Interview with Kieran Gilbert

  • Transcript
Subjects: historical rape allegations in Parliament; Brittany Higgins case; Myanmar; Australia-China trade relationship; human rights abuses in Xinjiang; Hong Kong.
01 March 2021

Kieran Gilbert: A short time ago I spoke to the Foreign Minister and Minister for Women Senator Marise Payne, and I asked her, what if anything, should the Prime Minister do in response to those historical allegations?

Marise Payne: Kieran, these are obviously deeply disturbing circumstances and not just in relation to the matter that you've just referred to, but the issues that we have been dealing with across the Parliament in the last few weeks. And the most important thing that I wanted to say first, in relation to this question, is that our thoughts and our understanding of the devastating experience that women are coming forward to speak about is very much at the forefront of my mind. And I think it's almost impossible to calculate the distress and the devastation that many of these women, in particular, are feeling.

In relation to this matter, I do understand that there are legal processes underway in train, including a coronial inquiry in South Australia and a reference to the Australian Federal Police. They may not be the most ideal at this point in time, but they are in process and they have to be allowed to take their course.

Kieran Gilbert: Is there anything more that the Prime Minister should do now, in your mind?

Marise Payne: I think the Prime Minister has been very clear about the extent of the reviews in relation to the workplace itself, whether it is the one being conducted by Stephanie Foster or the one being conducted or being initiated through the work that Senator Birmingham is doing across multiple party representatives. In relation to this matter, the Prime Minister has made it clear that he has referred the matter that was received in his office to the Australian Federal Police, as you would expect, as the Police Commissioner made absolutely clear to all last week. And one thing we must be very careful not to do is to compromise the prospect of any investigations in any of these matters, frankly.

Kieran Gilbert: As one of the six female Cabinet ministers, do you feel comfortable working with your 16 male colleagues with this accusation hanging in the air?

Marise Payne: I want to make sure, Kieran, that it's the rule of law that applies in relation to these matters, and the rule of law, which pertains in Australia, provides that processes, law enforcement and legal, such as those that I've referred to, need to be allowed to take their course — that we should extend the presumption of innocence to all parties, and that does not just go for matters such as this. That is a broad extension. Of course it is. And in this case, it must also apply.

But, I think, Kieran, what we see now and what we hear of other reports over the weekend in relation to potentially other parliamentarians indicates just how important the decisions that have been taken in the last two weeks, particularly in relation to the workplace that you and I both share, although from different roles — those decisions are so fundamentally important. They are culturally important. They are personally important for so many of the people who are impacted. We also know how very difficult it is for those who have been the victims of sexual assault and who have been attacked in such ways that we have heard described in recent times, how difficult it is for many people to seek to go to the police. I think that's a very important area of law enforcement and of culture where, again, we can do more and can do better at something which has been raised through my office and by colleagues and by staff, and it's something which I want to see looked at as well.

Kieran Gilbert: Malcolm Turnbull says there needs to be an inquest. Will it be useful for the South Australian authorities to hold a coronial inquest, in your view?

Marise Payne: I'm not going to comment on the specific legal processes that are underway except to, as I have, referred to my awareness of them. I don't think it is for members of Parliament to direct the nature of those inquiries. But I understand that there are matters in train in South Australia which apply to, in particular, the very tragic death of the young woman concerned.

Kieran Gilbert: Your colleague, Linda Reynolds, was obviously feeling enormous strain amid the allegations of rape made by her former staffer, Brittany Higgins; should the Minister remain in the Defence portfolio?

Marise Payne: Absolutely she should. And I am, of course, acting in that role for a period of time at the moment, as Minister Reynolds recovers from a hospitalisation period as directed by her medical advisers. Importantly, in the information that the Minister has made clear to the Senate, she took in her office with her then Chief of Staff the steps that she believed were appropriate and necessary at the time to support Ms Higgins and to provide Ms Higgins with both options and, as Minister Reynolds has put it, agency in terms of making her own decisions. We understand that Ms Higgins has raised her clear concerns about those processes, and if there was any question about whether she thought she received the level of support that she should, then Minister Reynolds has also apologised for that. But over and above that, Minister Reynolds has been a strong leader of the Defence Organisation, of the Defence Department, the ADF, as Minister, and I look forward to seeing her back in place again.

Kieran Gilbert: You work closely with the Defence Minister as Foreign Minister. Did she tell you earlier in the piece that one of her staff members or former staff had alleged she was raped in her office?

Marise Payne: I was not aware of the allegations until they appeared in the media on Monday, about two weeks ago now.

Kieran Gilbert: I know a number of inquiries, and you've alluded to them yourself, underway or planned. As Minister for Women, in your view, what's the fundamental problem with the culture in Parliament House?

