Press Conference - Parliament House

21 Aug 2019
Canberra, ACT
Prime Minister
Travel to Vietnam and the G7; International maritime security construct in the Gulf; George Pell; CU River Mining; Eastern Freeway; Religious freedom

PRIME MINISTER: Good morning everyone. Tomorrow I'll be travelling to Hanoi as part of my Government's continued engagement with our neighbours, partners and allies in the Indo-Pacific. Vietnam is one of the region's economic success stories over the last decade and it reflects the significant steps it has taken to liberalise its economy. Our relationship with Vietnam has never been stronger and my first official visit will be an important opportunity to drive forward that strategic partnership. The meetings will focus on strengthening economic security and people-to-people cooperation and in particular broadening our trade and investment opportunities between our two countries. We already are free trade partners through our participation in the ASEAN Australian New Zealand Free Trade Agreement and the Trans-Pacific Partnership as well as ongoing negotiations on RCEP. And so I am looking forward to that meeting with Prime Minister Phuc.

That will then be followed by heading over to the G7 at the invitation of this year's Chair, President Macron. The G7 was founded on shared values and this is an important time, I think, to reinforce these shared values in today's world - democracy, respect for human rights and international law, and free markets. Australia's participation is an opportunity to share our Indo-Pacific perspective with the world's leading democracies and it reflects the strength of our relationship with France that we've been invited - together along with Chile, India, and South Africa - to participate in these events and I look forward to, in particular, to meeting with the new Prime Minister Johnson, as I've already had the opportunity to speak to him on several occasions.

One of the issues we'll obviously be discussing is why I'm joined by the Minister Defence and the CDF today. The Government has been concerned with incidents involving shipping in the Straits of Hormuz over the past few months. This destabilising behaviour is a threat to Australian interests in the region, particularly our enduring interest in the security of global sea lanes of communication. 15 to 16 per cent of crude oil and 25 to 30 per cent of refined oil destined for Australia transits through the Straits of Hormuz. So it is a potential threat to our economy. Further, Australia strongly supports the global norms and rules concerning freedom of navigation, particularly under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, whether that's in the Middle East or indeed closer to home. We have been working closely with our allies and partners, particularly the United States and the United Kingdom on this issue which impacts global security and stability. Together, we support the concept of an international maritime presence in the region that would enable the international community to respond to incidents and threats as they occur to ensure freedom of navigation and the free flow of commerce.

Therefore, the Government has decided that it is in Australia's national interests to work with our international partners to contribute to an international maritime security mission known as the International Maritime Security Construct - the IMSC - in the Middle East. This will be an enhancement of our existing and long-standing contribution to counter piracy and counterterrorism missions in the waters of the Middle East, Africa, and South Asia. Our contribution will be limited in scope and it will be time bound and it will be part of an international mission separate from any other matters in the region. I will discuss Australia's contribution with other leaders at the G7. However, we intend to contribute ADF planning and operations staff to the headquarters, a Royal Australian Air Force P-8A Poseidon maritime surveillance aircraft, and a Royal Australian Navy frigate in an expansion of its planned existing role in contribution to counter piracy and terrorism operations across the region.

Now, this is a modest, meaningful, and time limited contribution that we are seeking to make to this international effort to ensure we maintain free flow of commerce and freedom of navigation which is essential to our security and to our economy. Because Australia will defend our interests wherever they may be under threat, we will always work closely with our international allies and partners and we are steadfast as a regional partner. The international environment is very difficult. The global economy is facing rising headwinds, as I've noted before. Rising geopolitical tensions and protectionism is weighing heavily on global confidence and growth. We will work with our partners, we will play our part in shaping a better future for Australia and Australians, as well as in our region and across the world. I'll ask the Minister for Defence to comment.

SENATOR THE HON. LINDA REYNOLDS CSC, MINISTER FOR DEFENCE: Well, thank you very much Prime Minister and good morning. Australia has an enduring interest in the freedom of navigation and the safe passage of maritime trade through international waters. Indeed, freedom of navigation through international waters is a fundamental right of all states under international law. Our contribution to freedom of navigation in the Middle East is long-standing. In fact, we've had a near continuous maritime presence in the Middle East since the 1990s. Our contributions to date have focused on maritime security, counter piracy, counterterrorism, and also Gulf security and cooperation activities, including of course through the combined maritime force. But as part of this new maritime mission, our Defence Force will play a crucial role to ensure that all of these rights are protected.

