Sky News AM Agenda, New York - Interview with Kieran Gilbert

  • Transcript, E&OE
21 November 2014

KIERAN GILBERT Egypt's President says he's considering granting Presidential pardons to two jailed Al Jazeera journalists, including Australian Peter Greste. We're live to Foreign Minister Julie Bishop in New York.

Minister thanks for your time. He's previously, the President said, that he needs to see the legal avenues exhausted. Does this change that?

JULIE BISHOP From the outset Kieran, from the moment Peter Greste was detained, the Australian Government has been making representations at the highest level to try and get him released. After his conviction in the middle of the year we continued to make representations, again at the highest level, for some kind of Presidential pardon or clemency and we were told, including by the President, that Mr Greste had to serve until his appeal process had been concluded.

The appeal is listed for the 1st of January 2015 and so whatever the outcome of that appeal we were intending to press for a pardon or clemency so that we can get Peter Greste home. If the President is now saying that he will consider the pardon earlier, well then that certainly is welcome news but we haven't been informed of that by the Egyptian Government at any formal level but will continue to make enquiries and continue to make representations to ensure we can get Peter Greste home as soon as possible.

KIERAN GILBERT Because there has been hope before only to be dashed, I guess that's the fear again this time?

JULIE BISHOP I think that's right. We have been told by the President and by the Egyptian Foreign Minister and others that his appeal process has to be concluded before there will be consideration of a pardon or a clemency appeal. So, we'll have to see what this latest statement means in terms of being able to release Peter Greste as soon as possible but we will certainly follow through as we have done every time there's been an indication that there might be some movement on the part of the Egyptian Government.

KIERAN GILBERT Let's return to the issue of climate change, specifically the address in Brisbane by the US President. You sent him a briefing note, or the US Embassy, after that speech relating to the Great Barrier Reef and what Australia is doing in regard to protecting the Great Barrier Reef. Was that a diplomatic shirtfront?

JULIE BISHOP No. What I was doing was trying to ensure that the White House was briefed on the information that I had provided to the United States Secretary of the Interior just days before President Obama's speech in Queensland. The US Secretary of the Interior was at the World Parks Congress and I took the opportunity to give her a very comprehensive briefing on Australia's commitment and capacity to preserve and conserve the Great Barrier Reef, including the fact that mining and drilling and exploration was banned in the Great Barrier Reef region and that the Abbott Government has announced that it would not allow, in fact ban at law, the dumping of the capital dredge waste in the marine park area.

These were issues that I felt the President may not have been aware of and particularly the fact that the Australian Government and the Queensland Government are committing $180 million a year specifically for the conservation and preservation of the Great Barrier Reef. After all it's an environmental icon, it's a tourism drawcard and about 70,000 Australian jobs are dependent upon the Great Barrier Reef remaining an environmental and tourism icon. Australia knows better than anyone the importance of preserving and conserving the Great Barrier Reef.

KIERAN GILBERT I know the Queensland Government wasn't happy about that reference but can you tell me was there anything the President said in his speech which was incorrect? Because it seems to me that you're making two separate points. He's talking about the broader impact of climate change.

JULIE BISHOP I was talking about the work that we had done to preserve and conserve the Great Barrier Reef. Of course the Great Barrier Reef will be conserved for generations to come and we do not believe that it is in danger. In fact the Australian Government is making every effort to ensure that the Great Barrier Reef is preserved for generations to come and that was the point that I had made to the Secretary of the Interior and the point that we made to the White House after President Obama's speech to reassure him that he can most certainly visit the reef, he can most certainly bring his family and that the Australian Government takes most seriously our responsibility as the custodian of this magnificent environmental and tourism attraction.

KIERAN GILBERT So he was wrong then to raise that concern?

JULIE BISHOP I don't believe he had been briefed on the detail that I'd provided to the Secretary of the Interior so I wanted to ensure that the White House was well aware of the significant steps that the Australian Government and the Queensland Government had taken to ensure that the Great Barrier Reef is not threatened by climate change, by nutrient run-off from agriculture, by mining or drilling. That's why I wanted to ensure that he knew that the Australian Government had banned the dumping of capital dredge waste, mining drilling, exploration in the Great Barrier Reef.

KIERAN GILBERT Overnight we've seen now 30 countries contributing to that United Nations Green Climate Funding, including of course the United States, but I know as Foreign Minister you, as part of the Government's foreign policy, have wanted to focus on our region, on our neighbourhood. Given the small island nations of the Pacific are most vulnerable really in the face of sea rise, is it appropriate to be contributing to this Green Climate Fund which is designed to help poorer, developing countries mitigate against climate change?

JULIE BISHOP Well that's precisely what we're doing through our aid budget which is focussed on the Pacific and on the small island developing states in the Pacific. We are providing funding for mitigation and adaptation for these countries to be able to avoid the risks of climate change and be more resilient. So that's precisely what we're already doing through our aid budget and as I just indicated we're also taking steps and investing a considerable amount of money to ensure that the Great Barrier Reef is preserved and conserved. So this is action that the Government is already taking under our aid budget, under our Direct Action Plan, which in many ways mirrors what the United States is doing in relation to climate change.

