Interview with Jim Wilson

  • Transcript, E&OE
Subjects: Australia-China relationship, Belt and Road initiative, New Zealand Mosque shooting, returning Australian travellers.
27 August 2020

Jim Wilson:

The Federal Government – and good on them for this – have continued their crackdown on overseas interference in our country. Now in the Government’s words, it is introducing legislation to ensure the arrangements states, territories, councils, and universities have with foreign governments are consistent with Australian foreign policy. One newspaper describes it as an unprecedented move against Chinese interference. Now we’re told the legislation will allow the Commonwealth to tear up the multi-billion dollar Belt and Road deal signed between Victoria and China; but that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Foreign Minister Marise Payne says there are 135 such agreements, and the states and territories, if the legislation is passed, will be required to conduct a stock take on all of them. And the Minister is on the line this afternoon. Senator Payne, welcome to Drive.

Marise Payne:

Good afternoon, Jim.

Jim Wilson:

Well this is a further sign, isn’t it? That you’re drawing a line in the sand and protecting our national interests. And to you, and the Prime Minister, and the Federal Government - well done.

Marise Payne:

Thanks, Jim. I think it is very important that our laws ensure that we are consistent as a nation with respect to how we deal with the world, and that what we do is take a national perspective in our national interests. And I’m keen to be on the world stage as a team for Australia, and I think the response today has been a very positive one.

Jim Wilson:

Would you consider the Belt and Road deal that’s been signed by Premier Daniel Andrews between Victoria and China’s Communist Party has been inconsistent with our foreign policy? And will that now be scrapped?

Marise Payne:

Well, as the Prime Minister said very clearly today at our press conference, we’re not going to pre-judge any of these. We’ve indicated that just from an open-sourced search, there are about 135 or so arrangements that we can identify which span 30 countries and across 10 areas of policies. So there is a lot of engagement between state and territory governments and international governments that we will need to review in this process. They will apply equally to all states and territories should the legislation be passed. So not prejudging is important. This is a legal process. It will be covered by important legislation, and I don't want to prejudge that.

Jim Wilson:

No, but having said that, your Government was blindsided by the deal between Mr Andrews and China's Communist Party. So this legislation will prevent a repeat of any such deal being done by the states in the future.

Marise Payne:

Well it will certainly ensure that agreements, which are currently in place and those which are in prospect, those which are planned by state and territory governments, all of which come up in the future, absolutely will be subject to this review process. And I do think it's important, as you say, that we are encouraging the important contribution that such arrangements can and do make to Australia's international engagement, but making them consistent with our national interests.

Jim Wilson:

Is it correct to say, Minister, that as things stand at the moment, your Government at the end of the day could not prevent that Chinese deal in Victoria?

Marise Payne:

We could not prevent a range of international deals of that nature. That is correct. And so putting this law in place will enable us to say whether it is consistent with Australia's foreign policy, or whether it adversely affects Australia's foreign relations. They’re the threshold tests, and that will be an important part of the work my department is going to do.

Jim Wilson:

Now, Daniel Andrews, hardly surprisingly, isn't happy. Let's just have a listen to what he had to say.

[Excerpt]

Daniel Andrews:

Well if the Prime Minister's got time to be doing these things, then that's fine for him; I don't. I'm exclusively focused on fighting this virus and then making sure that we have got the strongest economy that we can possibly have on the other side of this.

Journalist:

Are you concerned about the impact it might have on trade?

Daniel Andrews:

I dare say that given announcements the Prime Minister’s made today, he'll no doubt very soon be able to list the full range of other free trade agreements and other markets that we'll be sending Victorian products to. I’ll look forward to that.
[End of excerpt]

Jim Wilson:

Minister, what do you make of his comments, in particular his tone?

Marise Payne:

Well, I'm not going to comment on Mr Andrews’ tone. He obviously has a great deal to deal with in terms of the COVID-19 issues in the state of Victoria. But I will say that this Government has been an absolute leader in engaging, in pursuing free trade agreements. The China-Australia Free Trade Agreement, known as the CHAFTA would be a very good place to start. We recently brought into effect the Indonesia-Australia Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement, the IACEPA. A huge market for Australia, a really important market for Australia. And in the context of COVID-19, when we think about the economic impacts that countries like Indonesia are feeling, we want to make sure that we're exploring all of those opportunities and supporting our regional partners.

