JOURNALIST: Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull is about to touch down in New York later today for his first face-to-face meeting with the US President Donald Trump. The get together on board the USS Intrepid is an opportunity to reset the relationship following their infamous blow-up in that first January phone call over the refugee resettlement deal. US engagement in Asia and the threat of nuclear war on the Korean peninsula are expected to dominate these talks. Over the past few months the Foreign Minister Julie Bishop has worked with the Vice President Mike Pence to try and smooth the tensions in relations between the two countries. Julie Bishop, welcome back to breakfast.
JULIE BISHOP: Thank you Fran, good morning.
JOURNALIST: Julie Bishop as Foreign Minister, what do you see as the primary objectives of these talks?
JULIE BISHOP: I have great confidence that our engagement with the United States will continue to be strong and intimate and filled with the trust and confidence that’s characterised it for so many years and I think the visit by Prime Minister Turnbull is timely. The alliance with the United States is the cornerstone of our strategic and security framework, it’s our major economic partner in terms of foreign investment and trade. The Prime Minister’s visit comes at a very important time, immediately after Vice President Pence’s visit to Australia. Given that our relationship has been forged over so many decades through times of war and times of peace it’s important that our two leaders meet to discuss matters of mutual interest and to discuss the regional and global challenges that we face.
JOURNALIST: We’ll come to the regional and global challenges but it is important, I mean personal relationships are important too, aren’t they at this level and we know these two men got off to a bad start in that phone call which from their own lips was testy, I think the President said it was the worst phone call ever. How important is it for an Australian Prime Minister and the US President to actually get on for the sake of the alliance and all it entails?
JULIE BISHOP: Well they don’t have to be best friends but of course they will be gracious towards each other. We strong national interests; the Australian Government’s engagement with the new administration has been strategic and high level and targeted and consistent and I have no doubt that the Prime Minister and President Trump will find a lot in common. I’m sure they’ll get along well. I wouldn’t overstate the phone call. It was a new administration, briefings were coming from across the administration and there was a moment when the President expressed less than admiration for an agreement that the previous administration had entered into. The important point is the US administration is honouring that agreement and we had a very successful visit from Vice President Pence and I look forward to welcoming the Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and the Secretary of Defense General Mattis to Australia this year for our annual Australia-US Ministerial meetings. The relationship is far stronger than whoever is in the White House or whoever is in Canberra.
JOURNALIST: Do you think the President appreciates that?
JULIE BISHOP: I believe so, I’m sure he does and I think that because our relationship with the United States has been so strong over so many decades. And there is no better illustration of that than the battle of the Coral Sea, and of course 2017 marks the 75th anniversary of the pivotal battle where Australian and US forces fought together successfully against Japan and that turned the course of the Pacific War. I think that the historic setting of the Prime Minister’s meeting with President Trump is also important, they are meeting on the USS Intrepid and there is a Coral Sea commemoration service that they will both attend.
JOURNALIST: As is customary our Prime Minister will come bearing gifts for the President, I understand it’s a jarrah timber box to hold a dozen golf balls crafted in Bungendore just out of Canberra. Will he have anything else, do you think, to try and underscore the importance of the relationship, perhaps an offer that Australia could be used as a base for further elements of the US military, B1 bombers to rotate through the north?
JULIE BISHOP: I won’t speculate on the defence relationship to that extent but of course the Prime Minister will be very keen to discuss a whole range of issues where we have common interests and we have no closer partner strategically speaking than the United States.
JOURNALIST: We are working alongside the US in Iraq and Afghanistan, are you expecting President Trump to request more troops from Australia?
JULIE BISHOP: At this point the United States has not requested additional defence support.
JOURNALIST: Do you think the President will?
JULIE BISHOP: I have no expectation that he will. The United States is currently in the process of reviewing its engagement in Syria and in Iraq and we are providing input into that review. Australia is already one of the largest contributors to the counter-ISIS effort and that’s been acknowledged by Secretary Tillerson and by others in the US administration.
We are also committed to spending, investing, two per cent of our GDP on defence capability and that’s a benchmark that the United States appreciates and has been calling on its NATO partners to do likewise. I believe Australia is already making a significant contribution to protect our national interest and protect the security of Australians both here and abroad.
JOURNALIST: It’s 18 minutes to eight our guest is the Foreign Minister Julie Bishop. Minister North Korea will be discussed, tensions have been escalating. Will the Prime Minister be seeking some clarity on the present strategy towards North Korea?
JULIE BISHOP: I have no doubt that North Korea will be a significant topic of discussion. As Australia has often said, North Korea’s long-term interests would be best served by ceasing its nuclear and missile programs and engaging positively with the international community.
