Radio National Breakfast, Canberra - Interview with Geraldine Doogue

  • Transcript, E&OE

GERALDINE DOOGUE The Foreign Minister Julie Bishop, I'm delighted to say, joins us from our Parliament House studio.

Good morning Foreign Minister.

JULIE BISHOP Good morning Geraldine.

GERALDINE DOOGUE Could we start please with the nature of the refugee intake. The Government says the priority will be to resettle women children and families. Does this mean you will in effect be excluding single men, and Muslim men at that?

JULIE BISHOP No, we've been advised that the most vulnerable refugees are families, women and children and persecuted ethnic and religious minorities. They are the ones most in need and so we will assist by taking 12,000 refugees to be permanently resettled in Australia - this is one of the largest intakes in any one year since the Second World War. The decision to take 12,000 was done after careful discussion and assessment, given that our Immigration Minister was in Geneva talking with the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, the International Organisation for Migration.

I've also visited Lebanon and Jordan, where the burden of the displaced people is being felt most severely, and have seen the conditions that they are living in and have spoken to them and I agree with the assessment that it is women, children, families of persecuted ethnic and religious minorities that are most in need.

GERALDINE DOOGUE The atmospherics, if I could put it like that, of this though will be tricky when those people start to arrive and if there are no men amongst them, won't that send a powerful message?

JULIE BISHOP Well families have men. We are talking about mothers, fathers, children so it is not as though it is excluding males. We are talking about family groups rather than single groups.

GERALDINE DOOGUE Well it is estimated you say that $700 million over four years, the States have offered to help. What kind of contribution are you looking for?

JULIE BISHOP This is a discussion we will be having with the States and Territories over coming days and weeks. A number of State Premiers have already offered to take a particular number of refugees, so we will talk with them to see what they can offer, particularly in terms of accommodation, schooling, health services because these people will have the same rights as Australian citizens if they come under our permanent resettlement program. We are also discussing the resettlement of them with professional settlement services and also with NGOs and church groups.

GERALDINE DOOGUE I'm intrigued as to why nothing like the Kosovar solution has even been considered this time, where people were offered in the 90s temporary visas until it was safe to go home. My memory suggests it was a highly successful program and they lived for quite some time in Tasmania and then went back to Kosovo when it was safe. Has that not even been thought of?

JULIE BISHOP Of course we discussed this. We spent some days discussing options. But the difficulty with the persecuted minorities is they effectively have no home to return to. We are talking about people who are being persecuted in the most egregious ways. Their homes are being looted and burned. They are being threatened - if they don't pay taxes to this terrorist organisation they will be killed. They have nowhere to return to. That's why we decided to focus on those most in need and provide them with permanent resettlement. In the case of temporary safe haven, I think it's more appropriate for that to work in Europe, because they can return when it's safe to do so quite easily but once people have been brought all the way to Australia and stay here for literally years...

GERALDINE DOOGUE That's what you think it will be, do you?

JULIE BISHOP I do… it will be much more difficult to send them home but in the case of the persecuted minorities there is no home for them to return to.

GERALDINE DOOGUE We've had listeners ring us asking why don't we consider giving refugee status to those Syrians currently in our detention centres. Would you consider that?

JULIE BISHOP We are responding to a particular crisis. We are looking at people who are in camps, who have taken refuge in Lebanon and Turkey and Jordan in particular. These will be people that we select, these will be people that we screen and that we will bring to Australia. They are not people that a people smuggling network have selected and provided boats to come to Australia. They are people that we will be selecting.

GERALDINE DOOGUE Of course, some of them might be because there are versions of people smugglers in Europe too that they have paid money to. Can you be absolutely sure of what you are saying there?

JULIE BISHOP These are people who have made their way across the borders. I've met with numbers of them in these registration centres where they have to be registered by the UNHCR. So we will be speaking with them, we will be doing our own assessments, we are sending a team of Australian officials to work with the UNHCR and with the International Organisation of Migration, Red Cross and others to ensure that we carry out the appropriate character, security, health checks and of course they have to provide identification.

