Interview with Luke Grant, 2GB Drive

  • Transcript E&OE
Subjects: Protests in Washington; WHO's investigation into COVID-19; National security arrests in Hong Kong.
07 January 2021

Luke Grant: We’ve mentioned the violent protests in the US, and they’ve been condemned by world leaders, with many calling for an orderly transition of power. Shouldn’t have to call for it. It should just be what happens. Many are calling today’s actions an attack on democracy, frankly, because they are. Joe Biden is two weeks away from taking office as Congress now votes on accepting the Electoral College votes. Prime Minister Scott Morrison tweeting earlier, quote: very distressing scenes at the US Congress. We condemn these acts of violence and look forward to a peaceful transfer of government to the newly elected administration. The New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and UK PM Boris Johnson also condemned the scenes.

On the line is the Foreign Affairs Minister Marise Payne. Nice to talk. Thanks for your time.

Marise Payne: Thanks, Luke. Good to talk.

Luke Grant: Foreign Minister, it’s been an extraordinary day. I mean, we do look at the USA as the world's largest democracy and we've seen scenes that haven't been seen in Washington, DC since, I think, 1814. You must be aghast at what you've seen.

Marise Payne: It is certainly very concerning — deeply troubling to see what has happened in Washington today. But I think it's important for all of us that we know that the actions of a violent minority won't impede the transfer of power, because those US institutions that you've just referred to who are foundational in terms of a democracy, they are robust, and the democratic strength of the United States, I think, that resides in the full breadth of the American people who are not part of this violence. This is a minority action. And the Congress, we know, has already resumed. Their processes are continuing. Both the Republican and the Democrat leaders in the chambers have condemned this violence and vowed to continue that work, and that's important. But, yes, it has been deeply troubling to see that today.

Luke Grant: Now, many in the commentariat and, of course, on social media will lay blame for this at the feet of Donald Trump. Now, I've supported him through much of his presidency, but gee, some of the rhetoric over the last few months about the election, I guess we shouldn't be surprised that it's led to this.

Marise Payne: Well, I think there will be a lot of commentary on that, and that will come from many quarters. But we've absolutely made very clear on behalf of Australia, both the Prime Minister and I, that we absolutely condemn the violence at the US Congress. And we have been consistent in our condemnation of the use or threats of violence anywhere to challenge democratic processes. And in this case, sadly, one woman has lost her life. And that is very, very sad. We've seen the Trump campaign challenges themselves. They've been well-aired, extensively aired through the courts, and that's appropriate. And those courts have heard and adjudicated on those matters. We congratulated the incoming president on his election as President of the United States. And I think there is, as you say, a lot of people who will engage in commentary on this particular event. I'm not going to do that. The justice system itself will deal with breaches of the law. And there'll be a great deal of debate, and I think overwhelmingly, that’s a matter for Americans.

Luke Grant: I assume we've offered support and made comment through, I don't know, someone like Arthur Sinodinos, or is it perhaps, Minister, yourself, or even Prime Minister Scott Morrison?

Marise Payne: Certainly, the Ambassador is in close touch with the leadership, both in the administration and in the incoming administration in the United States. And he will have conveyed Australia's concerns. He has also been very clear in conveying advice of local authorities in Washington through social media accounts in terms of Australians who may be in Washington protecting themselves. We are updating our travel advice on Smart Traveller. We would normally do that in the context of protest activity wherever it occurs around the world that may be a dangerous situation for Australians who are close by. But in terms of our engagement with the administration, we continue to do that. I was in touch with the Secretary of State as recently as this week, although much prior to these events. But we will, I think, express our trust and our faith that the American system is robust enough and the democratic principles that underpin it are robust enough to deal with these issues. And we look forward to, and very much would welcome, a smooth transition of power and change in administration as a result of the election.

Luke Grant: Before I move on to one or two other areas, I’m reminded of the Prime Minister, who said a little while back, you know, we have to find better ways to disagree. And of course, he's talking about all sorts of things, social media in particular, I suspect, and also in the way we conduct our polity. It's a good point, isn't it? You know, I support him in what he said. I imagine you do as well. We do, don’t we, have to find better ways to disagree?

