes that we have been able to achieve under our new aid paradigm.
Of course, because we inherited such a massive debt and deficit situation from the previous Labor Government all departments have had to find savings and that includes the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade.
But I believe that through targeted, focused, innovative and creative ways of spending out aid dollar more carefully, by partnering with the private sector, by working with NGO’s and by focusing on where we can make the biggest difference we have achieved our aims.
JOURNALIST Was that trajectory you mentioned though so bad that it had to be cut by billions?
JULIE BISHOP The trajectory was unsustainable, it was also not able to be absorbed by our then aid agency, AusAID. So the aid budget had to be reformed in any event, but also we were facing budget savings because of the dire budget situation that we inherited.
JOURNALIST What information do you have about an Australian woman in Bali who is being sought by Indonesian authorities over the death of a policeman?
JULIE BISHOP I am aware of the reports. Consular in Bali stand ready to provide consular assistance but we’ve not been asked to do so. But I am aware of the reports as our diplomats in Bali are also aware of those reports but have not yet been contacted by any family connections in relation to it.
JOURNALIST Do you know whether she is a suspect or a possible witness?
JULIE BISHOP I don’t have that information.
JOURNALIST What about the situation in Dubai at the moment where a man has been locked up for at least three weeks without charge?
JULIE BISHOP We understand that this is a British citizen. He did have a passport from Australia, but not for many years so he has not had an Australian passport for many years.
He apparently entered Dubai on his British passport. British diplomats are attending to his consular needs.
Our consular staff offered to assist, but Britain is taking the lead and we will just maintain contact with them.
So he is a British citizen on a British passport, he’s not had an Australian passport for many years and Britain is taking the lead in terms of consular assistance.
JOURNALIST Is there a warning for any Australians who travel over there? Apparently he was put away after a tweet that he put out about a charity organisation.
JULIE BISHOP I am not aware of the specific details, other than what has been reported in the media about an offence to promote unregistered charities in Dubai. Other than that I am not aware of the details that affect this British citizen.
But I try to make the warning to all Australians travelling overseas that they must abide by the law of the country in which they are living or residing or travelling.
Laws can be very different from those that are applicable in Australia and Australian travellers should take the time to familiarise themselves with specific laws of a country in which they are visiting and also to access our Smartraveller website which does provide useful tips, information and advice to those who are travelling overseas.
JOURNALIST Just on Vietnam and Long Tan, some veterans say that the Australian Government knew for weeks about Vietnamese concerns about large numbers of Australian’s going over there. Was this handled poorly by the Department?
JULIE BISHOP Not at all. The Australian Government has done everything that we could to facilitate what our veterans wanted to do in Vietnam and the concerns of the Vietnamese Government.
I met with the Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Minh in Vientiane at the end of July and discussed the Long Tan commemoration and no issues were raised with him at that time.
I spoke with him the night before last when we were informed, for the first time, that the Vietnamese Government intended to cancel the commemorative service, and he said to me that the concerns and tensions over the presence of a significant number of Australian veterans and their families had been rising.
They were concerned at the reaction of local people, the sensitivities that the conflict in Vietnam, all those years ago, still bring to the communities in Vietnam.
Both the Prime Minister and I spoke with our counterpart, Foreign Minister and Prime Minister, at length and we were able to achieve breakthrough.
I am informed that hundreds of our Veterans and families were able to attend the service, but others, hundreds, were not able to.
I think it comes down to the sheer scale and size of what was proposed this year, but until the Government gave us formal notice the other night, we had continued to work closely with the Vietnamese Government about how much it meant to Australian veterans to be in Long Tan at this time.
JOURNALIST Is it possible that the Vietnam Government’s decision to cancel the Long Tan commemorations was in retaliation for any action taken by the Australian Government?
JULIE BISHOP That is not the way it was presented to me at any time in my discussions. In fact, the Deputy Prime Minister and the Prime Minister of Vietnam were at pains to explain that our bilateral relationship was in the best shape it’s been in for 40 years at least. We have a very close relationship with Vietnam. In fact, our strategic interests are converging on a regular basis and the bilateral relationship is very good.
