Prime Minister Scott Morrison speaks to the media alongside Minister for Foreign Affairs Marise Payne during a press conference at a press conference at Parliament House in Canberra, Tuesday, October 16, 2018.  (AAP Image/Mick Tsikas)

Press Conference with the Minister for Foreign Affairs

Transcript
16 Oct 2018
Prime Minister, Minister for Foreign Affairs
E&OE

Photo: AAP Image/Mick Tsikas

PRIME MINISTER: Congratulations to the Duke and Duchess of Sussex. Tremendous news yesterday overnight and obviously we are looking forward to celebrating that good news while they are enjoying their stay here in Australia. They will be neighbours of Jenny and I, for the next week or so I'm sure we will take the opportunity to congratulate them both in person.

But today, on a more serious note, I wanted to make a number of statements with the Foreign Minister in relation to our Government's position on Israel and issues in the Middle East. Now, the first thing I want to stress very strongly is the Government's commitment to a two-state solution in the Middle East remains, has always been and I believe always will be Australia's policy in relation to the resolution of issues with Israel and Palestine. We are committed to a two-state solution and nothing has changed when it comes to the Government's position on this matter.

In dealing with the matters though that are coming up this week in the United Nations General Assembly and particular in relation to the vote that will be held on Wednesday morning regarding concessions and conference of official status on the Palestinian Authority to chair the G77, this is a significant vote. Our Government will be voting against that resolution. We won't be abstaining. We will be voting against that resolution because we don't believe that conferring that status, especially at this time, would add to the cause of moving parties towards the two-state solution. This is our objective. This is what we're seeking to achieve. In the context of that decision, as a new Prime Minister, I believed it was important to ensure that Australians and others had a much clearer picture of my broader position on these issues that are raised in relation to the Middle East and the many particular points of policy that relate.

First of all, there is the issue regarding the Iran nuclear deal and the joint comprehensive plan of action that has been in place and that Australia has voiced support for over the last three years. There are also issues that go to the question of the capital which come up quite regularly in these discussions around policy relating to Israel. There is also a long-standing and improving greatly defence relationship with our ally in Israel and the defence industry cooperation that has only been improving, particularly in more recent years as Australia has significantly recapitalised our defence forces. So taking each of those issues in turn, we share serious concerns about potentially destabilising behaviour in the Middle East when it comes to the activities of Iran and the Government has taken the decision to review, and I should stress without prejudice, review without prejudice, the Iran nuclear agreement, the JCPOA, to determine whether our current policy settings remain fit for purpose. Now this review will include an assessment of the IAEA and other agencies’ advice on Iran's compliance with the agreement and on whether the JCPOA can meet our long-term objective of preventing Iran from having the capability to develop nuclear weapons. Now, there are matters that currently exist outside that arrangement which have been noted and we need to be working with our other allies including the United States to determine how we can best address those other issues outside that agreement regarding terrorism and matters of that nature and how they're financed and sponsored and these things need to be brought into that discussion and we think that's very important to resolution of issues and creating a safer and more peaceful Middle East.

In relation to defence engagement with Israel, I spoke to the Israeli Prime Minister last night and proposed that we appoint defence attaches in each of our embassies of Australia in Tel Aviv and of course Israel in Canberra and that will only further enhance the cooperation on defence matters and security matters, but also on the defence industry collaboration. Now, in relation to our diplomatic presence in Israel. What I have simply said is this - we're committed to a two-state solution. Australia's position on this issue has to date assumed that it is not possible to consider the question of the recognition of Israel's capital in Jerusalem and that be consistent with pursuing a two-state solution.

Now, Dave Sharma, who was the Ambassador to Israel, has proposed some months ago a way forward that challenges that thinking and it says that you can achieve both and indeed by pursuing both, you are actually aiding the cause for a two state solution. Now, when people say sensible things, I think it is important to listen to them. And particularly, when they have the experience of someone like Dave Sharma. We are committed to a two-state solution, but frankly, it hasn't been going that well. Not a lot of progress has been made. And you don't keep doing the same thing and expect different results. And so when sensible suggestions are put forward that are consistent with your policy positioning, and in this case pursuing a two state solution, Australia should be open-minded to this and I am open-minded to this and our Government is open-minded to this. The proposal that Dave spoke about in his article back in May provided the opportunity for a capital for a Palestinian Authority in East Jerusalem and one for Israel in West Jerusalem. The whole point of a two-state solution is two nations recognised living side by side. And so, opening up that discussion does provide us with the opportunity, I think, to do what Australians have always done and that is to apply a practical and common-sense and innovative role in trying to work with partners around the world to aid our broader objectives, in this case a two-state solution.

So Australia and I as Prime Minister, am open to that suggestion. What I'll do in the months ahead is obviously confer with Cabinet colleagues. I will obviously take the opportunity during the upcoming summit season to confer with other leaders around the world and gauge their perception about this and to make the case that Dave himself has made about whether this can actually provide an alternative way forward and aid the cause that I believe all of us are interested in pursuing. So, no decision has been made in regarding the recognition of a capital or the movement of an embassy, and I should be clear – those two things, they are the two issues. You can recognise a capital, the issue of the real estate and your embassy is a separate one and as Dave argues in his article, those things can be dealt with sequentially. But at the same time, what we are simply doing is being open to that suggestion as a potential way forward and I'm not going to close my mind off to things that can actually be done better and differently to aid the great cause of Australian foreign policy and that's all we have said today. We're open to that discussion and I look forward to pursuing that with people and colleagues and leaders around the world.

