Interview with Jim Wilson, 2GB Drive

  • Transcript, E&OE
Subjects: vaccination rollout in Australia; Victoria’s COVID-19 response and Australians returning from overseas; Myanmar coup; arrest of Cheng Lei in China; allegation of sexual assault at Parliament House.

Jim Wilson: On the line is Foreign Minister Marise Payne. Minister, welcome back to Drive.

Marise Payne: Good afternoon, Jim. Great to be with you.

Jim Wilson: Thank you for your time, as always. Firstly, the vaccine is here. This is pretty exciting news.

Marise Payne: It's a significant milestone, Jim. We have seen over 142,000 doses of the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine coming to Sydney Airport, and, of course, we’ll have the Therapeutic Goods Administration batch-testing those vaccines to ensure that they meet our very strict quality standards. We have had one by-word in this process and it is safety.

Jim Wilson: Absolutely. Absolute paramount. Victoria suspended all international flights while it deals with this current outbreak. This means that Aussie stranded overseas have less options now returning home. What's your reaction to Dan Andrews’ decision?

Marise Payne: Well, I understand the State Government takes decisions in in their own capacity while they deal with this particular outbreak. We are seeing caps, of course, being raised today in other jurisdictions: in New South Wales – back to around 3000 – in Queensland and in South Australia. So they are important steps. I hope very much that Victoria will recommence accepting international arrivals after this lockdown as soon as they can.

Jim Wilson: I know your colleagues, Greg Hunt and Josh Frydenberg, who are both proud Victorians, are extremely frustrated with Daniel Andrews. This is the latest episode as far as Daniel Andrews showing no common sense or compassion. Last week, he came out swinging, saying we should only be bringing Aussies home for compassionate reasons. What do you say to that?

Marise Payne: Well, I think our highest priority has to be to protect the welfare in the interests of all Australians, and that means supporting as many Australians to return as we can whilst keeping Australians safe here. I understand there are suggestions that Mr Andrews has made about narrowing that aperture. I don't think that that's viable. We are dealing every single day, through my department and, frankly, through my office, with calls from many, many Australians who are endeavouring to return. We've brought already 460,000 Australians home – or 460,000 Australians have come home since we recommended the need to travel overseas last year – put 210,000 of those people through our quarantine system. So we have made significant progress, but there is more to do, and I share the frustrations of those many Australians but we are working to ensure everyone is safe in this process.

Jim Wilson: Okay. The Victorian Premier also flagged wanting a dedicated regional facility like Howard Springs run by the Federal Government. Is that something being considered?

Marise Payne: Well, we have increased from 500 to 850 in Howard Springs in recent times, and we are now looking to increase that further in consultation with the Northern Territory Government. I understand that they are actively considering that – at a time once they are safe and through the cyclone season, is the information that I have heard. But it is not a simple process. When you think that New South Wales has agreed alone to take 3000 passengers per week as of today, it's not that simple to develop alternatives to the current hotel quarantine system.

Jim Wilson: Now, to the dire situation in Myanmar. Major developments there overnight. The army has opened fire to disperse protesters. Tanks have been rolled into major cities. There’s an internet shut down. Sean Turnell is still being held there. How worried are you about this escalating situation?

Marise Payne: We're very concerned, very concerned, to see what has happened in the last 10 days or so and very concerned to see those developments overnight. We have been clear in urging the military and the police to refrain from violence in response to those who are exercising their right to peaceful assembly, and we continue to do that. And we are joined by many other countries around the world in expressing similar concerns.

In relation to, of course, the ongoing detention of Australian Professor Sean Turnell, we have been working closely across the system in Myanmar, to the extent that we are able to do in the current circumstances, to call for his immediate release and the immediate release of others who been arbitrarily detained now since the 1st of February. These are, as I said, when you asked your question, very, very concerning events. These are neighbours in ASEAN and it is a matter that we are paying very close attention to.

Jim Wilson: Have you or DFAT officials been in contact with Sean Turnell and what's his condition?

