Interview with Kieran Gilbert, Sky news

  • Transcript, E&OE
Subjects: Lebanon tragedy, COVID-19 response, release of Hekmatullah, Hong Kong.

Kieran Gilbert: Now to my interview with the Foreign Minister Marise Payne, who's currently in quarantine after returning from the AUSMIN talks in Washington. I spoke to her over the phone and began by asking her how concerned she is about what will fill the vacuum left now by the resignation of the Lebanese Government.

Marise Payne: Kieran, we are obviously very concerned, particularly in terms of the impact of this of this awful, awful explosion in Beirut. In terms of governance, of course Australia respects the sovereignty of other nations and governance of Lebanon as such is a matter for the Lebanese people. But overwhelmingly, we would like to see, as we would anywhere in the world, Lebanon as a functioning and prosperous state that is able to address the impact of the explosion and also to improve conditions for its people. I know that many Australians, many Australians of Lebanese heritage and more broadly, are watching with grave concern the challenges that they are now facing in terms of the wholesale impact on Beirut of the explosion.

Kieran Gilbert: There are many Australians of Lebanese heritage, as you know, and many in your part of Sydney. Tragically, one Australian toddler was killed in the blast. Do you have advice on any other Australians that have been caught up in this?

Marise Payne: Kieran, there are others who did sustain injuries through that process. They of course have been receiving health care and consular assistance where we can. But most importantly, we want to convey our condolences and our sympathies to the family of Isaac, so tragically killed, a tiny toddler, at such a young age, in this awful blast. His family are being supported and I know the broader family is putting their arms around them. We hope that they're able to return to Australia soon.

Kieran Gilbert: It's obviously a country that's had so much torment over many, many decades and centuries in fact, but how important is international support right now under the leadership of the French President Emmanuel Macron?

Marise Payne: I think the French President's convening of the international pledging conference this week, in which Prime Minister Morrison participated, is very important. It says that the world is standing with Lebanon at the time of this enormous challenge and also being very measured in terms of the commitments that we are making. Australia has made an initial humanitarian commitment and extended that during the pledging conference to $5 million. We direct that through trusted partners in Lebanon, including the World Food Programme and the broad Red Cross movement at present, and that is an important focus for the international community. I think it also says that the international community is investing in the future of Lebanon, given these extraordinary challenges and is thinking very much, by thoughts and prayers in fact, of the people of Lebanon but particularly the people of Beirut.

Kieran Gilbert: I think you touched on it there by talking about the trusted partners, but if you could elaborate for those viewers who might be concerned, how does Australia and other nations ensure the money, the support provided, goes to where it needs to be?

Marise Payne: I know there are concerns about that and, in fact, they were raised with me yesterday in a Lebanese community meeting that the Acting Minister for Immigration Alan Tudge and I did with a number of leaders in the Australian-Lebanese community. And we're very focused on making sure that, working through our embassy in Beirut and through our normal humanitarian channels, we're able to engage with longstanding, non-government organisations, international partners to deliver essentials and to deliver humanitarian support. So, in this case, for example, it's the World Food Programme. It is Red Cross or Red Crescent. It is UNICEF as well. That is about both delivering the financial support that we've spoken about but also urgent food, medical care and essential items, and we are mobilising that process now to deliver those humanitarian supplies to Beirut as soon as we can.

Kieran Gilbert: All of this comes as that nation, the rest of us as well, dealing with COVID-19 challenges. I'm wondering, while we also have difficulties here, particularly in Victoria, there are enormous challenges in the region. Is Australia stepping up to provide support, I'm thinking, most notably in the Pacific and in South East Asia?

Marise Payne: Kieran, we've been working very hard in terms of the pivot with our “partnerships for recovery”, our development assistance approach to the COVID-19 pandemic in the Pacific. And that has involved an early Indo-Pacific response and recovery package. Its focus is the Pacific, Timor-Leste, Southeast Asia and also direct advice to, for example, the Indonesian Government in terms of some of the economic challenges that are being faced. It has seen the delivery of extensive support, testing, PPE, testing equipment, I'm sorry, PPE equipment — the sorts of things that countries have needed to protect themselves in terms of the pandemic and to manage their own health systems.

Also at AUSMIN last week — or the week before now — we agreed to a global health security statement, committing both of our countries to strengthening our cooperation this year and beyond, to improve and advance health security across the Indo-Pacific region, and in many ways, that comes out of the COVID-19 challenge, building Indo-Pacific partner capacity, for example, in biosecurity, in biosafety, in bio surveillance. They are all very important aspects of this. And ultimately, we are also very focused on working on accessibility and affordability of the development and distribution of any vaccine in relation to COVID-19 and working with Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance and CEPI, the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations. Australia is a leading contributor and supporter of both of those.

