Australian Commonwealth Coat of Arms

Interview by Eleanor Hall with Foreign Minister Stephen Smith on ABC Radio's The World Today program

Topics: Australian woman in Yemen, Gaza flotilla incident, US President Obama's visit to Australia

Transcript, proof E&OE

3 June 2010

ELEANOR HALL: Minister first to the Yemen case. Can you confirm whether consular officials have visited these two young children within the last six days because the lawyer for their mother says that they've been fending for themselves for this period.

STEPHEN SMITH: Well that's not true. We've sent a consular official from Riyadh in Saudi Arabia to render assistance, consular assistance to the mother and to the children. And the children are currently in the care of a housemate.

The mother's wishes for her children are that they be cared for by family friends or preferably that they be returned to Australia.

ELEANOR HALL: Now the lawyer told us that a family friend was looking after the children initially but that for the last six days they have been there in the house by themselves. Have you had officials actually check them in that period?

STEPHEN SMITH: The advice I have is that that is not correct, that assertion is not correct, that they have been in the house in the care of a housemate. And consular officials have been in contact both with the mother and with the children.

ELEANOR HALL: How frequent is that contact?

STEPHEN SMITH: They've been, on my advice, in contact with the children on two occasions and in contact with the mother on numerous occasions.

ELEANOR HALL: But the consular officials haven't necessarily visited in the last few days?

STEPHEN SMITH: My understanding is in the last six days the consular officials have visited the children twice and have visited the mother on numerous occasions.

But what we want to occur is to respect the mother's wishes which is to allow the children to either be cared for by different family friends in the Yemen or preferably to be returned to Australia on their own passports.

We've made the point calmly but firmly to Yemeni officials that we see no reason why this should not occur and no reason why her wishes should not be respected.

ELEANOR HALL: And the Yemeni authorities are responding in what way to your calm and firm requests?

STEPHEN SMITH: Well they are giving it consideration and we continue to press them.

ELEANOR HALL: And so you're not actually getting an agreement at this point?

STEPHEN SMITH: The children continue to be cared for in the manner in which I have outlined. And we continue to press the Yemeni authorities and officials that we believe there are better options which more appropriately reflect the mother's wishes and we see no reason why those wishes should not be respected.

ELEANOR HALL: Now why did the Australian authorities cancel this woman's passport?

STEPHEN SMITH: I cancelled her passport on the advice of the Director General of ASIO on national security grounds. That was detailed by officials in Senate Estimates yesterday and I'm happy to confirm that publicly.

But I wouldn't be proposing to go into any of the details of that for all of the obvious national security reasons.

ELEANOR HALL: Can you confirm that Australian authorities passed any intelligence about her on to the Yemeni authorities and is that, this is what's being alleged by her lawyer, is that why she's been arrested?

STEPHEN SMITH: Well as I've made very clear in recent times in a different context, I never have conversations in public about national security matters in detail, in particular the operational aspects of those matters. So that is not an issue on which I would be drawn.

ELEANOR HALL: Do you know what she's being charged with?

STEPHEN SMITH: That is not an issue on which I would be drawn. She's been detained by Yemeni authorities. I'm certainly not proposing to go into any of the detail of the questions that you've asked me because that is my practice but it is also consistent with the longstanding practice of my predecessors of both political persuasions.

ELEANOR HALL: Stephen Smith now turning to the Israeli actions on Monday. Israeli authorities have released four of the five Australians. I understand you've just had a briefing from DFAT. What can you tell us?

STEPHEN SMITH: The two Sydney Morning Herald employees, Kate Geraghty, the photographer an Australian citizen, and Paul McGeough, an Australian permanent resident and Irish national, have in the last hour or so landed in Istanbul. They were met at the airport by Australian officials.

I'm told that they're well and they're now in the company of Australian officials. When they return to Australia will now of course be a matter for them but we'll continue to give them every consular assistance.

ELEANOR HALL: How much consular access did you have to these Australians when you were in Israel? Were there any restrictions?

STEPHEN SMITH: They were seen on one occasion. We had an undertaking that we would see them again but before that occurred they were, as with very many others, put on a plane to Istanbul.

So far as the other Australians are concerned, Mr Talib of course is recovering from his gunshot wound. He is in hospital. I'm advised that he won't be fit to travel for several days.

And one Australian woman has chosen to remain behind in a detention centre pending his fitness to travel and they will then travel together and leave Israel together.

The third Australian woman, we are currently awaiting her arrival in Istanbul. We have an official at the airport to greet her on her arrival which we expect to be in the course of the day.

ELEANOR HALL: Are you satisfied with the treatment of these Australians by the Israeli authorities?

STEPHEN SMITH: For the moment my concern is to make sure that the Australian woman arrives safely in Istanbul today and is met by officials. And then Mr Talib and the Australian woman who has chosen to remain behind effectively with him to travel with him, that they in several days' time also safely return from Israel.

What I'll then want to do is to have a very careful look at all of the detail of the consular arrangements and consular access. I'm certainly not critical at this time. We've been given access to all of the Australian nationals and to Mr McGeough, the permanent resident, even though there was no legal diplomatic requirement for that to occur.

