Interview with Sabra Lane, ABC AM

  • Transcript
Subjects: Investigations into the source of COVID-19; Yang Hengjun’s trial in China; Samoa’s recent election; Australia’s submarine programme.
27 May 2021

Sabra Lane: The Foreign Minister is Marise Payne and we spoke earlier.

Marise Payne, welcome to AM. President Biden wants a more rigorous investigation into the source of the COVID pandemic, including whether it came from a laboratory accident. You led the international call for an inquiry. What’s your reaction to this?

Marise Payne: Well, that’s correct, Sabra. We have seen those calls overnight and we welcome that statement from the White House. We’ve been consistent about the need to identify the origins to ensure that a pandemic doesn’t happen again, and to ensure that we’re all better prepared. So, while we have welcomed the latest report by the Independent Panel on Pandemic Preparedness and Response, and particularly the leadership of Helen Clark and Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, we do want to make sure that we are able to work with the international community, work with the WHO to lay the pathway to a timely, a transparent, and an evidence-based process for the next phase of this study as well. So, the President’s statement today is a welcome one.

Sabra Lane: The fact that the President has flagged the lab theory as a possibility, also indicating that one of the intelligence agencies is leaning on that theory — has Australia sought its own independent intelligence views on the veracity of that?

Marise Payne: Well, I would never comment on intelligence activity of that nature, but I do note the report saying that that is contested within the US intelligence community. We will continue to work with our international partners, including the United States, with whom we share concerns on this. The most important thing is that we are able to provide for the international community an assurance that a pandemic of this nature can't happen again because we do understand where it came from and how it happened, and that we do ensure we're all better prepared.

Sabra Lane: Let's go to the espionage trial of the Australian man Yang Hengjun that begins today in China. He hasn't been allowed access to lawyers or family, and he's been in custody for two years. Should Australians just assume this won't be fair?

Marise Payne: Well, he has had access to his lawyer, who last visited him on the 21st of May. But certainly in his detention, he has had delayed and limited access to legal representation. The Chinese system does not permit access to lawyers during the investigation phase, and that commenced in August of 2019. So it is a very, very difficult way for Dr Yang and for his supporters through this process. We have provided consular support in every way we have been able to, including — notwithstanding the interruptions of COVID — visiting him on 19 occasions.

I very much hope that we have a transparent and open process. We're not interfering in China's legal system. The concerns that we have raised are legitimate ones. But we do expect those basic international standards of justice to be met.

Sabra Lane: To the nub of that question, will it be fair?

Marise Payne: Sabra, I'm not going to speculate. There is a court process underway, and I'm not sure that me adding to speculation would help in that regard. I very much hope that Dr Yang is provided with a fair trial, but we have not seen any explanation or evidence for the charges that have been brought against him. And I hope that his lawyer is able to assist him through this process today.

Sabra Lane: You asked for Australian diplomats to be allowed to witness this process — to be in the court. Has that been granted?

Marise Payne: That will be a matter for the court. Certainly our representatives in Beijing, including the Ambassador, have sought that access, have sought to provide appropriate and strong support to Dr Yang in this process.

Sabra Lane: A letter he dictated in March was released yesterday. He's accused China of revenge over his writings on democracy. Do you agree with his sentiment about this being payback?

Marise Payne: Again, he's facing court today, and I don't think me commenting on those matters is necessarily helpful, nor appropriate, frankly. But I do know in his correspondence with his family, of course, it is deeply moving and deeply concerning. He has been, as you said, imprisoned since January 2019. And without an explanation or evidence for those charges, it is immensely difficult to address those.

Sabra Lane: To Samoa. It's grappling with a constitutional crisis. Fiame Naomi Mata’afa has been sworn in as its first female prime minister, but her predecessor insists the ceremony was illegal and he's refusing to hand over power. What’s the Australian government's view? Is the ceremony legal? Is she legitimately the leader of Samoa?

Marise Payne: We understand that the processes in Samoa are still subject to the decisions of the Samoan judiciary over the coming weeks. What we have said is we very much have a strong faith in Samoa’s institutions. That includes the judiciary. There are ongoing court processes underway now. And the swearing in, as it was described that occurred on the 24th of May, is one of those issues to be considered. There is an application to have that declared unlawful. We are very good friends with Samoa and we hope very much that we can see the rule of law and democratic processes play out, and a resolution determined in the coming days and weeks.

Sabra Lane: So to be clear, Australia is not saying whether she is the legitimate leader now?

Marise Payne: Well, I understand those matters are still under consideration by the Samoan judiciary. And I do think we need to respect those decisions that will be made.

Sabra Lane: Just quickly, you were Defence Minister when the Coalition decided to team up with France to build Australia's next submarines. It's being reported today by the ABC that Australia is now exploring the possibility of German boats to fill a capability gap. How can that be?

Marise Payne: Well, my understanding is that Defence is strongly committed to building a regionally superior submarine capability in South Australia and that will have the backing — it does have the backing — of a very strong sovereign defence industry. The attack class programme is well underway, and our partners in France are devoting a very great deal of effort to deliver that project. We’re focusing -

Sabra Lane: [Interrupts] Minister, the point of that question, please.

Marise Payne: Well, I've been very clear, I think our challenge is to build — and our commitment is to build — a regionally superior submarine capability and that is what we are undertaking.

Sabra Lane: You're not ruling that out?

Marise Payne: It's not for me to rule in or out. It is a commitment to building a regionally superior submarine capability — one which we are pursuing in South Australia and one which we are committed to delivering.

Sabra Lane: Minister, thanks for your time on AM.

Marise Payne: Thanks very much, Sabra.

Sabra Lane: The Foreign Minister, Marise Payne.

Media enquiries

  • Minister's office: (02) 6277 7500
  • DFAT Media Liaison: (02) 6261 1555