14 August 2009
Interview: ABC Radio 774 Melbourne, Mornings with Jon Faine
Topics: Plane crash in PNG; Stern Hu, Australia's record on international human rights; and the Secretary of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade.
JON FAINE: Stephen Smith is the Minister for Foreign Affairs in the Rudd federal Government. He's the man with any number of big issues on his portfolio, not least a reshuffle of his own departmental heads, but let's start with the stories of the day. Stephen Smith, good morning.
STEPHEN SMITH: Good morning, Jon.
JON FAINE: What's the latest information about Kokoda with retrieval of bodies a high priority?
STEPHEN SMITH: The advice I have overnight and early this morning from our High Commissioner, our officials, is that retrieving the bodies from the site continues to be very difficult. Overnight or yesterday three bodies had been retrieved from the actual plane.
There are reports or suggestions of a fourth but rather than if you like, do a count, we just know it's going to - it's very difficult work in very difficult conditions and retrieving the bodies from the site, getting the bodies either to Kokoda and then to Port Moresby is going to take time.
Weather conditions have been difficult and deteriorate in the course of the day so it's going to be painstaking work, I suspect, for a number of days yet.
JON FAINE: Is it a matter of sending in more helicopters or more ground troops or rescue recovery people?
STEPHEN SMITH: Not so much troops. We tried yesterday on a couple of occasion to get a Black Hawk helicopter close and to either drop people at the site or to have them rappel down on ropes. Weather conditions didn't allow that.
There's about 50 Papua New Guineans there working very hard to clear a helicopter pad so that they can land directly in the vicinity but at the moment it's not so much the inability - it's not so much the presence or absence of a helicopter pad it's just the weather conditions preventing them from landing.
One of our helicopters took off very recently from Port Moresby so we'll see - from Kokoda sorry - so we'll see whether it's possible to get more people in but it's not so much troops but just people who can assist with the recovery of the bodies from the site.
The formal victim identification will take place in Port Moresby itself when the bodies get there.
JON FAINE: Is the Government able to assist with families if they want to go? Some do, some don't.
STEPHEN SMITH: We've been in constant touch with the families through our consular officers in Canberra. A number of the families have said that they don't propose to go to PNG.
Some have said they're thinking about it and we've said to them that if they do decide to go, we'll facilitate their travel and of course we'll give them every assistance on the ground in PNG, but it's really a matter for the families to determine whether they want to go or not. Some have made it clear they don't, some are thinking about it.
JON FAINE: And there'll be some more about that this morning I'm sure and at the same time news is emerging that because of the problems with airlines and the main airline that flies people in and out of Kokoda, flights are suspended and there are people stuck who can't get out. What can you do to help Australians who are stuck?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, there are two things. Firstly PNG Airlines have suspended their flights from Port Moresby to Kokoda for a few weeks until September. They are continuing their flights elsewhere through PNG and also they fly to Cairns and Brisbane but they have suspended the Port Moresby-Kokoda flight.
We've been chasing up urgently this morning the suggestion that there's 50-odd Australians stuck in Kokoda or on the track itself and we've got no information to suggest that that's the case.
We've spoken to the Kokoda Track Authority. We're going to have people on the ground in Kokoda some time this morning as an Airforce Caribou arrives. Our enquiries to date suggest to us that that's not the case, but given the circumstances surrounding recent days and the tragic events, obviously we're chasing it up very quickly but I've got nothing to base that suggestion on.
JON FAINE: If people are stuck, if it turns out the media reports are correct, what do you do to help them?
STEPHEN SMITH: We'll do everything we can to help either get them to Kokoda or get them out of Kokoda.
JON FAINE: Helicopters?
STEPHEN SMITH: Let's take it step by step. Currently we don't have any advice and I've raised it with our High Commissioner this morning. We don't have any advice or information which would suggest that that report is true. So we'll take it step by step.
JON FAINE: To turn to other matters, Stephen Smith, the Minister for Foreign Affairs, is my guest this morning in the studio. China has downgraded the charges against mining executive Stern Hu. There's much commentary about this. Has this come as a result of diplomatic approaches from Australia?
Do you claim some credit for this?
STEPHEN SMITH: No I don't. I don't claim credit and whether our representations have been cause and effect or coincidence, you know, time may well tell. I think the very important thing is that he has been now formally arrested which the term under Chinese law, formally arrested and the arrests and the charges, or potential charges against him, are now under the criminal law of China and they clearly relate to commercial matters including allegations of bribery.
JON FAINE: It's no longer espionage.
STEPHEN SMITH: That's right.
JON FAINE: It's no longer spying.
STEPHEN SMITH: The Chinese law takes a much broader view of state secrets or national security than we would so when, in the first instance, we saw references to state secrets, under Chinese law that can be what you and I would, and Australians would, instinctively believe as national security information, espionage, spying, but their law also includes notions of commercial information, so they have a much broader view of it.
So, the initial suggestions were that he'd been detained for investigations for stealing state secrets. That's been narrowed as we've gone to stealing state secrets, not in the espionage or spying area, but in the commercial area. And now we're very clearly in the commercial area as they relate to iron ore negotiations.
That's a good thing because we've narrowed it. It's also a good thing from his perspective because the potential penalties are lesser under the criminal law than under the state secrets.
