Doorstop, Melbourne

  • Transcript E&OE
Subjects: Voice referendum; Hamas-Israel conflict; repatriation flights; release of Cheng Lei; relationship with China, PM visit to China.

Part of this transcript has been redacted in accordance with Digital Transformation Agency guidelines.


Penny Wong, Foreign Minister: If I may talk about one of the other issues in my portfolio. What is happening in Israel, and heinous attacks by Hamas. We have unequivocally condemned the attacks by Hamas. These are acts of terrorism. These are acts which must be condemned and I again reiterate: we stand with Israel and we recognise its right to defend itself.

I'd like to make a few comments about the hostages. We call, we join with all in calling for the hostages to be released. This has no place in today's world. We have also witnessed a devastating loss of civilian life across both Israel and, of course, Gaza. Australia's position is always to advocate for the protection of civilian lives in all contexts, and we do so again. I note that there are reports of the United States working with others to try and establish a safe corridor out of Gaza into Egypt, and we support the US efforts in that regard.

The Australian Government's guiding principle has always been the pursuit of peace. The pursuit of peace, a just and enduring peace. A two-state solution which enables both the Palestinian peoples and the Jewish peoples to live within safe borders, internationally recognised borders. One of the great tragedies of these atrocities is that Hamas' actions have pushed that prospect of peace further away and lessened the chance of the aspirations of the Palestinian peoples to be realised. Happy to take questions.

Oh, sorry. I should also say I do have just a late announcement on flights. We have been working on flights out of Tel Aviv for a few days now. The Prime Minister yesterday announced two flights Friday and Sunday. Qantas flights out of Tel Aviv. I can indicate to Australians, either in Israel or with our family and friends in Israel, we are seeking to arrange a further flight. I can indicate to Australians with friends and family in Israel we are seeking to arrange a further flight, likely to be early next week. We will have further details of that via DFAT in the next 24 hours. I again say to any Australians who are caught up in this conference, can you please ensure you are, if you wished to avail yourself of assisted departure, that you register through the online portal on smartchat – sorry, Smartraveller. The online portal on Smartraveller. Or you can call from outside Australia on Australian Code +61 2 6261 3305. If you are registered with us, you can register your interest and we can work through the seats available so we can assess whether or not we look to more seats being available. And our thoughts are with you at this time, as they are with the Jewish community, who I know have been so traumatised by these events and by some of the language we've seen in Australia. And the Prime Minister has made our view clear about there being no place in Australia for prejudice, discrimination of any kind and no place in Australia for anti Semitism. Happy to take questions.

Journalist: Minister, yesterday there was some fantastic news about Cheng Lei. I just wanted to know, how's she going? How's her family going? Is there an update on where she's at?

Foreign Minister: Well, I hope she's having some downtime with her family. Look, it was one of those rare moments that you have in this job. It's a privilege to meet her on behalf of all of Australia. Yesterday at the airport, her return is a result of persistence, consistent advocacy. I raised her case in my very first meeting with Wang Yi, which, you might recall, was in the margins of the G20 not long after we were elected. And I made clear at that time that Australians wanted to see a mother reunited with her children. And that advocacy from me and every meeting I've had with every Chinese counterpart has been backed in by officials from the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. I thank them, particularly the Secretary, Jan Adams, and the Ambassador, our Ambassador to China, for their work, and then, of course, amplified by the Prime Minister, who ensured this was a case that would continue to raise at leader level. So, it was really moving to meet Cheng Lei yesterday and to speak to her kids, who are not much older than mine. I made them a promise after, some time ago we would do everything, I would do everything I could to bring her home. And it was wonderful to see them together, very moving. And I wish her and her family well. She asked what she could do for us and I said, you can thrive. Thrive and be healthy and happy. And that's what all Australians want you to be.

Journalist: How was she yesterday?

Foreign Minister: She was in extraordinarily good spirits. I think I was more emotional than she was. I think she was pretty tough. She looked great.

Journalist: Minister, could you describe the negotiations that occurred between China and Australia that ensured Cheng Lei was released?

Foreign Minister: Well, obviously, this has been a discussion, as I said, first meeting I had with Wang Yi, which was the first meeting in some time, as you know, between high level, between administer level, and at every meeting and engagement since. And we appreciate the arrangements which were made to bring her home.

Journalist: Do you think she wants to stay in Melbourne with her family?

Foreign Minister: Well, I think she's probably entitled to some privacy, so that's a matter for her.

Journalist: China says Cheng Lei has completed her sentence, that she confessed and admitted guilt. Is that accurate? 

Foreign Minister: I'm not going to comment on details of the legal proceedings. She is entitled to her privacy. But I would say we are just very happy to have her home.

Journalist: And what does Cheng Lei’s release mean for the Prime Minister’s visit to China and relationships with Beijing, is it now largely stabilised?

Foreign Minister: Well, two questions there. We made clear since we were elected that we wanted to stabilise our relationship with China. We wanted to engage. And I think you've seen some of the benefits of engagement. There are areas where we will disagree, there are areas where we will cooperate. But regardless of disagreement or where we can cooperate, engagement matters for Australia. You need to engage in order to advocate for Australia's national interest. You need to engage in Australia's national interest. What was the first part of your question?

Journalist: Sorry, what does the release mean for the Prime Minister’s visit?

Foreign Minister: In relation to the Prime Minister's visit for China. I would just remind people; the Prime Minister has previously agreed that he will visit China. He's made that public after discussions with President Xi and the Premier, pardon me. And we are obviously working on making sure that we can find alignment of diaries for a visit.

Journalist: On repatriation flights, why did you choose Qantas as the carrier and not the military?

Foreign Minister: There's simply the case of what availability could be arranged faster. So, obviously, there are occasions where we look to the RAAF, but in terms of making sure we could get flights as quickly as we could, we looked at all options, including commercial options, and Qantas was able to assist.

Journalist: Dutch airline KLM has retracted its offer to repatriate citizens because of security concerns. How risky is that for Qantas?

Foreign Minister: We will always work with our likeminded partners on ensuring that there is the appropriate security arrangements. And this is a very difficult situation, which is why we have worked on assisted departures as quickly as we have.

Journalist: How many people indicated that they wanted a seat on Qantas?

Foreign Minister: Well, look at this stage, we're still working through that. But I did last night, agree to the third flights for the reasons that you're alluding to, which is that my anticipation is that demands will require at least a third flight. So we will look at whether any further assisted departures are required.

Journalist: Will the cost be absorbed by Qantas?

Foreign Minister: I understand that Qantas has offered this flight from Tel Aviv to London, free of charge. I believe we have underwriting arrangements, contingency liability arrangements, just as other assisted departures have had, but there is not a direct cost to Government other than that. Thank you.

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