Virtual Press Conference

30 Nov 2020
Prime Minister

Prime Minister: The post made today, the repugnant post made today, of an image, a falsified image, of an Australian soldier threatening a young child with a knife. A post made on an official Chinese Government Twitter account, posted by the Director Deputy General of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs Mr Lijian Zhao, is truly repugnant. It is deeply offensive to every Australian, every Australian who has served in that uniform, every Australian who serves in that uniform today, everyone who has pulled on that uniform and served with Australians overseas from whatever nation, that they have done that. It is utterly outrageous and it cannot be justified on any basis whatsoever.

The Chinese Government should be totally ashamed of this post. It diminishes them in the world’s eyes. I want to make a couple of points about this. Australia is seeking an apology from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, from the Chinese Government, for this outrageous post. We are also seeking its removal immediately and have also contacted Twitter to take it down immediately. It is a false image

and a terrible slur on our great defence forces and the men and women who have served in that uniform for over 100 years.

There are undoubtedly tensions that exist between China and Australia. But this is not how you deal with them. Australia has patiently sought to seek to address the tensions that exist in our relationship in a mature way, in a responsible way, by seeking engagement at both leader and ministerial level to ensure that we can openly discuss what are clear sources of tension in this relationship. Points that Australia feels strongly about, in terms of our own sovereignty and our own independence. The way to deal with those is by engaging directly in discussion and dialogue between ministers and leaders. And despite this terribly offensive post today, I would ask again and call on China to re-engage in that dialogue. This is how countries must deal with each other to ensure that we can deal with any issues in our relationship, consistent with our national interests and respect for each other's sovereignty, not engaging in this sort of deplorable behaviour.

I would hope that this rather awful event hopefully may lead to the type of reset where this dialogue can be restarted, without condition. That we can sit down and start talking sensibly about these issues because this type of behaviour is not on.

Now, it’s not just about Australia, countries around the world are watching this, they are seeing how Australia is seeking to resolve these issues and they are seeing these responses. This impacts not just on the relationship here, but with so many other sovereign nations not only in our own region, but likeminded countries around the world, who have expressed similar sentiments to Australia about many issues. And so it is important that these things end and the dialogue starts.

Finally and most importantly, I am extremely proud of all Australians who pull a uniform on for Australia. I am proud of their service. I am proud of their dedication. I am proud of their loyalty to this country and it’s values.

And those values determine how we deal with difficult issues as a country and difficult issues as those that have arisen in the Inspector General’s report on the ADF. It is a fact that Australia’s transparent and honest way of dealing with this issue is a credit to this nation. And it is a credit to all those who serve this nation in uniform. Where there are alleged events that have taken place that require action, well we have set up the honest and transparent processes for that to take place. That is what a free, democratic, liberal country does. Few countries around the world, I suppose, would have dealt with this in the way that we have. I would hope there’d be many. But in a liberal democracy, this is how you deal with issues such as this. You don’t engage in disinformation and the ugliness that we’ve seen in this post on the Chinese Government Twitter account today.

So I am proud of their service. The alleged actions of a few do not, do not define the tremendous service of the great many, and the processes we’ve set up will uphold that principle. They will uphold the principle of innocent until proven guilty. There will be a fairness in the way that this is addressed. Because those, those are the values that our Defence Force men and women have fought to uphold.

So today is not a day for Australia in any way, to feel wrongly about how we conduct ourselves. Even with this difficult information to deal with, we are dealing with it in the right way. The only thing that has brought shame today, is this appalling post by the Chinese government.

I’m happy to take a couple of questions.

Journalist: Prime Minister I accept and understand what you’re saying about the tweet- Prime Minister Andrew Clennell Sky News, I accept and understand what you are saying regarding the tweet-

Prime Minister: Andrew, you’re just going to have to wait one second because I’m genuinely not getting audio, I can see you’re speaking- normally I could probably hear you from all the way from there, just need to get this turned up-

Journalist: Can you hear me now Prime Minister?

Prime Minister: Not yet, I apologise for the delay, I sincerely do, we thought that was arranged-

Journalist: Okay, I’ll keep talking, you tell me when you can hear. Is there anything? Yep?

Prime Minister: Not yet I’m sorry.

