Press Conference, New York

  • Transcript E&OE

Subjects: UN Summit of the Future; action on climate change; joint investigation into the downing of MH17; Commonwealth Foreign Ministers’ Meeting; Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons; Fissile Material Cutoff Treaty; Foreign Minister Wong’s meeting with Israeli Foreign Minister; Rupert Murdoch’s retirement; reports of Russian interference in Australia’s referendum.

Penny Wong, Foreign Minister: It's great to be here and it's great to be here with my good friend Assistant Minister Jenny McAllister. I want to first start by where we started the day, which is at a Pacific summit on addressing the existential threat posed by sea level rise. I've said before that Australia does have a duty to amplify the collective Pacific voice, and we know that the Pacific, particularly island atolls, have immediate and existential threats in the face of climate change.

And it is always very moving to be part of and be witness to Pacific leaders speaking with authenticity, courage about the impacts of rising sea levels on their culture, their homes, their identities and their livelihoods. Obviously we're doing a lot of work in the Pacific on adaptation and on trying to enhance resilience, whether it's mangrove buffers or sea walls, elevation of infrastructure and of course also drought protection measures as water availability reduces.

I've had the opportunity to put Australia's views at the preparatory meeting for the UN Summit of the Future, which is about the pathway to multilateral reform. I think you've heard me say already this week the UN is in need of reform, and we need it to work better, but we certainly need it.

I've also had some very good discussions with our friends and partners from Tonga, from Israel, from Peru, the World Health Organization, the Commonwealth Foreign Ministers’ meeting and I've just come from a very moving discussion with Netherlands and other representatives of those nations involved in the joint investigation team into the downing of MH17 by the Russian Federation which resulted in the tragic loss of so many lives. We are committed to, remain committed to pursuing truth, justice and accountability for those who lost their lives, as I said 298, amongst them 38 who called Australia home.

I've been very grateful to have Jenny here who's been very busy and between the two of us we've managed to cover most of the meetings, including on climate and I'm sure she will be able to answer any questions on that. Happy to take questions.

Journalist: Just on climate, the UN Secretary‑General said yesterday the climate crisis will open the gates of hell and that climate inaction had been dwarfed by the scale of the problem. I'd be interested to know what does it say to you that the heads of state of some of the biggest countries in the world skipped the summit, while those who qualified for a speaking spot represent only a fraction of world leaders, is Guterres right, is action being brought at the scale if the problem, what more can Australia do in this space?

Jenny McAllister, Assistant Minister for Climate Change and Energy:Well thank you for the question. There is no doubt that this is the critical decade for climate action and the IPCC has made it very clear that there is a gap between the action that is presently being taken and the action that is required to keep the world's temperature safe. This week does present an important opportunity to start discussions between leaders, between ministers, between heads of delegation, about the work that we will do together at the conference of the parties at the end of the year.

We're now 70 days from the COP and it is an important COP because it is a moment when we will take stock of the progress we have made on the Paris agreement. Not only will we take stock, in doing so we set the scene for the steps that parties will take in the coming years to update their national and determined contributions. I do think that the UN Secretary‑General has made it clear that he would like to see more, he would like to see people come to the COP, to bring their ambition and the views of their communities to the COP. This has been a very important week for engaging with parties and I've certainly appreciated the willingness of representatives from a very wide range of nations to engage in very serious ways with the questions before us.

Journalist: Taking it sort of closer to home, Australia, as we all know, is experiencing unseasonably hot and dry conditions this year and I think one of your Labor colleagues Kristy McBain recently spoke out about the frustrations surrounding the lack of action on land management and mitigation in the lead up to the bushfire season. How confident are you that Australia can handle its own disasters? And do you share the view that we are under prepared for another brutal summer?

Assistant Minister for Climate Change and Energy: Australians have come to deeply understand the risks that are posed by a warming world. We have had a couple of years now where Australians in different parts of the country have endured brought, fire and flood, and I do think Australians understand that climate action is necessary to mitigate these very serious risks that have caused so much trauma and so much sadness to so many people in our community.

Our Government understands that working with our State and Territory partners we are going to need to do more to prepare ourselves for a changing climate. Minister Watt, of course, takes the lead on emergency management but I can offer this in terms of the work being undertaken in the portfolio I'm responsible for. In our last budget we provided funding for the first ever National Climate Risk Assessment. For the first time we will have a national picture of the risks presented to a range of Australian assets and services as a consequence of climate change. That's important work and it will lay the foundations for all sorts of institutions, our Government, State Governments, local governments, private businesses, community organisations, to intensify the degree of preparedness for some of the changes that we now can't avoid.

None of that takes away from the need for us to reduce our emissions. Our best chance lies in containing global warming. The talks here with colleagues from other countries are crucial to that.

Foreign Minister: Can I just make an additional comment if I may? Look, it's a reasonable question. It's September and we've got bushfires and it's pretty frightening for Australians. What I would say is you've already seen Minister Watt and the Prime Minister out talking about the additional funding for bushfire emergency management preparation, additional availability in terms of responses and equipment for the States and working with the States on making sure we are better prepared. And we're going to need to be. We're going to need to be.

