JULIE BISHOP: I have had a series of meetings this afternoon while in London. I have met with Secretary Boris Johnson and also with Secretary David Davis. The topics of discussion included the implications of Brexit and the opportunities that arise for countries like Australia. Then with Secretary Johnson I spoke in detail about our efforts to counter terrorism, our efforts on countering violent extremism and also our co-operation in Iraq and Syria and elsewhere. They have been very constructive and open discussions, as you would imagine, between two such long-standing partners/friends, and it has been a very useful afternoon. I am now heading off to Dublin to spend some time in Ireland before returning to Australia on Sunday.
This is after a very successful visit to Washington and I certainly spoke to Secretary Johnson about the meetings I had in Washington on the similar topics of trade, counter-terrorism, the situation in Iraq and Syria and how the United States and Australia can work closely together and of course how the United States, Australia and the United Kingdom can work on these issues of terrorism and stabilising the situation in Iraq, and seeking to find a political solution to the situation in Syria. Any questions?
JOURNALIST: There has been some speculation that post-Brexit Australians and other Commonwealth citizens might get their own line at Heathrow and that also Australians could get preferential visa access. Are those two things that you discussed today?
JULIE BISHOP: I certainly spoke with Secretary Davis about the labour mobility issue, but we need to see the full implications of Brexit before we can go into details about life for Australians post Britain exiting from the EU. There is a working group discussing a whole range of issues, but first the British Parliament and the British people must determine, in negotiation with the European Union, the implications of exiting. Australia of course will continue to push our interests at an appropriate time.
JOURNALIST: Tony Abbott wanted a one-page agreement. He has got a lot of ideas at the moment. Do you think that is sensible? Do you think that there could be free movement back and forth between Australia and the UK?
JULIE BISHOP: These are matters that we will discuss once the full implications of Britain’s exit from the EU are known. We have a working group that is looking at all sorts of options.
JOURNALIST: Can I ask about Syria, please? We got a read-out this morning from a phone call between Theresa May and Malcolm Turnbull which reiterated the need for there to be a political solution in Syria without President Assad. You have said slightly different things in earlier times. What is your position now on al-Assad?
JULIE BISHOP: Having had some very detailed meetings with Vice President Pence, Secretary Tillerson, the new National Security Advisor General McMaster, and discussions with Secretary Johnson, it is clear that a military solution will not resolve the instability, the civil war in Syria; there must be a political solution. It is also clear that President Assad will be part of the transition. The pre-condition that Assad must go has been a condition in place for some time, but most countries have moved on from that, and there is a recognition that President Assad, backed by Russia, will have to be part of a transition, and how long he remains will be a matter of negotiation. My view has always been that to make a political solution dependent upon Assad having to go as a pre-condition would not advance the political solution at all.
JOURNALIST: So you don’t believe that he has to go?
JULIE BISHOP: My point is a pre-condition that Assad must go will only delay the negotiations for a political solution, and I think that has been a recognition across the coalition partners, that he will part of a transition. He has lost legitimacy as a leader, he has used chemical weapons against his own people, but the realpolitik, the reality is that he will have to be part of the political solution. How long he stays thereafter is obviously a matter of conjecture.
JOURNALIST: Minister, it has been a relatively good week for US or coalition-backed Iraqi forces in Mosul. Britain has confirmed this week the presence of their forces on the ground in Iraq and in Mosul. What is the current status of Australian troops there?
JULIE BISHOP: As it has always been. We were invited in by the Abadi Government, we have the consent of the Abadi Government to be in Iraq to help train, assist and advise the Iraqi security forces to build their capability, their capacity, and that is what we will continue to do.
JOURNALIST: Are we fighting on the front-line?
JULIE BISHOP: We are training, advising and assisting. We do not have boots on the ground in the common understanding of the term in Iraq.
JOURNALIST: Minister, Tony Abbott appears to have laid out some sort of manifesto in the papers in the last 14 or so hours, outlining some changes he would like to see in the coalition policy in order to win the next election. Do you feel the need for wholesale changes to coalition policies including slashing immigration and freezing the RET to bring the coalition more in line with the hopes of One Nation voters?
JULIE BISHOP: I have not seen this so-called manifesto. I have been on a plane from Washington to London and as soon as I arrived here I have been in meetings, and so I have not seen the detail of it. Ideas are always welcome. A former leader of the party would have ideas and most certainly we encourage backbenchers as well as our Ministers to always come up with policy initiatives that will benefit the Australian people.
JOURNALIST: He says the Government is drifting towards defeat. Is he right?
