Press conference, Canberra

  • Transcript, E&OE

Penny Wong, Foreign Minister: Thanks very much for coming. I will try and be prompt, take a few questions, but just so you know I have got Minister Balakrishnan for a bilateral shortly. Can I start by acknowledging all those who are affected by the devastating floods and note that in particular the Prime Minister and Minister Watts have been trying to deal with this issue.

There are two announcements I would like to make this morning. The first is the appointment of Steve Bracks as Australia's special representative on Greater Sunrise. For those of you who might recall, in my visit to Timor‑Leste I had a discussion with the President, Ramos‑Horta, about how we might unstick the Greater Sunrise project which the Australian Government is not a party to, but is critical to the financial and economic viability of Timor‑Leste going forward. So, I'm very pleased that not only has Mr Bracks agreed to do it, but that the President and Prime Minister of Timor‑Leste have also agreed to his appointment.

Secondly, I want to make an announcement in relation to Jerusalem. Today, the Government has reaffirmed Australia's previous and longstanding position that Jerusalem is a final status issue, and a final status issue that should be resolved as part of any peace negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian peoples. This reverses the Morrison Government's recognition of West Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. Australia's embassy, of course, has always been and remains in Tel Aviv. The Australian Government remains committed to a two-state solution in which Israel and a future Palestinian state can coexist in peace and security within internationally recognised borders. We will not support an approach that undermines this prospect.

I would say I realise this is an issue of great interest to some parts of the Australian community and I would say this: we are committed to international efforts in the responsible pursuit of progress towards a just and enduring two-state solution. I also wish to say to the members of the Jewish community: Australia will always be a steadfast friend of Israel. We were amongst the first countries to formally recognise Israel under Labor Prime Minister Ben Chifley and we remain. We will not waver in our support of both Israel and the Jewish community in Australia. We are equally unwavering in our support of the Palestinian people including in the provision of humanitarian support.

I would say that Mr Morrison's decision to play politics – and it was no more than that because of course we all know where the embassy remained – resulted in Australia shifting position. I know that this has caused conflict and distress and concern in parts of the Australian community and today the Government seeks to resolve that.

Journalist: Can you just clarify, Minister Wong, what you said last night that no decision was made by the Government. Can you clarify was the decision made this morning made by the Cabinet?

Foreign Minister: Yes. Yes. And it is consistent just so people – I know people might not recall this because you probably weren't paying that much attention to what I was saying in Opposition. It is consistent with what I was said in Opposition in 2018.

Journalist: The 20th Party Congress is meeting today in Beijing. What would a new term involving Xi Jinping mean for Australia's foreign policy?

Foreign Minister: Well, I think Australia's foreign policy is predicated on our interests. As I made clear to Foreign Minister Wang Yi in both meetings that we have had, Australia's interests have not changed. Our strategic policy settings have not changed.

Journalist: Minister, can you just expand, please, on what you said were the consequences of the decision, you said it would cause complications for certain communities in Australia, but also international partnerships, what sort of messages are you getting from the international community?

Foreign Minister: Well, look, I think we all know, and we saw some of it publicly that the 2018 decision put Australia out of step with the majority of the international community and was received with great concern by members of the international community, and I think it is a matter of public record that concerns were expressed by Indonesia, amongst others. And would make the point – I can accept that the Coalition and the Labor Party can disagree on matters of foreign policy. You know what this was, though? This was a cynical play, unsuccessful, to win the seat of Wentworth in a by‑election. And what the people saw was the Prime Minister of the day trying to play foreign policy in order to win votes in a seat. For that reason, I made clear at the time we affirmed our view that Jerusalem is a final status issue. What do those words mean? It means that it has to be resolved through negotiation between the parties.

Journalist: Minister, if the decision was only made by Cabinet this morning and announced by yourself, why was the department – why did the department change the website? Whose advice were they acting on?

Foreign Minister: Look, I think obviously, updating the website occurred ahead of Government processes. That happens sometimes. You know, I'm not going to blame anybody for that. That happens. That's why I'm also here today making sure I am clear on our position, and I want to make clear the website did reflect the position that I had articulated in Opposition.

Journalist: On a more substantive issue though, at the time in 2018 there was speculation or warning that the change that Mr Morrison announced would provoke protests, possibly violence in Gaza and West Bank, you know, with the passage of time do you think that that decision did incite any violence?

Foreign Minister: Violence is always unacceptable and as a way to resolve conflict we encourage peaceful negotiations. I want to make that very clear. But this goes to matters of principle. If you believe, as Julie Bishop did, and as I think every Australian Government since 1948 has believed, that these are issues to be resolved between the parties, hence the longstanding position of an Australian Government has been to locate the embassy in Tel Aviv, then you take the position that I've outlined today.

Journalist: Foreign Minister, just two things very briefly. Do you have any information about where Sean Turnell is at the moment?

Foreign Minister: Not that I will share with you.

Journalist: And, secondly, you are heading to the Pacific again.

Foreign Minister: I am.

Journalist: Will you outline where you are going?

Foreign Minister: French Polynesia, Niue, and the Cook Islands, but possibly not in that order, I think. I'm happy to give you the release on that shortly, Stephen. You're the only person who asked me that question. Andrew Tillett.

Journalist: Thanks, Minister. The appointment of Mr Bracks, what will he actually have to do in terms of – is there an opportunity to perhaps play a mediator an independent arbiter–type role?

Foreign Minister: Thank you. That is a good question because they're different models. He's not been appointed as an arbiter. Those can be appointed. In fact, the boundary issue historically was resolved in a context where you could go to arbitration. This is an envoy for us, our representative. But what I want him to do – and Steve is the best person for this because he has good relations with senior people on the Timor‑Leste side and he has been a supporter of independence and their development for decades – is to have very granular discussions between the parties. It was very clear to me that people are at the moment stuck in their positions and, as I said to President Ramos‑Horta, we need to unstick it. Andrew.

Journalist: Just further on the Steve Bracks appointment, as you say, he's got a very good relationship with the Timor‑Leste leadership and given that he is your representative what attitudes do you have when it comes to the processing of the gas, as this is one of the issues that's been hotly contested?

Foreign Minister: I think that is the key issue, isn't it, and I'm not pre‑empting – I don't want to pre‑empt any of those discussions, but I would make this very important point, we are not a party to the joint venture. The parties don't include the Australian Government. The decision to invest, which obviously would include the sorts of decisions that you avert to, would be made by the joint venture parties.

Journalist: Senator, given Labor was, or telegraphed, this position in relation to the embassy in Opposition, and there has been media reporting obviously over the last 24 hours about this decision by my excellent colleague –

Foreign Minister: I enjoy the camaraderie.

Journalist: – did the Australian Government receive any representations from the Israeli Government or other parties to desist from the decision that you have made this morning?

Foreign Minister: Well, I don't think it's reasonable for me as Foreign Minister to disclose all the interactions I or my office might have with stakeholders. You would anticipate we have a lot of representations on issues from counterparts, from community members. It is not – I think you would know, and I'll let the Israeli Government speak for themselves, but I think you would know the range of views in relation to this issue.

Journalist: Has the Government had any correspondence with the Singaporean delegation about the Optus hack given the company is owned by a Singaporean–

Foreign Minister: No. Well, correspondence – I don't know what's occurred at official level, but I haven't – there are other matters that I wanted to discuss over dinner last night with Minister Balakrishnan. Obviously, we have a bilateral now and the leaders meeting shortly after where there will be, I think, media present for some of it. Thank you very much.

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