ABC Insiders - interview with Barrie Cassidy

  • Transcript, E&OE

BARRIE CASSIDY: Now we're joined from the ASEAN Summit in Sydney by the Foreign Minister Julie Bishop. Minister, good morning. Welcome.

JULIE BISHOP: Good morning, Barrie.

BARRIE CASSIDY: Can we start with the domestic politics before we get onto foreign policy matters and South Australia first, a state where you grew up. What do you think brought about change this time when they fell short in three previous elections?

JULIE BISHOP: Steven Marshall led a very united and talented team. He had substantial policies that he'd been rolling out for a couple of years now and I believe he'll make a very good Premier for South Australia. After 16 years of Labor, the State was going backwards and Steven Marshall focused on job creation, economic growth. Labor also made it a referendum on energy policy and under their experiment South Australia had the highest energy prices in the country and the most unreliable supply. And so now, Steven Marshall had made it clear that he'll work with the Turnbull Government, support our National Energy Guarantee that aims to deliver affordable and reliable power, and from my time in South Australia, I know the issue of electricity prices and the unreliability of supply through blackouts was a major issue.

BARRIE CASSIDY: And in Batman, do you give any credit to Bill Shorten and Ged Kearney for sort of stopping in its tracks really, this decade long trend now towards the Greens advancing the in the inner cities?

JULIE BISHOP: It might have been a relief for Bill Shorten but it's not cause for celebration. Batman was Labor heartland, it was one of their safest seats, it has been for over 80 years. I remember in 2010, Labor got 75 per cent of the two party preferred. It's now a marginal seat. I think the issue, of course, of Bill Shorten's duplicity came to the fore, when he'd say one thing to the coal workers in Queensland supporting the Carmichael mine, and then say the exact opposite opposing the Carmichael mine when he was addressing the voters in Victoria. So that became quite evident. And I also believe that his unfair policy – hitting retirees and pensioners – would have played a part as well. I mean Bill Shorten brushes it off as just a few privileged people; in fact it's 1.2 million retirees and aged pensioners and I'm sure their families are very worried about how their parents and grandparents are going to cope should Labor ever become a government in this country and hit them with this unfair policy that takes away their savings.

BARRIE CASSIDY: But he won the seat, he won the seat with a very low turnout – 74 per cent. The Liberals deliberately didn't run, because they felt that would help the Greens' chances and defeat Labor and yet this policy that you just mentioned, doesn't this suggest, given that Bill Shorten won against the odds, that it might fly afterwards, that it's not political poison?

JULIE BISHOP: Well, in fact, I think the infighting amongst the Greens enabled Labor to get over the line; otherwise it would have been a much worse result without doubt, but I make the point again. This was Labor heartland, this was one of their safest seats – 75 per cent two party preferred – now it's a truly marginal seat for Labor. So I wouldn't be taking great credit if I were Bill Shorten for this outcome.

BARRIE CASSIDY: Well, in terms of the contest against the Greens, it was 1 per cent, so it's a very tight contest. But what does it say about the Kill Bill strategy, is that working?

JULIE BISHOP: Well, I think Bill Shorten's digging his own grave in that regard. This unfair policy against retirees and pensioners is going to have a real impact, I believe, as people understand that 1.2 million people will be worse off under Labor's policy.

BARRIE CASSIDY: Alright, just on the ASEAN conference now and you just get the impression that China and China's influence overlays much of the discussions. Is that the reality and is this group so diverse that it really can't reach consensus on things like the South China Sea and maritime issues generally?

JULIE BISHOP: Well, in fact the meeting has been marked by a very high level of good will towards Australia in particular. We're seen as a very reliable partner. We're seen as engaging genuinely in the region. In fact our New Colombo Plan – where we support Australian undergraduates to live and study in countries in the region – is very popular, it's had a profound impact; about 13,500 Australian students have been studying and living in ASEAN countries under the New Colombo Plan.

They are all sovereign nations and they pursue their own particular national interest and in relation to China, they engage deeply with China on trade, as do most countries around the world, but they also engage closely with other major economies. For example, while China might be their largest trading partner, the United States and the European Union are by far the largest sources of foreign direct investment. So, the ASEAN nations pursue their own national interest, but also collectively, they see this association as a means of pursuing economic growth, social development and peaceful progress amongst them all.

BARRIE CASSIDY: But just on China, the new US ambassador, Harry Harris, has told a committee hearing in Washington, that China is leveraging military modernisation in the region. They're using predatory economics to try and coerce some of these countries and draw them in. Do you see it that way and is that what you say to these Southeast Asian nations?

