Interview with Patricia Karvelas, ABC Radio National

  • Transcript, E&OE
Subjects: Professor Sean Turnell; MH17 criminal trial verdict; China-Australia relationship; detention of Cheng Lei and Dr Yang Hengjun; Chinese President Xi Jinping’s conversation with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau; Australia’s Ambassador to Ira

Patricia Karvelas, Host: Foreign Minister, Penny Wong, joins you now. Minister, welcome.

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

Karvelas: You spoke to Sean Turnell after he was released. How is he and what did you talk about?

Foreign Minister: Look, he's in very good spirits actually, remarkably good spirits given the length of incarceration and the conditions in which he has been held. So, he was very happy. He was very thankful to us all. He was really looking forward to getting back to Australia and seeing his wife Ha Vu, but also his friends and he was in good spirits. He said that he never felt alone in prison. He knew that people were with him, were advocating for him, and I was very glad to hear that, that he had felt the solidarity of all of us but also was aware that people continued to work for his release.

Karvelas: How much happened behind the scenes to seal this deal, and how instrumental was the Prime Minister's advocacy over the last few days?

Foreign Minister: There's been a lot of advocacy, including the Prime Minister recently but we also have had a lot of support from across the region and I have publicly thanked our ASEAN friends in particular, the two chairs of ASEAN over the period of his incarceration, Brunei and Cambodia. I personally have engaged both with my friend Dato Erywan, the Foreign Minister of Brunei, but also Prak Sokhonn from Cambodia, and discussed the matter with Hun Sen when I was in Cambodia for the Foreign Ministers' meetings. I also made the decision to engage with the Myanmar military regime directly in relation to this matter.

Karvelas: Will you pursue sanctions on Myanmar's military rulers?

Foreign Minister: Look, today is a day for Sean. Sanctions are not something I publicly speculate on. I've made comments previously about those being under active consideration, but today is a day for Sean.

Karvelas: Sean will arrive in Melbourne this morning. What will he need to recover from this ordeal, and what support will he receive?

Foreign Minister: We'll continue to provide assistance as he requires and, obviously, at the appropriate time, he will be debriefed. I hope that the media can respect his request and his wife's request for privacy. They've been through a lot, and he obviously will want quiet time with her and with his family and friends.

Karvelas: There's been another significant development overnight. Two Russians and a Ukrainian have been convicted with murder over the shooting down of flight MH17 in the Ukraine in 2014. Now, of course, 38 Australians were on board that flight. What will this mean for families who have lost loved ones?

Foreign Minister: Well, this is the truth and I want to say first to all of the families and friends that we know that you suffered an unfathomable grief. We know that you've waited a long time for justice. These verdicts matter because they confirm the truth that these men were responsible for downing a civilian aircraft, and it also confirms the involvement of the Russian Federation. Separatists had direction from Russia. Russia supplied training, weapons and money. So, whilst I know that very little can lessen the grief when you lose a loved one in such horrific circumstances, it is important for the truth to be out, and it has. And a court has made it clear.

Karvelas: The three convicted offenders remain at large and were tried in absentia. They're unlikely to serve a prison sentence for their crimes. Is there any hope Russia will hand them over?

Foreign Minister: I'd say two things about that. The first is, you know, we would say to Russia: the world knows that you are harbouring murderers and that says something about you, Mr Putin. But the world also knows that Igor Girkin, Sergey Dubinsky and Leonid Kharchenko murdered 298 people by downing a civilian aircraft, and they remain on the Interpol list, and nothing will ever remove that sentence which stands as an indictment on them and on those who supported and funded them.

Karvelas: Russia has ignored the West on everything from election meddling, MH17 and, of course, its war in Ukraine. Do you just have to accept that no amount of pressure will force Russia to relent?

Foreign Minister: Look, what we have to do is to continue to both put pressure on them, but also work with others in the international community to hold Russia to account for all of its actions. And look, obviously we would wish the world to be different from that which it is, but if you look at the response to Ukraine and the unity amongst so many member states of the United Nations and the pressure that Russia has felt, that is important. We want Russia to act differently but until it does, what we have to do is maintain that collective response to Russia's abrogation of international law.

Karvelas: Turning to the G20, the Prime Minister met with China's President at the G20. It's cleared the way for official communication to begin again. The big question, of course, is when you will be heading to China, to Beijing. I imagine you're planning that or hoping to plan that. Are there currently plans or are you hoping to make them?

