ABC Radio National Breakfast, Canberra - interview with Fran Kelly

  • Transcript, E&OE
02 October 2014

FRAN KELLY Minister good morning.

JULIE BISHOP Good morning Fran.

FRAN KELLY When will we see the final clearance given for Australia to join combat operations directly?

JULIE BISHOP We are waiting for a specific request from the Iraqi Government. We of course would only go into Iraq with the invitation of, and the consent of, the Iraqi Government. We have made an offer in response to their general request for assistance and when the details are known and we have the appropriate diplomatic clearances then the matter will go to the National Security Committee for consideration and then to our Cabinet.

FRAN KELLY What does that mean a specific request? Because as you say, and we heard the Iraqi Prime Minister again overnight on an interview on the BBC saying, they have asked countries and he included Australia in that list to help. What's a specific request?

JULIE BISHOP Well first we had a request for aerial assistance and we provided that yesterday and we got the diplomatic clearance for that yesterday and we were able to fly a mission in support of other operations. Should Australia then use other assets well then of course we would need a diplomatic clearance for that and that would come from the Iraqi Government.

FRAN KELLY But what is the hold up? We already have France with fighter jets there, the UK, the US, already conducting air strikes.

JULIE BISHOP Fran there is no hold up.

FRAN KELLY Well why haven't they asked us already because we've been there for weeks now and as you say we were one of the first to put up our hand for this and the Iraqi Prime Minister has said again last night he has asked for help. So what are the specifics that you're looking for?

JULIE BISHOP It's interesting to be interviewed on the ABC and be berated for not going into war. Fran we are working..

FRAN KELLY I don't have a view one way or another I'm just asking because we're hearing two things. The Prime Minister said the hold-up was the legal framework and now it seems to be an official request I'm just trying to understand really what it is.

JULIE BISHOP There is no hold up. Australia offered to assist. We are one of over 60 countries that have offered to assist in Iraq and Syria. Obviously operations such as this are planned and the contribution that many countries are offering is taken into account. Australia has been asked to take part in a mission, which we did overnight.

Australia has been asked to take part in other missions. We will respond after it's been to the National Security Committee and to the Cabinet but you just don't go in there indiscriminately and all start bombing over Iraq. It has to be a coordinated operation because there are many countries involved and the Iraqi Government provides the formal consent and so that's what we're doing. We're working with our partners, the United States is coordinating it and we are one of a number of countries involved in this but we stand ready to act immediately - that's why we pre-deployed, that's why we were able to take part in the air operations last evening because we already had planes at Al Minhad air base and that's why we'll be able to respond should there be a specific request for our personnel to advise and assist the Iraqi Defence Forces at some point. But it all has to be done within a legal framework and because the Iraqi Government is dealing with a number of countries and a number of scenarios and situations we're working prudently, purposefully, methodically through that process.

FRAN KELLY When do you expect, or do you expect that that request will come and when do you expect it to come?

JULIE BISHOP Within a matter of days.

FRAN KELLY Basically they've said yeah, it's coming, we're just not ready yet. Can you talk to me about the status of forces agreement, the legal framework? Is Australia being more demanding in our legal arrangements than some of the other countries that are already there fighting?

JULIE BISHOP Well I'm not here to comment on the requirements of other countries. I'm focussed on what Australia requires in terms of immunities, privileges and protections for our personnel. We have particular requirements and we're working with the Iraqi Government in relation to those requirements.

FRAN KELLY Can you tell us more about those immunities and privileges we're talking about? Are we for instance talking about the civilian casualties that could occur, well will almost certainly will occur in an airstrikes campaign. Will that mean Australian forces could never be prosecuted through international courts for any of those actions?

JULIE BISHOP It's a relatively standard Status of Forces Agreement that includes appropriate immunities, privileges and protections for Australian personnel. We entered into a Status of Forces Agreement with Ukraine recently when we entered into Ukraine for the purposes of retrieving the remains on the crash site from MH17. The Status of Forces agreements are commonplace in these circumstances but we're working through it with the Iraqi Government and I expect in the next few days we'll have the appropriate clearances.

FRAN KELLY And we already have RAAF planes assisting in this military operation in Iraq. That's been confirmed, that's already confirmed. Doesn't the Status of Forces agreement apply to the Wedgetail and tanker transport? We don't need that for them?

JULIE BISHOP It was a diplomatic clearance and we obtained that overnight and that covered the operation that we carried out.

FRAN KELLY If this official request for our combat jets hasn't arrived yet, does it really suggest that our contribution isn't actually essential?

JULIE BISHOP No it doesn't suggest that at all. The United States had an agreement in place some months ago. They entered into an agreement with the precious government. This is now a new government in Iraq. We're dealing with a government that hasn't yet appointed a Defence Minister or an Interiors Minister and they are working very purposefully through this process. The United States had an agreement with the previous Iraqi Government.

FRAN KELLY The Iraqi Prime Minister has said overnight that Iraq won't fight ISIS in Syria, but that ISIS won't be defeated without defeating them in Syria. So who should do the degrading of ISIS and Syria? Not Australia, not Iraq who should do that?

JULIE BISHOP Well the United States is already conducting air strikes into Syria with the support of five other Arab nations so there are a number of other nations that are already taking the fight up to ISIL in Syria.

