Q&A, Australian National University, National Security College

  • Transcript
Subjects: COVID-19 impacts on Australia; review into COVID-19; spread of disinformation; Australia’s relationship with China; Australia’s partnerships in the Indo-Pacific
16 June 2020

Professor Rory Medcalf: Minister, thank you very much for that very substantial and forthright and wide-ranging speech. I think there were some powerful messages there also perhaps a few surprises, which I'd really like to get to in our conversation. There's lots that we can talk about this evening, but I'd be interested to start with your focus on international institutions. Some will say the speech marks something of a departure in the position of the Government on international institutions, on multilateralism. You mentioned yourself, the Prime Minister's speech at the Lowy Institute last year. And, of course, much of the media commentary on that fixated on a line about negative globalism and wondered what that meant. So, I just wonder if you could talk about whether your government is rediscovering multilateralism and also how you're going to measure success in this endeavour.

Minister Payne: I think that rather than perhaps the parameters that you've drawn there, Rory, what the multilateral audit has enabled us to do – and in the process of the audit, looked at over 100 areas of examination, institutions and processes, those sorts of areas – what it has enabled us to do is a contemporary evaluation for Australia of the current international environment and the role that multilateral institutions play within it. When the Prime Minister made his observations at the Lowy Institute, he talked about the concerns that we had in terms of prosecuting a case for our national interests. That has underpinned everything we have done. So in fact, this is a logical and lateral progression. He instituted the multilateral audit. He asked my department – and I acknowledged the Secretary and the team that led an extraordinary body of work – he asked my department to produce that. It's been closely examined at the most senior levels of the Government.

And what we do know is that the international institutions that we're talking about are extremely important for Australia in terms of advancing our national interests and promoting and protecting our values, whether it is about the international environment as it pertains to telecommunications, to aviation, to agriculture, to a vast range of other areas, we could talk across all 100 of them. All of those have been very powerful reminders of the value of that cooperation. We couldn't have made that assessment without the multilateral audit.

Medcalf: And so I think it flows very logically just building on that. It's a deepening challenge, if you like, to protect and advance that order. What is your sense of whether Australia and your department in particular is resourced for that task? And I guess what action will be taken to target resources at this challenge?

Payne: Well, we're in a very early phase of having reviewed the audit itself so let me predicate my remarks by saying that. But importantly, there is a vast amount of work that occurs on a daily basis in our posts across the world, and not just in the key multilateral institutional centres like Geneva or Paris or New York, but literally across the world that contribute to our engagement. So making sure that we are targeting that, that we are focusing where, as I said in my remarks, we can engage Australians as well in those systems is a key part of this. So we will continue to review that in terms of the demands that it places on my organisation and on government.

But one of the things that I have learnt out of this is how much of the work that we are already doing is very much responsive to the promotion, as you would expect, of our national interest in this context.

Medcalf: Well, I think it's useful to hear that. I think this university, we encourage our graduates to look for careers in international organisations as well as those in government agencies and departments. So it sounds like fertile ground. But, look, I want to move to the, I guess, the challenges of the international environment that you articulated in your speech. I mean, it's no secret that some of the most powerful nations in the world are not as committed to be the agenda of international institutions and international cooperation that I think your speech has laid out. And although your speech referred to places like China and Russia, and I'll come back to China later in my conversation, if that's okay. But I'd like to start with the United States instead. And I want to go to the question of I think you say in your speech, talk about the risks of stepping away from engagement with institutions, stepping away from engagement with the order, leaving others to shape the global order for us if we do that. And of course, in the example of the World Health Organisation. It's pretty clear we've got a United States that has been doing some stepping away, what challenge does that pose for Australia and what scope is there for Australia to shape our allies choices in that regard?

Payne: I think the first thing I would say is that the United States or any other country, frankly, will make their own decisions about their engagement. And it would be hypocritical in the extreme for Australia to say otherwise, given the premise of my argument is based on advancing our national interest and on our values. So, other countries will make their own decisions about what is in their national interests and what reflects their values. But importantly, and a thread that I have tried to draw on in my remarks tonight is that in our engagement across the international environment, we have to be building new relationships and reinforcing relationships because we are seeing a much more different, much different strategic environment in which we have to work.

So that means making sure that the partnerships which we already have are reinforced. It means making new ones. And so some of them - I'll call them mini-lateral groupings - that have emerged, regular groupings and engagements amongst counterparts and amongst countries that we have seen and the Prime Minister has participated, I have participated, Frances is participating in some of those, delivering extremely strong relationships and investments of our time for this particular COVID-19 focus. But I am confident that they will go beyond that. I would also say, that in relation to contributions to international health and particularly world health security, the one thing that the United States has said and made clear to me and others who have raised these issues is their concerns are directed at the WHO. They are not, in fact, a diminution in their eyes of the importance of contributing strongly in world health security. And they have made very clear they continue, they intend to continue, to do that. We have advanced the case for a strong interest in the Indo-Pacific in that regard, as you might expect. But that continuing commitment is of great interest, of course, to us, to our region and of course to other organisations that may end up working with the United States.