Journalist: Can you hear?

Prime Minister: Go ahead and I’ll see if I can hear Andrew.

Journalist: Okay

Prime Minister: Speak up.

Journalist: Okay. I accept and understand what you are saying about the tweet and how offensive it is, but what is the end game in terms of our relationship with China, there have been a number of announcements around foreign investment laws, cyber security, our unilateral call for an independent review, we’ve been quite strident in relation to the rhetoric on China, what is, that works for you domestically, politically, but what is your hope in terms of the end game of where we end up with China here?

Prime Minister: Well my end game, and my view, is the same today as it was in John Howard’s time, the happy coexistence of two partners under our comprehensive strategic partnership. But one that respects the sovereign interests of both countries. I mean the matters that you’ve referred to are all entirely and rightly within the domain of Australia as a sovereign country, they should cause no offence, that Australia would set its own foreign investment rules, would have its own arrangements in relation to cyber security, and I note that at no time have I ever made any allegations against the Chinese government in relation to cyber security issues. And as for issues of the pandemic, well that was a motion that was supported by over 130 countries and joined with the European Union, not as a unilateral, but one done in concert with the European Union, so Australia will seek to pursue this relationship of mutual benefit. And that has to involve an understanding on Australia being able to conduct itself in accordance with its own sovereignty, its own values, and its own laws. And that is not an unreasonable position for the Australian government, or any other government, whether that be the United Kingdom, France, Germany, Canada, Japan, Indonesia, or any other country - to be able to have a relationship that respects those fundamental positions. I sincerely respect them in the terms of the Chinese government, to be able to set rules and laws in their own country, Australians aren’t freely able to invest in China that is understood. But when it comes to our laws, and our rules, and the values that we hold, we’ve always been very clear about them. They are not new positions Andrew. They have been positions that Australia has held for a very long time. These decisions to post what we saw today, and other acts, are decisions of another government, not of Australia.

Journalist: Prime Minister, Andrew Probyn, Prime Minister, Andrew Probyn from the ABC. These sorts of matters often have to be resolved man to man, woman to woman, or woman to man for that- if this is allowed to fester, at what stage will you pick up the phone to speak to President Xi?

Prime Minister: Well we have consistently sought those engagements Andrew. And I don’t know why you would think we hadn’t. This has been a constant process of Australia remaining open and seeking that dialogue, whether it be at Minister to Minister level, or leader to leader level. And that’s why I renew that call today. Australia is available for that. Australia has always been available for that, and Australia has sought to arrange that, and so it really is a matter I think to ensure that even as appalling as these events are today, I think it highlights the need for Australia to do exactly- and China- to do exactly as you’ve discussed, and Australia remains available for that.

Journalist: [inaudible] write to the President directly so that he has to reply?

Prime Minister: Well Michelle, you assume that there hasn’t been such interactions. We’ve constantly sought that engagement. This is not new.

Journalist: Prime Minister, David Crowe here from the Sydney Morning Herald and the Age, have you called in the Chinese Ambassador in Canberra to put these concerns directly to the Ambassador to convey them directly to President Xi?

Prime Minister: No, this is being done, both conveyed to the Ambassador here, in China through the process you’ve suggested, through the Secretary of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, and we’ll also be communicating that directly through our Ambassador in China, in Beijing.

Journalist: Prime Minister, Clare from the Daily Telegraph here, since the Brereton report came out, veterans have expressed concern that the entire Defence community will be tarred with the same brush of a few. Clearly this is an extreme example of that where a vague representation of an Australian soldier has been depicted in this horrific way, what more can the Government do to support the rest of the Defence community given the global attention on the very few that potentially committed war crimes, and might that include reconsidering revoking the Meritorious Unit Citation which appears to condemn the entire special forces when they were in Afghanistan?

Prime Minister: Well I’ll leave it to the CDF to make further comments on the last matter that you made, but no decisions have been made on that. And were decisions to made on that, that would only be following a further process and that is where that matter rests right now, as is my understanding. The best thing we can do, is to ensure that we have a fair process, that deals with this both in terms of issues that need to be dealt with within the Defence Force, because as you rightly say- regarding the conduct of a small number and those who were in positions of command that would have been relied upon to ensure that such conduct was not undertaken, but also through the justice process that has been set up with the Special Investigator, and that is how we deal with these issues in Australia. We deal with them according to the rule of law, the presumption of innocence until proven guilty, and in accordance with the administrative processes that operate within the Defence Force regarding conduct within the Defence Force.

