Australia's Minister for Trade Simon Birmingham and Prime Minister Scott Morrison at a press conference during the 2018 ASEAN Summit in Singapore, Wednesday, November 14, 2018. (AAP Image/Mick Tsikas)

Doorstop, ASEAN Conference Singapore

14 Nov 2018
Prime Minister
ASEAN; Pacific cooperation; Quadrilateral Security Dialogue; Indonesia Free Trade Agreement; Australia’s embassy in Israel; South China Sea; Sugar tariffs; US-China trade; Bunnings; Luke Cook

Photo: AAP Image/Mick Tsikas

PRIME MINISTER: Well it’s great to be here with Minister Birmingham and it been great to be here in Singapore at my first ASEAN Summit and first of all, to be able to have a very friendly and respectful meeting this morning with President Widodo and his colleagues. But also to attend the breakfast session here which was the ASEAN-Australia Breakfast Forum. Australia has been part of this forum for 44 years in terms of our relationship with ASEAN, and that we were the first partner and we are still here today. And Australia, whether it is students studying in Australia, the trade that has taken place, that the people-to-people relationships, our partnership with ASEAN as a whole as our second largest trading partner, as a group, and this has always been an incredibly important part of our world and part of our external outlook. So that has been a good opportunity to exchange views and there's been a lot of appreciation for the work that Australia is doing today, that we're planning to do. But the work that is being done over generations and Prime Minister Mahathir in particular, was raising the issue of the great relationship on education that Australia has always had with Malaysia. And there's also great support for the New Colombo Plan as well with Australians going and studying in parts of the ASEAN nations right across the region. So, many positive points in terms of the relationship.

But looking forward, a lot of focus on whether it's the trade liberalisation agenda that we've always been a champion of, but in addition to that, the strong and close work we're doing in terms of counter-terrorism and human trafficking. The important work we're doing about the economic improvement for women across the region received a very good reception and, of course, maintaining I think those day-to-day, people-to-people links. So a positive morning but happy for Simon and I to take questions.

JOURNALIST: Can I ask you a question about China and just a point to the end of this week. You've announced the Pacific pivot and the intention is to help the Pacific Islands. The Chinese made a fairly strong statement yesterday about that area is not the sphere of influence for any one country and they said that no country can block China's cooperation with these nations. Do you feel that there's a sense of competitiveness now there with China and these nations could become subject of a bidding war?

PRIME MINISTER: No, I don’t believe so, and that's certainly not the spirit of which we've entered into this new initiative. We are engaging with our Pacific family. And I'll be meeting with Prime Minister Ardern later today, and this will be a key topic of our discussion. Both New Zealand and Australia have always been engaging with our Pacific family and we're taking that just to a whole new level. And we're not doing that to the exclusion of others. In fact, when I made the announcement last week and in my previous presentation to the Asia Society, I talked about working with a whole range of different nations within the region to advance the prosperity and stability of the Pacific. Here, a key topic of discussion has been the Indo-Pacific connectedness and for sovereign independent nations that band together within ASEAN can also band together to be connected outside the ASEAN family as well to ensure that there's freedom of navigation, overflight and the continued rules-based order of the multilateral trade. This is the connectedness that President Widodo talks about, which we are very strongly supportive of, and I was able to relay our strong support for his leadership in that area this morning.

JOURNALIST: What are your hopes for the Quad and what do you think that the Quad can do?

PRIME MINISTER: Well it remains an important sort of architecture in the region for us and the interoperability, the connectedness on our operations and the things we do, both in the economic and the strategic side, will remain important to our engagement with the region. So that’s what I think.

JOURNALIST: Prime Minister, what detail were you able to give President Widodo on the process for determining whether we'll change the site of our Israel embassy? And did he give you an indication that he was likely to proceed with any other deal, trade deal perhaps, until that issue had been resolved by Australia?

PRIME MINISTER: Well let me make a couple of points. The first point is that as always, it was a friendly and respectful conversation. We have a long standing relationship with Indonesia and we have a Comprehensive Strategic Partnership which goes well into the future. And that means that from time to time, when issues arise, you're able to take about them openly and honestly and in a friendly way.