Foreign Minister: First of all, I think all of us welcome the Prime Minister's meeting with President Xi. It is a positive step and an important step towards the stabilisation of the China–Australia relationship. You might recall, Patricia, when I had my very first meeting, the first meeting between Ministers for a long time, with State Councillor Wang Yi or Foreign Minister Wang Yi in Bali at the Foreign Ministers meeting that I said, “Look, we want to stabilise the relationship. There will be a lot of steps and we will take this step by step.” No doubt there will always be differences, because of who we are, between Australia and China. What we want to do is to continue to engage cooperate where we can, disagree where we must, engage in the national interest, and I think what's important is we can grow our bilateral relationship alongside upholding our national interests if both countries navigate our differences wisely.

Karvelas: Do you think a visit to China in the short term is likely?

Foreign Minister: As I said, step by step –

Karvelas: Is that the next step?

Foreign Minister: We are open to engagement and dialogue, Patricia.

Karvelas: So, you want to go? How do you organise it? What's first?

Foreign Minister: I'm not going to be drawn on this, Patricia. We are open to engagement and dialogue, but we also recognise, you know, it is a one step at a time in a relationship that is much more stable than it was but will always involve the management of different interests. It is an important thing that the PM and the President met. That is a constructive and a major step towards a more stable relationship between our two countries.

Karvelas: Two Australians are currently detained in China. We were just being very positive about Sean Turnell being in Australian air space going to land in Melbourne, but for journalist Cheng Lei and Yang Hengjun, we can't be as positive. Could the release help with your negotiations with Beijing, what's happened with Sean Turnell?

Foreign Minister: Look, we will continue to do all we can to highlight Dr Yang and Ms Cheng Lei's cases. We'll continue to advocate for them to be reunited with their families. We raise those cases at all levels in our engagement with China from post level, so at diplomatic level, to, of course, the Prime Minister.

Karvelas: In terms of these trade tariffs coming off, is that something you see as likely? What's your message to the business community? Is that likely to happen in the coming weeks and months?

Foreign Minister: Ultimately, that's a decision for China to make. We've been clear about our view. We believe it is not in the interests of either country for these trade blockages to remain, and we have urged in every engagement we have had at ministerial and prime ministerial levels that they remove those blockages and impediments.

Karvelas: So, I know that's the position, of course, but are you getting any indications at this stage that there might be movement here?

Foreign Minister: Look, I can only say what I've said to you, Patricia, and, ultimately, it's a matter for China to act. We think they should, and we will continue to advocate that. We think they should not just because it is in our interests but because it is also in China's interests.

Karvelas: I've been pressing you on obviously going to China, but we know that you are now able to pick up the phone and speak to your counterpart because we've seen you do it. Do you have another scheduled conversation? When are you likely –

Foreign Minister: I wouldn't say that ahead of time, in any event, Patricia, but –

Karvelas: I'd ask ahead of time –

Foreign Minister: You know, it's your job to ask, but what I would say is that I reckon we're in a better place now that there's engagement and dialogue. This is the challenge in foreign affairs and our engagement with the world. And I do believe, whether it is in relation to Sean Turnell or China, you know, it is better for us to engage where we can, even when we have differences. It is not in Australia's interests to only engage with those who agree with us all the time because regrettably in a world like we live in, that means there's a lot of countries with whom we may not engage. So, we have taken the view that you've got to focus on improving engagement where you can and that's what we're doing.

Karvelas: Did you see the footage of the Canadian Prime Minister and the Chinese President?

Foreign Minister: I saw it referenced online. I have to say I've been a little focused on a couple of other issues.

Karvelas: I found it a little chilling but what does it say about crossing China?

Foreign Minister: Well, like Canada we safeguard our democracy and we will always advocate to ensure that our democracy remains healthy, functional, and I have no doubt that the Canadians have the same view that they would react very strongly to others engaging in their democratic processes, just as Australia does, and that's why we have the appropriate foreign interference laws in place that were put in place with bipartisan support.

Karvelas: Just, finally, last week, a DFAT official confirmed that Iran's Ambassador to Australia has been summonsed over violent protests in Iran. What was Canberra's message?

Foreign Minister: There's been a great many messages delivered to Iran, both publicly by the Prime Minister, by me, by Australia at the UN joining with statements involving Canada, US and other countries about the violent oppression that's occurring in Iran, the tragic death of Mahsa Amini. We are obviously continuing to press Iran also at the diplomatic level, but we will not desist from our advocacy internationally with others.

Karvelas: Foreign Minister, thank you for joining us.

Foreign Minister: Really good to be with you. Thank you.

Media enquiries

  • Minister's office: (02) 6277 7500
  • DFAT Media Liaison: (02) 6261 1555