Interview with Ben Fordham, 2GB Breakfast

  • Transcript, E&OE
Subjects: G7 Summit, Free Trade Agreement with the UK, Australia-China relationship, MH17 prosecution.
16 June 2021

Ben Fordham: Now, the Prime Minister won't be getting a lot of sleep at the moment. He's spent all weekend of the G7 in Cornwall. Overnight, he's met with the queen, he's met with Boris Johnson and now the French president, Emmanuel Macron. But the biggest take away from Scott Morrison's Euro trip is Australia's new free trade deal with the UK. When the ink dries, up to 99 per cent of Australian goods will enter the UK duty-free. British tariffs on Aussie beef, dairy and sugar will be phased out over the next 15 years. The age limit for working holiday visas will increase to 35. That's for both countries. A rule has been scrapped which forced Brits on 12 month working visas to work for three months on a farm here in Australia if they wanted to extend for another year. And at the same time, a new agriculture visa has been created separate to the working holiday visas. And crucially, Boris Johnson says Britain stands shoulder to shoulder with Australia in our war of words with China. Marise Payne, our Foreign Minister, is live on the line. Minister, good morning to you.

Marise Payne: Good morning, Ben.

Ben Fordham: It's comforting to hear those words from Boris Johnson when it comes to our relationship with China.

Marise Payne: It's been a very productive visit for the Prime Minister in the UK, both through the G7+ and with the agreement on a new FTA. I think it's the right deal for Australia and the United Kingdom. And it's a very powerful message that it's the first deal that the UK has made since they left the EU.

Ben Fordham: How is the UK planning on being shoulder-to-shoulder with Australia in this region?

Marise Payne: Well, I think what the G7+ has shown is a very broad understanding of Australia's consistent position in standing up for liberal democratic principles in our region. We found, as the Prime Minister said, a very high level of awareness about the impact of tensions in the Indo-Pacific and a very strong level of support for our stance, our consistent and clear stand, on those liberal democratic values. Importantly, we know the UK's new aircraft carrier is visiting the region, Her Majesty’s Ship Queen Elizabeth. That is part of an increasing presence of international countries in this region. France has been part of the region – and a number of others – in recent times in exercises. So that awareness is certainly broadening and the G7+ has very strongly reinforced that.

Ben Fordham: Is the British aircraft carrier here to send a message?

Marise Payne: Well, the British aircraft carrier is here to say that that Britain is global Britain. Britain views our region importantly, strategically and politically – and as we've seen in the last couple of days, certainly in a trade sense. They know that there are huge business opportunities to be gained through the FTA itself. So, it's a combination of presence, if you like, a significant new free trade agreement, diplomatic engagement, military engagement, which we absolutely welcome. Freedom-loving democracies are always welcome in our region.

Ben Fordham: Minister, when it comes to our relationship with China, it's in both of our interests for things to settle. But the Foreign Minister in Taiwan, Dr Joseph Wu, says in no uncertain terms, China is preparing for war. He says this is something Australia hasn't experienced yet, but it is coming. Does that concern you?

Marise Payne: Well, I take the observations made by Dr Wu seriously. But importantly, Australia's strong view is that conflict in the Taiwan Strait is in no one's interest. And we would support and seek resolution of cross-Strait differences to occur without the threat or the use of force or coercion. And in fact, the job of responsible countries, whether it's Australia, allies like the United States, is to work on a path that best preserves the regional order, that avoids us getting to the point of conflict. And we work on that every single day in the work that I do.

Ben Fordham: The G7 leaders have come up with a plan to take on China's Belt and Road Initiative. It's called Build Back Better World. And you've also been going through some of these agreements that have been struck by state governments and universities with Beijing. Am I right in saying there are more of them headed towards the shredder?

Marise Payne: We've received a significant number of agreements between universities and local governments and obviously, prior to that, from state and territory governments. We have about 6000 to look at. So, it's a very significant undertaking. But what I really want to acknowledge is the cooperation and the engagement of the sector, both of the university sector and of local government and, previously, state and territory governments. This gives us a much better picture, Ben, of the relationships and the engagements between entities in Australia and other countries, and I think it's very important for Australia to have that.

Ben Fordham: We're talking to Australia's Foreign Minister, Marise Payne. Minister, are you going to have a yarn to the WA Premier, Mark McGowan? He says, and I quote: federal talk of conflict and trade retaliation with China must stop. How is it in our interests to be reckless with trading relationships? Have you been reckless in the way you've dealt with China?

Marise Payne: Well, I don't agree with the West Australian Premier on that. In fact, we have a strong interest in working constructively with China, on our shared interests and our goals. We are always ready to discuss our differences that do exist with Beijing at both the ministerial and leader level. But we know that China's outlook and external engagement has changed significantly in recent years. And with those changes and with growth, the extraordinary growth that China has experienced, we expect China, like other countries, are expected to, to adhere to what are the internationally agreed rules and to respect the interests of other states.

Our engagement is clear-eyed, it's practical but, importantly, it's in Australia's interests and absolutely focused on our security, our prosperity and our sovereignty. So, we're very clear and consistent and confident about those positions that we hold. But we do want to maintain a relationship where we can engage in dialogue and pursue cooperation that is in our interests.

Ben Fordham: There's plenty happening on the global stage. We've got the US President, Joe Biden meeting with the Russian President, Vladimir Putin tonight. We are coming up to seven years since the MH17 disaster, which claimed 38 Australian lives. We know that that plane was brought down by a Russian missile and there is a trial being held in absentia at the moment. But it's hard to sit back and wait for this to play out. And let's face it, there's very little chance that those responsible are going to be brought to justice.

Marise Payne: Well, we strongly support this Dutch prosecution, Ben. This is important for the prosecution of the four individuals for their roles in the downing of flight MH17. And they are a real step towards any possibility of achieving justice and accountability. They’re separate, but they're complementary to our joint attribution of state responsibility for Russia, for the downing of the flight. And any next steps which we take in our international efforts, we’ll work those through in close consultation with the Netherlands. We’re close partners with them.

But this is a substantive phase of the trials and it's taken a lot of work to get here, frankly. Significant cooperation and work of the joint investigation team - that's been critical in gathering evidence. And I also want to acknowledge the support we've been able to give to the Dutch Government, to help support the internationalisation of the trials, that's assisting with legal aid, support and outreach to the next-of-kin so that Australian families can exercise their legal rights under the Dutch legal system. COVID-19 doesn't help with any of these things, but we have court proceedings live-streamed, simultaneously translated and recorded on a dedicated website. So, I think that engagement for Australian families, for the many families impacted here, and the thoughts of the Government and I think all Australians remain with those families.

Ben Fordham: What do we say to Russia, though, about the fact that they haven't handed these four men over? Because we're talking about people accused of mass murder.

Marise Payne: Well, we absolutely reject Russia's actions in relation to that. We imposed sanctions on Russia at the time for their aggression. We've attributed Russian cyberattacks, in fact, quite recently against the US company, SolarWinds. It's not a straight-line relationship, it's a challenging relationship and we pursue accountability wherever we have an opportunity to do so.

Ben Fordham: Minister, always good to catch up and thank you for being generous with your time.

Marise Payne: Thank you very much, Ben.

Ben Fordham: Marise Payne, Australia's Foreign Minister, joining us on the line.

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