2UE Mornings - interview with Tim Webster

  • Transcript, E&OE

TIM WEBSTER Goodness me there is some bad news around but very happy to say our Foreign Minister is on the line.

Good morning.

JULIE BISHOP Good morning Tim.

TIM WEBSTER What a year you've had. Do you ever feel like you're in a pinball machine where the flippers are going wildly?

JULIE BISHOP It certainly has been a challenging year for Australia and for a number of countries around the world. I recall when I was at the UN Security Council just last November it was pointed out that the world is facing a larger number of security and humanitarian crises than at any time since the Second World War and indeed we've got more peacekeeping or peace-building missions around the world than at any time in the 75 year history of the United Nations, so it's been a very challenging year.

TIM WEBSTER Yes it has. I'm thinking you've probably had more exposure on the international stage than certainly I've seen in a very long time, than any other Australian Foreign Minister, so it must be demanding for you.

JULIE BISHOP Well there is a lot of travel involved and Australia is some distance from parts of the world where some of the action takes place, but much of my focus has been on the region throughout the year, on Papua New Guinea, the Pacific, South East Asia, so while some travel took me to New York for the Security Council or to the Netherlands or Ukraine in relation to the shooting down of Malaysian Airlines Flight MH17, I've also spent a lot of time in our region building relationships here in our neighbourhood where it matters.

TIM WEBSTER On MH17, and I'm sure there's much you can't tell us about your conversations and negotiations with people like Vladimir Putin and dealing with all of that, but it is so difficult, it must be, to be diplomatic all of the time when you must be feeling extremely angry about some of these situations.

JULIE BISHOP There's a time to be diplomatic and there's a time to be very firm and I think that we proved in relation to MH17 that Australia was prepared to stand up for its citizens and do whatever it took to act in their interest and I think that getting the United Nations Security Council to unanimously support a resolution to give full backing for an impartial investigation into the shooting down of MH17 showed that Australia was a voice to be reckoned with. That was an extraordinary resolution. I think it was a landmark. It's the first time that I'm aware the UN Security Council resolutions had been used to achieve such an outcome.

TIM WEBSTER Yeah, look, as a broadcaster I've been saying to my listeners over the last couple of weeks it's just been so tough, you just feel like you're being belted from pillar to post. Do you wake up every morning wondering what's next?

JULIE BISHOP No, I wake up every morning very much looking forward to the day. I know that what I think I have planned for the day is unlikely to turn out that way, and sometimes the news is exceedingly positive, sometimes the news is very bad, but I do know that when my phone rings early in the morning, very early in the morning, it's unlikely to be good news. But even just in the last couple of days this QZ8501 AirAsia flight, of course meant that my Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade and the Prime Minister's office and the Defence Department were all working to ascertain whether there were any Australians on board, whether there were any permanent residents or dual nationals, and we're still checking on any links between passengers on that flight and Australia.

But there's another example where Australia is not directly involved but it's in our region, of course we are a good neighbour and we lend a hand and provide support and assistance when its required as we are doing in relation to the search and rescue operation for this AirAsia flight.

TIM WEBSTER Ongoing of course, early hours in the morning there. Yes I think we love the fact Australians, that we do get involved and help it's the sort of people we are. Now, god there's so many things to talk to you about. Ebola, we're certainly not out of the woods with that are we?

JULIE BISHOP The Australian-funded treatment centre has commenced operations in Sierra Leone. That was being built by the British. They completed that in December so it began operations on the 14thof December. I understand so far we have treated 16 people at our centre. There are about 26 Australian healthcare workers who have completed in-country training and they are there. A further 38 have completed training in Canberra and they are on their way. I know there are at least four who are probably arriving as we speak. So we've got support teams there, we're doing what we can. We're investing about $45 million in the Ebola outbreak plus the $40 million that Australia provided this year to the World Health Organisation.

I think it's been a substantial but proportionate response on Australia's part and we're also focussing on ensuring that the health systems of nations in the Pacific are bolstered so that should Ebola come to this part of the world our health systems are in a position to deal with it.

TIM WEBSTER We've got that person with Ebola in Glasgow taken to London and the way we travel internationally we'd be foolish to think that this disease isn't going to make it around the world because it will.

JULIE BISHOP That's why it's so important to try and manage it at its source. Currently Sierra Leone, Liberia, Guinea are the three main West African nations affected and so that's why so much effort has been put in by the United States, Great Britain, Canada, Australia, France, others to ensure that it can be managed and hopefully repressed at its source.

TIM WEBSTER Yes, apart from all the major incidents, and god knows there's been enough of them, domestic problems like getting young Kalynda Davis out of a prison in China and I'm sure there's many of these cases involving your role that we're just not aware of but I mean how far can you go about trying to continue to persuade Australians to behave in a proper manner overseas?

JULIE BISHOP There is a significant amount of work done behind the scenes, a significant amount of work that doesn't come to the attention of the media for very good reason. Often Australians can be in trouble overseas and its best to work quietly to assist them without bringing it to the attention of the media because it won't assist their particular circumstances.

We have an extremely professional and competent consular and diplomatic service in Australia. I think our diplomats are among, if not, the best in the world and our consular service is absolutely outstanding, our consular officials go above and beyond the call of duty time and time again. There are many matters where Australians do get in to trouble because of their own stupidity, because of their failure to take into account that they're in another country and they are subject to the laws of another country. It can be because they didn't take out travel insurance, a whole raft of things.
This year we launched a new consular strategy to give Australians a better idea of what the government can and what the government can't do for them when they travel overseas and my message to everyone is - if you can't afford travel insurance you can't afford to travel.