Kieran Gilbert: We certainly hope there is success on that front. We're all on that cause, aren't we? And I guess, for Indonesia particularly, I'm interested in your views on this because it is that massive nation on our doorstep. In this Foreign Policy White Paper, all the analysis says it is going to be so important to our long term security and stability of our region and our nation. Are we doing enough to ensure that that country gets through their own dealing with COVID-19?

Marise Payne: There's no question of the absolute importance of the Australia Indonesia relationship and I think that's been marked in in 2020 by the coming into force of the Indonesia Australia Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement, known as the IACEPA. And our relationship with Indonesia in that context also has a very important health partnership within it. We are very focused on working closely with them, as I said, on the economic fallout, because if you contemplate the advances that had been made in our region — and Indonesia is a very good example — in recent years of the numbers of people who had been lifted out of poverty, of the growth of economies across the region, as well as the health challenge the economic fallout is going to be extremely impactful on these countries. So we are working with them across a range of areas.

We have also supported the provision of some medical equipment in the context of COVID-19. But this is very much part of the work that DFAT, the ministers across the portfolio, are focused on every day — and importantly also our posts across the region. In my previous response I didn't mention Papua New Guinea but even in the last week we have signed our comprehensive strategic partnership and economic partnership with Papua New Guinea. We have just, in the light of their increased number of infections, deployed an AUSMAT team, an Australian Medical Assistance Team to Port Moresby, to assist them with their response as well. So we have seven medical specialists on the ground, including emergency care clinicians. They will be part of Australia's response to that and we'll continue to assess needs for them. It's a complex challenge in Papua New Guinea considering the ease of movement between Papua New Guinea, West Papua and open borders, but we are very focused on supporting them.

Kieran Gilbert: In Afghanistan, the government there is planning to release Hekmatullah, the man, the terrorist who killed three Australian soldiers in an attack. What representations are being made to prevent that release from prison from happening?

Marise Payne: Kieran, this is a matter that has been of concern to Australia, and I know many Australians will share those concerns. The families of the three Australian soldiers — Stjepan Milosevic, Robert Poate and James Martin — most certainly have been dealing with this grief and concern for some time. This is part of a process that has been underway to work towards a peaceful outcome in Afghanistan, a country that has been dealing as we know with conflict for decades now and in which Australia has been integrally involved in the response for many years. There has been an agreement through the peace process for the release of around 5000 prisoners that the Taliban has sought and the overwhelming majority of those have been released, I think close to 4500. There was a consultative assembly known as the Loya Jirga convened in Kabul in the last week, which asked President Ghani to release the last 400 prisoners, many of which would be described as prisoners of concern including former sergeant Hekmatullah.

So we have made representations through the United States in our recent meetings and then more broadly. Also spoke with the Foreign Minister in Afghanistan over the weekend and I know that my Defence Minister colleague Linda Reynolds has been in touch with her counterpart to emphasise the importance of this to Australia. Australia supports the peace process very, very strongly but we've made these representations and conveyed very clearly our concerns that releasing Hekmatullah would not necessarily advance that peace process.

Kieran Gilbert: It would be a kick in the guts wouldn't it for those that served in Afghanistan?

Marise Payne: It's our strong view that to honour our soldiers’ memory, out of respect for the families of his victims, he should never be released.

Kieran Gilbert: Just finally on Hong Kong, we've seen a number of arrests in that city including in the high profile media owner Jimmy Lai. Are we seeing the worst concerns about those security laws imposed by Beijing now being realised?

Marise Payne: Well Kieran, we have been quite clear about our concerns about the imposition of the National Security Law. We were concerned that the laws it included were very sweeping and not very well defined and that they would undermine rights to freedom of expression in Hong Kong, including for members of the of the press. The events of yesterday, including the arrest of Jimmy Lai, would lend weight to those concerns. A free and independent press is important for the people of Hong Kong. It's important for Hong Kong's success as an international business hub. It’s important for the sustainment of the “One Country, Two Systems” approach which had so underpinned the society of Hong Kong and its development. So we will reiterate those concerns and indeed my counterparts from Canada, New Zealand, the United Kingdom and the United States most recently raised our shared concerns in a joint statement about the disqualification of candidates and the postponement of legislative council elections in Hong Kong. So this is a matter in which Australia has serious reservations and we’ll be very consistent in our outlining of those.

Kieran Gilbert: Foreign Minister Marise Payne, thank you for joining us over the phone as you complete the final days of quarantine after the visit to Washington. Thanks so much.

Marise Payne: Thank you very much Kieran.

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