Doorstop, Canberra

  • Transcript, E&OE
26 February 2018

JULIE BISHOP: I am delighted to launch the 10-year strategy for the Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research. This is an extraordinary organisation within the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade that through scientific ingenuity and research has been able to make an enormous difference to the agricultural outcomes, the yield and production of foods in our region. I am proud that ACIAR has been able to transform lives and it is an integral of our development assistance program in the Indian Ocean and Asia Pacific, and complements the Foreign Policy White Paper objectives that we launched year.

JOURNALIST: Minister, could I ask you about FONOP's, the freedom of navigation exercises? Following his meeting with President Trump, Malcolm Turnbull was asked about Australia's position and he said we don't comment or speculate on operational matters. Does that suggest that Australia might have taken part in a FONOP's exercise or is considering doing so in the future?

JULIE BISHOP: What that suggests is the Australian Government doesn't comment on operational matters. We have been traversing the South China Sea for many years in accordance with international law and we will continue to do that. Australia is an upholder and defender of the international rules-based order. We believe strongly in the principle of freedom of navigation and freedom of overflight, and we will continue to traverse the South China Sea as we have in the past.

JOURNALIST: Has there been discussions with the US to join them in these FONOP's exercises?

JULIE BISHOP: The United States has a global FONOP's program. Australia does not. We complement each other but it doesn't mean that we align with each other on every aspect. The Prime Minister is absolutely right - we don't discuss operational matters.

JOURNALIST: In terms of going within 12 nautical miles though Minister, what is the Government's current thinking on the merits of doing that?

JULIE BISHOP: The Australian Government will continue to do what we have always done and that is maintain a strong presence in the South China Sea and traverse the South China Sea in accordance with international law.

JOURNALIST: Minister, China has moved to amend its constitution so that President Xi Jinping can stay in for longer than two terms. Are you concerned about that consolidation of power in one person? Are there any geopolitical implications?

JULIE BISHOP: This is a matter for China. It is a constitutional issue for the people of China. President Xi is a very effective leader of China but the details of its constitution and changes to the constitution are a matter for China.

JOURNALIST: Domestic decisions in China make waves across the world though, you have no significant concerns regarding what that might mean for China's leadership in the region?

JULIE BISHOP: I don't intend to comment to the media about the constitutional changes within China because they are uniquely a matter for China. We have a very strong relationship with China. We have a Comprehensive Strategic Partnership with China. China is our largest two-way trading partner, and what happens in China affects the rest of the world - it is a regional and global power. We welcome its economic rise, and we work very closely with China. JOURNALIST: On North Korea, the prospect has been raised in US media of a regional scheme to interdict ships that are suspected of breaching UN sanctions. Can you give us your thoughts on the legality or otherwise of doing that without a further UN sanction and would Australia be prepared to be involved on that basis?

JULIE BISHOP: The Australian Government is imposing the sanctions that have been mandated by the UN Security Council plus we have our own autonomous sanctions. We are already working with Pacific nations, partner nations in the Pacific in relation to North Korean ships that may well breach the current UN Security Council sanctions regime. We are working very closely to ensure that there is maximum international pressure through the sanctions, through political and diplomatic efforts - maximum pressure diplomatically, politically and economic-wise through the sanctions.

JOURNALIST: And in terms of interdictions on the high seas though, to do that without the permission of the flag state or the ship's captain can be considered an act of war – has that been considered?

JULIE BISHOP: The Australian Government is an upholder of the International rules based order and we operate in accordance with international law.

JOURNALIST: New Deputy Prime Minister – big shoes to fill. How do you think he will go?

JULIE BISHOP: I had a very positive meeting with the leadership team today. Michael McCormack, Bridget McKenzie, Prime Minister Turnbull and I had a good and very positive chat. I have known Michael McCormack ever since he came into Parliament. He is a very competent and effective voice for rural Australia. I think he will make a fine leader of the National Party.

JOURNALIST: What do you make of George Christensen's intervention or choosing to run when seemingly he had a relatively limited chance of success? He's just stirring the pot isn't he?

JULIE BISHOP: I am a believer that competition is healthy and I understand that George made some very good points to the leadership team and that they've taken them on board. Competition is a healthy thing.