The second point would be this. And that is - these issues were not related in terms of whether Australia's position on the foreign policy matter you've referred to and issues of our trade. These were not raised in connection. We discussed both of those issues. On the issue of the trade agreement, there was an absolute understanding of the great opportunities that this presents for both countries. The final text of that is still being brushed, so that's not in a position to be signed at this point. And we discussed that we'll be looking for an opportunity to do that and that's a matter still to be determined.

On the question of the Government's position on the issue that I raised some months ago in relation to Israel, I was able to talk through the Government's process on how we're seeking to resolve that and to come to a position. I'm intending to do that over the next little while and I was able to take and step them through some of the key principles that have always been important to us in addressing this issue. And the first of those is that Australia and I and my Government is motivated by wanting to see progress towards a two-state solution. Whatever perspective you have on the issue, there is I think widespread frustration at what is occurring and the frustration about getting progress in this area. And we all want to see progress. We all want to see progress on this. So that is what motivates us. Our support for a two-state solution is unquestioned and we're absolutely committed to that. And Australia has a long history of respecting Security Council resolutions, and I restated that that remains our position. So I think I was able to give some greater clarity on the role that we're playing there and the time frame for that and I know that was well received.

JOURNALIST: What is the time frame?

PRIME MINISTER: We'll be dealing with it over the next little while.

JOURNALIST: Prime Minister, you said that the Indonesians said that they weren’t conflating the two issues in your meeting today. However, publicly, they have linked the two issues. Why do you think they’re saying this publicly...

PRIME MINISTER: I'm just saying they weren't raised in that context this morning.

JOURNALIST: Can you define a ‘little while’ for us, Prime Minister?

PRIME MINISTER: It's a little and a while.

JOURNALIST: Before Christmas?

PRIME MINISTER: Look, that's our intention.

JOURNALIST: Did the President ask why you want to move the embassy? And did you explain Australia's motivation for that, and did he explain that there might be any consequences if that was to happen?

PRIME MINISTER: We had a respectful and friendly discussion about the issue, and as I said, we're both motivated by wanting to see a two-state solution. And for those who have been around this issue a long time, there's a lot of frustration about the progress towards that, and we want to see that happen. And that's what's motivating me. That's what's motivating our Government's consideration of the issue and that's what will be informing the process.

JOURNALIST: Did he explain what his opposition was?

PRIME MINISTER: Well we discusses the issue.

JOURNALIST: Did he ask for any assurances that the embassy move wouldn’t go ahead?

PRIME MINISTER: Again, we discussed the issue and the two issues were not linked in any way, shape or form in our discussions.

JOURNALIST: Prime Minister, did you endorse these comments from Eric Abetz today who says, “If Indonesia really wants to dictate Australian foreign policy on the Middle East, should we rethink the $360 million each year we give them in aid.” Is that helpful?

PRIME MINISTER: Australia has been always there for Indonesia. And that is respected and appreciated by Indonesia. And today, we talked about... I was following up on how things were in Sulawesi. There was also the recent air disaster. We have always been there to support Indonesia's development and to be there for them in times of great crisis and distress. And that's our way. That's what we do. Indonesia doing well economically, Indonesia doing well, Indonesia doing well strategically, is good for Australia and that's why we do it. We do it because it's good for our national interest to support Indonesia's advancement. We've seen them come ahead in leaps and bounds, I think particularly under President Widodo.

So they understand full well our commitment as part of our Comprehensive Strategic Partnership to continue to pursue those objectives. Working together, they'll be stronger, we'll be stronger and that's what is guiding our decisions.

JOURNALIST: The US has asked China to pull it’s missiles from the disputed territory in the Spratly Islands, do you agree with that? Should China pull back those missiles?

PRIME MINISTER: When it comes to disputing claims in the South China Sea, as I said the other day, we're not taking sides on that issue. But we continue to express our position when it comes to the freedom of navigation and movement through that part of the world as well as overflight, our position hasn't changed on that. We will continue to be consistent.

