Sharri, Sky News

  • Transcript, E&OE
30 May 2020

SHARRI MARKSON: Joining me now is the Minister for International Development and the Pacific, Alex Hawke. Alex, welcome to the program.

ALEX HAWKE: Hi Sharri.

SHARRI MARKSON: Look, I want to start with the Belt and Road initiative. Victorian Premier, Dan Andrews, said on Friday I believe that he consulted with DFAT officials about this project before deciding to go ahead with it. You're a Minister inside the DFAT portfolio. Is it correct? Did he ask for advice?

ALEX HAWKE: Well Sharri, no that isn't correct. And I saw those reports. And it's incorrect to say that the federal government or our agencies had any forewarning about this agreement in terms of what it said. So we were not presented with a copy of it, neither was the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. And I guess our criticism of Daniel Andrews and the government there in Victoria has been, well if you're going to do any kind of arrangement with a foreign power you really need to go through the federal government and consult. It risks, of course, the federal government being left isolated by one of the states and that's what's happened on this occasion.

SHARRI MARKSON: So you're saying that he has publicly made an inaccurate claim that he sought the advice of DFAT? Are you sure he didn't get any advice from the Foreign Affairs officials?

ALEX HAWKE: Well, of course there's been interactions between foreign affairs officials and people in Melbourne and that happens all the time. And I'm sure that happened between officials and the Victorian Government and the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. But I can categorically tell you that the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade did not receive this agreement before it was signed by the Victorian Government. So it is a very big difference between picking up the phone and saying what do you think about this or that, and actually consulting on an agreement with something to do like a Belt and Road initiative.

SHARRI MARKSON: Well what are the risks of his Belt and Road Initiative to Australia? And is there anything the federal government can actually do to prevent this from going ahead?

ALEX HAWKE: Well, the federal government has not participated in Belt and Road — and we've made that clear — and we think, of course, states should follow suit. And we're, you know, we’re one federation — the external affairs power has been given to the federal government to make these agreements with international powers. And I think it's a matter not just for all citizens of Australia to look pretty carefully at this. I think particularly extraordinary this week was the claim from the Victorian Labor Party which came out and said that somehow they'd won a number of seats because of this deal with a foreign power. I mean, you can see there's an extraordinary mind-set down there in Victoria.

SHARRI MARKSON: Yeah. Look, I want to turn to the Pacific. Are you concerned that China has been taking strategic advantage of the coronavirus pandemic through the aid that it's been giving to Pacific Islands — which it has really stepped up in the wake of this outbreak?

ALEX HAWKE: Well look, the coronavirus challenge in the Pacific is very severe — it's had a huge impact and it's been limiting in a number of ways. So I would say to you, Australia for example, is one of the few countries and perhaps the only country in many places, that made the decision — difficult decision, but an important one — to stay in country, to keep our officials there, to keep emergency people there to help, to work with health systems. A lot of other people had to make a valid choice in many ways to leave or to evacuate people — contractors, all sorts of people — but Australia stayed. And we're, of course, doing a lot of work in the Pacific.

But when you think some countries in the Pacific now have quarantines of 28 days, or have been in lockdown, we're very supportive of the measures that governments throughout the Pacific have taken to sort of limit the movement of people, and it's been very successful in limiting the spread of COVID-19 so far.

SHARRI MARKSON: But what about this point about China taking strategic advantage of the pandemic to further its interests in this region?

ALEX HAWKE: Well in this sense we'd ask them to do more. I mean I've always said, and I'll say to you and your viewers tonight, if China wants to help with health and help us in the Pacific and save people's lives from COVID-19, that's what we should do — we should work together on that. And we've made that offer many times to China.

I've got to say to you, it's absolutely Australia that is doing a lot of the work there. We've got our development budget working there this week, we announced partnerships for recovery — that was a reprioritisation of $280 million within the development budget to spend on COVID-19 in our region, a lot of that is being spent in the Pacific.

So we'll partner with China on health. But, of course, we do say to countries — all countries who want to come into the region, our region, the Pacific — and we say to them you really need to come to help. We don't want you sending supplies that are of low quality or hinder health and emergency services — and we've seen examples of that, you know, supplies being sent that don't work. And certainly it's not the time-

SHARRI MARKSON: [Interrupts] Has that been from China?

ALEX HAWKE: Well, some of those have been, yes, from different companies within China, absolutely — and they're not working. There's been other countries send things that don't help. And we've said to countries all throughout the world: you know, we're happy to partner — in New Zealand, ourselves, we've got great expertise, great relationships — we'll help you deliver good quality aid in the middle of a difficult pandemic.

SHARRI MARKSON: [Talks over] Just in terms of, just in terms of the cost of that. How much has Australia given to the Pacific compared with how much China has given since the outbreak of the pandemic in dollar value?