GERALDINE DOOGUE As the Prime Minister said this is a generous response to the refugee crisis. I wonder whether you hope it will encourage other nations like the Gulf States to do more, or for that matter the US. I don't think I've heard a single statement from the United States about taking more people for instance.

JULIE BISHOP This humanitarian crisis has been going on since 2011 inside Syria, since 2014 in Iraq, and Australia has been playing a leading role for some time. We have authored and led discussions in the UN Security Council in 2013 and 2014 about the humanitarian crisis and we have called for more support, we have called for unimpeded access by humanitarian workers into Syria and Iraq and so Australia has been a strong voice on the world stage but other countries have also been doing their part.

I had a long conversation with Secretary of State John Kerry last evening, also with my UAE and my Saudi Arabian counterparts, and I will be speaking with other Foreign Ministers from Europe and also the Gulf States in the Middle East over the next few days.

There is a recognition that this requires an international response. There must be a humanitarian response and we are part of that. There must be a military and security response, we are also part of that. There must be a political solution and that was the topic of discussion with Secretary Kerry last night, what we can do to ensure that there is a regime in Syria that doesn't attack its own people and that we can defeat a terrorist organisation that is carrying out the most brutal and violent attacks on people we've seen.

GERALDINE DOOGUE Well look I wonder if opinion is subtly shifting here, just hearing from what you are saying. The veteran Beirut correspondent Robert Fisk told Lateline last night that he understood from various sources that the Americans were starting to believe, very reluctantly, that Assad was better than Islamic State, despite his terrible record. Could you enlighten us about any changing of opinion or any start of changing opinion?

JULIE BISHOP There is no doubt that the Assad regime has been vicious and brutal. You recall the reports of the Assad regime using chemical weapons against its own people. It lost all legitimacy as far as I was concerned when it turned on its own people with the use of chemical weapons and Australia was a part of the effort to strip the Assad regime of its chemical weapons.

The fear of course is a vacuum and wherever there is a vacuum in leadership, a terrorist organisation is likely to fill it and that is how ISIL got its start. The Islamic State, now known as Da'esh, so there is concern that if Assad were removed, if Assad were to leave, who would take his place? And one has to be assured that it wouldn't be a terrorist organisation.

Now this organisation has already claimed territory over eastern Syria, over part of Iraq, it claims a caliphate, so it has disregarded the sovereignty of Syria and Iraq. It disregards its borders, that is why it must be defeated militarily but in the meantime one would not want to leave a vacuum that would give Da'esh the opportunity to expand its ambitions further.

GERALDINE DOOGUE So I do hear a shift on Syria, on Assad then, from you.

JULIE BISHOP No you're not hearing a change of foreign policy from me. What I'm saying is the reality, the facts on the ground, that one would not want to give any room for Da'esh to expand its ambitions and its power and its authority. So what we are seeking to do is focus on defeating this terrorist organisation. Now discussions have been underway for some years, it's called the Geneva Communique, the Geneva Process, to find a political solution in Syria so those discussions have been underway for quite some time, so this is a continuation of that discussion.

GERALDINE DOOGUE It's just that there is a lot shifting. Fisk also pointed to very specific information about the Turkish Intelligence Officers help to IS for instance, Russia is increasing its support for the Assad regime and I notice Elliott Abrams, the former prominent Bush adviser, has been in Australia this week warning that the West can't allow Russia and Iran to dictate the course of events in the Middle East. Does that worry you? Or indeed in your conversations with Secretary of State Kerry, did that emerge?

JULIE BISHOP Of course we are concerned about Russia's support for the Assad regime, that is nothing new. Russia has been supporting the Assad regime for some time. This has played out in the Security Council on a number of occasions. The Iranians are supporting the Iraqi Government in Iraq, as we are, but they are also supporting the Assad regime in Syria and we are not.

I have been in Tehran. I've met with the Foreign Minister and the leadership of Tehran and had detailed conversations with them but our focus is on the civilians, our focus is on ensuring that Australian foreign terrorist fighters do not take up arms with this terrorist organisation and our focus is on ensuring that they don't come back to Australia and carry out terrorist attacks in our country.

GERALDINE DOOGUE Julie Bishop, thank you very much for joining us.

JULIE BISHOP My pleasure.

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