JOURNALIST: Ok let’s take up some issues of the day and foreign policy issues with the Foreign Minister Julie Bishop, who joins us now live from Canberra. Thanks for joining us Minister.
JULIE BISHOP: My pleasure Chris, good to be with you.
JOURNALIST: Look now I’ll get onto your portfolio area in a moment of course, but this resignation from Justin Gleeson is big news. Do you think it’s a good thing? In many ways it’s the democratically elected Government slapping down or winning a battle with a bureaucrat here who is essentially the Government’s lawyer, and he was looking to expand his role and got caught up in partisan politics.
JULIE BISHOP: Justin Gleeson himself has acknowledged that it’s the proper course of action for him to take, and our Attorney General has noted that it’s a proper course of action. I think the important point though is that the Solicitor General is in fact the lawyer for the Government, he is the Government’s counsel, the Government’s barrister, and there has to be a very high degree of trust between the Government and its lawyer, that’s self-evident. This all came to a head through the actions of Mark Dreyfus. Once more the Labor Shadow Attorney General has overreached and he in fact put the Solicitor General in a pretty invidious position when he contacted the Solicitor General during the election campaign. The Solicitor General failed to disclose that fact to the Attorney General or to the Government. Then Mark Dreyfus dragged the Solicitor General before a Senate inquiry, tried to use him as a political tool, and I think this outcome was inevitable. I have to point out though, the Attorney General did say as recently as last week that of course he was prepared to work with the Solicitor General in a cordial and professional way, but Justin Gleeson has taken this action, which I believe, as the Attorney said, is the proper course of action.
JOURNALIST: Yeah look despite all the partisan politics that got caught up in this and of course, yes, Justin Gleeson did speak to Labor during the election campaign – probably nothing wrong with actually having the conversation as long as he’d told the Attorney General about it; he didn’t, he should have done that. But even given all those considerations, it’s very difficult for a Government actually to remove someone from a position like this; you have to rely on them actually making the decision. And you’ve got to give credit to Justin Gleeson for doing that, recognising the breakdown of trust and getting out of this problem.
JULIE BISHOP: Well I agree that Justin Gleeson has acted in a way that is appropriate; it is a proper course of action. If he feels that he cannot work with the Attorney General, notwithstanding the fact that George Brandis said he was happy to continue to work with him, then it is a matter for him to consider his position and in this case, he has resigned. So that then clears the air and we are able to appoint another Solicitor General, but there has to be trust between the Government and its lawyer, just as there has to be trust between any client and their lawyer.
JOURNALIST: The reason I ask, I raise that point and discuss it in those terms of course is because there is another situation that of course is not directly analogous but of course the situation with the Human Rights Commissioner Gillian Triggs, the President of the Human Rights Commission, where there has been for a long time now that same breakdown of trust. And of course she has been caught out a number of times now giving misleading evidence to parliamentary inquiries, yet she is stubbornly remaining in her job. Should she not also resign?
JULIE BISHOP: Well it is very disappointing to see any position, particularly one as senior as the Human Rights Commissioner, be politicised in any way. There has been quite a bit of controversy around the Human Rights Commissioner and some instances where she has been accused of giving misleading evidence, well that is a very serious allegation. So Justin Gleeson assessed his position and came to a particular decision, I’m sure the Human Rights Commissioner constantly assesses her position given that it is the subject of so much public commentary.
JOURNALIST: Would you urge her to consider stepping aside, especially given that her term expires in the first half of next year anyway?
JULIE BISHOP: It is not a matter for me to do that, Chris, as you know the Human Rights Commissioner can assess her own performance, her own position and whether she believes she is acting in the best interests of those whom she is seeking to serve. As you say, the position comes up in the first half of next year and I am sure the next Human Rights Commissioner will also assess their position to ensure that they are the right person for what is a very sensitive position.
JOURNALIST: Well they might want to try and stay out of politics and actually give accurate information to parliamentary inquiries. You mentioned there have been allegations of misleading a parliamentary inquiry, it’s very clear in this latest example that her own evidence was misleading – she’s now admitted that in a letter and she’s going to have to correct that. This comes on top of her appearance a year and a half ago when she denied meeting Labor ministers and then had to correct it. There are not allegations here; there are instances, repeated instances of her giving misleading evidence to parliamentary inquiries.
JULIE BISHOP: As I said from the outset, it is deeply troubling when a position as sensitive and senior as Human Rights Commissioner becomes so controversial, and I would think anybody in that position would consider how they can best serve the country or best serve the interests of those who are meant to be served by the Human Rights Commissioner. But it is not up to me to call for somebody in such a position to resign, I think it is incumbent upon anyone who has such a position to consider the impact that they are having on the proper operations of the Commission.
JOURNALIST: Indeed Foreign Minister, I think you have made that position very clear. I want to move on to foreign policy issues now and you’ve got a few dramas on the consular front, especially with the three Australians caught up in China from Crown Resorts. Are you satisfied in you dealings with the Chinese Government over this so far that they are going to get a speedy and transparent judicial process?
