Doorstop in Washington DC

  • Transcript, E&OE
Subjects: USS Canberra, Austal USA, coronavirus.
11 March 2020

Marise Payne: Well thank you all very much for joining us here this afternoon, it’s great to be back in Washington. I’ve come to Washington on this occasion via Austal USA in Alabama to lay the keel, and, activate the keel of the LCS-30, which will be named USS Canberra. It is an extraordinary event in Australia-US history in my view. The second USS Canberra — as announced just about 18 months ago — she is well underway, close to completion. The Austal USA story is a great part of the Australia-US story, particularly around investment engagement. There are about 4000 people there in Alabama working for Austal and their production line is world renowned, so it's great to have the opportunity to do that.

Obviously, very focused here this week on advancing our shared interests in the Indo-Pacific and speaking with my colleagues and counterparts here about that. Very much focused on the security, the stability, the prosperity of the Indo-Pacific, the operation of the rule of law, and ensuring that we are working with our partners in ASEAN and our partners across the Pacific in delivering on those focuses.

I've had a number of meetings here this morning, and more to come, but particularly with the new DFC head, Adam Boehler. We have a lot of great work to do together and very much looking forward to that. He is a man of action and I think we'll be taking forward a very big agenda for the United States and we're keen to be part of that, particularly in our trilateral partnership with Japan, Australia, and the US. I also have meetings with the White House today, and later this afternoon, with Secretary of State, Pompeo. And then later this evening, with the Friends of Australia caucus here in Washington, which is growing every day. Our previous Ambassador, Mr Hockey, and our new Ambassador, Mr Sinodinos, are very focused on making sure the Friends of Australia group is growing in every way.

Obviously there is a significant focus in our discussions here around the impact of coronavirus, both internationally and domestically for both of us. It has been a topic in all of my discussions so far. I think it's important that we are sharing our views with partners and here in the United States, that is no exception. We have been closely working together, particularly on travel restrictions, particularly on a number of consular matters, connections between the ADF, Home Affairs in Australia, and Homeland Security here. And of course, we have established scientific links, which I think are also very important between the CDC and the AHPPC in Australia, the Australian Health Principal Protection Committee. We are focused on cooperating in the region because we know that the impact on the Indo-Pacific could be very, very significant and that's something that we're working on together, between our Indo-Pacific Centre for Regional Health Security, WHO Pacific, and of course the CDC.

So, a lot to do in a relatively short period of time on this visit, but one which I think is very timely and I’m looking forward to continuing my discussions this afternoon and tomorrow. Happy to answer a few questions.

Journalist: Do you have any plans, does the government have any plans to expand the travel ban, travel restrictions on countries maybe like the United States in the next couple of weeks?

Marise Payne: Well, I think the important thing about our response is that we have acted early in our decisions around travel restrictions that we've needed to impose — always focused on protecting the health and safety of Australians. We have made those decisions as a whole of Government approach, always under advice or with advice from medical professionals in Australia, from the Chief Medical Officer and his teams as part of the AHPPC I referred to before.

So we will consider those, we are constantly reviewing our travel restrictions. To an extent, and I think it's a good question in this context, to an extent these are about to become self-fulfilling in some ways, given the restriction and the constraints on aircraft — on airlines around the world. We've seen Qantas, for example, make announcements in relation to that. That is having an impact, most certainly, on people's ability to travel. And frankly, if you’re travelling at the moment you will see that we have very subdued airports, that we have a much lower level of activity. So I think it is, in fact, in some ways, addressing itself.

Journalist: Have you raised the Julian Assange issue at all? And they’re seeking to extradite here? And what our position is on that?

Marise Payne: Well, I have not had an opportunity to do that so far but I would expect to note that Mr Assange is of course currently facing court in the United Kingdom, with the prospect of extradition to the United States. We would seek to ensure that he is dealt with appropriately according to law, and the Australian expectations of that both in the UK and here in the US, and I'm sure that will be the case.

Journalist: Does the government consider him a journalist?

Marise Payne: I'm not going to engage in a running commentary on Mr Assange, and particularly not while he has legal matters under way in the United Kingdom.

