Australia-Ukraine Parliamentary Friendship Group

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Good evening everyone. Thank you to the Ambassador, the Chairman of the Australian Federation of Ukrainian Organisations, Chris Crewther Chair of the Parliamentary Friendship Group, deputy chair Senator Catryna Bilyk, Deputy Secretary Gary Quinlan, Sir Angus Houston, and the members the Australian-Ukraine Parliamentary Friendship Group.

This Parliamentary Friendship Group will no doubt build on the political connections between our two countries. It will enhance our engagement with the Ukrainian members of Parliament and the Ukrainian Government, but it will also assist in deepening and strengthening the people-to-people links which exist between Australia and Ukraine, particularly given that we have almost 50,000 Australians of Ukrainian descent, and I know a number of them are here this evening.

The Australian Government has deepened its ties with the Ukrainian Government. Yes, we have opened an embassy in Kiev and Melissa O'Rourke is our new ambassador there, and I'm sure you'll make her feel very welcome, as I hope we make you feel welcome here, Ambassador.

Importantly, Australian and Ukraine share similar values. We are steadfast in our support for Ukraine against Russian aggression. We are steadfast in our support for Ukrainian sovereignty and your territorial integrity. We have joined like-minded countries imposing sanctions on Russia, we have refused to recognise its annexation of Crimea, and we will continue to work with Ukraine as it seeks to realise its aspiration of being a free and open liberal democracy, an open market economy that can trade with the European Union and the rest of the world, and its people are free to travel and can live free from fear and violence.

Our relationship with Ukraine deepened in a way I could never have imagined. We found ourselves at the fulcrum of Russian-Ukraine tensions. I will never forget the phone call in the early hours of the 17th of July 2014 when I was informed that a Malaysian Airlines flight, MH17, that had left Amsterdam heading for Australia had been shot down over eastern Ukraine.

In the hours that followed, we learned that all 298 passengers and crew on board had been killed. It turned out that 38 of them were citizens or residents of Australia. Over the next few days the Australian people, the Australian public service, the Australian Government came together as we do in times of crisis. On the Friday – the following day – I recall vividly that not only did I speak with the Dutch Foreign Minister because of course The Netherlands lost over 190 people, but I also spoke to the foreign ministers of other grieving nations.

As fortune would have it, Australia was then a member of the Security Council. By Friday afternoon the National Security Committee of our Government had met, I had called in the Russian Ambassador – because by that stage we had been reliably informed that the plane had been shot down by Russian-backed separatists. It's a view that I continue to share to this day.

The next morning I was on my way to New York, to the United Nations via Washington, to receive some helpful briefings from our friends. I want to pay tribute tonight to Gary Quinlan and the extraordinary effort that our UN team in New York did over the next few days. By the Saturday we had a draft resolution, by the Sunday we were negotiating that resolution with the permanent and temporary members of the Security Council. By the Monday we were able to secure a unanimous vote for a resolution condemning the shooting down of the plane, and giving international backing to access – to what was essentially a warzone. And Gary, I think it was a record. I think it still stands to this day that we were able to get a unanimous resolution on such a controversial topic in such a short time.

The Foreign Minister of The Netherlands and I flew to Kiev because of course we then had to gain the permission of the Government of Ukraine for our federal police to access the site in eastern Ukraine to recover the bodies and commence an investigation. This required a vote of your Parliament, and while President Poroshenko and the Prime Minister and the Foreign Minister could not have been more accommodating, the fact is your Parliament had gone on holidays. So we then found that we had to recall Parliament, and I ask my Parliamentary colleagues here to just imagine a foreign minister from another country turning up and saying "oh by the way can you get everybody back we've got a resolution we want your Parliament to pass."

Frans Timmermans and I acted like chief government whips. We went to every grouping, every Parliamentarian we could reach and begged them to get their members to come back to pass a resolution to give Australia, and other grieving nations, and the UN, the opportunity to access the site. And you might recall some of the appalling images on TV of the bodies and the belongings being ransacked.

I will never forget the vote when the wonderful members of the Ukrainian Parliament did come back from holidays and did support Australia and other nations at this time.

We didn't have an embassy in Kiev so we had to set up a temporary embassy. We needed a coordinator – and that was Sir Angus Houston. He came over to Kiev and in his typical military fashion ran our operations like clockwork. We had people from across the Australian public service, from our Defence Force, from our police force – a myriad of people – and Sir Angus and I became very close over those days. It was a very difficult and challenging time, but we said that we owed it to the grieving families to recover the bodies and hold those responsible for this atrocity to account.

Here we are years later, and Australia has continued to prosecute the case against those who were responsible for the deaths of 298 innocent people. We are a member of the Joint Investigation Team with Ukraine, Belgium, Malaysia and The Netherlands – and we are in the process of finalising the investigative reports. The Netherlands have stepped up to the plate and said they will conduct prosecutions in The Netherlands. So this is an ongoing connection between our two countries. Ongoing until we are able to achieve justice – but it has deepened our relationship in a way that means our close friendship will endure forever.

So I'm personally very touched by the fact that other members of Parliament want to ensure that our relationship with Ukraine continues to deepen. There are so many opportunities for us. Sure, you're a long way from here – but countries that are like-minded, that share values and aspirations, that believe in the international rules based order, must always stick together.

So, congratulations to Chris and Catryna on relaunching the Australia-Ukraine Parliamentary Friendship Group.

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