Doorstop, Australia House, London

  • Transcript, E&OE
Subjects: G7 Plus, India COVID-19 outbreak.
06 May 2021

Thank you very much for the opportunity to catch up today. It’s been a busy couple of days, but let me start by congratulating and thanking the UK Government for hosting the G7 Plus, particularly for inviting our French partners, including Australia, who have been able, I think, to bring our Indo-Pacific perspectives to these very important discussions. It is also a chance to have face-to-face meetings with counterparts, which is not a chance that we have had often recently. I want to reinforce the essential nature of the G7 as a forum that works to align the approaches of the key like-minded democratic nations on issues such as open markets, political freedoms, on human rights, and on the global recovery from COVID - something on which we spent a great deal of time yesterday - all of which contribute and underpin global peace and security.

I have, as I said, had a range of meetings with counterparts, met individually of course with Foreign Secretary Raab, but also with my counterparts from France, from India, from Germany, from Japan, Canada, from South Korea, from Brunei – and fabulous to have Brunei here representing ASEAN. Met virtually yesterday with my friend and counterpart Jaishankar, Dr Jaishankar of India, and I do want to hear Australia’s deep concerns about the challenges that India is facing and experiencing at the moment. We express, again, our full support to India. We were pleased to be able to progress the delivery of some of the important medical supplies that India needed, in consultation with their authorities, which arrived via a Qantas flight just yesterday.

We were very pleased to see Prime Minister Johnson briefly yesterday at the Foreign Ministers meeting. We’ve also had very valuable meetings with Trade Secretary, Liz Truss, who is also the Minister for Women and Equalities here; and, Lord Ahmad, the Minister for South Asia and the Commonwealth, as well as a range of senior UK officials. From here, we have the opportunity to visit Geneva and to head to the United States. So, it is a busy period of time, but it is an important opportunity for Australia, within the restrictions of COVID that we have been dealing with, to engage with these important partners, and on the issues of the moment.

Very happy to answer a few questions.

Journalist:

Minister, thank you. Do you support the communique that was released last night? The G7 communique?

Marise Payne:

Well, it’s a G7 communique, not, not a communique to which Australia is a signatory. But overwhelmingly, it reflects the discussions of the G7, which was separate to the discussions of the G7 Plus. I haven't had a chance to examine it word for word, but a number of the issues which we discussed with the G7 process, and through the Plus process are, of course, common.

Journalist:

The communications that Beijing conducted or supported cyber enabled intellectual property theft. Do you agree with that assertion? 

Marise Payne:

Well, we have made clear our views on cybersecurity issues for a number of years now. We've attributed where we have felt it is in Australia's interests and appropriate to do so, and that includes the SolarWinds attribution in relation to Russia recently. 

So, the G7 countries will have made their own decision about that particular wording and language. But where we have concerns, we have consistently articulated those and raised them.

Journalist:

And have any of those cases involved China? I mean, do you also urge China to refrain from that conduct? 

Marise Payne:

Well, we urge the entire international community to act online as they would offline in terms of- in accordance with international law. 

Journalist:

[Talks over] But I'm asking about China.

Marise Payne:

Well, we issued last week, released last week our international cyber security strategy on engagement and on Australia's expectations. And every country, China included, we expect to adhere to international law online, as they do offline. 

Journalist:

The talks canvas an economic alliance of sorts to shield Australia and other nations from China’s economic coercions, including potentially diversifying supply chains. Can you just explain how that would work?

Marise Payne:

Well, I, I think the concept of diversifying supply chains is one which we have been discussing now for an extended period through COVID. It became clear to us early in the piece, in 2020, that there were pressures on the supply chains, which COVID was exacerbating. I remember some very late night calls from Australia's time zone with colleagues from countries as diverse as Canada, Israel, Indonesia and a number of others - Brazil - on supply chain issues, which reflect the words of the communiqué. And it's also something that we have discussed in recent days, particularly in relation to the urgent provision of medical supplies, for example, and making sure that, as an international community, we are able to bring our supply resources together to support friends and partners who are dealing with critical moments in their COVID experience, and India is a very good example of that.

Journalist:

What were you able to tell the G7 partners about Australia's experience with China?

