Interview with Patricia Karvelas, ABC Radio National

  • Transcript (E&OE)
Subjects: Professor Sean Turnell; Quad talks; Russia-China; Ukraine border situation; apology to victims of bullying and harassment; religious discrimination laws.

Patricia Karvelas: US Secretary of State Antony Blinken arrives in Australia today for regional talks on the threat posed by China to the Indo-Pacific. The centrepiece of the visit will be a meeting of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, which will also include the foreign ministers of Japan and India. The high-level meeting follows a joint announcement by China and Russia of a no-limits friendship, which is raising fresh concerns about the potential for a new Cold War. Our own Foreign Minister Marise Payne will host the security dialogue, and she's my guest this morning. Minister, welcome.

Marise Payne: Good morning, Patricia.

Patricia Karvelas: Before we get to the Quad talks, there were reports this week that the Australian economist was about to be released from detention in Myanmar. What's your latest advice on Sean Turnell?

Marise Payne: I understand that reports which emanated from some statements by the Prime Minister of Cambodia, Prime Minister Hun Sen, have been corrected and the Prime Minister has said that it was an unintentional error. Unfortunately, this makes life extremely difficult or more difficult for Professor Turnell's family, and I certainly feel for them at the moment in the flurry of this latest media. But we understand that Professor Turnell remains in detention.

We do regard this as a case of arbitrary detention and have called for his immediate release and his return to Australia, and continue to do so. We are undertaking that high-level advocacy with Myanmar, with partners around the world and both in person and, of course, through calls and correspondence. That is a very, very strong focus of my role and of my department. And we continue to give him all possible consular support. We don't have the access we would like to his legal case because of Covid restrictions in Myanmar. But we also continue to seek that.

Patricia Karvelas: Let's move to the Quad talks. What's the top agenda item? Will it be trying to check the growing Chinese influence through the Indo-Pacific? Is that the priority for all the Quad countries – Australia, the US, India and Japan?

Marise Payne: This is a very important meeting taking place in Melbourne this week. It is our fourth meeting of Quad foreign ministers and the third in person, notwithstanding some of the challenges of Covid. And, really, as a network of liberal democracies we are committed to very practical cooperation and ensuring that all Indo-Pacific nations – large and small – are able to make their own strategic decisions and make those decisions free from coercion.

But in a practical sense, work this weekend will be around vaccine distribution in our region, on cyber and critical technology, on the challenges of countering malicious disinformation and dangerous disinformation, on counterterrorism, on maritime security, on climate change. These are the focuses which have also been prosecuted through the Quad Leaders Summit which, of course, President Biden hosted in Washington with Prime Minister Morrison and other Prime Ministers last year.

Patricia Karvelas: Minister, Secretary Blinken will be the highest level visitor to Australia by a member of the Biden administration. He'll be here talking about regional security, despite the world's attention really being on that flash point between Russia and the Ukraine. What message will that send to Beijing? Is it that the security in the Indo-Pacific is still one of the important challenges to Washington?

Marise Payne: Absolutely. I think it indicates that Secretary Blinken – and my good friend Tony Blinken is here to discuss what is a positive and ambitious agenda in support of a secure and a prosperous Indo-Pacific. And you make a very good point about the challenges that are being experienced elsewhere in the world, not least of which is the massing of Russian troops on the Ukrainian border and multiple challenges associated with Covid-19 around the world. But to be able to convene this meeting here in Australia this week is a very strong message to the region about the importance of the Indo-Pacific and the importance that we place on the openness and transparency that we think is vital in this region.

Patricia Karvelas: Minister, you mentioned earlier the kind of areas that you'll be look at in this Quad. What practical measures are being considered that you want to walk out with – you know, really practical measures to deal with some of these wicked problems that you're dealing with?

Marise Payne: Well, I think vaccine distribution is a very good example of that. And Australia, Japan, India and the United States have committed to deliver 1.3 billion doses globally of vaccines, and over 485 million of those doses have been delivered already. Part of Australia's role in that is ensuring last-mile delivery, if you like. I was in Vietnam last year in Hanoi towards the end of last year looking at the cold storage refrigeration facilities that we have provided through our programs for vaccine preservation in Vietnam, particularly in remote areas where vaccines otherwise would not be able to be provided. They are very practical demonstrations.

The work we are doing on infrastructure in the region, particularly infrastructure that is climate adapted and climate resilient, and we've made a number of announcements on that in the last number of months. And we look forward to continuing those. They are a real focus of practical outcomes from the Quad.

