2UE Mornings, Sydney - interview with Stuart Bocking

  • Transcript, E&OE

STUART BOCKING: Minister, good morning.

JULIE BISHOP: Good morning Stuart.

STUART BOCKING: Thank you for your time. How would you describe your feelings personally, as much as anything else about this tragedy now, one year on?

JULIE BISHOP: Well today we are going to remember each and every person who was killed aboard that flight, all 298 innocent lives lost and we continue to grieve with the families and friends. It is incalculable to imagine their loss, their grief is overwhelming and I think the suffering inflicted on all families is beyond comprehension. As you say, it was a commercial airplane, in commercial air space flying from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur and through a cruel twist of fate it was shot down over Eastern Ukraine.

I remember the moment when I was told very clearly, as if it were yesterday, but today we continue to grieve with the families and friends of those lost aboard that flight.

STUART BOCKING: When you first heard news of this was it via Twitter, the media, do you a special line in foreign affairs? Where did the news first come from?

JULIE BISHOP: I was called by my media adviser very early in the morning of the 18th of July, so that was the 17th of July in Europe. But it was 2am, 3am I can't recall but we immediately sprang into action because of course our Embassy in the Netherlands and our Embassy in Kuala Lumpur had been alerted and our consular staff were on to the case immediately trying to ascertain whether any Australians were on board. By the time they rang me they were able to confirm that all 298 passengers and crew had been killed and they believed a number of Australians were among that number and as the day unfolded the news became even more grim as we learned the full extent of this tragedy.

STUART BOCKING: It was hard to believe the circumstances given that earlier in the year Malaysian Airlines had lost MH370, and that to this day remains a mystery, then of course MH17. From your viewpoint, involved with foreign affairs, given how many Australians travel you must be always fearful when things occur overseas that Australians may be among the victims.

JULIE BISHOP: We have a very experienced and dedicated consular staff who are constantly busy looking after Australian's interests overseas. Australians are great travellers. We are adventurous, we conduct business around the world, our students travel around the world, so Australians use airplanes I'd say as much as any other comparable country. And we have to travel long distances around the world so airline travel is just part of our way of life.

That's why this incident was so tragic because it had an impact on people's perceptions of civil aviation and the safety and security around it. And that's why Australia has worked so hard, and will continue to work hard to find out precisely how this happened, why it happened and who is responsible and then hold them to account.

STUART BOCKING: What is the process in terms of doing that? I know again the Prime Minister has been out this morning talking about the missile having come from Russia but both you and he were very forthright early on, there was some terrific work done at the United Nations. But how do we move this forward now to try and bring those responsible to account for what they did?

JULIE BISHOP: You will recall that about 12 months ago, on the 21st of July, about four days after the shooting down of the plane, we were able to secure a unanimous UN Security Council resolution that called for a ceasefire of the conflict in Ukraine, called for an independent investigator to be allowed onto the site, and those investigations have been taking place. We expect the final report of the investigations to be released in October and I'm expecting that to identify how it happened, why it happened and who is responsible.

So we have called on the UN Security Council to establish an independent, International Criminal Tribunal to try those responsible for crimes connected to the downing that occurred with MH17 and we are in the process of working through each member country of the Security Council, the permanent five, as well as the temporary members to get their support for the setting up of an ad hoc criminal tribunal. This happened in the past in relation to other crimes and atrocities – Rwanda, former Yugoslavia. So we are working very hard to secure support for the establishment of such a tribunal. It is the least we could do for the families who are still grieving the loss.

STUART BOCKING: I would imagine, this video which has been released by News Corp this morning, I'll just play a little part of what they have unveiled:

[Audio clip of video]

As they are combing through wreckage not long after the plane is brought down you hear them identifying nationalities, that one is Australia. I'm assuming that sort of video evidence could be critical. I know they've done their best to try and hide their faces, but that sort of information could be very useful in putting a case together.

JULIE BISHOP: Well Stuart, I can't verify the authenticity of that video footage. It is sickening to watch. I felt quite revolted this morning viewing it but I'm assuming that footage is forming part of the independent investigation and that that will be part of the evidence that the investigators have drawn upon in compiling this report. But as I say, I don't know the authenticity of it, or the providence of it, but it is most certainly consistent with all that we were told 12 months ago about how this crash occurred.