The United States is not imposing a carbon tax. The United States is taking direct action to clean up coal fired power stations. They are moving to other forms of energy including shale gas and shale oil, so I think there are very similar paths that the United States and Australia is taking on climate change for a start.

KIERAN GILBERT The UN has released an Environment Programme Emissions Gap Report that says Australia is in the top four countries who won't meet their commitments on climate change and it suggested Australia is likely to require further action or to purchase offsets to meet commitments. Do you accept that across a number of different issues on this broader problem of climate change that Australia is out of step with the global approach?

JULIE BISHOP I don't accept that Australia won't meet its target, in fact we're on track to meet our target. And we don't know where this report came from because they certainly didn't consult with any of the relevant agencies within Australia. I believe that we will meet the target. It's a bipartisan target, both sides of politics signed up to it, and I believe that we will meet that but also we are doing more.

This report seems to have based its assessment on only the repeal of the carbon tax and it hasn't taken into account all of the other measures, the replacement policies. For example the Emissions Reduction Fund where we're investing about $2.5 billion in ensuring that we can reduce our share of greenhouse gas emissions. After all Australia is responsible for about 1.5 per cent of total global greenhouse gas emissions but we're taking steps to ensure that we not only meet our 2020 target but that we are in a position to commit to other targets in 2015 in the lead up to the Paris Climate Change Summit.

KIERAN GILBERT A couple of quick questions to finish - a Swedish court has upheld an arrest warrant against Julian Assange. Have we had any consultations with Swedish authorities over this case?

JULIE BISHOP We have sought to provide consular assistance to Julian Assange for some time but he has rejected any offers so it's a matter for Julian Assange to contact us if he wants us to assist him but we've made the offers a number of times in the past but he hasn't. It's obviously a matter for Julian Assange's lawyers to take up with the Swedish authorities or indeed the British authorities where he's currently staying. So we stand ready to provide consular assistance should Mr Assange seek it.

KIERAN GILBERT This is our final Presidency of the UN Security Council on this rotation. What do you think Australia's legacy is from our presence on that top UN body?

JULIE BISHOP I believe Australia is seen as a practical proactive contributor to the United Nations Security Council work. From the outset we have focussed on issues such as the humanitarian crisis in Syria, issues such as the trade in small arms particularly relevant to our region in the Pacific. We have focussed on counter-terrorism and the issue of foreign terrorist fighters. And of course we used the position on the Security Council for the purposes of ensuring that we could get some kind of redress for the victims and their families of MH17 when we were able to steer a unanimous resolution through the Security Council to set up an independent investigation into the causes of the shooting down of MH17 and also to gain access to the site so that we could seek to receive the bodies and the remains of the victims of the crash. The 38 Australians on board, Australian residents and citizens, certainly deserved that unanimous resolution of the Security Council as we did what we could to find closure for their loved ones.

KIERAN GILBERT Indeed there was progress made on that so I guess in that context, Minister, do you accept that it was wrong to criticise the bid for the UN Security Council when you said during the bidding process that our foreign policy had been skewed to pursuing the seat? There really had been no justification for the benefit that will accrue to Australia by pursuing a seat at that time.

JULIE BISHOP Well that's not exactly what I said. The point I was making at the time was that the advice we receive from the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade was that if Australia pursued a seat at that time it would mean that resources would have to be diverted from other foreign policy priorities in order to campaign for the seat on the Security Council. We expressed our concern, and rightly so, that foreign policies should not be compromised by securing a seat on the Security Council and that other foreign policy priorities still need to be resourced and be the subject of the government's focus.

The government put most of its effort into winning a seat on the Security Council and we said, if they win the seat, and should we become the government, we will most certainly provide it with the resources and the staffing and the focus required so that Australia can serve with distinction and Australia has, I believe, served with distinction. The feedback I've had from other Security Council members has been very positive. And of course we would seek a seat on the Security Council again at the right time.

KIERAN GILBERT Forgive me, but this was a direct quote from Sky News in March 2012, you said the fact is that our foreign policy resources are being completely skewed to pursuing the seat and there really has been no justification for the benefit that will accrue to Australia by pursuing a seat at this time.

JULIE BISHOP The point I was making is that our foreign policy resources and focus were skewed - that's a fact. The government at no time presented a justification for doing this and that's a fact. In fact I believe Kevin Rudd said something like – 'it's a long time between drinks' – well that's no justification for taking away resources from other foreign policy areas. But I also said "at this time" because that was the advice that we'd received from the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade.

But Kieran, there's no issue here. When Australia won the seat we congratulated the government at the time, the Labor Government. We congratulated them and said if we become the government we will ensure that the Security Council seat is well resourced and that we serve with distinction and I believe that Australia has. We've certainly taken every opportunity to push issues that relate to Australia's national interest and I believe that the Abbott Government has used the position wisely and we have certainly provided support to our team here at the United Nations so they can carry out the positive work and make the contribution that Australia has over the last two years in total, but certainly the last 12 months - 14 months since the Abbott Government has been in office.

KIERAN GILBERT Foreign Minister, I know it's been a big day there in New York. I appreciate you making time for us.

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