Patricia Karvelas, RN Breakfast

  • Transcript, E&OE
Subjects: Solomon Islands elections; Liz Truss; UK High Commissioner; human rights violations in Xinjiang; Timor-Leste economic sovereignty; Greater Sunrise project; Rachelle Miller settlement.

Patricia Karvelas, Host: Australia has formally offered to fund the Solomon Islands election as Prime Minister Sogavare attempts to delay the poll until 2024. That’s after the November Pacific Games. Legislation to delay the poll will be introduced to parliament today but isn’t expected to debated until Thursday. The government has said it cannot afford to hold the elections and stage the upcoming Pacific Games so close together but the opposition has rejected that argument, accusing Prime Minister Sogavare of undermining democracy. Penny Wong is the Minister for Foreign Affairs and she joins me from our Parliament House studio this morning. Penny Wong, welcome.

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

Karvelas: I’m going to get obviously to that issue around the Solomons in a moment, but the UK has been effectively without a Prime Minister for months. Does this bring some stability back now that we have an outcome and Liz Truss is going to be the Prime Minister?

Foreign Minister: First, I want to congratulate Liz Truss on her victory and on the fact that she’s going to become the British Prime Minister. It’s an enormous honour. I was pleased to meet with her in the margins of the G20. She was one of the first Foreign Ministers to call me to congratulate us after the election and we look forward to working with her. In relation to stability, obviously, it’s a good thing for these matters to be resolved in accordance with the democratic processes, and Britain is a very important partner for Australia, and we welcome the resolution of these matters.

Karvelas: Does that mean you’re on the cusp of appointing a UK High Commissioner because it’s been delayed and delayed and there’s lots of speculation? What’s going on?

Foreign Minister: I know. There has been a lot of speculation. Everyone should just calm down. We’re obviously working through quite a lot of appointments over time; you know, over the coming year there’s a few appointments coming up, but to be honest with you, my focus has been more on what I said I would do before the election, which is to prioritise engagement with the Pacific and South‑East Asia. So, appointments have not been the top of my list.

Karvelas: Okay. But can you give us now that she has been appointed, this has been clarified, a time frame for when we will have a High Commissioner?

Foreign Minister: No, we’ll work through those – the Government will work through those various appointments appropriately as I said, but I do congratulate Liz Truss on her election, and I look forward to continued engagement between our two countries. She was, of course, one of the proponents of the free trade agreement and she’s been a friend of Australia’s.

Karvelas: Let’s move to the Solomon Islands. Does the Government’s offer to help fund the Solomon Islands election reflect concerns that Prime Minister Sogavare is planning to delay the poll?

Foreign Minister: It reflects our longstanding and historical commitment to supporting democracy and democratic processes in Solomon Islands, and we’ve previously offered support and we are offering support again.

Karvelas: What exactly have we offered in terms of assistance? How much money are we talking about and has the offer been accepted?

Foreign Minister: Well, look, we have made an offer of assistance, and it’s a matter for Solomon Islands as to whether they will respond and how they wish to respond.

Karvelas: So, they are yet to respond?

Foreign Minister: We’ve made an offer.

Karvelas: Is this a direct response to request for funding from the Solomon Islands Opposition?

Foreign Minister: No, this is because Australia has always and historically supported democracy in Solomon Islands. It’s something through the Pacific we’ve made offers previously for support for elections, just as obviously recently we were supportive of the Papua New Guinean election. So, this is a reasonably common approach that Australian Governments have made over years.

Karvelas: And do you expect it to be received positively?

Foreign Minister: Well, it’s a matter for the government of Solomon Islands. Ultimately, they are a parliamentary democracy. I understand as you said in your, I think, earlier question there’s legislation before the Parliament that’s domestically controversial. That’s ultimately a matter for their Parliament to resolve.

Karvelas: The security pact Solomon Islands signed with China gives them the ability to step in and defend Chinese assets if there is unrest. Are you worried that China may be asked to step in and restore order if there are protests, for instance, over the elections?

Foreign Minister: Well, I make the point that Prime Minister Sogavare has consistently outlined that Australia remains their security partner of choice. Australia maintains the position that we have for some time that security is the responsibility of the Pacific family of which we are a part. The assistance force that has assisted Solomon Islands previously, which included Fijian personnel as well as personnel from Papua New Guinea and some support from New Zealand, these partners are part of the Pacific family, and obviously, we continue to engage with them on how we can continue to provide assistance to Solomon Islands.

Karvelas: Do you welcome the decision by Solomon Islands to exempt Australia and New Zealand from a ban on foreign naval vessels entering Solomon Island waters?

Foreign Minister: Of course, we welcome the continued access of a member of the Pacific family – in this case, Australia – to Solomon Islands waters. We are regular visitors. I think the vessel concerned is involved in maritime surveillance and ensuring appropriate maritime surveillance and the protection of fisheries is a priority for the region. It’s a priority for the Solomon Islands. It’s a priority for Australia.

