Interview with Liam Bartlett, 6PR Mornings

  • Transcript, E&OE
Subjects: Australian man Rob Pether detained in Iraq; Australia-China relationship; Christine Holgate.

Liam Bartlett: First up on the program today, we promised we would follow up on the story of Australian builder Rob Pether who has found himself for no apparent reason locked up by the Iraqi authorities in Baghdad. Rob Pether has been charged with nothing, officially accused of nothing. And yet, not granted bail or, on the face of it, any other basic legal rights. Today is day 50 for Mr Pether, sitting in a cell in what appears to be some sort of payback for the time delays and cost overruns that have been suffered by the project he was contracted to work on, the brand new Central Bank headquarters for the Iraqi Government.

We’ve spoken to his wife Desree - many of our listeners would recall that, we’ve done that a couple of times on this program - who understandably is very distraught at what is happening to her husband. We promised to enquire further with the Minister responsible here in Australia, which of course falls to the Foreign Ministry, so the Foreign Affairs Minister is Marise Payne, and she joins us this morning.

Minister, good morning to you.

Marise Payne: Good morning, Liam.

Liam Bartlett: Minister, I understand you're quarantining at home at the moment because you're just back from a round of diplomatic trips yourself, aren't you?

Marise Payne: I am. I am very grateful to the New South Wales Government for an exemption to do that. It does enable me to get on with my job. I’ve been dialling into regular meetings and churning out briefs and the work during this period, but I'm very grateful for that opportunity.

Liam Bartlett: Yes. At least you can still keep working that way, which is good.

Marise Payne: Absolutely.

Liam Bartlett: Look, Minister, have you or your embassy officials over in Baghdad had any direct contact with the Iraqi officials to get to the bottom of why they have incarcerated this Australian?

Marise Payne: We certainly have raised the issue very directly with Iraqi officials. And in fact I have also written directly to Foreign Minister Hussein in relation to that. We had the opportunity to see Mr Pether and meet with him in Baghdad on Monday in the context of a court engagement there. And we had met him previous to that. I understand that he has been able to speak with his family, but it is a very distressing time both for him and his family. So, we're strongly advocating his case, both for his rights and his welfare to the Iraqi authorities. What I asked the Foreign Minister is to seek his release if there is no clear basis to detain him, as you say, and no charges have been laid. And we are continuing to seek advice from the Iraqi authorities on what charges, or whether charges, will indeed be brought against him.

Liam Bartlett: Yes, and he's not in a very good way health-wise, too, I hear. I mean, that's according to his wife. And you can understand that if you're in those conditions.

Marise Payne: These are very difficult times. And it is a focus for our consular team in Baghdad, certainly. But in other cases where we also have Australians detained, these are always difficult issues to deal with, to support the individual and their families as best as we are able to. And I have reiterated today, I think, the importance of ensuring that we continue to seek clarity. And if there is no clear basis to detain him, then seek his release.

Liam Bartlett: It beggars belief, doesn't it, holding somebody for 50 days without charge. That's the stuff of despotic regimes, not legitimate governments.

Marise Payne: It is very concerning. And it is an issue on which I have, as I’ve said, sought further information. Not in relation to this issue, but on other questions of detention and arbitrary detention in particular, there has been a great deal of work done by like-minded countries around the world, particularly led by Canada recently and Australia strongly supporting that on such matters. But in the case of Mr Pether, I continue to seek the support of the Iraqi Government in dealing with this in an expeditious way.

Liam Bartlett: Your job is not an easy one, Minister, in these sort of moments. I think most people - most reasonable people - understand that. But do we have a decent contact regime with these people? I mean, we spent lives, didn't we, with - four Australians died in Iraq in the war. We spent a lot of money on this mob. I mean, only a few years ago. Do we get respect in return?

Marise Payne: Yes, I believe that we do. And certainly our Ambassador and the team in Baghdad are closely engaged with the Iraqi authorities. We have sought clarity about, as I've said, the nature of the complaints that have resulted in Mr Pether’s detention. And if it is indeed a civil matter, a contractual matter, then we would seek for it to be treated in that way. We don't interfere in the legal systems of other countries, as we would say they should not interfere in ours. But we do advocate strongly for Australians who are impacted in circumstances such as this. And it is vital that we have access to those governments and access to their systems to advocate in that way. And in this case, we definitely do.

