FRAN KELLY: Marise Payne, welcome to Insiders.
MARISE PAYNE: Good morning, Fran.
FRAN KELLY: Minister, at a time of a rising and assertive China here in our region, why is Australia signing up to yet another US-led mission in the Middle East?
MARISE PAYNE: Fran, we have a very strong interest in de-escalating the tensions in the Middle East. We have had a long and enduring presence as part of the combined maritime force. We're on, I think, our sixty-seventh or sixty-eighth rotation of an Australian frigate in the Middle East. And endeavouring to support a de-escalation process in this particular maritime security construct is, I think, an appropriate and reasonable thing for Australia to do.
FRAN KELLY: A lot of people with a lot of experience are worried about this. The former Chief of Army Peter Leahy is one of them. He asked, what's our mission and what does success look like? He's concerned of mission creep.
MARISE PAYNE: So, our mission is those factors that I've identified. Absolutely supporting freedom of navigation, which we articulate in relation to our own region and more broadly, de-escalating the tensions that exist there and supporting the safety of commercial shipping. These are all in Australia's interests as a strong trading nation, which relies enormously on the movement of goods across our oceans, and those oceans need to be safe and to be free.
FRAN KELLY: Sure, but are we being drawn into something else here beyond our control? Because, from America's point of view, this freedom of navigation task force is part of its campaign of maximum pressure on Iran. Part of the point of that is to try and eradicate the Iranian nuclear deal, which Donald Trump doesn't like, he's pulled out of it. Australia supports that Iranian nuclear agreement, so why are we joining these freedom of navigation taskforce exercises if we're being part of America's maximum campaign of pressure against Iran? Aren't they contradictory?
MARISE PAYNE: Well, they're in fact quite separate…
FRAN KELLY: [Talks over] Well, separate or not…
MARISE PAYNE: …This maritime security engagement with Britain, with Bahrain, with United States, now with Australia is about de-escalating the tensions in the Middle East…
FRAN KELLY: [Talks over] Not much of a coalition, really.
MARISE PAYNE: …and I think the number of participants will grow, but of course those are decisions for individual countries. But you said something not within our control. These things are within our control, Fran. The Prime Minister has set out a very clear, well-delineated period of time in which this engagement will take place. The P-8 for a month later this year and, commencing in January, a frigate for a period of six months. We always manage these things in our own national interests and in relation to our own national security and we will continue to do so in this case.
FRAN KELLY: Does Australia support America's maximum pressure campaign on Iran?
MARISE PAYNE: Well, we have a very good working relationship with the Iranians, we talk to them regularly. We have an embassy in Iran, which is something that not very many other countries are able to say, and it's an important engagement for us…
FRAN KELLY: [Interrupts] So that's a no?
MARISE PAYNE: So, we are very focused on supporting our national interests. Those issues for the United States are ones for them but we are supporting our national interests, advancing our national security, as Australians would expect their government to do.
FRAN KELLY: As I said, Australia supports the Iranian nuclear agreement that America has pulled out of. Scott Morrison will meet, we're told, Donald Trump on the sidelines sometime of the G7 summit. Will our Prime Minister push the US President to get back to the negotiating table, to re-engage with Iran on this nuclear deal? And does this kind of signing on to the maritime coalition, does that give us any more clout in that?
MARISE PAYNE: Well I'm not going to speculate on all of the content of the conversations that the Prime Minister and the President might have. I'm sure they will be wide-ranging. And I'm personally hoping to see Iranian Foreign Minister Zarif at a conference in Bangladesh early next month, which is also an opportunity to continue our talks.
FRAN KELLY: But does Australia make the case, when you have the AUSMIN talks, do we make the case that America should re-engage with this Iranian nuclear deal?
MARISE PAYNE: Well, America will make its own decisions in that regard and they have. And as you've alluded to, Australia reviewed our perspective on the JCPOA last year and concluded that, for the parties, it was addressing the purposes for which it was developed...
FRAN KELLY: [Talks over] So we're at odds with America on this?
MARISE PAYNE: …It's a nuclear policy, it's not an Iran policy, though, and I think it's very important to be clear about that.
FRAN KELLY: But we are at odds with America on this point?
MARISE PAYNE: Well, I wouldn't say we're at odds. Every country makes their own decisions, Fran, and just because we're not making a similar decision doesn't mean we're at odds.
FRAN KELLY: Is the bigger question here, though, in terms of the announcement of this deployment, why not keep our focus on the region? To quote Peter Leahy again, former head of Army: our priorities are stronger here at home. Why shift our gaze right now?
MARISE PAYNE: Well I'm respectfully not necessarily agreeing with Peter Leahy on this matter. We are very much able to engage in this international maritime security construct and do the work we already do in the region. For example, we're up to our third or fourth Indo-Pacific Endeavour Task Force in recent years. They are comprehensive naval engagements across the region, the most recent one focused on the Indian Ocean, but prior to that on the Pacific Ocean.