Marise Payne:

Well that, in fact, was not a significant part of the formal G7 Plus discussion. Our discussions reflected a sustainable recovery, for example; reflected some of the challenges that we have dealt with in the last year which have manifested – to go to your point Jacqueline - manifested in things like the Canada led Declaration on Arbitrary Detention. That does not pertain to any one country, but it does pertain to the experience of too many countries in the world who have seen their citizens subject to arbitrary detention in recent times - Australia is one of those. 

And so though they are shared experiences and shared in discussions. We talked – to go back to the previous question - talked in relation to cyber security issues, cyber engagement issues. And I think Australia's strategy, brought together by our Ambassador for cyber and critical technologies, is a really powerful contribution in that debate. 

And obviously, we have discussed the steps that Australia has taken which we fundamentally, as a Government, regard as being in our national interests. Certainly, they have resulted in a number of actions taken by the Government in China - they are ultimately decisions for the Government there. We would, in fact, welcome the opportunity to discuss these issues amongst colleagues. We stand ready to do that.

Journalist:

I was referring more to trade issues, [indistinct] talking about that as well.

Marise Payne: 

That as well, yes, certainly. So, in terms of the decisions that Australia has taken in recent times, particularly on the matter of barley, which as you know, is subject to WTO action. The other experiences that we are dealing with are matters that were part of the discussion.

Journalist:

Does China’s decision to suspend economic dialogue represent a permanent freeze and what’s your message to the businesses who now have to weather the cost of the breakdown in the diplomatic relationship?

Marise Payne: 

The suspension of the dialogue is disappointing and it has been a valuable tool for Ministers to engage, particularly in that treasury and finance space. It hasn’t met since 2017 and we have been very clear that we were willing and keen to participate in an ongoing strategic and economic dialogue. That is ultimately a decision for China, but I’d reiterate what I said in response to Jacqueline’s question, which is that Australia is very ready to engage in dialogue with our counterparts at any level, and at all levels. And ultimately, that is a matter for them. It’s disappointing because I do think that dialogue is a much more effective way to address issues and to determine paths forward.

Journalist:

But it’s more than disappointing because Australians suffer as a result of this.

Marise Payne: 

Well, we do find it disappointing and that is the word that I would use. We are very focussed as a government and Australians expect us to be focussed as a government, on protecting our national interests. And our national interests are reflected in a number of the decisions that we have taken, which we have explained clearly, consistently and carefully. Many of those decisions, which are reflective of the international strategic environment in which we live, many of those decisions, in fact, all of those decisions, to the best of my recollection, are not country specific. And we have had experiences with other countries. And again, I’d refer to the cybersecurity question asked earlier in relation to our recent attribution of the SolarWinds events to Russia. There are countries who choose not to participate in the international environment, in accordance with international law. And Australia will always stand up for our interests and always prosecute the case for abiding by international law.

Journalist:

Minister, the Prime Minister suggested earlier this week that Australians desperate to return from India, should go to a third country, like the Maldives, to quarantine there before being allowed home. How is that fair, putting additional pressure on less resourced poorer countries? 

Marise Payne: 

Well, that’s not the statement that I've seen by the Prime Minister this week. Clearly, we have placed a temporary pause based on strong advice to manage the quarantine situation, particularly in Australia. But I also wanted to acknowledge again, the very, very challenging circumstances that India is dealing with. And that was, in large part, key to my conversation with the Minister for External Affairs, Jaishankar yesterday. The operation of that temporary pause, under the Act, automatically expires at the beginning of the 15th of May. And based on the advice that we have at this point, we fully expect it not to be extended beyond that date and we intend for facilitated flights to resume beyond that. My department has been working with counterparts in the airlines and with counterparts on the ground in India throughout this entire process, with that view in mind.

Journalist:

Was that embarrassing to ask you to lift that ban?

Marise Payne: 

No, the Indian Government did not ask us to lift that ban. The Indian Government represented in the discussion, if you like, with my Foreign Minister counterpart yesterday, spoke more about the circumstances that they are dealing with and the challenges that they are dealing with. We spoke about the medical support that Australia has been able to deliver via that Qantas flight.

Journalist:

[Interrupts] Did you raise this issue at all?

