Tasmania state conference, Launceston - doorstop interview
JULIE BISHOP I'm delighted to be in Launceston with my colleagues. It's great to be in a state with a Liberal Government that is getting on with building the economy. We have just had a very inspiring speech from the Prime Minister who has been in Tasmania with a view to boosting the engagement between the Federal Government and the State Government to ensure that we can help build a strong and prosperous Tasmania, as part of a strong and prosperous Australian economy, and a safe and secure Tasmania as part of a safe and secure Australia. So I'm really delighted to be here with my colleagues and happy to answer your questions.
JOURNALIST Will the Australian man fighting in Syria be allowed back into the country?
JULIE BISHOP We are certainly looking very closely at that film footage but this goes to demonstrate why it is that we're so determined to prevent foreign fighters from Australia taking up arms with terrorist organisations such as ISIL in Iraq and Syria. Why young Australians in particular, but why Australians would want to take up arms and fight in a conflict on the side of an organisation that exalts in beheadings and executions and mass killings is quite unfathomable.
So the Australian Government is determined to starve ISIL and similar terrorist organisations of funds, of fighters and of resources. So we will take whatever steps we can to keep Australians safe but also prevent Australians from taking up with this terrorist organisation and similar organisations. So our intelligence, police, security will be looking at that video very closely.
JOURNALIST What consequences might he face if he does try to return?
JULIE BISHOP It is against the law in Australia to fight with a terrorist organisation or to support a terrorist organisation and there can be offences that carry up to 25 years imprisonment so we will look very closely at this issue. But our message to anyone thinking of taking up with a terrorist organisation – it's against the law, it's against the values of our country and we urge people to abide by Australian laws and not go to Iraq, Syria, the Middle East to fight on the side of terrorists.
JOURNALIST Can you give us an update on how many passports have been cancelled of Australians travelling over to the Middle East?
JULIE BISHOP We are cancelling passports based on a negative security assessment provided by our security and intelligence agencies. About 60 passports have been cancelled on security grounds but this is happening on a regular basis, far too regularly in fact. What we are seeking to do is change the laws so that not only will I have the power to cancel passports but also the power to suspend a passport in circumstances where the intelligence agencies are not quite able to meet the threshold required to cancel a passport but want to have enough time to provide the evidence that would give rise to a negative security assessment.
So that's another part of the legislation we are hoping to get through the Parliament as soon as possible so we have the authority to suspend passports. In this way we are seeking to stop people leaving the country, to stop them taking up with terrorist organisations, and to prevent them from coming back into the country if they have been fighting with the terrorist organisation.
JOURNALIST Does that mean there are some people who ideally you'd like to suspend their passports but you're not able to without that law change?
JULIE BISHOP That's absolutely correct.
JOURNALIST The man in the Channel 7 video said beheadings are necessary in order to establish the Islamic State. What's your personal feeling about that statement?
JULIE BISHOP I'm appalled by it. It's unthinkable that someone would believe that beheadings are part of a legitimate territorial aspiration. These are murderous cults and they are using Islam to cover up for their violent behaviour. They are using religion as an excuse for what is simply murder and in my mind we need to do all we can to work with communities within Australia, the communities from where these people are coming, so we can convince them that taking up with terrorist organisations is not only unlawful but it cannot be in their interests or anybody's interests.
We want Australia to be the tolerant, free, open society it always has been and the example of that video indicates why the Australian Government is taking such a strong stance against foreign fighters.
JOURNALIST The head of Emirates came out and expressed doubts over the Australian Government's findings regarding the MH370. What's your response to that?
JULIE BISHOP I have read the comments of the head of Emirates but until such time as MH370 is located and a proper investigation can take place it's only speculation as to what happened. So Australia is playing its part in supporting the search for MH370. So much of it has been coordinated out of Perth but we will do what we can to resolve this issue. But until such time as we locate the plane, the black boxes, it's really speculation as to what occurred.
JOURNALIST Minister, how important is the passage of the Budget to Australia's intervention in Iraq? There's been some criticism from Labor today that the Government shouldn't be using it as a method to push ahead with the Budget.
JULIE BISHOP Well Labor can't have it both ways. The fact is, we have been saddled with an enormous debt, deficits as far as you can see, and the reason Australia was able to withstand previous external shocks was because of the fiscal management of the Howard/Costello Government. We had no government debt, we had money in the bank, we had successive surpluses – that is we earned more than we spent. We were a government that lived within its means and that meant Australia was able to withstand the Asian financial crisis, the tech wreck, the aftermath of September 11 and we were building our defences, building up our ability to withstand external shocks.
We are in a much more vulnerable position than we were when Labor came into government so it's very important for Australia to be able to be resilient, be strong, have a very strong military, defence, intelligence support and it all has to be paid for. So we need to repair the budget so Australia can be strong, Australia can be prosperous and we can be secure.
JOURNALIST The Prime Minister says the money is there for this intervention in Iraq within his Budget measures.