JULIE BISHOP: Well that is certainly what we hope. We have made our interests known at the most senior levels within the Chinese Government. We are asking China to respond to our requests for consular visits and so far they have, we have met with all three Australians who are in detention and we have also inquired about the health and wellbeing of the others. I am informed that they are being treated appropriately. We will continue to press for consular visits as and when we can but the issues surrounding this matter are still not known to us, we don’t have the details of the charges – if any – that they face, and there is still some time to run before the Chinese authorities are required to charge or make a decision about charges involving people who have been detained. Apparently there is some issue as to how long they can be detained and under investigation without charge – our advice from our missions in China is that people can be held for 30 days and an investigation can be carried out during that period, and that period can be extended for another seven days, that is the advice we have, but of course we seek a speedy resolution to these issues.
JOURNALIST: You must be pretty worried about it though because the precedents are pretty bad in this area. We’ve had other Australian business people caught up in claims of business dealings, of corruption, of bribery and the like and often they can be in detention, or certainly serve very long sentences without us ever getting a really clear idea of what the Chinese processes are all about.
JULIE BISHOP: We have to understand that China is a sovereign nation and people who are in China are subject to their laws and their legal proceedings, just as people in Australia would be subject to ours. So it is very difficult for Australia to become involved once people have been charged but at this stage investigations are underway, so we understand, and we are yet to learn the details of why they are being held and on what particular allegations or accusations or what particular charges are being considered. We will work as closely as we can with the Chinese authorities to ensure that they are treated well and treated fairly.
JOURNALIST: President Xi Jinping is cracking down on corruption throughout China, throughout the business dealings with his country, and most people including Australia would welcome that but it appears that what might be happening in this case is apart from cracking down on corruption he is very much cracking down on gambling, which is illegal in China – of course they are allowed in Macau and other places. Is there a concern that this crackdown on gambling could be quite damaging for Australian investors’ interests in Macau and also for inbound tourism, for Australian business investment and tourism from China?
JULIE BISHOP: Well I’m sure these are all matters that casino operators from Australia and elsewhere have taken into account in doing business in China. I am loath to speak more particularly about this case because I don’t want to say anything that is counterproductive to the interests of those who have been detained. So yes, there is a campaign, an anticorruption campaign by President Xi Jinping and that is to be welcomed in many instances because he obviously identifies corruption, particular amongst government officials, as a scourge that must be dealt with. As for Australian casino operators, I would rather ensure that our Australians who have been detained get a very fair and equitable level of treatment as one would expect under the consular agreement that we have with China.
JOURNALIST: And over the years have you noticed an improvement in the way China has dealt with these sorts of consular issues? Or is it still as tough as it was ten years ago?
JULIE BISHOP: We have ongoing engagement with China over a whole range of consular issues. Regrettably a number of Australians are caught up in different legal proceedings in China; some are of a corporate nature, others of a criminal nature. We seek to be as deeply engaged as we can be but you’re right, there is a particular anticorruption campaign underway at present and that can make access to information difficult.
JOURNALIST: Alright Julie Bishop, of course in the Middle East all eyes are on the battle for Mosul and trying to retake that city in Northern Iraq, Islamic State seem to be on the retreat. Is your latest advice encouraging as to the progress of that military action?
JULIE BISHOP: It is a vital step in the campaign against ISIL to defeat this terrorist organisation. The Iraqi security forces must take back Mosul, and this will undermine the terrorist organisation’s claim for a so called Islamic caliphate. It was also undermine its aura of being a powerful armed force. Progress is being made but we know it is going to be a long and complex battle. ISIL fighters embed themselves in civilian populations and the Iraqi security forces are having to fight back street by street. The Australian Defence Force role is to advise and assist and build capacity within the Iraqi security forces so that they are able to take control of their borders and the security of Iraq. We are there are the invitation of and with the consent of the Iraqi Government so we are supporting this effort to retake Mosul but there will be setbacks along the way, it will be long – I don’t know that anyone has a particular timeframe in mind – but it is such an important step in defeating this terrorist organisation that not only causes havoc in Syria and in Iraq but also beyond the Middle East as foreign terrorist fighters start to return home, whether that be in Europe or South East Asia or indeed in Australia. We are dealing with harden terrorist fighters, hardened terrorists who may seek to carry out terrorist attacks in our region on our home soil and that must be thwarted at every turn.
JOURNALIST: As you say there is a long way to go just for Iraqi and Coalition forces to reclaim Northern Iraq, much less get any sort of a resolution in Syria but have you turned your mind to the medium term prospects for Australian involvement in the Middle East through the Coalition? We know that Islamic State arose in effect after Coalition forces left Iraq to its own devices. Wouldn’t the western world and the international community be wise to be thinking that they need to be a military role in that region for decades to come to preserve whatever peace they manage to bring out of the current conflagration?
