SENATOR THE HON PENNY WONG
LEADER OF THE GOVERNMENT IN THE SENATE
MINISTER FOR FOREIGN AFFAIRS
Subjects: PNG Prime Minister Marape’s visit to Australia; Dr Yang Jun; Middle East conflict; United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees.
SARAH FERGUSON, HOST: Penny Wong, welcome to 7.30.
PENNY WONG, FOREIGN MINISTER: Good to be with you.
FERGUSON: We saw a very different scene to the one described there. Why has it taken so long to have a PNG Prime Minister address us?
FOREIGN MINISTER: Well, that's probably a question about our history, isn't it? But what I can say is, I thought that was a wonderful speech today, a really important moment for our nation as well as for Papua New Guinea. It was gracious and respectful, it taught us something about us, who we are. It taught us about Papua New Guinea and it taught us about our shared history. So, I thought it's a beginning of a different stage in our relationship and I was very humbled to be witness to it.
FERGUSON: Now, only a few months ago, we understand that PNG was reportedly considering an offer from the Chinese to assist with policing, I think is the phrase that was used. How would Australia respond to Chinese police running operations with our closest neighbour?
FOREIGN MINISTER: Well, the first point I'd make is that the Foreign Minister Justin Tkachenko has clarified those remarks. But more broadly, I think I said at the National Press Club last year, China will continue to be China and it's a great power. It will continue to assert its interests and utilise its power to press for those interests. And clearly it sees one of those interests as engaging in the security sector in the Pacific, including policing. We saw under the Morrison Government, the Solomon Islands arrangement, and we continue to see Chinese police in the Solomon Islands.
FERGUSON: But if -
FOREIGN MINISTER: Australia's position is that the stability of the Pacific is best served by these security needs being provided within the Pacific family.
FERGUSON: Let me talk some more about China. Dr. Yang Hengjun's suspended sentence was really a frightening development. Have you spoken to his family?
FOREIGN MINISTER: Not as yet. I obviously have previously and remain very willing to engage when they are ready, and I can imagine they are extremely distressed, as I said on the day, and that it was harrowing news.
FERGUSON: Were you blindsided by it?
FOREIGN MINISTER: Look, I think we made clear the verdict we thought was appalling. As the Prime Minister said, we were outraged and we will continue to advocate for that and be frank in our views about that sentence. And we will not forget Dr. Yang.
FERGUSON: Now, at the same time, I think the question is, what is this sentence trying to do? I mean, there's clearly been some reporting in China that there are harsher sentences, particularly within the apparatus of the Chinese security services. So, is this exceptionally hard sentence also about sending a message to people who would criticise the regime, or is it in any way targeted at Australia? Do you know any more about why it came about?
FOREIGN MINISTER: I don't think it's helpful to Dr. Yang, or necessarily for Australia's national interest, for the Foreign Minister to engage in those sorts of hypotheticals. What I would say is this - it's obviously a very different legal system. We in Australia have a view about the sentence. We think it is appalling and we have expressed that view very clearly. We will obviously continue to engage to support Dr. Yang, provide him with consular support, make representations about his condition and his medical treatment and so forth.
FERGUSON: You said it was harrowing. It's not language we're used to hearing from you.
FOREIGN MINISTER: Well, it was.
FERGUSON: It was harrowing.
FOREIGN MINISTER: I think so. I think we all know Australians have a view about the death penalty and to have an Australian subject to suspend a death penalty, I think people were shocked.
FERGUSON: Let me move on to the Middle East. Overnight, Israel has rejected Hamas' demand for a four and a half months ceasefire to accompany any potential hostage release. Did that decision by Israel surprise you?
FOREIGN MINISTER: Look, what I would say is the international community has made its view clear. I think 153 countries, including Australia, voted for immediate humanitarian ceasefire. We want the hostages returned. We want humanitarian aid in. We want civilian lives protected. So, I've seen what Tony Blinken has said. We have been supporting what they and others in the region, including the Qataris and other countries of the region, have been doing because we do need to see progress on both the release of the hostages and also aid being able to get in. We are deeply concerned about the loss of life and the diminishing safe space for Palestinians in Gaza.
