Interview with Anna Henderson, SBS World News

  • Transcript, E&OE
Subjects: Australia’s humanitarian assistance in response to Morocco earthquake; targeted sanctions in response to human rights violations in Iran; ONI climate report; democracy in Israel; Voice to Parliament referendum.

Anna Henderson, Host: Minister, thanks for joining SBS.

Penny Wong, Foreign Minister: Good to be with you.

Henderson: Firstly, Morocco. Australia has promised more money to assist. Can you explain what that will be used for?

Foreign Minister: Oh, look, we've seen the devastation from the earthquakes in Morocco, the loss of life, and we have provided a million dollars in humanitarian assistance. And we have indicated to the Moroccan authorities that Australia stands ready to assist should we be asked to do so on other matters.

Henderson: How concerned are you to see some of the media reports that people are crying out for more help, and it seems the government isn't opening this up to more countries to assist?

Foreign Minister: We would express to the Moroccan government, as have many international partners, that we stand ready to assist. We have also, as I've said, provided a million dollars in humanitarian assistance, and we hope this provides some contribution to alleviating the suffering that we are seeing.

Henderson: The latest sanctions that you've announced in relation to Iran, why now? And why not have imposed those sanctions during the uprising?

Foreign Minister: Well, this is the fourth tranche of sanctions we have imposed on Iran. But can I start at the beginning and say today we remember Mahsa Jina Amini, a woman whose life was taken and whose loss of life sparked protests not only in Iran, but across the world. And today, we remember her. And we again call on the Iranian regime to take responsibility and ensure that those who are responsible for her death are held to account.

This Government, as a consequence of what we have seen in Iran, has taken stronger action than any Australian Government ever has. We've today announced our fourth tranche of sanctions in relation to Iran. And what I've done is utilise a new aspect of our sanctions, which I asked the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade to implement, which looks to the sanctions in respect of the oppression of women, something that we are standing up against today and every day.

Henderson: Obviously, this is timed with that very sad anniversary. But is there any other reason why you've taken this particular action at this point?

Foreign Minister: Look, we haven't waited to take action. In fact, as I said, this is the fourth tranche. We've also worked with the international community to remove Iran from the Committee for the Status for Women at the United Nations. Australia co-sponsored a resolution of the Human Rights Committee establishing an independent inquiry, and also I have written to states and territories, asking them to cease or at least pause their engagement with Iranian entities, given the regime's actions. So the government has consistently taken action - we're seeking to do so strategically - and we will continue to say very clearly and publicly, we stand with the people of Iran.

Henderson: The question that comes from the community here in Australia is why the IRGC has not been listed as a terrorist organisation.

Foreign Minister: I have listened to what the community has said on that and I understand their concerns. What I would say is this, the IRGC has been sanctioned. It was sanctioned by a Labor government, the previous Labor government under Prime Minister Gillard. IRGC entities and individuals have been sanctioned. And that is how we are demonstrating our view about the IRGC, which we know is a part of the Iranian state in effect. The criminal code that people are looking to is primarily domestic legislation focused on terrorism, and is not intended for foreign governments or entities of foreign governments. Having said that, I do understand the concerns, which is why we will continue to utilise the sanctions framework just as I have today.

Henderson: So is the listing of this group as a terrorist organisation something that you are considering or is it entirely off the table?

Foreign Minister: We don't believe that is the most strategic approach. The approach that the Government will take is to continue to utilise our sanctions framework and multilateral forums to ensure that pressure is put on Iran. And I would make this point. This government has taken stronger action than any previous Australian Government on Iran. I'd also make the point in response to some of the commentary from the Coalition. The Coalition Government sat on the UN Committee for the Status of Women while Iran was elected and did nothing.

Henderson: One of the issues that's really at the front of mind for any of the Iranian Australians who have been advocating in this space is whether they can travel back to Iran and what kind of protections they would have if they do so. Can you give them any surety?