ELEANOR HALL: Now overnight the UN Human Rights Council voted to send an independent international probe to investigate the flotilla raid. Does Australia support that?

STEPHEN SMITH: Australia's position is, as I've articulated over the last couple of days, as has the Prime Minister, we believe the appropriate response is for Israel to now conduct a credible and transparent investigation, to do that urgently, to put all of the facts out there with such an investigation and for that to be, as it will inevitably, the subject of scrutiny by the international community including in our view the Security Council.

ELEANOR HALL: Now the Israeli Government has not yet committed to any investigation. Are you disappointed that it hasn't done this yet?

STEPHEN SMITH: We believe it's in Israel's interests as well as the international community's interests for this to occur. When the Prime Minister spoke to Prime Minister Netanyahu he also made the point that he believed that Israel should move quickly to conduct such a transparent and credible investigation.

ELEANOR HALL: So when would you expect to hear about that?

STEPHEN SMITH: We would want Israel to do this investigation as quickly as possible. We don't believe it is in Israel's interests not to conduct such an investigation.

In the past Israel has said that it believes it has the structures within Israel in terms of its legal and judicial procedures and proceedings to conduct these investigations off their own bat, in their own way, under their own steam. And we believe that should occur.

ELEANOR HALL: Now in a national address overnight the Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said this flotilla was "not a peaceful operation" and I'm quoting here. He said it was a "terrorist operation". Your response?

STEPHEN SMITH: Well two things. Firstly Israel should put out into the international community its detailed assessment of these matters by conducting a credible and transparent investigation which can be the subject of international community scrutiny, firstly.

Secondly Australia's policy position for some time has been that there should be an easing of the blockade on Gaza to enable humanitarian assistance and aid to be delivered.

And the point I made to the Parliament that such an easing would hopefully avoid repetition of any of these terrible events into the future, bearing in mind of course that the only way we will solve these matters in a long-term and enduring way is to effect a peace between Israel and the Palestinian people through a two nation state solution.

ELEANOR HALL: Well the Israeli authorities have not yet produced any evidence publicly that there were military weapons on board the ships heading for Gaza or indicated in what respect it did pose a threat to Israel.

Have you had any information privately from the Israelis to support their claim?

STEPHEN SMITH: I make the same point. It is in Israel's interest to conduct an exhaustive, transparent, credible investigation of all of these matters to put their view of the facts and their assessment into the public domain to enable the international community to have scrutiny of such a transparent credible investigation.

ELEANOR HALL: Have you had any conversations with your Israeli counterpart about this?

STEPHEN SMITH: No I haven't had a conversation with Foreign Minister Lieberman about these matters. But obviously officials, Australian officials both in Canberra, in Tel Aviv and in New York have had discussions with Israeli officials, making our points known across the range of issues.

We have obviously been very concerned about the safety and wellbeing of Australians caught up in this so we have been very conscious of dealing diligently with Israeli officials over these consular matters.

ELEANOR HALL: Has your decision to deport that Israeli diplomat recently made it more difficult for you to deal with this situation?

STEPHEN SMITH: We have dealt with this situation as we have dealt with other situations, entirely in our view on their merits as we would in any event.

There have been a range of matters with respect to Israel that have occurred since the 25th of February when I made the passports issue public. And our approach to those has not altered in one way. We remain a longstanding and close friend of Israel. And we, on the passports matter, made our view known in a very crystal clear way.

I made the point that there may well be because of the passports matter some cooling off period but from our perspective it is very much business as usual and that is certainly the way in which we have conducted ourselves on this matter.

And in these difficult matters often it is your friends who can give you your best advice and our best advice to Israel has been, as I and the Prime Minister have indicated, not just directly to Prime Minister Netanyahu in the case of Prime Minister Rudd, but also publicly and privately.

ELEANOR HALL: Minister, on another matter there's talk that the US President may delay his trip to Australia because of the gulf oil spill. Can you confirm that Barack Obama is still coming to Australia this month?

STEPHEN SMITH: It's not my place to confirm anyone's arrangements other than my own. And of course the tradition in these matters is that when the White House press office publishes the details of the President's visit then everyone will know the arrangements. It's not for me to be confirming one way or the other.

ELEANOR HALL: When Robert Gibbs the White House spokesman was questioned about this he said he would have to check. That doesn't sound very definite. If the US President were to defer his trip for a second time would you regard that as a slight to Australia?

STEPHEN SMITH: It sounds like the White House press secretary is following the time honoured practice of not talking about presidential visits until the White House posts the details of the arrangements.

ELEANOR HALL: Would you regard it as a slight if the US President were to defer it?

STEPHEN SMITH: Absolutely not. We have indicated through the Prime Minister to the President that he is welcome to visit Australia at any time; that whenever it is a convenient time for him he will be welcomed not just by the Government but by the Parliament and the Australian people.

ELEANOR HALL: Stephen Smith thanks very much for joining us.

STEPHEN SMITH: Thanks very much.

Media inquiries