Prime Minister, Leader of the Government in the Senate, Minister for Foreign Affairs

  • Transcript E&OE
Foreign Minister visit to Beijing; Australia-China diplomatic relations; Appointments of new diplomatic postings; Gun laws; Australia-Pacific relations; Christmas wishes

Anthony Albanese, Pime Minister: This year my Government has taken action to stabilise Australia's relationships around the world. It’s about better outcomes for Australia, but it’s also about better outcomes for Australians. I am proud to stand here today with Foreign Minister Penny Wong on a day we're taking another important step – her visit to Beijing on the anniversary of Australia's diplomatic relationship with the People's Republic of China. The 50th anniversary of diplomatic relations on the 21st of December is a significant milestone. The decision to establish diplomatic relations took ambition and courage, but it was the right decision, and the relationship has delivered benefits to both our countries, including through our strong economic, people to people, academic and business links. And the anniversary tomorrow provides an opportunity for both sides to reflect on the relationship and how it can be more constructive in the future. Can I also announce today that Kevin Rudd will be appointed as Australia's Ambassador to the United States of America. Dr Rudd brings unmatched experience to the role. He has served as Prime Minister, Foreign Minister, held prominent academic roles and worked extensively in the United States. It is intended that he will commence his posting in early 2023. Joining Dr Rudd in the United States is Heather Ridout AO, as Australia's Consul-General in New York. She is the first woman to be appointed to the role. A former Chief Executive of the Australian Industry Group, Heather Ridout brings four decades of experience to the role. The Consul-General in New York is an important position for Australia's business relations, not just in the United States but, indeed, throughout the world, given the role that New York plays in the international economy. I can think of no-one better than Heather Ridout to fulfil this role.

Penny Wong, Minister for Foreign Affairs:  Thank you very much, Prime Minister. If I can first go to the visit to China, and then I have some additional announcements about ambassadorial and high commission postings. First, on today's visit to China, I certainly welcome the opportunity to continue dialogue, as the Prime Minister said. We have been working very carefully and methodically and patiently towards stabilising the relationship between our two countries. As I have said in the past, this will take time, but I do see this visit as another step in the road. The visit will see us hold the sixth Australia-China Foreign and Strategic Dialogue, a dialogue which was last held in 2018. It obviously builds on the recent, very constructive meetings that the Prime Minister had with President Xi in Bali on the sidelines of the G20 Summit. The Prime Minister has made it clear, we seek a stable relationship with China. We will co-operate where we can, we will disagree where we must and we will engage in our national interest. There has been a lot of speculation in the last 24 hours or more about what will happen. I will say this: the expectation should be that we will have a meeting, and that dialogue itself is essential to stabilising the relationship. Many of the hard issues in the relationship will take time to resolve in our interests. Speculation about outcomes obviously has implications for leverage, and I am certainly not interested in giving any country leverage other than Australia. In relation to consular cases, to save you asking the question, obviously I will be raising consular cases, as I always do, just as I will continue to advocate for the trade impediments to be lifted. Because we do believe, as I’ve said publicly and the Prime Minister has said, it’s in both countries' interests to do so. I do want to say this, I want to emphasise that Australian business has done an outstanding job in diversifying its markets, and it’s always going to be in our interest to continue to prioritise that diversification. In relation to announcements, those mentioned by the Prime Minister are just some of the talented people we are appointing two rolls around the world. First, we are delivering on our commitment to appoint an Ambassador for Human Rights, to restore Australia's commitment to human rights around the world, and Ms Bronte Moules, a senior career officer with the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, has been appointed Australia's inaugural Ambassador for Human Rights. Ms Stephanie Copus-Campbell has been appointed Australia’s Ambassador for Gender Equality. She will deepen Australia's international engagement on gender equality, with her expertise in community development, gender equality and health. We are also announcing the appointment of career diplomats to lead Australian post. Ms Sophie Davies is appointed Australia's Ambassador to Brazil. Dr Ralph King is employed Australia's Ambassador to Israel. Ms Sonya Koppe is appointed Australia’s High Commissioner to Trinidad & Tobago. Ms Minoli Perera is appointed Australia’s Ambassador to Zimbabwe. Mr Richard Rodgers is appointed Australia's Ambassador to Croatia and Ms Phoebe Smith is appointed as Australia's High Commissioner to the Cook Islands. Can I thank, on behalf of the Government and the Australian people, the outgoing ambassadors, high commissioners and consuls-general for their contributions to advancing Australia's interest in these last years.

