Sky News - interview with Peter Van Onselen

  • Transcript, E&OE

PETER VAN ONSELEN: Let me ask you about Iran. I mean, internationally, obviously, that's the really big news overnight: a deal's been struck. Republications including Jeb Bush are criticising it as appeasement. Obviously, President Barack Obama is praising it. The Prime Minister has given cautious support. What's your view on the deal that they've struck?

JULIE BISHOP: I think the P5+1, that's the six countries that have sought to deal with international concerns about Iran's nuclear program and nuclear ambitions, deserve to be congratulated for striking a deal. Now, whether that deal holds is of course a matter for Iran to comply with its side of the agreement. In particular, that will mean inspections and transparency at every step of their nuclear program. What it has done is brought Iran into the international regime of inspections of nuclear programs and that is a good thing. As a number have pointed out, including President Obama, there really is no credible option on the table and so this comprehensive plan to essentially constrain Iran's nuclear program, in fact key elements of the program will be frozen for at least 10-15 years, means that at least there is time for the international inspections to take place and for the program to be verified and that's the point.

PETER VAN ONSELEN: Are you cynical though about them being able to really get the kind of verification they want? That seems to be one of the things that the Republicans are worried about.

JULIE BISHOP: Well, I'm cautious about that and I understand the Republicans concern, but I think we have to give this comprehensive plan a chance. What will happen now is the IAEA, the International Atomic Energy Agency, will have inspectors, international inspectors, go in and inspect each step of their nuclear program and then seek to verify it. Now, the sanctions that have been imposed by the US and the EU and others on Iran won't lift, they won't be suspended, until such time as the inspectors have verified. If the inspectors say that Iran has failed in its commitments then there's this "snapback". The sanctions are immediately reimposed and I know, because I've been there, I know that the sanctions are having an impact on Iran's economy.

PETER VAN ONSELEN: Let's assume that it all goes as planned, at least initially. Does it have an impact on the war against ISIS? Because obviously Iranian Shia militia have had a pretty lead hand there and there's been a caution with the West having anything to do with them but there's a recognition that they are in the fight. Does this have any impact on that, this opening up of dialogue with Iran, do you think?

JULIE BISHOP: You will recall that last year Secretary of State John Kerry said that there's enough room in the fight against Daesh or Islamic State for all countries, in fact, he included Iran specifically in that. John Kerry was opening the door, paving the way if you like for Iran to work with the Coalition in defeating Daesh, because Iran sees it as much of an existential threat as the United States and other countries do. So I do see a situation where there's more communication between Iran and the Coalition. We're very aware of the fact that Iran is in Iraq, it is on the ground, it has troops on the ground, it is backing the Shia militia who are doing a lot of the heavy lifting in the fight against Daesh, and the Prime Minister of Iraq has made it quite clear to the Coalition and anyone who'll listen that he needs Iran's support to defeat this terrorist organisation.

PETER VAN ONSELEN: Let me just be a contrarian on ISIS for a moment. I mean are there really that many differences between ISIS and the Wahhabi religious ideology that comes out of Saudi Arabia, who we've invited here for the G8 and so forth? The real significant difference seems to be that one already has a state, which they managed to manufacture a few decades back, a bit more than that. The other one is searching for a state. Yes, they're gruesome, but there's a level of brutality there that's on both sides of this.

JULIE BISHOP: Let me put it in context. Ever since World War II, the globe has been building a rules-based international order. The bedrock of that is that you don't invade other countries, you don't take territory, you don't redraw boundaries; you respect the sovereignty of the nation state. Now this extremist Islamic organisation, Daesh, is posing a direct challenge, a direct threat to that international rules-based order; the bedrock of modern democratic societies. Because until the Coalition airstrikes began, Daesh was taking territory - city by city, town by town, across northern Iraq, in Syria, and they announced a caliphate: essentially an Islamic state. Until the airstrikes began, their territorial ambitions were unstoppable. There was a momentum about these military-style entries into cities as they took them over. I was in Baghdad last year. There was a real fear, a genuine fear, that Baghdad – a city of three or four million people – would fall to Daesh. So it is a direct threat, it is a direct challenge. Prime Minister David Cameron has called it the battle of our generation. Others have called it an existential threat. In fact, as I said, Secretary of State John Kerry did. So I believe that it is unprecedented and, from Australia's perspective, we now have Australians seeking to kill Australians in Australia, inspired by this ideology.

PETER VAN ONSELEN: As I'm sure you know, I sort of mocked the extent of the threat in a column on the weekend. Surely something like Communism and these sorts of threats during the heady days of the Cold War were a bigger threat than this relatively marginalised – not in the Middle East – but relatively marginalised force that seems to be uniting the Arab world against it.

