MINISTER BISHOP I’m delighted to be here with my colleague and the Member for Solomon, Natasha Griggs. We are present at the Freedom of Entry ceremony today, which celebrates the 100th anniversary of the 8th/12th Regiment of the 1st Brigade, and this ceremony is all about the relationship between 8th/12th and the 1st Brigade with the City of Palmerston. One hundred years ago the 8th/12th Regiment was formed and we are paying tribute to all those who have served in the name of our country, and 100 years on from the First World War we remember their sacrifice.
So it’s a great day to be here in Darwin, and we have spent the last 24 hours meeting with local businesses, local people and talking about a whole range of issues including the opportunities that the Defence White Paper brings to the Territory. There’ll be an investment of over $8 billion in infrastructure upgrades to HMAS Coonawarra and Larrakeyah Barracks, to Robertson Barracks and to RAAF Base here in Darwin. So a wonderful day to spend here with our Defence personnel and their families.
JOURNALIST Minister, the latest rotation of the marines has just arrived in Darwin, they’re progressively coming in, what message does that send to China with growing concerns militaristically?
MINISTER BISHOP It sends a very positive message to our whole region. We welcome the US marines here to Australia, and we’re delighted that they are spending time here in Darwin working with our Defence personnel and spending time in this great Territory. It sends a message that Australia is prepared to play its part in maintaining regional peace and security and stability, and also that we are pre-prepared for any natural disasters or humanitarian disasters that may present themselves in our part of the world. The Pacific is one of the most natural disaster-prone regions on the planet, and so having Defence personnel, who are often the first responders, here in Darwin means we are well positioned to support our region. So it’s a very positive message that Australia is playing its part, we’re working with our great ally, the United States, we carry out joint defence exercises with a whole range of countries including China and Indonesia and Singapore, and so Australia is a good regional partner and neighbour.
JOURNALIST Does it show favouritism to the US?
MINSITER BISHOP It shows that we have an arrangement with the United States that goes back to the 1950s, the ANZUS alliance has been in existence for many years and the United States is our significant ally in defence and economic terms, but it also means that Australia is playing its role in maintaining peace and stability and security. We carry out exercises with a whole range of other countries, in fact we allow Singapore Defence personnel to train in Australia, so we have very strong relationships with a number of other countries in the region including China.
JOURNALIST Has the lease of the Darwin Port put any strain on that relationship with the US?
MINISTER BISHOP We have explained the position to the United States and I understand they’ve accepted it, and they were interested in the issue because of course they do have US marines here. This is the lease of a part of a commercial port and the Port of Darwin is a massive waterway, I think it’s seven times the size of Sydney Harbour, so there’s plenty of room for Defence personnel and commercial operators to operate here.
JOURNALIST What did the Prime Minister say to China about its build up in the South China Sea?
MINISTER BISHOP The Prime Minister’s message, both privately and publicly, has been consistent – that Australia doesn’t take sides in the various claims in the South China Sea, we’re not a claimant state but we have an interest in ensuring that there’s peace and stability in our region so we call for a de-escalation of tensions, and we call on all parties to resolve their disputes, their differences peacefully and through negotiation or, if necessary, through arbitration.
JOURNALIST Do you expect China to pay attention?
MINSITER BISHOP I’m sure China respected Prime Minister Turnbull’s statement. We continue to engage with China on this issue as we do with other countries because our interest is in ensuring we can continue to have freedom of overflight, freedom of navigation through the South China Sea because about 60% of our trade passes through the South China Sea. This has been the message that we have said both privately and publicly.
JOURNALIST Is it a bit hypocritical to expect those parties to submit to arbitration when Australia refuses to do so with Timor?
MINISTER BISHOP I said “if it’s appropriate for parties to submit to arbitration”, it’s up to each sovereign country to determine how they will resolve their maritime boundary issues and Australia is prepared to talk in an open and frank way with Timor-Leste but it’s a matter for each country to determine how they resolve their differences. In the case of the South China Sea, we call on all countries to negotiate peacefully, to de-escalate tensions, and not to do anything that would escalate tensions.
JOURNALIST Minister, you mentioned on radio this morning that you didn’t know the 60 Minutes crew was going to Lebanon, would you have intervened if you did?
MINSITER BISHOP Well it’s not a question for the Australian Government to intervene. I still have not all the details of what the crew did or how that incident came about. This is obviously a matter for investigation, currently by the Lebanese authorities. People are free to travel overseas but they’re also obliged to abide with the laws of the country in which they are visiting.
JOURNALIST Can you tell us about the Australian Government’s involvement in the situation currently?
MINISTER BISHOP We are making representations to the Lebanese authorities, I’ve been in constant communication with my counterpart, Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil – we’ve been speaking and texting each other as the matter progresses. The Australian Embassy in Beirut has maintained continuous contact with those not only in the political system but those in the judicial and legal system, and so we’re doing what we can, as we would with any Australians who find themselves in this situation. We are working very hard to secure their release but ultimately they are subject to Lebanese law at present.
JOURNALIST Labor is signalling it won’t stand in the way of a quick vote on the Australian Building and Construction Commission when Parliament returns next week, do you expect that Parliament will sit longer than a week to deal with the issue?
MINISTER BISHOP Well that will depend on the Senators. If they are prepared to pass our Bills then they can vote, but so far the Australian Building and Construction Commission legislation has been rejected. It is a very important piece of legislation; it’s about returning the laws of the land to constructions sites. We do not want unions and the union officials to hold Australian businesses to ransom. This is about our productivity, about economic growth, about jobs, and so the Australian Building and Construction Commission is designed to bring back the rule of law to construction sites across Australia.
JOURNALIST So given that the crossbench is still opposed to the ABCC, is there any chance the legislation will get through?
MINSITER BISHOP Well let’s see how they vote. It’s one thing to talk about it, it’s another to actually vote on the floor of the Senate, so let’s see how they end up voting.
JOURNALIST Back to South China Sea, what’s Australia’s reaction to the US deploying war planes in The Philippines?
MINISTER BISHOP We want to ensure that all countries abide by the international rules based order and Australia traverses through the South China Sea, our Defence vessels go through the South China Sea and so do our planes, regularly on exercise and for various engagements with other countries, so as long as the international rules are abided by, then it’s a matter for each country.
JOURNALIST Xanana Gusmão is going to be in the country later this month, are you going to discuss the maritime border with him?
MINISTER BISHOP Well I’ve just met with Minister Pereira in Perth a couple of days ago so we’ve already had a good meeting, I’ve met with Xanana Gusmão many times. If he asked to meet with me, of course I would meet with him, but I know that he’s here for the purpose of Anzac Day and commemorations around Anzac Day.
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