JULIE BISHOP: I don’t accept that characterisation at all. I believe that the Turnbull Government has been pursuing policies that are in the interests of the Australian people. We are pursuing policies that we believe will grow our economy, that will create more jobs, that will stimulate the private sector, that will boost business, consumer, investment confidence. Some of the legislation that we have passed through the Parliament will do precisely that. We have passed a lot of legislation, probably more legislation in the last 12 months than previously, and it is all directed towards growing our economy and providing economic security as well as focusing on national security.
JOURNALIST: So why is Malcolm Turnbull reluctant… why is Tony Abbott about to or poised to try and take the leadership back if the Government is going so well?
JULIE BISHOP: That is your characterisation. I don’t read it that way at all.
JOURNALIST: An election is nigh in Western Australia, your home state. How comfortable would you be with a One Nation-backed Colin Barnett Government?
JULIE BISHOP: I don’t expect it to be that kind of outcome. I expect the Liberal Party to win in its own right. I expect the National Party to win a number of seats and I am optimistic that the Barnett Government will be returned. Colin Barnett is the only leader with a plan for Western Australia. Under his leadership since 2008, Western Australia has met many challenges. It has been transforming its economy because of the transition in the mining sector. There have been significant infrastructure investments in schools, in hospitals, roads and the kind of infrastructure that is needed for the big projects in Western Australian around the North West Shelf, in Gorgon and other LNG projects. By 2020, Australia, off the back of Western Australia, will be the world’s largest LNG exporter. This has all happened under Colin Barnett’s vision for Western Australia, and he has a plan to continue to grow our economy in the West and to ensure that there are the jobs that might have been lost during the move from the mining construction phase to the production phase, but that we have other opportunities in services, in tourism, to ensure that Western Australians continue to enjoy a high standard of living.
JOURNALIST: Minister, we have also seen in the last few hours a report that Prime Minister Turnbull could meet with President Trump as early as May. Do you know anything about that and what was the sense that you got from Washington about the notorious phone call between the two?
JULIE BISHOP: There is an enormous amount of goodwill in Washington, and in the United States more generally, for Australia. I had access to some very significant meetings. General McMaster, for example, was only announced as the National Security Advisor on Monday evening Washington time and I had a meeting with him by Wednesday afternoon, and so there is enormous goodwill towards Australia. The phone call was not mentioned by anyone and I am delighted with the outcome of the meetings I had. The planning for Prime Minister Turnbull to meet President Trump is under way, as one would expect. In any event, they are likely to meet at some of the global multilateral summits that are held throughout the year, but I am hopeful that there will be a bilateral meeting as soon as possible.
JOURNALIST: On this meeting do you expect to be asked or have you been asked to boost Australia’s commitment to the war on Islamic State, either in Syria or Iraq?
JULIE BISHOP: I was not asked. The situation in Iraq and Syria is subject to a review. President Trump asked Secretary Mattis to come up with a new strategy to defeat ISIS. That will necessarily mean reviewing the policies as they relate to US engagement in Iraq and Syria. I took the opportunity to provide to Vice President Pence and Secretary Tillerson our thoughts and perspectives and insights on our experience in counter-terrorism activities and also our experience of being involved with the Coalition in Iraq and Syria, and they were open to our views and our insights, and I hope that once the review is concluded, Australia will be involved in the implementation of any recommendations. It was a very open and constructive dialogue with all three members of the Administration.
JOURNALIST: Minister, when it was put to Tony Abbott that you were disloyal, he just laughed in agreement. Do you owe him an apology and can you guarantee that Malcolm Turnbull’s leadership is safe until the next Election?
JULIE BISHOP: How do you “laugh” in agreement?
JOURNALIST: I can show you the clip.
JULIE BISHOP: I have not seen that.
JOURNALIST: But Andrew Bolt basically said to Tony Abbott that unlike Peter Dutton… sorry, Peter Dutton was conservative, plain speaking and loyal, unlike yourself, and Tony Abbott laughed.
JULIE BISHOP: I am not conservative, I am not plain speaking and I am not loyal; is that the charge?
JULIE BISHOP: Well, I think I am a pretty plain speaker but others can judge that. I have been elected by the Party as the Deputy Leader. I have been elected directly by the party room and I own my loyalty to the party room. I continue to be elected and that’s the way it is, so I am not sure to what other matters anyone could be referring. If there is a characterisation about being conservative and plain speaking and loyal, I believe I fulfil that characterisation.
JOURNALIST: In your meetings with the US, what were the key points? You talked about presenting Australia’s position but what were the key points? What is our key position that you were pushing?