Marise Payne: 

Yes, we did. 

Journalist:

And what did they say to you?

Marise Payne: 

Well, I'm not in the habit of going into my detailed conversations with Foreign Minister counterparts, but I can say that the Government's focus, as represented by my conversation with Dr Jaishankar, is absolutely on their domestic situation.

Journalist:

So were you therefore embarrassed by the fact that we, as a country, Australia, have added further pressure and adding further burden to India's already collapsed health system by leaving that [indistinct] to potentially fall ill and rely on them. Surely that is embarrassing, Minister.

Marise Payne: 

I absolutely disagree with the premise of your question…

Journalist:

[Talks over] You don’t think it’s embarrassing?

Marise Payne: 

…And I absolutely disagree that having supported over 19,000 Australians to return from India since last year. We in fact had 8 flights planned for May, for this month. It is a temporary pause of those flights to ensure that we are able to deal with the challenges that the surge in infection rates was presenting in India and therefore, in arrivals from India. It's a pause that was taken, as I've said, previously, on the advice that the Government received. But, I hope very much, as I said in my earlier remarks, that based on the medical advice, we are able to expect it won’t be extended beyond that date and that we do intend to support facilitated flights to resume. I really also want to acknowledge those many families in both Australia and in India who are dealing with these very difficult circumstances. We understand how hard it is. I have friends. We all, I’m sure, have friends who know families who are dealing with these issues. But at the same time, our job is to protect Australians, in Australia as well, to make sure that our system is sustainable and to make sure that as soon as we can, we resume those facilitated flights and that's what we’ll be doing.

Journalist:

[Indistinct]… just to clarify, you have no shame that your Government wants to jail and fine Australians in India who try to get back? You felt no shame when discussing that with the Indian Minister?

Marise Payne: 

So the application of the Biosecurity Act and the provisions under the Biosecurity Act are provisions which we have had to use over the last 12 to 18 months, in what are, and I don't think I need to tell anyone in London or in the UK, in what are extraordinary circumstances for the world. The application of the Biosecurity Act has been used on a very small number of occasions. On this occasion, to ensure that we were able to manage, and that the state and territory health and medical systems were able to manage the level of positive cases that were coming from flights from India, we have applied this temporary pause, a temporary pause that many other countries have also [indistinct]…

Journalist:

Yes, I’m asking about the criminalisation of citizenship. You feel no shame?

Marise Payne: 

Well, I don't agree with you that it is the criminalisation of citizenship.

Journalist:

[Talks over] Well, threatening to jail someone-

Marise Payne:

What I have said and what I will [indistinct] is that the application of the Biosecurity Act, which of course contains penalties in relation to a range of matters, is one which we have had to apply on a very small number of occasions in the last year or so.

Journalist:

[Talks over] Why?

Marise Payne:

It was the mechanism  and it is the mechanism by which we deal with these issues. It's been temporary. We hope very much to see it lifted on the 15th

Journalist:

[Indistinct] it being applied before though?

Marise Payne:

Well, it currently applies for the entry of cruise ships to Australia, for example. So, under the Biosecurity Act, and the declarations made by the Health Minister under the Biosecurity Act, my understanding is that if a cruise ship was to enter Australia in contravention of the declaration, it would be in similar breach of the Act, and penalties, and penalties would apply - penalties that are part of the administration of the Act. That is one example with which I am familiar obviously, given we spent a great deal of time last year dealing with cruise ship issues.

Journalist:

Minister, has the Liberal Party or the Coalition conducted any kind of opinion poll on the question of the border closures? And have you and your colleagues discussed that whole event [indistinct] over the past few months? 

Marise Payne:

Linton, I am not aware of that. It would be a matter for the party organisation. And my discussions on dealing with border closures are overwhelmingly with the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade in the efforts to arrange facilitated commercial flights overwhelmingly with community members who raised them with me and with counterparts overseas.

Journalist:

Overwhelmingly, but not exclusively. So, what, what party political discussions have you had on the question of border closures? And their effect on the electorate’s opinion of your party?

Marise Payne:

Well, I'm not in the habit of talking about party political discussions of any nature, and I would not change that now.

Unidentified Speaker:

Last question.