Patricia Karvelas: Now, I want to talk about the Russia-China alliance. Late last week Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping met in Beijing. They issued, Minister, a joint statement declaring a no-limits partnership which would be superior to the political and military alliances of the Cold War era. Are we seeing the birth of a new and powerful anti-democratic alliance? How alarmed are you at that prospect?

Marise Payne: We've looked at that statement closely, as you would expect. And, frankly, it sets out a vision of the global order that is at odds with that of Australia and that of our allies and partners, and I'm confident that includes all of our Quad partners.

As liberal democracies, and even if not as liberal democracies but countries that want to protect their own sovereignty and protect their own freedoms, we stand for openness, for the rule of law and, as I said in response to one of your questions in relation to the Quad, the right of all countries – large and small – to pursue their own interests free of coercion. And we do see daily examples of coercion from authoritarian states that as a strong liberal democracy Australia is not prepared to tolerate or condone.

Patricia Karvelas: And, Minister, the two leaders have vowed to back each other over Ukraine and Taiwan. But could we really see the two armed forces fighting together, or is this more about political signalling to the rest of the world rather than any threat of joint military action?

Marise Payne: I don't want to speculate on whether the statement extends to that point. But I do want to be very clear that the vision of the global order, as I said, that it presents is completely at odds with the vision that Australia has and our allies and our partners have. The approach of authoritarian regimes – and Russia and China are the two that you have cited here but there are others, including the DPRK, which has been engaged in missile launches in breach of UN Security Council resolutions, in breach of the sanctions regime that is applied to the DPRK – they are not contributing to security. They are not contributing to stability. And this comes at a time of great difficulty for many nations in the Indo-Pacific in trying to emerge from Covid-19, in trying to recover their economies and their health security. And in that context they are actions which we totally reject.

Patricia Karvelas: Minister, French President Emanuel Macron has just met Vladimir Putin, who told him that he wouldn't escalate the crisis, but at the same time the US is saying an invasion could be just days away. What is Australia's assessment?

Marise Payne: Well, we have been very clear, and we're working closely with partners, but these matters are being fully engaged on through, as you say, President Macron, Prime Minister Johnson, I understand President Biden and Chancellor Scholz have also met in the last day. The Russian military build-up on Ukraine's border has deeply concerned Australia and our allies and partners. We have called upon Russia to take steps to de-escalate the situation, particularly to remain engaged in diplomatic, reciprocal dialogue on security concerns. And these meetings are important. They are important, and they are important engagements between the President and counterparts.

But I would say that we need to see action on the part of Russia to de-escalate the situation as well. We are very strong supporters of Ukraine's sovereignty and territorial integrity and a unified European and NATO response. I understand the US and Russia are continuing their discussions on the points raised by Russia in most recent meetings, and we will remain closely engaged by the US on that.

Patricia Karvelas: And, Minister, DFAT has been telling Australians in Ukraine to leave. The Prime Minister mentioned this. Have most people returned home? How many would still be in Ukraine? Do we know?

Marise Payne: Patricia, there are a number of Australians in Ukraine, some of which have been there for a very long time. They have strong family and community connections in Ukraine. And our advice has been unequivocal and clear that they should, because of the possibility of conflict and imminent conflict, they should leave Ukraine immediately. We will continue to say that and to be very clear in our advice both through the travel advice and contact that we are having with Ukrainians, and that includes email and telephone contact, regular updating of our travel advice and, of course, social media posts.

Ultimately, those Australians will make their own decisions. Many of them are dual citizens, but we do encourage them to observe that travel advice and to leave immediately while it is safe to do so if they wish to do so.

Patricia Karvelas: Now, I'm going to ask you to put your Minister for Women hat on, if I can, and talk about yesterday's apology to the victims of bullying and harassment in parliamentary offices. Former Australian of the Year Grace Tame called it a performative, last-minute band-aid electioneering stunt. How do you think other women saw the apology?

Marise Payne: As I watched the Senate President make his statement to the chamber – and I understand the Speaker Andrew Wallace was making his statement at the same time – I was pleased that this was the implementation of the first recommendation of the Jenkins Report, which was to deliver a joint statement of acknowledgement. It's also a key outcome from the first meeting of the leadership taskforce, which is a multi-party taskforce to oversee implementation of the recommendations. So, this is an important step.

I think there is wide community expectation, as there should be, that the recommendations of the Jenkins Report will be implemented. Most certainly the government is committed to implementing all 28 recommendations, and I understand from my participation in the leadership taskforce in the recent weeks that is the case across the parliament.

