Interview with Liam Bartlett, 6PR Mornings

  • Transcript, E&OE
Subjects: Australian citizen imprisoned in Iraq; Australian presence in Afghanistan; attributions of malicious cyber activity to China.

Liam Bartlett: Good to have your company this morning. As we mentioned earlier, we have been following the case of the Aussie who’s been banged up in that jail in Baghdad for more than three months now. We talked to his long-suffering wife on the show earlier this morning, and we promised Desree Pether that we would touch base with the Foreign Minister and get her response as to what can possibly be done about the fate of poor old Rob Pether sitting in that jail cell in Baghdad.

The Foreign Minister, Marise Payne, joins us on the program this morning. Minister, thank you very much for your time, good morning.

Marise Payne: Good morning, Liam, and greetings from quarantine in Canberra. I apologise for being slightly delayed this morning.

Liam Bartlett: No problems, you’ve got a more important job than what we’re doing. But it’s just nice to be able to have access to your level of knowledge. Minister, I know there are a few other things that I’d like to touch base with you about, but let’s just go to Desree Pether’s case. Her and her three kids obviously have that home base in Dublin, and she’s been living and breathing this now for – what – 106 days now. This is a part of what Desree said, I asked her what she would possibly say to you as Minister. Here it is, have a listen to this.

Desree Pether: Again, that it’s not due process. This is illegal. They were – he was trapped into going back to Iraq and it absolutely has to have more action.

Liam Bartlett: More action. I mean, what do you need from the Australian government?

Desree Pether: I need the Australian government to condemn this and to stop for a while with supporting charities and all that sort of thing. You know, it’s still ongoing. It’s business as usual.

Liam Bartlett: That was Desree Pether earlier this morning. Minister, I know the last time we spoke about this you did condemn the situation. I mean, you didn’t hold back. What more realistically can you do?

Marise Payne: Well, we have consistently, Liam, expressed our concerns. And can I say, I feel very much for Mrs Pether and for their children. This is an extraordinarily difficult time for any Australian family who finds themselves in these circumstances - and none more so than Mrs Pether and her family. And, frankly, importantly, also Mr Pether. So, as you know, I’ve spoken directly to the Iraqi Foreign Minister, and I have followed that up with clear correspondence about Australia’s expectations. We have consistently made the point that we seek his release. There have been no charges laid. I’m very, very concerned about the delay in that in terms of the time frame. We have been advised that there may be charges laid next month at the latest, but that is not the sort of process that we expect. So whether it’s through my engagement through our embassy in Baghdad or through Iraq’s embassy in Canberra, we’ve been very clear that we want these concerns to be answered. We’re advocating both to Mr Pether’s rights and to his welfare to the Iraqi authorities.

Liam Bartlett: Yes, I can’t understand why they’re stonewalling, not just your office, but the situation generally. And it’s very difficult, isn’t it, because Rob Pether, as a consultant, his employer was really the Iraqi government. I mean, they’re the ones who are running this project.

Marise Payne: I won’t comment on the specific aspects of the case. I don’t think that’s appropriate. But we’ve been very clear that we expect Mr Pether to be provided with access to his legal advisers, which we understand has also been very limited, and we have sought for him to have greater access. We believe that charges should be laid so that there is some clarity about the issues that we are dealing with here. And we will continue to advocate very strongly on those points.

Liam Bartlett: You really have to be careful, don’t you, as an Australian. With no charges being laid after 106 days in prison, it’s a pretty poor old show.

Marise Payne: They’re very difficult circumstances, Liam. And, as I said, I do certainly very much feel for both Mr Pether and his family. The isolation that they feel from each other – I’m pretty confident that’s probably exacerbated by COVID-19 impacts as well. So we will continue the efforts that we are making and our contact with Mrs Pether and her family trying to support them as best as we are able to.

Liam Bartlett: All right, Minister, thank you. We’ll stay across the story. Turning to another country that Australian forces have spent a lot of time in – Afghanistan. Now, we’ve come out, we’ve pulled out, but less than a month after abandoning Kabul, we seem to be reconsidering sending some intelligence officers back there, perhaps to the British or the American embassies. Is that correct?

Marise Payne: Liam, we said on the 25th of May in our statement that we expected our interim diplomatic arrangements to be temporary and our intention would be to resume a permanent presence once circumstances permit. And that is certainly our continued position. So we are working closely with partners, including the Afghan Government and Coalition-member countries, the NATO civilian presence, to determine what is possible in that context. We have a real focus on security, as you would expect – I’m not going to comment on intelligence matters, but a real focus on the security of any personnel who would be taking up those roles. And that is certainly the shared concern of many other nations with whom we speak.

Liam Bartlett: Would we go to the Americans or to the Brits? Where would we stay?

Marise Payne: Well, there’s a range of discussions underway, and there is also a proposal which the Afghan Government has supported to transform the former headquarters of the Resolute Support Mission into a central location, if you like, for diplomatic presence in a safe zone. That is the underlying precondition, the fundamental, that we need to see. I’ve been to that former headquarters a number of times myself. That’s in progress and that’s also something which we’ll be exploring.

