Press conference following the meeting of the Small Group Coalition to Combat Daesh

  • Transcript, E&OE

JULIE BISHOP We have just concluded a very comprehensive meeting of the Small Group Coalition to Combat Daesh. The meeting reaffirmed our commitment to support the Iraqi Government and Prime Minister al-Abadi in their efforts to defeat this terrorist organisation and drive it from their country. Australia is making a significant military contribution to this effort. We are taking a leadership role in the Building Partner Capacity initiative at the Taji military complex, and along with our New Zealand colleagues, this represents the second largest contribution to the Building Partner Capacity initiative after the United States. And this is in addition to the support we have provided through air strikes and also the 'Advise and Assist' to the Counter-terrorism Special Forces previously.

We also discussed the urgent humanitarian needs and, after meeting with Prime Minister al-Abadi, I confirmed that Australia will contribute a further $8 million for humanitarian requirements in Iraq. This brings a total of Australia's humanitarian support to $30 million to Iraq in the last 12 months. In addition, we've provided about $155 million for Syria in the last 4 years.

We also discussed the efforts to retake Ramadi and Mosul and the strategic vision going forward, and we also discussed the disturbing reports of the destruction of cultural heritage and antiquities and received a briefing from UNESCO over lunch.

All in all, it was a very positive meeting, reaffirming the unity and the combined resolve of the Coalition and ensuring that there will be the resources, the political will and the energy required to defeat Daesh. First by denying it access to foreign fighters and finance, and also countering its poisonous ideology. So I'm pleased to have been able to be here. I also had bilateral meetings with Foreign Ministers and also with Prime Minister al-Abadi, which has been a very useful way of ascertaining precisely the vision, the commitment and the strategic approach of the Coalition.

JOURNALIST Minister, there are calls in Canberra for Australian troops to get out from behind the razor wire, to quote one of your former generals. Is that even an option for Australian troops to join Iraqi troops on the ground outside Baghdad?

JULIE BISHOP It is very important for the Iraqi Security Forces to be on the ground and at the front line. This is important both psychologically but also for the purposes of ensuring the support of the Iraqi Government and the Iraqi people. Australia's role is to train, advise and assist. We've only just commenced our Building Partner Capacity initiative in Taji and that should be able to support a significant increase in capability of the Iraqi Security Forces. So we are there at the invitation and with the consent of the Iraqi Government. This is what they've asked us to do and therefore, we're fulfilling that role.

NICK MILLER (Fairfax) So did the Iraqi PM ask for further assistance, or for a more active assistance?

JULIE BISHOP He certainly did not ask that of Australia. We had a very productive meeting; he acknowledged and thanked Australia for our effort in the military contribution that we are making and we discussed other ways that Australia can prevent foreign fighters travelling to Iraq. We discussed what we are doing in Australia to prevent Australians leaving our country, to prevent the flow of finances. But in relation to our military contribution in Iraq, it's as it stands. We are providing about 300 personnel for the Building Partner Capacity; we have about 500 others who are supporting the air strikes and who have also been involved in the 'Advise and Assist' initiative for the Counter-terrorism Group.

JOURNALIST In the press joint conference just now, the Prime Minister did ask, and quite passionately, to the Coalition partners for more support on the ground. Is it something that you will consider?

JULIE BISHOP We haven't been asked, and if a request is made, we will consider it. But Australia is already the second largest contributor to the Building Partner Capacity initiative after the United States. His plea is to other nations who have not yet provided a military contribution and I'm quite confident that's the view because we discussed it in our bilateral meeting.

JOURNALIST Are you in favour of military action to protect sites like Palmyra?

JULIE BISHOP I think that the focus on the destruction of antiquities and cultural heritage is absolutely appropriate because this has been used not only as a propaganda weapon by Daesh but it also goes to the very issue of security. I believe that the Iraqi Security Forces also have a role in protecting the heritage of that country. So that's part of the huge challenge that is in front of the Iraqi Security Forces, which is why Australia and other Coalition colleagues are seeking to build the capacity and capability of the Iraqi Security Forces.

JOURNALIST What about Palmyra, which is in Syria? Do you think there should be military action to protect Palmyra?

JULIE BISHOP Well, this is a difficulty because Australia's focus is only on Iraq. This is the point I'm making. Our focus is on Iraq, that's where we've been invited to be present, in Iraq. We haven't been invited by the regime in Syria so our focus is on Iraq.

