KIERAN GILBERT: Joining us live from London is the Foreign Minister, Julie Bishop. We’ve got a lot to talk about in foreign policy and why you are in the UK. First though, your reaction to this news from the Newspoll that most people think Mr Joyce should go?
JULIE BISHOP: The politicians in the National Party elect their leader and so it is and will be a matter for the politicians in the National Party. I understand that the Deputy Prime Minister is on personal leave at present and so we’ll see how things turn out in the following days and weeks.
KIERAN GILBERT: This is an emphatic result though - you would concede that? Two thirds and 58 per cent of Coalition voters are of that view.
JULIE BISHOP: Well this is a matter for the National Party politicians. They elect their leader and I am sure they will take a whole range of matters into account as they consider this issue.
KIERAN GILBERT: When you look at the events of the last week though as a senior figure in the Government yourself, are you confident that you can move on from this with Joyce as Deputy Prime Minister given the remarks of Prime Minister Turnbull late last week? Apparently they mended things at the weekend but really is that sustainable?
JULIE BISHOP: It has been a very distracting ten days for us and we must focus on the issues that are of concern to the Australian people. During those ten days we had also signed a free trade agreement with Peru which means more jobs and economic growth in Australia. We had more good news about job growth – 16,000 more jobs in January and 16 consecutive months of jobs growth. So these are the issues that we must focus on. The Prime Minister and the Deputy Prime Minister have had what they described as a frank discussion about Barnaby Joyce’s circumstances. Ultimately the leadership of the National Party is a matter for the politicians within the National Party. But I won’t be distracted from my role and that is promoting and advancing Australia’s interests overseas. That is why I am here in the United Kingdom meeting with significant figures here in the UK Government to promote Australia’s interests here in the UK.
KIERAN GILBERT: Okay. We’ll get to that in a moment. I also want to talk about your speech at the King’s College which is coming up early this week as well. Some interesting points to discuss on that front. Just on other issues first – a suggestion that you were going to return to Australia and be the Acting Prime Minister if circumstances changed. In fact you said: “If circumstances change then of course I will change my plans”. You didn’t do that and in fact Mathias Cormann is going to be Acting Prime Minister. What was your judgment on that? Why did you make that call?
JULIE BISHOP: I looked very closely at the meetings that had been lined up for me and on balance the Prime Minister and I thought that it would be better for me to continue in my role as Foreign Minister, to continue with the meetings. I am meeting with Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, with the Hungarian Prime Minister, and the Slovenian President. There are some very high level meetings that have been put in place and while I was prepared to change plans, on balance we thought it far preferable that I continue in my job as Foreign Minister and maintain good diplomatic relations. It would cause issues if I had cancelled but, of course, in these circumstances we have a level of seniority as to who acts in the absence of the Prime Minister and the Deputy Prime Minister and after me it goes to the Leader of the Senate and in this case that is Senator Cormann.
KIERAN GILBERT: On the ban on sex between Ministers and their staff, you said last week: “The Government has no business interfering into people’s personal lives and we wouldn’t want to cross the lines so moral police were able to dictate what happens between consenting adults”, but that is exactly what the Prime Minister did.
JULIE BISHOP: Well in fact the Minister Code of Conduct already sets very high standards for Ministers and the Prime Minister has now been more explicit in relation to those standards. It does bring the Code of Conduct into line with many workplaces across Australia.
KIERAN GILBERT: But you had expressed concern that you didn’t want the moral police to dictate terms between consenting adults. Do you think that this was the wrong call?
JULIE BISHOP: There are still areas of a politician’s life that are and should be private. What the Prime Minister is seeking to do is ensure that there are not relationships within Minister’s offices that can lead to an improper influence over a Minister’s decisions, to conflicts of interest, to misuse of taxpayers funds. So he has made very explicit what was in the Ministerial Code of Conduct and it does bring it in line with, as I said, many work places across Australia.
KIERAN GILBERT: So you support the call now?
JULIE BISHOP: I will abide by the Ministerial Code of Conduct.
KIERAN GILBERT: Alright. Well, it seems 64 per cent of people according to Newspoll today support the idea as well so Mr Turnbull look likes he is in tune with the electorate on this one.
JULIE BISHOP: Well as I said what it does is bring the Ministerial Code of Conduct very much in line with many workplaces across Australia and if that is meeting community expectations then that is a positive thing, absolutely.
KIERAN GILBERT: Let’s look at some foreign policy matters now. The Prime Minister heads to Washington on Wednesday for meetings with President Trump and other senior figures in the Administration. It comes as the confirmation of the next Ambassador to Australia is a China hawk, Admiral Harry Harris. Will Mr Turnbull be seeking to lock in behind the US view when it comes to China or will he be also trying to give a bit of distance between your Government and the US approach to China through the Defence strategy and other messages that they have been sending to Beijing recently?
