Press Conference

  • Transcript, E&OE
Subjects: World Health Assembly, an independent review into COVID-19.
18 May 2020

Marise Payne: We’re very encouraged by the growing levels of support for this comprehensive World Health Assembly motion that will be discussed later this week. This is a process that is under way and continuing. So, I am very careful to be observant of that. But the number of countries that have indicated their support, in fact are co-sponsoring the resolution drafted by the European Union, is very encouraging and we look forward to seeing hopefully a positive outcome later this week.

Journalist: So does this vindicate Australia's position having come forward as the first country to call for this investigation?

Marise Payne: I think what it illustrates is a broad view that, given the experience of COVID-19, over 300,000 deaths, millions and millions of people around the world losing their jobs, including here in Australia, the impact on economies from one corner of the globe to the other, that there is a strong view that it is appropriate to engage in a review of what has happened in the pandemic, the impact it has had, to ensure basically that we learn those lessons and it doesn't happen again.

Journalist: And on Insiders last month, you said it would be poacher and gamekeeper for the WHO to conduct a review. So, has Australia abandoned its call for a fully independent review?

Marise Payne: I think in what is a comprehensive resolution, you will see that the review is specifically referred to as impartial, independent and comprehensive. They are three factors which we particularly have sought. The Prime Minister and I have also discussed a number of mechanisms within the WHO, including their independent oversight advisory body, which has the capacity to do some of this work, but that is to be determined after the resolution is dealt with by the World Health Assembly. And of course, we've also been very clear, in relation to the time of an inquiry of this nature, that there are many countries around the world, including some of those who have been prepared to co-sponsor or just sign up to this resolution, who are still dealing with some of the most difficult aspects of the response. They are at the peak level of the crisis, and some are yet to experience that level. So we are very aware of that in terms of the timing as well.

Journalist: So what will- just I guess for the layman, what will be some of the checks and balances that you’ll be pushing for once the motion has been passed?

Marise Payne: The resolution has almost 50 clauses. It is a very comprehensive piece of work and I really want to acknowledge the drafters and those who have been working very hard on the resolution in recent days and weeks. It sets out a whole range of steps that need to be taken in relation to COVID-19: the review amongst them, an examination of the zoonotic origins of the coronavirus itself as well. So, for the lay person, that means that there is a series of steps that we put in place to look at some of the most important issues which we think have arisen out of COVID-19.

Journalist: Is Australia now in a trade war with China?

Marise Payne: No, I think the Trade Minister has been clear about that, yesterday and again today. We deal with issues on their merits as they arise, and that is what we have been doing in relation to barley and other issues in particular, and that is what we have consistently done. One thing Australia is very, very sure of in terms of the steps we are taking is the importance of being consistent, of being clear, and of ensuring that we are working through each issue as it comes to us.

Journalist: You mentioned before how significant this is and the facts and figures around deaths and cases and the spread, do you think it is naive or immature for China to have reacted in the way that they have? Of course, there was always going to be some kind of inquiry into how this all started.

Marise Payne: Each country's response is a matter for that country, and I don’t think I would engage in commentary country-by-country, frankly. What is most important is the level of encouraging support we are seeing for the review and for the World Health Assembly resolution. As I said, it is very comprehensive and, from our perspective, calls for an independent and impartial and comprehensive evaluation of what has happened in the context of COVID-19. That is the aim with which we set out to discuss this, that was an important part of the conversation that we started, and I am grateful for the efforts as I’ve said, of those in the European Union and drafters who have been part of the negotiations for the past few weeks.

Journalist: We heard today the Agriculture Minister hasn't been able to speak to his Chinese counterpart. Have you been in communication with your Chinese counterpart?

Marise Payne: As I referenced before, I have spoken to him in relation to COVID-19. I am in the process of following up the Prime Minister's letters to members of the G20 and also numerous other international contacts. China is amongst that group and I look forward to having that conversation in due course.

Journalist: Have they been forthcoming in your attempts to talk to them?

Marise Payne: I think that is part of the process of lining up those calls in relation to the G20 correspondence. I have no concerns whatsoever that we will be able to have a useful discussion, as I have on multiple occasions with the State counsellor Wang Yi.

Journalist: The EU circulated a draft motion on 15 April. To what extent was it the EU rather than Australia that did the legwork to secure the broad international support for this motion?

Marise Payne: I think we have been very clear about the opportunity to support the EU resolution going to the World Health Assembly. And as I’ve said here a couple of times today, it is a very comprehensive, very detailed piece of work and our support has been, all focused on ensuring that we achieve the most productive outcome, which is a comprehensive, impartial, independent review. To have been able to work with the EU and many others who have been in support of this resolution has been a very important series of steps to bring us to today. I don't want to pre-empt, I don’t want to speculate about the outcome. Those discussions will be under way later this evening, Australian time, but importantly, the encouragement and the input of so many parties is, in fact, I think a real signal of the importance of the call for an independent, international review and the outcome that we have all wanted to see.

Journalist: Would you say that this is a win for Australia?

Marise Payne: I think it's a win for the international community. And Australia, as a strong and active part of that international community, would certainly see it that way.

Journalist: Anything else you want to add?

Marise Payne: No that’s good.

Journalist: Thank you Senator.

Marise Payne: Thank you everyone.

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