Medcalf: Thank you. I will come to China now because, again, it seems to be very challenging to prosecute this kind of agenda of international cooperation during a time precisely when there are these great power tensions that the world is experiencing. And Australia itself is clearly in a very difficult phase in our relations with China. At present, there are a range of what appear to be coercive actions against Australia related to trade and travel advice. Some commentators would link the treatment of an Australian who is receiving a capital sentence in China, again, has been linked to this wider pattern. The question is, this may not be a situation of Australia's own making, but it's very difficult to see what sort of end is in sight for this phase of the relationship. So how does Australia pursue the ambitious agenda of international cooperation while also dealing with what appears to be pretty relentless pressure from China?

Payne: I don't think it's a question of how we do it. We must do it. And that's what we should be doing as a government. And that's what we are focused on doing. We are able to prosecute the case that I've advanced this evening and advance our interests focused on the values that underpin those and what Australians expect us to do. We are able to do that in the broader international environment, but also deal with what is a very important relationship. It's an important relationship to Australia, but it's also an important relationship to China.

It is one which is based in mutual benefit and mutual respect. But there will be differences and those differences need to be addressed constructively between us. We have, I think, advanced the case on issues that are currently matters of difference in a very calm and a consistent and considered way.

We have based entirely everything we have said or done in terms of our national interests and not in an inflammatory or unreasonable way. We will continue to work through that. We'll continue to engage closely with our teams in the embassy in Beijing and consulates all over China and continue to work closely with the department in doing that, and so will the Prime Minister, to make sure that we are being very clear about the things that are important to us in the relationship and the things that are important to us in terms of our national interests.

Medcalf: Minister, one last question from me and I would like to open up to the audience, because we have both media and students, I think, who are going to have some questions for you. But a few moments, I think I'm going to keep not just on China, but again on external power relations and the way those, I guess, affect Australia's interests domestically. You mentioned in your remarks the topic of disinformation and you mentioned, for example, the 30,000-plus Twitter accounts that, surprise, surprise turned out to be bots in trying to influence opinion inside democracies, whether it's from China or other actors. To what extent do you see foreign disinformation campaigns operating inside Australia or contrary to Australian  interests? And what lines of effort can you see from Australia as being necessary to deter or disrupt those?

Payne: I think I used the word hyperconnectivity in my remarks tonight and, by definition, an era of hyperconnectivity, it is very hard to say what is specifically here in Australia and what could be deemed to be offshore. So we must be, and we are, alert to both. And I think the work that has been done by ASPI and by others in the release that Twitter made last week has been extremely important in calling out, shining light on, these sorts of behaviours.

And that's why I talk about transparency. That's why I talk about frank engagement, because they are the safest and the most secure forms of communication. Somebody asked me the other day, how can you decide what to believe at the moment? I actually saw during the beginnings of the most intense discussions here in Australia about the response and public behaviour and social restrictions: What do you do? Who do you listen to? I saw some extraordinary things on social media. I'm sure we all did – extraordinary – how you can tell if you've got COVID, how you can tell if the person on the train beside you has COVID, which apparently you could do, according to Facebook, by looking at them. These sorts of assertions and relying on clear and authoritative sources is one very important approach to this. And I think our chief medical officer, as I've said before, was a very, very powerful messenger in Australia for the important steps that needed to be taken.

But where that is sought to be compromised and traduced and reduced to disinformation, where what needs to be produced is reduced in that way, that is very, very dangerous. And we have seen it exacerbate tensions. We have seen it exacerbate fear in countless countries around the world. So that's why we are very, very focused on its importance. It's why we worked with Latvia, with 130 other countries on that statement of the ‘infodemic', which is a newly coined phrase I was not previously familiar with. And it's why people like Toby Feakin, our Cyber Ambassador and Critical Technologies Ambassador, it's why the job that he does is so important for Australia and his work with so many countries in our region and more broadly also vital. So those partnerships where countries who are responsible and don't engage in disinformation and who call it out, those alliances, those partnerships are also really important because bringing that together and saying we won't put up with this, we will not tolerate this in our country, is absolutely vital in our response.

Medcalf: It sounds like there's also a bit of advocacy there for old-fashioned journalism. So we'll we might turn to our colleagues in the room at the time. Thank you. I'll take questions two at a time, if I may, because time is short. I know there are a few questions. So if anyone has a question, please, can you get our attention and my colleague will bring a microphone to you. And I'll begin with Brilliantina from the National Security College. And can you please introduce yourselves and keep your question brief?