FRAN KELLY Do you accept that that is the place that this fight needs to be won?

JULIE BISHOP No the fight needs to be wherever ISIL is taking territory, wherever ISIL is committing atrocities and beheading innocent civilians and raping and torturing and murdering people, that's where the fight has to be taken up to ISIL.

FRAN KELLY The Iraqi Prime Minister also says he doesn't want Arab countries involved in air strikes over Iraq. Is that acceptable?

JULIE BISHOP That's a matter for the Iraqi Government. We are there at the invitation, with the consent of the Iraqi Government. We respect their sovereignty. Other nations will respect their sovereignty and the Iraqi Government can determine who they wish to be in their country. They make that decision, not Australia.

FRAN KELLY But if they keep putting these kind of parameters around things, which is basically on the basis that some of these countries – Saudi Arabia, UAE and others are Sunni dominated it just perpetuates this divide, this mistrust between the Sunni - Shia and wherever that is there that is what created ISIS in the first place. It's the root of this trouble isn't it?

JULIE BISHOP There are 60 countries that have offered or are providing support to US-led interventions in Iraq and Syria. That includes many Arab nations, Sunni, Shia dominated nations and I believe that they all have a role to play.

The Iraqi Government can make determinations as to who it wished to partner with but in relation to Syria that is essentially ungoverned space in eastern Syria and the United States is leading operations into Syria and that includes with the assistance of a number of Arab nations.

FRAN KELLY This notion of ungoverned space, I mean there is a government of Syria. The Australian Government might not like the government but there is a government. This notion of ungoverned space – is that a form of words that would give cover for Australia and others to actually act in there without being invited in there by the Assad regime?

JULIE BISHOP No it's not.

FRAN KELLY Well what is it? Why is it ungoverned when it's in a country that has a government?

JULIE BISHOP Because thatpart of Syria has been taken over by rebels, it is not currently under the control of the Assad regime.

FRAN KELLY Minister, all of this will need to be paid for, it's estimated to cost around – or at least $500m. Will it be funded by yet another freeze on the foreign aid budget as has been reported today?

JULIE BISHOP No, that report is not correct. There has been no discussion in Cabinet along those lines.

FRAN KELLY So can you guarantee that foreign aid won't be frozen for another year or two in effect to pay for this military commitment?

JULIE BISHOP We will abide by the commitments we made in relation to foreign aid.

FRAN KELLY So there will be no further freeze?

JULIE BISHOP There has been no discussion within the Cabinet about that.

FRAN KELLY Minister can I ask you about the burqa? Do you think it should be banned in Parliament House?

JULIE BISHOP On security grounds people must identify themselves and I identify myself going into Parliament House every morning and I think the guards know who I am, I still identify myself. So on security grounds it's absolutely essential that people are able to be identified.

FRAN KELLY Yes, but does that require a ban? I mean already people need to be identified for security purposes at airports say in New South Wales but that can happen and they can still wear the burqa.

JULIE BISHOP Well that's a matter for security guards and the security officers in place here at Parliament House, they determine what level of identification they need and I'll leave it to the experts to determine that.

FRAN KELLY The Prime Minister says it's not the business of government to tell people what they can and can't wear but he also says he finds it fairly confronting and wishes people wouldn't wear it. Do you feel confronted by women wearing a burqa?

JULIE BISHOP I'm not confronted by clothing. Australia is a very open and free and tolerant society and we don't discriminate on the basis of religious or cultural clothing. People are free to wear what they like. Some may be offended by it. Some may be confronted by it but we have a choice and that's the kind of choice and that's the kind of society that we fight to defend.

FRAN KELLY And at a time like this when sensitivities are high, do you think the Prime Minister is perhaps guilty of sending a mixed message here? He should of perhaps just said it's not the governments business what people do or don't wear.

JULIE BISHOP No, not at all. He said it isn't the government's business and so that's quite clear that the government will not be imposing regulations. He was asked for his personal opinion and he gave it.

FRAN KELLY And Minister just one final issue – we heard again on AM and we spoke earlier to the AMA, a number of charities now, global charities are criticising the government's response to the outbreak of Ebola. MSF, AMA and now Save the Children all saying our effort is underwhelming. If the issue is, as we heard earlier, that we don't have a military plane capable of evacuating Australians if they contract the virus in Western Africa, do we, are we, trying to get an arrangement with some of our allied countries who do have that capacity to Medivac?

JULIE BISHOP My first responsibility is to ensure that we don't bring Ebola back to this country and that we don't put Australian health workers at risk of contracting Ebola. If they are working in West Africa we need an evacuation plan in place. We do not have a credible evacuation plan that would be able to get Australian health workers back to Australia. That is the expert advice of our military and our health department.

FRAN KELLY [Interrupting]Are we trying to get one?

JULIE BISHOP The AMA agrees that we don't have the airplane and we don't have the capacity to get people back to Australia. We have been discussing with other countries located geographically much closer to West Africa as to whether or not Australian health workers could be evacuated to their countries. At this time we have no guarantees from any other country.

FRAN KELLY Minister thank you very much for joining us.

JULIE BISHOP My pleasure.

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