Radio National Breakfast, Melbourne - interview with Fran Kelly

  • Transcript, E&OE

Well, as we heard earlier this morning on the program, there's been a significant shift in US policy towards Syria. US President Barack Obama has announced Special Forces will be deployed to quote: train, advise and assist in the fight against Islamic State militants. Russia - which has intervened on the side of the Syrian regime - has denounced the move, saying it increases the risk of a proxy war developing in the region, which could impact on Australian forces engaged in the fight against Islamic State. So could this be the quote 'witches brew of danger and complexity' where nothing ever has a happy ending that former Prime Minister Tony Abbott was warning about last week?

Foreign Minster Julie Bishop joins us this morning. Julie Bishop, good morning, welcome to Breakfast.

JULIE BISHOP: Thanks Fran, good to be with you.

FRAN KELLY: We'll get to Syria in a moment but can I ask you first Minister, the crash of the Russian passenger jet over Egypt, over Sinai, how much credence do you give, does the Australian Government place, on these claims by ISIS that it shot down that jet?

JULIE BISHOP: Well, first Fran, the Australian Government extends its condolences to the Russian people, to the family and friends of those aboard that flight and all concerned. The Australian Embassy in Cairo and the Australian Embassy in Moscow have been in contact with local authorities following reports of the crash, and I can confirm that no Australians were listed being on board.

The media have been reporting that an ISIS affiliate or a Daesh affiliate is claiming to have shot down the aircraft but this is pure speculation - both the Egyptian and Russian authorities have rejected those claims. However, until the investigation is completed we won't know precisely the cause. The black boxes have been recovered. The flight recorders have been recovered and they're currently in Cairo being analysed and assessed, and it could take some time before we know the actual cause, but both the Egyptian and the Russian authorities have said that the claims by Daesh have no basis at all, they are not credible.

FRAN KELLY: There's footage - I don't know whether you've seen it - on the internet - which this ISIS affiliated group and others are saying proves that they did shoot down the plane. Again, that footage has been widely dismissed. But I know it's what the Egyptian and the Russians are saying, but what's your intelligence tell you? Can ISIS involvement be ruled out at this stage? All we know is the plane was exploded in mid-air, don't we?

JULIE BISHOP: I don't believe that the video footage has been verified, has been credible in any way, but until the black box recorders have been assessed, until the investigation's been carried out, it would be just speculation on my part. I know that a number of airlines have already announced that they will suspend flights over the area as a precaution, and that's obviously an appropriate decision for a number of these airlines to take. But my point is until the investigation is completed, it would be just speculation.

FRAN KELLY: Of course. We do know that ISIS is active in the Sinai though. Do you have access to any intelligence suggestion that they possess the means to shoot down a passenger jet like this?

JULIE BISHOP: Well there are a number of ways that a plane could be brought down. The experts advise that the terrorist organisations would not have, for example, surface to air missile capability. But there are other suggestions being made about a bomb being on board. Now, this is all speculation and we don't know the cause. We won't know until the investigation is completed.

FRAN KELLY: Of course, the Australian Government as you said extends its sympathies to the countries who have lost citizens here, and the families of those citizens. But I must ask you Minister, does it strike you as ironic that Russia wants to sort of wait until a full investigation is conducted into the causes of this plane crash? You know, before making any further comment, given how hostile President Putin was to a full investigation into flight MH17?

JULIE BISHOP: Yes, I'm sure the irony won't be lost on people, but now is not the time for me to make such a comment. Obviously, there are families and friends who are grieving over the loss of their loved ones aboard this flight, and the Australian Government is certainly extending our condolences. Our embassies in Cairo and in Moscow will continue to remain in contact with the local authorities and until such time as we know the actual cause of the crash, it would just be speculation for me to comment further.

FRAN KELLY: It's ten past eight. Our guest is Foreign Minister, Julie Bishop. Minister, on another issue now, Washington on Friday, US President Barack Obama, announced Special Forces to be deployed in Syria quote 'to help coordinate local ground forces and Coalition efforts'. Small in number - fewer than 50 special operations forces - but the first time US soldiers will have worked openly on the ground in Syria. Is this a start of a ground campaign by Western countries in Syria?

JULIE BISHOP: I don't believe it is. I'm aware of President Obama's announcement authorising the deployment of a limited number of Special Forces, and I'm certainly aware of US Defence Secretary Ash Carter and General Dunford's comments in front of the Senate Services Committee regarding US strategy in Iraq and Syria. They gave that evidence last week.

We have no plans to change the nature of Australia's military deployment. We are supporting international efforts to degrade and ultimately defeat Daesh, in both Syria and Iraq. We are making a major military contribution to address the threat. We are doing that by building the capacity and capability of the Iraqi security and defence forces, and we're making a significant humanitarian contribution in response to the crisis in Iraq and Syria. So we have no plans to change the nature of our military deployment at all.

FRAN KELLY: But in fact some of our forces are there, Special Forces and others, to do precisely that: train, advise and assist in Iraq. Do you - if the request comes from Washington to extend that to Syria is Australia open to that?

JULIE BISHOP: We are in Iraq at the invitation of and with the consent of the Iraqi Government, and so we are building the capacity of the Iraqi security forces. We are not in combat zones, we are not out on the ground - we are training and assisting in building their capability in particular areas within Iraq.