Liam Bartlett: Are you at liberty to say how many would go back, Minister?

Marise Payne: Liam, this very much a plan – or a discussion – that we are engaging in across government agencies and with counterparts. But it is not in a form or in a detail that I can provide that sort of public information, no.

Liam Bartlett: All right. It begs the question why we completely left the place. You know, why didn’t we leave a handful of people there?

Marise Payne: It was a very difficult period of time in terms of the advice that we received about the level of risk and the challenges that we faced. But our commitment to the Afghan government and to the people of Afghanistan, importantly, has been a very, very long one. And if we are able to resume a permanent presence when circumstances permit, then that is certainly the approach that I am taking.

Liam Bartlett: The Taliban advance through the country – it looks pretty frightening from this position. I mean, have you got any inside information on that? Is it not as bad as it appears on the news feeds or is it worse?

Marise Payne: There’s no question that these are very challenging, very troubling times for Afghanistan, once again frankly. And we would certainly urge all parties to return to the peace talks in good faith. And that includes urging the Taliban to implement the commitments it has already made, to recommit itself to peace in Afghanistan and to an immediate ceasefire. But we know, as you say from the reporting, that the challenges across the provinces are significant and the Afghan national defence forces are working very, very hard on security and on those regional challenges. But I would absolutely reiterate our urging of all parties to return in good faith to those peace talks.

Liam Bartlett: I saw a report on CNN, Minister, where the Taliban were executing in public places some members of the Afghan special forces. There was another report about the Taliban seeking out women who were employed, women who had a job, and either detaining or executing them. I mean, they’re total Neanderthals, aren’t they?

Marise Payne: Well, we have invested a huge amount in supporting, particularly women and girls in the population, and it is deeply, deeply troubling to see some of the actions that are being taken, including the ones that you have outlined. We have made such significant advances. I recall on previous occasions, and on my visit to Kabul in May, meeting the Acting Minister with responsibility for women in Kabul myself. Those advances had been so hard fought and so difficult to achieve, we are desperately hoping that with continued development support – and that is development support Australia will also be continuing to provide I might say – that we can address that. But it goes to the point that you have made and that I’ve responded to about the importance of all parties working in good faith and actually ceasing violence, committing to an immediate cease fire. And the international community continues to reinforce the importance of that.

Liam Bartlett: Yes, it’s very sad. Minister, on another topic – China, again. Ongoing problems. I notice that they have denied all involvement in that recent hacking scandal. Of course they would. But do you hold any hope of any light on the horizon there?

Marise Payne: Well, in terms of our relationship, obviously the bilateral relationship with China, we’ve been very clear – I’ve spoken to you about this before – in terms of Australia seeking a mature and constructive relationship with China where we are able to discuss differences between our two nations and where the interests of both sides are respected. But, clearly, we do expect all international leading nations – and all nations frankly – to adhere to what are internationally agreed rules, to respect the interests of other states. On the cyber issue that you have spoken about, this is far from a bilateral Australia-China issue. We see 39 nations who have publicly expressed their concerns about these malicious cyber activities. They’re activities that targeted thousands of computers and networks worldwide across governments and in the private sector. It’s led to very significant costs in remediation and, frankly, opened the door for cyber criminals to exploit the private sector for gain as well. So when you have the United Kingdom, the United States, the European Union, the NATO allies, Canada, New Zealand, Japan, when you have all of those countries participating in an attribution that we take very, very seriously, then I think it’s a pretty clear message.

Liam Bartlett: Minister, are these attacks and the ones we’re talking about, the most recent ones, are they enacted by criminals within China who are sponsored by the state or is it the state itself? What are we to make of that?

Marise Payne: On this occasion, Liam, a number of the countries who have participated in the attribution, including Australia, have determined that it is the Chinese Ministry of State Security that has participated in the exploitation of vulnerabilities in the Microsoft Exchange software. It is a decision we take very seriously in terms of the decision whether or not to attribute. We do that when it is in the national interest and when we have confidence about the events and the circumstances surrounding the attribution itself. It’s one tool that we use to increase awareness, frankly, of that sort of activity. It should be a very powerful reminder to businesses and to all Australians that they must maintain their cyber security. That is absolutely vital as well.

Liam Bartlett: It’s interesting the way the world is going in that sense, isn’t it? I mean, it really is a sort of a – well, they call it cyber war, but it is an act of war in any other sense, isn’t it? It’s just done through technology.

Marise Payne: Well, it is in many ways. We all have rules of the road by which we are expected to operate, and they include – it is our view that the rules that operate offline should operate online, as it were. And that includes our international obligations in cyber space. Australia is a very strong participant in the development of those obligations. And, frankly, if you’re a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council then you have – any nation that’s a member of the Security Council has a central role in advancing a global environment of international security and stability. And that has to be driven by an effective cyber environment. It’s 2021, and this is an absolute fundamental.

Liam Bartlett: Minister, we’ll leave it there but thank you once again for being available for our audience. We appreciate it.

Marise Payne: Thank you very much, Liam.

Liam Bartlett: Marise Payne, Minister for Foreign Affairs from Canberra.

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