The Nation, Auckland - interview with Lisa Owen

  • Transcript, E&OE
27 February 2015

JOURNALIST Minister, to start off with, Australia's contribution to the war against Islamic State is second only to America's, so why has Australia invested so much in this fight?

JULIE BISHOP Australia has a deep national interest in bolstering our security against what is now a global threat of terrorism – it's also a regional threat, and we will do whatever we can do to keep our nation and our people safe from a terrorist attack. So we are working with a coalition of countries to attack Daesh or ISIL at its source, in Iraq, by supporting the Iraqi Government build up the capability and capacity of the Iraqi Defence Force to take back the territory that had been claimed by Daesh and to help protect their citizens, who have been subjected to atrocities and appallingly brutal treatment.

JOURNALIST I don't think you'd get any argument about the brutal treatment, but the thing is, isn't a fight exactly what Islamic State wants? It wants the image of a crusade, it wants to be seen as going up against the west – that's how it recruits people. So aren't you giving them exactly what they want?

JULIE BISHOP It's not only against the West. ISIL or Daesh is against anyone who opposes their poisonous ideology. They don't care whether it's a western democracy or a Middle Eastern government or anything in-between. They are claiming a caliphate over territory that belongs to Iraq and Syria. They ignore governments. They ignore laws, regulations and the rules-based international order. So this is not just a fight against the West – this is global. It's complex, it's more dangerous than ever before and we have a significant number of Australians who have been attracted to fight with this terrorist organisation; we believe around 90 Australians are in Syria or Iraq having taken up arms to fight with this terrorist organisation. Our fear is that they will come back to Australia or to our region and, having gained experience as a terrorist, will seek to carry out terrorist activities here. We have a direct interest in trying to defeat Daesh in Iraq and Syria.

JOURNALIST I want to talk to you about Australia's domestic situation and concerns about foreign fighters a bit later, but I just want to know, what evidence is there that what you are doing is going to make things better and not worse? Because the West has a history of making things worse in the Middle East.

JULIE BISHOP We've been invited in to Iraq by the Iraqi Government. We've been invited in to support the Iraqi Government with their consent. We're part of a coalition that the Iraqi Government has called upon to support them, and I don't believe the Iraqi Government should be left to face this alone. I believe that other countries, particularly countries whose citizens are taking up the fight in Syria and Iraq on behalf of the terrorist organisation, have a responsibility to support Iraq in its defence of its country and its people.

JOURNALIST In doing that, what evidence do you have that you're going to make the situation better? How can you know you're going to make the situation better?

JULIE BISHOP Surely having Daesh in control of any country or any portion of a country is the worst possible outcome. This is an organisation that carries out beheadings and executions, subjects women as sex slaves, rapings and killings. It is utterly barbaric, and no responsible nation, no responsible citizen can stand by and watch that without doing something. And Australia certainly is taking a proportionate role. Given that we have Australian citizens who are supporting this terrorist organisation, we have a role in helping to defeat it.

JOURNALIST So what do you think that success against Islamic State will look like, in real terms? What would that be?

JULIE BISHOP Clearly we're dealing with not only a military solution, but there also is an ideology to combat this poisonous narrative against countries, against sovereign nations, against the rules-based global order. It has to be defeated, otherwise civilisation as we know it is under threat.

JOURNALIST But how do you know when you've won, though?

JULIE BISHOP Well, obviously the air strikes that we're taking part in have had an impact. You're no longer seeing the columns of ISIL fighters in their black jumpsuits and flags rolling into cities and taking over territory. The air strikes have had an impact and they will continue to have an impact. Now we need to build the capacity of the Iraqi Defence Force so they can take back territory. When they can take back their territory and control and manage their own territory, that will be seen as success. When they can protect their people against the brutal executions and killings, then that will be seen as success. And when we stop having humanitarian and aid workers and journalists held as hostages and then beheaded in the most barbaric way, that will be seen as success.

JOURNALIST How long will that take?

JULIE BISHOP It will take some time. You're dealing with an ideology a barbaric narrative.

JOURNALIST Two years? Ten years? A generation?