So I'm happy to take questions as is Marise. Obviously we have been in the process over the last 24 hours of informing and briefing allies and partners and that process will continue.

JOURNALIST: Prime Minister, Dave Sharma wrote his article in May. As recently as June you were emphatic about not moving the embassy. Is this decision motivated by Wentworth or keeping the conservatives in your party happy, or both?

PRIME MINISTER: It is not motivated by either. It’s motivated by a commitment to a two-state solution, and listening to practical suggestions about how we can achieve it. In June I articulated the Government's policy. I was the Treasurer. The Treasurer is not responsible for matters of Foreign Affairs. It is my job to articulate and speak to Government policy as it existed at the time.

JOURNALIST: Is it the government's position to support the “It’s Ok to be white” motion?

PRIME MINISTER: Why don't we stay with Israel and Foreign Affairs for a while and I'll come back to that.

JOURNALIST: Prime Minister, one of the biggest supporters of Donald Trump's move to move the embassy to Jerusalem was American evangelical Christians. Do you believe as a Christian that the restoration of the Jewish temple in Israel… in Jerusalem, is a precondition to the return of Jesus?

PRIME MINISTER: My faith and my religion has nothing to do with this decision.

JOURNALIST: Nothing at all?

PRIME MINISTER: None.

JOURNALIST: I have a question for the Foreign Minister actually, because I think if you have been talking to neighbours and other national leaders or other foreign policy ministers, can I ask what would the reaction be from Israel be… sorry, from Indonesia be to this move? Wouldn't Indonesia object to this position by Australia?

MINISTER FOR FOREIGN AFFAIRS, THE HON. MARISE PAYNE: Well, the Prime Minister can speak to his engagement with President Widodo, but we have obviously briefed the Indonesian ambassador here in Australia and communicated through our embassy in Jakarta with the Indonesian Foreign Minister and we'll continue those conversations.

JOURNALIST: Are they happy with it?

MINISTER FOR FOREIGN AFFAIRS, THE HON. MARISE PAYNE: I think it's a conversation that we're having. We have to explain and we are doing that this morning with the release of a press statement and this press conference this morning and we will continue those conversations.

PRIME MINISTER: And the key point I made in my connection with President Widodo, is that the Australian Government has not changed its policy on a two-state solution. The Australian Government has not made a decision to actually recognise Jerusalem as the capital or to shift our embassy. We have not made a decision to change our policy when it comes to it the Iran nuclear deal. All we have said is that consistent with our commitment to a two-state solution, we are A) reviewing without prejudice the Iran nuclear deal and we are open to the arguments that have been made by our former ambassador to Israel about how we could progress that issue in the context of the two-state solution. So the nuances of this, the calibration of this, is what we are doing.

I also want to make this point - Australia, our Government, I have made this decision without any reference to the United States. It has not come up in any discussion I have had with the President or with officials. Marise has just recently been in the US. There has been no request and there has been no discussion with the United States. Australia makes its decisions about its foreign policy independently. We do so in our own national interests, consistent with our own beliefs and our own values.

JOURNALIST: Given the fact that there has been no discussion or no request from the United States and other allies, doesn't that only add to people who are questioning the timing of this announcement given that it is just a few days before a by-election which our former ambassador to Israel is running behind in?

PRIME MINISTER: Well, I think the point you overlook is that Australia has no control over when votes are scheduled in the United Nations General Assembly. There is a vote tomorrow morning, on Wednesday. Australia will be voting no. Now, that is a significant decision and in my view as a new Prime Minister of only just over seven weeks, that would raise questions about where do I stand on a range of other issues? And I thought it was important that that context be provided straight away. Look, I'm being up-front with Australians. I’m being upfront with leaders and others around the world. This is our thinking on this issue. We think after three years of the Iran nuclear deal, it is timely to have a good look and see whether it is meeting our objectives. Is it adding to greater stability or is it not? I think they are fair questions and I think if we're going to say internally that we're going to look at this question again that we should say publicly that we're doing that. Equally, on the question of the recognition of Jerusalem as the capital, I do find those arguments persuasive that Dave has put forward, but are they achievable, can they be taken through? Is there a consultation process that we now need to follow, particularly with regional leaders and other leaders? Of course, there is. But I am signalling that I think it is a conversation worth having. A discussion is not a decision, but I think I'm being up-front with people. I'm being very clear about what my dispositions are and how I'm forming these decisions and that's how I want to deal with the Australian people and others. I think people know where I stand and I think that can be a great comfort when people know where their Prime Minister stands on these sorts of questions.

JOURNALIST: So the fact that Wentworth has a large Jewish community has not been a factor of your thinking at all?