JOURNALIST Why were the Kurdish Forces not invited to the meeting?

JULIE BISHOP Well, this was an invitation from the French Foreign Minister, co-hosted by the United States, and in the presence of Prime Minister al-Abadi. So it was not a matter for Australia to invite other forces or other representatives, but the nation-states who are involved in the Small Group Coalition were invited.

JOURNALIST The American representative inside mentioned that foreign fighters was [sic] on the agenda here and discussions relating to that. What did you tell your colleagues about discussions that you've had in Australia regarding cancelling the Australian citizenship of Australians who are fighting in Iraq?

JULIE BISHOP I spoke about the action that has already been taken in Australia, the changes to the law that have been made and the efforts that we are taking to cancel passports. The issue of citizenship is still under discussion. So I spoke about what we've actually done and what we've been able to achieve, including the cancellation of 100 passports at least and the changes that we've made to the law on the advocating of terrorism and also in relation to the no-go zones in al-Raqqa in Syria and Mosul in Iraq.

JOURNALIST Are you not going to have to discuss with the Iraqi Government if there are dual Iraqi-Australian citizens fighting in Iraq the prospect of you cancelling their Australian citizenship and literally handing them over to Iraq?

JULIE BISHOP Well, this is a discussion that we'll have when a decision has been made. We're at the stage of a draft discussion paper that's been put out. We haven't put in place any changes to legislation. These are issues that other countries have already implemented and I'm sure that Britain for example has had this discussion. But in Australia, it's a discussion at this stage; there've been no changes to the Citizenship Act.

JOURNALIST Mr al-Abadi made a comment in there about seeking more help on the ground – it may have been a translation issue, I was slightly confused what he meant; was there any suggestion that the coalition generally should actually put fighting troops into Iraq?

JULIE BISHOP There was no suggestion that there would be combat troops on the ground from the coalition. The discussion with the coalition was in relation to the support we're giving in training and advising and assisting. There was a significant need for more humanitarian support, and Prime Minister al-Abadi made that quite clear that they were seeking more support in a humanitarian sense.

JOURNALIST Did he indicate that they could recapture Ramadi?

JULIE BISHOP He was very confident that the Iraqi Security Forces would be able to recapture Ramadi, and he also laid out a plan for recapturing other areas in Iraq that have taken by Daesh, and that included Mosul.

JOURNALIST You mentioned that Australia would not venture outside of the razor wire with your own troops, but what about that Iraqi government which has its own forces are [sic] out-gunned, they need more weapon – would Australia support easing restrictions on the sale of weapons from countries like Iran or Russia to the Iraqi government?

JULIE BISHOP This is a matter for the Iraqi government, in relation to countries acting outside the wire. The whole point is, we are in Iraq at the invitation of and with the consent of the Iraqi government. So we are acting within that constraint. Therefore, the Australian government is responding to the request – specific request that was made to us, and that was to take a leadership role in the Building Partnership Capacity Initiative, and that's what we're doing. We are also providing training and advising and assisting to build the capability of the Iraqi security forces. Now, the Prime Minister did not ask Australia to do any more than we are; I made a commitment for a further 8 million dollars to bring to a total of 30 million dollars the humanitarian support we've provided in the last 12 months, and the Prime Minister was exceedingly grateful for that. So Australia is one of 62 countries that form a part of the coalition, and so some of them are providing military support, not all of them, and I think the plea today was for there to be a broader coalition of support. After all, Daesh is an enemy of all of us. It presents a threat to us all across the world. This is a terrorist organisation that has no regard for governments, sovereignty, for borders, for decency, for humanity. So it's a threat for us all to counter, and Australia is doing its part.

JOURNALIST Peshmerga are fighting against Daesh but today, the government of Kurdistan was not invited here…

JULIE BISHOP The governments of the nation-states that make up the coalition were invited.

JOURNALIST On Iran, you were going to make a pitch for Tehran to be included in the coalition; how did that go, did you put your case and what was the response?

JULIE BISHOP Yes, I did, I raised the fact that all stakeholders in these conflicts need to be present; that we need to understand the strategic aims and objectives of all of those involved. Iran has a military presence in Iraq, and there needs to be a framework for engagement with all of the stakeholders who are seeking to fight against Daesh, and that includes Iran.

JOURNALIST How did the other coalition partners respond?