JON FAINE: Writing in The Australian newspaper today, Labor, can I say, activist, Michael Danby, who chairs one of your senior policy committees…
STEPHEN SMITH: He's very active, but he's also one of our Members.
JON FAINE: He's one of your Members, he's on your side of politics. He says you have to remember, China's not a normal country, it's under one-party rule, and he says our policies must not be to appease China, we have to stand up for standards that we believe in ourselves.
STEPHEN SMITH: Which we do. China has a different system from us and, as I've made the point on a regular basis, with respect to any country that Australians travel to, when you go to another country you are subject to their laws and their practices and their procedures.
JON FAINE: Sure, but has our government been restrained in its approaches to China because we're appeasing them?
STEPHEN SMITH: If we were adopting that approach, which we're not, then we wouldn't have been making the strong representations we've been making in respect of Stern Hu from the moment we were advised of his detention and, for example, you wouldn't have seen Rebiya Kadeer here in recent days in Melbourne itself and in Australia. So we conduct ourselves in a manner which reflects our national interest, but which also reflects our views, our values and our virtues. Which is one of the reasons why, for example, in the case of Stern Hu, we've been saying despite the fact that under Chinese law he's not entitled to legal representation until he's been formally arrested, and he now is under Chinese law entitled to legal representation, we've been arguing that he should have been given legal representation previously.
So we make these points, but what we do need to very clearly understand is that he is now engaged in a legal, a criminal legal process under Chinese law, and we have to conduct ourselves in accordance with that and make our representations and put our views in a manner which seeks to maximise his best interests under that system.
JON FAINE: Why don't we make more of a fuss about international breaches of human rights, whether it's China and the Uighurs, or Tibet, or whether it's Burma, or the torture of prisoners, protesters for democracy in Iran? A shocking state of affairs emerging from that country. I'm not aware of us making loud protests publicly or behind the scenes. Why don't we?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, you obviously haven't been watching or listening, Jon. We as a country…
JON FAINE: With respect, I have.
STEPHEN SMITH: We, as a country, under parties of both political persuasions, make representations - strong representations - about human rights.
JON FAINE: Well, they're not strong enough, is the point I'm making.
STEPHEN SMITH: No, the first point you made is we hadn't made them. In the case of Iran, we have made those points. In the case of China, we have a regular human rights dialogue with China.
JON FAINE: Have you called in the Ambassador from Iran and said these reports of rape in prisons against protesters for democracy are completely unacceptable?
STEPHEN SMITH: I have made representations to the Iranian Foreign Minister myself about human rights matters. Our officials make representations to Iran about human rights matters. I gave a speech in Canberra the other night about nuclear disarmament and the Iranian Ambassador leapt to his feet in protest at the sternness and strength of my views about what I believed Iran was doing. So whether it's Iran, whether it is China, whether it is Burma, whether it is Zimbabwe, we make these points strongly and robustly. On Burma, on Zimbabwe, Australia has been at the forefront of taking these issues up in the international community so, you know, I simply don't accept either historically, or under the current government, that your analysis is right.
JON FAINE: All right, well, that's a strong response and now we - maybe it's that the media doesn't give a high enough profile to some of the matters you're bringing to our attention today, which is good that we have a chance to explain what is going on, that maybe doesn't get reported.
And just finally, Stephen Smith, Kevin Rudd yesterday announced a reshuffle and one of the biggest casualties was your departmental head who it seems is being - oh, put out to pasture, is that too strong a description of what's happening to him?
STEPHEN SMITH: I certainly wouldn't use that expression. Michael L'Estrange is a very fine public servant. He's served governments of both political persuasions. He's been Secretary of the Department for four-and-a-half years which is…
JON FAINE: So why has he been moved?
STEPHEN SMITH: Because the Government came to the conclusion that it was time to make a range of changes through our public sector. Michael may continue in public service or he may not. We're in discussions with him about a job that we'd like him to do. But he's been a High Commissioner to London, he's been head of the department for four-and-a-half years. Very importantly, he saw the transition period through. He saw the Government come to office, he had a new government, a new Minister, and the work that he did in that period, the last 18 months, has been very valuable for the Government and very valuable for Australia.
JON FAINE: But did you want him to go?
STEPHEN SMITH: We came to the conclusion that the time had come for a change in a range of areas. We've got a new head of our overseas security service, ASIS, we've got a new head of the Department of Defence. There are a range of changes.
There's only one thing that's certain in public policy and public administration and that is change is certain, and there are a range of changes which we think are very good. Our Ambassador to the United States, Dennis Richardson, will come back in the course of the next few months to head up the department. That'll be a good thing.
That that requires that we look to appoint a new Ambassador to the United States, so we'll do that in due course.
These changes always occur.
It is important though, I think, to mark the substantial contribution that Michael L'Estrange has made to foreign and public policy.
I've enjoyed very much working closely with him. He'll decide whether he wants to continue in public service or to do other things, but he's had a distinguished career which may continue. He's made a substantial contribution.
JON FAINE: So substantial that he's in fact been moved but you've made your point there. Stephen Smith, thank you for joining us this morning.
Foreign Minister's office (02) 6277 7500