Interview with Kieran Gilbert

  • Transcript, E&OE
Subjects: Dr Yang Hengjun; Prime Minister Anthony Albanese's visit to China; Australia-China relationship; Hamas-Israel conflict; Australians in Gaza.

Kieran Gilbert, host: Welcome back to the program. Let's go live now to the Foreign Minister, Penny Wong who joins me from Sydney. A lot happening Minister, thanks for your time. The Prime Minister heads to China this weekend. He is going to make representations. He has said so on behalf of Yang Hengjun, the Australian writer. How strongly though will those representations be made on behalf of him?

Penny Wong, Foreign Minister: I can say to you, Kieran, that we have consistently advocated on behalf of Dr Yang. We joined with Marise Payne when we were in Opposition to advocate for him and add our voice to it. And we have continued that in government. We share the concerns of his family about his condition, his medical condition and his medical treatment. We will continue to express that. I will be travelling with the Prime Minister as well to China, and I will ensure that whatever opportunity I have to make representations on Dr Yang's behalf, I will do so.

Gilbert: So, you will be with him. That's a significant visit, marks 50 years since Australia's first diplomatic relations. Do you have confidence that we might see a similar outcome to say what we saw with Chung Lei and her release?

Foreign Minister: I have faith that we can continue to make our representations and we will do so whether it's at the Prime Minister's level, my level or all of the officials that Australia can rely upon to represent Australian interests and Dr Yang's interests to China. But it is a significant visit, as you say. It's the first one for some time and it does mark a very significant anniversary of diplomatic relations and former Prime Minister Whitlam's visit.

Gilbert: What's the message from you and the PM to China when it comes to its place on the world stage? Can it be a force for good? We know there's a lot of talk around its influence on Russia, but what about the Middle East?

Foreign Minister: Look, China is seeking to be a global leader, it's seeking to be a great power and it is a permanent member of the Security Council. With those positions and with that status, obviously, comes responsibility as well. And we would continue to encourage China to exercise that responsibility wisely, whether it's in terms of China's relationship with Russia and influencing Russia when it comes to the illegal and immoral invasion of Ukraine, but also on global matters and the current crisis in the Middle East.

Gilbert: As Australia stabilises its relations with China there's been some debate - it gets a bit technical, but it's important. Kevin Rudd signed a joint communique with China back in 2009 after a difficult period. There's some debate as to whether Mr Albanese would do the same. James Curran, the respected academic, he thinks that it helped put a floor under difficulties by having a joint communique or joint message at the end of that Rudd visit. Could we see a similar outcome with Mr Albanese?

Foreign Minister: Well, obviously we'll see - we'll have the opportunity to talk about what happened on the visit after the visit. But I would say this, we are not going back to where we were 20 years ago in terms of our relationship with China. China has changed and our relationship has changed. We came to government, we said we wanted to bring a greater level of maturity to the relationship, a greater degree of consistency. We made clear we weren't going to play any domestic politics with it. But we also said we want to stabilise the relationship and ensure that Australia's national interests are safeguarded. Now, we know that there are going to be differences. They need to be navigated wisely and we have to make judgments about how we navigate them, cooperate where we can, disagree where we must and continue engaging because that gives us the capacity to undertake that navigation.

Gilbert: On the Middle East, you said earlier in the week that when friends urge Israel to minimise civilian deaths, Israel needs to listen. Are you seeing that?

Foreign Minister: What I would again say is we've taken a principled approach since the beginning of this conflict. We have unequivocally condemned Hamas and its acts of terror. We have recognised that in response to that, any state has a right to exercise its self defence. But we have also said to Israel and publicly that how you undertake that matters. Even in war, there are principles and rules which must be followed. And we have advocated consistently for civilian lives to be protected, for humanitarian law to be observed, and we have advocated for restraint. Now, some have chosen to, on either side of this debate, to try and have a political debate about it. But these principles matter to us and I would say they also matter to Israel as a democracy.

Gilbert: The destruction of the Jabalia refugee camp, it happened as Israel was targeting a military, a Hamas target, is that reasonable? Is it proportionate in response to the atrocity perpetrated upon Israel and its civilians?

Foreign Minister: Well, certainly the images out of that attack are very distressing. And what I want to keep saying is Australia continues to assert the importance of international humanitarian law. As I said, even in conflict, we have rules that all of us, Israel, Australia and countries throughout the international community have signed up to. And it is incumbent upon Israel to do all that it can to protect civilian life as it engages militarily.

Gilbert: Reports that Egypt is going to accept up to 400 foreign nationals from Gaza. Is there any word, any update on whether Australians might be in that cohort?

Foreign Minister: Well, what I would say is that we have consistently advocated for that outcome and for this outcome, as has the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, members of the European Union and countries of the region. And we acknowledge the role that Egypt has played and other states in the region. I spoke last - two nights ago to my Egyptian counterpart. I again pressed the same view, the same request that Australia has, at my level and at official level, engaged in every day since this conflict began, which is we want to see our Australians out of Gaza. We have 88 Australians and their families. We want to see Australians out of Gaza. We want safe passage. We've called for humanitarian pauses to enable both aid and assistance to get in and also for civilians to get out. We have an obligation as an Australian Government to continue to advocate for the safety of Australian citizens. So, we do call upon all parties to ensure safe passage for our foreign nationals, our nationals and other civilians.

Gilbert: So, but no concrete update on whether Australians are in that initial group?

Foreign Minister: Not as yet, but obviously we'll continue to press for that outcome.

Gilbert: Okay. And are you reading any significance into the fact that the talks or the phone call between the Prime Minister and Benjamin Netanyahu, it's happened. It took a few weeks to happen. The PM has been criticised for the delay. The lack of support for Israel has been the accusation from some in the Opposition. Do you read any significance into the fact that it's taken quite a while to happen?

Foreign Minister: Well, what I read significance into is the Opposition's approach to this. I mean, Mr Dutton, in the face of a crisis, in the face of Australians being caught in Gaza, in the face of this current conflict, in the face of the horrific attack by Hamas, in the face of Australians in Lebanon being requested by government, being called on by government to consider leaving, what does he want to do? He wants to find difference and play a bit of domestic politics. That's what I see in this.

Gilbert: Foreign Minister Penny Wong, appreciate your time as always. Talk to you soon.

Foreign Minister: Great to speak with you, Kieran.

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