Doorstop, London, United Kingdom

  • Transcript, E&OE
Subjects: Commonwealth Foreign Ministers’ meeting, Press Freedom, PNG, Syria, Foreign Fighters, Middle East tensions.
10 July 2019

Minister: Can I congratulate the mighty New South Wales Blues on winning tonight's State of Origin and winning the Series, which as a proud New South Wales Senator, and massive St George Dragons fan, is music to my ears.

More importantly, I am in London today to attend the Commonwealth Foreign Affairs Ministers' Meeting this morning which is continuing behind us at Marlborough House. And also to attend the Global Conference on Media Freedom this afternoon which is being convened by, of course, Secretary of State Jeremy Hunt and Canadian Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland.

As far the Commonwealth is concerned, it is a great honour to attend my second meeting of the Commonwealth Foreign Ministers, the first was at UNGA in New York last year.

We are about to celebrate the 70th anniversary of the modern Commonwealth. Australia, as a founding member of the Commonwealth has a strong and abiding interest in ensuring that as an organisation it is a modern, effective global institution.

I have been particularly struck today by the interests, the very broad interests, of foreign ministers that they have brought to the table and the issues that we have been discussing. We have reviewed our 2018 mandates and progress on those from CHOGM here in London last year. And also been briefed in detail by the Rwandan Foreign Minister about plans for CHOGM 2020.

Tonight I am heading the Auckland to attend Indonesia's Pacific Expo. As a part of Indonesia's focus and Indo-Pacific concept, the work that they have done in ASEAN for the Indo-Pacific concept, it is very important, I think, to support that engagement into the Pacific and I am very much looking forward to meeting with my friend Retno Masudi in Auckland when I get there today.

As you know I am speaking this afternoon at the Media Freedom Conference. I am particularly pleased to see a number of other Australians who are participating in that agenda. Amongst them Peter Greste and Julie Bishop and I had the opportunity for a brief exchange with Peter Greste on the way here yesterday.

Australia will be reinforcing, as some of you may have seen, our commitment to freedom of expression, including media freedom, is a fundamental basis of a strong functioning democracy. It is a basic human right and that is something which we have consistently perused in our international engagements. And I think it is very important for countries like Australia to work with like-mindeds to build the resilience of media industry organisations in our region and of course further afield.

In Australia, and I am conscious of the recent debate and issues that have been raised around media freedom per se, we are very committed to ensuring our democracy strikes the right balance between freedom of the press and the public's right to know and protecting our national security and safety of Australians. They are two fundamental tenants of our democracy as well.

Thank you very much for meeting me here today and I look forward to taking a couple of questions.

Journalist: Minister, you talk about this balance and how important it is. Do you believe this balance is right in Australia or do you think that metadata being accessed, flight records being accessed, homes and businesses being raided, are they signs that the balance is dangerously wrong at the moment?

Minister: Well I am not going to comment on ongoing investigations but I think that the government's decision to ask the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security to review these issues, a very senior parliamentary committee, is the right decision given the concerns that have been raised.

We have been extremely open to and engaged with the leaders of media organisations around Australia in recent times to ensure we are hearing their concerns directly from them. I think the Attorney-General, the Communications Minister, and the Prime Minister have been very clear in reinforcing that we want that relationship to be open and fully engaged and that most certainty seems to be at the moment.

Journalist: So you don't have any opinion on whether the balance is right at the moment?

Minister: Well I think it is a very fine balance and I think that we have seen changes in national security legislation, if we are comprehensive in the way we look at it since September 11.

Over many many years now in some of those changes in legislation, specific provision has been made for the protection of media and journalists. In others, it has been done in different way.

This is a timely review, the concerns that have been raised, are concerns raised very genuinely on the part of media organisations, I think the government has been clear in saying that we appreciate that, and the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security will have the opportunity to review that comprehensively, and to ensure that everyone who wants to make a contribution to that review, everyone who wants to express their view, is able to do so.

Journalist: Minister, is it hypocritical to be here championing press freedom while we are having these raids back in Australia? And you voted against a review proposed by Labor last week?

