LAURA JAYES: Joining me now is our Foreign Minister, Julie Bishop. Thanks so much for your time, Minister. What do you expect we will hear from the United States?
JULIE BISHOP: Well, first, Australia condemns the use of chemical weapons anywhere, anytime by anybody, and what we believe has happened in Syria is utterly deplorable. The United Nations Security Council has met, but it has not been able to agree a text or any further action at this point, but it is meeting again tomorrow I understand. It seems that Russia is threatening to use its veto and that would be an unconscionable state if Russia did do that, because we're talking about up to 80 people, maybe - reports of somewhere between 40 and 80 people - could well have been killed by the use of chemical weapons. The United States has said that all options are on the table and you will recall that the Syrian regime has a history of using chemical weapons against its own people. Indeed, about 12 months ago it was found that the Syrian regime had deployed chemical weapons and the United States did respond. We supported the air strikes that the United States undertook at that time. They were targeted, calibrated and proportionate to the chemical weapons attack that had been undertaken by the Syrian regime.
LAURA JAYES: I understand- well, I would expect that Australia, given the circumstances last time about a year ago or almost exactly the same, that Australia might support a further action along similar lines. Is that correct, and what would Australia's specific role be?
JULIE BISHOP: Well, this will depend very much on what the United States proposes to do. I know that the United States has been engaged in discussions with other allies, particularly the United Kingdom and France and of course, they are all permanent members of the Security Council. Australia supported the response last time the Syrian regime used chemical weapons against its citizens. There are investigations on the ground being undertaken at present, but when this occurred 12 months ago, both the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons and the United Nations mechanism set up to investigate this, found that the Syrian regime was responsible for those chemical attacks which had led to the deaths of about 90 people, 12 months ago.
LAURA JAYES: How soon could this retaliatory action come?
JULIE BISHOP: Well, that would be a matter for the United States. I know that the UN Security Council is meeting again to seek to set up some kind of investigative mechanism, as occurred, last time this occurred, and that they are looking to have an agreed text. But I'm advised that Russia is threatening to use its veto, and as I said, it would be unconscionable for Russia to use its position as a permanent member of the Security Council to try to shield the Syrian regime from accusations that it has deployed chemical weapons against its own people.
LAURA JAYES: President Trump has often been a little more sympathetic towards Vladimir Putin than previous presidents, but he has tweeted and referred to- well, he has referred to President Putin specifically when it came to involvement with this attack but also, he's referred to President Assad as ‘Animal Assad’. What do you take or glean from those comments and have you also spoken to Jim Mattis of late?
JULIE BISHOP: I haven't personally spoken to Defense Secretary Mattis over this matter, but I know that our officials are in constant communication, and of course the Defence Minister Marise Payne is in communication with Secretary Mattis, but the United States has been consistent on this and Australia supports this view. The use of chemical weapons in Syria, or indeed, anywhere else is utterly unacceptable. It cannot be tolerated. There cannot be a situation where we tolerate the deployment of chemical weapons against civilian populations and this has occurred. It is part of the history of the Syrian regime and action must be taken to stop it. When it occurred 12 months ago, it was proven that the Syrian regime was behind the deployment of chemical weapons. The United States struck back - the Syrian airfields - it was targeted, it was calibrated, it was proportionate.
LAURA JAYES: There's been some confusion over retaliatory action that's been taken in the last 24 hours. The United States and the Pentagon was quick to deny that it was involved in a counterstrike on a Syrian military base, then some Middle Eastern countries were pointing the finger at Israel. Do you have any clarification on that?
JULIE BISHOP: I don't. I know that Syria and Russia are blaming Israel. That's not to be unexpected. Israel has been targeting Iranian weapons transfers to Hezbollah, the terrorist organisation Hezbollah, and so there may well be elements of Israel's strikes in self-defence, but Syria and Russia blamed Israel but I don't believe there's any evidence to back that up.
LAURA JAYES: Okay - can I ask you about China and Vanuatu now? How concerning is this move by China?
JULIE BISHOP: There is a report in the news today that there is a military proposal that has been put to the Vanuatu Government by China. But I note that the Vanuatu Government says that it has not received such a proposal. China is investing in infrastructure around the world. China is supporting many countries globally with development proposals, not just in the Pacific, but around the world. In the Pacific, we have seen Chinese funding support a significant amount of infrastructure from sports stadiums to convention centres-
LAURA JAYES: But, what's their motivation to do this?