JULIE BISHOP Of course we've provided the funding that is needed. We put the security of the Australian people first and foremost. Of course we will provide the money. But everybody knows that governments can't keep on living beyond their means and we are heading towards a $667 billion debt if changes weren't made to the Budget. So it's important that we be enabled to repair the Budget that we were unfortunately inheriting from the Labor Party.
JOURNALIST So are you saying that Labor has to pass the Budget so we can successfully fight in the Middle East?
JULIE BISHOP I didn't say that.
JOURNALIST I wondered if you were saying that.
JULIE BISHOP No I didn't say that.
JOURNALIST What's your response for Hizb ut-Tahrir thanking the PM for the free publicity given that they had 200 people show up to a meeting.
JULIE BISHOP I think it's a disturbing reflection on this organisation and another reason why we're seeking to put in place legislation that makes it an offence to promote terrorism. Currently our offences under the criminal laws relate to engaging in terrorist activities but I think this is a good example of why we need to have an offence relating to the promotion of terrorism. It's trying to prevent people becoming radicalised, becoming extremists in our country, going overseas and taking part in conflicts overseas and then coming back to Australia as hardened experienced terrorists.
And history shows and our experience shows that foreign fighters from Australia who have been trained in terrorist activities overseas have come back to Australia and have sought to undertake terrorist activities in this country. That's what we're seeking to prevent, to ensure that the Australian people are safe.
JOURNALIST Just on these protests in Hong Kong, is there anything Australia could do to encourage democracy in Hong Kong, encourage that at a Chinese level?
JULIE BISHOP The Australian Government continues to support open, free democratic elections around the world and we make these representations to China and to other countries, particularly where there is a strong movement for democracy, we of course support it.
But this is a matter for the Chinese Government to deal with, within the one country, two systems philosophy that China has adopted in relation to Hong Kong. But of course Australia as a free, open, liberal democracy will always support those values around the world.
JOURNALIST So you are putting some pressure on China to retain that greater democratic tradition in Hong Kong?
JULIE BISHOP I believe China understands the worth that Hong Kong has as an international economy. Its place in the global economy is very important and I believe that China understand that.
JOURNALIST Is Colin Barnett winning the argument over GST in Canberra as he suggested yesterday.
BRETT WHITELEY That's enough questions!
JULIE BISHOP [Laughter] my Tasmanian colleagues have urged me not to answer that question. No it's not a fight between two Premiers as to who wins and who loses. What we're trying to do is fix the system and we want to ensure it's fair across Australia. The GST is essentially collected by the Federal Government for the States. We just have to ensure the system works well.
JOURNALISTIs it broken?
JULIE BISHOPI think the system can always do with improvement and that's what the Abbott Government seeks to do. We seek to improve, we seek to repair, we seek to make things better for citizens living in this country, working in this country.
JOURNALIST There is only so much that can go around for everybody, there's always going to be winners and losers if there are any changes.
JULIE BISHOP What we also want to do is grow the size of the economy. It's not about just the size of the pie, we want to grow the economy so that there is more to go around. You say there's only so much to go around, well let's focus on growing the economy, building the economy and that's what is happening here in Tasmania. It's so exciting to be here now with a state Liberal Government that is pro-development, wants to see Tasmania as an attractive place to do business, for investment, to get this economy growing. So our thinking is lets grow the economy and lets not just settle for what we had over the last six years.
JOURNALIST To stem the growth of Ebola in West Africa, will the Government do more than offer just money and send personnel as aid groups say is necessary?
JULIE BISHOP Let me make this quite plain. We have provided significant money. It's not 'just' money - we have provided $18 million on top of the $40 million that we provide this year to the World Health Organisation and I've made it quite plain that until such time as we have in place a credible evacuation plan, I will not be sending, or the government will not be sending, health workers supported by the government. Now, health workers can go with organisations who presumably have in place credible evacuation plans. The Government does not have a plan that we can utilise to bring health workers, paid for by the Australian Government, back to Australia. We are working very closely with other countries to see if we can get health workers into their countries should they contract Ebola but I have no guarantees from any other country.
Now I hear aid groups telling me – why don't you talk to the British? Yes, we've been talking to the British, we've been talking to the United States, we've been talking to the Europeans. I do not have in place a guarantee, that should an Australian health worker, sent there by the Australian Government, contract Ebola, they would be able to be transported or treated in a hospital, either in the region, or in Europe and until I have that in place, we will not be sending Australian health workers. But we're providing significant funding for frontline services that are already on the ground in West Africa.
And can I say that when the United Nations called for funding, they called for a $50 million pledge from countries across the globe, Australia immediately responded with $10 million up front to them. And they thanked us and said that was exactly the kind of response they were looking for - not a pledge down the track - we came up with the cash immediately so that equipment and supplies could be provided in West Africa straight away. That's the kind of practical response that we were providing but I am not putting at risk the lives of health workers, nor putting at risk Australian quarantine requirements by sending people into West Africa without a credible evacuation plan back to Australia.