HAMISH MACDONALD: The operation to extract the five remaining group members ended overnight. Hundreds of volunteers have supported the rescue mission. Australia also sent a team of 19 people to Thailand, including Australian Federal Police personnel. The Foreign Minister Julie Bishop joins us now from Parliament House in Canberra. Good morning to you.
JULIE BISHOP: Good morning.
HAMISH MACDONALD: Just a few days ago, some diving experts were obviously warning this operation was too dangerous even to be undertaken. It is now accomplished. Given Australia’s role in this, how relieved are you that it’s over?
JULIE BISHOP: I’m absolutely delighted that this extraordinary ordeal is over, that the 12 boys and coach Chantawong are safe. They’re being assessed but I understand that they are going to be fine, and it is an extraordinary international effort, brilliantly led by the Thai authorities. You’re right, there were times when people didn’t think they’d be able to achieve this, and when the former Thai Navy SEAL died in the rescue attempts a few days ago, I think everyone’s spirits were very low. Now there are jubilant scenes coming from Chiang Rai and understandably the rescue teams are physically and emotionally drained, but very excited that they’ve been able to achieve what is a world first, a most remarkable ordeal and rescue.
HAMISH MACDONALD: We are told that the role of Australian diver and doctor Richard Harris was central to all of this, but we’re also told he’s a very shy man, has declined all requests to speak with any of the Australian media. Can you confirm what his role has been? Was he in fact the last one to leave?
JULIE BISHOP: That’s what I understand. He has been an integral part of the rescue attempt. He was specifically identified by the British diving team as an expert whose skills would be required and he was asked for at the highest levels within the Thai government, and fortunately was able to go to Chiang Rai and be part of the rescue. He is internationally renowned for his expertise in cave rescues. He’s very well known to us and the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade because he’s part of the Australian Medical Assistance Team that goes overseas under our aid program to support developing countries. Indeed, he spent some time in Vanuatu working at the Port Vila Hospital under the Australian aid program. He’s very well known to us and his expertise is recognised around the world. His dive partner, Craig Challen, is a vet from Perth and he was also part of the rescue team. It ended up being 20 Australian personnel all up, including the six Federal Police divers, the Navy clearance diver, and members of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade crisis rescue team.
HAMISH MACDONALD: Have you spoken to Dr Harris throughout any of this?
JULIE BISHOP: No I have not, he’s been on site. I’ve been maintaining contact with our Ambassador Paul Robilliard and our team in the embassy in Bangkok, and sending on messages of love and support and cheering them on every step of the way.
HAMISH MACDONALD: Would you like to see some kind of formal recognition for Richard Harris following this?
JULIE BISHOP: Well clearly, this has been an extraordinary team effort. We’ve been part of the Thai-led international effort. Dr Harris’ role has been quite extraordinary and I’m hoping that we’ll be in a position to thank all of our rescue team when they return to Australia.
HAMISH MACDONALD: In a formal way?
JULIE BISHOP: Indeed.
HAMISH MACDONALD: Okay. Let’s move on to another topic, politics in the UK is unfolding apace. A spate of resignations in protest over the Prime Minister’s Brexit plan. You’ve lost a jogging partner in Boris Johnson. Are you sorry to see him go?
JULIE BISHOP: I will miss Boris, he was a great counterpart. He was a very enthusiastic supporter of the Australia-UK relationship and we developed a close personal rapport. I spent quite some time with him during April, the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting in London, where we discussed regional and global challenges and I was delighted that he was showing a great interest in British involvement and engagement in the Pacific. Indeed, he announced the opening of three more UK missions in the Pacific during our visit there in April. I’m looking forward to working with Jeremy Hunt, the new Foreign Secretary who’s been announced by Prime Minister May. I hope to speak with him and meet with him as soon as possible and continue on the deepening of the relationship between Australia and UK and talk through some of these challenges, particularly Brexit and then the relationship that Australia will have with the UK in terms of increased trade and investment post-Brexit.
HAMISH MACDONALD: Boris Johnson will return to the backbench, he’ll be a powerful conservative voice there with very different views to the Prime Minister of the day, maybe nursing some leadership ambitions. I suppose that’s something you’ve observed at close quarters here in Australia. Any advice for Boris Johnson on how to handle those particular dynamics?
JULIE BISHOP: I don’t think Boris needs advice from anyone. He will continue to make a significant contribution to public life in Britain. He made an enormous contribution as the Lord Mayor of London and I’m sure he’ll continue on in public life making a contribution.
HAMISH MACDONALD: Maybe as prime minister one day?
JULIE BISHOP: He’s a remarkable person, I’m sure he’s ambitious, but he has a different point of view regarding Brexit and I think that’s been obvious for some time now and he feels that it would not be appropriate for him to continue on in the role of Foreign Secretary while he has such a different view on such a fundamental foreign policy issue as Brexit.