Liam Bartlett: Alright, well, fingers crossed. We'll stay across that story. Now, talking about relations with foreign powers, how are we going with China at the moment? Any sign at all of the big freeze getting any warmer any time soon?

Marise Payne: Liam, I think that the most important observation I would make is Australia remains strongly committed to engaging with China. We certainly acknowledge that it's a complex relationship, but it is comprehensive and it's important and it benefits both of us. What Australians expect us to do and what we have consistently done is to advance Australia's national interests and protect Australia's national security in any of our global relationships and that includes this one.

Certainly, the outlook of China, the nature of their external engagement has changed since our Comprehensive Strategic Partnership was signed in 2014. And so, what we both have to do - and it does take two sides to do this - is to adapt to those new realities and to talk to each other. So, there is a consistent offer from Australian ministers and from the Australian Government to engage with our counterparts in a constructive and an open way. We would welcome that opportunity. As yet, it has not been taken up.

Liam Bartlett: Is there any high-level discussion, Minister, or even debate between you and your Chinese counterpart?

Marise Payne: We have exchanged correspondence on a number of matters in the last year, including some sensitive issues, and I appreciate the opportunity to do that. As I said, I'm open to a conversation as well at any time, but that has not been taken up and Australia stands willing to do that.

Liam Bartlett: When you say you're open, I mean, I'm not suggesting you tug the forelock, but have we - do you think - do you think we've put out the olive branch sufficiently?

Marise Payne: I'm not sure that I would couch it as an olive branch as such. I mean, bilateral relationships by their very nature have a range of issues, as you suggested in your remarks, that need to be managed. But importantly, I do think they are managed better with open communication. We have been very clear and very consistent in our approach and in the issues which we have identified as ones in which we want to protect our national interests and advocate our national interests, as has China. And that is what one sees in such a circumstance. But being open to the communication as we are is, I think, a very important step. And there is no demur from Australia on that part.

Liam Bartlett: So, you don't think they are? They're just not open to discussion at all?

Marise Payne: At this point in time, we have not had offers to engage in discussion taken up. I don’t think the restrictions on international meetings and travel help in some ways because we are not able to see each other as we would from time to time. And that has struck me over the last year in relation to a whole range of issues.

So, in this case, we continue to reach out as appropriate and to raise issues of concern and to deal with them through both of our embassies, of course. We have a strong embassy presence and consular presence in Beijing and across China and of course, a Chinese embassy in Canberra with whom we deal regularly.

Liam Bartlett: It's amazing though, isn’t it? The agreement you mentioned, I mean, that was not signed that long ago in the scheme of things. Indeed, I remember, and I'm sure you do, Xi Jinping addressing the national Parliament. That was when Tony Abbott was Prime Minister, wasn't it?

Marise Payne: It was in 2014 and I was present and very, very pleased to see the opportunity for President Xi to do that, and I look forward to working with my colleagues to ensure that we can take up opportunities for engagement and communication and always encouraging our colleagues in China to do the same.

Liam Bartlett: And Minister, look, just finally - final question for you this morning. I know you're busy. In your role as a Minister for Women, can I just ask you this: putting on the other hat, do you think the Prime Minister should apologise to Christine Holgate as the Senate committee report is suggesting?

Marise Payne: Well, Liam, I'm not sure that a Senate committee process is particularly appropriate or a constructive way to deal with these issues. The Prime Minister had been really clear that he regrets any distress caused to Ms Holgate by the discussion that occurred in the Parliament last year. He has said that on a number of occasions. I've seen the Opposition particularly call initially for her resignation, I've seen political commentary made throughout this entire process. But the Prime Minister has been very clear that he regrets any distress caused. I've seen Christine Holgate over many years as an outstanding woman in business, and I understand her appointment to a new role, of course, continues to recognise that.

Liam Bartlett: Okay. So, you don't think it's necessary for him to do that?

Marise Payne: Well, I think he's made very clear his position and he does sincerely regret any distress caused to Ms Holgate by that discussion in the Parliament.

Liam Bartlett: Minister, good to talk to you this morning. Thanks for coming on the program.

Marise Payne: Thanks very much, Liam.

Liam Bartlett: Marise Payne, the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Minister for Women on the Morning program.

Media enquiries