Marise Payne: I think it's hard to describe it as one — or to attribute it to one — single problem. I think it is a workplace that has a number of unique characteristics, and none of them, combined, contributes to, it would seem, a positive workplace in so many ways, and that is something which we have to address both professionally and culturally. And it is incumbent upon all of us in the building, women and men, ministers, backbenchers, senators, members of the media, support staff, the staff that work in Parliament House as well, to actually own the challenges that this culture has presented in so many ways — to actually own that, and to determine the best steps to address it.

Now, part of the work that Minister Birmingham has been doing across parties, with the Opposition, with representatives of the Australian Greens, with representatives of the independents and indeed representatives, of course, of the Parliamentary Liberal and National parties, part of that work is ensuring that we have in place an independent, strong review that enables a full examination of these issues, that hears from people who live and breathe that environment in their working lives, both those who are there now and those who have been there in the past. I've been in that building in a number of incarnations for a very long time. This is most definitely the most difficult, most confronting and most distressing period of my work life in this environment. But distressing for me is meaningless in comparison to those people who have had to endure issues around sexual assault, the experience of sexual assault or harassment in its many forms, and we want to make sure that that stops now.

Kieran Gilbert: We certainly do, and we hope that this does, from all the trauma, lead to some change in that, Foreign Minister. I want to ask you now, if we move from your capacity as Minister for Women to Foreign Minister, we've seen tragic events in Myanmar. It's… well, the UN says police there have killed 18 people — the highest single day death toll since the protests and since the coup. Is it time now to sever our military and any government links that still exist with Myanmar?

Marise Payne: Kieran, we are certainly very, very concerned about the reports overnight of the use of lethal violence against peaceful protesters in Myanmar. And we have been absolutely consistent in our urging of the military regime to both not use lethal violence and to ensure that they are observing the sorts of approach which would not result in these deaths. It is a very, very distressing situation. And the protests that we have seen are clearly, strongly indicative of the views of many, many thousands and thousands of people across the Myanmar community. We have also been very clear that we need to ensure we are advocating strongly on behalf of detained Australian Sean Turnell. We continue to do that, at the highest levels, both in Myanmar and here in Canberra, to seek the release of Professor Turnell, who has been detained since the 6th of February. I want to acknowledge the opportunity he had to have a conversation with his wife last week and for her to be able to assure herself of his state of health. But nevertheless, we continue to focus absolutely on his release and on the release of others who've been arbitrarily detained through the processes that the military regime have undertaken.

It is a circumstance in an ASEAN neighbour — an ASEAN neighbour that Australia has strongly supported in its transition to democracy over many years now - that is deeply concerning for ASEAN. I’ve been engaging with my colleagues, including current ASEAN chair Brunei and Foreign Minister Dato Erywan there, but also a number of other colleagues across the region, and more broadly, as to our concerns and very clearly demonstrating Australia's support for the process of democratisation that had been underway and for the return to order that we seek.

Kieran Gilbert: Is the Government looking at a Bob Hawke-style amnesty for temporary visa holders from Myanmar?

Marise Payne: Kieran, there's a number of aspects of our relationship with Myanmar which are under review. That would, of course, be a matter for the Minister for Home Affairs and Minister for Immigration in portfolio terms. But importantly, we have said that we are reviewing a number of aspects of our relationship. You raised our military engagement, which has been relatively low key for some period of time. It does not engage the Myanmar military in a way that would contribute to any of the actions that they have been engaged in recently. But that and the aspects of our development assistance that continues, we are looking at those very closely.

Kieran Gilbert: Chinese authorities are reportedly advising international students to attend universities in other countries. At the same time, we've seen the US trade deal with China, New Zealand upgrading its FTA with China, the EU signing an investment pact. It looks like our allies, Canada, through coal, New Zealand, lobster, are taking our market effectively. I'm wondering, does the government have a clear strategy to try and improve relations with China or are we just waiting for them to call?

Marise Payne: Well, Kieran, we have a very clear strategy about protecting Australia's national interests. And in the context of that, also protecting our national security. We have made clear our definite willingness to engage with Chinese counterparts and our mature expectation that that would be able to occur. It will be a matter for those officers in the Chinese system as to whether they wish to have those conversations. But importantly, in trade terms, we can be absolutely clear about Australia's position in support of open markets, in support of the usual rules of international trade and the World Trade Organization. Where there have been issues, we have taken them up respectfully and appropriately with Chinese authorities, including in a number of commodities, as you've suggested, where we've been unable to determine an outcome with those Chinese authorities, such as in the case of barley. We have taken those matters in an official sense to the World Trade Organization processes.

As far as education is concerned, I think we know that Chinese students have been very strong supporters of their participation in the Australian education system in the past. Indeed, over the last two decades, we've seen very significant numbers of Chinese students here. All of our international student involvement has, of course, been affected by the impact of COVID-19 and the inability of people to travel and to move around in the ways in which we were used to. But we are very clear that we want to be able to invite those students back to Australia as soon as it is possible to do so from the many countries that they come from, and that’s over 150 countries where we see students coming to Australia. I know, for example, under the India Economic Strategy, education is one of our key pillars reinforced under the comprehensive strategic partnership we have just signed with India in the last 12 months. So, that focus of bringing students from all over the world to a quality education in China absolutely continues to be one for the Government.