ALEX HAWKE: Yeah. Well this year, for example, Australia will spend $1.4 billion in the Pacific, just in our development budget, and that is a record spend of an Australian Government — and we're on target to hit that regardless of the COVID-19 pandemic. So what we've spent — $1.4 billion — now that is by far and away, we are the biggest donor and partner for countries in the Pacific of any country in the world. So Australians can be very proud of the job that our agencies are doing — Foreign Affairs, Defence, we've got Home Affairs, a lot of people work in the Pacific and of course all of our businesses and cultural links — we're by far and away the biggest donor.

Of course we've seen geo-strategic competition. We've seen an increase in interest, not just from China but from America and other powers, and of course we work very closely with Pacific countries to help them take advantage of that but not get caught in difficult situations like debt-trap, diplomacy to get — you know, they've got to watch their debt and their shares of GDP, provide the expertise to help with good quality infrastructure and work with them as partners.

SHARRI MARKSON: Yeah. Look Minister, tonight at 7.30pm on Sky News I have a special investigation into the origins of the coronavirus that I hope you're going to watch. But in it Australia's former intelligence chief and former head of defence and DFAT, Dennis Richardson, says there should be a security review of bio-containment facilities globally in the wake of the pandemic. He says that these- that accidents can happen in these laboratories that are dealing with deadly coronaviruses. I'm just going to play for you a couple of short grabs of what he has to tell me on the program.


SHARRI MARKSON: And more from Dennis Richardson will be on my special investigation at 7.30. But Minister, I want to ask you, do you agree with the former intelligence chief that there should be a review globally into the security of these bio-containment facilities that are handling such deadly coronaviruses?

ALEX HAWKE: Well Sharri, what we have agreed on, and what Australia has called for, is a thorough, independent, international investigation — and you've seen Prime Minister Morrison leading on that out in the world stage, and you've seen our Foreign Minister leading on that. And that's why 130 countries co-sponsored the calls for that investigation. There are a lot of theories about this, there's a lot of discussion out there.

And look, Dennis Richardson's an eminent expert and he's worth listening to, like a lot of people are, and we work very closely with him in the development portfolio on our new budget. However, you know, that can only really be addressed by a properly constructed investigation and there's no doubt that that should happen into all of the different issues about how this virus originated.

SHARRI MARKSON: Look, will China's Centre for Disease Control — and that's — you know that is one of their very most important facilities across China, and they have one in Wuhan as well, their Centre for Disease Control. Look, their Director, Gao Fu, told Chinese state media during the week that the wet market played a role in spreading the virus but that it was not the origin of the outbreak. That was quite an extraordinary statement, that according to Chinese officials and scientists the virus didn't come from the wet market. What do you make of this?

ALEX HAWKE: Well I make of it the same as I've just said. I think there's a lot of contention about it and all of them deserve to have some consideration — serious consideration. I mean we know that there was an outbreak in China, we know this is where the virus started. How it started and why it spread — these are all matters for the World Health Organization’s investigation. And with so many countries co-sponsoring and supporting such a motion, there's immense international interest in getting to the bottom of all these claims and Australia strongly support that. And, of course, we'll be working with the international community to make sure all these claims are addressed by the investigation.

SHARRI MARKSON: Yeah. Do you think it now puts the focus on the two Wuhan laboratories that were handling these coronaviruses? You know, now that China, and scientists as well, have seemed to rule out the wet market as the origin?

ALEX HAWKE: Well certainly you have to look at the origin of the virus, and that's what the international investigation would do. And it would presumably go through all of these things that need to be gone through — and that's what Australia's called for and supported. And we'd like that to be as thorough as possible because we need to understand this — what happened, why it happened, and how we can deal with in the future and learn from it. Every country needs that, the world needs that, after what we're going through, obviously an independent investigation is required.

SHARRI MARKSON: Yeah. Look just lastly and very quickly before we go, Minister. I just want to ask your- you know, how concerned you are about China's decision to impose a National Security Law on Hong Kong?

ALEX HAWKE: The government's deeply concerned. I mean you've seen our Foreign Minister, Marise Payne, issue a joint statement with the United Kingdom’s Secretary Raab, about our great concern. And the whole international community, I think, wants to understand what is going to happen to the “One-Country, Two-Systems” model now that this law has been passed. China made guarantees to the international community on the independence of Hong Kong, and it made guarantees to the people of Hong Kong. And the question now is really what is happening? And what is the future for the “One-Country, Two-Systems” model now that this law has been passed?

SHARRI MARKSON: Yeah. Alex Hawke, I really appreciate your time on a Sunday night. Thank you so much for joining me.

ALEX HAWKE: Thanks Sharri.

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