ABC News Breakfast - interview with Beverly O’Connor

  • Transcript, E&OE
02 January 2015

BEVERLY O'CONNOR Our Foreign Minister Bishop joins us now from Sydney. Many thanks for your time. Can I get your immediate assessment of this decision about a retrial?

JULIE BISHOP This is good news that Peter Greste's appeal has been upheld and the conviction has been effectively overturned. That means he's back in the position of an accused person awaiting a trial, rather than a convicted person facing seven years in jail. The law in Egypt has changed since Peter Greste was first detained, over 12 months ago. And there's now an opportunity for a prisoner transfer agreement. So there are more avenues, more options for Peter Greste, his family and his legal team to pursue.

BEVERLY O'CONNOR Let's start with that application that both Peter Greste has made, and Mohamed Fahmy, for deportation. How might that come about?

JULIE BISHOP The law is not very clear. It is a new law, but it does provide for a couple of options for prisoners to be transferred back to their home country, in this case, Australia. Peter Greste is now in the position of an accused person, so as I understand it, the law would operate such that he would come back to Australia to face legal proceedings in Australia. If he were still a convicted person under this new law, he would have to come back to face the same sentence. So there are opportunities that I'm sure Peter Greste's legal team will be pursuing today.

BEVERLY O'CONNOR Is there any chance that the case could be dismissed before any retrial because the charges may change?

JULIE BISHOP This is something that we will have to follow very closely. As it stands now, the appeal was upheld. It was a court of nine judges. It didn't take very long. Our ambassador in Cairo, our ambassador for Egypt, Ralph King, was present in the appeal hearing. He spoke to me last night and said it went for about half an hour, there was a recess, then judgment was handed down. A formal detailed written judgment will still be some days away and then steps will be taken to fix a retrial.

But in the meantime we'll continue to be engaged at the highest possible levels. I'm waiting for the opportunity to speak again with Foreign Minister Shoukry, the Egyptian Foreign Minister. We've spoken on many occasions about this matter. Our Prime Minister Tony Abbott has spoken to the President in the past. So we'll keep all of those avenues of engagement open while his legal team pursue the options and avenues available to them.

BEVERLY O'CONNOR Give us a sense of how difficult this diplomatic dance it and you are that constant contact with your counterpart in Egypt. But in some ways, I guess, you have felt sometimes you're getting contradictory advice to what might happen or at least contradictory messages?

JULIE BISHOP This is part of the complexity of having an Australian citizen subject to the laws of another country, and we have been dealing with many different departments within the Egyptian government. There was of course an election in the middle of all of this, a change of government. And so it depends who you've been speaking to, at what particular time, as to the message that we've received. But we have consistently and persistently pursued avenues to get Peter Greste home.

And to be fair, the Egyptian Government has consistently said that the legal processes should be allowed to take their course, as one would expect should an Egyptian national be facing court in Australia. We would expect the independence of our judiciary would be expected and that legal processes would take their course.

BEVERLY O'CONNOR We've heard from a former diplomat earlier this morning about some moves that Qatar has made to try to ease things a little in terms of diplomatic tensions with Egypt. Do you think that might be helping? Egypt hasn't so far necessarily taken that bait. That would address some of the political issues between Egypt and Qatar and Al-Jazeera and the Muslim Brotherhood more broadly.

JULIE BISHOP What we're hoping to do now is focus on the legal aspects of this case. And I'm sure that's what Peter Greste's lawyers will be took and focusing very much on this prisoner transfer option and the legal procedures around the retrial. Because it's 12 months on, it could well be a different set of charges; it could be a different legal case to be argued. This is what his lawyers will be focusing on in the days ahead.

BEVERLY O'CONNOR If we could focus on another issue - is it possible that around 20 Australian men are now back in Australia having fought in Syria?

JULIE BISHOP I can't comment on the specific details of individuals, but I can assure your viewers that the Australian Government will do all we can to keep this country safe from security risks, and the risk posed by foreign terrorist fighters who either are going to, or coming from, Syria and Iraq, having supported a terrorist organisation.

And the message I have for those who are thinking of travelling overseas to support ISIL or are coming back – there are offences under Australian law for any terrorist activities and people will face the full force of the law, should they be found to have been supporting or fighting with a terrorist organisation. It is against the law. There are very heavy penalties that apply, and not only are they putting their own lives at risk but they're adding to the misery and suffering of the people in Syria and Iraq who are being so brutalised by these inhuman terrorist organisations.

BEVERLY O'CONNOR Is it possible though that there was this - there is this loophole for people who were already in Syria before some of the new laws that you've introduced were put in place?

JULIE BISHOP Well, this is why we did introduce new laws, to respond to the changing security risk as we saw it. But there's nothing to stop our security agencies, our law enforcement agencies from investigating individual cases and I assume that that's what they will do.

BEVERLY O'CONNOR Have their passports been cancelled? Are they being monitored?

JULIE BISHOP I'm not in a position to discuss individual cases but I do have the powers under the new laws to cancel or suspend passports of those leaving Australia seeking to go to Syria or Iraq to support ISIL, or those coming home. I do have that authority and I have been using that. We have cancelled a number of passports. I have suspended a number to enable our law enforcement and security agencies to carry out further investigations and surveillance.

BEVERLY O'CONNOR Is there any thought within the government as to trying an approach perhaps to intervene in a different way in potentially de-radicalising some of these young men coming back rather than a punitive punishment?

JULIE BISHOP That's what we are doing. We are working with families and communities. In fact, family and communities are the first line of defence against this kind of security risk to Australia. And we are appealing to them and working with them and I know the federal police and the state police are working very closely with communities, with parents and teachers and religious leaders, to try and prevent young people from being duped into believing that joining a terrorist organisation is some kind of noble cause. It's not.

They are murderers and criminals and brutal people who are just causing misery and heartache and suffering to people in Syria and Iraq and elsewhere. So we are appealing to families and communities to work with the government, to work with law enforcement agencies to see if we can prevent young people in particular from taking up with terrorist organisations in the first place and becoming radicalised according to a brutal and barbaric ideology.

BEVERLY O'CONNOR Before I let you go Minister, another story that caught my eye, I think would bring great comfort to a lot of people as they are ageing and that is really that 60 apparently is the new 40 in your book?

JULIE BISHOP Well, it seemed like a good idea at the time. What do you think? I would have liked to have said 60 is the new 30 but I think I would have been stretching it a little far. There is a serious point behind all of this. It's about participation and adding to the productivity of our nation. And people over 60, who are still fit and energetic and competent, should of course be given every opportunity to participate in our work force. We need as many taxpayers as possible, to grow our revenue base in this country, and we need our economy to be as productive as it can be. And older workers are a great source of energy and enthusiasm and talent that shouldn't be overlooked.

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