Kieran Gilbert: Is there a risk that we see our own backyard through the prism almost exclusively of US-China rivalry, and that our relationships, you know, like the one with Indonesia, for example, are to some extent left to wither?

Marise Payne: No. In fact, I absolutely fundamentally disagree with that proposition. Nothing could indeed be further from the truth. The work that we have done in the Pacific and Southeast Asia in response to COVID-19, including our Partnerships for Recovery engagement across those many areas of our region, the work of, indeed, of bringing the Indonesia-Australia Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement, the IA-CEPA, to fruition in 2020 — that in itself speaks volumes for the priority that that we place on our engagement, not just with Indonesia, but across ASEAN. And those ASEAN relationships are seen entirely through our focus on ASEAN centrality, support for the ASEAN Outlook on the Indo-Pacific — a very seminal piece of work, in fact, largely led by Indonesia in recent times. And I want to acknowledge particularly the leadership of Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi in that. So, no, I would respectfully disagree with that proposition, because it is one of our very, very strong focuses, and done entirely through a lens that is Australia's lens and Australia's alone.

Kieran Gilbert: The Canadian Lower House declared the treatment of Uighur minority in the Xinjiang province a genocide. The UK Foreign Secretary, Dominic Raab, used very strong language. He called it industrial scale abuse. He’s demanded that the UN be allowed access. What's your thinking on that? Should the UN have access to Xinjiang?

Marise Payne: We would absolutely encourage authorities in China to allow the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights to have appropriate access to Xinjiang. I note that the High Commissioner said in her remarks to the Human Rights Council on Friday night that she is seeking that access and she expects an arrangement to be able to be reached with Chinese authorities. But transparency is the key here. The reports that we have seen — some very horrific reports, particularly around forced labour, around re-education camps, allegations in in relation to the systematic torture and abuse of women — are deeply concerning. And Australia has made our view clear over an extended period of time now in our own right and on occasion with counterparts, including, as you've referred to, the United Kingdom, also with the United States and with Canada, the European Union, and others. These are matters which, I think, transparency is an important part of addressing and one which we strongly encourage.

Kieran Gilbert: Is it genocide?

Marise Payne: We have a slightly different approach to that turn of phrase. And I don't mean this in a pedantic or a semantic way, but both the UK and Canada have different mechanisms by which to make such a declaration, as indeed does the United States. But it's something which we are examining closely.

Kieran Gilbert: Hong Kong police detained 47 pro-democracy activists over the weekend. This is the largest mass arrest since the new national security laws last year. Is the democracy movement there doomed? Is it — in your mind when you look at that, how can they make any ground, given that the heavy hand that's being used there in Hong Kong?

Marise Payne: Kieran, we've raised our concerns and our views in relation to the imposition of the National Security Law and the progress to arrest and charges of these 47 individuals amplifies those concerns. We are very disappointed to see that occur, and particularly the impact that it has on the freedoms and the life in Hong Kong underpinned by the One Country, Two Systems approach, the Basic Law, and the declaration, which are in fact, international undertakings, international treaties to which China is a signatory. So we will seek further information on those matters through our post in in Hong Kong today. I expect the Consul-General to be providing further information later this morning.

Kieran Gilbert: Foreign Minister, finally, the US Special Envoy on Climate, John Kerry, he said last week Australia has some differences with us. We've not been able to get on the same page completely. That was one of the problems in Madrid, as you'll recall. They were his words, unquote. Do you accept that we're not on the same page as the new US administration when it comes to climate?

Marise Payne: Well, in fact, I think we've had very constructive engagement with the new US administration, whether it is the conversations between Secretary Kerry and Minister Angus Taylor, my discussions with Tony Blinken the Secretary of State, and the National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan, or indeed the Prime Minister's discussions with the President. We've been very focussed on cooperation on low-emissions technologies and also driving down the cost of low emissions technologies so that they are much more broadly available. We've welcomed the United States back to the Paris agreement, an agreement which we did not leave and within which we will meet our own 2030 targets. And as the Prime Minister has made very clear, be aiming for net zero emissions as close to 2050 as possible. And that is not a case of if and when, but for Australia, it's a case of how. And the one thing that we have made clear for our country so that we can be very upfront with the Australian people is that we will not be doing that by taxation. We will be very focussed on technology. And in fact, that is what we are delivering. And I acknowledge the work of Minister Angus Taylor in that, but also the broad, strong commitment of the Prime Minister in leading that charge.

Kieran Gilbert: Foreign Minister and Minister for Women, Marise Payne, very much appreciate your time.

Marise Payne: Thank you very much, Kieran.

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