Interview with Sabra Lane, ABC AM

  • Transcript, E&OE
Subjects: Australian representation at COP; French-Australian relations; International border opening.
27 September 2021

Sabra Lane:

Well, it's mentioned the PM has just returned from his overseas trip and is now in quarantine. He's scheduled to head overseas again in November for the UN climate talks in Glasgow, but the Prime Minister's office says no decision's been made yet on whether he'll go.

The Foreign Minister is Marise Payne, she's also in home quarantine after her US trip and she joined me earlier.

Minister, welcome to AM. It's reported this morning the Prime Minister may not attend the crucial UN climate talks in Glasgow in November, in that case would you be Australia's representative?

Marise Payne:

Sabra, I think we're still working on these issues. It's a significant undertaking, as you know, it involves the two-week domestic quarantine as well, so no final decisions have been made.

One thing we are absolutely committed to, as we have said, is setting out our long‑term emissions reduction plan prior to the COP and that is what we're focused on as a government.

Sabra Lane:

When will a decision be made and why is Mr Morrison opting to keep that open so far?

Marise Payne:

I think these matters obviously have to be calibrated along with everything else that the Prime Minister is required to do, and Ministers are required to do. The Prime Minister's returned to Australia. Minister Dutton and I have just returned to Australia, and we'll work these things through as a government, but importantly we will deliver on those commitments that we have outlined since the beginning of the year when the Prime Minister first spoke about these issues, I think at the National Press Club.

Sabra Lane:

But still, a no‑show at that conference would send a major message to the rest of the world, would it not?

Marise Payne:

Well it's not a no‑show at the conference. Australia will be strongly represented at the conference no matter by which senior Australian representative and our commitment is very clear. In fact the achievements that we are going to be able to articulate, which we have outlined consistently as the data has become available, are part of that process.

We've had great conversations in the United States. I've met again with Secretary Kerry, the Prime Minister has discussed this around the Quad table, it's been discussed around the AUSMIN table. I think that really indicates the strength of the Government's engagement and commitment.

Sabra Lane:

As Australia's chief diplomat what advice did you give the Prime Minister when he messaged the French President to tell him that the submarine contract was being killed?

Marise Payne:

Well, we had worked very carefully through the processes of engaging with our partners, and particularly including France. We absolutely understand their very deep disappointment that we're not proceeding with the Attack‑class program.

I have spoken with the French Foreign Minister, with Jean‑Yves Le Drian who I know very well. The Defence Minister has spoken with his counterpart and the Prime Minister did absolutely seek to make direct contact with President Macron ahead of the announcement. The President chose not to take that call so he exchanged a personal message. I think in the circumstances that is a very important thing to have done. But we had been working on this for many months.

Sabra Lane:

Sorry, but how standard is it in diplomatic procedures to notify leaders of a major switch in policy like this?

Marise Payne:

Well one seeks to reach out to make personal contact, to have calls and to have those discussions. Ultimately if those discussions, if those calls are not able to be made then we use other means to engage, including of course our Ambassador in Paris and engagement with the French Ambassador in Canberra. As I said, minister to minister engagement as well.

But these are very sensitive issues. There's absolutely no question about that and we understand their deep disappointment with the decision, but ultimately, we have to make decisions in our national interests and in relation to our defence strategy and that's what we've done in this case.

Sabra Lane:

Will it take some sort of gesture from Australia to get this relationship back on track, like an expression of regret about the way it was handled, for example?

Marise Payne:

We'll continue to work with French counterparts, Sabra, as you would expect us to do. We know from discussions that both the Prime Minister and I and the Defence Minister have had in the United States, particularly around the UN General Assembly, that these are issues of concern to France, of course they are, and we'll continue to work that through.

I'll work closely with our Ambassador in Paris who is deeply engaged with counterparts in the French system, and with other colleagues to pursue this.

Sabra Lane:

How long will it take to normalise relations with France, is there any sign that they'll send their Ambassador back to Canberra?

Marise Payne:

Ultimately that of course is a matter for them. They've made decisions in relation to their Ambassador in Washington as well and those are ongoing conversations between our systems, but ultimately that is a matter for them.

Sabra Lane:

The Prime Minister says it's within the gift of governments to allow the opening up of Australia by Christmas to allow everyone to be together at that time, does that extend to the thousands of Australians stranded overseas?

Marise Payne:

Well, I think the Prime Minister's reference was particularly in relation to the steps through the National Plan in terms of our ability to open up. We've said that once we reach 80 per cent vaccinations in the community then Australians who are overseas and vaccinated will be able to return to Australia. So, the caps will be lifted for those Australians, and we envisage significant interest from airlines to book those who are seeking to return.

We have of course had since the commencement of the pandemic over 687,000 Australians return and that includes 111,000 registered with DFAT. But I recognise that these are very challenging times for Australians overseas. I understand for families who wish to reunite, for people who have professional commitments, it's very, very difficult. So we do hope to see those vaccination rates moving so that we are able to get to that point sooner.

Sabra Lane:

Minister, thanks for your time this morning.

Marise Payne:

Thank you very much Sabra.

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