Interview with Sabra Lane, ABC AM

  • Transcript, E&OE
Subjects: US Barr inquiry; Australians in Syria; 70th Anniversary of PRC; Jock Palfreeman; Yang Hengjun.
02 October 2019

SABRA LANE: And the Foreign Minister Marise Payne joined me a short time ago. Minister, thanks for joining the program. Australia has said that it would be cooperative with this investigation. Does that include handing over diplomatic cables or other material?

MARISE PAYNE: Well I said in May, as you might recall, indeed to the ABC, that we would be ready to assist and to cooperate with any efforts that might shed further light on the matters that were under investigation. But in terms of material and information that would be exchanged, it’s not my practice to comment on the use of intelligence to secure material. But as I said, we’ll cooperate as far as we can and as far as is appropriate.

SABRA LANE: How is Australia being cooperative? I think many Australians would like to know that.

MARISE PAYNE: Well the Ambassador in the United States wrote to Attorney-General Barr in May, indicating that we would be ready to help. I’m not going to provide a running commentary. The inquiry is an inquiry under the US system and a matter for them. But we will do what we can as far as is appropriate in terms of our national interests.

SABRA LANE: Has Australia been asked to hand over Mr Downer’s personal contact details given the tip about the Russians having dirt on Hilary Clinton came from him?

MARISE PAYNE: Well I think as a former long serving Foreign Minister and a well-known public official, Mr Downer’s contacts are well available. But I’m not going to go into the further details. If we can assist appropriately we will. And I don’t think Australia will be providing a running commentary on an investigation which is appropriately being held or entirely being held under the US system. 

SABRA LANE: Well how comfortable are you that Australia has been dragged into that US domestic political issue, ultimately, to try and discredit an investigation into Russian meddling?

MARISE PAYNE: Well I don’t see it as Australia being dragged into a US political issue. The inquiry, very much like the others which had been ongoing in the United States, is a matter for them. We’re conducting ourselves as you would expect us to do in these circumstances, we are working in Australia’s interests and we are working without closest and most important ally. We should assist them as we can, we should ensure that that assistance is appropriate and that’s what we’re doing. 

SABRA LANE: Would Australia press for the release of the full telephone transcript?

MARISE PAYNE: Well, those are matters for the United States’ inquiry, Sabra. 

SABRA LANE: It’s been asked for here to sort of shed light and to clear up any perceptions. 

MARISE PAYNE: Yes, but as I said, they’re matters for the US system, Sabra. Australia will work with the United States as is appropriate and in our interests. 

SABRA LANE: Following on from the Four Corners story on Monday about the Australian women and children in the Al-hawl camp in Syria. Does the Government believe it has an obligation to help its citizens overseas who are in trouble or stranded? 

MARISE PAYNE: I think the complexity of the position of those people in Syria is one which we have to be very much aware of. The repatriation of any people in Syria in those contexts at the moment is very, very difficult. It’s complicated by the fact that the area is highly dangerous and unstable. Our consistent advice was always not to travel to the region. So far as individuals are concerned and are in some cases families, we’re assessing each of those cases on their merits. But our first duty, is of course, to protect Australia and Australians. So we are talking about people who may have been involved in supporting terrorism, may have fought with terrorists in Syria and Iraq and that does pose a threat to the safety of Australia and Australians. But I think the Australian population would expect us to make our assessments of each case, on its own merits. 

SABRA LANE: But there are also 44 children involved here. Does the Government have Solicitor-General’s advice on rendering assistance, particularly to them?

MARISE PAYNE: There are indeed a number of children involved and that’s why we have been working very closely with humanitarian agencies, those who have ready access to the camps, who are able to deliver assistance to the camps, including to Australians. We’ve made very a significant commitment to the Syrian humanitarian response in recent years and that funding is spent on food, on health care, on shelter needs inside the IDP camps. That’s part of our support for those people. 

SABRA LANE: Do you have Solicitor-General’s advice on rendering assistance to the people there in those camps?

MARISE PAYNE: In terms of a specific advice from the Solicitor-General, I’m not aware of that Sabra. 

SABRA LANE: Is there an obligation to help them? Kurdish authorities yesterday told AM that Australia had a moral responsibility and they felt that Australia wasn’t doing enough.