JOURNALIST: There’s no sign of that happening though. If it doesn’t happen – and certainly that’s not the rhetoric coming out of North Korea – is there a plan as you understand it from America to go beyond military exercise to a military strike?
JULIE BISHOP: I understand that the United States wishes to pursue further economic sanctions and dialogue and diplomacy and we’ll continue to work with the United States and the Republic of Korea and Japan and China to increase the cost of these ongoing actions on the part of North Korea. It does present a grave threat to its neighbours and if left unchecked to the broader region including Australia. We of course have an interest in working with the United States and others. The Trump administration has said it’s seeking out new and creative ways to meet this North Korean challenge and I’m assuming the Prime Minister will be part of those discussions.
JOURNALIST: Is it your understanding then that despite the show of force, the USS Carl Vinson strike force, the US bombers overhead in training drills, that sanctions is the limit, the economic sanctions is the limit of what America is planning at the moment in terms of North Korea, if particularly these ballistic missile tests go on?
JULIE BISHOP: I wouldn’t say that. I would say that the Trump administration is looking at further ways to curb North Korea’s destructive behaviour. President Trump has stated that he believes that it to be intolerable that North Korea is developing the capability to deliver a nuclear weapon against the United States mainland. If that were to happen it would mean North Korea would have the capacity to hit Australia. President Trump has indicated that all options are on the table which clearly include military options. He also is looking at other ways to curb this behaviour and that’s where China comes in to the situation. It’s not in China’s interest to allow a nuclear armed North Korea to threaten its neighbours or the US. This creates huge instability and may lead to conflict. It’s important for China to use its leverage over North Korea which is unique and, I would suggest decisive.
JOURNALIST: If North Korea proceeds with ballistic missile testing, god forbid nuclear missile testing, if it proceeds with that, is it your understanding that the US will strike?
JULIE BISHOP: My understanding is that the United States is reserving its position in terms of military options. In other words it has said 'all options are on the table'. Clearly the deployment of the Carl Vinson strike group including the USS Carl Vinson to sail north and operate in the region is part of sending a message to North Korea that its behaviour in testing nuclear weapons or developing intercontinental ballistic missiles will not be tolerated by the international community. That’s why we support UN Security Council resolutions to impose sanctions and we’re in fact considering further and additional sanctions on North Korea. Again I point out that China has the leverage over North Korea. Over three quarters of North Korean exports go to China, China accounts for about 95 per cent of investment back in to North Korea, so it’s the overwhelming source of finance for the programs that North Korea is undertaking.
JOURNALIST: Minister, on other matters in your portfolio the case of Cassie Sainsbury the Australian girl accused of trying to smuggle more than 5 kilos of cocaine out of Colombia. She’s receiving consular assistance from DFAT. Have you personally intervened in this, do you have any plans to intervene or to speak with your Colombian counterpart?
JULIE BISHOP: Our Consulate-General in Bogota has been delivering her consular assistance and that has included providing a list of lawyers to ensure that she has legal representation and providing other consular support. I have long warned that when Australians travel overseas, Australian laws don’t apply overseas and there are significant limitations to what the Australian Government can do. I have not contacted Ms Sainsbury’s parents, this has been done through our consular service which is entirely appropriate. I don’t think it’s helpful to speculate on the details of her case because clearly an investigation is underway. I do point out that the Government has long warned Australians that if they travel to Colombia they are subject to Colombia’s laws, and penalties for possession or use or trafficking of illegal drugs in Colombia are severe and they include imprisonment in local jails. I’m relieved that she has legal representation and our Consulate-General
is providing consular support but there is a limit to what Australia can do, just as there is a limit to what other foreign governments could do if their nationals were caught up in legal proceedings in Australia.
JOURNALIST: Can I just ask you finally the Government’s announced the Gonski mark two schools policy, some Liberals led by Tony Abbott are angry that some private and Catholic schools will lose funding, he says it’s an article of faith that the Liberal Party stands for parental choice in education, do you see that choice being wound back by these cuts? Do you support these cuts?
JULIE BISHOP: I certainly support what the Turnbull Government is doing in these reforms to deliver fair and needs-based funding for all Australian students. I was an Education Minister and needs-based funding is essential. In relation to Catholic schools I understand that they are receiving an annual per-student growth of 3.7 per cent over the next four years. That is an extra $1.2 billion. Last year the Catholic schools received less, 3.56 per cent and welcomed that outcome, so this year’s announcement is indeed more for Catholic schools. What we’re trying to do is address the inequity in the current schools funding model and I think the Government should be supported for seeking to do what previous Governments have not had the courage to do.
JOURNALIST: Julie Bishop thank you very much for joining us.
JULIE BISHOP: My pleasure.
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