Press conference, Adelaide

  • Transcript, E&OE
Subjects: Professor Sean Turnell; Hurricane Ian; diplomatic postings; US-Pacific Island partnership.

Penny Wong, Foreign Minister: Greetings, all. Thanks very much for coming. Can I first start by expressing my deep concern for Australian Professor Sean Turnell and make it clear, as I did yesterday in a statement, that Australia rejects the ruling in Myanmar against Professor Turnell and we continue to call for his immediate release. We do not accept the charges against him. I make the point that Professor Turnell has spent years of his life working to improve the economic conditions for the people of Myanmar. We will continue to take every opportunity to advocate strongly for him until he is returned to his family in Australia.

I also wish to reiterate, as the Prime Minister did, our concerns about the situation in Florida with Hurricane Ian. There's been enormous damage to homes, to infrastructure, obviously livelihoods. Communities are experiencing really a dreadful situation and anticipate, as the President said, loss of life. So our solidarity to all those who are facing this storm.

Today I also announce new appointments that strengthen Australia's diplomatic capability and match people with the right qualifications and expertise to senior postings. I want to make clear our Government is reversing the previous Government's approach and we are rebalancing appointments towards more qualified senior officials consistent with community expectations and position requirements. In circumstances, there is also a clear advantage for Australia to be represented by people who have had distinguished careers beyond the public service, such as businesspeople and former parliamentarians.

The eminence of Australia's relationship with the United Kingdom has long been reflected in the appointment of a former senior cabinet minister. So in keeping with this tradition, the Albanese Government is appointing Stephen Smith as Australia's next High Commissioner to the United Kingdom. Mr Smith was a member of the Australian Parliament for 20 years and he served as Minister for Defence and prior to that Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade.

He will commence his posting after submitting the defence strategic review in early 2023. Until then Lynette Wood will continue as Australia's Acting High Commissioner, and I thank her for that.

A replacement for Arthur Sinodinos will be announced ahead of the completion of his posting in February 2023.

A Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade recruitment process will be carried out to appoint experienced public servants as heads of mission in Singapore, New Delhi, Tokyo and at the United Nations in New York.

Will Hodgman will conclude as High Commissioner to Singapore in 2023. Barry O'Farrell will conclude as High Commissioner to India in February 2023. Mitch Fifield will conclude as Ambassador and Permanent Representative to the United Nations in June 2023.

Today I also announce the appointment of six career diplomats to lead Australia in overseas posts: Dr Simon Twisk as Ambassador to Argentina; Dr Axel Wabenhorst at Ambassador to Egypt; Ms Melissa Kelly as Ambassador to Kuwait; Ms Indra McCormick as Ambassador to Portugal; Mr Tony Huber as Consul-General in Istanbul, Türkiye; and Mr Andrew Goledzinowski as Ambassador to Vietnam.

Our foreign service is the driver of Australia's engagement with the world and today I am announcing a team that complements the existing personnel who we have across the world pursuing Australia's interests.

Can I thank all those who have served Australia – the outgoing ambassadors, high commissioners and consuls-general for their contribution to advancing the nation's interests in those countries during their respective tenures.

I'm happy to take questions.

Journalist: Just on Mr Turnell, does the Australian Government know where he's currently being held, and has anyone been able to speak with him following the verdict?

Foreign Minister: We sought consular access – we do know where he is being currently held. We have – we sought access to the court. Disappointingly and regrettably the Myanmar authorities did not permit it to occur.

Journalist: Where is he being held?

Foreign Minister: I'm not going to go enter into private details of aspects of this case. But I will say to you very clearly we reject completely the charges against him, and Australia will continue to advocate through all channels public and private for his return to Australia.

Journalist: Does Mr Turnell's sentence show a failure of quiet diplomacy, and is there anything more the Australian Government can do to secure his release?

Foreign Minister: First, both Senator Payne who was formerly in this position and I have worked very hard to put our views and to utilise others to put those views to the Myanmar authorities. I – this is a very difficult situation, as are many of these sorts of cases. I am – what I would say to you is I think we are doing all that we can, some of which is obviously in public as I've done today, but a great deal of which is not. So I would assure all Australians we are doing everything we can to press for his release.

Journalist: Can you confirm the time Turnell has served will count towards his sentence, and are you hopeful this will be the end of it or could he face more years in prison, like we've seen with Aung San Suu Kyi?

Foreign Minister: Well, what I can confirm is this, since the 4th of May 2021 Professor Turnell has faced a number of procedural court hearings as part of the investigation and the pre-trial process. On the 9th of June 2022 the Myanmar Court decided that Professor Turnell was to face formal trial for alleged breaches of Myanmar's official secrets and immigration acts. On 29th September 2022 Professor Turnell was convicted and sentenced to three years imprisonment. And I think that is as much information due to privacy considerations and the sensitivity of that case that I'll provide.

Journalist: Just to be clear, have you or any officials spoken with the military following the verdict?

Foreign Minister: I'm not prepared to disclose that at this point. But you should infer from what I'm saying that all avenues that are available to us are being and will be utilised in relation to advocating for Mr Turnell.

Journalist: Just on another matter on the Pacific announcements, does Australia welcome the new partnership signed by the US and Pacific Island leaders?

Foreign Minister: Yes, we do. And we welcome US engagement with the region. And I think what was particularly important about this – about the announcement that's been made is that we saw Pacific unity on display. And as you know, on other things we've talked a great deal about since we came to government was the importance of the Pacific family working together. Every country in the Pacific is a sovereign nation. They make their own sovereign decisions, and those – and they have in relation to this declaration with the United States. But we welcome Pacific unity and the fact that the United States worked through the regional architecture, which is the Pacific Islands Forum.

Journalist: And Washington's new commitments Australia welcomes?

Foreign Minister: We do. I was at the Pacific Islands Forum when the Vice President, Kamala Harris, spoke announcing additional remuneration through the Tuna Treaty and the renegotiation of that. That forms part of this announcement, and we think US engagement in the region and, in particular, focusing on the development of the region is just so important.

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