JOURNALIST: Prime Minister on you Pacific speech in Townsville you spoke about not taking our relationship with our Pacific neighbours for granted and you said that you felt that too often we had. Can you maybe elaborate on how you feel that relationship could have been better in recent years and why?

PRIME MINISTER: No, I think that I said it out well in the speech, I don’t feel the need to go much beyond what I said there. But I meant it and it's not just about what we're doing - which is significant, I should stress across multiple layers, whether it's in the cultural space, people-to-people space, strategic, capability, economic development - it's a comprehensive package we've put together to lift our engagement in the Pacific region and improve the connectedness that exists. It's being done very much in its own right, because as part of a Pacific family, we have responsibilities. Again, it's like while obviously, the nations are quite different in scale and complexity, the Pacific doing well is good for Australia. Of course it's good for Australia. But it's about more than just providing development aid. It's about being there and it being a real priority for Australia.

What I'm seeking to do in pursuing this initiative is to highlight the priority of sending our best and brightest into that region, ensuring that we're represented in every single PIF country throughout the region. This is a very serious long-term commitment from Australia, which I think lives up to both our responsibilities and I think what are reasonable expectations from our family members.

JOURNALIST: Can I ask about India?


JOURNALIST: You're going to be meeting with Narendra Modi, will you be talking about the sugar tariff issues that some of the Nationals MPs are concerned about?

PRIME MINISTER: Look, Simon might want to comment on this as well and I mean that's obviously an issue of concern to Australia. We have a very good relationship with India and we're seeking to resolve those issues I think, within the framework of that relationship. There are obviously other paths open to us, but we're seeking to that I think in a cooperative way. Yes, it does have some pretty serious implications for our sugar farmers and so, it is a matter that's high on my list. But more broadly, in this forum, in the same way we're here in a plus capacity here at ASEAN, so are India. Now, India are very critical to the Indo-Pacific connectedness initiative that Indonesia has been leading. So I’d be also, importantly, encouraging India to be continually connected to what is happening with ASEAN countries. We would see ourselves as fellow travellers in pursuing that. But Simon, did you want to comment on that?

MINISTER FOR TRADE, TOURISM AND INVESTMENT: Sure PM. As is well known, I have raised Australia's concerns with India's trade distorting subsidies in relation to sugar with India's Trade Minister on multiple occasions, as indeed has our High Commissioner to India, made sure that they understand the strength of our concerns, that we are looking at and have been looking at options to engage through the World Trade Organisation to seek to have these matters resolved.

Our farmers, our sugar farmers deserve to be able to compete fairly on the global market without seeing sugar prices distorted through other trade subsidies. We'll continue to make honest and fair representations there. But as the Prime Minister said, our relationship with India, economically, strategically, is far richer, far stronger, than one single issue. We'll continue to pursue the many, many positives and we of course look forward to welcoming the Indian President to Australia shortly.

JOURNALIST: Prime Minister just on US-China tensions, do you agree with the Malaysian Prime Minister that those tensions risk triggering a “domino effect and protectionism measures” in the region?

PRIME MINISTER: Well, I made some comments on this before coming up here. I think what we have to try to seek to ascertain is; what is the end goal here? What are we all trying to achieve? I choose to take the view that what we're all trying to achieve here - including the United States, and I think that that is exemplified by the fact that they are able to come to those agreements particularly with Canada and Mexico after there was much commentary before that about the atmospherics - at the end of the day, the outcome that was achieved was, further trade.

So I believe that that is what the ultimate objective is here and that's a view I've been articulating for some time, previously as Treasurer and now as Prime Minister. That we need to ensure that we keep a focus on what the end outcome here is that we're all seeking and I believe that that is what the United States are seeking to achieve.

