ABC AM Program, interview with Michael Brissenden

  • Transcript, E&OE
01 September 2014

PRESENTER:Australia's military engagement in Iraq increased dramatically over the weekendwith an RAAF C-130 engaged in a joint aid mission with French and Britishforces. RAAF transport aircraft are also due to land in Kurdish occupied areasof Iraq to deliver weapons to Kurdish fighters currently battling Islamic Stateforces. It's the most substantial Australian military involvement in Iraq sincethe ADF withdrew in 2008 and the Prime Minister hasn't ruled out an even greatermilitary role. While the Opposition supports the increased military engagement,the Greens and some of the independents want a parliamentary debate. JulieBishop is the Foreign Minister and I spoke to her earlier.

JULIE BISHOP: the Prime Minister says more involvement is possible in Iraq ifstrict conditions are met. Our involvement does seem to be increasingincrementally but significantly shouldn't this be put to the Parliament fordebate and approval?

JULIE BISHOP: We will adopt theusual convention of past governments, and that is that the government of the dayhas the ultimate responsibility for making decisions involving our military.There is an opportunity to debate the issue in the Parliament, but governmentsof both sides have always adopted a convention of making the decisions inrelation to military activity. I'm thinking of the Hawke Government in theoriginal Gulf War. So, we will do what has always been done.

MICHAEL BRISSENDEN: There's every chance of course that a request willcome for us to be more involved for a more direct military engagement. How willthat be greeted?

JULIE BISHOP: Well, the situation inIraq does represent a humanitarian catastrophe – a potential genocide – and weare currently helping protect innocent civilians against a wave of atrocity andwe can't stand by while people are being slaughtered by this terrorist groupISIS that does have amongst its members a number of Australian citizens.

Currently we're being asked to be involved in a humanitarian relief effort.We're being cautious about our involvement. There has to be a clear andproportionate role for Australia and I believe that there is and the overallpurpose is humanitarian.

So, we have made a full assessment of the risks, we certainly take advicefrom our defence and intelligence experts. Of course there are risks and theseare being carefully weighed, not only by Australia, but by all of the nationsinvolved.

MICHAEL BRISSENDEN: But a broader military engagement is possible?

JULIE BISHOP: We are responding to aspecific request by the United States on behalf of the Iraqi Government. We'vebeen requested to help transport stores of military equipment, including armsand munitions as part of a multi-nation effort and this operation is beingcarried out with the approval of the Iraqi Government. We will continue tocoordinate our efforts with the government of Iraq, United States, and regionalcountries. But our response is to a specific request and there has been norequest beyond this.

Each time we are asked to do something we will of course weigh the risks,consider the role that Australia can play, and determine whether or not it'sclear, proportionate, and in pursuit of a humanitarian outcome.

MICHAEL BRISSENDEN: Ok. Have we left all this a little late? Shouldn'tthe US and its allies like Australia have moved against IS sooner?

JULIE BISHOP: Well, we have beenproviding humanitarian support for quite some time now. We have been seeking tostop Australians becoming involved in this conflict by travelling to Syria andIraq to take part in the conflict on the part of this brutal, barbaric terroristorganisation ISIS. United States Secretary John Kerry is now calling for aglobal coalition to use all of the resources and tools available – political,military, diplomatic, intelligence, and moral arguments – to challenge ISIS andits genocidal vision at every turn.

I believe that Australia has a responsibility, particularly given that thereare Australians involved in fighting with ISIS. Indeed, I understand that thereare Australians who figure prominently in the leadership of this barbaricterrorist organisation.

MICHAEL BRISSENDEN: Now, part of our mission is to deliver weapons toKurdish fighters who are fighting IS. What guarantees can you give that the PKKfor instance – another proscribed terrorist group in Australia that operates inKurdish areas – won't get their hands on those weapons?