JULIE BISHOP: Well, China is seeking to be a regional power. It is economically rising very rapidly and commensurate with its economic strength, it wants to have influence, and just as Australia supports countries in our region with development assistance, so China is supporting countries, particularly with infrastructure funding. We have to be realistic - there's a massive need for infrastructure investment in the Pacific and beyond. Our concern is to ensure that already vulnerable economies are not subjected to, for example, loans or financial arrangements that could weaken already vulnerable economies.
LAURA JAYES: So how does Australia ensure that doesn't happen? Do we increase our foreign aid or do we maintain it at the levels that we've got?
JULIE BISHOP: In the case of Vanuatu, Australia already has a very close and strong relationship - I was there last weekend accompanying His Royal Highness Prince Charles on a visit to Vanuatu - and it was quite apparent then that Vanuatu is very appreciative of Australia's involvement. We were a significant responder to the natural disaster Cyclone Pam that hit Vanuatu about three years ago, and I was able to inspect much of the work that Australia has funded to rebuild, restore and support Vanuatu after this terrible tragedy. We also provide patrol boats to Pacific Island nations, we support them in their attempts to stop illegal fishing, transnational crime, people smuggling - and so, I'm confident that Australia remains a partner of choice for Vanuatu and other Pacific Islands when it comes to security.
LAURA JAYES: If I could ask you about domestic issues, just a story today that Peter Dutton did argue for a cut in the immigration intake last year by 20,000 - from 190,000 to 170,000. Do you recall that?
JULIE BISHOP: No I certainly don't. I'm not aware of any such proposal. I am a Cabinet, and I am a member of the National Security Committee, and I don't recall that proposal at all, so I can only assume that the story is not true. We have-
LAURA JAYES: So this is not a Cabinet leak, then, in your mind?
JULIE BISHOP: Absolutely not. This didn't occur. So, we have a ceiling for our immigration at 190,000. That's not a target - that's the ceiling. And over recent years, our skilled immigration, our family reunion and other forms of visas have amounted to something like a net migration of 180,000 people, or something like that.
LAURA JAYES: Do you accept that there is perhaps a fear in the community that that level is too high, and perhaps Cabinet or the government should consider looking at lowering it, just a little bit? Even if it is a political message.
JULIE BISHOP: I think the most important aspect is to consider the makeup of the migrant community into Australia. What are the visa categories that are bringing people to Australia? We have foreign students - that is very good news for Australia because it's one of our largest exports, educating foreign students - we have a significant number of tourists, and of course we want to increase tourism because that drives productivity and jobs growth. Skilled labour, and that of course is demand driven. If we need more skilled labourers to come in, skilled workers to come in, to drive productivity in this country, then that's a good thing. Family reunion; you only have to ask people who live here how important it is.
LAURA JAYES: So basically, what you're saying, it's difficult to see where you would cut these numbers from? What category?
JULIE BISHOP: Indeed, and we also have a humanitarian and refugee visa program, and that's not a significant part of it, but that's necessary for us to uphold our international responsibilities, and we do. So it's not a target, 190,000. It's in fact a ceiling, and so we can take as many migrants as we believe is appropriate in Australia's national interest to drive economic growth and social cohesion in this country.
LAURA JAYES: Now, Josh Frydenberg, Scott Morrison and others have put their name, and Peter Dutton - I shouldn't forget him - have all put their name on the list of potential future prime ministers. Are you willing to add yours?
JULIE BISHOP: Absolutely not. [Laughs]. I am focused on the job I am doing now, on the responsibilities that I have now. I was elected to be the deputy leader of our party back in 2007 and I've been elected it every leadership election that's involved the deputy ever since then. So…
LAURA JAYES: Aren't you letting the sisterhood down, though? You're the next in line of potential - if you don't put your hand up for PM, it might be another 10 years away.
JULIE BISHOP: It's not about gender. This is about the person that retains the confidence of the majority of the members of the Liberal Party room, and that's Malcolm Turnbull. I think you have to put the comments of all of the others into context. They all agree that Malcolm Turnbull will lead us to the next election. I assume they were just talking about their future ambitions down the track. It's just hypothetical.
LAURA JAYES: Could you even be dragged, kicking and screaming, Julie Bishop?
JULIE BISHOP: [Laughs]. Look, I don't have to say every single day what my ambitions are. I think I've made it quite clear that I've been elected as the deputy leader of the party, that I'm fulfilling my role and responsibilities as the Foreign Minister of this country, and it's a very significant role that I take very seriously. So my focus and my priority is absolutely on the roles that I've been given, the roles that I've been elected to perform, and the responsibilities that I have under those jobs.
LAURA JAYES: Julie Bishop, thanks for your time today.
JULIE BISHOP: Thank you, Laura.
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