Sky News, PM Agenda - interview with David Speers

  • Transcript, E&OE

DAVID SPEERS: A little earlier in the program those disturbing video images – really a propaganda video of this terrorist group ISIS – that is now in control of a number of strategic cities in Northern Iraq, threatening to push further south to Baghdad itself.

The US has decided to send in some 275 troops to protect staff at the American Embassy there. I am now joined by Foreign Minister JULIE BISHOP: to discuss Australia's perspective on this. Thanks for your time. So what is being done for the Australian diplomatic staff?

JULIE BISHOP: We have a much smaller staff than the United States. The United States had about 4,000 staff in their Embassy, they are reducing it by about half and so they are sending in – with the consent of the Iraqi Government – a number of troops to help them take out half their staff and relocate them elsewhere.

We, of course, have a much smaller staff. We have about five there are present and we have locally engaged security staff who have been with us a long time, about 12. The United States situation is vastly different in terms of scale. We have in place evacuations plans, we have contingency plans in place for whatever might occur because as the Ambassador has said to me, that while the situation is tense and calm, it could deteriorate very quickly.

DAVID SPEERS: When you say locally engaged security staff protecting those five Australians, does that mean they are contractors, are they local Iraqis, are you worried about the Iraqi army has crumbled in the north?

JULIE BISHOP: Well they have been with us for a very long time, they are locally engaged, local people who have been working for the Australian Embassy for some time…

DAVID SPEERS: [interrupting] And is that adequate?

JULIE BISHOP: Yes we also have an Australian security guard - so that is actually six - five diplomatic staff and a security staff and the locally engaged staff. But we are working closely with the United States and with the United Kingdom on evacuation plans. So if there is any need for us to leave in a hurry and our contingency plans don't fall into place - they will, but if they don't - we have also got the United States and the United Kingdom to support us.

DAVID SPEERS: So those US forces would help evacuate the Australians if necessary. What about Australian civilians – there's an estimated 2000 Australians working in oil and gas in Iraq?

JULIE BISHOP: Actually there are probably more Australians in Iraq, there are only about 110 or so who are registered there, but we know there are hundreds working in the oil and gas sector, I believe, and elsewhere. But there are also long-term residents and dual nationals who are there so we think it might be more than a couple of thousand Australians or dual nationals in Iraq.

My message consistently has been that they should leave as soon as possible while the airport in Baghdad is still open and commercial flights are available. If they are staying for work reasons, ensure that they have contingency plans in place and a number of companies have been in touch with the Australian Embassy to confirm that they do have contingency plans in place.

But, of course, there are many long-term residents and dual nationals who may well choose to stay and again it would be very wise for them to ensure that they had their personal security and circumstances organised.

DAVID SPEERS: Are there any who are possibly in Mosul or in other areas that have now been occupied by the ISIS forces?

JULIE BISHOP: Not that we are aware of. We have had a number of enquiries in the Embassy in Baghdad but they have been more of a consular, visa and evacuation nature rather than anything more significant than that.

DAVID SPEERS: Can I ask, if indeed, large parts of all of Iraq fall into the hand of ISIS will Australia accept refugees from there as well?

JULIE BISHOP: Well we don't accept that the Iraqi Government will not be able to repel the extremist forces from the north. I understand that the Iraqi Security Forces are amassing, they are protecting Baghdad and hoping to repel this extremist group. So let's back the Iraqi Government and security forces to ensure that they can restore some kind of stability.

DAVID SPEERS: But Shi'ites – an area where this terrorist group has now taken control – clearly suffering persecution?

JULIE BISHOP: Well the United States is keeping options on the table, they are moving military assets into the Gulf. I understand there are offers to assist – should the Iraqi Government seek and accept those offers – but in terms of refugees, I know the humanitarian situation is quite dire. We are focussing currently on how we can assist in the humanitarian area on the ground now.

We have been working with Great Britain who have had a team in there to assess the humanitarian needs in the north. They are providing basic things like shelter and water and food at present. We are assessing what contribution we can make that will get help on the ground as soon as possible.