We are more than capable of engaging in this particular de-escalation process, which supports freedom of navigation, which is so fundamental to this region, absolutely fundamental to this region. So, freedom of navigation needs to be prosecuted in a way that supports Australia's advocacy of the rules-based global order and our international engagement.
FRAN KELLY: But is there a contradiction going on here? I mean, Vietnam, where the Prime Minister's just been, is under extreme pressure right now from China in its waters in the South China Sea. It wants stronger strategic and military support from Australia and other countries there. But we continue, I presume this is still our position, to say no to joining freedom of navigation exercises there in the South China Sea, at the same time as we're signing on in the Middle East. Why?
MARISE PAYNE: Well, we regularly prosecute the case, as you know, for freedom of navigation and freedom of over-flight in the South China Sea and more broadly. We are very strong partners in defence and a number of other areas of course with Vietnam. It's been an enormously successful visit by the Prime Minister to Vietnam. They are taking up a chair on the Security Council next year, they are the chair of ASEAN next year and they are strong regional leaders, and we're watching that relationship go from strength to strength.
FRAN KELLY: Okay. The Prime Minister released a strong statement about the region in Hanoi this week. I'm just going to read a little bit of it. He said: If we allow the sovereignty or independence of any of our neighbours to suffer coercion then we are all diminished. And later, in the joint communiqué with Vietnam he expressed serious concern over land reclamation and disruptive activities. He didn't name China directly, in fact he resisted it when questioned. Minister, who else is doing the coercing in our region and these disruptive activities in the South China Sea? If it's not China, who is it? And if it is China, why not name it?
MARISE PAYNE: Well, there are a number of claimant states throughout the South China Sea to various aspects of the area, and we don't take a side on any of those debates. But we do encourage all of those who are part of this region to operate according to international law, for example the Convention on the Law of the Sea and the arbitration decision that was issued through the Convention. We advocate for the strongest engagement in that regard. We have spoken previously about our concerns on the militarisation of disputed features. We've raised those issues consistently, Fran, and I think the Prime Minister's statement was consistent with that…
FRAN KELLY: [Talks over] And the concerns are about China. So when we talk about if any of our neighbours are suffering coercion, is it coercion from China that he's referring to?
MARISE PAYNE: Well, there are a number of countries engaged in the region, Fran…
FRAN KELLY: [Interrupts] Engaged in coercion?
MARISE PAYNE: Well, I'm not going to adjudicate on every single country's actions. But what I will say is it is in our interest to pursue security, to pursue stability, to pursue protection of nations' sovereignty and rights, and that's the role that Australia plays.
FRAN KELLY: Others here have singled out China on a range of fronts, including some backbenchers like Andrew Hastie, that's been well-discussed. Former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd spoke just on Friday of the dangers of, quote, yellow perilism, amongst conservative MPs. As Foreign Minister are you worried about the tone of some of the debate here?
MARISE PAYNE: Well, I think that Australia preserves our freedom of speech, our freedom of expression proudly as a basic right in this country, as a basic right in our democratic process. Former Prime Ministers, former Ministers, former leaders in a range of ways will continue to make comments on their views, perhaps not necessarily with a careful eye to history if they've engaged in their own commentary in the past. But my colleagues and other members of parliaments around the country will exercise their freedom of expression, and I think we should speak openly but we should also be careful and respectful in the way we do that.
FRAN KELLY: So you're not concerned about the tone?
MARISE PAYNE: I think the tone of the debate in Australia- it's an important debate to have and an important discussion to have. We should not be afraid of a legitimate discussion but we should always be respectful and careful.
FRAN KELLY: The Prime Minister said earlier this week that the relationship between China and the US and the tensions there keeps him awake at night. He must be having nightmares right now, I should think, after those Donald Trump tweets over trade tariffs with China the other day. What's our message to Donald Trump on this? Quit it? Or does our Government agree that China needs to be brought to heel around trade and the trade rules?
MARISE PAYNE: Well, I think the Treasurer in the remarks that you aired earlier put it very well in terms of encouraging both to come to the table. America is acting in their own national interests and we've identified areas where we agree with them, for example forced technology transfers and intellectual property theft. They are very concerning aspects of activity between America and China. But most importantly we think there is capacity for coming to the table and having that discussion, for resolving their concerns around the rules that exist through the WTO. We've also acknowledged that some of those rules obviously need updating and review, and that's a matter for the organisation and for its participant members. But most importantly, sitting down, trying to determine a path through, is important not just for the United States and China, but indeed for the world.
