TV Interview with Bridget Brennan, ABC News Breakfast

  • Transcript E&OE
Subjects: Julian Assange’s return to Australia; Australia attending joint military exercises in Hawaii.

Bridget Brennan, Host: Well, as we've heard, Julian Assange is spending his first day as a free man in 14 years, arriving here in Canberra on Ngunnawal land last night to be greeted by his family and his supporters, his legal team as well.

We want to get reaction now from the Foreign Minister, Penny Wong. Good morning to the program.

Penny Wong, Foreign Minister: Good morning, good to be with you.

Brennan: What were your thoughts and feelings as you watched those images of Julian Assange coming off the plane, on to the tarmac here in Canberra?

Foreign Minister: Look, I was very pleased to see Mr Assange reunited with his family. We've been clear for some time that we believed this matter had dragged on for too long, that nothing would be served by his further incarceration.

There's been a strategy that's been deliberate and consistent led by the Prime Minister and I'm pleased that that has seen the plea bargain, which has enabled him to come back home to Australia.

Brennan: Penny Wong, can you take us to those deliberations and those negotiations over many months that led to the plea deal? What was involved in these diplomatic efforts?

Foreign Minister: Well, it has been years, not months, and there has obviously been a lot of engagement and advocacy from the Prime Minister, myself, and the Attorney‑General, also a lot of work to bring about this result from Kevin Rudd, our Ambassador in Washington, and Stephen Smith, the UK High Commissioner, alongside, you know, other officers in Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade.

So there's been a lot of work, and ultimately the pathway to this is, as I referenced for months, an arrangement or plea arrangement between the Department of Justice and Mr Assange's legal team.

Brennan: What involvement did the Biden Administration have in this deal, and how important were discussions between the Prime Minister and President Biden?

Foreign Minister: Oh, look, discussions between leaders always matter, and that's the advocacy. The pathway obviously was the decision by the Department of Justice and the decision by the Assange legal team to engage in negotiations which has resulted in the plea bargain. You might have heard me say previously, I referenced when I was asked about this matter, that I referenced the Chelsea Manning case, and that was only resolved after legal matters had concluded. It was always my view that legal matters had to be concluded in order for him to be brought home. I'm really pleased that this is the result of both that advocacy and those discussions between the Justice Department and Mr Assange's representatives.

Brennan: There are a lot of press freedom advocates this morning saying that this sets a chilling precedent, that Mr Assange, who many consider to be a journalist, had to plead guilty for disseminating information that many argue was in the public interest. Do you believe this does set a very serious precedent and potentially other journalists could be charged in this manner into the future?

Foreign Minister: Just a couple of points on that. First, there are a range of views about Mr Assange's activities. My view was, whatever your ‑ the assessment of them, there was ‑ that his case had dragged on too long, and as Australia's Foreign Minister, my job was to advocate for an Australian citizen. That's the view the Prime Minister took in his leading of that advocacy.

Obviously freedom of the press is a key principle of our democracy, as is the protection of national security information, and we have very clear laws in Australia to protect that information as it ought be.

Brennan: Sure. But for a lot of people this sets a precedent that journalists who may receive information, very serious information that in this case revealed allegations of involvement in the Iraq and Afghanistan war, involved allegations of serious war crimes that many believed to be in the public interest around the world for readers across the globe has now had to plead guilty to these charges.

Is this fair, that Mr Assange had to, in essence, plead guilty to charges that many believe weaken our press freedom, commitments and obligations?

Foreign Minister: Well, first in relation to Mr Assange, as I said to you, it was the plea arrangement which has enabled the legal proceedings to be concluded and him to be brought home.

Second, in relation to the principled issues that you describe, of course freedom of the press is important. What I would say is there are different views in the community and in politics about this case.

My view was, whatever your views about the specifics of this case, an Australian citizen was in a position where we needed to advocate for the matter to be resolved and for him to come home. That is what we did. Which had a very deliberate strategy about how to approach that, and I am pleased to see him re‑united with his family, and I thank all those involved in advocating for him, and I acknowledge the leadership of the Prime Minister in this.

Brennan: Penny Wong, on a separate issue this morning, Australia is joining joint military exercises with 30 other nations in Hawaii including the Israeli military. Many groups this morning, including Palestinian rights groups saying that Australia should be boycotting these exercises given Israel is taking part. What's your response to that?

Foreign Minister: We've been clear about our engagement with Israel, and certainly we've been clear about our views about the conflict. We've called for a humanitarian ceasefire, we've called for aid to be provided. The situation in Gaza is catastrophic.

In relation to a Defence engagement, we have not supplied weapons to Israel, certainly since the conflict began and for some five years before that.

What I would say about the conflict in Gaza is that the humanitarian situation, the loss of life is catastrophic, it is catastrophic, and we urge Israel and all parties, including Hamas, to accept the terms of the ceasefire arrangement that has been put on the table by the United States, and endorsed by the UN Security Council.

Brennan: Penny Wong, thanks for your time this morning on the program.

Foreign Minister: Good to speak with you.

Brennan: So Michael, some reaction there from Penny Wong, one of many people, many Australians watching those images last night as Julian Assange touched down here in Australia for the first time in a very long time.

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