Journalist: Minister, if I may, what exactly are you hoping to achieve from this meeting? When you come back, what is on your list that you hope to cross off? And Prime Minister, if I may, from Brisbane, should there be more reforms, national gun reforms in the wake of the tragedy?

Foreign Minister: As I said in the opening, my expectation, what I want to cross off my list, is that we have a meeting and there is dialogue. And that dialogue is important to stabilising the relationship, and dialogue is where some of the difficult issues – and they are difficult issues, different interests, different views – have to be resolved and have to be dealt with, and dialogue is an essential prerequisite for that.

Pime Minister: On the issue of guns in the wake of the tragedy on the Darling Downs that occurred just a week ago, this tragedy is still, of course, the subject of ongoing investigations. My Government will take any advice, particularly from police and law enforcement, about better ways in which we can have coordination and better laws to protect people. I am certainly up for dialogue with the states and territories about how there can be a better national consistency and national information that can serve the interests of police going about their duty. When we have a meeting of National Cabinet next year, I will be asking for a briefing to go to that National Cabinet meeting for practical ways in which we can, not change the nature of the gun laws, but change the nature of the way that information is coordinated.

Journalist: Your colleagues have invariably described Kevin Rudd as a psychopath, a micromanager, a control freak. Is this the person who your government needs to have in Washington? Are you worried about essentially having a second Foreign Minister in the United States?

Pime Minister: Kevin Rudd is an outstanding appointment. He brings a great deal of credit to Australia by agreeing to take up this position as a former Prime Minister, as a former Foreign Minister, as someone who's been head of the Asia Society, and as someone who has links with the global community, based in Washington, DC. He will be a major asset in working to assist the Foreign Minister, as other ambassadors do in their job.

Journalist: Is this a precursor to a Prime Ministerial-Presidential visit? And Minister, if I may as well, without previewing the outcome, but do you think the Australian-Chinese relationship can move forward in the medium term without the release of those Australian detainees?

Pime Minister: I’ve said I will visit the United States next year at some stage. The President will visit Australia when I host the Quad leaders’ meeting next year.

Foreign Minister: In relation to the second part of your question, I agree with you, I think that it would be beneficial, not just for the individuals, which is, I think, important in its own right, but it would be beneficial to the relationship for those consular matters to be dealt with.

Journalist: Is Australia reconsidering its WTO action against China on barley and wine? And would you prefer that this issue is resolved through discussion rather than arbitration?

Pime Minister: We have said on the issue of the impediments to trade between Australia and China that it is in Australia's interests to export more to China, for the interests of our economy and jobs, but it's in China's interests to receive the fantastic goods that Australia has available to export. That's our position.

Journalist: Can I ask the Minister, I understand that you intend to raise human rights in your meeting. What specifically will you be asking for when it comes to Xinjiang and Hong Kong? And has the Government ruled out sanctions in relation to Xinjiang?

Foreign Minister: As I said in my announcement on Human Rights Day, where we announced a number of things, but I also set out not only the Magnitsky sanctions that were put in place on Russia and Iran, but I made the point that you have to have a broad set of strategies in how you deal with advocacy for human rights. Obviously not all countries in the world share our views on these issues, and we have to think through how do we press for the observation of human rights. Dialogue is part of it, so of course, we will, as always, be advocating our views in relation to the observance of human rights as a principal.

Journalist: Foreign Minister, you've just returned from another trip to the Pacific. Obviously, China has a big interest in the Pacific. Are you interested in cooperation with Beijing in the Pacific and do you think that will be raised during your trip to Beijing?

Foreign Minister: Obviously, if it is raised, obviously we have a very clear view about our responsibilities and obligations as a member of the Pacific family. We have clear views about the importance of Pacific security being dealt with by members of the Pacific family and being dealt with reasonably. And I was very pleased in Vanuatu to sign a security agreement with the Prime Minister.