Jim Wilson:

Okay, the Belt and Road issues attracting a lot of headlines, but it’s just one of many, as you mentioned. A lot of people have expressed concern over the decision by the Northern Territory Government to lease the Port of Darwin to China for 99 years.  Now will that fall under this legislation?

Marise Payne:

It wouldn’t necessarily fall under this legislation specifically, Jim. Largely because it was an agreement with the government and a Chinese company, not a state government or a government entity. But importantly I think, what this process will do, this process will give state and territory governments an opportunity that they don’t currently have; to have such engagements evaluated, to engage with the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, the expertise that we have there across our teams. Which is going to be reviewing – based on Australia’s national interests. And I think that this will be an important step in the process that enables state and territory governments to contemplate the implications of any arrangement into which they might be intending to enter.

Jim Wilson:

What sort of backlash are you expecting, in particular from the Chinese?

Marise Payne:

Well I think this is not focused on any one country at all. It is absolutely focussed supremely on Australia’s national interest and I think most countries realise around the world that defending a country’s own sovereignty, protecting a country’s national interests and basing that on a country’s values is what we all do in our approach to business. That’s what we’re going to do as I said, all of Australia working on the world stage as a team.

Jim Wilson:

Minister while you’re with us, what was your reaction to the life sentence, no parole period handed down to Australian, Brenton Tarrant this afternoon, who killed 51 people in Christchurch?

Marise Payne:

Jim, I think this is one of those events that every Australian will always remember where they were, when they heard about it. A devastating, horrific, atrocious violation of humanity and the sentence that has been handed down today is one, which I think we will all acknowledge was the only sentence. It is something that I really genuinely hope provides families and those affected with some closure, if I can use that word, of this appalling experience that they have been through. But then again, I can’t even begin to imagine that pain that has been inflicted upon them. So my thoughts are with them all.

Jim Wilson:

Absolutely and the Prime Minister, I think, summed it up in question time earlier this afternoon, saying: it’s right that we never ever hear from that gunman again.

Marise Payne:

Absolutely correct.

Jim Wilson:

I mean calls by some in New Zealand for Tarrant to serve some of his jail time back here. Would you seek to have him deported?

Marise Payne:

It’s not a matter which has been raised with us at this point by the New Zealand government. And I think Prime Minister Ardern said that today is not the day for this discussion, at least as far as New Zealand is concerned. But we would of course engage in government to government conversations if New Zealand wished to pursue that.

Jim Wilson:

So you’d consider it?

Marise Payne:

Well I think it’s a matter for officials to examine. I don’t believe there is a process in place between Australia and New Zealand for such an action. But it is something that of course we would encourage officials to discuss if there was a wish for that to be done.

Jim Wilson:

Okay, just before you go on another front, there are thousands of Australians who can’t get home from overseas right now. It has been like that for months and months. I know you’re working closely with the state governments on this. What can you say to the families and those individuals who are stuck abroad?

Marise Payne:

This is a very difficult time and in fact this was the sort of difficulty which we were referring to some months ago now when we did encourage Australians who wished to return to come home as soon as they could. That said, I understand that there have been a range of restrictions in place in some countries in particular and some have experienced significant difficulties with commercial flights. We still have on average about 4,000 Australians arriving in the country per week and that is constrained because of the caps that have been put in place across the states and territories through the National Cabinet process. They absolutely restrict our capacity to bring Australians home.

Jim Wilson:

Is that frustrating for you Minister, those caps that the states have put on?

Marise Payne:

Well it’s something that I need to deal with and I do that every day. And I understand why the caps have been requested by the states and territories. It is about the management of their own systems and of course about keeping all Australians safe. That does however, leave some people in very difficult circumstances. Our consular teams are helping them, where we can, to get home within those caps and within the circumstances. The caps are being reviewed every fortnight and I do think that’s important and we watch that very closely.

Jim Wilson:

Minister, I appreciate your time this afternoon.

Marise Payne:

Thanks very much, Jim.

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