Karvelas: And does it disappoint you that the US is not exempt?

Foreign Minister: Well, ultimately as I understand it, Solomon Islands is making – as indicated publicly they’re making a decision on a case-by-case basis. They are a sovereign nation and that’s a matter for them. What I would say is that the US has a long history of presence in the Pacific going back to World War II. We saw just recently Caroline Kennedy visiting Solomon Islands for the commemoration of the battles of the Pacific and the US is part of the history of the region, a part of the present and the future of the region.

Karvelas: Our largest trading partner, China, stands accused by the United Nations of the mass incarceration and detention of Muslim Uyghurs. Do you agree with the UN that this is a crime against humanity?

Foreign Minister: Look, I read some of that report overnight and it’s pretty harrowing reading and it confirms what Australia and the international community have held concerns about for some time and that is concerns in relation to human rights violations in Xinjiang. Certainly, the report concludes that serious human rights violations have been committed in Xinjiang. The report states that the allegations of ill-treatment and torture are credible. I want to start first, before we get into some of your questions, to just acknowledge the courage of the Australian Uyghur community. They have consistently spoken out. They have shown strength and determination. Many of them have been unable to be in contact with their loved ones. And, you know, I think the fact that some of these stories have come to light demonstrates the determination of Uyghurs around the world but certainly here in Australia.

Karvelas: What should Australia’s response to the UN report be? Given it was, as you say, harrowing reading, it’s a very, very, very serious issue, will the Government take any action in terms of sanctions?

Foreign Minister: Well, the first thing we are doing is considering the report, which includes a set of recommendations – some for China, some for the international community. We will consult with countries around the world, other parties, about how we can best respond and working our way through options.

Karvelas: So, there should be active consideration of taking action to show that there are consequences for this kind of harrowing awful, awful, hideous behaviour.

Foreign Minister: What we need to do is work with international partners, other members of the international community, about how it is we respond to this report and more broadly. I think the issue of how it is in a world where we see a lot of human rights violations, how we can continue to promote, to protect and assert and the importance of human rights. One of the things we said before the election that I’m very focused on, and partly because of my engagement with NGOs, is to improve the Modern Slavery Act. Because if we have a domestic framework which more strongly enforces a ban on products made from forced labour, I think that is one of the ways we can use supply chains to ensure we don’t promote, we don’t condone and we don’t financially support forced labour.

Karvelas: You travelled to East Timor last week to discuss their dispute with Woodside over the Sunrise gas project. What was your message to them and what’s your message to Woodside?

Foreign Minister: Well, I actually travelled to Timor‑Leste because it’s a very – 

Karvelas: An important relationship –

Foreign Minister: Yeah, no, it is. And obviously Australia has a particular affection for Timor-Leste because of our involvement in its path to sovereignty and independence. So, I was really grateful to be received. I was received really warmly. And it’s my second visit there and I appreciated the engagement very much.

Of course, one of the major issues of discussion is East Timor’s economic sovereignty, and they face some pretty serious economic challenges as revenue from an existing field runs out in the years ahead, which will mean much less revenue for government. They need to diversify their economy. So, we had a lot of discussions about the diversification of the economy. One of the ways in which there has been discussion about the diversification of the economy is obviously the development of the Greater Sunrise field, which is what you’re referring to. And the point I made is that that’s clearly stuck. It’s been stuck for many years, and we need to engage and discuss so that we can – and have a discussion so that we can find a way to unstick it. I think that would be in the best interests of East Timor.

I would make the point, Patricia, we’re not a party to the joint venture. The joint venture is between Timor Gap, Osaka Gas and Woodside and, ultimately, the joint venture parties have to make a decision to develop the project.

Karvelas: Just, finally, on a domestic issue, taxpayers will foot a $650,000 bill to cover a no-admissions settlement to former political staffer Rachelle Miller for the hurt, distress and humiliation she claims she experienced while she worked for former Cabinet Ministers Alan Tudge and Michaelia Cash. Why is the Commonwealth giving Rachelle Miller $650,000 if Michaelia Cash and Alan Tudge say nothing happened?

Foreign Minister: Well, it’s probably a question you should ask Michaelia Cash and Alan Tudge, but can I say this? This legal action has been settled. I think the most important thing is I hope and trust it’s been settled in accordance with Ms Miller’s wishes. She’s obviously been through a very difficult time, and I hope this matter has been resolved in a way that, you know, gives her some settlement of this very difficult period in her life, and I wish her well.

Karvelas: Thank you very much for joining us.

Foreign Minister: Take care. Bye.

Karvelas: Penny Wong is the Minister for Foreign Affairs.

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