TIM WEBSTER Yeah don't go, exactly. And of course again on the front pages today awful headlines like 'Bankstown to a bloody death' a continuing issue we have with the Islamic State, another Australian killed fighting the cause. And many Aussies do think, and you'd have to tell them to be dissuaded from this view, that you just say well ok tear up their passport, if you go over there we don't care, but there are issues with that aren't there?

JULIE BISHOP This is a very complex issue and in fact 2014 really saw the advent of these foreign terrorist fighters, Australian citizens going overseas to fight with a terrorist organisation – ISIL in Iraq and Syria, not only putting their own lives at risk but adding to the misery and suffering of the people in Iraq and Syria. We saw for the first time Australian suicide bombers, young Australians blowing themselves up at a checkpoint in Syria killing 35 people, another one blowing themself up in a market and killing three people, this is just so inconceivable that young Australians would feel that was a better outcome for their life rather than living in Australia.

But in relation to people travelling overseas, if they do become radicalised in Australia and then go overseas and fight with these terrorist organisations there is a risk that they'll come back as battle-hardened, experienced terrorists, they've been working with an organisation, they've learnt the trade, the techniques and we know from experience that people who have become experienced terrorist fighters overseas do try to come back to their home country and carry out terrorist attacks in their home country.

We saw it in Afghanistan when a number of Australians, about 30, trained with Al Qaeda in Afghanistan, about 25 of them came back to Australia, about 19 were involved in one form or another with terrorism activities. So when you think that we've got at least five or six times that number, we estimate in Syria and Iraq, then that poses a real risk, a real present danger, and that's why we nominate this as our number one national security issue at present.

TIM WEBSTER Oh absolutely, you can't say it but I can, they are just murderous bastards is what they are and then they've killed 200 of their own for trying to escape or not wanting to fight anymore. It's just a hideous situation.

You probably know about this but we're just learning on the newswires ourselves that Monash University in Melbourne are 'deeply saddened'. They've learned one of their students is on board that AirAsia plane. He's an Indonesian Kevin Alexander Soetjipto and on a student visa here and he was travelling with his relatives so that's just too sad.

JULIE BISHOP We are still seeking to verify the details but we understand that one person on that flight had a student visa to study at Monash but I can confirm as we've been saying that there were no Australian citizens, or dual nationals or permanent residents on board. We've been checking to see if there have been any linkages between passengers and Australia and it seems that there may well be one with a student visa.

TIM WEBSTER Now this is a terribly unsavoury subject but I've got to address it with you. We're learning that a girl is reported to have been taken from her home in Brisbane to undergo female genital mutilation in Africa. Now the AFP have confirmed they've received a referral to investigate this but what do you do in that situation? If someone's travelling to Gambia and have a passport to have that barbaric practice done what can you do?

JULIE BISHOP If we don't know why they are travelling it's virtually impossible for us to take action. If somebody just presents with a passport and they are heading off overseas and we have no evidence to provide us with any cause to prevent the person leaving, then of course that happens. I mean people are free to travel on an Australian passport if they have a valid passport.

This is why it's so important for families or relatives or people in the know to let authorities know and this equally applies to foreign terrorist fighters. I mean the families are the first port of call for those who notice changes or differences in their children or relatives, whether they are being radicalised, their behaviours change and then all of a sudden they are going off overseas. Well it's the families we need to hear from if there are such matters occurring, a girl leaving for overseas for this brutal, barbaric practice or whether its people leaving for overseas to take up with terrorist organisations.

TIM WEBSTER Yes, indeed. Now just before I let you go, this issue of women in politics, women in government departments, I applauded, many did, your response to being lumped in with the feminist agenda. Surely you want women in politics, don't you? But my thoughts have always been most women I know wouldn't do it to themselves, you do and good on you for doing it!

JULIE BISHOP It's the most challenging and wonderful career I ever could have thought of, I'm loving what I do. I feel very privileged to be Australia's Foreign Minister and I'm certainly enjoying every moment of it. Of course it has its challenges but anything worth doing has challenges.

I of course encourage women to come into politics at every level, whether it be at local government, or state or federal. It's not always easy trying to manage the competing obligations and responsibilities and choices that people might have but I want to see more women in politics.

I was delighted that Sussan Ley has been appointed a Federal Cabinet Minister, delighted to have her. She's a highly competent and talented Minister now, and going to make a fabulous Cabinet Minister for Health, I know. So I hope that we are able to mentor more women to take on political roles. I think it's important for women's voices to be heard.

We have taken some pretty high profile positions in relation to gender equality and protecting women and girls affected by conflict. Overseas, Australia is renowned for the work that we're doing to protect women from sexual violence during conflict, the work that we're doing to promote gender equality in the Pacific, the work that our Ambassador for Women and Girls Natasha Stott Despoja is doing. So we do have a good record internationally and we need to ensure that women receive every opportunity to fulfil their ambitions and potential here in Australia.

TIM WEBSTER I'd like to see more. You tend to have more common sense than us blokes. Now you seem to have been around the entire holiday period, haven't taken a break at all. Any chance you might get a glass of bubbles on New Year's Eve?

JULIE BISHOP I just might do that - but only one.

TIM WEBSTER Oh go on have two.

JULIE BISHOP Well you never know. Yes I am on call, a number of my colleagues have taken time off and I've agreed to act for them. It's not a chore by any means, I've quite enjoyed being on top of the events of the day and being involved, even if I am meant to be taking it a little more slowly over the break but it's good to be at least on board so I know what's going on around the world.

TIM WEBSTER Yes, great to talk to you. Let's all hope it's a better, calmer, quieter and less violent start to 2015.

JULIE BISHOP Let's hope for a brighter 2015 for everyone in Australia and I wish your listeners all the very best for 2015.

TIM WEBSTER And to you, thanks for joining us.

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