JULIE BISHOP Some supported it, others pointed out the challenges, but overall I think there was a view that engagement of some form or another with Iran is necessary because the fact is Iran is present in Iraq.

JOURNALIST Who was supportive?

JULIE BISHOP Well, I'll leave that for them, I'm sure you'll speak to all of them, I don't want to name particular countries, but in my conversations and discussions with others there was an acknowledgment that Iran is present. It was raised with Prime Minister al-Abadi and he said he welcomed the presence of Iran in Iraq, and the support that they were providing, and invited other countries to likewise provide support.

JOURNALIST If Tehran was included in the coalition, are you concerned that it would be seen as a de facto admitting of Syria and Assad into it too, in terms of them closely working together?

JULIE BISHOP The reality is Iran has a military presence in Iraq. That is the reality, and so I believe that all strategic aims, all objectives of those involved in Iraq should be connected. We should know and understand what those objectives and aims are.

JOURNALIST How will Australia be supporting Peshmerga in Kurdistan, Iraq?

JULIE BISHOP Australia is in Iraq at the invitation of the Iraqi government, and we're providing the support which has been requested of us; and so there hasn't been any other requests for support. So Australia is playing a proportionate role, given the geographic distances between Australia and Iraq, we feel that there are other countries, and closer to the region that are at direct risk of the threat of Daesh who should also be playing a role.

JOURNALIST: …kerfuffle about who might have leaked information from a cabinet meeting about the citizenship issue, and the implication has been that you might have been involved in some of the reporting?

JULIE BISHOP: I absolutely reject any suggestion that I was involved in leaking details of a cabinet meeting on a citizenship issue to any journalist. Now the Australian media know who told them the details of the cabinet meeting. It was not me, and I release any Australian journalist from the Australian press gallery of any obligation to maintain the confidentiality of the source insofar as it relates to me. I didn't leak the details of it, I spoke to no journalist about the details of that discussion. And so, I am sleeping easy at night, my conscience is clear.

JOURNALIST: What is your message to your colleague or colleagues who have leaked the information?

JULIE BISHOP: Well it was very unhelpful. We made ourselves the issue and I was not involved in the leaking of this story and for the colleagues who thought it appropriate to do so, they should just see what an impact it's had. The discussion has been about the security and confidentiality of cabinet as opposed to the real issues, which is the question of citizenship and how the threat of foreign terrorist fighters can be dealt with through our citizenship laws. So that's the issue, that's why I support this discussion paper. We need a public discussion, a national conversation on the issue of the rights and responsibilities of citizenship and whether citizenship should be stripped from those who take up arms or support the conflict in Iraq and Syria on the side of Daesh.

JOURNALIST: Do you now have concerns about taking politically and national security sensitive information to cabinet?

JULIE BISHOP: I just hope that my colleagues have learned from this and the person or people who did the leaking have seen the damage of it, and that's deeply regrettable. But I want to be able to have honest and open and frank discussions in the cabinet and I hope that after this incident, that we will be able to continue to do so and that the confidential details of cabinet meetings remain confidential.

JOURNALIST: Do you think that collectively the cabinet has come to Jesus now?

JULIE BISHOP: [Laugh] I am not quite sure what that phrase means in this context. I wasn't at the cabinet meeting on Monday night so nobody can accuse me of even discussing what went on because I wasn't there. But I know that it's essential for cabinet discussions to be kept confidential and that's why I am concerned that the details of this were leaked to Peter Hartcher in such detail but as I say, I release Mr Hartcher and anybody else from the Canberra press gallery of any obligation of confidentiality in relation to me, I didn't leak it, so…

JOURNALIST: What about the suggestion you take extensive notes in cabinet meetings?

JULIE BISHOP: [Laugh] I don't take copious notes! I don't take notes in cabinet, I don't take records of conversations. I have been known to draft a speech or two that I have to give after cabinet but no, of course I don't take notes. We have an official note-taker, so there is no need for me to do so. So it's a silly mischievous suggestion.

JOURNALIST: Are you optimistic?


JOURNALIST: Are you optimistic?

JULIE BISHOP: Optimistic about?

JOURNALIST: About the… Daesh… about the end of that.

JULIE BISHOP: I am optimistic that the coalition is united, is committed and is resolved to defeat Daesh and this was a very worthwhile meeting, giving us all the opportunity to talk about our views on the success of defeating Daesh and the need for it. So yes I am optimistic. Thank you. Thank you everybody.

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