MARISE PAYNE: Well, I think I’ve just outlined some of the support that Australia is providing, particularly through our humanitarian response. And we are talking to responsible officials in the region regularly. We certainly do appreciate the role of Kurdish authorities in regard to the support they’ve given us. But most importantly, I think that we are delivering on Australia’s expectations and the expectations of Australians, to support them in place, as we are, through our humanitarian support. But to assess each case one by one, is very com-

SABRA LANE: [Interrupts] Yeah, you’ve made those points. But the security situation in that camp has dramatically deteriorated in the last 48 hours. Shots being fired by IS supporters at guards at the camp. Medecins Sans Frontieres says that violence has effected its ability to render aid. What urgency is there to get Australians out?

MARISE PAYNE: Well we certainly are aware of the reports of violence and those reports are quite conflicting and unclear. The violence, as you said, we believe was caused by radicalised people, including women who are associated with Daesh. So we’ll continue to seek that information and to seek support from our humanitarian partners. 

SABRA LANE: To the Jock Palfreeman case, we’ll learn on Monday if he’ll be released from Bulgarian detention. He was released recently after serving a 10-year jail term for murder and attempted murder. But he’s been detained amid a public uproar about his release. What is Australia doing to secure his return?

MARISE PAYNE: He is detained in immigration detention after a parole decision having been made on the 19 September. So I’m certainly deeply disappointed that he remains detained in Bulgaria. Our officials are making every effort on the ground to secure his return to Australia. That of course has to be consistent with the Bulgarian legal decision to release on parole. So I spoke last week in the margins of the UN General Assembly Leader’s Week with my counterpart, Minister Ekaterina Zaharieva, in terms of our concerns about his continuing detention. And I followed up my discussion with her with correspondence yesterday, just seeking her assistance, the Government’s assistance in Bulgaria in facilitating arrangements for his immediate return to Australia. I’m strongly of the view that he should be treated in accordance with Bulgarian law and that he be allowed to return to Australia immediately. 

SABRA LANE: Given the public mood there now, how concerned are you that he will remain in detention?

MARISE PAYNE: Well that’s why I have followed up my conversation with the Foreign Minister of Bulgaria with correspondence to make very clear Australia’s expectations around the treatment of one of our citizens. I am concerned as well that there may be a range of non-legal considerations, the sorts of things you’ve referred to that are influencing this matter. And I want to be sure that the law is being applied consistently and appropriately and that he is dealt with according to Bulgarian law, given [indistinct] parole decision, then it is our view that he should be released and we should be able to make arrangements for that to happen.

SABRA LANE: China displayed a massive new arsenal for its 70th anniversary yesterday. Weapons designed to evade detection while live fire was used in Hong Kong. President Xi says no force can stop the Chinese people. What’s your message to a clearly emboldened leader?

MARISE PAYNE: We noted yesterday, it’s a very significant anniversary, the 70th anniversary. And our relationship has matured alongside the development of the People’s Republic of China. The military aspects of the parade are not uncommon, many national day celebrations around the world include those and we’re surprised at all to see, given China’s program of military modernisation that that has occurred. But importantly, we want to see China exercising its power in a way that enhances stability and that reinforces rules-based international order. But our relationship is based, as I’ve said in recent days, on our comprehensive strategic partnership and our focus is on building understanding and building trust. But where there are differences, managing those constructively and managing those based on mutual respect.

SABRA LANE: And the Australian writer Yang Hengjun who’s been detained in China in harsh conditions. Can you confirm that he’s been shackled in chains and that he’s been told he could face the death penalty due to alleged spying.

MARISE PAYNE: Well penalties for the charges that he faces are well canvassed and they do, at the upper end, include the death penalty. And his circumstances of detention are very, very concerning to us. We have asked him to be given access to his lawyers and I repeated that request in recent days to my counterpart, State Councillor Wang Yi. We have asked for him to be given access to family visits and to be released from what appears to be a version of solitary confinement which give shim very little access to the outside world. It’s the case that we understand his movements have been very tightly constricted. So they are all concerning circumstances for us. Importantly, we do continue to have consular access to him and we recently visited him last month. In the context of that, we will continue to press for all of those issues to be addressed and ask that he be treated in accordance with international and human rights law and expectations. 

SABRA LANE: Minister, thanks for talking to AM this morning. 

MARISE PAYNE: Thank you very much Sabra. 

SABRA LANE: The Foreign Minister, Marise Payne.

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