JOURNALIST: What were the good points?

JULIE BISHOP: Well that was a matter for the National Party. I was told he made some good points.

JOURNALIST: Minister, if these sanctions do go ahead about restricting ship to ship transfers with North Korea, would Australian ships be involved in any kind of patrols to ensure that doesn't happen?

JULIE BISHOP: Let's not get ahead of ourselves, this is a hypothetical. Australia will work with other countries around the world to impose maximum economic pressure on North Korea. Already, the sanctions are having an impact. The approaches made by North Korea to South Korea during the Winter Games is evidence that the pressure is working. We are part of an international effort to do what we can to ensure that North Korea ceases its illegal ballistic missile and nuclear weapons programs, that it abides by numerous UN Security Council Resolutions and that it returns to the negotiating table so that we can work towards a denuclearised Korean Peninsula.

JOURNALIST: Do you think the WA Nationals have handled this matter correctly, concerning Barnaby Joyce and Mia Davies coming out and saying they withdraw support for Barnaby last week?

JULIE BISHOP: It is not for me to run a commentary on another party, let alone another party from my state. The Western Australian Nationals obviously acted in accordance with what they thought was best. It's not a matter for me to comment upon.

JOURNALIST: We've seen an idea floated for a regional group of countries including Australia putting up an alternative to China's Belt and Road Initiative. Would you be in support of that?

JULIE BISHOP: It is not an alternative in the sense that it is one or the other. What we are seeking to do is find as many options as we can to fill the massive infrastructure void in our part of the world. According to the World Bank, about $30 trillion worth of infrastructure funding will be needed in our region for economic growth to continue through to 2030. We welcome more investment in our region and Australia is in discussions with a number of countries about how we can maximise that investment. China has a One Belt One Road Initiative. Japan has a free and open Indo-Pacific initiative that I understand involves infrastructure spending. Australia has a significant infrastructure spend through our aid program. What we must all do is find options to offer countries. As long as they are transparent with appropriate rules of governance, and don't impose unsustainable debt burdens, often on already fragile economies, then of course Australia would support it.

JOURNALIST: Sorry, just to be clear - you are confirming that Australia is discussing with other countries to increase the overall amount of infrastructure funding going into countries in-

JULIE BISHOP: Yes, I said that last week. I confirmed last week that Australia is in discussions and has been for years about what we do to address the infrastructure shortfall in our region in particular. It is a global issue but in developing countries, particularly in the Pacific, the Indo-Pacific, there is a need for more infrastructure. That is why Australia signed up to the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank. That's why countries are signing up to China's One Belt One Road. That's why we are talking with other countries about whether together we can leverage more infrastructure funds.

JOURNALIST: Just back to domestic politics quickly, are we expecting or are you expecting any more ministerial portfolio shuffling? I think the Veteran Affairs' portfolio is now free.

JULIE BISHOP: Michael McCormack was the Minister for Veterans' Affairs so obviously there will need to be some changes to the Ministry but that is a matter for the Prime Minister and the Deputy Prime Minister.

JOURNALIST: Minister, has an invitation been extended to Donald Trump to visit Australia? Was that canvassed when Malcolm Turnbull was over in the US?

JULIE BISHOP: You would have to speak to the Prime Minister's office about that. I wasn't there. I was in London, Budapest and Slovenia last week so I was not at the White House but I would assume that at some point when the circumstances and timing is right, President Trump would of course be welcomed to Australia.

JOURNALIST: Don Heatley mentioned that ACIAR have wanted to increase their communications with the ACIAR Strategy – why do you think that is important?

JULIE BISHOP: When I met with Don a while ago, we were talking about some of the extraordinary stories of ACIAR's achievements in transforming the lives of people in our region and it seemed to me that not enough people knew of the work that ACIAR was doing. It is a national treasure, this agriculture research institute, and when I was in the region people would tell me about the amazing work of ACIAR. I would hear about it in the Solomon Islands, in Vietnam, in Cambodia and in PNG but I wasn't hearing about it here in Australia and I think the Australian people would be proud to know that Australian scientists, Australian expertise is being developed here and being used in countries in our region to transform lives. We have seen some magnificent examples.

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