JULIE BISHOP: I wouldn’t put it that way. We all have our own interests and perspectives and priorities as sovereign nation states. Australia and the United States are the closest of strategic allies and the United States is one of our most important trading partners. Indeed, our most important economic partner if you put trade and investment together, the United States is our second largest trading partner and our largest source of foreign direct investment. But we have a different perspective from time to time on China and that is natural. China is our largest two-way trading partner. The United States is China’s largest two-way trading partner. So there is a high level of economic interdependence between nations around the world, and China and the United States. The geostrategic reality is that all countries are seeking to work closely together to ensure peace and prosperity, particularly in our region. Now the United States has expressed concerns in their National Security Strategy about the geostrategic competition between China, Russia, the United States and we understand where the United States is coming from, but we see China’s rise as positive and we want to work closely with China to ensure that China is a responsible regional and global player, now and in the future.
KIERAN GILBERT: What would Australia say if Admiral Harris and the US asked Australia for a freedom of navigation exercise, not for us to conduct it, but say a US ship left an Australian port to then conduct a freedom of navigation exercise? What would Australia’s response be to that?
JULIE BISHOP: The United States has a global freedom of navigation program. They undertake freedom of navigation exercises around the world. Australia does not have a global freedom of navigation program and so the circumstances are different. The United States is a very close ally of Australia’s. We support the United States undertaking freedom of navigation exercises. This is all part of our collective support for the international rules based system. It is set out in our Foreign Policy White Paper, which I released last November, that we want to see the institutions, the treaties, the alliances, the international law that has grown up over many decades being supported and upheld and defended by nations, particularly those who have benefited from it. We support, for example, UNCLOS, the treaty that dictates how nations should behave in terms of maritime boundaries and maritime exercises. So we would support US freedom of navigation exercises as they conduct them now around the world.
KIERAN GILBERT: So you wouldn’t have a problem if a US ship left an Australian port then went to claimed Chinese territory and conducted one of those?
JULIE BISHOP: There are disputed claims in the South China Sea. A number of nations dispute claims of other nations. The United States conducts a freedom of navigation program globally including through the South China Sea. Australia has a significant presence in the South China Sea. Other nations do. I understand that the United Kingdom is planning to conduct freedom of navigation exercises through and around the South China Sea. This is important to Australia – to keep the seas and skies in our region open. Most of our trade is through the South China Sea so we want to see freedom of navigation and free and open seas and skies in accordance with international law.
KIERAN GILBERT: The Financial Review reports today that Australia, US, Japan and India looking at a rival infrastructure program to the One Belt One Road Initiative out of China. Can you give us any more detail on this?
JULIE BISHOP: I certainly wouldn’t want to pre-empt any future discussions between Australia, Japan, India and the United States. Our senior officials have met to discuss a range of opportunities and challenges but any infrastructure initiative need not be at the expense of any other initiative. There is an enormous need for infrastructure, particularly in our region. Indeed, the Asian Development Bank has estimated that developing countries in our region will require about $30 trillion worth of infrastructure to maintain economic growth through to 2030. So there is an enormous need for more infrastructure. There are a number of initiatives underway - the World Bank, the Asia Infrastructure Investment Bank and the One Belt One Road initiative - but we welcome all initiatives, as long as they are transparent in their operations and commercially sustainable.
KIERAN GILBERT: Do you agree with the German Foreign Minister who said at the weekend that the Chinese initiative is not just about business and industry, China is developing a comprehensive system that is not like ours, not based on freedom, democracy and human rights? It is not a sentimental reminiscence of Marco Polo is the way that he put it.
JULIE BISHOP: Well they are his words. I would put it differently. China is a growing power both regionally and globally and with its extraordinary economic rise comes a desire to be more strategically powerful. That is natural. We have seen that over history. We want to work with China so that it is a positive economic rise, a positive strategic rise and we do need more infrastructure, particularly in our region. So we want to work with China to ensure that their infrastructure investment is commercially sustainable, is transparent and adds to the economic growth that is so needed in our part of the world.
KIERAN GILBERT: Last question goes to your commitments in London. As I mentioned you are addressing the King’s College earlier this week and you alluded to this earlier about the British possibly undertaking freedom of navigation exercises in our region. You want them to embrace a greater role in the Indo-Pacific in a post-Brexit world. Is that something you think that they’ve got a political or national taste for right now given that they’re withdrawing from a regional engagement with Brexit itself?
JULIE BISHOP: In fact, the United Kingdom Government has embraced the concept of Global Britain and this will be part of the discussions I intend to have with Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson as well as a theme in my speech at King’s College and other discussions I am having with Ministers and at policy roundtables and think tanks while I am here in the United Kingdom. Britain is, for example, a member of the Permanent Five of the Security Council. Britain is a leading economy, a leading nation when it comes to technological change and innovation and I believe it has a significant role to play in our part of the world. It is also the founding nation of the Commonwealth of Nations and about 19 nations in the Indo-Pacific are also members of the Commonwealth. So I hope that we can engage more closely with the United Kingdom, pre and post-Brexit, to see greater economic growth, greater development in our part of the world in partnership with the United Kingdom. We are very close defence and security and intelligence partners but I also think that there is more that we can do in the economic field and that is why we are pursuing a free trade agreement with the United Kingdom when the circumstances are right. We are also pursuing a free trade agreement with the European Union because this is about providing opportunities for Australian exporters to grow into existing markets or into new markets and that provides more jobs for Australians.
KIERAN GILBERT: Foreign Minister, Julie Bishop joining us from London. Thanks for that. I appreciate your time.
JULIE BISHOP: Thank you Kieran.
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