19 March 2009
ABC2 Lateline Business: Interview with Ali Moore
ALI MOORE: It wasn't so long ago Dubai was being hailed as the boom economy of the Middle East, with one quarter of the world's cranes once said to grace the Dubai skyline. Now, though, as the global financial crisis unfolds, it's a very different story. And as the Dubai economy is hit, so, too, were the fortunes of thousands of foreign workers, including many Australians, at least two of whom were involved in one of the biggest property developments just months ago, but are now languishing in prison over allegations of bribery. Marcus Lee from Sydney and Mathew Joyce from Melbourne were working for the Dubai Waterfront project, a subsidiary of the Dubai Government owned Nakheel Development Corporation. They've been in custody since January, with no word on if or when they'll be charged. Foreign Minister Stephen Smith travels to Dubai on Monday and he joined me from Melbourne a short time ago. Stephen Smith, welcome to Lateline Business.
STEPHEN SMITH: Thanks very much.
ALI MOORE: Before we look specifically at the case of Mathew Joyce and Marcus Lee, how many Australians are currently in detention in the United Arab Emirates over fraud allegations, do you know?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, we've got on our books about 15 Australians who have come into contact with the United Arab Emirates legal or justice system. There are a couple that are high profile and we're paying particular attention to those. But of the 15 to 20,000 Australians who live or work or transit for some period of time through the UAE, it's in relative terms quite a small number.
But because of the extensive now business industry, commercial links between Australia and the UAE, we have been putting our minds to what we can do together, Australia and the UAE, to improve our consular arrangements and also to make sure we have a much better and clearer understanding of the legal and judicial process so we can pass this on through our travel advice to Australians who go there.
ALI MOORE: I want to have a look at that in a minute, but if we can turn specifically to Mathew Joyce and Marcus Lee, they've now been held since January 25. I understand that just this week they were taken out of solitary confinement, though they're obviously in custody. Their Melbourne lawyer says they're not getting any feedback from the prosecution about the nature of any potential charge behind allegations of bribery and, as I said, you're in Dubai next week. What is your understanding of the nature of the investigation?
STEPHEN SMITH: One of the problems that we encounter with the UAE system is that under their system, investigations can be ongoing before prosecution, before charges are actually laid. So the experience there is that people have been held and are held in detention for what Australia would regard as a relatively long periods of time prior to charges being laid and trials being conducted. This is one of the things that we need to very much draw to attention. When Australians go to a different country, they are, of course, bound by the legal and judicial processes of that country.
We have been making representations on behalf of Mr Joyce and Mr Lee, effectively since they were first detained, both in terms of their welfare and also in terms of the processes. I've raised it personally by phone with my counterpart, Foreign Minister Abdullah, and when I'm in the UAE on Monday, when we formally meet, this is one of the issues I'll draw to attention. But also in the context of the wider consular arrangements that we have, we're going to establish a bilateral consular arrangement between Australia and the UAE to make sure that Australians are much more familiar and aware of these aspects, which from our own eyes or under our own system, we would regard as differences or deficiencies.
ALI MOORE: But against the backdrop of the legal assistance, how much assistance can you really provide?
STEPHEN SMITH: The assistance we can provide is not just consular assistance, when someone is detained and there have been 20 or 30 contacts or representations or approaches made on behalf of these two. But very often the best advice we can give is prevention rather than cure, which is why we publish our travel advisory, we draw attention to the different cultures and the different systems and the need for Australians to respect the judicial and legal processes of another country. But why we're now moving to, if you like, a different level and trying to formalise some of these things and draw them to the attention of the UAE administration and also draw it to the attention of Australians, is we now have so much more traffic between Australia and the UAE.
ALI MOORE: Well indeed, you talked initially, Minister, you talked initially about 15 people being involved. You're concentrating on these two, why are you concentrating on these two?
STEPHEN SMITH: We're concentrating on these two because these two have come to attention in recent times. We've been giving them assistance from day one. That's not to say that we are neglecting the others. We provide similar consular assistance to them.
From time to time when this occurs people don't want publicity or attention. There are also privacy arrangements and requirements which necessitate us being discrete about these things rather than publicly using a megaphone about it. But this is one which has come to public attention in Australia and we're doing our best to assist. But it is one example where it has persuaded us that we need to try and put our consular arrangements between Australia and the UAE onto a better level and the objective of that is to try and prevent Australians from getting into trouble so that we don't deal with these cases on an ongoing basis. As I say, we've got something like 600 Australian companies operating in the UAE. At any given moment there'll be anywhere between 15 and 20,000 Australians there.
So the number who fall into difficulty or get into trouble is quite small. But for each of the individuals concerned, it is of course potentially a life changing event, which is why we discharge our responsibilities by assisting them as best and as much as we can.
But we are always limited in what we can do when an Australian citizen does fall within the legal and judicial processes of another country.
ALI MOORE: Stephen Smith, many thanks for talking to Lateline Business.
STEPHEN SMITH: Thanks very much.
Foreign Minister's office (02) 6277 7500