Foreign Minister: The Iranian regime is a is a repressive regime, the Iranian regime is an unpredictable regime, we have seen that. And the extent to which this regime has been prepared to harm its own people has been demonstrated. But what we've seen in these last few years, what I would say is we have heard the Australian Iranian community, particularly in relation to the issues of foreign interference. And what I would say is, if anybody feels that they are being pressured or at risk of safety, please contact the National Security Hotline. We are very clear and have said publicly and to the regime that Australian democracy, freedom of expression, will be guarded by the Australian Government.

Henderson: Have you had any recent meetings with the representative of Iran?

Foreign Minister: Look, I have had a meeting which I made public by telephone. I had a telephone conversation in which I expressed Australia's views to my counterpart. But I would say we obviously make representations here in Canberra and also in country.

Henderson: Let's just briefly touch on a few other issues in the news today. The ONI Climate report, what's the reason to keep it secret? And is that because what's inside that report could have serious implications for the region?

Foreign Minister: Climate change is a national security issue. You've heard me say that, you've heard the Prime Minister say that, you've heard Mr Bowen say that - Chris Bowen say that. I mean it is a national security issue. And the Pacific have made that really clear. It's the number one national security issue for the Pacific. So I don't think that is - I don't think there's anything secret about that. That is part of our government's clear understanding about the implications and consequences of climate change. We did commission an assessment. That assessment was considered by the National Security Committee. The sorts of assessments that are considered by that committee are not generally released. But I would say to people, the government does understand the extent to which climate change is not only an environmental issue, and an economic issue, it is a national security issue.

Henderson: Will any version of that report be released, and when?

Foreign Minister: I've no doubt that that report will inform certainly Mr Bowen's public engagement and thinking, and certainly is informing mine, and no doubt the Prime Minister's.

Henderson: But don't we have the right to know?

Foreign Minister: I think there's a question here about what is this report for? And the report is to inform government about the extent to which there are national security implications. Not all issues that have national security implications are released publicly - but you are right to ask about it, because we should recognise that climate change is a national security issue as well. That's why it's so disappointing to see Mr Joyce, from the Coalition yet again, over the recent national conference of the National Party arguing against ambitious climate targets. And this is a party that stopped action on climate change for nearly a decade.

Henderson: So are you ruling out the release of this particular report, even in a redacted form?

Foreign Minister: Well the report - the Government's made a decision not to release the report. I'm sure it will inform - well it is informing the Government's thinking, and I'm sure it will inform the public contribution of Mr Bowen.

Henderson: Just briefly on Israel, you've been critical of what you view as democratic backsliding within Israel. Does the presence of hardliners like Itamar Ben-Gvir and his administration concern you? And how much is that a roadblock to curbing settlements in the West Bank?

Foreign Minister: We've expressed a view about settlements and their illegality under international law. We've expressed a view about the occupied Palestinian territories, and we've expressed a view which I think all Australian governments have expressed, that settlements are unhelpful to the progress of peace. Obviously, the Israeli democratic outcomes are a matter for the Israeli people, and we don't comment on the democratic processes of other countries. But what I would say is we have made our views about settlements clear.

Henderson: You've just been overseas with the Prime Minister, and we've heard from some of the proponents of the Voice, particularly Ken Wyatt, that he's concerned Australia would be seen as racist if this referendum was to fail. What's your view?

Foreign Minister: I think a country that is more united at home is stronger in the world. And I think that's self-evident. But ultimately, the choice that Australians have on the Voice is whether or not we listen. And what I'd say is I think this is the time for listening. And I'd encourage anyone who is still considering their position to listen to the majority of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians who have asked for this, asked for recognition through a Voice.

Henderson: Do you think that particularly in the Pacific, there could be an impression that Australians are racist or bigoted if it is voted down?

Foreign Minister: Look, I think, you know, as I said, this is an issue that Australians will consider, we'll have a vote on at the upcoming election. I think that people from around the world understand that this is something we are working through, just as we have over many years. From the 1967 referendum, native title, the apology, and where we are today - and we've seen a continued progress in Australia towards greater equality and greater understanding of one another, and that's a good thing.

Henderson: Penny Wong, thank you so much for your time.

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