Interview with David Lipson, ABC AM

  • Transcript
Subjects: Russian aggression against Ukraine; AUKMIN; support for Tonga
21 January 2022

David Lipson: The Foreign Minister is Marise Payne. We spoke earlier.

Minister Payne, thanks for your time. There are 1400 Australians currently living in Ukraine. Amid growing concerns a Russian invasion could be imminent, should those Australians be preparing an exit plan?

Marise Payne: David, I spoke with the Ukrainian Foreign Minister, Minister Kuleba about these issues and I am speaking with our Ambassador to Kiev this evening after our AUKMIN meetings today. I urge all Australians to pay very clear attention to our travel advice, which is regularly updated. Our post in Kiev is engaging with those Australians with whom we have contact on the ground. And we would always urge Australians to take best steps for their own safety. Ultimately, of course, we have been consistent in calling upon Russia to de-escalate this very, very serious situation.

David Lipson: In those discussions you had with Ukraine's Foreign Minister – well, the Foreign Minister says when you spoke you discussed practical support for the development of Ukraine's cyber defence systems. What sort of support has Ukraine requested to help it withstand cyber attacks from Russia, and is Australia willing to provide that help?

Marise Payne: Well, we have also consistently indicated our deep concerns in relation to such cyber attacks. We place a very strong priority upon cyber security and how parties operate in the cyber sphere. No specific requests have been made as yet, but I did indicate to the Foreign Minister that we would continue to work closely together on those sorts of practical matters where Australia and Ukraine could advance this – these engagements. We will continue to assess those challenges and, as I said, my Ambassador in the Ukraine, with whom I will speak this afternoon, will, of course, engage with Ukrainian authorities as well.

David Lipson: The bigger and longer-term issue for Australia, of course, is China. You're hosting the UK's Defence and Foreign Secretaries in Canberra right now. The UK say they want a greater presence in the Indo-Pacific. Is the issue of basing British submarines here being discussed at these meetings?

Marise Payne: Well, clearly the agreement that we came to with the United States and the United Kingdom which was announced the September of last year, the AUKUS agreement, will be a key part of our discussions. The details of those are to be explored further today with ministers. But I think it is very, very telling that the Foreign Secretary and the Defence Secretary of the United Kingdom, notwithstanding issues that they are dealing with on the European front, particularly in relation to Russian aggression, have made the long trip to Sydney. They are very welcome here. The first AUKMIN in some years given Covid issues in particular. And we will certainly be looking at strengthening our partnership with the United Kingdom –

David Lipson: So, is the issue of submarines still on the table, British submarines here?

Marise Payne: In terms of AUKUS itself, a range of issues will be discussed today.

David Lipson: Okay. Turning to Tonga, we've already heard about the Australian aid that's been sent by air and sea, and that's been greatly appreciated by Tonga. We've also, though, offered a million dollars, which won't go far in a disaster. Is that just an initial down payment?

Marise Payne: Yes, we've repeatedly stated in relation to that announcement it's a very early announcement for humanitarian support of initial supplies. They come from a range of quarters. Firstly, supplies that we had pre-positioned in Tonga, particularly to support the Tongan Red Cross, and then supplies that had been taken from our humanitarian stores here in Australia and, as you say, delivered by C‑17 most recently.

But there is certainly work that we are doing with the Tongan government. Again, I spoke to the Tongan Foreign Minister yesterday and assured her of our ongoing support. We know that the impact of this volcanic eruption and the consequent tsunami and the inundation – the damage that the inundation is causing will be an ongoing challenge for Tonga, particularly in relation to infrastructure. And Australia, it stands ready to support them, as they work out their own plans for addressing this infrastructure damage.

I think it is important to emphasise that we work with our partners in the region. They identify their needs then they make their requests. So, the initial $1 million is about emergency supplies in the immediate aftermath, and there will be further commitments to be made, I'm sure.

David Lipson: How much? I mean, are we talking – would it be tens of millions? More? What vicinity would you expect?

Marise Payne: I think it's very difficult to estimate that, David, before those assessments are made by engineers, by the Tongan government itself in terms of what they understand their needs to be. There are a number of remote islands where assessments will need to be made. Certainly, aerial surveillance has helped both through Australia's contribution of P-8 aerial surveillance and that of New Zealand. But on-the-ground assessments will take longer and we'll work closely with our partners in Tonga, as I know other members of the Pacific family will also – New Zealand and Fiji in particular are a part of the response already – and making sure that we are providing the sort of support that enables these communities to get back on their feet.

It is devastating – devastating for the beautiful islands of Tonga and for the very beautiful people of Tonga. And we will provide all the support that we can.

David Lipson: Foreign Minister Marise Payne, thanks for your time.

Marise Payne: Thank you very much, David.

ENDS

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