Interview with Danica de Giorgio, Sky News, Weekend Live

  • Transcript, E&OE
Subjects: Australia’s relationship with China, net to zero by 2050 and COVID-19.
19 December 2020

Compere: Government Ministers have been unable to contact their Chinese counterparts this year, as Beijing reacts to Australia’s foreign policy. Sky News anchor Danica De Giorgio has spoken with the Foreign Minister. She started by asking her about what it says about the Government’s relationship with Beijing, if a former Prime Minister can secure China’s Foreign Minister, when current ministers can’t even communicate with their counterparts?

Marise Payne: Well, really, that is ultimately a decision that is made by those ministers, members of the Government in China. We have been extremely open and extremely welcoming of any such conversations, and I think that they are important. I think they assist in the understanding and the dealing with issues that currently face both Australia and China, and certainly that includes, of course, COVID-19. So I would look forward to that opportunity if my counterparts should wish to take it up.

Danica De Giorgio: Have you got any ideas on how we can get the relationship back on track between Australia and China, and is there scope for president elect Joe Biden to help?

Marise Payne: Well, there’s a lot of important work being done, Danica, I can assure you and your listeners and viewers, every single day between Australia and China – a lot of important work, clearly, on some of the difficult trade issues at the moment, but in a range of other areas as well, including of course consular matters. And I am very focused on making sure that that continues, both through our engagement with Chinese officials here in Australia, and of course under the leadership of our ambassador in Beijing, and our Consuls-General around China. These are relationships and engagements which we expect to be highly effective, and to continue at all times, and of course they do. I’m looking forward to working with the new US Administration and we have, of course, had long contacts with some members of the administration who will take up important, new roles, and I look forward to doing that. The US-China relationship is very much a matter for both of those countries. I’m absolutely focused on Australia’s national interest, and on Australia’s priorities.

Danica De Giorgio: But just on that, though, we are seeing China consistently imposing tariffs on Australian goods, of course, the latest reportedly being coal. Does Australia accept any blame for where this relationship is now at?

Marise Payne: I don’t think it is a question of blame. I think it is a case where Australia has, in a very calm and considered and a consistent manner, set out the reasons that we take the decisions we take, which are about protecting Australia’s national interests, which are focused on Australia’s national security – and none of which we would compromise. As the Prime Minister has said, we would never trade away our values. We would never trade away our national interest. And that is a respectful approach to the relationship, and to any bilateral relationship, quite frankly. We have differences with counterparts on issues of policy and on issues of national interest from time to time. But our sovereignty, our sovereignty, is primary. It is our absolute priority. Our national interests are the absolute focus. And that's what, I think, Australians expect from their government.

Danica De Giorgio: ASIO is investigating reports that Chinese Communist Party members have been working in Australia's consulate in Shanghai. Why has DFAT been using an employment firm that recruited CCP members to consular roles, possibly for years?

Marise Payne: Danica, there is a set of rules that exist for employment of such staff in the Chinese system and DFAT and other international- other countries, of course, work within those. But we are well used to working in a wide range of environments around the world, not just a system as different as China's, but frankly, many others, over many years. We have rigorous systems in place to ensure that the protections that exist to make sure Australians who are appropriately security-screened and vetted have access to sensitive material, is absolutely carefully managed, and that locally engaged staff, in any country, are not in fact within those confines. So I am confident that the system that we have, whether it pertains to the example that you have made or in fact to a number of other countries, it’s one which has served us well for a long time. We are well-used to working in complex environments, complex security environments, complex political environments and complex local environments. That is, after all, the job of the professional diplomats that form the backbone of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade.

Danica De Giorgio: I want to move on to another matter now. There was a diplomatic dispute reportedly behind the scenes when Australia wasn't given a speaking slot at Boris Johnson's Climate Change Ambition Summit last week. With the election of Joe Biden, does Australia risk getting left behind internationally without a net to zero 2050 target?