JULIE BISHOP: I will not understate the significance of this threat at any point. I know there are many people – the Nobel Prize winner V. S. Naipaul says that it might as well call itself the Fourth Reich, because it has declared war on Shias, Sunni, Christians, Jews, Yazidis; everyone is a target for them who doesn't belong to their particular ideology. But I believe that the Australian Government is being responsible, proportionate, and taking the steps necessary to protect Australians from terrorist attacks which are one of the hallmarks of this organisation, but not the only one. Its territorial ambitions are what makes it an unprecedented threat.

PETER VAN ONSELEN: So what about the rhetoric? I mean, the Prime Minister's saying that they're coming to get us all or words to that effect, it's not very similar to what John Howard used to say about being alert but not alarmed? I mean, that rings out alarm bells?

JULIE BISHOP: Peter, the fact is about 160 Australians are known to be actively supporting this terrorist organisation. About 120 Australians are believed to be in Iraq and Syria fighting with them, and this is an organisation that has declared war on Australia by encouraging people to pick up a knife, a rock, run them down; kill people. Since September last year, at least seven terrorist attacks in Australia have been thwarted by our security and law enforcement agencies. I have responsibility for passports. We've cancelled about 120 passports of people deemed by our security advisers as a national security risk.

PETER VAN ONSELEN: Can I ask you about that? To follow up I guess the pointy end of the response, is there significant deradicalisation efforts that are going into looking at these 100 plus individuals that securities agencies have such an eye on?

JULIE BISHOP: I think there needs to be more focus on the pathology. We are focussing on the ideology behind this extremist threat, but we also need to understand why young Australians – particularly those who've been educated, some come from middle income families – would be attracted to this brutal narrative that includes killing and murdering people in the most appalling ways. These crucifixions and beheadings that they put up on social media are being used to attract, to recruit people. So we do need to do more but the Australian Government has committed a lot of money and resources and effort into working with communities: the Muslim communities across Australia, with schools, with places of worship, with families, to see if we can deradicalise, we can neutralise, this ideological threat that we're facing.

PETER VAN ONSELEN: I want to ask you about a completely separate issue. There's a report on ABC Radio from yesterday in relation to – it quotes two albeit unnamed Liberals, one Senator, one MP – talking about the Chinese at the 'highest levels', having raised their concern that Barnaby Joyce could become the Deputy Prime Minister one day if Warren Truss chooses to retire and he takes over; he is their Deputy. Have the highest levels included them talking to you?

JULIE BISHOP: Absolutely not. I have no doubt that if the Chinese have any concerns about the Australian Government they will raise them with us. I've not had any contact by anyone in the Chinese Government or representing the Chinese Government, make any such contact with me and I would be surprised.

PETER VAN ONSELEN: And you haven't heard about it through diplomatic channels or anything of the like?

JULIE BISHOP: Not at all. Nothing of the kind. The Chinese are very skilled diplomats. If they had a concern of any nature they would raise it with me as Foreign Minister and I've not heard a word, neither has the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade.

PETER VAN ONSELEN: So what was going on here, do you think? Is this just a bit of rabble-rousing from of couple of Liberal backbenchers that don't want Barnaby Joyce as the next Deputy Prime Minister?

JULIE BISHOP: They haven't been named, Peter. If I spent my time worrying about rumours and gossip between political parties we wouldn't have time for anything else to talk about, would we? So I think it's just a little bit of mischief.

PETER VAN ONSELEN: The Government was very keen yesterday, in Barnaby Joyce's portfolio of agriculture, to make the point that what Indonesia seems to be doing on the live cattle exports, massively downgrading how many they take from Australia – about an 80 per cent downgrade – very keen to say that this was in train, it's got nothing to do with any sort of breakdown in relations. Our international editor Stan Grant said that you can't decouple the two, these things are all interrelated. You don't agree with that?

JULIE BISHOP: No, I don't agree with that. In fact, the Indonesian Ambassador Nadjib put out a statement yesterday saying that this had nothing to do with the bilateral relationship between Australia and Indonesia. We should stop this practice of assuming that every time Indonesia does something that it somehow is a reflection on Australia. In fact, food self-sufficiency and boosting local beef production was an election platform of President Widodo and we are seeing a one quarter of the year decision to reduce beef imports. Now, this has happened in the past and what we've seen is when Indonesia does that, when they reduce the imports of Australian beef, for example, then there's a beef shortage and prices go up for Indonesian consumers, and then there's a correction. So Barnaby Joyce has done absolutely the right thing. He's continuing to negotiate with Indonesia, but he's also looking for other markets for our beef should they continue on with the reduction in Australian beef into Indonesia. Because we have high-quality beef that's very much in demand around the globe. So if we can't get it into Indonesia in this quarter, we'll find somewhere else for it. It's in demand. But I think we'll see a correction because, as much as President Widodo wants to see local production bolstered and food self-sufficiency, we've seen in the past that they will need to import beef and Australian beef is very popular in Indonesia.