FRAN KELLY: Sure is. You're off to PNG today, Minister. Relations with our Pacific family sort of soured last week at the Pacific Island Forum. This week China accused Australia of behaving like a condescending master in the Pacific. How did things go so badly awry with our neighbours? This is our direct sphere of influence, this is what we're meant to be taking care of. And right now these Pacific leaders are calling Australia condescending, arrogant, deaf to their existential threat of climate change. Pretty funny way to implement things.
MARISE PAYNE: I absolutely don't accept the premise of your question. I've been travelling…
FRAN KELLY: [Talks over] They're not saying those things?
MARISE PAYNE: …I've been travelling comprehensively in the region for years now and particularly this year following our swearing-in after our re-election. You're correct, I am going to Papua New Guinea today to lead a Ministerial delegation which is the twenty-seventh Australia-Papua New Guinea Ministerial Forum, a long and deep and historic relationship. Six Ministers in our party, which is one of the largest in recent times.
I met on Friday with Foreign Minister Regenvanu from Vanuatu, who was here in Australia for an event concerning Australian south sea islanders. And I talk regularly with my counterparts across the region…
FRAN KELLY: [Interrupts] But did you listen or read the papers and read those comments from the Pacific leaders in the last week?
MARISE PAYNE: Certainly I have, but that does not mean that the whole situation, as you say, has gone so badly awry. These relations are deep and they are strong. Occasionally there are robust conversations. I absolutely acknowledge that. But it doesn't mean that our engagement across the region, whether it's in the context of the new Australian Infrastructure Financing Facility for the Pacific, for example. The infrastructure need in this region is enormous and one in which Australia is very keen and positive about playing a part. That is one area in which we engage. From my perspective, obviously in health and in education and in other aspects of development, they're also important. I've been meeting regularly with my counterparts, I meet with Ministers across the region all the time.
FRAN KELLY: Okay, Minister, back to China and an issue I know you have been engaged in, in the Uighurs particularly the Australian toddler Lutfy. He and is mother are banned from leaving China. It's five weeks since you asked China to release Lutfy and his mother to come here to Australia. Has China agreed to that request?
MARISE PAYNE: Not at this point in time, Fran. And it is difficult for us because we don't necessarily get consular access to dual citizens in the same way as we may in other countries. So we continue to seek support for them to travel to Australia.
FRAN KELLY: Are you personally engaging in this? Will you personally take this up with Chinese counterparts?
MARISE PAYNE: I have already had those discussions, Fran.
FRAN KELLY: And any encouragement on that front?
MARISE PAYNE: Not as yet, but certainly an undertaking to look into the issues surrounding their position in China, and I would very much like to see them able to travel to Australia.
FRAN KELLY: The protests in Hong Kong yesterday, they turned violent again. We've all seen images of Chinese paramilitary forces training and gathering in neighbouring Shenzhen province. Are you concerned that China, the People's Republic, will move into Hong Kong and force the breakup of these protests?
MARISE PAYNE: We are very concerned about any violence breaking out on the streets of Hong Kong and we've encouraged the authorities to respect peaceful protest and we would continue to do that. We are obviously speaking regularly with our consul-general in Hong Kong and she is in direct contact with leading Australia-Hong Kong organisations. For Australia this is a very important part of the world. It's one of our largest international diaspora, about 100,000 Australian-Hong Kong people there, a huge financial centre of course. But most importantly we see the success of one country, two systems - it's given Hong Kong the autonomy that it has to operate so well and to be such a rich and vibrant community - as very, very important in our region. So we do encourage authorities to respond appropriately and proportionally and to avoid violence, and in fact to the protesters to also avoid violence.
FRAN KELLY: And what about here at home? Are you concerned at pressure from pro-Chinese students and others against the pro-Hong Kong demonstrators here in Australia? Is your view the universities and others are doing enough to protect the protesters?
MARISE PAYNE: Well, I've been very clear about that. That violence against pro-Hong Kong protesters is completely unacceptable. It's unacceptable in Australia and it's not something which we will tolerate.
FRAN KELLY: Just finally, and on another issue, Minister, you're also the Minister for Women. In your home state of New South Wales the Parliament's debating a bill on decriminalising abortion. The Liberal Premier Gladys Berejiklian was asked on 2GB if she would ever have an abortion. Is that an appropriate question to ask any woman publicly, let alone a female Premier?
MARISE PAYNE: I don't think it’s appropriate to ask anyone publicly, male or female, about sensitive health questions like that. It's not okay.
FRAN KELLY: Do you support the intent of this bill, which is to take abortion out of the Crimes Act?
MARISE PAYNE: Well, it's a matter for the New South Wales parliament, Fran, but I do think it's appropriate for that matter to be decriminalised in New South Wales, yes.
FRAN KELLY: Minister, thank you very much for joining us.
MARISE PAYNE: Thank you.
- Minister's office: (02) 6277 7500
- DFAT Media Liaison: (02) 6261 1555