We are only taking part in air strikes over Syria - we have no troops in Syria – we are taking part in air strikes, against Daesh bases from which attacks are being launched against Iraq. So our legal position is very clear: we're in Iraq at the invitation of the Iraqi Government. We are only in Syria as part of what's called collective self-defence of Iraq. So it's a very limited mission.

FRAN KELLY: Last week in London, Tony Abbott spoke of the need for Western Special Forces on the ground in Iraq and Syria. Almost precisely what, in fact suggesting almost, precisely what US Obama - US President Barack Obama seems to have done. He said air strikes aren't enough - what's needed is decisive force. He talked about Special Forces. Was that his way of thinking when he was prime minister? Was he discussing this notion with you?

JULIE BISHOP: Well, it's not useful for me to go into discussions with a former prime minister. We are dealing with the here and now, and I welcome the convening of talks in Vienna last week because a military option is not the solution. I believe that we need a political solution, diplomatic efforts, to end the crisis in Syria. And I agree with Secretary John Kerry's comment that this is the beginning of a new diplomatic process, not the final chapter.

I have consistently advocated for a negotiated political solution to the Syria crisis and I also welcome the participation of Iranian Foreign Minister Zarif because it's important that key stakeholders, and that includes Iran and Russia, can play a constructive role in achieving a negotiated outcome. So whilst there is a focus on military deployment of the United States at present, I believe that we also need to focus on the diplomatic efforts and try to find a political solution to the crisis in Syria.

FRAN KELLY: And those diplomatic efforts have changed quite rapidly with the insertion of Russia around that table and then we saw Iran there at the table too last week. Russia has been accused of striking opposition groups, some backed by Washington. Do you think the US would be sending in ground forces if not for Russia's involvement in Syria, is this what this is about as much as the fight against ISIS?

JULIE BISHOP: This is a very complicated situation in both Syria and Iraq. It's more complicated by the presence of Russia and we can see this thing played out as Russia backs the Assad regime and of course the Coalition want to see the end of the Assad regime. This is a regime that has declared war on its own people, who have used chemical weapons against its own people. I believe President Assad lost any legitimacy a number of years ago when he attacked his own people but we have to deal with the reality on the ground and that's why I'm calling for a negotiated settlement, a political solution to the Syria crisis because a military deployment will not be able to resolve, first the terrorist issue, but also the political situation in Syria.

FRAN KELLY: Minister there's a few issue on your plate at the moment, which is I guess usual for a foreign minister but another global hotspot is the South China Sea. Australia has strongly backed last week's freedom of navigation exercise by the US Navy. China's naval commander, Admiral Wu Shengli, told his US counterpart late last week there could be war if the US did not stop its provocative acts. He says even a minor incident that sparks war. Is it wise for US to taunt China by sailing so close to disputed islands?

JULIE BISHOP: Well the United States is operating in accordance with international law, and it has sailed close to what had been constructed features in the South China Sea and this raises a whole question of whether a constructed feature can generate any kind of maritime or economic zone or any territorial claim. And our position has always been that these matters should be resolved pursuant to international law, negotiated arbitration. So if China claims that it has territorial claims over features that have been constructed then that's a matter that should be tested in the international courts.

FRAN KELLY: And what about testing it in the South China Sea, will Australian frigates, we've got HMAS Stuart and HMAS Arunta at the Chinese port of Guangdong province at the moment, we've got Orions that could fly over, will we test it?

JULIE BISHOP: We are currently engaged in joint exercises with the Chinese Navy. We are currently engaged in joint exercises with the United States. We don't take sides in these territorial claims and I've made that quite clear for years now. We do not take sides in the territorial claims. What we believe should happen is that parties take the claims to international courts to have them judged according to international laws, the law of the sea, and in the meantime there should be a de-escalation of tensions and there should be freedom of navigation, freedom of overflight throughout the South China Sea. Now Australia has a deep national interest in this because of course two-thirds of our trade passes through the South China Sea. So we want all nations to uphold the fundamental principles of freedom of navigation and freedom of overflight, according to international law.

FRAN KELLY: Foreign Minister can I just stray from your portfolio for a moment, everyone's talking about the GST today, we've had the Treasurer Scott Morrison here telling us again the Government certainly has modelling a number of scenarios including a 15 per cent increase to the GST. As a West Australian, do you concur with Premier Colin Barnett that there should only be an increase to the GST if it means more money and a better share of the GST for WA?

JULIE BISHOP: Well of course Western Australia would want to have its fair share of the GST, but what the Government is seeking to do is make our tax system lower, simpler and fairer and we are involved in discussions with the States and Territories -and that of course includes Western Australia - on how we can work together to improve our tax system. Western Australia had reached a very low level of GST take and I think everybody agrees that it's got to be fairer.

FRAN KELLY: Hard to see how it's lower though when you're bumping up a GST if that's what the Government does.

JULIE BISHOP: Well you have to take into account all taxes, you don't just pick and choose and cherry pick one tax and say well that means that taxes are high. You've got to look at the whole picture and overall we want to see lower, simpler, fairer taxes and we want to have a tax system that gives Australians incentives to work and save and invest so that we can grow the economy and have more jobs for the Australian people. So that's what we're focusing on and we're not trying to increase the tax burden on Australians. What we are trying to do is reign in government spending and ensure that we've got a tax system that can support growth in our economy, improve our international competitiveness and ensure that we continue to be a prosperous nation into the future.

FRAN KELLY: Julie Bishop thank you very much for joining us.

JULIE BISHOP: My pleasure.

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