Journalist: The World Health Organization calls it a pandemic now. Are countries, in your view, doing enough? Are we needing to urge anyone that could do with a nudge in our region? Or elsewhere, are we sort of sanguine about the situation?

Marise Payne: I would certainly not use the word sanguine about the response to this particular challenge and it's obviously affecting countries right around the world and also of course our region. Our region is not immune from that. But we are working closely with partners both in the region, and more broadly partners here in the United States, to make sure that as each country implements their own response — and they are, after all, responsible for their own responses — that where Australia can support or provide any assistance, we're doing so.

Importantly though our focus, as it should be, is first and foremost on protecting the health and safety of Australians.

Journalist: Minister, in six months Joe Biden could be president. In theory, it looks like he's going to win the Democratic nomination. Do you have any words about him and his- you thoughts as Foreign Minister?

Marise Payne: Well I think I'll leave that to you — you’re the commentators on politics, I'm a participant. And your assessment of the election will be one I will read with interest, Cameron.

Journalist: Can I ask about Kylie Moore-Gilbert in Iran? Have you any updates about her condition? Especially given that reports suggest that coronavirus is sweeping through the prison that she’s been held in?

Marise Payne: Well, we've been very focused on communicating with the Iranian authorities about our expectations for Kylie Moore-Gilbert. There is the threshold issue of course that we don't accept the charges upon which she is detained and we continue to make that case. But at the moment our concern is for her health and her safety. We've sought assurances from the Iranian system in relation to that.

Journalist: And can I also ask about the Australians believed to be on one of the cruise ships that’s just docked in California? Do you have any update on whether or not they have contracted coronavirus?

Marise Payne: Well we are providing them with consular support as you would expect. I don't usually comment on the private health status of Australians, it wouldn’t be appropriate to do that. But we are working with them, with their families to ensure they’re provided with the consular support that they need.

Journalist: What’s the process for them coming off the ship?

Marise Payne: Each individual case is different. A number have left already. Others continue on the ship particularly those who are part of the crew.

Journalist: Minister, you’ve mentioned Qantas paring back its flights. Do you have any specific advice to Australians about traveling in general at the moment? Given how fast this is now developing?

Marise Payne: They should absolutely be reading Smartraveller.

Journalist: [Indistinct]

Marise Payne: Yes. And that’s why we provide travel advice and that's why we have been reviewing travel advice for Australians across multiple countries on multiple occasions almost every day in recent weeks. That is part of our very important process of communicating under our consular obligations. But, it is important to read the Smartraveller advice because it does provide the most up to date material about the challenges, the threats and there've been a number of very rapid changes in recent days and keeping up to date with those is vital.

Journalist: And in general, is travel now out of Australia recommended?

Marise Payne: Well people will make their own decisions about that and people will make their own decisions about their personal requirements or business requirements, whatever that might be. But they should take appropriate precautions. There has been advice provided through the University of Newcastle, I think, which is being taken up with alacrity here around how to protect yourself. Those sorts of initiatives are important and we’ve conveyed that previously.

Okay.

Journalist: Thank you very much. Excellent.

Journalist: One more. Do you expect to discuss the situation in the United Kingdom regarding Huawei with the Secretary of State this afternoon? And do you expect in the United Kingdom might change its position on 5G providers in the near future?

Marise Payne: Well the first thing I would reiterate is that Australia's position is clear. In operating on the advice of our national security advisers and agencies — we made a very clear decision about this in fact in 2018 and we will not be making any changes to that.

What the United Kingdom has done is a matter for them but it does not detract in any way from the strength of the Australia-UK relationship or, I might observe, the US-UK relationship. And we are very close partners and continue to be so.

Journalist: Should then be a kind of video conference at the G20 or something like that? To deal with coronavirus?

Marise Payne: Well I think there is quite a lot of communication happening through various structures which already exist. I know there are health discussions through the G7; I know that there are country to country discussions which Australia is a part of in many instances. If there's a need to upgrade that or to increase that, then I'm sure those initiatives will be considered.

Journalist: Thanks very much.

Marise Payne: Okay. Thanks everyone.

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