Marise Payne: Our ambassador in Yangon was able to speak with him via quite a lengthy Zoom call on the weekend. He confirmed during that call that he is well but, of course, that cannot be an easy thing for him to say. This is a very difficult environment. He continues to be detained without charge. So, our high level advocacy both in Yangon and, of course, through the Myanmar Ambassador here in Canberra is to seek his immediate release. I am pleased that we were able to speak to him and I hope that we are provided with appropriate and adequate consular access. There are international expectations and norms in relation to that and we will continue to seek that access.

Jim Wilson: In China, Australian journalist Cheng Lei remains under arrest accused of espionage and sharing Chinese state secrets. Has she been formally charged, Minister?

Marise Payne: She was formally arrested, which is the step in the process in the Chinese legal system, on the 5th of February. And of course, that arrest comes some many months after she had already been detained. What the Chinese authorities have advised us is that she has been arrested on suspicion of illegally supplying state secrets overseas. There is a number of steps in the process, in China. Their legal system is quite different from ours in many cases and her lawyers are working through those charges as you would expect, and providing advice in that context.

Jim Wilson: Okay. When was the last time Australian officials have seen or been in contact with Cheng Lei?

Marise Payne: They were able to have a video conference consular access discussion with her on the 26th of January. Most of those consultations have been carried out on video in the context of COVID-safe practices in Chinese detention system. But they have been observing the bilateral consular agreement which ensures that they can proceed.

Jim Wilson: And what's the condition of Cheng Lei? What was the latest reports as far as the condition of her general well-being?

Marise Payne: Well, we are obviously aware that this is a very difficult period for her. As you can imagine, I think, after being detained for so many months that we have concerns for her, her position, particularly her welfare and conditions of detention. So, we have been raising those regularly with Chinese authorities and, importantly, reinforcing our expectations. And our expectations are very clear and they don't constitute interference in the Chinese legal system. Those legal processes will take their course as they would. But we do expect basic standards of justice, of procedural fairness and humane treatment to be met, in accordance with those international norms I referred to earlier.

Jim Wilson: Okay. Before I let you go, there's been serious allegations made today of a rape at Parliament House. A young rising star, male staffer of Defence Minister Linda Reynolds allegedly sexually assaulted a 24-year-old female staffer at Parliament House in March in 2019. You're also the Minister for Women. I know this is a matter before an investigation, but generally speaking, is there a problem with the work culture at Parliament House?

Marise Payne: Well, I am deeply distressed by these reports, and I am concerned to ensure that the woman in this case has been supported with concern for her welfare in whatever way possible. It's not appropriate in any workplace, whether it is Parliament House, or a different workplace in Australia, for people to not feel safe in their workplace. And we absolutely, across this building, want to assure all of our staff and workers through Parliament House that everyone has an absolute right to feel safe in their workplace and that we take matters of workplace safety very seriously.

We sought engagement with Ms Higgins at the time through her minister and then appropriate access to the support systems that are available within our workplace, including employee support, including access to the Australian Federal Police. I don't have the details of the status of the matter but, as you say, if it is subject to enquiry then, of course, that's something we have to be mindful of.

Jim Wilson: Are you concerned, though, as the Minister for Women, of a wider problem as far as work culture in the federal parliament?

Marise Payne: I'm always concerned when reports like this and very serious reports like this arise. And that would go, as I said, Jim, for any workplace. It's not appropriate here. It's not appropriate anywhere. That's why we are also supporting the very good work of Australia's Sex Discrimination Commissioner, Kate Jenkins, and her Respect@Work enquiry about sexual harassment in the workplace, and working with her to establish the response to recommendations that she made in that enquiry. It isn't appropriate. It should not be tolerated and it won't be tolerated here.

Jim Wilson: Minister, I appreciate your time this afternoon.

Marise Payne: Thank you very much, Jim.

Jim Wilson: That's Foreign Minister and Minister for Women, Marise Payne.

Media enquiries