FERGUSON: Let me ask you this. Does the US and its allies, obviously, including Australia, have any influence at all in how the Netanyahu Government is conducting this war?
FOREIGN MINISTER: Well, what I can do is to use Australia's respected voice to advocate for peace. So, we're not a major power, a great power in the Middle East. We're not a participant. We're not obviously, part of the Middle east. And what countries ultimately do or what various states or entities do is a matter for them. But we are a respected voice and we should use it to advocate that pathway to peace.
FERGUSON: Notwithstanding the genuine outrage that occurred over the Hamas massacres in October, is there any point at which the Australian government might consider sanctions against Israel for the conduct of the war?
FOREIGN MINISTER: Look, I wouldn't speculate on sanctions for any country. From the beginning, though, I have been consistent. You might recall the very first time I said anything about this, I called for restraint and protection of civilian lives. I was criticised for that by Mr. Dutton. But that should be Australia's consistent position. We accept as a matter of international law, Israel's right to defend itself.
FERGUSON: I think that's the question. Is there a line in your understanding of international law that Israel cannot cross in its pursuit of what it describes as total war?
FOREIGN MINISTER: Well, I would say that the international community has made its views crystal clear, including with the vote at the United Nations, that Australia, Canada and New Zealand were part of calling for an international humanitarian ceasefire.
FERGUSON: That's not the same thing as having a clear idea of where the line is -
FOREIGN MINISTER: I would say that the international community has made its position clear when Canada, Australia and New Zealand issued a joint statement speaking of how alarmed we are at the diminishing safe space for Palestinians, and again calling on Israel to ensure that it protects civilian lives.
FERGUSON: I think that question about the safe space is very important right now, and particularly given the phrase used by Netanyahu that is continuing with total war, when we know that that total war is currently focused on that area in the south where a very large number of people have moved. So, it is inevitable that we're going to see continued very high casualties if the war continues in that area.
FOREIGN MINISTER: Which is why we support and we urge there to be the negotiations that are required for an immediate humanitarian ceasefire and steps towards a sustainable ceasefire.
FERGUSON: Essentially, is the rest of the world powerless to protect Palestinian civilians?
FOREIGN MINISTER: Well, what I would say is, it is a dreadful, I've described it as a disastrous humanitarian crisis in Gaza. Ultimately, what we need to see brokered is a humanitarian ceasefire and we need a pathway to peace, which includes a pathway to a two state solution. One of the things I would say that struck me when I was in the Middle East in my recent visit was the truth of this, that there is no end to the conflict in the Middle East without a Palestinian state alongside an Israeli state.
FERGUSON: I want to move on to UNRWA. What is the evidence that you have cited about the involvement of UNRWA staff in the attacks?
FOREIGN MINISTER: I'll make two points. There are two, I think, irrefutable truths about UNRWA. The first is it is necessary to provide support and assistance to Palestinians in Gaza -
FERGUSON: And right now, I think UNRWA is saying that they can keep going in the current setup until the end of February.
FOREIGN MINISTER: There is not another organisation which can provide humanitarian assistance on the ground in the way UNRWA does. So, truth number one. Truth number two is that the allegations are serious and they can't simply be ignored.
FERGUSON: So, when you say they're serious, what are you basing that on?
FOREIGN MINISTER: Well, no, I'll come to that. They're serious and they can't be ignored. Now, we have spoken to the Israelis and we have asked for further evidence, but I think it is clear from UNRWA's own actions that they regard these allegations as serious. They have taken action including terminating the employment of a number of employees and putting in place an inquiry. In fact, there are two inquiries now. I have spoken in fact today to Mr. Lazzarini, Philippe Lazzarini, who's the head of UNRWA, and also to Sigrid Kaag, who's the UN Coordinator for Assistance.
FERGUSON: And what did Mr. Lazzarini tell you today?
FOREIGN MINISTER: Well, why I wanted to speak to them was because we do want to find a way through.