Australia's core interest in this mission is de-escalation. It is all about de-escalating rising tensions in the Gulf. I have spoken to my US and my UK counterparts to inform them that Australia will be participating in this international mission. I've also advised Richard Marles, the Shadow Spokesperson for Defence, who will receive a full briefing from Defence later today. We'll also be talking to like-minded partners globally to reiterate the importance of these international efforts. And can I say that our dedicated men and women of the ADF are highly experienced in operating in the Middle East, as I had the privilege of witnessing firsthand last month. And Australia's contribution will consist of three elements. Firstly, the six month deployment of a frigate from January next year. This will be the 68th deployment of a Royal Australian naval vessel into the Middle East on similar operations. The Royal Australian Air Force is also well-placed to contribute to this important new mission. So secondly, a P-8A will deploy to provide advanced maritime patrol and also surveillance capability to provide an overwatch role. Thirdly, we will deploy a small team of ADF specialist personnel to the new task force headquarters in the Middle East.

Like so many countries, Australia relies on the passage of ships through the Straits of Hormuz for a significant proportion of our oil supply, as the Prime Minister has stated. So in conclusion, the contribution that we have announced today is clearly in Australia's national interest and Australia is very proud to be working with our allies and our friends to promote the global rules-based order and also the rule of law. Thank you.

PRIME MINISTER: Thank you. I'm going to ask the CDF to comment. I mean, this is a matter that's been through NSC on several occasions and so I'd ask the CDF to also offer some comment.

GENERAL ANGUS J. CAMPBELL, AO, DSC, CHIEF OF THE DEFENCE FORCE: Thanks Prime Minister. Our people are very well trained and as you'll appreciate, experienced in the Middle East region. And I've got great confidence in their teamwork, their leadership, and their ability to undertake this mission and to offer a substantive and constructive contribution to the International Maritime Security Construct. Thank you.

PRIME MINISTER: Thank you. Now, before we go to questions I'd ask that we confine questions, particularly with the CDF here, to matters relating to this announcement, and if there are other matters then we can deal with those briefly. But given the nature of this announcement I don't intend to go into political issues. Yes?

JOURNALIST: Prime Minister, just on the IMSC command structure here. Presumably this isn't the operational sentinel model that Donald Trump's been pursuing. Who is going to be in charge? What's the command structure? Who do we answer to? What are the rules of engagement?

PRIME MINISTER: I'll ask the CDF to…

GENERAL ANGUS J. CAMPBELL, AO, DSC, CHIEF OF THE DEFENCE FORCE: It will be a US-led operation and we will be a participant in that with a multi-national force.

PRIME MINISTER: And I need to stress that this is a multi-national force. Our involvement here is on the basis of it being a multi-national force. I discussed this with Prime Minister Johnson a few weeks ago when we were at the next phase of considering our involvement. And this is a point we've made very clear, both to the United States and the UK, that we are here as part of a multi-national effort. Now, it is absolutely the case, as the CDF says, that the United States is pulling this together, but it's also the UK’s view that this provides the opportunity, I think, for others to be involved in a multi-national engagement.

JOURNALIST: Prime Minister, you set a time limit. We’ve seen previous deployments to the Middle East blow out in terms of time and commitment. Is that absolute that six months, or is that flexible if the situation is not yet resolved?

PRIME MINISTER: As always, we will consider these matters again as that deployment approaches its termination, as we do on all of these matters. I mean, we can't predict the future. We can only plan and we can only make commitments based on the situation as we understand it. And we've taken this decision very carefully. This is this is not a new matter. It's been in the public domain now for some time. There have been numerous suggestions made about what Australia should be doing. We've just taken the time to carefully consider it, to engage with those who have been directly involved in pulling these operations together, to understand the objective, to understand what contribution we can meaningfully make. And we have now made that decision and it's up to others to decide what participation they may have. I would hope that the nature of our engagement on this, as participating in a multi-national operation that is focused on freedom of shipping lanes and freedom of navigation. That's what this is about. It's not about anything else.

JOURNALIST: Prime Minister, the frigate that's being diverted from the counter piracy operations in our region. Doesn't it open you up to obvious criticism that this is America again directing Australia back to the Gulf and away from its primary role in the Indo-Pacific?

PRIME MINISTER: Well what we're doing is tasking an asset that was going to be in the Gulf. So it's not been directed away from that region more broadly. It is being tasked to a particular role in this operation. And to what extent that requires us to consider other matters, well we'll consider those in time as well.

SENATOR THE HON. LINDA REYNOLDS CSC, MINISTER FOR DEFENCE: Can I just reinforce what the PM has said. This role is entirely consistent with the same activities that we've done on us. This is the 68th  deployment by the Royal Australian Navy to the Middle East for similar operations so we have a very capable Defence Force which is capable of operating missions like this in the Middle East and also in the Middle East and wherever else we currently have troops deployed.