PRIME MINISTER: No. I have obviously over the last seven weeks had a number of discussions, not just in Sydney, but Melbourne and other parts of the country about these issues. And people from the Jewish community have been raising this with me from day one. From day one. It was literally put to me in the first couple of days of me becoming Prime Minister and I'm not rushing into anything here. But what I am doing today is recognising what is a real concern in the Jewish community in Australia, whether it is about the Iran nuclear deal which is an item of great concern to that community, or it is on this broader question of the two-state solution and how with go about achieving it. See, we want to see a two-state solution achieved and sometimes to achieve that you have got to think about doing things differently. The orthodoxy that's driven this debate which says issues like considering the question of the capital are taboo. I think we have to challenge that. Australians are pretty up-front people and I think we have to show the courage of our convictions in saying we're prepared to talk about other ways about achieving this goal because frankly the other ways have not been getting us there terribly successfully.  

JOURNALIST: What about the concern in the Palestinian community when America moved their embassy. There was obviously a large outbreak in violence. Are you concerned about a potential outbreak of protest here, demonstrations or violence or retributions against Australia?

PRIME MINISTER: Well obviously we have been taking advice on those matters and assessments and processes are being followed. But again, this is why I'm urging a full appreciation of the position I'm putting forward. We are having a discussion about this. We are opening up a new discussion which is consistent with what I believe those who are committed to peace in the Middle East, whether from a Palestinian perspective or an Israeli perspective, we are committed to a two-state solution. I'm not doing this because I think it will take us away from that outcome, I'm doing it because I believe it will take us towards that outcome and that I think we need to be prepared, to be open-minded about new ways of achieving this. And Australia, I think, has always demonstrated a preparedness to show innovativeness and innovation in thinking when to comes to addressing these global issues.

JOURNALIST: Secretary Frances Adamson described the American move as being “unhelpful” back when that was made. Have you sought her advice?

PRIME MINISTER: The Government listens to all its officials but the Government is the one that is elected. The Government, and I as Prime Minister, is the one that has to articulate policy and the position of our Government. We will listen to all of our officials obviously but I must, and I’m not making any comment on any particular advice which we have received from any part of the public service, but… I haven’t finished my statement. But what I am saying though is that we want to see the outcome of a two-state solution. And following the orthodoxy of positions past I don’t believe has been making enough progress. So I’m prepared to challenge those positions wherever they may be put, and we may be standing amongst a very small number of countries who actually think this may be a better way to achieve this. But we are passionate about achieving it, and our passion is demonstrated I think in the courage of being able to identify there may be better ways about getting to this goal.

JOURNALIST: Senator Payne, your predecessor Julie Bishop, when Donald Trump walked away from the Iran nuclear deal, your predecessor warned that that could imperil efforts to reach a nuclear treaty with North Korea. Is that a concern you share or is that no longer a concern?

MINISTER FOR FOREIGN AFFAIRS, THE HON. MARISE PAYNE: Well we have an obvious focus, as we have continually, on complete, verifiable, irreversible disarmament, nuclear disarmament in North Korea, in Iran and other countries who would pursue the same polices. That is an absolute focus of our national interest and the review the Prime Minister has announced is I think after three years operation of the JCPOA, a timely look about whether it is actually achieving the outcomes it is intended to do. We are not a party to the JCPOA but I think we have every opportunity here to review its progress, to review its status and to ensure it is delivering on those outcomes. This is a good time to do that, it fits with the Prime Minister’s review of these other issues and I am confident that we will be able to engage with that in a very constructive way.

JOURNALIST: Prime Minister…

PRIME MINISTER: Before I go, because I know that other question… what’s yours on, mate?

JOURNALIST: The issue…

PRIME MINISTER: The issue of the day?

JOURNALIST: The issue… the question is are you going to be looking at a solution on the treatment of children on Nauru and whether they can get any medical treatment in Australia? That’s been raised by some of your MPs.

PRIME MINISTER: Yeah it is, and I have been meeting with those colleagues as have the relevant Ministers and we have been acting on those issues. We have been acting on these issues. We haven’t been doing it by making public statements about it every day but we will always consider each and every case on its merits and in the interests of the child and we will continue to do that. I did make the point yesterday in relation to the New Zealand arrangement that there is a Bill still sitting in the Senate from 2016 that would close the back door for New Zealand to Australia which is opposed by the Labor Party and the Greens and the crossbench Senators which is preventing that protection being put in place. Now I would urge them to reconsider their position on that, but on the other issue?

JOURNALIST: Was there a directive from the Attorney-General Christian Porter’s office that the Government should support this “It’s Ok to be White” motion in the Senate?

PRIME MINSTER: Well I’m sure all Australians stand against racism against whatever form it takes. But I believe the Leader of the Government in the Senate will be making a statement about that.

JOURNALIST: Is that the Government position…

PRIME MINISTER: I’m saying that the Leader of the Government in the Senate will be making a statement about that later today.

JOURNALIST: Was it a mistake by Pauline Hanson? Was that wrong… opponents say this is straight out of the extreme right playbook, others say that there is nothing wrong with this motion. What is your position?

PRIME MINISTER: Well, I found it regrettable but the Leader of the Government in the Senate will be making a statement on that shortly. Thank you.