FERGUSON: But I just want to stay with the basis for your decision. You spoke to him today. Are you now in possession of all the information you need to underpin your position?
FOREIGN MINISTER: No, we've sought it, but the allegations are serious enough and UNRWA has recognised that by its own actions.
FERGUSON: Indeed, those allegations have now been in the world for a number of days. And you took a very serious decision along with other countries to suspend our aid –
FOREIGN MINISTER: No, hang on. Let's be careful. Be careful. We have already doubled -
FERGUSON: Yes, but you suspended the additional aid -
FOREIGN MINISTER: No, let me finish. No, because I know that some wish to, I've seen some of the misinformation that's been put out by some of some other politicians. We doubled the operating assistance to UNRWA. Okay. And that was already provided. I announced six million for, I suppose, the flash appeal. Subsequently we saw these allegations. I, along with other countries, made a decision, and it is a decision I made to pause that because the allegations were serious and because UNRWA itself recognised that those allegations were serious.
FERGUSON: If I may, I just want to come back to the point I'm making, which is that decision was made a number of days ago. We know there are reports now -
FOREIGN MINISTER: And we have sought further information from the Israelis.
FERGUSON: So, is that good enough? We are days past that information being raised. We're now seeing reports, including from the UK overnight, that the information contained in the dossier that was provided by the Israelis is flimsy. What is it that you know that makes you confident that you made the right decision?
FOREIGN MINISTER: Because UNRWA itself acknowledged that those allegations were serious. And I think it is incumbent upon me as Australia's Foreign Minister to ensure that every dollar of aid that we provide is being used for the appropriate purposes. But if the Israelis, I haven't seen all of the British reporting that you describe and there's a lot of reporting, but if the Israelis, the Israelis can answer about questions about their evidence. It's not my evidence that -
FERGUSON: But when you spoke to Lazzarini today, presumably he's in full possession of the information that was made available, did you ask him for it?
FOREIGN MINISTER: Well, we've asked the Israelis for it.
FERGUSON: Did you ask Mr. Lazzarini?
FOREIGN MINISTER: He and I are focused on, my conversation with him focused on how we work through these issues so that confidence can be restored, not just for Australia.
FERGUSON: I understand. I understand that that's important, I understand that's very important but -
FOREIGN MINISTER: Let me finish. That's actually what's important to people on the ground, is how do we restore confidence so, Australia, Canada, Japan and others are in a position to provide further funding to UNRWA. That is what matters.
FERGUSON: In a moment, we'll come quickly to the question of the restoration of the funding. But I just want to stay with my question, which is, you spoke to the head of UNRWA today. He has already initiated an internal review. He has the information. Why wouldn't you ask him for it?
FOREIGN MINISTER: Well, we have asked the Israelis for it.
FERGUSON: But you spoke to the head of UNRWA, he has it.
FOREIGN MINISTER: He may, I don't know what he has.
FERGUSON: He made the decision -
FOREIGN MINISTER: Well, what he and I have discussed was the two processes that he's undertaken, and we will stay in close contact with UNRWA about those processes.
FERGUSON: Then to conclude on this, I want to ask you a question about that, because UNRWA have said in the last few days, I think, that they have enough funding to last until the end of February or the beginning of March. The funding that's been suspended amounts to half of their entire funding. Which brings me back to the question; they're facing a very serious situation and you're not in full possession of the facts?
FOREIGN MINISTER: Well, no, we're not. But what I would say is the primary concern is making sure that other donors, particularly those who have not provided their next round of operational funding, core funding, that that confidence can be attained before the end of the month.
FERGUSON: So, are you going to wait for the two investigations?
FOREIGN MINISTER: We have already provided that funding previously, so there are other donors whose next round of operational funding is required. And so it's in UNRWA's interest for there to be sufficient confidence for those decisions to be made.
FERGUSON: Penny Wong, thank you very much indeed for joining us.
FOREIGN MINISTER: Good to speak with you.
Foreign Minister's Office: +61 2 6277 7500
Authorised by Senator the Hon Penny Wong, Minister for Foreign Affairs, Australia.