However on the issue of commemorations relating to the Vietnam War, it is still a very sensitive topic in Vietnam, Particularly among the local communities where some of these battles took place.
And while I explained that our veterans were there to pay tribute to all those who sacrificed their lives in the conflict, the emotion was running very deep and the Vietnamese Government took the action, that as a sovereign government they are able to do.
Prime Minister Turnbull and I did achieve a breakthrough in that they allowed the service to proceed, but then the provincial government became concerned at the sheer numbers of Australians who were there for the event.
We will work closely with the Government of Vietnam in relation to future commemorative services as we have to with other governments around the world where Australians vets or Australian citizens want to pay their respects to those who have died and sacrificed their lives in conflicts often far away from Australia.
JOURNALIST So, could it be linked to any actions taken by the Australian Government to protect national security?
JULIE BISHOP That was not raised with me at any time, either when I met with the Deputy Prime Minister a couple of weeks ago or in my conversations with him over the phone.
He stressed, as did the Prime Minister to Prime Minister Turnbull, how important the bilateral relationship between Australia and Vietnam is and how healthy it is, and we certainly have very strong engagement with Vietnam. I’ve visited Vietnam and worked very closely with the Deputy Prime Minister whom I have met on numerous occasions. We have a very good relationship. So no, that issue was not ever raised. They said it was entirely to do with local concerns, local emotions, local tensions and their desire to put the pain and suffering of the Vietnam War behind them.
That’s the way they want to do it and Australian veterans have different views, so we must work very closely with the Vietnamese Government over the coming months to ensure that both the needs of the Vietnamese Government and our veterans community can be met.
JOURNALIST Just to clarify, when did you first know that the Vietnamese were concerned about large numbers of Australians heading over there for the anniversary?
JULIE BISHOP Two days ago.
JOURNALIST Ms Bishop, if you don’t mind me changing the subject, the British Media is claiming that they have spoken to a man who sounds a lot like an Australian who he is claiming is part of a rebel group. Are you aware of any Australian’s involved in the conflict with rebel groups?
JULIE BISHOP I’m certainly aware that a number of Australians have left out shores to travel to Syria and Iraq as foreign terrorist fighters, but we have very little visibility in Syria because we don’t have an embassy in Damascus. We’re relying on others to inform us where Australians are and with whom they are fighting.
But it is against Australian law for any Australian citizen to take part, on any side, in Syria, it’s against our sanctions regime; it’s also in breach of some of our existing criminal laws and I have continually urged Australians not to travel to Syria or Iraq to take part in the conflict there.
And, in the case of Al-Raqqa province, it is actually a crime for an Australian citizen to be there without lawful excuse.
JOURNALIST I know you said visibility is poor but do you have any information from those friendly states that can give you an indication as to how many potential Aussies are over there?
JULIE BISHOP We are aware that there are about 150 or so Australians that have travelled to the Middle East. Some have come back, some have been killed, but we maintain contact with our friends and allies and other governments in the region to ascertain the number of Australians who have been, or are, in the Middle East taking part in the conflict in Syria and Iraq.
JOURNALIST Given what’s happened in the past 24 hours and the images of the young children, particularly that young boy yesterday, you mentioned that our foreign aid budget is regional, is there any scope to expand it to the Middle East?
JULIE BISHOP We already do. We are one of the most significant contributors to the humanitarian effort in Syria. I announced a further $220 million dollars in the last May budget that comes on top of hundreds of millions of dollars that Australia has provided in Syria and also in Iraq and the funding that we’ve also provided to Lebanon and Jordan.
Australia does have a global humanitarian program, which is part of my speech today, but out major focus is on the region where we can make the biggest difference. But we also provide funding to multilateral organisations, UN agencies and the like, The World Food program, to the UN, to Save the Children, other organisations that are able to carry out humanitarian and relief work on the ground.
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