Doorstop, Washington DC

  • Transcript, E&OE
Subjects: Sulawesi earthquake and tsunami; submarines; Iran.

REPORTER: Terrible events in Indonesia. What can we do to help?

FOREIGN MINISTER: Let me first start by conveying to President Widodo and the people of Indonesia the sincere condolences of the Australian people. This is a terrible disaster. We know there are at least 832 deaths confirmed, tens of thousands of people will be displaced and I think Indonesian authorities are indicating it could impact up to 2 million people in the area, in Sulawasi. It is a very significant disaster.

We stand ready to support the Indonesian government should they need our help. And we have always worked constructively and cooperatively through the non-government organisations, Indonesian disaster support agencies themselves, to make sure that if they do need our help we are able to provide it.

REPORTER: What kind of help can Australia feasibility provide? Can you take us through what's on offer?

FOREIGN MINISTER: In the past, in circumstances such as this, and it is important to emphasise that every single event of this nature is different from another one, we've been able to provide humanitarian supplies; we've been able to assist with movement of people. So if there is any support required we will engage in those discussions with the Indonesian Government and provide that accordingly. But they are a very resilient country, they are a very determined people to look after themselves and we'll just take that step by step.

REPORTER: Do we have any military assets on standby? Or preparing for the possibility of deployment?

FOREIGN MINISTER: Well we would always be able to do that if required.

REPORTER: Of course, one of the great positives of the Canberra for example, is its ability to help in situations like this. Is it possible that it could be deployed on a humanitarian mission like this?

FOREIGN MINISTER: HMAS Canberra has a significant humanitarian assistance and disaster relief capability like her sister ship Adelaide and of course HMAS Choules but they have been used in the past, for example, in response to tropical cyclone Winston. I saw Choules herself in a humanitarian assistance and disaster relief exercise in New Caledonia earlier this year. But as I said they are very much case by case, circumstance by circumstance engagements and if they are required, we'll work that out directly with the Indonesian government.

REPORTER: There is a report in the media in Australia today saying that the Collins class submarines may have to have their life extended by up to 30 years because of problems with the contracts – with the new generation. What can you tell us about that?

FOREIGN MINISTER: Well obviously that's a matter for the Minister for Defence but I understand you're asking me that - I've had that role not too long ago myself.

Certainly Australia and France are continuing negotiations in relation to the Future Submarine but most importantly the government is absolutely focused on delivering for Defence the naval capability we need into the future. Across the Future Frigates, across the Future Submarines – all of the projects are very important.

In terms of the negotiations themselves, you wouldn't expect me to go into details in public. They are a matter for the Minister for Defence and in his previous role as the Minister for Defence Industry he had carriage of that as well.

REPORTER: Look we've got billions and billions at stake here – surely there's something you can tell us about what the road block is – what's the problem?

FOREIGN MINISTER: I think in a complex contract negotiation of this nature, and bear in mind that this is an extremely significant contract for both Naval Group and for the Australian government, we want to be sure that we are protecting Australia's interests. That has to be the Australian government's absolute priority and we'll continue to negotiate on that basis. In terms of capability, I know from my previous role that we've worked very hard, or the Navy has worked very hard, to ensure the availability of the Collins class submarine and to ensure that it is fit for purpose and continuing to do the excellent job that it does.

REPORTER: Is there any chance that this contract could fall over?

FOREIGN MINISTER: I'm confident that we'll be able to determine a negotiated outcome with Naval Group and I'm confident that the governments of France and Australia will ensure that happens.

REPORTER: Minister, you're meeting with Mike Pompeo while in DC. Can you tell us what will be on the agenda during discussions?

FOREIGN MINISTER: Yes, I'm looking forward to my next meeting with Secretary Pompeo, who of course I saw in New York last week during the General Assembly week, and consolidating on the very significant gains we made during the last AUSMIN talks which of course were only about six weeks ago in Palo Alto.

We set out a plan of action if you like, a work plan, from that meeting which was held between Secretaries Pompeo and Mattis and Minister Bishop and myself. A plan of action with a real focus on the Indo-Pacific. And that was why we held that meeting in Palo Alto, looking at literally the Indo-Pacific, affirming for the international community and indeed for ourselves that that is the area of strategic focus for us. Whether it is in supporting our Pacific friends and neighbours, whether it is in the work we do in Southeast Asia, those focuses will most definitely continue and I look forward to building on those.

I'm also looking forward to meeting National Security Advisor Bolton and taking the opportunity to engage with him this week and a number of other key meetings.

REPORTER: Mr Bolton of course has been very vocal about Iran. Are you concerned that Australian companies might be caught up the American insistence that no country do business with Iran and of course with remaining in that nuclear agreement?

FOREIGN MINISTER: We've been very clear that we think that the JCPOA has a role to play in terms of Iran's nuclear activity. We do however share the concerns of the United States and other members of the international community about other activities of the Iranian regime. I'll be discussing those matters further with both Secretary Pompeo and National Security Advisor Bolton this week.

REPORTER: Are you worried that Australian companies could be caught up in that?

FOREIGN MINISTER: They are matters which we will determine if they occur but at this point in time I'm looking forward to my discussions with the Secretary and the Security Advisor this week.

REPORTER: Minister, do you mind just explaining what those concerns are about Iran that you've just alluded to?

FOREIGN MINISTER: I think we've been clear in the past that Iran's engagement in aspects of activities in Iraq for example has been a matter of concern to Australia. We have hundreds and hundreds of defence personnel and civilian personnel working in Iraq as we speak. And we've always been very clear that we think in terms of resolving the issues that have occurred there, largely of course around the presence Daesh and their extremist behaviour, that it is important that countries that are involved are making a constructive contribution. I would reinforce that message.

REPORTER: So is the Trump approach to threaten everything in terms of the agreement, maybe there is some upside to that – in that it puts Iran on the spot?

FOREIGN MINISTER: They are matters for the United States – the approach that they take. Australia takes the approach that it believes best serves Australia's national interest.

Thanks everyone.

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