HAMISH MACDONALD: You mentioned that Australia does have a stake here because obviously there’s this intention to build a stronger trade arrangement between Australia and the UK post-Brexit. If Britain is moving now towards a softer Brexit model, does that mean that there is less scope for the future trading arrangement between Australia and the UK if they’re observing this so called common rule book?
JULIE BISHOP: It depends how this plays out and a soft Brexit could just mean that it’s going to take longer for Britain to exit and then be in a position to enter into free trade agreements with other countries, notably Australia, but the details are yet to be worked out. Theresa May is expecting a white paper on the UK-EU strategy later this week and that will obviously guide the negotiating mandate that she will then take to the European Union negotiations.
HAMISH MACDONALD: Sure. But the [inaudible] planned that this whole crisis has unfolded around involves the terminology, a common rule book, that would be observed by the UK on the trade of goods which would mean that they’d be signed up to a lot of the current regulatory framework around importing and exporting goods from Europe which would limit what Australia could do if there were an attempt to make a stronger trading arrangement in the future.
JULIE BISHOP: It’s very early days. The negotiating mandate that the Prime Minister has is taken to the discussions with the EU. The EU may or may not agree with this, so it’s very early days and I don’t want to speculate on how Brexit will eventually turn out. Suffice to say that Australia is very keen to deepen our trading relationship with the United Kingdom, as we are with the EU and as you’d be aware we have commenced formal negotiations with the European Union for a free trade agreement between Australia and the EU and I’m hoping that the High Commissioner, Federica Mogherini - she’s the High Representative from the EU, the equivalent of the Foreign Minister - will be in Australia shortly and we will discuss the ongoing progress of our free trade agreement negotiations with the EU. So we, likewise, once Britain has exited the EU, want to conclude a free trade agreement with the UK, but it’s too early to say what Brexit will look like.
HAMISH MACDONALD: All of this is happening at a very interesting moment in Europe. Donald Trump is in Brussels today for the NATO meeting. He’s got a packed agenda on this trip. He’ll be meeting with Theresa May as well and then Vladimir Putin. But interestingly he says: I have NATO, I have the UK which is in turmoil and I have Putin. Frankly Putin may be the easiest of them all. How troubling is it for you to hear that from our close ally?
JULIE BISHOP: It depends what he’s looking for from President Putin. He will have difficult conversations with NATO, but that’s been flagged for some time because he’s calling upon the individual members of NATO to pay more for their own defence, to increase their defence budget, so that’s been a consistent theme of the Trump administration.
HAMISH MACDONALD: But meeting with Putin is easier than that? How is that possible?
JULIE BISHOP: Well it depends what you’re asking for from President Putin. If you’re not asking for anything from him…
HAMISH MACDONALD: Well, should he be asking for something from Putin?
JULIE BISHOP: Well, we certainly have issues with Russia and we certainly have issues with President Putin. I believe that Russia should be called to account and take state responsibility for the downing of MH17. We’re coming up to the fourth anniversary of the shooting down of Malaysian Airlines MH17, where 298 people were killed, including 38 Australians. I believe that Russia should be held to account for the presence of Russian manufactured nerve agent Novichok in the United Kingdom, which has now seen the death of a British citizen.
HAMISH MACDONALD: So, all of that sounds quite difficult. Are you concerned that Donald Trump is not going to be pushing Vladimir Putin on those matters?
JULIE BISHOP: Well, these are matters that I would raise if I were meeting with President Putin. The United States has its own foreign policy, its own priorities. We would urge the United States to not reward Russia for its bad behaviour and certainly not invite Russia back into the G8. I think Russia has many questions to answer, including its involvement with Syria, backing the Assad regime and its use of chemical weapons. There are a number of matters that I would certainly raise with President Putin.
HAMISH MACDONALD: Fair to say that you’re troubled by Donald Trump’s approach to this meeting with Vladimir Putin?
JULIE BISHOP: We don’t know yet what the President intends to raise with President Putin. We know what he’s going to talk about with the NATO partners because that’s been flagged for some time, but I’m not aware of the specific issues that President Trump wishes to raise with President Putin and no doubt that will all be made public very soon.
HAMISH MACDONALD: And very briefly, is there, in your view, any substantive risk that the US will abandon NATO? Trump, of course, described it as obsolete during his campaign.
JULIE BISHOP: I would certainly hope not. I see it as integral to peace and stability on the European continent. NATO has played a significant role in maintaining peace and stability. It is an upholder and promoter and defender of the international rules-based order, which is very much in Australia’s national interest, and so I would hope that the United States would see the benefit of NATO. Of course things can be changed and yes, NATO members can bear more of the defence burden that the United States has been shouldering for so long, and I think NATO members are responding to that.
HAMISH MACDONALD: Julie Bishop, thank you.
JULIE BISHOP: My pleasure.
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