Minister: Well I think I have just spoken in some detail about the review that the Government has initiated itself and it is doing. That is our job as a government to be responsive to concerns that are being raised in a circumstance like this. I would imagine that if Australia was not represented at a conference like this today then you would say that the Government wasn't doing their job by being here. I suspect that you would advance a position that a government was in a no-win situation.

Journalist: Minister, the Kurdish administration in Syria says the Australian Government hasn't been in touch about Australian's detained in Syria. Is that true and why not?

Minister: I have not seen those recent comments, but self-evidently having seen the reports of a number of orphaned children that we have worked extremely diligently and extremely hard to ensure their safe removal from very difficult circumstances in Syria. We have had to work with multiple parties through that process including the Administration and we will continue to engage where we can to assist those who need our support.

Journalist: The father of [inaudible] Australian citizen, says the Australian Government should bring him back to put him on trial. Will you be doing that and do we also have an obligation to bring his children home to Australia?

Minister: There are very many cases to hand, unfortunately, of families who chose to take their children into the most dangerous circumstance imaginable.

From some there is an expectation that Australian officials should put themselves in harms way to extricate those children who have been left by their families.

We have worked extremely diligently, as I said, over an extended period. This is not an easy process, this is a very difficult, a very complex set of negotiations, in a very dangerous environment. We have worked very hard to ensure that those children that we have been able to remove, were removed from that dire circumstance to a position of safety and we will continue to work in that way where we need to.

Journalist: Minister, journalists in Australia are at threat from actually publishing or receiving classified information currently. Would you support a change to the Crimes Act?

Minister: I am not going to comment act by act and clause by clause, on what should and should not be changed, particularly given that we have a parliament inquiry under the auspices of the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security, which I have said is one of the most senior committees within the parliament, one whose work is taken very, very seriously and one which does its work in a very considered and careful manner. So I think making contributions to that Committee, to raise those sort of issues is the correct process and one which I would encourage anyone who is interested in raising those issues to take up.

Journalist: Minister, are you concerned by recent outbreaks in violence in Papua New Guinea and particularly in Hela Province where up to 20 people have been killed.

Minister: I think the events in Papua New Guinea that have resulted in this massacre are an absolute tragedy. And my thoughts and sympathies are with those families of those who have been so appallingly killed.

I know Prime Minister Marape has indicated that he will take every step he can to ensure that this sort of violence does not continue in Papua New Guinea and that those perpetrators are brought to appropriate justice.

Journalist: Minister, I am sure you have heard that the UK Ambassador to the US has had to resign after the leaking of some very confidential memos. Are you concerned that this might send a message to the broader diplomatic community, including your diplomats, that you can no longer be frank with the government about what you are seeing?

Minister: Well I am confident in our system, in Australia, both in the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, and with our representatives around the world, that we have a very good system that works effectively to enable our representatives in all corners of the world to convey issues and updates as appropriate to their government.

Matters relating to the United Kingdom and to their ambassadors I will leave to the commentary of Secretary Hunt.

Journalist: Do you agree with the Ambassador's assessment of the Trump Administration?

Minister: Well, that is a very good try.

Journalist: Minister, has Australia been called on to offer any support in the Persian Gulf, should it be needed.

Minister: We are always taking with our counterparts, our allies and partners in relation to Middle East security and we have been very clear that concerns about an increasing fraught security situation are significant.

Don't forget that we have been part the combined maritime force in the Middle East for I think, we are up to perhaps the 67th, 68th rotation, and the men and women of the ADF have been playing a key role across three areas of deployment, piracy, trafficking and others to make sure that we are supporting the Combined Maritime Force but also prosecuting Australia's concerns and our national interests when we stop drugs, when we stop weapons. The sorts of weapon that we saw, I think HMAS Ballarat, if I remember correctly, seized in recent weeks, we are making a real difference for security here in Australia, I should say, and elsewhere. But we will always continue those discussions with counterparts and partners.

Ladies and gentlemen, I think you may have to excuse me so that I can go to the next location but thank you very much for joining us here today.

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