Press Conference, New York

  • Transcript, E&OE

Subjects: 78th Session of the UN General Assembly; Australia’s continuing engagement on climate change; Fissile Material Cutoff Treaty event; Australia supporting the IAEA's transformative work in our region; investigations into death of Canadian Sikh leader; support for Ukraine; reform of the UN Security Council; Russian misinformation.

Penny Wong, Foreign Minister: It's great to be here in New York for the 78th session of the UN General Assembly, and I'm very proud to be here again leading Australia's delegation, and I'm joined, although not in person, but at the UN General Assembly, by Jenny McAllister, the Assistant Minister, who is busy this afternoon, continuing our engagement on climate change.

I want to make some comments first, to start with, about why the UN matters. This is the only place the world comes together to try and grapple with common challenges, common problems and try and resolve disagreement, and it isn't perfect, but it is the place in which the world can contest and seek to resolve some of the great challenges which affect all of us in the international community.

First amongst those obviously is climate change, but also how it is we work together to avert conflict, to build peace, to ensure peace, stability and prosperity across the world, and obviously to address the pressing need to ensure we meet the development challenges and the objectives of the SDGs.

Obviously one of the things on the agenda will be reform of the United Nations, and you would have the Secretary-General's address today to the General Assembly, where he pointed out that the world has changed but our institutions have not.

Australia does take the view that across many issues the UN system is falling short of where we want it to be and where the world needs it to be, but what we want to do is to work with others to ensure that the United Nations evolves, the United Nations together meets the challenges of our time.

We've got a big stake as a middle power, as a country that is not a superpower, that relies on a system of rules and norms of dialogue and negotiation. We have a big stake in making sure we do everything we can to make the UN work and work better, and that's reflected in our history, of course, Australia's involvement very early on in the establishment of the United Nations.

I've had a big first day. I've met with my German counterpart, Annalena Baerbock after her recent trip to Australia was unfortunately not able to proceed, and I'll be meeting with Japan's new Foreign Minister shortly – two countries, Germany and Japan, with whom Australia works very closely.

But an event that I have just co‑hosted that I wanted to make sure was something I spoke about to you was a high‑level event on Fissile Material Cutoff Treaty. We all want a world without nuclear weapons. There is no world without nuclear weapons unless we have a treaty to prevent the continued production of the material which creates nuclear weapons, and that's fissile material.

30 years ago the General Assembly said we need this treaty, we still haven't got a treaty negotiated, we don't even have negotiations underway. So, Australia will be working with other countries to try and ensure we get that treaty negotiation under way. We know it's a hard ask, but it is so important to the objective that we all share, a world free of nuclear weapons, and I thank the Prime Minister of Japan for co‑hosting that event with me, and the Foreign Secretary of the Philippines for doing the same, and I acknowledge the work Canada has done on this as well.

Nuclear issues obviously are such a priority for all of us. We know the risk that nuclear weapons pose to humanity, we know how hard we have to work in the multilateral system to try and ensure that non‑proliferation continues or is strengthened, and to try to ensure we work to get rid of nuclear weapons in this world.

One very important body in the UN architecture is, of course, the International Atomic Energy Agency, and I will be catching up with Director‑General Grossi later today. We welcome the work of the IAEA, which ensures that nuclear technology is used peacefully and addresses proliferation, security and safety risks, and I'm pleased to announce today additional support to the IAEA, including in our region, for the critical role that agency plays in providing independent, impartial and science‑based technical advice, and these are projects which will make a tangible difference, including improving access to equitable, affordable and sustainable radiotherapy services, and building the cancer care workforce in the Asia‑Pacific and in Africa, and our support for the IAEA's Global Water Analysis Laboratory, to help make water resource management in the Pacific and Southeast Asia more sustainable.

So, that's a bit of a summary of the day, and I'm sure I'll be speaking with you later in the week, but happy to take questions today.

Journalist: Minister, what do you make of Justin Trudeau's allegations that India was behind the killing of a Canadian citizen, and what implications do you believe this would have on the Five Eyes alliance and Australia's relationship with India

Foreign Minister: Look, these are concerning reports, and I note that investigations are still underway, but obviously these are concerning reports, and as I've said, we are monitoring these developments closely with our partners, and we'll continue to do so.

Journalist: You've raised this with India?

Foreign Minister: We have, Australia has raised these issues with our Indian counterparts, as you would expect us to do.

Journalist: Are you planning on raising it with Japan given that they are a member of the Quad and India as well?

Foreign Minister: Well, I'm sure you would not expect the Foreign Minister of any country to run a commentary on how and what is raised, in detail or what will be raised, but I would say to you, you know, Australia's principal position is that we believe the sovereignty of all countries should be respected, we believe the rule of law should be respected, and our views as a matter of principle reflect those views.

Journalist: Do you have any concerns about foreign interference from India in Australia?

Foreign Minister: I think Australia is a robust democracy, and I think the Indian diaspora has a range of views, and you know, we have made clear in relation to democratic debate in Australia that the peaceful expression of different views is a key part of Australia's democracy, and I think most Australians would agree with that.

Journalist: And just, when you say that Australia shared its concerns with India, how did you communicate that, and did Canada share information?

