08 September 2020
SENATOR PENNY WONG, SHADOW MINISTER FOR FOREIGN AFFAIRS: Thank you very much for coming.
Labor is relieved to see that the Australian journalists, Bill Birtles and Mike Smith have returned from China and we wish them and their partners well.
I want to make a few brief comments about it. I've just come from a briefing in relation to these events and I thank Foreign Minister Payne for facilitating that.
Obviously this is a highly disturbing set of events. I want to make a number of brief points about freedom of the press and the bilateral relationship.
The first point I'd make is that Australians believe that the right to freedom of expression, the right to freedom of opinion, and the right of the press to press freedom is a core Australian value.
We believe Australian journalists and journalists everywhere should be able to do their work safely without the risk of intimidation or arbitrary detention.
I would make the point that the Chinese Embassy's Deputy Head of Mission recently spoke at a very well publicised National Press Club address and he spoke about respect and a better mutual understanding.
What I would say to the Chinese authorities is we believe that the media play a vital role in fostering this understanding.
The developments, the return of these two journalists, mean that Australia is without an Australian organisation having representation in China for the first time since the 1970s.
We think that is unfortunate. We think that is deeply regrettable. It is certainly deeply regrettable that Australian news organisations have taken the step of returning their journalists from China and we hope that Australian media organisations will be able to have their people on the ground again, in China, soon.
I want to thank, on behalf of the Opposition, and I'm sure I speak for all Australians, in thanking Ambassador Graham Fletcher in China, the Consul-General Dominic Trindade, all the staff at DFAT in Australia and in China who were involved in facilitating the exit of these journalists after exit bans had initially been put in place.
I'd also make this point about the bilateral relationship; that the safety of, and the treatment of Australian citizens in China we regard as fundamental to the bilateral relationship and the actions of officials in relation to these journalists reflect that fact.
I'm happy to take questions.
JOURNALIST: Do China's actions warrant some form of diplomatic rebuke from the Australian Government?
WONG: Well, I think it is very fair that the Department of Foreign Affairs officials acted swiftly when exit bans were put in place.
I certainly think we should speak as one voice that press freedom is a fundamental democratic right. And it is a fundamental Australian right. And we should continue to make that position very clear internationally, including to the Chinese authorities.
JOURNALIST: So Australia shouldn't revoke the Chinese state-owned journalist visas from working here?
WONG: I think if we are consistent, our position is journalists should be able to undertake your work safely and freely. And that is an Australian principle to which we all hold dear.
JOURNALIST: Have you been alarmed by Beijing's conduct in the past couple of weeks?
WONG: I think it is alarming when you see exit bans placed on Australian journalists. And I think that the Foreign Affairs Department did the right thing in their conduct in ensuring their safe exit.
JOURNALIST: What will Australians miss out on not having journalists on the ground in China?
WONG: Well, as I said at the outset - and I think that is an important question - we have a complex relationship with China. We have a relationship with China where there are differences to navigate but we are very important economic partners.
We are very important to each other in terms of place in the region. And obviously China is a very important player globally.
We believe that respect and mutual understanding are important to navigating the challenges in the relationship. And I again say the media play a vital role in fostering that understanding.
JOURNALIST: Do you believe these journalists were targeted because they were Australian or something that they had written or reported on?
WONG: Look, I don't propose to speculate as to the reasons for the Chinese authorities placing an exit ban.
I would make this point to Australians; that the Smartraveller advice in respect of China was updated most recently in July. The travel advice to China now references the fact that authorities have detained foreigners because they are endangering national security and also warns of the risk of arbitrary detentions.
So I would refer Australians to that travel advice and I would also advise Australians who are in China to ensure that they are registered with Smartraveller.
JOURNALIST: Just on another matter, the developments in the Ann Marie Smith case. What do you make of Integrity Care not cooperating with the investigation?
WONG: Well, I haven't seen, I haven't been across much of the detail of that because obviously this has been the issue that's been occupying my attention.
I think that case is heartbreaking.
And if people are not cooperating, people need to ask themselves how they can justify that. How can it be possibly justified when somebody has been so inhumanely treated?
Thank you very much.
Authorised by Paul Erickson, ALP, Canberra.