Radio interview with Ben Fordham

  • Transcript (E&OE)
Subjects: Rights to “Tasmanian Devils” name; Crisis in Sudan; Evacuation flight to Cyprus; Australia’s trade relationship with China; Australians detained in China; Conduct of Australians in Indonesia.

Ben Fordham, Host: Pat reckons she's got a solution for the Tasmanian Devil problem, the problem being that Warner Bros. is saying the new AFL side in Tasmania can't call itself the Tasmanian Devils because Warner Bros. owns the rights to the Tasmanian Devils. You know who can sort all of this out - Penny Wong, the Foreign Minister, because Warner Bros. is an American company worth billions of dollars, so Penny Wong will have to sort this one out.

However, she may have other things on her plate at the moment, the Foreign Minister. She does have one of the toughest jobs in Canberra, dealing with China, top of the list; we know our relationship has been on the rocks for the past couple of years. Thankfully trade is back on track, I don't know how far back on track. We might be able to find that out from her, and at the same time China's keeping a close eye on us, because they're not keen on the nuclear submarine deal we did with the UK and the USA, so it's a balancing act, and Penny Wong's also dealing with this unfolding situation in Sudan. Rival military factions are at war in the African nation. 800,000 people may be forced to flee, and we've been on a mission to evacuate the Australians who want to get out, and Penny Wong, the Minister for Foreign Affairs, has made herself available to us this morning, and she's on the line.

Foreign Minister, thank you very much for joining us.

Penny Wong, Foreign Minister: Good to be with you, Ben, and I have to say, I think like most Australians, I was pretty shocked to realise that Tassie Devils was not a name that we had the rights over.

Fordham: So are you going to get involved? What, are you going to make representations to Joe Biden?

Foreign Minister: I don't know if the President's the person who can change what Warner Brothers does, but I think most Australians would think that, you know, Tasmanian Devil was something that we could use; it would be pretty surprising that an American company has the rights to it. But anyway.

Fordham: Well, there you go.

Foreign Minister: I don't know what we can do.

Fordham: I didn't think you'd weigh into that one, because you've got to be careful when you're Foreign Minister, don't you, because when you say something, unlike me, people actually pay attention to it.

Foreign Minister: Actually, people do pay attention to you, Ben, I think you're selling yourself short, but yeah, look, I think in this role is you speak for the country, don't you?That's the difference. It's not actually about me personally, you know, whoever's in this job, you know, we say something, and you're speaking as a representative of Australia. So it's a different sort of responsibility.

Fordham: You've got to choose your words carefully, particularly when talking to China. I'll get to China in a moment, but I'm keen to know about Sudan. There's been another rescue mission overnight. Boy, it looks bad.

Foreign Minister: Look, the situation is very volatile, and you know, as we can all see, the security situation is worsening; we obviously condemn the violence. We've been working very hard with partner countries. We obviously don't have an embassy there, so that's made things difficult, but we've had about 191 Australians who have now left Sudan, mainly through assistance from our friends in UK, Canada, France, Germany, Indonesia, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates. So, we've worked together to get people out.

As you said, overnight we did send in an RAAF plane to assist. That plane left Port Sudan and landed in Cyprus this morning at about 4:20 AM, I was pretty pleased to get the message they'd landed safely. About 36 Australians who came out as well as citizens from many other countries. There are still Australians in Sudan, and I would say to you, we will keep working, although the situation is even more volatile, and I would just urge everyone who, if they have not already, to make sure they register with DFAT.

Fordham: Are there some Australians who are there by choice; they don't want to leave?

Foreign Minister: Look, there are Australians ‑ well, it's very hard because I'm not on the ground, but I think there are some who either don't wish to or don't feel that they can, or haven't been able to. We're very conscious of that. And we have deployed additional staff to the region, although we don't have people in country, and people are communicating as best they can very regularly with the Australians who have registered.

Fordham: Let's have a chat about China. We know they are a traditional trading partner. We also have this other issue going on with our nuclear submarines. They hate our deal with the UK and the US. But you've got to try and get the balance right, because we make no apologies for the need for the nuclear submarines, but at the same time we want that trade back on track. How much of the trade is back?

Foreign Minister: Look, we came to government and we said, “Look, we want to try and stabilise the relationship with China.” I don't think we're going to go back to where it was 15 years ago, Ben. I think both countries are in a different place. China's changed since that time. But the way I've described it, cooperate where we can, disagree where we must, engage in the national interest. That's the way we've approached it, tried to speak calmly and consistently to them.

We put the view on the trade front. It's, you know, in the interests of both countries to have these impediments removed. So we're trying to go through a number of processes, you know, including through the World Trade Organisation and discussion with China to resolve these trade agreements. There's been some improvement since ‑ over this last year, particularly in the area of coal, but we still have particularly barley and wine as the next two sectors that we're really focused on.

Fordham: We also have a delicate situation with an Australian behind bars in Beijing, the journalist Cheng Lei, who's been in prison since August of 2020, a mother of two. I know that they accuse her of providing state secrets to foreign organisations. We say, simply not true, she was just there doing her job. I'll tell you what, she's been in custody for some time now.

Foreign Minister: Cheng Lei is approaching, I think, 1,000 days since detention this month, and I know I speak for all of us when I say our thoughts are with her and her loved ones, particularly her two children, and that Australians everywhere would be united in their call for a mother to be re‑united with her children, just as we continue to support Dr Hengjun, an Australian citizen who is also detained. We raise these cases and other consular cases with China at every opportunity at ministerial level.

Fordham: Have we asked China when a verdict will be handed down on some of these cases?

Foreign Minister: Regrettably in the Chinese system, the deferral of verdicts that you've seen in these cases is part of the process that you know, you often see. Obviously, it's a concern to us that still we don't see Ms Cheng Lei knowing what the verdict against her is. We'll continue to advocate, as I said, for her to be united with her kids.

Fordham: You've got those cases where we believe the Australians have done nothing wrong, but then you've got these other cases in the last week; two Aussies in trouble in Indonesia, one accused of spitting in the face of an Imam at a mosque; another one, a 23‑year‑old, accused of a drunken nudie‑run, and pushing someone off a motorcycle and they were severely injured. So that guy, Bodhi Risby‑Jones, is facing 5 years jail and 40 lashings. Is there anything we can do to help him, or is it a case of "Bad luck, you did the wrong thing overseas"?

Foreign Minister: Look, we provide, and we will provide consular support to Australians who seek it. Obviously it's difficult for me, given privacy reasons, to go into further detail, but I'd make the general proposition to encourage people to ensure that they are aware of the local legal framework, the standards and legal requirements that apply to them when they are in other countries and recognise that sometimes those laws and requirements differ to those in Australia, and whilst we can give you consular assistance in-country, where we can, we can't change the legal system of another country.

Fordham: And I suppose the message is, "Have fun, but behave yourself"?

Foreign Minister: Well, I think generally doing the right thing is a probably a good thing to do, isn't it?

Fordham: I'm sure you would have played up when you were going to Bali as a back‑packer back in the day?

Foreign Minister: Well, I'm from Malaysia, so actually, when I was younger I probably travelled more back home to see family, and I did go to Bali, but it was with the family; spent holidays in Indonesia with the family, so it was pretty staid.

Fordham: All right. Well, we look forward about hearing about your plans to fly to America to sort out the issue with the Tasmanian Devil. Thank you so much for joining us.

Foreign Minister: Good to speak with you, thanks.

Fordham: Penny Wong, the Foreign Minister on the line.

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