Now, there are a whole range of issues thrown up in the course of that and of course, their approach has been described as unorthodox and unconventional. That's not an unreasonable description. But you know, they have the sovereign right to be able to pursue those objectives, like any other country. I was speaking at the forum this morning and the countries throughout ASEAN and beyond, whether it’s India or ourselves or New Zealand, we're independent sovereign country, but seeking to work closely together and be connected. That means that we share interests, we work together where we can actually move issues forward and it was encouraged this morning that ASEAN leaders were asking for even more areas where we could be working on. I think that that is great and in the education area, that is one where they're very welcoming. We’ve seen Australian universities being established, Prime Minister Mahathir particularly made that point. But we also had the same points coming from Laos and obviously one of key parts of the agreement with Indonesia is actually seeing more of that investment going into Indonesia. Indonesian President Widodo was very keen to talk to me about wanting to see more Australian investment in Indonesia and obviously, that's what the agreement is about.

JOURNALIST: Now that you've revealed that the timetable is “a short while” for the review, can you tell us who is conducting this review?

PRIME MINISTER: Well, it's being done internally within the government and there will be consultation that's conducted by those conducting it and that will go through the process of the National Security Committee and Cabinet. So that will be done through a Cabinet process and that is quite usual.

JOURNALIST: [Inaudible] do you still plan to raise that issue with other world leaders?

PRIME MINISTER: It already has been.

JOURNALIST: But others, apart from Indonesia.

PRIME MINISTER: Well, I would take the opportunity where I think there are parties that would have a particular interest in this topic, I’ll be sounding them out.

JOURNALIST: Can there be more details revealed about, like a specific [inaudible] review rather than [inaudible]? I don’t know if there’s –

PRIME MINISTER: Because it’s an internal process which is being done within Government and in any matter that comes before Cabinet, not all of those processes follow external review, external consultation. I mean there will be consultation, there’s consultation done on pretty much every submission that comes to Cabinet. What I'm talking about is a process that mirrors that.

JOURNALIST: [Inaudible] do expect it to come up in your conversation with Mahathir?

PRIME MINISTER: We had, I quite enjoyed meeting him this morning. I mean he is a legend of the region, an absolute legend of the region and it was quite a special moment to meet him in person. So I am looking forward to the discussion over the course of the next… I am seeing him tomorrow I understand. So I look forward to how we’ll take forward the many issues we are working on.

JOURNALIST: I’ll just ask you on sausages at Bunnings –


JOURNALIST: Sausages at Bunnings. I know it’s a trivial issue by comparison, but it’s snagged some interest back home. Bunnings has now dictated that onion must be served underneath a sausage because it poses a threat to people slipping over. The question; is it un-Australian? Will you accept that, or is it just a ridiculous sort of…

PRIME MINISTER: Whether the onions are on top or underneath, I’ll always be buying sausages on bread. Whether it’s at the football, whether it’s at Bunnings or anywhere I can assist with those great charitable causes. Can I particularly say that those who are cooking them out there every weekend, supporting their local teams and charities and all the rest of it, how good are you! People of all ages do this, it’s part of our Australian life that we support our local community organisations. So it’s part of what we do and frankly I’m not going to give them any recipe hints.

JOURNALIST: PM can I just ask one about an Australian man that’s in strife abroad, a Perth man Luke Cook appears to have been sentenced to death in Bangkok of drug charges. What is the Australian Government doing, if anything, to help him? What is your message to others that perhaps may take actions that find themselves in a similar predicament?

PRIME MINISTER: Well first of all I’d say this; it would clearly be a very distressing time for him and his family and friends. I would also say that Australia's position on the death penalty is well known. We don’t do it and we don’t support it.

As is the case with any Australian citizen who find themselves in this situation, they will get the full consular support you would expect them to receive. That will be being provided even as we speak.

But I would also say this; when Australians travel - and we love to, we go far and wide - we need to remember that when you are travelling overseas, you are travelling in their country, as their guest, according to their rules and laws. There is no special protection afforded to you when you enter another country. You need to be very mindful with that. So this is sadly a rather distressing reminder of that fact. So we will do what we do for every Australian in this situation, but I would urge, particularly as we’re going into the summer period and people will be travelling, as a Member of Parliament and as a Senator, Simon would know, it’s not uncommon for us to get those calls in early January with a constituent who has found themselves in a spot of bother.

My plea to you is, respect the countries you’re going to. Respect their laws and respect their rules and behave accordingly and have a good time and have a safe time. Okay, thanks very much.