JULIE BISHOP: Well, I am not going into the strategic suggestions we had. That would not be wise. Most certainly we have been there from the outside in Iraq. I recall negotiating the agreement with Prime Minister Abadi in October 2014 for Australian troops to be involved in advising, assisting and training Iraqi security forces. We had perspectives that I wanted to share with the new Administration. On their current review into their thinking on US involvement in Iraq and Syria, I wanted to ensure that Australia’s voice was heard.
JOURNALIST: Is Tony Abbott doing to the Liberal Party what Kevin Rudd did to the Labor Party just a couple of years ago?
JULIE BISHOP: I do not see that, no.
JOURNALIST: Are his comments constructive really though given they are continually interpreted as undermining Malcolm Turnbull’s leadership.
JULIE BISHOP: Others might interpret it that way but I certainly don’t. Malcolm Turnbull enjoys the support of the party room.
JOURNALIST: What do you think Australia is going to have to do differently in the coming years given Trump’s America First strategy in terms of trade and the fact that Britain is negotiating free trade deals with every other country in the world at the same time? How is Australia going to change their approach and do something differently?
JULIE BISHOP: First, Britain is not negotiating free trade agreements. It must first exit the European Union and then are a number of countries that would seek to negotiate a free trade agreement with the United Kingdom, including Australia. So we will continue to seek free trade deals that benefit Australia, that create the conditions for more jobs and to grow our economy with a number of countries around the world. We are negotiating with Indonesia, with India. We are re-negotiating aspects of our free trade agreement with Singapore. We will continue to negotiate and seek free trade deals wherever we can find them. Australia is an open export-oriented market economy. Our standard of living, our economic growth depends upon our ability to sell our goods and services into the market places around the world, and we will continue to do that.
JOURNALIST: Minister, is it likely that the visa access improvements for Australians that the Government was seeking can only be done as part of free trade negotiations after Brexit? That can’t happen separately to that?
JULIE BISHOP: There are certainly discussions that we are having with the British authorities now.
JOURNALIST: Are you hopeful of any change before Brexit or not?
JULIE BISHOP: We will continue to have discussions with the relevant Ministers about visa matters, as one would expect. Visa issues are not always part of free trade agreement negotiations but they can run in parallel.
JOURNALIST: The Brits have been very critical of North Korea recently. I am just wondering whether that came up in the discussions that you had today?
JULIE BISHOP: Yes, it certainly did. I had discussions with Secretary Johnson about that today and I also have recently returned from South Korea, I was in South Korea last weekend in fact, and had detailed discussions and briefings on North Korea’s recent behaviour. Likewise, the United States Administration is keen to review the situation. North Korea continues its belligerent and provocative behaviour. It clearly has been increasing its ballistic missile capability and its nuclear programme, and we discussed the ways where we could work with China to seek to curb North Korea’s behaviour and how we can bring more pressure to bear on the regime to change its provocative and belligerent attitude towards South Korea, Japan, the United States and others.
We share the view that North Korea not only presents a threat to South Korea in instability on the Korean Peninsula, but it is a regional threat and a global threat, and it must be curbed. So we had discussions in Washington and here in London on the situation in North Korea.
JOURNALIST: Minister, do you believe that the settlements on the West Bank by the Israelis are illegal?
JULIE BISHOP: That is a matter for the final determination of the negotiations between the Palestinians and the Israelis. The point that I have always made is that you can’t have unilateral imposition of a state; it has to be negotiated between the Israelis and the Palestinians. The question of the borders that must be internationally recognised will be one of the fundamental issues to be determined in those negotiations.
JOURNALIST: Do you think Australia is on the wrong side of history when it comes to recognising Palestine?
JULIE BISHOP: I don’t believe so. I believe that there will not be a lasting peace if a state is imposed unilaterally. It must be negotiated between the Israelis and the Palestinians so that they can live side by side peacefully behind internationally recognised borders. That is a consistent position of the Coalition Government.
JOURNALIST: President Widodo is suggesting joint patrols in the South China Sea. Is that something Australia would be open to?
JULIE BISHOP: President Widodo is about to visit Australia and this is a matter that I assume, if he wishes to raise with the Prime Minister, we will certainly take it on board, but it is not a matter that he has raised directly with us to this point.
JOURNALIST: What would you like to achieve in terms of visas when you are talking with the United Kingdom? Is there a goal that you have?
JULIE BISHOP: It is a question of having access to the British market. We want to gain as much access as we are able to. I won’t go into the details – it is not my portfolio; it is a matter for others to negotiate with Britain, but we would like to see the opportunities for young Australians and young Britons in particular to be able to live, work and study in each other’s countries as they have in the past.
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