National Wrap
Interview ABC News

National Wrap
Interview ABC News

18 November, 2018

Subjects: APEC, Israel Embassy, Manus Naval Base, Julian Assange



PATRICIA KARVELAS: Joining me first tonight is the Defence Industry Minister Steven Ciobo who was Trade Minister, before Scott Morrison became Prime Minister. Minister Welcome.

STEVEN CIOBO: Good to be with you Patricia.

PATRICIA KARVELAS: The APEC meeting in PNG has ended in disarray. US and Chinese officials couldn’t agree on trade, including WTO rule changes. Where does Australia line up here?

STEVEN CIOBO: Well we’ve seen this over the past several leadership meetings, to be honest Patricia. We’ve seen frankly a lot of argy bargy in particular around the language and the communicate on trade. This latest round is consistent with what’s happened over the past couple of years in my experience. From Australia’s perspective, we of course remain deeply committed to a multilateral approach on trade, to the functions of the WTO in particular, but by the same token, we recognise there should be scope for reform, but ultimately in the main, we continue to see a difference in opinion between the US and China and that won’t be a newsflash to anybody.

PATRICIA KARVELAS: But isn’t Australia going to be forced to take a side here, given the increasing acrimony between those two sides?

STEVEN CIOBO: No, not at all. Australia is proven for a long time now, Patricia that we are very pragmatic, we’re able to have Bonaparte, strong fair dealings with all countries. Look at the way in which we handle our relationship with China, the US, Japan, Korea, and this isn’t the first time we’ve seen tension between some or all of these countries. I think what they know about Australia is that were consistent, we’re clear and they know we are a bonafide friend and trading partner.

PATRICIA KARVELAS: Have we regained our position as the Pacific partner of choice?

STEVEN CIOBO: Well to whom are you referring, you’re just saying generally across the Pacific, Australia’s standing, I think remains as strong as it’s always been-

PATRICIA KARVELAS: Well not really, the Prime Minister himself said it was a mea culpa in his big speech a couple of weeks ago suggesting that you really had neglected the Pacific.

STEVEN CIOBO: Oh look, over the few several years Patricia we’ve put a lot of focus and emphasis on the Pacific. I speak from experience, I was previously albeit a number of years ago, Minister for International Development in the Pacific. I mean, part of what I did in that portfolio was the privilege of travelling around, to meet with our Pacific neighbours, and you know what I find terrific engagement, Australia and New Zealand in particular, the two of us I think have very strong people-to-people links, very deep roots and of course Australia is the major market, especially for most of the Pacific Island countries and those that participate in Pacific Island forums. So, we’ve put a lot of focus, a lot of work on the Pacific over the past four or five years, and that’s continuing today.

PATRICIA KARVELAS: This week there was a report that you told the Indonesian Trade Minister on moving the embassy in Israel, that issue, that the possibility is less than 5%. Is that still the possibility? 5%?

STEVEN CIOBO: Patricia, there won’t be any surprises for you to know you’re about the 500th journalist that’s asked me that question and I’ll the same thing to you that I said to the others, which is I’m not about to get into the business of talking about conversations that I’ve had with foreign ministers, nor am I going to get into the business of ruling things in or ruling things out. Let’s be clear about the decision in relation to the embassy, the only decision that’s been taken at this point in time is the decision to review where Australia’s embassy is. There’s a process to be worked through and the Prime Minister has made it clear that a decision will be taken in the near future.

PATRICIA KARVELAS:  Okay. So what is the possibility? There appears to be a hardening from some of your colleagues who want this to happen now.

STEVEN CIOBO: Well, I think it’s important that we actually have a proper review process. There are pros and cons like anything, nothing is black and white, there are arguments on both sides and I think it’s appropriate the process is worked through and that we make a decision that’s going to do several things. One, advance Australia’s national interest, two, make a positive contribution toward the Middle East Peace Process. Those are the two overarching considerations that ultimately, we need to look at.

PATRICIA KARVELAS: What do you think? What’s your own view?