JOURNALIST: Do you have a cost for the operation?

PRIME MINISTER: It'll be done on the normal basis of operations of this nature.

JOURNALIST: Is the difficulty that we’ve spent so long now telling America that we’re such a great ally that we really couldn't say no here?

PRIME MINISTER: No, I don't agree with that at all. Our decision is based on our national interest. And solely on our national interest. We have considered Australia's interests in this matter. Our commitment to issues such as freedom of navigation, shipping lanes, I went through the precise details of how much of our own oil supplies come through this through this pathway. And so there is a clear interest here for Australia. That's what's governed our decision and that's what will always govern our decision.

JOURNALIST: There has been some criticism of the Trump administration's engagement with Tehran and suggestions that they have escalated tensions in the region rather than de-escalate which as Minister Reynolds says is the Australian Government's aim here. Do you agree that the Trump administration has inflamed tensions in the Gulf?

PRIME MINISTER: Our engagement in this operation is all about de-escalating tensions in the region to ensure the freedom of those shipping lanes and the free flow of commerce. That's our involvement. That's what our objective is and it's not related to any other matters that are the subject of a lot of attention in that region.

JOURNALIST: Isn’t Australia now signing up to a mission where President Trump said he wants to exert maximum pressure on Iran. Isn't that what we're doing by joining?



PRIME MINISTER: Because they're completely separate issues. This is about freedom of shipping. They're completely separate issues. And I think to conflate those issues would be ill informed.

JOURNALIST: You stress this is a multinational operation Prime Minister I'm just trying to work out how multi it is, how many countries are you anticipating will be part of this. And would you be happy if it was basically led by the US, with just the UK and Australia?

PRIME MINISTER: Well we've committed to it based on the involvement already of the UK and the United States. So we'll obviously go forward in that form or whatever other form it eventually takes.

JOURNALIST: Back on the rules of engagement. What will the frigate do if a commercial ship for example is seized by Iranian forces?

GENERAL ANGUS J. CAMPBELL, AO, DSC, CHIEF OF THE DEFENCE FORCE: Look our people are very well-trained and they'll be operating under international law and their presence will be to support the security of shipping and freedom of navigation. Under international law.

JOURNALIST: Will they have the law to open fire? To, what would the law allow them to do?


SENATOR THE HON. LINDA REYNOLDS CSC, MINISTER FOR DEFENCE: Can I just also add, one of the reasons we're sending staff now to the joint task force headquarters is to work through these details, we've still got some planning to do with the Attorney-General's Department to actually work through what this will actually involve. So it will be a joint headquarters and we are now working through those issues with the United States, United Kingdom, Bahrain and any other partners who join this internal- who are joining this effort.

JOURNALIST: How many personnel will be sent and will there be maintenance ships or anything like that?

PRIME MINISTER: Well there's about 177 people who were on board a frigate. There's about 10 on a P8 and then the number that we will put into the headquarters is still being arranged and talked through, with those directly overseeing the operations.

JOURNALIST: …range as-

PRIME MINISTER: Well that’s pretty specific, there’s 177 people on a ship.

JOURNALIST: Prime Minister, what do you make of arguments that Australia should be dedicating more of its defence and budget resources to the Indo-Pacific area in our backyard rather than getting sucked back into the Middle East?

PRIME MINISTER: Well I'd say this is a very constrained commitment. I wouldn't consider this to be a commitment that is overextending the ADF. As I said we're basically tasking an asset to a region that it was already tasked to in an operation that was consistent with that original tasking. So I wouldn't say that this in any way shape or form detracts from our ability to do exactly what you've just said, and I agree with what you've just said. I mean one of the reasons I've put so much emphasis on our Indo-Pacific relations, and one of the reasons I'm heading up to Vietnam tomorrow. One of the reasons that it has been a top priority for me since becoming a Prime Minister is to be engaging with Indonesia, to be engaging with India, to be engaging with Japan, to be engaging with Korea, has been to extend, strengthen, and further build the alliances- relationships that exist across the Indo-Pacific of free independent sovereign nations simply seeking to be themselves in this part of the world. This brings stability to the region and this is what we'll continue to focus on in our- whether they’re our civilian partnerships or our military partnerships, engagements, cooperation, free trade all of this creates a more stable Indo-Pacific. Phil?

JOURNALIST: Just on detail, just specifics, you said the ship goes- deploys in January. Does the surveillance plane and the planning people go in January or do they go earlier?