Journalist:

Your Government keeps saying that all of these measures are designed to protect Australians and for the safety of Australians. So, when did the safety of Australians outside Australia stop being a priority for your Government? Because that's what people here and in India feel.

Marise Payne:

Well, I disagree, again, I disagree with that proposition. We have-

Journalist:

[Interrupts] Back when you started [Indistinct]…

Marise Payne:

Do you think it’s possible I could finish my response?

We have, over the past year and a bit, seen 512,000, or more by now I think, Australians return to Australia. There is no question that this is one of the most difficult periods of time that our generation has ever lived through - no question. In that process, we have facilitated commercial flights, we have assisted Australians on commercial flights of airlines into Australia. We have tried to support Australians with financial assistance through the Hardship Program. And we have tried to ensure that in that process, as well as in that work, we are protecting Australians at home. 

I don't think that there is anyone who would say that we are not acutely aware of the challenge that this has presented to many Australians around the world from the very beginning of dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic - from many countries and from every continent in the world, frankly. That is a challenge that my department, which has been running consular split shifts for months, and months, and months to deal with this, has addressed in conjunction with the Department of Foreign Affairs, the Department of Infrastructure and Transport to ensure that we are able to support as many people as possible.

Journalist:

Minister, are you going to hotel quarantine when you get back?

Marise Payne:

I will be quarantining under the conditions imposed or required of me by…

Journalist:

[Talks over] Sorry, just a [indistinct] question, are you going to hotel quarantine? Or home quarantine?

Marise Payne:

… by the New South Wales Government. In the past two occasions that I travelled, to enable me to continue to work in my job as a National Security Minister in the Commonwealth, the New South Wales Government has allowed me to quarantine at home. I understand that will be the same on this occasion. 

Journalist:

How can other people who need to travel for business, like yourself, [indistinct] can see the value in travelling [indistinct]? Why can’t they do the same?

Marise Payne:

Well, the Governments, the states and territories and the Commonwealth who are dealing with these issues have a range of different approaches. We are required to apply for exemptions. Governments are entitled to grant or to reject those exemptions. The hotel quarantine process is one which has served Australia well. It is not possible for me to do my job in a public hotel and on that basis, I have sought to make an application and it would be a matter for the New South Wales Government.

Journalist:

Minister, I want to ask about the G7 statement given yesterday. It called for, quote: new commitments on climate change, quote: well ahead of the Glasgow Conference. What new commitments will Australia be making to tackle climate change? 

Marise Payne:

I'm not going to speculate about those, but we've been very clear that we will have our long-term emissions strategy made clear before COP 26. These are-

Journalist:

[Interrupts] Will you, will you be making a new commitment?

Marise Payne:

I’m not going to speculate about that, these are matters which the Government will work through. But what I have discussed here this week is very much a great deal of interest in our focus on low cost, low emissions technologies. I met with the Korean Foreign Minister this morning, one third of our meeting was about hydrogen. It's been raised with me by my counterparts from Japan, certainly, Germany was also strongly interested in Australia's approach on low emissions technologies which are fundamental, in our view, to ensuring that the whole world has access to low cost, low emissions technologies to those. But I'm not going to, I'm not going to speculate on the content of what we will present before COP 26, but we will ensure that our long-term emission strategy is made public before [indistinct].

Journalist:

[Talks over] Back to the conversation about China …

Marise Payne:

[Interrupts] Sorry, I'm just going to answer one more, answer one more question from Jacqueline and then I'm going to go because I am flying this afternoon.

Journalist:

We’re just a few miles away from where gun boats are lined up - the French and the British Navy, [indistinct] and I'm just wondering how you feel that Australia's strongest ally, and a country that is now building our submarines, is facing off against each other in [indistinct]?

Marise Payne:

Well, I would probably not comment on their individual strategic decisions. Most importantly, what the G7 has brought us together for, the G7 plus has brought us together for, is to look at those security and strategic issues - not that one specifically - but to look at security and strategic issues as a group of liberal democracies with a commitment to the rule of law, to the rules-based global order, and one which I intend to continue prosecuting in my visit to the United States next week. 

Can I thank you all for joining us this afternoon and wish you all the very best. 

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