DAVID SPEERS: So what help is Australia prepared to make - the Iraqi Ambassador here today has signalled they don't really want boots on the ground – but air support, surveillance, is Australia likely to play any role there?

JULIE BISHOP: Well the United States would clearly take the lead in that regard and would work with the Iraqi Government as to what they thought they needed in terms of assistance. Of course Australia would continue to discuss these issues with the United States, we're in constant communication with them and like-minded friends in Iraq.

So if there is any request for assistance we will consider that at the time, but I point out, there hasn't been, at this point, there hasn't actually been a request for humanitarian assistance either but we are certainly assessing what assistance we can provide.

DAVID SPEERS: Do you still believe the 2003 invasion was the right thing to do?


DAVID SPEERS: Arguably now, the grounds for invasion or military action are greater than then, because that was based on a fear of weapons of mass destruction, now you have a group that Tony Abbott describes as worse than Al Qaeda in control of strategic cities.

JULIE BISHOP: Remember this is a group that came out of Syria – the conflict in Syria – where the brutal leader Assad is still the president there. So you can't draw the comparison, you have a brutal dictator in the case of Saddam Hussein who was removed, then you have got one currently there, the conflict is truly terrible in Syria and this is where ISIS – or ISIL as it is formally known - was able to be reinvigorated. Yes, it is an offshoot of Al Qaeda but it is so extreme that it has seem to spilt with Al Qaeda because of its behaviour in Syria. ISIL is listed as a terrorist entity in Australia, it is listed as a terrorist organisation by the United Nations and so we are dealing with a particularly brutal form of terrorist.

DAVID SPEERS: This is my point, they are a more brutal mob than Saddam Hussein aren't they?

JULIE BISHOP: Well we can spend time putting people on a scale of brutality but the focus we have now is on the safety of our staff in Baghdad and trying to assist with the humanitarian needs should Iraq…

DAVID SPEERS: But the point I am making though is back in 2003 the Australian Government was willing to intervene without a UN mandate because of Saddam Hussein and the threat he posed. Now we are talking about arguably a worse threat.

JULIE BISHOP: Well look at the situation in Syria. Nobody is suggesting that we should be intervening in Syria with boots on the ground, likewise there is a government in Iraq. It has its own security force to the point where the United States asked the Iraqi Government if they wanted them to stay post-2011 and consulted with the Iraqi Government and the Iraqi Government decided at that time that they wanted the United States to leave.

DAVID SPEERS: Would that have made a difference do you think in hindsight?

JULIE BISHOP: We can only speculate David.

DAVID SPEERS: Let me ask you though, when it comes to what is likely to happen there, you have expressed confidence in the Iraqi Government being able to push back against this group and perhaps with some support, Iran as well has an interest in stopping ISIS, how much of a support role do you see them playing?

JULIE BISHOP: Well this is an interesting development that the United State and Iran are both supporting the progress of the same government in repelling this extremist Sunni-backed group so that could make for a very interesting geopolitical play if the US and Iran have an opportunity to work on the same outcome. But this is a very fluid situation, we are following it minute-by-minute, hour-by-hour, and at present our focus is on ensuring our diplomatic staff are safe and that any Australians who are there get the message that they should leave unless they have in place plans for their security.

DAVID SPEERS: Can I turn to East Jerusalem, your meeting more than 20 Arab State Ambassadors on Thursday, I think it is, to discuss the Government's position. You now prefer the term disputed to Occupied East Jerusalem…

JULIE BISHOP: Not now, that's always been my position.

DAVID SPEERS: Ok, but the position has now been made clear that this is the Government's description of East Jerusalem.

JULIE BISHOP: But David it was also the Labor party's description. Bob Carr often spoke of 'East Jerusalem'. He didn't refer to it as 'Occupied East Jerusalem'. He referred to it as 'East Jerusalem'. So what we have said is what I thought was a non-contentious statement. The geographic location of East Jerusalem is precisely that – East Jerusalem.

