Interview with Sabra Lane, ABC AM programme

  • Transcript E&OE
09 February 2021

Sabra Lane: Australia's denied it's tried to interfere in China's legal system after Beijing demanded the Federal Government stop interfering in its investigation of Australian journalist, Cheng Lei. China announced yesterday it had formally arrested the Australian journalist. She's been detained for six months. She's accused of supplying state secrets, though no specific charges have yet been laid. The Foreign Minister, Marise Payne's, told AM Australia's not interfering and still hasn't seen any evidence. The Minister joined me earlier.

Sabra Lane: Minister, good morning and welcome to AM. China claims advocacy for Ms Cheng amounts to interference and it's asked Australia to stop interfering in its judicial system. Are you interfering?

Marise Payne: Sabra, Australia will always stand up for the interests of our citizens in the circumstances in which they find themselves. Ms Cheng was detained in August of last year and has been formally arrested in the last couple of days. And it is entirely appropriate for Australia to observe that she deserves the basic standards of justice, procedural fairness and humane treatment to be met in accordance with international norms. That doesn't constitute interference with the Chinese legal system. And in fact I have said on previous occasions, when similar matters, including in relation to Ms Cheng, have been raised that of course, we respect the Chinese legal system, as we do legal systems in other countries. But for Australian citizens, these are important principles.

Sabra Lane: It could be another seven months before charges are actually laid. Her two children are apparently very distraught. China's allegations against Ms Cheng – has Australia requested, or even seen the evidence supporting its claims?

Marise Payne: Australia is not privy to that evidence. The details of the formal arrest have only just been released. And of course, the criminal investigation is now underway in accordance with those Chinese legal processes. But I do want to absolutely acknowledge the extremely difficult time this is for her family. We are very aware of that. Our consular officers are engaged with her family, as you would expect, and we will continue to provide support to them as we provide support to Ms Cheng.

Sabra Lane: Australian officials last saw her about a week ago via CCTV - that's my understanding. What can you say about her health? And the conditions she's being detained?

Marise Payne: Sabra, we have been able to visit her approximately monthly in recent times in accordance with the bilateral consular agreement. And there is, of course, no question that these are very difficult and distressing circumstances for her. As I said, having been in detention since August, these are difficult times. She's naturally concerned, as anyone would be, about her family and about her own situation. So we will endeavour to continue to provide that consular support as we are able to, and to provide that to her family, and ensure that within the confines of our privacy expectations, or requirements rather, that we are doing that.

Sabra Lane: Given what's happened to her and Australian writer, Yang Hengjun, is China's treatment designed to curtail criticism and silence it?

Marise Payne: Well, I'm not going to speculate really on whether that is the approach that China is taking. I'm not sure that that's necessarily helpful. But the most important thing that we can do is to support those citizens, both Dr Yang and Ms Cheng. We will raise concerns, where we have them, with China and provide every level of consular support in these very difficult circumstances.

Sabra Lane: In Myanmar, and to the detention of the Australian economist, Professor Sean Turnell, at a police facility. His family is extremely worried and Australia's said that military cooperation with Myanmar's at risk. You've asked for his immediate release. What's happened?

Marise Payne: We have asked for his immediate release and we have been in contact with the most senior levels of the incoming government in Myanmar. It's obviously a very volatile situation. Unfortunately, we also saw the use of water cannon in Naypyidaw overnight. And we are joining with a number of countries in our region - ASEAN in particular. I've been in contact last night with the Indonesian Foreign Minister, and late last week with the current Chair of ASEAN, my colleague in Brunei, in relation to these issues. We are working very hard to secure the release of Professor Turnell. He is a very, very well-respected academic. His passion has been in helping Myanmar and the people of Myanmar, as his family has related in their statement overnight.

Sabra Lane: Well, if there is no response to releasing him, how quickly will Australia make a decision about its response?

Marise Payne: Well, we are working across government. We have a number of avenues of engagement with Myanmar. But it is, as I said, very volatile. It is difficult for many in Yangon and in Naypyidaw to obtain access to senior government representatives. That is a key focus for our officials there, as well as, of course, the welfare of Dr Turnell and other Australians who are also in Myanmar at this time. But these issues are ones which are very, very pressing. We want to ensure that he is as safe as possible, and I am very focussed on seeking his release.

Sabra Lane: As you pointed out, water cannon have been used overnight. People continue to turn out and protest. The military has imposed a curfew overnight, and it says it will hold new elections and hand over power. How acceptable is that?

Marise Payne: We are very concerned, Sabra. There's no question. I think the Prime Minister expressed Australia's deep disappointment last week when he spoke to you and your colleagues at the National Press Club. We are very disappointed to see the democratic transition that Myanmar was undertaking, has been brought to an abrupt halt by this military action. But, in this context, we have to find a path through to work with representatives in Myanmar at this point in time, to ensure that we are able to speak with the government, we are able to advocate on behalf of Australian citizens such as Professor Turnell and to provide support to them and to others. We'll continue to do that. But we do encourage the government in Myanmar to respect the rule of law, to resolve disputes through lawful mechanisms and, of course, also to ensure communications access so that there is transparency and there is openness. It's not just Australia who is calling for this. The UN Security Council has resolved on this matter, and many, many of our international counterparts seek the same.

Sabra Lane: To the Pacific Island Forum, Micronesian leaders held a marathon meeting yesterday and they're going to continue meeting again today. It still seems to be a very real chance that they will leave the forum. What phone calls have you made to try and stop that from happening?

Marise Payne: We very much hoped that that is not the case and we've been working closely with our counterparts across the Pacific. I spent some time on the phone yesterday with the Chair of the Micronesian Group, the President of Nauru, Lionel Aingimea, in relation to that. I think our absolute priority in the Pacific at this stage, in such complex times, and in such challenging times given COVID-19, absolutely needs to be to protect unity. It was certainly a robust contest for the appointment of the incoming Secretary General. I absolutely appreciate the disappointment that representatives of governments across Micronesia have with that outcome. But I do very much hope that they decide to remain engaged with the forum. I can say, certainly, that our close partnerships with those nations will remain and continue, whatever eventuates from their decision-making today.

Sabra Lane: If the forum does splinter, what would that mean for Australian foreign policy?

Marise Payne: Well, it means that we will continue to work very closely with members of the Pacific Island Forum and its leadership. The current chair, having taken over at the end of last week, is the Prime Minister of Fiji, Prime Minister Bainimarama. We'll work closely with the new Secretary General and if there is a decision taken, and I don't really want to speculate on hypotheticals, but we will always, as I just said, work closely with those Micronesian members across the region. So one of the reasons why, in our Pacific Step-up, just two years ago, we announced that we would ensure that Australia had diplomatic representation right across the Pacific and through the north Pacific because the whole blue Pacific is important to us. They are part of the Pacific family and Australia maintains that absolute commitment.

Sabra Lane: Minister, thanks for joining AM this morning.

Marise Payne: Thank you very much, Sabra.

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