You know, what you won't get from our Government is the sort of denial unfortunately about this that we saw from the previous Government, including Mr Morrison being advised by bushfire – by the fire services that more needed to be done. We are listening and we are acting. We're working with the States and Minister Watt has put both institutional change, in terms of emergency management, and additional funding on the line.

Journalist: Foreign Minister, you attended a Commonwealth Foreign Ministers meeting today. Have you spoken to your Canadian counterpart about their allegations?

Foreign Minister: I've engaged with Foreign Minister Joly at a number of events actually. We were at a Female Foreign Ministers’ reception last night. I saw her as well on the floor of the General Assembly. So we've had a number of discussions. I've made some public comments about those issues, which I think I responded to you or Mr Minear yesterday or the day before and they remain our position.

Journalist: So the issue was ‑‑

Foreign Minister: You would anticipate these matters which are in the public arena would be things the Foreign Minister would discuss but you wouldn't anticipate that I'd go into detail about it.

Journalist: You've spoken during the week about the Fissile Material Cutoff Treaty.

Foreign Minister: Yes.

Journalist: Saying that it would help bring about a world without nuclear weapons.

Foreign Minister: Correct.

Journalist: But Australia hasn't signed the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, can you update us on that, and do you have a timeline in mind to make a decision?

Foreign Minister: Can I just make this point because one of the reasons that ‑ one of the things that I think people perhaps may not focus on is that Australia has already made an international legal commitment to never acquire nuclear weapons and never to be part of utilising them in – I mean we have made a commitment in the Non‑Proliferation Treaty. We've made commitments in the Rarotonga Treaty. So, you know, Australia's already made these commitments in relation to not acquiring nuclear weapons. And you've heard me say in the context of AUKUS when I've been asked about that, obviously that we are seeking nuclear propulsion but not the acquisition of weapons. And that's a long‑standing position by Australia.

We've said in relation to the TPNW we've obviously sent observers to previous discussions, we understand the aspiration and we share the aspiration for a world without nuclear weapons. We believe that the non‑proliferation treaty, the NPT, is the cornerstone of the architecture to deliver that, putting obligations on both nuclear weapons and nonnuclear weapon states – nuclear weapon states and nonnuclear weapon states.

A Fissile Material Cutoff Treaty is an important part of the architecture, and we did host an event with Japan, as you know, because that treaty would, is the missing part of the existing arrangements to prevent the proliferation of nuclear weapons.

Journalist: In your meeting with the Israeli Foreign Minister today did they raise your decision to return to using the term Occupied Palestinian Territories?

Foreign Minister: Look, I had a very positive, constructive meeting with the Israeli Foreign Minister. Obviously I reiterated Australia's friendship with Israel. I reiterated our long‑standing position that we wish to see a just and enduring two-state solution. We believe that's in the interests of both Israeli and Palestinian peoples.

Obviously we've expressed publicly our concern about some of the developments in Israel, but it was a very constructive and cordial meeting.

Journalist: Rupert Murdoch obviously big news, standing down. Any thoughts on that?

Foreign Minister: Oh look, I'm not going to engage in commentary obviously at this stage, but I think that on anybody's retirement the appropriate thing is to wish them well in their retirement.

Journalist: But I mean it's fair to say some of your Labor colleagues aren't exactly, you know, fans and Ambassador to the US. Kevin Rudd recently openly described him as a cancer on democracy?

Foreign Minister: I don't ‑ well, I think any fair-minded observer might say that, you know, some of the News Limited papers might not exactly be cheerleaders of the Labor Party but that's what happens in a democracy. I wish him well for his retirement.

Journalist: You've got an address to the General Assembly tomorrow.

Foreign Minister: I have.

Journalist: Will you give us a bit of a sense of what you've got, what your key messages will be?

Foreign Minister: Well you'll probably have to wait, but what I would say is, it will express again Australia's intention and motivation. We always seek to work towards peace. We always seek to avert the escalation of competition into conflict, and we seek to be a strong supporter of rules and norms in a multilateral system which enables sovereignty to be respected and protected.

Journalist: In terms of rules and norms obviously Russia and Ukraine have been a big theme here. Closer to home you might have seen reports in the press ‑‑

Foreign Minister: Oh, sorry, apparently there's a bug. There you go. Do you want to do that again? Ukraine, I got it.

Journalist: Well Russia, you might have seen reports in the press this week the protests against the Indigenous Voice to Parliament have been organised by pro‑Putin activists living in the Russian consulate in Sydney. Do you have any concerns about Russian interference in the referendum?

Foreign Minister: Well I briefly saw that story before I came down here. I would say probably what it discloses is misinformation rather than any credible evidence of foreign interference. Obviously I think we all would say that there's no place for any foreign interference in Australian democracy and it is disappointing that we've seen a degree of misinformation in the referendum campaign. And I'd say to all Australians that if you don't know then find out more. Thank you.

Press Conference, New York - Minister for Foreign Affairs, Penny Wong

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