JULIE BISHOP: Our aim is to make thePeshmergas strong enough so that they can defend themselves. That currentlyisn't the situation and we have been asked to help transport stores of militaryequipment so that the Peshmerga are strong enough to defend themselves. Theinitial international relief effort of airdropping supplies to thousands ofpeople stranded on Mount Sinjar, in Northern Iraq, has been a success so theRAAF will now conduct further humanitarian missions to ensure that the Peshmergacan defend themselves.

MICHAEL BRISSENDEN: I guess the point is once you put more weapons intothe system there's no guarantee is there necessarily where they're going to endup?

JULIE BISHOP: Michael, there arealways risks, but as I said we've been weighing these carefully, not onlyAustralia, but all of the nations involved and we want to ensure that the peoplecan defend themselves in the face of the most brutal and barbaric attacks – thebeheadings, the crucifixions. The bigger risk is to do nothing. The Peshmergacurrently can't defend themself against ISIS. If the world stands by and doesnot help them we could see mass killings on a terrible, horrific scale.

MICHAEL BRISSENDEN: The United Kingdom over the weekend raised itsthreat level – terror threat level – because of its increased involvement in theconflict in Iraq. Is the same likely to happen here?

JULIE BISHOP: We are in closecontact with the United Kingdom about the threat from terrorist groups active inSyria and Iraq and the risk from returning foreign fighters.

Our national terrorism public alert system remains at medium. That means aterrorist attack could occur in Australia. The level is under constant review bythe Government based on advice that we receive from our security andintelligence services and agencies. Our overriding concern is to take allnecessary steps to keep Australia and Australia's interests safe.

MICHAEL BRISSENDEN: Is it your view though that our increasedinvolvement does increase the risk here?

JULIE BISHOP: I don't see it thatway. That's certainly not the advice that we've received from the heads of ourintelligence agency.

MICHAEL BRISSENDEN: Just quickly on the other big matter of conflict inthe world at the moment which is obviously the Russia/Ukraine crisis. NATO ismeeting later this week and I understand you're going to be at that meeting.What do you make of President Putin's warning that it's best not to mess with usand him pointing out that fact that Russia is a significant nuclear power?

JULIE BISHOP: President Putin shouldbe condemned for threatening anyone with the fact that Russia is a nuclearpower. We're already deeply concerned about the dangerous escalation of Russianactivity inside Ukraine's borders and for him to refer to Russia as a nuclearpower is provocative. There are credible reports showing Russian combat soldiersequipped with sophisticated heavy weaponry operating inside Ukraine. This iswithout the agreement or the consent of the sovereign government of Ukraine andthe activity appears to be moving to a wider area of Ukraine than previouslyaffected.

So, all of this points to the use of force by Russia. This is a flagrantbreach of Ukraine's sovereignty, a blatant violation of the UN charter, and so Iwill be discussing Russia's behaviour at the NATO meeting with the other allies,partners, and countries who are represented there.

MICHAEL BRISSENDEN: President Putin also says that potential statehoodfor Eastern Ukraine must be part of any negotiations about any peacefulsettlement. Does anyone else agree with that?

JULIE BISHOP: Not that I've heard.It seems that President Putin is on his own in this regard. Ukraine is asovereign nation and Russia has breached territorial integrity.

MICHAEL BRISSENDEN: And have you been speaking to any other worldleaders or foreign ministers about President Putin coming to the G20 and do youthink that's going to come up at all at the NATO meeting?

JULIE BISHOP: I am sure this willcome up at the NATO meeting. A number of G20 countries will be represented thereand a whole range of options concerning Russia's behaviour and President Putin'sbehaviour in particular will not doubt be canvassed. But I think the focus inthe first instance will be on further sanctions that have been contemplated bythe EU, the US, and others. And most certainly Australia is closely monitoringthe situation with regard to sanctions and we will take action if we believethat our stance can help make a difference and send a very strong internationalmessage of condemnation to Russia.

MICHAEL BRISSENDEN: Julie Bishop, thanks very much for joining us.

JULIE BISHOP: It's been my pleasure.

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