So this has been a very important step. There are others underway, including the introduction of legislative changes to confirm aspects of the Fair Work Act, the Age Discrimination Act and the Disability Discrimination Act apply to people who are employed under the Members of Parliament Staff Act, also recommended in the report.

So I must say that the leader of this nation, the leader in my chamber Mr Birmingham, Senator Keneally Acting Leader of the Opposition in the Senate, the leaders of the parliament making their statements and including in those statements apologies seems to me to be entirely appropriate and entirely in accord with the spirit and the word, indeed, of the Set the Standard report. So for it to be called a stunt is, of course, a matter for Ms Tame, but that is not my view.

Patricia Karvelas: Minister, will you be watching Grace Tame and Brittany Higgins as they address a packed and sold out National Press Club today?

Marise Payne: Providing that my meetings today with the Minister of Foreign Affairs of Lithuania, who is in Canberra for a visit to open an embassy in Canberra, Lithuania's first embassy here in Canberra, providing that those commitments conclude in time I do intend to be at the Press Club, yes.

Patricia Karvelas: Why is it important for you to be there?

Marise Payne: Because it is an important address. It comes at a time when we are in the process of implementing the recommendations of the Jenkins Review and taking forward some of the very, very difficult issues from 2021 in the new parliamentary year. I have acknowledged and reiterated the importance of the work that particularly Ms Higgins and Ms Tame have done, but so many other victim survivors and so many other former staff and current staff who contributed, for example, to the Jenkins review. And this – the remarks that will be made at the press club today are definitely part of that process, but just as much part of the process as, for example, the summit last year on the development of the next national plan to end violence against women and their children.

All of these are steps for Australia in addressing the scourge of family and domestic violence, of sexual assault, of sexual harassment, as is the Respect at Work report this government commissioned and is in the process of implementing. So being part of these discussions after a very long time in this building and in this role is important to me.

Patricia Karvelas: The party room, Minister, has agreed on a compromise on the religious discrimination laws, but it means transgender students can still be expelled from faith-based schools. What message does it send to these children who have some of the highest rates of self-harm in the country that their government doesn't think they deserve to be protected from discrimination at school?

Marise Payne: I don't agree with the way that you have characterised that, Patricia, but I do understand the absolute sensitivity of these issues, and they are issues that I am very conscious of for a range of reasons, both in relation to sexual orientation and gender identity. And we are very clear – but I am personally very clear – that discrimination against students on any such grounds is unacceptable.  All of the –

Patricia Karvelas: So just – I don't mean to be rude, but I want to just get your view. Would you like to remove discrimination on the basis of gender that students face as well? So transgender students. Would you like to remove that discrimination?

Marise Payne: Ultimately yes, and that's why we have referred this matter to the Australian Law Reform Commission so that we can do an assessment of the unintended consequences and an analysis of the way forward. We have a very strong system of religious schools in this country. I don't want to see that undone at the same time. I am actually a product of a religious school a very long time ago. I don't want to see that undone at the same time, and I think that there are constructive steps that we are taking in terms of the addressing of this by the Law Reform Commission. But most importantly, I want to be able to ensure that we can protect all of those students.

Patricia Karvelas: So what's your message to transgender students who are clearly feeling pretty hurt hearing this debate?

Marise Payne: I don't think that the debate is particularly nuanced, to be frank. I think the debate is being held at peak volume and on social media. I'm not sure that that helps, but that is what we have to deal with. I hope that those students are able to turn to their families and to their supporters and to their schools and know that as a government we want to ensure that we can amend the legislation in the right way with the advice of the Law Reform Commission, not to unpick a key component of our education system at the same time but to ensure that those students are also protected.

So this is an iterative process, if you like. I was watching my colleague the member for Moncrieff Angie Bell on ABC 24 earlier this morning talking about the gains that can be made through the steps that the government has already been able to agree to.

Patricia Karvelas: That's right – gay students might benefit. But trans students won't.

Marise Payne: This is an iterative process, Patricia. And the next step is to have this analysis from the ALRC so that we can make sure we are able to both protect the students and manage this process through our education system. It's not less important, it's not differently important – it is equally important. But there are steps that we need to go through as a government on so many issues of such deep complexity. This is not for my part any indication of a lack of care or a lack of primacy being applied to those students. As I say, this is something with which I have had some connection in the past both on sexual orientation and on gender identity, which I do genuinely, deeply care about.

Patricia Karvelas: Thank you for your time this morning.

Marise Payne: Thank you very much.

Patricia Karvelas: Minister for Women and Foreign Affairs, Marise Payne.


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