Interview with Kieran Gilbert, Sky News

  • Transcript, E&OE
Subjects: Julian Assange’s return to Australia; Senate urgency motion.

Kieran Gilbert, Host: Foreign Affairs Minister Penny Wong joined me earlier. I started by asking her if Julian Assange is a martyr or a criminal.

Penny Wong, Foreign Minister: There are obviously a range of views about Mr Assange and his actions. What we believed was this matter had dragged on too long, that we needed to advocate on his behalf. We're really pleased that today, well, last night, we saw Mr Assange reunited with his family. And full credit to the Prime Minister who's led the advocacy on this matter.

Gilbert: Your counterpart, Simon Birmingham. You're the opposite number. He says that Mr Albanese should rule out meeting with Julian Assange. What do you say to that?

Foreign Minister: I say to him maybe he should have a chat to Matt Canavan, who said that Mr Assange should join the Liberal Nationals in the Senate. So, look, my point is, there will be people who have different views. The Prime Minister did lead the advocacy on this because his view, as is mine and the Government's, is this matter had gone on too long. Whatever your views about Mr Assange's activities, we wanted to see him reunited with his family, return to Australia, and we're pleased at that.

Gilbert: I know you've done several interviews and people talking to you about press freedom and all that sort of thing, but there are a lot of our viewers who don't think what he did was journalistic. There wasn't editing, curation and that it wasn't in the national interest. In fact, Stephen Smith said in 2010 it was 'risky and not in Australia's interest', that behaviour.

Foreign Minister: Yes. And what we have seen since then is a plea bargain in relation to the charges which took into account the incarceration that Mr Assange has already been in. I accept that there are a lot of different views, and some quite strongly held views in Australia about Mr Assange's actions. Our view was this matter had dragged on too long. He's an Australian citizen. We sought to advocate for him. I think on this show I've made clear that, you know, this matter could only be concluded when legal processes are concluded. That's what occurred in the US court yesterday, and that enabled his return last night.

Gilbert: Simon Birmingham also said that it was inappropriate for Mr Albanese to be the first person on the phone when Assange touched down, that he's not like Cheng Lei or Sean Turnell or Kylie Moore-Gilbert, that it's a different case.

Foreign Minister: He should perhaps have a chat to Matt Canavan about Matt Canavan's views, then in his own party, he's got differences of views. Look, this is an Australian citizen who has returned home after a long period of incarceration on a matter that the Prime Minister has taken a personal interest in and raised with the President of the United States. I think it's entirely appropriate to give him a call.

Gilbert: I guess that makes sense. The thing is not wanting to be seen to be too close to someone who might end up trotting out pro-Russian messages and so on, given WikiLeaks links to Russia in recent times.

Foreign Minister: We don't advocate only for Australians with whose views we agree on everything. We advocate for Australians who are in situations where they need their government's assistance. Mr Assange had been incarcerated for a long period of time. The Prime Minister made clear it had dragged on too long. He engaged with President Biden, I engaged with my counterparts, and the legal process has concluded, which has enabled his return home to his family. And that is a good thing.

Gilbert: Fatima Payman crossed the floor. There are some of your colleagues quite annoyed about this. What will you say to them to calm things down? Because they're pointing actually to the same sex marriage debate, where you obviously didn't support the position of the then government in opposition.

Foreign Minister: No.

Gilbert: But you were forced to vote in solidarity with the party.

Foreign Minister: Because I believed in the power of the collective. Look, I can understand why colleagues are upset. I can understand how they feel, because there is trust between colleagues as well. What I would say is our expectation is that the Senator abide by decisions of the caucus. On this occasion the Prime Minister has shown restraint. What I would say to my colleagues is, you know, I can understand why people are very upset about this.

Gilbert: Are you worried about the precedent it might set as well? This is, what, a 150-year-old rule isn't it?

Foreign Minister: Well, you know, obviously we understand the importance of Caucus solidarity. It is very rare for a Labor person not to respect that. It's a principle which has served us well, and we continue to believe that that is the best way to ensure the election of and continuation of Labor Governments.

Gilbert: Do you think there's some room for a level of, I guess, punishment or response to this?

Foreign Minister: Well, the Prime Minister, as I said, has shown great restraint on this occasion. He has directed that she not attend the Caucus. What I would say is that our expectation and the expectation of her colleagues is that Senator Payman abide by the collective solidarity.

Gilbert: So, if it happened again?

Foreign Minister: Well, our expectation is that she observe the solidarity that all Labor people bring to their position.

Gilbert: Foreign Minister, thanks for your time. I appreciate it.

Foreign Minister: Great to be with you.

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