DAVID SPEERS: But it is contentious isn't it?

JULIE BISHOP: Absolutely, it is disputed territory, we acknowledge that.

DAVID SPEERS: But it is referred to by many other countries and the United Nationals as occupied, not disputed.

JULIE BISHOP: Well that is not absolutely right. East Jerusalem is more often than not described in its geographic state as East Jerusalem. As I said, Bob Carr wrote op-ed pieces calling it East Jerusalem. He put out press releases calling it East Jerusalem. So the fact is…

DAVID SPEERS: [interrupting] But you are specifically saying it is not occupied, that's the difference here.


JULIE BISHOP: I did not say that. I didn't say that. We said the geographic name of East Jerusalem is East Jerusalem…

DAVID SPEERS: [interrupting] You have criticised the description occupied, you have said it is a loaded pejorative term.

JULIE BISHOP: We don't use it. We recognise that there will need to be a political solution in order to create the two-state solution that we support. We have always supported and will continue to support a two-state solution where the people of Israel and the people of the Palestinian Territories can live behind defined boundaries and that is in dispute so it is hardly contentious to say that the boundaries are in dispute. That is what the whole final status negotiations are about…

DAVID SPEERS: [interrupting] But at the moment the Palestinians who live there in East Jerusalem would argue they don't have freedom of movement to go to other cities. They don't have their own national identity. They would argue that they are living under occupation.

JULIE BISHOP: David, I'm not getting into that debate because…

DAVID SPEERS: [interrupting] But you are because you are saying we shouldn't use that term.

JULIE BISHOP: I call it East Jerusalem. You can't force me to call it something, that is its geographic name - East Jerusalem - that is its name.

DAVID SPEERS: [interrupting] But you are also saying that it is not occupied.

JULIE BISHOP: I didn't say that. Please don't put words in my mouth.

DAVID SPEERS: You have said occupied is a loaded pejorative term.

JULIE BISHOP: I have not changed government policy. The Attorney-General has not changed government policy. The Prime Minister has confirmed there is no change in government policy.

DAVID SPEERS: [interrupting] So is it occupied or not?

JULIE BISHOP: We support United Nations Resolution 242 and 338 which call for a negotiation for a two-state solution and we think that the best thing that Australian can do is call on the parties to resume negotiations so that once and for all the boundaries can be determined and we can have two states where the Israelis and the Palestinians can live side-by-side…

DAVID SPEERS: [interrupting] Just to be clear on this though, is it occupied or not?

JULIE BISHOP: I'm not going down that path. I have told you before and I have said it publicly many times that we think the most useful thing Australia can do is bring the parties together, encourage the parties together. We say there is a dispute…

DAVID SPEERS: [interrupting] I get that but can you understand my confusion here, because the Prime Minister, the Attorney-General and you have said the term occupied is a loaded pejorative term and you are no longer saying that?

JULIE BISHOP: Because we want there to be a negotiated solution, we have said that time and time again. That's the policy – we want there to be a two-state solution – and we call on the Palestinians and the Israelis to come together to negotiate the final outcome, the final status of those negotiations and that includes what happens to the geographic area called 'East Jerusalem'.

DAVID SPEERS: Ok, final question on a different issue, the Peter Greste situation, an Egyptian judge has now said that a verdict will be handed down on Monday in relation to the Australian journalist in Egypt. Do you see that as a positive sign?

JULIE BISHOP: I hope it is, we have made many representations over many months to the former Egyptian Government. The Prime Minister contacted the President, I had been in touch with the Foreign Minister on numerous occasions. Overnight, there is a new Foreign Minister and I have put in place procedures to make contact with him so that I can again make representations on behalf of Peter Greste and we hope that this is a sign that we will be able to get him home as soon as possible. We have been in contact with other governments who are close to the former Egyptian Government and the current Egyptian Government and we have done what we can to make high-level representations constantly to ensure that he can be home as soon as possible.

DAVID SPEERS: Foreign Minister JULIE BISHOP:, thank you very much for your time.

JULIE BISHOP: Thank you.

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