JULIE BISHOP: As I said earlier we are in Iraq at the invitation of and with the consent of the Iraqi Government, and our continued presence there is dependent upon the Iraqi Government supporting our presence. But of course what we and others in the Coalition have been considering in the longer term is to ensure that Iraq can be stable, can be in control of its own borders and can resist any resurgence of terrorist activity once ISIL is defeated. I’ve attended a number of meetings in New York and elsewhere as representatives of the Coalition countries talk about the short, medium and long term outlook for Iraq and indeed Syria. We need to boost the capacity of the Iraqi Government, ensure that a national unity government can take account of all the differing religious and ethnic minorities to balance the conflicting power positions within Iraq and also to ensure that the Iraqi security forces remain capable of imposing security in the country. So these are medium and long term issues that are discussed often amongst the Coalition and of course with the Iraqi Government itself.
JOURNALIST: And we would presume then if you’re talking about the possible long term arrangements involving Coalition troops that Australia would be prepared to play a long term role?
JULIE BISHOP: Well Chris, I don’t think it will be helpful for me to put a timeframe on our involvement in Iraq. We have certain responsibilities to undertake and that is at the request of the Iraqi Government to advise and assist and build capacity within the Iraqi security forces. We are extended that to include the national police because community policing is also an important part of any political solution and social solution. There is a massive humanitarian effort underway to support the civilians who are so affected by this conflict. So there is much to do but the Australian Government will respond to requests from the Iraqi Government and at this stage the request has been for us to advise, assist and build capacity. We have about 400 Australian Defence personnel doing that as part of the building partner capacity coalition.
JOURNALIST: Look I’ve taken up a lot of your time going around the world but there is two other issues I do want to run past you, firstly the Philippines and President Duterte there, seemingly turning his back increasingly from America, embracing China, saying and doing some frankly quite alarming things. How concerned is Australia about the direction that he is taking the Philippines, particularly in relation to its foreign policy?
JULIE BISHOP: The message I get from leaders in the region in the Asia Pacific is that they want to see more United States engagement, more US leadership not less. All countries in our region have benefitted over the last 70 years at least, of the United States as a security guarantor bringing relative peace, stability and security to our region. Many nations have benefitted enormously from the US presence, including Australiana and I would say including the Philippines. So we want to encourage nations to embrace more US engagement and of course that’s the message we will be sending to the next US administration: that we rely on the United States as the indispensable partner and security guarantor. The Philippines have benefitted from the US presence as well and I hope that President Duterte acknowledges that under the US security guarantee many of us have been able to build our economies, build our societies in relative peace and security.
JOURNALIST: Indeed. Hopefully he comes to his senses. Now Julie Bishop, over the past ten years or so Australians have looked at their politicians and leadership changes and our heads have been spinning. It must have been even worse for you as Deputy Leader of the Liberal Party seeing leaders and prime ministers come and go. We saw horrible descent from the Government into Abbot-Turnbull tensions that have become so familiar in politics in this country through the Rudd-Gillard and now Abbott-Turnbull years. I’m wondering whether Malcolm Turnbull might be making the same mistake that Tony Abbott made, in that he did not embrace Malcolm Turnbull enough when he was Prime Minister, did not give him a more senior role and try and sort of conscript him into the upper echelons of his Government. Is there a case for Malcolm Turnbull to perhaps invite Tony Abbott into the Cabinet and try and get this whole Government pushing in the one direction?
JULIE BISHOP: Well Chris as you know, matters of appointments to Cabinet are made by the Prime Minister and in this case the Prime Minister has a very competent and capable Cabinet. There is no vacancy in the Cabinet. But Tony Abbott is making a contribution. I think last week has been completely misread by many people. Both the Prime Minister and the former Prime Minister are utterly aligned in relation to ensuring Australia’s gun laws are not weakened in any way. These gun laws were put in place Prime Minister Howard in the aftermath of the 1996 Port Arthur Massacre and neither the Prime Minister nor the former Prime Minister are advocating any weakening, in fact they are both proposing a strengthening. So when we…
JOURNALIST: And I agree with you. Even on the Liberal Party reform they are pretty much on the same page too. There’s a really subtle differences in terms of emphasis and perspective which kind of highlights the point – if that is going to get people distracted, better to try and get everybody on board, perhaps have Tony Abbott in Cabinet and put this sort of distraction behind you.
JULIE BISHOP: We have many competent, able people in our Party and many competing for the limited number of places in Cabinet. Malcolm came in with a promise to refresh and renew the Cabinet and he has done that – we’ve got some young people in the Cabinet who are performing admirably – but we are a party of ideas and we can accommodate different views and different ideas and different perspectives and nuances. I just think that people need to appreciate that both the Prime Minister and the former Prime Minister are on the same page when it comes to promoting our national interests through stronger gun laws, through stronger economic security and through our commitment to national security to keep Australians safe.
JOURNALIST: Alright Julie Bishop, thanks for joining us again and I think you’re off to Indonesia next? Safe travels.
JULIE BISHOP: I am, tomorrow evening, thanks Chris.
JOURNALIST: That’s Foreign Minister and Deputy Liberal Leader Julie Bishop. Always good to catch up with her, so much going on around the world, we will try and get her back again in a couple of months.
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