Question: Thank you. Thank you for the presentations, Foreign Minister. My question is regarding the international standard-setting that you mentioned. It is very interesting and I think it is a very important steps to handle these global pandemic. And in terms of international standards setting, I think the problem of capacity will always be a variable that can influence or even it can determine the success of the process itself. The question is, in what ways will Australia help this diverse Indo-Pacific countries to achieve the desired capacity for standard setting norms? Thank you.

Medcalf: Thank you, and we'll take one more, in the interest of time. And so, question on standard-setting and capacity-building in the Indo-Pacific, maybe a question from over here. So I'll take Stephen.

Question: Just on disinformation, Foreign Minister, can I check is it true that DFAT is actually going to set up a branch specifically devoted to targeting and combating disinformation?

Payne: Thank you very much of your question and thank you for being here this evening. I think the issues that you raised are really important, because we can't have joined-up effort and we can't have the ability to deliver the sorts of international standards and adherence to them without working together on capacity-building and standard-setting, and that's why our bilateral partnerships in the region are so very important and, particularly over the long term, where in countless countries around the Indo-Pacific, Australia has been a long-term and durable and reliable partner in much of that work. And I think about some of the issues, some of the work we're doing with Indonesia on economic governance under the PROSPERA banner, for example, which is very important in terms of the approach that they will need to, and are, taking to deal with the economic shock that Covid-19 is causing.

Both the Treasurer, Josh Frydenberg, and his counterpart Sri Mulyani, and I and Foreign Minister Marsudi, in fact, the Prime Minister and President Widodo just last night, are very focused on this work that we do together in so many ways – so that aspect in parts of Southeast Asia and key ASEANs like Indonesia and in the Pacific. Let me talk perhaps about health and health security, where we have very long relationships, where we have worked together and continue to do so in the Covid-19 response on assisting with working with medical teams in country, with experts who are able to support them from Australia with providing equipment that enables them to reach exactly that standard that you're talking about – that international standard that is part of the partnership of delivery that we have together.

We've entitled the pivot of our development program, Partnerships for Recovery, and that will be key to it – getting to the point of having the capacity and standards set, standards achieved that allow the recovery response.

In terms of disinformation, obviously Stephen that is something that I've concentrated on tonight and DFAT will be very focused on ensuring that we are working with partners as we've just done through the UN process led by Latvia, to make sure that where we see disinformation, whether it's here, whether it's in the Pacific, whether it's in Southeast Asia, where it affects our region's interests and our values, then we will be shining a light on it. And I expect the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade to use all of its efforts to participate in that process. Absolutely.

Medcalf: We have time for just two more brief questions. I'll take one from my colleague here and you can have the last question.

Question: I wanted to ask about how I think nations and multilateral organisations have responded quite differently to the uncertainty that the pandemic has created. I wondered if you could touch on where amongst those responses you see the most lessons learnt.

Medcalf: Thank you. Sanitizing the microphone in COVID tradition. Kirsty.

Question: Kirsty Needham from Reuters. At risk of taking you off topic – but you did talk about unprecedented global instability – North Korea has blown up the liaison office on its side of the border with the South. Is there any comment that Australia make about that development?

Payne: I think it's a really interesting question about different responses by countries and institutions to the pandemic and what are the lessons learned. I think that's a work in progress for a lot of reasons.

Part of that is because this wave of health crisis is still peaking and crashing over some countries and some regions. For us, Australia is confident that those early first steps we took from January into February were absolutely pivotal to what has enabled us to manage our response to COVID in the way that we have.

The Pacific is a really, really good example. Whether it's the Cook Islands or Tuvalu or Fiji or Samoa or Tonga or Kiribati – lockdown. Almost instantaneous lockdown.

And we know, and they know, that overwhelmingly that has served them so well in terms of protecting their small populations and, in some cases, highly vulnerable populations and, in some cases, populations without necessarily the capacity to address a health crisis of this sort. And by the way, if you just throw over the top of that Cat Five Tropical Cyclone Harold in Vanuatu, in Fiji and in Tonga as well, trying to cope with those multiple challenges, I think this has been an extraordinary effort by our partners and our friends in the Pacific in response to COVID-19.

I think the response on, my answer on, bad lessons might take a little bit longer, but I do think it's a work in progress. I would say and Kirsty, thank you very much for your question. Here's two Western Sydney people in the same place – Penrith, no less. I did hear very briefly about this, this afternoon – as I came here, in fact and of course, we have consistently encouraged the DPRK to act responsibly and in a considered way.

I don't have all of the details that you have just enunciated, but we would reiterate that and we have been concerned about increases in activity that add to tensions and strategic challenge. So I am sure that we will have more to say on that in the coming day.

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