Now those processes are there for a reason. And they are there to protect people, their innocence and their rights, as well as to uphold the standard and integrity of the Australian Defence Force. That is what the government is seeking to do, that is what the Chief of the Defence Force is seeking to do, but it will be a difficult process, and there will be patience necessary. But I would stress again, that the actions of a few, whether in command or those on the ground, do not reflect on the many thousands of others who serve today and who have served before. Our Defence Forces have earned this, they have earned the rights that they now call upon, and they have earned the respect for which we all rightly afford them. And there can be no taking away from that. And that is certainly my view and the Government’s view.

Journalist: Josh Butler from the New Daily. Can I ask you about, you’ve said that you want Twitter to take action on this. On what grounds have you appealed to Twitter and are you confident they would actually take action on this considering that Twitter has consistently decided not to take action against Government accounts in this way in the example of Donald Trump’s tweets, for instance? Would you hope that they will take action on this?

Prime Minister: Well, I certainly would. It is absolute falsehood. It is an absolute outrageous and disgusting slur and it wouldn’t be the first time that social media have censored posts. In this case, I would think that in the interests of decency, they should take it down.

Journalist: Samantha Maiden from Can you just clarify in relation to Clare’s question, the process. You’re saying the decision on the meritorious citation is a matter for the CDF. The Defence Department have put out a statement over the weekend saying it is a matter for government. Now, when they say government, do they mean it is a matter for the Governor-General? Do they mean it is a matter for you? And is there any conflict of interest in the Governor-General making a decision on this, given he himself, obviously, held a leadership role in the Defence Force during that period?

Prime Minister: Well, as always, Governor-Generals take advice from their Prime Ministers and in addition to that, I would simply note the oversight panel that was appointed by the Minister to oversee the action being taken by the CDF and the ADF in relation to actioning the recommendations that have come out of this report. And that is the process that we established to reconcile, I think, the issues that you have raised, Samantha. I think that is the way that these matters are able to be addressed and I would hope that there would be no real difference, at the end of the day, and that the difficulties that you have touched upon wouldn’t arise. And what I am saying is that that process is not completed yet and so the issues that have been raised are not ones that are current.

Journalist: Phil Coorey from the AFR. Just a week ago you gave a speech on China and the Chinese Foreign Ministry. It was relatively positive, it sort of had some positive comments in there. It was probably the first favourable comments we had heard from China for quite a while. This has happened a week later. What, in your view, has caused this shift from the same department of government? What do you put it down to?

Prime Minister: Well, I don’t put it down to anything. I don’t make the same assumptions about the connectedness of all of these responses, Phil, would be my first one. Whether it was that or any other responses we have seen in the past week. I think that would be over-assuming. Secondly, I would simply note what I said in my speech last week. It was not extraordinary. I have consistently, as both a Member of Parliament, a Minister and a Prime Minister and Treasurer, consistently said that Australia has not followed a policy of economic containment of China. I have consistently said that China’s economic development has been a positive for Australia and for China, pulling more people out of poverty than in the history of the world. I think these are positive things. Australia has played a role in that. That is why a positive relationship between China and Australia is so possible, even given the changes that have occurred over the last 10 years. I can assure you, Australia has remained the same. It is possible, it is in our mutual interest to achieve it and Australia will continue to pursue that, consistent with our own sovereign national interests. Now, I don’t think any Australian would expect us to make any compromises on those national interests. Of course they wouldn’t and nor should they and nor should they expect the government to do so. But there is mutual benefit in us being able to work through these issues in a way that can see those mutual benefits continue. That is in both of our interests to do that. What is not in our interests is for this type of conduct to go ahead. This sort of conduct is not conducive to any relationship and that is why I think it is so important in our mutual interests that this egregious act be dealt with in the way that I have suggested.

But with that, we are going to have to set up the system for the first Question Time by these methods and I hope the audio works better in Question Time than it has in the one I have had with you this afternoon. Thank you all very much.