Press conference, Sydney

  • Transcript, E&OE
24 January 2019

FOREIGN MINISTER:Ladies and gentlemen, thanks very much for joining us here this afternoon.

I just wanted to make some very brief comments given the point in time which we find ourselves, but just to provide some formal responses to some of your questions so we have those on the record.

Can I start by saying that last night, the Chinese authorities gave formal notification to our embassy in Beijing that they have detained Mr Yang Hengjun, an Australian citizen. Our embassy in Beijing has today had an initial meeting with Chinese authorities earlier this afternoon. We have requested and we do expect consular access at the earliest possible opportunity in accordance with the bilateral consular agreement. We are also seeking as a government further clarification from the Chinese authorities as a priority on the nature of the detention of any possible charges against Mr Yang.

We will continue to make representations to China to ensure that this matter is dealt with transparently and fairly. And I'm very happy to answer any questions briefly.

QUESTION: Minister, do you know why he's been held?

FOREIGN MINISTER: We are still seeking information on that. As I said, we're seeking clarification from the Chinese authorities as a matter of priority on the nature of the detention and of any possible charges.

QUESTION: What did they say in the meeting? In the initial meeting? What was actually said?

FOREIGN MINISTER: Although it was a formal initial meeting, I'm not going to relay the details of that in terms of the discussion, but we have sought the information that I've just advised you about and as I am able to provide updates, I will do so.

QUESTION: Is there any suggestion or suspicion that this is linked to the tensions between Canada and China and the US and others on Huawei?

FOREIGN MINISTER: At this stage, there is no evidence of such a connection. As I said, we're seeking clarification on those matters. I'd be concerned if there was an indication of that. So we are calling on the Chinese authorities to ensure that this matter is dealt with transparently and fairly.

QUESTION: Are we considering updating its travel advice for China, like Canada did recently?

FOREIGN MINISTER: Well, we review our travel advice, as you know, on a continuous basis. It was last updated, I think, in October last year and it remains current.

QUESTION: Should any other Australians be concerned who have Chinese ties or who have perhaps been critical of the Chinese government, should they be concerned about travelling there?

FOREIGN MINISTER: I don't think that we should make a broad application of such a nature based on this experience. We are concerned to seek further information so that we do understand the nature of any charges, the circumstances that the Chinese authorities believe pertain to Mr Yang and we will deal with those when they come to us.

QUESTION: We have an agreement with China that they must notify us within three days if an Australian is being held by them. Have they breached this agreement?

FOREIGN MINISTER: Well we do, as you say, have an expectation that notification had been provided in accordance with those agreements. The notification has been delivered now as required under the consular agreement, but perhaps not in the most timely way. Obviously, in certain cases, circumstances might affect the implementation of agreed notification processes, but I'll be seeking clarification as to the nature of that.

QUESTION: It's pretty insulting though, they've ignored our agreement. How do you feel about that?

FOREIGN MINISTER: I don't suggest that the agreement has been ignored. The notification was delayed, but I will be seeking explanations over that process.

QUESTION: Have they indicated that they will give us consular access and have they given you an indication as to when?

FOREIGN MINISTER: We've made the request for consular access. We hope that will be responded to in a timely way.

QUESTION: How would you characterise the relationship that we now have with China?

FOREIGN MINISTER: The relationship following my visit later last year and the Prime Minister's engagement with both the Premier and the President in a number of meetings towards the end of last year has been I think on a positive trajectory. Minister Pyne is in fact in Beijing today as Defence Minister, engaging with his counterpart and making visits in that portfolio capacity. So, in that regard, I think we've been in a positive space.

QUESTION: Do you think it's still a positive space?

FOREIGN MINISTER: I am very concerned as I have said and the government is concerned about the nature of Mr Yang's detention. We'll seek further information on that.

QUESTION: Is he still be detained in Guangzhou?

FOREIGN MINISTER: The details of Mr Yang's detention I'm not going to speak about on the public record. I think that they will be dealt with by authorities and by our officials in time.

QUESTION: Have Australian officials had any contact with his family and if so what has been their reaction?

FOREIGN MINISTER: The Australian officials are available for consular support to his family and I'm sure, I know that his family is concerned and we will continue to support them as required.

QUESTION: Do we know what city he's actually in or do we know he's in Beijing or Guangzhou? You might not want to go into the detail of it. Is the Australian government aware of what city…

FOREIGN MINISTER: The Australian government has those details.

QUESTION: Can you just give us any indication, do you think this is in any way a reaction to the Australian government's banning of Huawei, in support of Canada and its generally strong voice on China, China's foreign policy?

FOREIGN MINISTER: As I said in response I think to an earlier question, I don't believe there's currently any evidence of such a connection. If there were one, I would be concerned. The decisions that we have made or the positions that we have taken are based on Australia's longstanding policy. The protection of our own national security in relation to, for example, the development of our 5G network with which you've made reference and in other cases our commitment to the rule of law and the observation of the basic principles that underpin that.

So they are the positions we've taken. I think if there were concerns to be raised, they would have been raised before now.

QUESTION: Do you know if he's been held previously at all by the Chinese authorities? There was a report that he had been held in 2011

FOREIGN MINISTER: I have also seen that report, but I can't add to that.

QUESTION: Just on a domestic issue. The Liberal Party didn't intervene to save Jane Prentice, didn't intervene to save Ann Sudmalis. It has now intervened to install a mate of the Prime Minister as the candidate in that seat. Isn't it another bad look for the party's relationship with women isn't it?

FOREIGN MINISTER: I don't agree with your premise at all. In fact what I would say is that Warren Mundine is a highly regarded national figure. He has made an extraordinary contribution to this country in a number of areas, particularly in terms of indigenous leadership, but in so many others and I am sure that he will be working very hard to attract the support and to encourage the support of the people of the Gilmore community, where he has a long family history and I look forward to working closely with him…

QUESTION: Just one more question on domestic politics. Ms Plibersek talked this morning about gender quotas – the possibility of gender quotas for Australia Day honours – do you have a view on that? Is that a worthy suggestion?

FOREIGN MINISTER: Well I always encourage the nomination of fabulous Australian women in the honours process and encourage the National Australia Day Board or committee to consider those. And I would also say that we need to make sure that in our communities, large, small, city, rural, regional, that we should be looking at opportunities to nominate more women in that process. I have not considered the idea of quotas in regard to that, but I think there's more than enough fabulous Australian women to fill the honours application process without needing quotas.

QUESTION: [Inaudiable] What is Australia's position on that power struggle. Who does Australia recognise as the legitimate President?

FOREIGN MINISTER: Well I can advise that we supported the Lima Group's early call for Nicolás Maduro to refrain from assuming the presidency. We did that on the 10th of January. We called for new, free and fair presidential elections to be held as soon as possible and that was formally advised to Venezuela through our non-resident Ambassador. We are very concerned at what is a clearly deteriorating political, economic and security and humanitarian situation in Venezuela and it is having significant effects across the Latin American region. And I understand other countries including the United States have considered supporting the President of the National Assembly. We will consider those matters.

Media enquiries