Marise Payne: Well, I think that in the Australian democracy, for example, we have very robust disagreements, and they are absolutely robust disagreements. But everybody, every responsible person in the Australian democratic process would eschew the use of violence in any way, shape or form. And we would do that, as I said, in relation to any part of the world in which it occurs. So, the Prime Minister is absolutely right. It is not the answer to anything.

Luke Grant: Alright. Let's turn our attention to China, and in particular the WHO's investigation into COVID-19 and the outbreak. And of course, we learnt yesterday that China wasn't allowing investigators into Wuhan, and they came up with a number of excuses. And listeners on this show yesterday just thought once again, there's China being China again. I don't know if there's anything we can do to encourage them to allow the investigators in. I mean, we tried that last time and things didn't really play out well for us. But is there anything we can do internationally to help?

Marise Payne: Well, we certainly said yesterday that we look forward to seeing the necessary permissions for the WHO team’s travel to China being issued without delay. And I would absolutely reinforce that. I also welcome the comments made by the Director-General of the World Health Organisation overnight, Dr Tedros, who has expressed his own disappointment and that of the organisation at this delay. So we are working closely in Geneva with a number of our international counterparts on addressing these and other issues. And we are very much welcoming of a key Australian now participating in the international panel, an Australian epidemiologist and expert who's part of that. We want to make sure that they are able to have access to the relevant data and information they need, as well as key locations that are relevant to the study. And we've reinforced that. I look forward to seeing that progress. The scientific study is an important part of this work. And as it progresses, I also look forward to the findings from this international field mission and encourage those to continue as soon as possible.

Luke Grant: Yeah, well, I reckon, given their reaction, they look like they've got something to hide. Don't you agree?

Marise Payne: Well, look, I think there's a great deal of international attention being paid to this, not just here in Australia, of course, but around the world. The international panel comprised of experts from ten nations, including the United States, including the United Kingdom and a number of others, and all of those countries, plus many, many more, who make up the World Health Assembly, the body that resolved to call for this international investigation. We will also all be paying a great deal of attention to this. And I think that international focus operates as a very important check and balance on any issues which might arise, such as this one. And the World Health Assembly itself and its membership will be part of making sure that that access occurs. We could all speculate on the causes for the permissions being delayed. I hope it is an administrative issue, and that is- they are able to be resolved as soon as possible. That is certainly Australia's wish.

Luke Grant: Final question. Dozens of pro-democracy figures in Hong Kong have been arrested there by authorities. Hong Kong is very much different to what we imagined it would look like in 2021.

Marise Payne: This is deeply concerning to Australia. We've seen what we understand to be 50 pro-democracy lawmakers and other pro-democracy figures who have been arrested in Hong Kong in the last day. And those arrests appear to have been made under Hong Kong's national security law. The developments which we saw under that law last year, which really do, as you say, challenge our expectations of the previous freedoms and the operation of Hong Kong's legislative and political processes, which we have seen in the past — they are very concerning. We see that the national security law is having a real impact of eroding Hong Kong's autonomy, its democratic principles and its rule of law. And I've made public statements about that with counterparts before. So we hope that those international commitments, which were the underpinning of Hong Kong as we've grown to know it, the joint declaration and the basic law, we hope that those international commitments are lived up to by China in this context. It's important for Hong Kong's stability and prosperity, and it's important that there is an opportunity for Hong Kong people to be able to express their legitimate concerns and opinions. That is something which we have to focus on because it is, in fact, Australia's largest diaspora — more Chinese-Australians in Hong Kong than any other single group in the world. So our Consulate-General in Hong Kong continues to monitor these developments very closely. And we share the concerns that have been expressed by many, many international counterparts around the world on this issue.

Luke Grant: Thank you Marise, very much indeed for your time today, and for the great job you’re doing for all of us. We’ll talk again soon, all the best.

Marise Payne: Thank you, Luke, and best wishes to you and all your listeners for 2021. Hopefully a much improved new year than we saw in 2020.

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