Marise Payne: Well, in fact, I think if you make any assessment based on outcomes and achievements, then Australia is not at risk of being left behind in any way. In fact, we have met and we have beaten our targets through Kyoto. We will do the same with Paris. And we've been very clear that the commitments under Paris in relation to net zero emissions in the second half of the century are ones to which we are committed. We welcome the United States coming back into the Paris agreement. We have been there the whole time and we have been observing and meeting the commitments that we made in that context. We also have a very strong focus, as you know, on low emissions technologies led by Minister Angus Taylor. That is deriving a great deal of international interest, particularly in the context of, I might say, of hydrogen through Japan and through Germany. And ministers have had bilateral conversations on that and know it was a matter raised with Prime Minister Morrison when he was in Japan, just a short while ago. So we will meet and beat those targets. We will continue to invest, as we are, in renewables. I think Australia's take-up of new renewables is something like 10 times greater than the per capita take-up and the average rest of the world, and four times greater than that in China and Japan, in the US and in Europe. So that's Australia's achievement and that's Australia's record. Of course, if there are events such as the Summit, we were invited to the Summit, but ultimately those who speak is a matter for the hosts. The conversation that we think is an important conversation is the one we have with the Australian people. They want to know that we have a plan. They want to know that we have a focus on low-emissions technologies, as we've already outlined. And we will continue to do that. And I work very closely with my colleagues around the world from all of the host countries of that summit and much more broadly, including across the Pacific on the very important work that we do and the focus that we have on renewables, on climate change, on adaptation and resilience.

Danica De Giorgio: Minister, on another matter. There are more than 30,000 Australians stranded overseas wanting to come home. Some states and territories, for example, like Western Australia, are refusing to increase caps on hotel quarantine numbers. When does the federal government intervene to bring these Australians home?

Marise Payne: Well, there is there is no question that the domestic arrangements in relation to caps do restrict our capacity to enable Australians to return. But that said, over, I think, 430,000 Australians have returned since March, when we advised Australians to come home. In the last period of time since the Prime Minister spoke about this after National Cabinet in September, we have facilitated a significant number of flights ensuring that we can use the Howard Springs facility and every other possible bed in quarantine available in the country. But the states and territories have been very clear about their positions. We know what happens when quarantine goes bad.

So, we are very careful to protect both Australians who are here in Australia and to support as many Australians as we can to return. It is very difficult and I understand that being separated from family, particularly at this time of year, does cause great stress for many people. But we have been providing a lot of consular support. My consular team is running 24 hours-a-day, seven days-a-week, double shifts, and has been for months to provide that support. And where we have needed to, we have also, of course, enabled a hardship fund, to provide funds to support Australians who find themselves in these difficult circumstances. So I do understand how difficult this is. We have moved and supported as many people to travel as we have been able to within the quarantine caps. And we will continue to do that. There will be flights coming in today. I think the 81st flight comes in today that we have facilitated. Flights from Europe, flights from New Delhi and others. And I thank the states and territories for the support they've provided to that. And I look forward to that growing whenever that is possible.

Danica De Giorgio: Minister, just finally, we know that there has been this outbreak on the Northern Beaches in Sydney. Now, you were on the Northern Beaches on Tuesday for the opening of Senator Bragg’s office. Do you have any COVID concerns for yourself?

Marise Payne: No, I know exactly where I was, and with whom, and what I did. I have no concerns, but whatever health requirements set out by the New South Wales government, I would, of course, comply with.

Danica De Giorgio: Foreign Affairs Minister, Marise Payne. Appreciate your time, thank you for joining me this afternoon.

Marise Payne: Thank you Danica. And may I wish all of your viewers a very, very happy Christmas and also convey our thoughts to the people of Fiji, who are dealing with a catastrophic category-five cyclone, Tropical Cyclone Yasa. Our thoughts and our best wishes are with them as well.

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