LEIGH SALES, PRESENTER: The Australian Government says it will cooperate fully with any Indonesian investigation into the Navy about the alleged treatment of asylum seekers apprehended at sea. Pictures and video have emerged of asylum seekers returned to Indonesia being treated for burns on their hands and the allegation is that the injuries were sustained as part of the Australian naval operation. The Government has roundly rejected the accusations as sledging and fabrications.
Australia's Foreign Minister, Julie Bishop, is currently in Washington. High on the agenda there is not Indonesia, but instead intelligence sharing in the wake of an announcement by US President Barack Obama last week that America will wind back the scale of its intelligence gathering after damning revelations by whistleblower Edward Snowden. Julie Bishop joined me from Washington earlier.
Foreign Minister, thanks for your time.
JULIE BISHOP, FOREIGN MINISTER: My pleasure.
LEIGH SALES: Today you've met with the US Vice President, Joseph Biden, and the National Security Advisor, Susan Rice. Have they been able to offer you any assurances that in the future intelligence that Australia shares with the US will not be able to make its way into the hands of junior analysts?
JULIE BISHOP: We had a very productive discussion about our joint intelligence activities. We reiterated the fact that the exercise is carried out for the purposes of national security, that is, protecting the safety and security of our respective citizens and our national interest, and that's important to both our nations and for regional stability and for global security. And let's not forget that the structure of the US intelligence organisation and community is as a result of the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001 and we must continue to work closely with the United States and with other partners to ensure that such terrorist attacks can be averted, indeed, that they don't ever happen again.
LEIGH SALES: But Australia also needs to be assured that when it shares intelligence with the United States, that it won't be able to leak.
JULIE BISHOP: Well, clearly the United States have that in mind. I made it quite clear today that I saw Edward Snowden's actions as an act of utter betrayal to his nation, unprecedented treachery. And in that regard the United States has obviously reviewed the situation and will take steps to ensure that this sort of thing doesn't happen again.
LEIGH SALES: Last week President Obama said that the US would no longer tap the phones of the foreign leaders of allies. Is that also the Abbott Government's position regarding its own intelligence gathering?
JULIE BISHOP: He certainly made it clear that national security considerations would still be paramount and Australia certainly has given undertakings to Indonesia. That's been the subject of much discussion and publicity recently and we'll ensure that in our activities, in our intelligence gathering, our resources and assets are not used to harm Indonesia. That's a statement we have given to Indonesia and we're in the process of developing a joint understanding along those lines.
LEIGH SALES: I'll come back to Indonesia in a moment, but does that also apply to other allies such as Japan and New Zealand?
JULIE BISHOP: We've made our response to President Obama's speech and the Prime Minister made it quite clear that he's satisfied that what our intelligence agencies do is within Australian law, that there is appropriate and considerable oversight and accountability to our parliament.
LEIGH SALES: The US has been critical in the past of Australian cuts to Defence spending and Australia's also cut its foreign aid budget since the Abbott Government came to power. Isn't somebody like the former US Defence Secretary Richard Armitage right when he says our spending priorities send a message that we expect the US to do the heavy lifting in the international arena?
JULIE BISHOP: I can understand why the United States would think that in relation to the Defence budget because the previous government did slash Defence spending and the United States and others quite rightly felt that Australia needed to pull its weight and do its share in terms of our collective regional security and the Abbott Government is determined to increase Defence spending when budget circumstances allow us to do that. In the case of our aid budget, it needed to be brought under control and put on a sustainable footing and that's precisely what we're doing. We're putting in place performance benchmarks so that we've got an accountable performance culture within our aid community.
LEIGH SALES: You mentioned Indonesia before. You sent a letter of apology to the Indonesian Foreign Minister, Marty Natalegawa, last week regarding the breach of Indonesian territorial waters by Australian Navy boats. Have you spoken to Mr Natalegawa personally since then?
JULIE BISHOP: We're in constant communication and indeed this week we've been communicating about our next meeting, so this is a regular occurrence that Dr Natalegawa and I remain in constant communication with each other.
LEIGH SALES: And when is your next meeting?
JULIE BISHOP: We're planning that at present. He's travelling and – as am I, and our officials will be working that out now.
LEIGH SALES: You said at a press conference there in Washington that you and Minister Natalegawa had put in place a process and that you're halfway through that process, developing a joint understanding on particular issues. What's the process, what are the specific issues and when do you expect them to reach completion?
JULIE BISHOP: Well this in fact was a suggestion of President Yudhoyono and he asked that we go through I think it was six steps in order to ensure that our full bilateral relationship could be restored. As you will be aware the Indonesians suspended cooperation on a couple of matters including the people smuggling issue. So, we are going through those six steps. I think we're up to about number three or four and that is to develop a joint understanding. Australia has provided a draft to Indonesia. Indonesia is considering that and I expect to receive that in the not-too-distant future.
LEIGH SALES: Just finally, on allegations regarding the Australian Navy and the treatment of asylum seekers returned to Indonesia, police in Indonesia say that they've referred the matter to the country's national police headquarters. Given the existing tensions in the Australia-Indonesia relationship and Indonesia's opposition to the "turn back the boats" policy, are you confident that an internal Indonesian investigation will be fair?
JULIE BISHOP: Of course. We cooperate with Indonesia on a whole range of areas and we certainly have a high level of cooperation between our respective police forces, Defence forces, and so if they request cooperation from us, of course it would be forthcoming. These are unsubstantiated allegations. I'm not aware of any evidence to support them. It goes against everything that I know of the Australian Navy and our very professional and competent personnel who operate in exceedingly difficult circumstances. But if the Indonesian authorities want us to cooperate in relation to some sort of investigation under some jurisdiction, then of course we'd support a level of cooperation from the Australian Government. That goes without saying.
LEIGH SALES: Since those allegations emerged, the Abbott Government has strenuously defended the Navy and said that you won't see it sledged and so on. Are you suggesting that the Government thinks that its armed forces are beyond question, that criticisms or allegation of this nature shouldn't even be worthy of investigation?
JULIE BISHOP: I didn't say that. I just said that if the Indonesian Government wished to investigate this matter and has referred it to some authority under some jurisdiction to consider, then of course the Australian Government would cooperate with that investigation if we were asked to do so. We're not saying that the Australian Navy is above questioning. What we are saying is it goes against everything that we know and understand about the conduct of our Navy personnel in very difficult circumstances as they undertake the policy direction of the Australian Government.
LEIGH SALES: Foreign Minister Julie Bishop, thank you very much.
JULIE BISHOP: It's been my pleasure.
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