Foreign Minister: I would just say to you that we have been monitoring these developments with partners closely, we will continue to do so, and I will confirm that we have raised our concerns with India. I'm not going to go into any further detail on that.

Journalist: I was going to ask, is it true that the issue was privately raised by several senior officials [indistinct] countries for the G20?

Foreign Minister: Well, that's ‑ I'll leave you to ask that question, I'll just refer to my previous answer. I understand why you ask it, and you will understand why I respond in the way I do.

Journalist: Minister, what guarantee of safety do you provide to Sikh Indians in Australia that they aren't at risk themselves?

Foreign Minister: Well, I'd note that these allegations are still being investigated, so I would recognise that fact, but more broadly I would say this: we take the view as a government that Australian democracy is precious, that as a matter of principle, and as a matter of law Australians of whatever persuasion have a right to peaceful protest, and in all circumstances we reflect that right in our public statements and in our private conversations with other governments.

You would also know we have, as a Parliament, made very clear statements, but legislatively and as a matter of policy about the importance of Australian democracy being unaffected by external concerns.

Journalist: Minister, the Chinese Vice President is in New York for the General Assembly. Are you planning to meet with him?

Foreign Minister: Well, obviously the program is still moving, but I would say to you that obviously my Prime Minister, our Prime Minister, met with the Premier just recently, and we are in the process of seeking to work out if we can have the visit to China that the Prime Minister referenced after that discussion.

Journalist: Can I ask about Ukraine?

Foreign Minister: Sure, was there anything -

Journalist: Obviously President Zelenskyy is here and he's going to DC this week to push his case for the support. It seems like at the moment that support for Ukraine is [indistinct] government debate, [indistinct] government has shut down. There's growing opposition from republicans about continuing that support. What impact do you think that would have if Ukraine doesn't have a guarantee of the funding that they need from the US?

Foreign Minister: Well, I agreed with President Biden today, and Australia agrees with President Biden today. He referenced the possibility of people not continuing to support Ukraine and said very clearly, "we will continue to support Ukraine", and we agree, and the reason we have to, and we have to remember, let's go back to first principles. Russia breached the UN Charter, and that Charter protects us all, and that Charter has, amongst other things, the recognition of the protection of sovereignty and of territorial integrity, and for every country, that matters, and that was a fundamental protection post‑World War II, so we have to do everything we can to protect it, and nothing Russia says or does can, you know, distract from that fact. And I would say the fact that we've got President Putin talking to North Korea says something about how desperate he is becoming.

Journalist: Should we be worried by the fact though that President Biden's words around this could [indistinct] the actions of the Congress and actually having support there for [indistinct]?

Foreign Minister: All I can ‑ obviously people's democratic processes are a matter for them. All I can do as the Foreign Minister of Australia is to express the view as we do, that Ukraine matters to us all.

Journalist: Just something you said at the start about relevance and the state of the UN at the moment. President Biden's obviously the only leader from the Security Council, permanent member, who's here this week, our own Prime Minister's not here and wasn't here last year. I'm interested in what you think that says about the state of the UN at the moment, whether that concerns with about its ability to function as properly and as effectively as it can?

Foreign Minister: Look, I think that we've seen High‑Level Week has enormous convening power at very senior levels, so I don't accept the point you're making about senior level representation. But I'd also make the broader point, which is whether it's the United Nations or other multilateral or plurilateral fora, you've seen Australia reengage, you've seen us reengage at the EAS, the East Asia Summit, in a very active way, you've seen us engage in our region in the Pacific, and we are here represented by, you know, the person in this role, which is me, the Foreign Minister of Australia, because we care about the United Nations and we'll continue to actively participate.

Journalist: I just want to ask a bit more body in relation to you pushing for reform of the Security Council. What does the reform look like to you?

Foreign Minister: Look, I think the reality is, we obviously have a long‑standing position about, you know, having more powers from our region represented in the Security Council, but you know, what we recognise is that there are many parts of the world who are saying that the UN system doesn't sufficiently reflect the contemporary strategic political and economic circumstances, and I think that's a reasonable criticism, and Australia, you know, we don't have any preconditions, we're willing to have a discussion with others to see if there is a way to find reform that is able to have consensus. Okay, last question.

Journalist: Back on Ukraine, sorry.

Foreign Minister: Yes.

Journalist: President Zelenskyy's speech very much seemed a little targeted at trying to keep developing global south countries on side and isolating Russia diplomatically. Are you noticing any fatigue among the global south? Who's winning the fight?

Foreign Minister: Look, I think Russia has been active in its disinformation and misinformation about this war, and Russia has continued to, for example, assert that food security issues are a consequence of sanctions applied to it. I've heard that out of Foreign Minister Lavrov's mouth, and I think what we have seen and what you saw today is countries, including Ukraine, pushing back on that. I mean it is Russia which has terminated the Black Sea Grain Initiative, which had a downward pressure on food inflation, on food prices, and was a contribution to food security. That is a Russian decision. And so I think it is a good thing if President Zelenskyy is speaking directly to all nations about why Ukraine matters to all countries and why people ought not disregard the sort of, frankly, lies that Russia has been telling about their motives and the consequences of the war. Thank you very much.


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