Radio Interview with Sabra Lane - ABC AM - 27/06/2024

27 June 2024



Subjects: Julian Assange’s return to Australia; inflation; Senate urgency motion.

SABRA LANE, HOST: The Foreign Minister, Penny Wong, joined me earlier. Minister welcome to AM. When did you realise that years of diplomatic work had paid off and that Mr Assange was actually going to be released?

PENNY WONG, FOREIGN MINISTER: Well, as you know, Sabra, we've said for a very long time that Mr Assange's case had dragged on too long, and we've been engaging in deliberate and consistent advocacy to get results, and full credit to the Prime Minister, who's led this advocacy. The pathway to resolving this was the legal process, and that's what has occurred.

LANE: But was there a moment when you thought, "Ah, years of work here, this is happening"?

FOREIGN MINISTER: Well, obviously we had the plea in Saipan yesterday. As you would anticipate, that was a result of negotiations between the legal teams, and obviously we were kept appraised of those processes, and certainly Kevin Rudd and Stephen Smith respectively did a lot of work to ensure that occurred. There's been a long lead up for what occurred in the court yesterday.

LANE: Mr Assange will now seek a pardon from the US President. Does the Australian Government support that?

FOREIGN MINISTER: That's a matter for Mr Assange and his legal team. Our job was to advocate on behalf of an Australian citizen who we believed had been in this position for too long.

LANE: Freedom of the press advocates are worried now about the implications of the guilty verdict. How worried are you that it will chill press freedoms?

FOREIGN MINISTER: Look, there are a range of views about this matter, and about this case, and you've seen them reported today in the commentary. What I would say is regardless of those views, we were of the view that his case had dragged on too long, that nothing was to be served by his further incarceration, and that is why the Prime Minister, myself, the Attorney General and the Ambassador and High Commissioner, and all of the officials of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade were advocating for resolution.

LANE: No official view then on the prosecution being sending a chilling message to journalists?

FOREIGN MINISTER: Well, as I said there are a range of views about the facts of this matter. I'll leave those to others. What I will say is, as the Minister for Foreign Affairs, my view was my job was to advocate on behalf of an Australian citizen, and I've said for some time that the only pathway to resolve this was to have the legal process resolve that provided the pathway for his return home, and that is what has happened.

LANE: A number of Australians have now been freed since Labor came to office. There is one notable exception, Yang Hengjun in China. The Chinese Premier was recently in Australia. How hopeful are you that there will be a development in that case?

FOREIGN MINISTER: Look, persistent and deliberate advocacy, whether in Mr Assange's case or in the case of Ms Cheng Lei or Sean Turnell, this is the way we approach these matters. Dr Yang remains a priority for our Government. We continue to raise his case with the Chinese authorities at all appropriate levels, and we will continue to do so. It was obviously raised, as you know, when Premier Li was here as well. What I would say is today I am very pleased to see Mr Assange re united with his family in Australia, and I hope he can spend some time with his wife and children and his parents, it's obviously been a very long journey for him.

LANE: Simon Birmingham, your opposite, has said that Anthony Albanese should not have made that phone call to Julian Assange, and he's saying that this has damaged the US alliance, Australia's this has damaged our relationship with the United States.

FOREIGN MINISTER: That's not correct, and you know, disappointing that Simon would go to the alliance. He would know that our relationship with the United States is deep and strong, and that is why we were able to advocate in the way we did, and ultimately the pathway to resolving this, as I said many, many a couple of years ago had to be through the resolution of the legal process. We did come to the view, and as you know, I raised that with the United States at my level, the Prime Minister raised it at his level, the Attorney General raised it at his level, has heard our advocacy about this. Ultimately there was a decision that has been enabled through the resolution of the legal matters.

LANE: These diplomatic successes will fade from memory. Many voters are struggling right now with the high cost of living. Some argue that the Government's measures to address that are adding to the problem. The inflation reading yesterday means that an interest rate rise could well be on the cards in August. What do you say to Australians who are angry with the Government about this?

FOREIGN MINISTER: First, we understand how tough Australians are doing it. We know Australians have been doing it tough, that's why our budget did look to try and provide some cost of living relief. Obviously inflation is still higher than we would like, but monthly inflation is less than half its peak, and certainly much lower than we inherited when we came to government. But what we've got more to do. What we know is a number of measures, including tax cuts for every Australian, will start in just four days' time.

LANE: Your Senate colleague, Fatima Payman, crossed the floor earlier this week. For the first time in the party's 130 year history, a member has not been expelled for it. Why is there an exception in this case?

FOREIGN MINISTER: Well, the Prime Minister on this occasion has shown great restraint. We understand how difficult this has been for her. She has been directed not to attend Caucus, and we do expect all of our senators and members to abide by the decisions of Caucus.

LANE: It's 130 years of precedent. There were many people, as you would well know, during the same sex marriage debates that went on for years, that stuck to the Labor Party line even though they didn't want to. Again, there are many that are pretty angry about what's happened here.

FOREIGN MINISTER: Look, I understand why Caucus members are feeling upset. I mean there's a lot of personal commitments that we bring as members of the Labor Party, and there's members and Senators elected on the Labor ticket, a personal commitment to the collective. It's about our respect for one another, and our belief that the collective, we stand together, and that is why it's not just a matter of rules, it's a matter of what we believe. Even when we disagree, we have those arguments internally, as you saw over many years in the marriage equality debate. That's what I did, and I think that's the right way to go about it.

LANE: Penny Wong, thanks for joining AM this morning.

FOREIGN MINISTER: Good to speak with you.


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Authorised by Senator the Hon Penny Wong, Minister for Foreign Affairs, Australia.