Interview with Ben Fordham, 2GB Breakfast

  • Transcript, E&OE
Subjects: Speculation about proposals for a Chinese-built city in Papua New Guinea; Cheng Lei; Sean Turnell’s detention in Myanmar.
09 February 2021

Ben Fordham: The Foreign Minister Marise Payne, boy, she’s got a lot on her plate. She always does. There’s an Australian journalist detained in China who’s now been formally arrested. Cheng Lei is accused of espionage and sharing Chinese state secrets. And we’ve also got concerns about a Chinese company wanting to build an entire city in Papua New Guinea, just 200 kilometres from Australia. Man in Myanmar, an Australian academic has been detained in the wake of the military coup. Sean Turnell has been working as an advisor to the government, he’s now locked up in a cell.

Marise Payne is our Foreign Minister and she’s live on the line. Minister, good morning to you.

Marise Payne: Good morning, Ben and Happy New Year.

Ben Fordham: Happy New Year. Boy, you’ve got a busy brief. I might actually start off with you about what’s going on in PNG. This Chinese company wanting to build an entire city just 200 kilometres from the Australian mainland. Have we got anything to be concerned about?

Marise Payne: Well Ben, we’re working very closely with our counterparts in Papua New Guinea on these issues, as you would expect. We have a number of interests, particularly in relation to the Torres Strait and the Torres Strait Treaty. So in both of those cases, we’re raising the full range of our Australian interests, that includes fisheries obviously, environmental issues, the livelihoods of traditional inhabitants. And we're long-term supporters of Western Province, which is where Daru is located.

In fact, I met on these issues of supporting Western Province with Warren Entsch, the very lively Member for Leichhardt, just last week in Parliament. So, working closely with the provincial and the national government to support sustainable development that really benefits the people of the area - their livelihoods, food and water security, absolutely vital, and both health and community resilience as well.

Ben Fordham: When it comes to Chinese companies moving in and moving up, there's also a case in the Whitsundays, Keswick Island, where the Queensland Government approved a 99-year lease to a Chinese company. And then when the Chinese developer, China Bloom, moved in, they closed down the airstrip, they shut the boat ramp, they locked the gate to the national park and now there’s keep out signs all over the place. Is there anything that can be done about that?

Marise Payne: I'm not familiar with that specific case, Ben. But what we have been consistently saying, particularly in relation to investment in the region and where it forms development assistance, that it should be focussed on contributing to security, to stability, to prosperity. And in domestic communities here, I would say that it’s very important for domestic communities to be able to ensure that businesses that invest in their area are compliant with their own requirements and provide the sorts of access that they would expect from any investor.

Ben Fordham: You had some success last year in helping the release of Dr Kylie Moore-Gilbert in Iran and now we've got a number of Australians detained overseas. The case in China of Cheng Lei has stepped up a bit with a formal arrest. And then we've got Sean Turnell, who was working as an economic adviser to the government in Myanmar, also now detained. I'm guessing that you're negotiating on those fronts.

Marise Payne: Yes, of course we are, particularly in relation to both cases. Professor Sean Turnell is a very highly regarded academic and has really given many years of his professional life to supporting the development and the progress of Myanmar, and a particular commitment to the democratic transition that had been underway there. So, we are providing as much consular assistance as we can to him and to other Australians, but we are definitely calling for his immediate release. So, advocating both at the highest levels in Yangon and in Naypyidaw and calling in the Myanmar Ambassador here in Canberra to do that. It is very important to us. We don't believe that he should continue to be detained. And it is my absolute focus.

A very different matter is that of Ms Cheng Lei, a journalist, Australian journalist who was detained in China. She has been in detention since August of last year, but was formally arrested under the Chinese system on Friday last week. We've been working very hard to ensure our consular access to her has continued in recent months and have raised concerns in relation to her conditions of detention. We visited her most recently on 27th January this year, and that is in accordance with our bilateral consular agreement with China. But we do have basic expectations and they are that standards of justice, procedural fairness and humane treatment should be met in accordance with international norms. And we will advocate for that for an Australian citizen in her circumstances, of course.

Ben Fordham: Just two quick ones before I need to run. The second impeachment trial of Donald Trump begins tomorrow, and the new Biden administration is down to work. Are you off to Washington any time soon?

Marise Payne: Ben, we've been engaged with our counterparts. I've spoken with Secretary of State Antony Blinken, with National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan. As you know, COVID has seriously constrained our ability to move around and make visits. But I'm looking forward to doing that as soon as it's practically possible in the context of COVID-19 restrictions. And new counterparts in the United States are new but not new in some ways. They're well known to us, they’re people we've worked with before and we're looking forward to a strong and positive relationship. This year sees the 70th anniversary of the ANZUS Treaty. And I know for the Prime Minister and for President Biden, that's going to be a very important anniversary to mark.

Ben Fordham: Marise Payne, it's well known around Canberra that you've got the best horse racing tips in the Federal Parliament. Would you commit in 2021 to sharing any good leads with the 2GB audience?

Marise Payne: I'll talk to my horse whisperer, Ben, and come back to you about that one and see what I can share.

Ben Fordham: Typical politician, dodging the question. Thank you very much for your time.

Marise Payne: Thanks Ben.

Ben Fordham: Marise Payne, the Foreign Minister joining us.

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