SENATOR THE HON. LINDA REYNOLDS CSC, MINISTER FOR DEFENCE: As I said, the staff will deploy reasonably quickly to the headquarters, to the joint headquarters and work through the final details of how this will be established and how it will operate. The P8 will be deployed for a month later this year. Again we're just working out final- final arrangements and timings, and the frigate as you said will be in January from next year.

JOURNALIST: Have you spoken directly to President Trump again in the last few days about this?

PRIME MINISTER: Not directly to President Trump, but I've been in contact with the Secretary of State this morning. And with- and -I've been in contact also with Prime Minister Johnson.

JOURNALIST: [Inaudible]

PRIME MINISTER: Hang over, we’re staying with Iran.

JOURNALIST: Have you made it clear to the Americans in your discussions, I note the CDF's reluctance to talk about international law and what that requires us to do. But have you been explicit with the Americans that our presence there is only as a deterrent in your words to de-escalate and that the Australian assets won't be involved in any military contact?

PRIME MINISTER: I've been very clear about the nature of our engagement in these operations to focus purely on the objectives of the mission as it's been set out and that is entirely consistent with what you've just said.

JOURNALIST: Can I just ask on Cardinal Pell, Prime Minister-

PRIME MINISTER: Are we finished with- Well if you'd like to take that up with the Defence Minister later on other occasions you may, I'm going to take some other questions on some other issues now very briefly.

JOURNALIST: Just on Cardinal Pell, he's lost his appeal. Do you have any sympathy for him?

PRIME MINISTER: My sympathies are with the victims of child sexual abuse not just on this day but on every single day. And as I said at the time of the earlier finding, that events like this today bring it all back. And I would urge Australians who find themselves reliving these experiences to reach out to those around them, to reach out to the services that are there for them in whatever- in whatever phase of life they're in. These things can take you back a long way. And so that's where my sympathies are. The courts have done their job. They've rendered their verdict. And that's the system of justice in this country and that must be respected. And of course my understanding is that this would result in the stripping of the honours that are decided externally to the government that that is a process that is done independently and that course will now follow.

JOURNALIST: Former Liberal Prime Ministers Tony Abbott and John Howard have long stood by Cardinal Pell. Is it time for them to finally denounce him?

PRIME MINISTER: That's a matter for them.

JOURNALIST: Do you support Victoria's law to break the seal of confession for priests that have child sex abuse you know admitted to them?

PRIME MINISTER: Well those matters were dealt with in our response to the Royal Commission.

JOURNALIST: On transport-

JOURNALIST: CU River Mining has a permit to operate inside the Woomera Prohibited Area, it now has a Chinese-based partner. They have made public their expansion plans inside that area. I know they haven't made that application yet. Are you concerned at all about the- what's happening in the Woomera Prohibited Area?

PRIME MINISTER: Like with all of those sensitive issues in that area they will be considered within the confines of the National Security Committee where the biggest ruler gets put over these issues, always. And I think I have some strong form in that regard.

JOURNALIST: In Victoria- a question for our colleagues- is the Victorian Government trying to block your attempts to build the East West Link by asking for the Eastern Freeway to be heritage protected?

PRIME MINISTER: I would have to- I'll be talking to Dan Andrews later today about a number of infrastructure related issues but I'm not currently entertaining having a conversation on the matter.

JOURNALIST: Just quickly on religious discrimination, are you confident with the position that you’ve landed on after Cabinet last night that you will be able to get party-room support for the proposal and also what do you say to faith groups who want this just to be a first step and are looking for further-

PRIME MINISTER: It is just a first step. I mean this is just another stage in the process. We will have an exposure draft piece of legislation which is intended to take us into the next round of discussions and in consultations with not just religious groups but all Australians and that I'm sure will be a very informative and consultative process and enable us get to the next phase. So this is an ongoing process it's a very engaging process I want to thank all of those who've consulted to this point particularly within the government which has been the focus with our own members and- but there's still a way to go on this and we'll continue to go down that path and engage in a very positive way. This is an issue that I think should be bringing Australians together, not one that does the opposite. And I look forward to completing that process.

But for now our thoughts and best wishes will be with those who we have made a very important decision today in terms of what we'll be asking of them in the next 12 months. These decisions are never taken lightly by any government and that's certainly been the case in relation to my government. We have carefully considered the issues that are at stake here, what Australia's national interests are, and we have taken a decision in accordance with those national interests but to all of those serving members of the ADF who will form part of this, CDF I want to thank them very much for their service and their commitment and their professionalism. And I know we’ll be very proud of what they’ll be able to achieve. Thank you very much.