Sky PM Agenda - Interview with David Speers

  • Transcript, E&OE
20 December 2016

DAVID SPEERS: Let's go now to the Foreign Minister Julie Bishop joining us live this afternoon. Thanks for your time Minister. Can we start in Berlin and this truck attack; what is the latest on whether any Australians may have been injured? We know there are about 48 at the latest count who were injured, have any Australians been caught up in this?

JULIE BISHOP: Well, David, this is a shocking incident. It has all the hallmarks of a terrorist attack, although the German authorities have not yet confirmed the motive behind this incident. I have been in constant communication with our Ambassador in Berlin, Lynette Wood, and she's made it clear that no Australians are reportedly amongst those killed or injured. There were a number of Australians who were in the vicinity. Indeed, we have been providing consular support to one young Australian woman who was not harmed but she certainly was at close quarters and witnessed the incident. All Australian staff at the Embassy have been accounted for but among the 12 killed and at least 50 injured, there are no reports that any Australians were involved.

I extend our deepest condolences to the family and loved ones of those killed. We certainly wish for a full recovery of those who have been injured and we stand united with the government of Germany and the people of Germany in our fight against terrorism and particularly these attacks that target civilians. Although, I point out again, that the German authorities have not yet confirmed the motive behind the incident.

DAVID SPEERS: Well, as you say, it's important not to jump the gun on these things. Some in Germany are already blaming, though, the Angela Merkel's open border approach for refugees. Do you fear this will at least raise some of those tensions that exist in Germany around this issue?

JULIE BISHOP: It's inevitable that a security incident, if I can put it that way, will raise many questions but the German authorities are yet to hold a press conference, I understand that that will occur later on 20 December - which will probably be tomorrow our time - and then we'll have a better idea of the people that are suspected to be behind this, whether it was an accident, or whether in fact it was a terrorist incident. I believe the German Interior Minister has indicated that it had the hallmarks of a terrorist attack, it certainly reflects what happened in Europe earlier in Nice, so we are deeply concerned about it, but inevitably there will be many questions raised and until we know precisely what occurred and an investigation is carried out and completed, I would just be speculating.

DAVID SPEERS: Your own department, actually, warned Australian travellers to Germany that, quote, Christmas markets remain vulnerable and visitors should ensure they maintain a clear exit plan in the event of a security incident. Was there intelligence pointing to something like this?

JULIE BISHOP: Well, that's right. On 17 December, we reissued our travel advice to Germany and we included reference to Christmas marketplaces in Germany – they are very popular, they attract a lot of tourists – and we were concerned that they are vulnerable sites. So, we did on the advice of our intelligence and security and diplomatic staff, reissue that travel advice. Somewhat prescient one might say, but we certainly did issue that advice advising people not to visit during the busy times, perhaps, if they want to go in the off peak times, and also to ensure that they have an exit plan worked out should a security incident occur. But our travel advices are reviewed and updated regularly on the advice of security, intelligence, and our local missions in countries around the world.

DAVID SPEERS: So, again, on the basis of intelligence around the world, clearly there was a fear of something like this happening and can I ask how worried should Australians be? You know, people will be going to Christmas Carol events, they'll be planning New Year's Eve celebrations as well. How worried should we be here about this sort of incident happening?

JULIE BISHOP: In Australia, the Australian Federal Police and our security and law enforcement agencies are cooperating across Australia to ensure that Australians are kept as safe as possible but we can't give any guarantees. I know that we are as well prepared as we can be to prevent any incident of this kind. For those travelling overseas, we urge people to take care, to listen to the advice of local authorities, to monitor the media, and to avoid places where huge crowds gather.That's going to be difficult if you are overseas, you obviously want to visit Christmas markets or attend church services and the like, but these are vulnerable places for terrorist attacks. Tragically, even over the last month, there've been hundreds of civilians killed in terrorist attacks from Jordan to Egypt to Yemen, Somalia, Nigeria, and of course in Iraq. So, these events do occur in the Middle East, in North Africa, but also in European cities and we urge Australians travelling overseas to read our travel advice, to register with our embassies and missions overseas so we that at least know that you're in the country and we can try and account for all Australians should an incident occur.

DAVID SPEERS: But here in Australia, I assume you'd let us know if there was any specific threat of something like this, but is there any sense of how vulnerable we might be at public gatherings here?

JULIE BISHOP: We haven't changed the assessment level and I'm sure that the relevant minister, Michael Keenan will continue to advise Australians should there be any need to, but at this stage, our Federal Police are coordinating with police in every other state to ensure that Australians are kept as safe as possible. We have focused on these issues over many months now. We are not immune to attacks but we're doing all we can in terms of resourcing, planning, coordinating, to ensure that we can thwart any attempt and can keep Australians safe.

DAVID SPEERS: Let me turn to the situation in Turkey where the Russian ambassador has been assassinated. What do you think this is going to mean for the already fragile relationship between these two countries?

JULIE BISHOP: This is a shocking incident. The targeting and assassination of Russian Ambassador Karlov will certainly heighten concerns that an already destabilised area in Syria will become even more so. It was clearly an attempt to disrupt relations between Russia and Turkey but both Russian President Putin and Turkish President Erdogan have confirmed that they will continue to work together. There is a foreign ministers meeting of foreign ministers of Russia, Iran, and Turkey scheduled for 20 December European time, so tomorrow Australian time, and I understand that that will go ahead to focus on how they can find a solution to the crisis in Syria.