STUART BOCKING: It is one thing to imagine things can go wrong from time to time with air travel. It seems to me though for many of the families of the victims it's the circumstances here of how this happened that just make it even more gut-wrenching than it otherwise would be.

JULIE BISHOP: That's right, the circumstances of this crash and the consequential suffering inflicted on all families is beyond comprehension. I've been in contact with my Foreign Minister counterparts in the Netherlands, Malaysia and other countries over the last few weeks as we seek to have the Security Council agree to establish this tribunal. And the grief and the suffering in countries where citizens were lost is continuing, particularly in the Netherlands where almost 200 citizens were killed. I was in the Netherlands again this year and it is such an issue of raw emotion in that country. Indeed here in Canberra today, where I believe about 200 family members and friends will be here for this national memorial service I'm sure the grief will be palpable.

STUART BOCKING: You are doing a reading as I understand today and there is also the unveiling of a plaque.

JULIE BISHOP: That's right. There will be the unveiling of a plaque by the Prime Minister with the names of all those aboard that flight who called Australia home, that is the citizens and residents of Australia and that will happen in the formal gardens of Parliament House and then there will be a service in the Great Hall. The Governor General, the Prime Minister and others will be present and there will be some short speeches and then we will meet with the families and friends who have gathered here afterward and I'm sure it will be a very emotional day.

STUART BOCKING: We know hundreds were killed but it seems from an Australian viewpoint the faces of those victims, very much the three Maslin siblings – Mo, Evie and Otis – there is a foundation now in their honour. We know they'd been travelling back with their grandfather Nick Norris on board that fateful flight. You've had a lot to do with the family. They were from Western Australia, as you are. The parents Maz and Rin, how are they holding up? Are they attending the service today?

JULIE BISHOP: No, Maz and Rin won't be there today but they have asked me to read some words to the gathering and I will do that in the hope the gathering finds comfort in those words. I've remained in contact with Maz and Rin, as you say, they were from Perth, they are actually in my constituency, their three children went to school within my electorate. I don't think anybody will forget the faces of Mo and Evie and Otis and their grandad Nick. And for a family to lose four members, including three beautiful young children, is almost unbearable to think about. But they have been incredibly strong and resilient and brave and courageous from the moment they first learned of it. I remember speaking to them when I was heading to New York 12 months ago and that was one of the first phone calls I made to the families affected and I'll never forget that phone call. It was just heartbreaking to speak to them at that time but they are very strong people and I think the love they have for their children and their father will endure.

STUART BOCKING: I wonder how you even start a phone call like that Minister?

JULIE BISHOP: You just have to do it. It is part of the job I had and we had to reassure all of the Australian families that the Government would do whatever we could do to bring the bodies and remains of their family members home and we made a promise to them all that we would do whatever we could to bring the family's home and we did that.

There are still two bodies to be identified but they are from the Netherlands, so all Australians on board that flight have been identified and their bodies and remains have been bought home. So we fulfilled one aspect of it but there is still so much more to do and we owe it to the families to seek justice for them for the loss that they've suffered.

STUART BOCKING: Well I'm sure they take a great deal of comfort knowing people like you are in their corner and you will continue to work through the United Nations with the Dutch and many other countries to try and bring these creeps to justice because clearly there have been attempts in the aftermath to cover up for what was some sort of mistake, whether they did think they were targeting some sort of military craft or not who knows, but they got things horribly wrong.

JULIE BISHOP: Well that's right. According to the advice we had at the time, and I've not seen anything that contradicts this, the plane was shot down by a surface-to-air missile from within Eastern Ukraine in territory held by pro-Russian separatists and the video footage that has been released today, assuming that it is authentic, certainly paints a very grisly seen and people must be held to account for these actions.

STUART BOCKING: Well I appreciate your time this morning and it will be a very moving tribute too, with the unveiling of the plaque and the service. Appreciate your time and wish you well this morning.

JULIE BISHOP: Thank you Stuart.

STUART BOCKING: All the best to you.

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