Sky News, First Edition, interview with Kieran Gilbert

  • Transcript, E&OE

JOURNALIST: And we're joined live on First Edition by the Foreign Minister, Julie Bishop. Minister, thanks for your time. As we've seen a state of emergency declared in Egypt, more than 44 killed in two suicide bombings there. In Stockholm, the Swedes continue to mourn that terrorist attack of late last week. While the IS might be defeated in Iraq and Syria, defeating the ideology's going to be so much tougher, isn't it?

JULIE BISHOP: That's absolutely right, Kieran. We've seen another shocking spate of attacks that ISIS have claimed responsibility for. These brutal murders of Coptic Christians in the week before Easter is particularly appalling, and we condemn ISIS and its ideology for inspiring or directing others to carry out these horrible attacks on innocent people. This is why it's so important for us to continue to defeat ISIS at its base, at its source, which is in Iraq and Syria. But of course the situation in Syria is complicated enormously by the civil war that is also raging there, this is why the Turnbull Government is so committed to countering terrorism in all its forms, wherever it occurs around the world and particularly to ensure that our region, our nation is as safe as it can be.

JOURNALIST: Now in relation to the response in Syria, we've seen that from President Trump. Some mixed messages though, from members of his cabinet. We've heard Rex Tillerson suggest that it's a matter for the Syrian people what happens to Assad. And yet another senior member of the Trump administration out of the UN, Nikki Haley, she's saying that Assad can't stay as part of any future Syria. What's our government's position on this?

JULIE BISHOP: We have said from 2013 that President Assad has lost all legitimacy as a leader, when he unleashed chemical weapons against his own people, his own citizens. And the Assad regime has continued to use chemical weapons in 2014 and 2015 and again recently. So our position has always been that Assad has no long-term position as leader, but when Russia came in and backed Syria, we needed to work with Russia and Iran and others who are supporting the Assad regime, to transition him out of the leadership. The question is, how do you remove President Assad and what does the next day look like? Who is in charge of the Syrian military? Who's running the country?

And so this is why Rex Tillerson, the Secretary of State from the US, is going to Moscow this week. He will be discussing with the Russians, a way to resolve this appalling situation in Syria, where you have a conflict going on between the Assad regime and opposition forces and at the same time this terrorist organisation ISIS, is not only carrying out attacks in Syria and in Iraq, but it is also inspiring attacks around the world. Last night, about midnight, I spoke to Britain's Foreign Secretary, Boris Johnson. And he will be going to a G7 meeting next week, to likewise rally support amongst the Europeans - Canada, Japan and others - to ensure that the Russians understand the need to pull back their support from the Assad regime, which has clearly lost all legitimacy in the eyes of the international community.

JOURNALIST: The Prime Minister's comments at the weekend in PNG, where he said that Assad has to go. Does that reflect any shift in position from our government, or does it remain that Assad stays in power through a transition process, but you're talking longer term, he needs to be out of there?

JULIE BISHOP: No, it's a hardening of the position we've always held, which is Assad is not part of the political outcome in Syria. We don't see him standing for election. What we're saying is that for the moment, Assad is in control of the Syrian military, the Syrian Government, backed by Russia and Iran and others. What we must now do is convince the Russians to withdraw their support from the Assad regime and there be a change of leadership. Now how that is able to be achieved is obviously a matter of deep and broad negotiations between the United States and its allies on one hand, Russia and Iran and others on the other hand.

JOURNALIST: So when you say a hardening of the position, do you mean that he needs to be removed sooner than previously anticipated?

JULIE BISHOP: What I mean by that is President Assad has now shown once more that he cannot be trusted to protect his own people. In fact he's unleashing chemical weapons against his own people. No leader can remain in place, while they carry out such brutal attacks on their own people, but the question of how to remove President Assad must be the subject of negotiations with Russia, because the UN Security Council has failed to come up with a resolution in relation to this most recent attack. There is a UN Security Council resolution that deals with the question of the political transition away from the Assad regime, but that hasn't been able to be implemented. So this visit of Rex Tillerson to Moscow will be extremely important in promoting the notion that Assad must be removed as part of a political transition away from this brutal regime.

JOURNALIST: But this dictator, as you said yourself, has used chemical weapons on his own population over many years. There was the sarin attack of 2013. We've seen hundreds of thousands of civilians, more than 50,000 kids killed as part of this civil war. Why now? Why this shift from our government? Is it just because Trump is hardening up the US response?

JULIE BISHOP: No it's not a shift from our government. There's been another chemical weapons attack. Of course the Turnbull Government responds to that. All governments around the world should be shocked by what we have seen from the Assad regime. So at a time when the United States is seeking to defeat ISIS, we have the Assad regime unleashing chemical weapons in its own citizens.

So the global community is shocked, not just the Turnbull Government, we're all appalled by what we've seen, and the response by the United States in attacking the air base from which the chemical weapons attack took place was a proportionate, calibrated, targeted attack to send a message to Assad and its allies that the international community will not tolerate a leadership that unleashes chemical weapons on its own people. I mean, this is enough from the Assad regime.

Therefore we must work with Russia, who's backing it. Russia has strategic interests in Syria, we recognise that, but we need to be working with Russia to counter terrorism and resolve the bloody the conflict that's been raging between the Assad regime and the opposition forces for nearly six years now.

JOURNALIST: Returning to where we began with that attack on the two Coptic churches in Egypt, I want to get your sense of where our intelligence is at now. In Australia we know there's a review of intelligence agencies launched in November last year. My understanding is that the former director of the GCHQ, the Government Communications Headquarters in the UK, Iain Lobban, has been in Australia recently talking to senior members of the Government. Where is that review at and are you satisfied with where our intelligence is at in terms of any potential attack in this country?

JULIE BISHOP: We have one of the best intelligence, security and law enforcement systems in the world, but we cannot guarantee everybody's safety. What we can do is ensure that our intelligence community is as well-resourced and well-equipped as it can be and I believe we have done that. We are working to ensure that our intelligence community has the right structures in place - that it has access to the very best in terms of resources and personnel and that's part of the review that's being undertaken by a number of experts, including Sir Iain Lobban. He was in Australia, as you mentioned, I did meet with him and we had a discussion about our intelligence community. He's very strong in his praise of our security, law enforcement and intelligence agencies but he recognises - as Great Britain has recognised - that you continually need to review the situation, because the world is so volatile. The terrorist threat is ever changing. There are hot spots around the world that affect Australia and our national interests. So the Turnbull Government is determined to do all we can to ensure that our intelligence agencies have the resources they need to keep Australia and Australians as safe as we can, as safe as possible.

JOURNALIST: And the final issue I want to ask you about is North Korea. An aircraft carrier led strike group, led by USS Carl Vinson, that strike group heading to the Korean Peninsula essentially to keep an eye on what's happening there. Is your anticipation, your expectation that this will have to be used? Just how volatile is Pyongyang right now?

JULIE BISHOP: Well just as the United States has been calling on Russia as a key player in resolving the conflict in Syria - because Russia's backing the Assad regime - the United States and others are calling on China to help resolve the destabilisation on the Korean Peninsula because North Korea keeps ramping up its nuclear program and its ballistic missile testing. The United States are sending a very clear message that the international community will not tolerate a rogue state like North Korea continuing its provocative acts of launching ballistic missiles into the Sea of Japan, threatening not only Japan and South Korea, but the region and, in fact, globally. North Korea is a security risk to the region and to the globe and the United States is sending a very powerful message that that won't be tolerated.

JOURNALIST: Foreign Minister, as always, appreciate your time. Thank you.

JULIE BISHOP: Thank you.

- Ends -

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