PETER VAN ONSELEN: And we'll certainly be there to give it to them if they take it.

JULIE BISHOP: We certainly will be.

PETER VAN ONSELEN: MH17, we're at an anniversary point. We've got a situation where very strong rhetoric came from the Prime Minister and yourself and others at the time. Are we going to see something tangible by way of a rebuke from the UN any time soon on this, or is it just too difficult because of the power that Russia wields?

JULIE BISHOP: Peter, there is an investigation underway by the Dutch Safety Board. There are five countries that make up the Joint Investigation Team, that's the Netherlands, Ukraine, Australia, Malaysia and Belgium. We are asking the United Nations Security Council to establish an international criminal tribunal to receive the report of the Dutch Safety Board and to seek to prosecute anyone named in that report, or pursue the leads that that report provides as to how and why and who caused the downing of MH17.

You're absolutely right, we're coming up to an anniversary, 17th of July, and the 21st of July will be 12 months since we got a unanimous resolution condemning the downing of the plane, calling for a ceasefire so that we could get onto the site and allow investigators onto the site and calling for an independent investigation, and to hold those responsible to account. So this is the next stage.

The investigation is underway and now we need to set up a criminal tribunal, and there's precedent for it. These have been backed by the UN Security Council in the past. I know there's a very busy week for the UN Security Council coming up. The P5+1 comprehensive plan with Iran needs to go before the Security Council but I'm hoping that around the anniversary of the last resolution, the unanimous Resolution 2166, we will get the UN Security Council to support the establishment of an international criminal tribunal.

PETER VAN ONSELEN: Okay well we'll keep an eye on that. Before I let you go though, it would be remiss of me not to get to at least one domestic political question. I want to ask you, as a West Australian, whether you're concerned about the polls in the west. You're obviously the most senior West Australian. The Liberal Party has done so well over there for so long, 12 of 15 seats in the Lower House; it's pretty unprecedented as far as I can see from my electoral read. That said though, from highs of around I think 57 per cent at the last election, the polling there has been tracking closer to 50-50 for a long time now. Bill Shorten's got his problems at the Trade Union Royal Commission but in the west, even a 50-50 result which should be good will see a lot of seats on the line at the next election. Are you worried, as the most senior West Australian, that there needs to be a focus on lifting the polling lest the tide goes out on some of those seats?

JULIE BISHOP: Peter, it would be a mistake to ever take Western Australia for granted and we certainly don't. We recognise that we have a lot of work to do in the west. West Australians have their own issues, their concerns.

PETER VAN ONSELEN: What are they? What has changed for the conservatives over there? Is it a State government that's long in the tooth, is it commodity prices?

JULIE BISHOP: I think there are a number of issues. We are going through a transformation from an economy that was based on investment in the construction phase of the mining sector, and we're now going through a transformation. We're looking at other parts of the economy to grow and so that transition period of course affects Western Australia. But we do hold 12 out of 15 seats. I think with a redistribution there's going to be another seat, there's going to be a sixteenth West Australian seat, and so we'll be working very hard to hold the seats we have and win that extra seat that Western Australia should have, by virtue of its population growth. We are spending time there; the Prime Minister's very focussed on ensuring that we do what we can to keep the West Australian economy bubbling along. That's why we got rid of the carbon tax, that's why we got rid of the mining tax. They are two taxes that were hurting Western Australia as much as any other state if not more. So we're committed to making it easier to do business in Western Australia. That's why we've got this deregulation agenda, we're repealing unnecessary taxes and regulations and laws. We've got a one-stop-shop for environmental approvals which means that some of these major projects that provide so many jobs can actually get the approvals.

PETER VAN ONSELEN: But they're not going to move the needle on the polling.

JULIE BISHOP: I think that economic issues always move the needle on the polling. The Coalition is committed to good economic management. We'll continue to do that. The free trade agreements that we've managed to conclude with China, Japan and South Korea will assist Western Australia. When they're implemented there'll be huge demand not only for Western Australian agriculture and resources as there already is, but also services. There are a lot of job opportunities and Western Australia will certainly get its fair share.

PETER VAN ONSELEN: Alright. Julie Bishop, we appreciate you finding the time to talk to us on Newsday. Thanks very much.

JULIE BISHOP: My pleasure.

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