JULIE BISHOP: The leaders of these Southeast Asian nations are very clear-eyed about their own interests and they will pursue their national interests, as they should, very, very carefully and very clearly. China is a source of infrastructure funding for them, as are other nations, and so they are engaging closely with China. In relation to the South China Sea, they are seeking to negotiate a code of conduct with China and they're making some progress. Australia's position has been consistent on the South China Sea. We're not a claimant, but we reject any unilateral action that would create tensions and we want to ensure that freedom of over-flight and freedom of navigation in accordance with international law is maintained and the ASEANs all back that same position.

BARRIE CASSIDY: Alright. On Russia and the poisoning of the former Russian spy in Britain; where did this nerve agent come from? Are you convinced that it did come from Russia and if that is the case, what can and should be done about that?

JULIE BISHOP: Well first, the global implications of this are quite profound. Russia is a permanent member of the Security Council and has been accused by another member of the Security Council – the United Kingdom – of deploying an illegal chemical weapon – a banned nerve agent – to carry out an assassination in the United Kingdom. Russia has a particular responsibility as a member of the Security Council to uphold international peace and security. Furthermore, Russia is a party to the Chemical Weapons Convention and under that Chemical Weapons Convention, all chemical weapons should have been declared and it would appear that this nerve agent has not been declared. In fact, Russia's program developing this nerve agent has not been declared.

So there are obligations on Russia to get rid of any chemical weapons and most certainly it should have declared what it was doing with this program. There is no other explanation- no other plausible explanation as to where this nerve agent came from. Either Russia was behind the attempted assassination, or it has lost control of this previously undisclosed stockpile of nerve agent.

BARRIE CASSIDY: Annika Smethurst's story this morning suggested that you want weapons inspectors to go into Russia. Can you do that and have you got Britain on side on this?

JULIE BISHOP: Annika's story is absolutely correct. Under the Chemical Weapons Convention, one state that suspects another state of having illegal chemical weapons can seek these inspections and Britain certainly has the right to do that and they are aware that we would support them should they go down that path.

BARRIE CASSIDY: And Britain now of course expelled 23 diplomats, now the Russians have done precisely that – 23 British diplomats have now been… Is this just tit for tat and if that's the case, does Britain need to do something even beyond that?

JULIE BISHOP: Well, this is a situation that cannot be allowed to continue. One cannot have a permanent member of the Security Council, or indeed any country, anywhere, anytime, deploying illegal chemical weapons. And so clearly Britain is within its rights to take action as it has done with expelling diplomats. Russia typically retaliates, but I have been in constant communication with Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson and Australia is most certainly considering what other options would be available.

BARRIE CASSIDY: Alright, one final issue. Peter Dutton has raised the prospect or perhaps the desire to pay special attention in terms of visas to white South African farmers, who he says are being persecuted. Are they being persecuted?

JULIE BISHOP: Australia does monitor the rate of violent crime in South Africa and there has been a dramatic increase in recent years. Last year there were about 19,000 murders in South Africa and that's a very high number for a country of that size. We do have a Humanitarian Visa Program. If any person feels they are persecuted, then they can apply to Australia for a humanitarian visa and that would be considered on its merits and I believe that's what Peter Dutton's referring to.

BARRIE CASSIDY: But the South African Government seems offended by that description.

JULIE BISHOP: Yes, it has been reported that our High Commissioner was called in by the South African Government in Pretoria and our High Commissioner explained our Humanitarian Visa Program.

BARRIE CASSIDY: Do you think though that these white South African farmers should go to the top of the queue, given that- is their plight any worse than say the Rohingya's in Myanmar?

JULIE BISHOP: Our program is non-discriminatory and each application is considered on its merits and that's appropriate.

BARRIE CASSIDY: Alright, so no special attention? No special attention to any particular group.

JULIE BISHOP: I believe the humanitarian programs' credibility comes from the fact that it is non-discriminatory and that each application is assessed on its merits. That's been the case under the Turnbull Government and as far as I'm aware, there are no plans to change that visa program.

BARRIE CASSIDY: Alright and just beyond that. What do you make of his argument that South African farmers would make better citizens than other persecuted peoples? Where is the evidence that they would be less dependent on welfare that they would integrate better than other groups?

JULIE BISHOP: Well, clearly each case has to be assessed on its merits. On the question of farmers in South Africa; we do raise our concerns about land reforms that the South African Government has been implementing and we want to ensure that those land reforms don't lead to tensions or indeed violence. And so we have made our concerns known to the South African Government in relation to land reforms more generally.

BARRIE CASSIDY: But you don't accept that they as a general rule, they would make better citizens than anybody else who was in this situation?

JULIE BISHOP: Well, I'm not going to start generalising. There are many South Africans in my own electorate of Curtin and they make a great contribution to life in Australia; as do so many immigrants from all around the world. They make an incredible contribution to the peace, stability and prosperity of our nation.

BARRIE CASSIDY: Julie Bishop, thanks for taking time away from the summit, appreciate it.

JULIE BISHOP: My pleasure

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