So, again, I extend our condolences to the family and friends of the Russian Ambassador Karlov who was killed in this appalling, deplorable incident and we certainly have sent our condolences to the Russian people and the Russian Government. For a diplomat to be targeted in this way is especially appalling, because they are representatives of a foreign country and have special protections because of the important role they play in furthering peace, stability, security and good international relations between nations.

DAVID SPEERS: Now, I know no one is going to endorse any action like this, any sort of assassination, but Russia and its activities, its actions in Syria – we've seen what's happened over the last week in Aleppo – how would you, Minister, characterise Russia's behaviour in Syria?

JULIE BISHOP: Nothing can justify the targeting and assassination of a diplomat, in this case the Russian Ambassador Karlov. Nothing can justify that. What's going on in Syria is a tragedy. It's been a conflict that's long-running – at least five years. All parties have been involved in some terrible incidents. In the case of Russia, the intervention has been on the side of the Assad regime, and we are now watching the evacuation in Aleppo. I'm grateful that there's been a ceasefire hold since 15 December, but it is still very volatile. I understand about 17,000 people have been evacuated from Aleppo, but until such time as there is a political solution in Syria I fear we're going to continue to see the bloodshed, the killing, the violence, the humanitarian crisis that has beset Syria for so many years now. Russia is backing the Assad regime, the US and others are backing the opposition forces, but while they think they can have a military win over the other side this will continue. There has to be a political solution, indeed brokered by the United States, Russia, and I welcome the fact that the foreign ministers of Russia, Iran and Turkey are meeting to seek to resolve this.

DAVID SPEERS: Well Russia, as you say, is strongly backing the Assad regime. They've now won in Aleppo at least. Are we likely to see Bashar al-Assad remain in power indefinitely? Is that the sort of political solution in reality we're going to see?

JULIE BISHOP: Well, while Aleppo has been reclaimed by the Assad regime that won't be the end of the conflict, because of course the opposition forces control other parts of Syria, and indeed ISIL, the terrorist organisation, is in control of other parts of Syria. So it won't be an end to the conflict. It has a long way to go, I'm afraid. The kind of political solution will require the parties to come up with a transition, and I can't see President Assad leaving before that transition period commences. A political solution would have to involve the Assad regime in some form, but of course long-term the outcome in Syria will be very bleak indeed if President Assad remains.

DAVID SPEERS: Do you have any idea yet what the Trump Presidency is going to mean for Syria and for the wider fight against Islamic State in Iraq and Syria?

JULIE BISHOP: While the Trump transition team is working out the cabinet we must remember that President Obama is the person with the full executive and constitutional authority of the United States. So until there is an inauguration on 20 January, and then the confirmation of the Trump cabinet, it's speculation as to what any changes in foreign policy may or may not be. We have to focus on the fact that President Obama remains the President of the United States until 20 January.

Thereafter we'll be able to get a better idea of the changes in foreign policy, if any, particularly in relation to some of the hot-spots around the world, including Syria and Iraq. We of course are making contact with the nominees, or those that the President-elect has named as his nominees, but none of them will be able to be confirmed in their positions until such time as the Senate confirmation hearings are concluded after 20 January.

DAVID SPEERS: No, and I appreciate that, but just to pick up on what you said there, you're trying to make some contact. Have you spoken yet to Rex Tillerson, the one he has named as his nominee for Secretary of State?

JULIE BISHOP: We've maintained contact with his people. I haven't personally spoken with him, but we are seeking to arrange a direct contact. But of course, there are protocols surrounding this, and the Obama administration is in full control with the executive authority until 20 January. So we are reaching out to Rex Tillerson's people with the request that we meet as soon as possible, as soon as practicable, but of course this will depend very much on the protocols surrounding the transition from the Obama administration to the Trump administration.

DAVID SPEERS: There's a lot of criticism, as you know, that Rex Tillerson is too close to Russia. There might be a potential conflict of interest when it comes to a question of lifting sanctions on Russia. Do you share that view?

JULIE BISHOP: The fact that Rex Tillerson has a relationship with President Putin should be turned to our advantage, in the sense that the US-Russia relations over Syria are at an all-time low, I would suggest. I've been present at the International Syria Support Group meetings when Secretary Kerry and Secretary Lavrov have been in quite serious and heated dispute over the outcome in Syria. So if there's a possibility for Russia and the United States to work more closely and cooperatively together, then that's a solution or a possibility or an option that we should pursue. So I think unless the Obama administration has another option for us to pursue, then the Trump administration may well have a different course of action that could lead to a better outcome.

DAVID SPEERS: Well that's a positive take on it. Let me ask you finally, is there any prospect of Australia reconsidering its sanctions, its targeted sanctions against Russia that still remain in place?

JULIE BISHOP: We have continued to maintain sanctions against Russia in relation to its actions over Ukraine and Crimea. Of course, Australia is always able to impose sanctions, but in this case we've been following the UN line. In relation to Syria, the UN has passed a resolution that is enabling monitors to go into Syria to have an oversight over the evacuation in Aleppo. That required Russia's backing, so we are welcoming the latest UN resolution that will see at least some relief for those in Aleppo. So the question of sanctions in relation to the Aleppo evacuation doesn't arise.

DAVID SPEERS: Foreign Minister Julie Bishop, we will have to leave it there. I do appreciate your time this afternoon, for all your contributions this year as well. I hope you enjoy a break and a merry Christmas.

JULIE BISHOP: All the same to you and your viewers. Thank you.

DAVID SPEERS: Thank you very much.

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