JULIE BISHOP It's not useful to put a timeframe on it; that would just play into the hands of the terrorist organisations. They would either wait it out or increase their activities, so I don't intend to give the terrorist organisation the comfort of knowing how long the coalition of countries will seek to defeat it.

JOURNALIST Well, our Prime Minister says two years for New Zealand. He says two years, but he also says he thinks Australia will be there longer. Is he right?

JULIE BISHOP And of course there are about 90 countries that are now claiming they have citizens who have taken up supporting this terrorist organisation. So this is not an issue just for Australia and New Zealand or our region, this is a global issue, and countries will make their own decisions about how long they'll be there, and of course, that will also depend on the Iraqi Government, because we are there at the invitation of, and consent of, the Iraqi Government.

JOURNALIST Do you anticipate being there longer than two years? Longer than New Zealand.

JULIE BISHOP Well, this is a matter that we keep under constant review. We've been invited there, we're carrying out a specific task, and we keep it under constant review.

JOURNALIST Okay. So you talked about a proportionate response. Well, New Zealand is sending 16 trainers plus support troops. Does New Zealand need to do more than that?

JULIE BISHOP That's a matter for New Zealand. We welcome the support that New Zealand is providing and we certainly welcome their contribution to the coalition of nations across the world that are seeking to defeat this brutal terrorist organisation.

JOURNALIST But did your Government ask our Government to do more than that?

JULIE BISHOP I understand that this is a request of the Iraqi Government.

JOURNALIST You didn't exchange any conversation on it? Given that the Prime Minister has said that this is likely to be a joint operation with Australia, was there discussion about what New Zealand's contribution would be? Did you have an opinion on whether the Government should do more?

JULIE BISHOP Well of course our Defence Force personnel exchange information all the time. Australia and New Zealand are very close friends, neighbours; we cooperate across a whole range of issues. Our officials are in constant communication.

JOURNALIST So did you suggest that the New Zealand Government could perhaps do more?

JULIE BISHOP Not at all – it's a matter for the New Zealand Government, and if the New Zealand Government has made a decision, Australia wouldn't presume to interfere in New Zealand domestic considerations – nor would we expect New Zealand to interfere in ours.

JOURNALIST John Key has just told this programme that he's not matching Australia's contribution in Iraq because he says, "If we fight Iraq's wars, we involve ourselves in something that we can't hope to solve for them." Isn't that exactly what Australia is doing? Are you over-reaching?


JOURNALIST And what makes you say that?

JULIE BISHOP Because we are providing support to the Iraqi Government in accordance with the advice that we take from our experts and in accordance with the discussions that we've had with the Iraqi Government.

JOURNALIST Okay, so as we said, it's likely to be a joint New Zealand-Australia mission. How do you think that will work?

JULIE BISHOP Well, I'm not a military expert – I'll leave that to our Defence personnel who are on the ground who make those sorts of decisions. That's why we have the leadership of the calibre that we do in the Australian Defence Force, and of course New Zealand has their own leadership in their Defence Force. So it's a matter for our military operations to do that kind of operational work.

JOURNALIST Have that discussion. So when do you think that will be announced or made public, how that joint operation might work?

JULIE BISHOP I'm not saying it is a joint operation.

JOURNALIST Is it not going to be a joint operation? Is there some…?

JULIE BISHOP The Prime Minister of Australia has not made an announcement, so I'm not sure what you're going on. The Prime Minister of Australia has confirmed that we already have 600 personnel in the Middle East supporting the Iraqi Government to build its capacity to defeat ISIL. We have 400 involved in air strikes and we have 200 special forces involved in advising and assisting the Iraqi Defence Force. So any further discussion about that is obviously a matter for the Australian Prime Minister and I don't intend to pre-empt any announcement that our Prime Minister will make.

JOURNALIST In saying that, our Prime Minister has publicly said that it's likely to be a joint operation. Is he mistaken in that?

JULIE BISHOP I am not pre-empting any announcement that my Prime Minister would make. I don't know a foreign minister or a defence minister that would seek to pre-empt any announcement that their prime minister would make. Now, Prime Minister Key has spoken on behalf of the New Zealand Government – that's absolutely appropriate – but the Australian Prime Minister should be allowed to make whatever announcement he chooses to make in his time.

JOURNALIST Is there any consideration about New Zealand and Australia going in there under an ANZAC badge?