Journalist: There's no doubting the former PM Kevin Rudd’s knowledge of China, his knowledge of the US, a whole range of topics. There are also a couple of delicate issues here. He's been particularly critical of two US citizens, one of whom is Rupert Murdoch, in calling for a Royal Commission, the other of whom is Donald Trump, who could potentially be the next President of the United States. Could you characterise or share with us, what your expectations are of Mr Rudd in terms of managing those strong opinions that he has of those two men?

Pime Minister: My expectations are very clear, that Kevin Rudd will be an outstanding Australian representative in Washington, DC. And that he will conduct himself in a way that brings great credit to Australia. Kevin Rudd will be seen in the United States as a very significant appointment, by appointing a former Prime Minister, and I am very pleased that Kevin Rudd is prepared to do this. He certainly doesn't need to do this. He's doing it out of a part of what he sees as his service obligation to the country that he loves. And I am sure that he will serve very well.

Journalist: Minister Wong, I have spoken to the family and friends of Cheng Lei and Yang Jun, who seem to have endorsed you as Foreign Minister, and they're confident in your abilities. Have you spoken to them and how do you manage expectations about what will happen?

Foreign Minister: Look, unless people wish me to, I don't usually speak about who I speak to, from the families of people detained, for obvious reasons. It's a matter for them if they wish to make that public. We will continue to press for both consular access, which is important, but also for Dr Yung and Cheng Lei to be reunited with their families.

Journalist: Your government campaigned on integrity. We saw last week the Attorney-General announcing abolishing the AAT because it had been too much stacked with mates. How does the appointment of Kevin Rudd gel with that rhetoric? And also, Foreign Minister, this will be the sixth China-Australia Dialogue. How quickly would you like to see the seventh happen?

Foreign Minister: I would like, obviously we would like, as part of the stabilising of the relationship, the architecture of the relationship to return to being more functional and operating better, whether it's under the China Free Trade Agreement, under our comprehensive strategic partnership, under this dialogue, we think that the architecture of the relationship should continue to operate and should return to become more operative. I think that would be in the interests of both parties. And if I may, at the risk of Prime Ministerial ire, I will make the point, I’ve appointed a great many career diplomats in the short time that I've been in this job, the government has. And I made clear when we made an announcement along with a whole range of appointments that were political appointments under the former government, being replaced with career diplomats, and I announced a number of those. I think it was in, actually, I don't remember when. It was a few trips ago. I also made clear that there would be occasions where we would be looking to former experienced political appointments, and this was one of the posts I identified. But I’d invite you to look at the list of people we've appointed since we've come to government.

Pime Minister: We have appointed now former Foreign Ministers to both the UK and the United States. It's no accident that we are engaged in AUKUS, and that those decisions require significant diplomatic, but also, of course, a knowledge of the political structures which are in place. Kevin Rudd is an entirely appropriate appointment to the US. Can I make the point about the AAT, the AAT has been abolished because it is dysfunctional. It is not getting decisions made and people are waiting for decisions about their social security, about their engagement with government, for considerable periods of time. It is a backlog which is costing money to the Commonwealth, but which is also costing pain and anguish for people who are dealing with the Commonwealth. The political appointments on the AAT number into the triple figures. If you were someone who had run for council in some part of Australia, or you were Vice-President of a local Liberal Party branch, you were eligible for appointment to the AAT. It is absurd, the lists and the appointments that were made to the AAT. My Government is appointing people on merit, whether it be former Prime Ministers and former Foreign Ministers, whether it be Heather Ridout, a former head of the Australian Industry Group, these are people of significance. I want the best people representing Australia, and today's announcements, whether it be career public servants or Kevin Rudd or Heather Ridout, they certainly fit that bill. Can I conclude by wishing everyone here, who I probably won't see in the next three days – although I might see some of you, there will be a press event tomorrow afternoon, but not here – a very Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year. And I thank you for your constructive engagement all year. All of you, each and every one of you, have been constructive at all times, and I thank you for that. Paul Karp expresses some cynicism at this, and he's still very hopeful with a polite hand in the air. I intend to continue to have my politeness incentive scheme in the way that we hold press conferences next year. I thank you for noticing, by the way, that I do give gender equality at these press conferences as well. It's taken a while for you to notice that that happens, but now that you've all noticed, maybe next year you can just bear that in mind as we flow through, and that the loudest bloke shouting at the front won't get the first question every time. Thanks very much and have a great Christmas.

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