STEVEN CIOBO: Oh, well, my own personal view is that I think that the current location of the embassy is the right location. I think that there’s been a strong period where that’s been the case, I think there are terrific arguments, and don’t get me wrong, my ambition, my absolute ambition would be to see Australia’s embassy in Jerusalem and likewise, I’d also like to see in time once Palestinian statehood is achieved for us to have an embassy in Jerusalem for the state of Palestine as well. But that clearly is still some time away, so we need to make sure that we continue engage in constructive, proactive way. I think the state of Israel knows Australia is a very strong supporter; certainly I’m a very strong supporter of the state of Israel. But we’ve got to make sure that we do these things, I think in lockstep with the rest of the world.

PATRICIA KARVELAS: Okay. So in that context is your main concern, and you did say it was a personal view to be clear, but is your main concern the economic risk of all of this?

STEVEN CIOBO: No, my main concern, as I said, is serving Australia’s national interest and the other consideration is of course making a positive contribution, as I said to the Middle East Peace Process. I’ve had the terrific privilege of having been to Israel and to Palestine on a number of occasions over the years, I’ve seen first-hand on both sides of the border the challenges that are involved, the considerations that they have. These are deeply complex matters that go to, in many respects almost a religious belief around what should be taking place. I’m not talking about the location of the embassy, I’m talking about issues like the border and the role for Israel and a role for Palestine etcetera. So I think it’s appropriate that very serious thought consideration is given to these types of decisions.

PATRICIA KARVELAS: And do you think the economic ramifications, for instance, the impact on a free trade deal with Indonesia should be one of the considerations too?

STEVEN CIOBO: Well I’m not sure, as the Prime Minister, others have said numerous times that the two issues are linked together so we’ve seen some commentary-

PATRICIA KARVELAS: But we know they’re linked as a Trade Minister said they were linked

STEVEN CIOBO: Well, as I said, certainly we’ve seen some commentary that would suggest that some parties are linking the two of them, but really what we need to do, as I said, served our national interests and make a decision that’s going to afford the best outcome for the Middle East peace process as well. Now irrespective of where you may sit in the discussion, Patricia, about, the state of Palestine and the state of Israel, what happens there, it’s very critical and I think that, it doesn’t matter where you sit in that debate, all parties want a peaceful resolution to those territorial disputes. All parties, I believe want a two-state solution that ultimately is going to be hopefully a long-term sustainable solution. So, we should all be working constructively toward that outcome.

PATRICIA KARVELAS: Does the re-developed naval base represent a pushback against Chinese ambitions in the region.

STEVEN CIOBO: Are you talking about in PNG? Or you are talking about –

PATRICIA KARVELAS: Yeah, the one that was announced over the last couple of days, that’s right.

STEVEN CIOBO: Well no, it doesn’t demonstrate that at all. What it demonstrates is the long term enduring relationship between Australia and PNG. To be honest Patricia, I think it’s a shame frankly and all too often, frankly, we see everything viewed through the prism of what does this mean for Australia-China relations. Let me be absolutely unequivocal about this, Australia has a terrific relationship with China. We are very strong trading partners, we’re friends and we can have different positions without that in some way being viewed as being tantamount to an erosion of the relationship. Now frankly, I think it’s wrong to characterise something in PNG as in any way being something to do with China. What it actually is about is Australia’s relationship with PNG. What it actually is about is making sure that we continue to engage with PNG and of course maintain a strong position in waters that immediately surround our country as I believe every Australia would expect us to do.

PATRICIA KARVELAS: Just finally, I know it’s an old story, but it’s really certainly being talked about very strongly tonight. Former Baywatch star, Pamela Anderson has written an open letter to the Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison, calling him smutty and lewd. Do you think his original comment in relation to her was inappropriate?

STEVEN CIOBO: No, I suspect it was a statement that was said in a light-hearted way and probably did reflect some comments that had been made to him. But you know look, on Julian Assange more broadly, I just think frankly, this fuss needs to end. I truly believe that Julian Assange needs to step forward and frankly be a big boy and face up to the various allegations that will be put to him. If he’s broken the law, then chances are that he will face the consequences that flow from that. If he hasn’t broken the law then he should have faith in the process because in the United States and Australia, in western democracies, we have the rule of law, there are plenty of opportunities for those to be reviewed, to be scrutinised, to be open to the public etcetera. And so I think that this, frankly, farce that has gone on now for so many years, needs to come to a conclusion.

PATRICIA KARVELAS: Minister, thank you so much for your time tonight.

STEVEN CIOBO: Good to speak to you Patricia.