JULIE BISHOP I'm not aware of that. There may well have been discussions between our Defence Forces, but they're not issues that I'm involved with.

JOURNALIST Okay, well let's talk about closer to home. It seems that there's a disproportionate number of Australians joining this fight with Islamic State. Why do you think that is? Why are they being attracted to it?

JULIE BISHOP There has been a serious attempt to radicalise young people using online, sophisticated technology. There has been an element of radicalisation through some of the communities in Australia. But I think if you look at other countries – France, for example, estimates that it has about 1,000 foreign terrorist fighters. Russia estimates that it has about 1,000. Other countries – Canada, the United Kingdom, a range of countries say that they have foreign terrorist fighters amongst their citizens. Indeed, as I said, about 90 countries have confirmed that they believe they have foreign terrorist fighters amongst their citizens who are going to Syria and Iraq.

JOURNALIST Some estimates, though, put the number from Australia at around 400, and that's disproportionately high.

JULIE BISHOP No, that's not the figure I have. I said earlier that there were 90 that we were aware of who were in Syria and Iraq. We believe there are about a similar number supporting the terrorist organisation back in Australia.

JOURNALIST In our backyard is Indonesia. That's one of the largest Muslim populations in the world, and a growing number of them are joining Islamic State as well. How much of a worry is that for us?

JULIE BISHOP It's a concern for Indonesia and for Australia and our region, and that's why we're working so closely with Indonesia to share intelligence, to share information, to share experiences and work together to combat terrorism and to prevent the flow of foreign fighters and finance into the Middle East.

JOURNALIST In terms of finance, you have invested more effort into looking into finances and terrorism funding. Is there any suggestion that money is coming from Australia, the Pacific, New Zealand?

JULIE BISHOP There is a concern that funding is coming from Australia, and that's why we've acted in some instances to use laws to prevent that from occurring. We've reviewed our legislation to ensure that any gaps that may have existed will be closed so that we can stem the flow of foreign terrorist fighters, we can combat the radicalisation, particularly of young people, which is deeply concerning, and that we can prevent the flow of finances.

JOURNALIST Where's that money coming from, do you think?

JULIE BISHOP Well, these are matters that our intelligence agencies act upon and our law enforcement agencies act upon.


JULIE BISHOP There is an argument that narcoterrorism is a deeply worrying phenomenon, particularly in our region. There have been a number of statements made about that – public statements by various law enforcement agencies.

JOURNALIST Is there a worry that those drugs could be trafficked through the Pacific? Or are being?

JULIE BISHOP I'm not specifically aware of drugs being trafficked through the Pacific, but there is most certainly a concern on the part of the United Nations agency that deals with drugs and crime about the connection between drugs and terrorism – it's called narcoterrorism.

JOURNALIST While we're talking about Indonesia, it appears that two Australian drug traffickers will soon be executed in Bali. Is there anything else that you can do to stop that happening?

JULIE BISHOP The Australian Government continues to make representations at every level of the Indonesian Government at the highest levels. Our officials are in Jakarta. Our officials are in Bali. I have made personal representations, as has the Prime Minister, as has our Governor-General, other ministers, and we'll continue to do so.

JOURNALIST Prime Minister Abbott made some comments recently about Indonesia – urged Indonesia to remember the aid contribution that Australia had made after the Boxing Day Tsunami, and Indonesia saw that as a threat. So do you think that it hurt these men's chance of having their sentences commuted? Did it hurt the relationship with Indonesia?

JULIE BISHOP The Prime Minister was highlighting the fact that we are close friends, we support each other in times of need and that will always be the case. He was underscoring the importance of the friendship, the relationship that we have with Indonesia.

JOURNALIST But did it hurt that relationship?

JULIE BISHOP There was some reporting in the media in Indonesia. As a result of that I contacted the Vice President, Vice President Kalla, and informed him that the media reports were wrong, that the Prime Minister only intended to highlight the deep friendship between Australia and Indonesia.


JOURNALIST ... Could you give us a prediction for the cricket?


JOURNALIST What else were you going to say?


JOURNALIST Thank you very much for joining us. We appreciate your time.

JULIE BISHOP My pleasure, Lisa.


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