Interview with Andy Park, ABC RN Drive

  • Transcript, E&OE
Subjects: Australia and India Migration and Mobility Partnership Agreement, Anthony Albanese's promises to protect human rights violations against minority groups, Australia and China trade relationship.

Andy Park: Well, joining me for some more detail on this is the Federal Assistant Foreign Affairs Minister, Tim Watts. Welcome back to RN Drive.

Assistant Minister for Foreign Affairs: Great to be with you, Andy.

Andy Park: Now, Australia and India have signed a Migration and Mobility Partnership Agreement. What does this mean and what does it mean for Australia?

Assistant Minister for Foreign Affairs: Well, it's been an extraordinary 24 hours in the Australia-India relationship. We've seen Prime Minister Modi visiting Australia and meeting Prime Minister Albanese for an extraordinary 6th time in twelve months. And this unprecedented level of engagement really shows where the relationship is at the moment. It's never been closer. We are strongly aligned on strategic issues. We are joined by people-to-people connections of a 1 million strong diaspora, and around 84,000 students. And these meetings are really about deepening the connection between our countries. So, the Migration and People Mobility Partnership Agreement that was agreed today is about encouraging more young Australians to study in India and more young Indians to study in Australia, while also putting in some guardrails around those people movements agreements for cooperation on things like people trafficking and irregular people movements.

Andy Park: Narendra Modi says Prime Minister Anthony Albanese has assured him there will be, quote, strict action against Sikh separatist groups in Australia. This is all in response to Hindu temples in Brisbane, Melbourne and Sydney being vandalised with pro-Sikh separatist slogans. I mean, this sounds like a little bit of overreach from the Prime Minister in the sense that obviously all crimes come under state policing agencies. What kind of action are we talking about here?

Assistant Minister for Foreign Affairs: Well, I mean Australia is a free society and people are free to express exercise their right to free speech. But anytime that expression crosses a line into vandalism, violence, hate speech, there will be a law enforcement response. Now there have been a number of vandalism attacks against religious sites in Australia and law enforcement agencies are investigating that. They have increased patrols near temples, as you say. Much of that is state police, although they do coordinate with federal authorities. I think one of the most significant things we've done is announce a new $40 million Securing Faith-Based Places merit-based grants program to help places of worship to improve their security and safety. That could be security cameras, it could be new infrastructure, in order to increase the security. We don't want Australia to be a place where anyone has any fear in practising their faith and we'll act decisively to protect that.

Andy Park: I mean, Australia and your government really has rolled out the red carpet for the Indian Prime Minister. Even the Opera House will be lit up with the Indian colours this afternoon. We really rarely see such a diplomatic effort made. Why? Can you explain to me why?

Assistant Minister for Foreign Affairs: Well, Australia and India have never been closer, as I say in our own region, in the Indo-Pacific, we share an interest in building an Indo-Pacific that operates in the way that we want it to. We know that our region is being reshaped at the moment by forces like climate change, economic change and geo-strategy. We want an Indo-Pacific that's peaceful, prosperous and resilient and a region that no country is dominated in, and no country dominates, where countries can exercise freedom of choice. Now, our argument is that countries need to work together to build a region like that and India is one of our strongest partners in doing that. We work with India through the Quad building public goods in our region and we work with them bilaterally increasingly, I should say, in the security and defence space where we'll host the Operation Malabar later this year.

Andy Park: You say that India and Australia have much in common. One thing we don't is that India has been reluctant to publicly condemn Russia's invasion of Ukraine. Does that concern you at all?

Assistant Minister for Foreign Affairs: Well, all countries make sovereign decisions about what their foreign policy is and all countries have different histories and cultural context. India has a long pre-existing relationship with Russia. I should say though that Prime Minister Modi met with President Zelenskyy at the G20. He gave a firm statement at the previous G20 in Indonesia that the time for war is past. And look, Australia has been clear in our engagements with everyone in the world that we don't think that Russia's illegal, immoral invasion of Ukraine can be allowed to stand. We don't think that a larger neighbour should be allowed to invade a smaller neighbour without the international community responding, particularly when that larger neighbour is a member of the Security Council and acting in flagrant breach of the UN Charter. And our actions reflect that position in the terms of the military support we've provided to Ukraine and the humanitarian assistance we provided to the people of that country.

Andy Park: India has welcomed Mr Albanese's promises to protect human rights violations against minority groups here in the form of that vandal actions in temples, for example. But there are also calls on the Prime Minister to raise human rights the other way in violations against minority groups in India. Was this discussed?

Assistant Minister for Foreign Affairs: Well, Australia expects all countries to promote and protect human rights and we recognise that no country has a perfect human rights record, including Australia. I should say, where we have concerns about human rights in the Australia-India relationship, we raise those concerns privately and we raise them directly. We engage with Indian counterparts on human rights issues regularly. I know that this has been raised in previous engagements that I've been a part of. I wasn't in the room with Prime Minister Albanese and Modi but as I say, these issues are regularly raised between Australian and Indian leaders.

Andy Park: When I asked you about the reasons for such a red carpet welcome for the Indian Prime Minister one of the words you used to answer was geopolitics, which I took to mean in part about China. A lot of work is being done to repair the relationship. When can we expect the Prime Minister to make the trip to Beijing?

Assistant Minister for Foreign Affairs: Well, the Prime Minister has said that we'd be open to a visit to China when there are positive circumstances and there are continuing improvements. The relationship between Australia and China has stabilised significantly since the election. We've said very clearly that we will look for opportunities to cooperate with China, but there are going to be ongoing issues where we disagree and we'll disagree where we must. But in those circumstances, on issues like human rights, certain consular matters, these trade blockages between our countries, we'll do that calmly and we'll do that consistently. And I think that we've shown our commitment to that approach over the last twelve months.

Andy Park: Just on another issue, new research from the Grattan Institute’s found that one in six migrants have paid less than the national minimum wage. The Institute wants to see workers protected here. What's your reaction to this research?

Assistant Minister for Foreign Affairs: Well, we've been watching this from opposition for some time with some concern. Since coming to government we've been stepping up our action to combat migrant worker exploitation. So, this was a big theme at the Jobs and Skills Summit in September 2022, and we announced that we'd be pursuing a package of reforms to address migrant worker exploitation. It certainly had been a big focus of the Home Affairs Minister Clare O'Neil's root and branch review of the migration system. And there'll be further initiatives coming in response to that. We’ve made a series of targeted interventions, for example on exploitation in the Pacific Islands Labour Migration Programme and similarly in the announcement of new migration arrangements through the Immigration Department.

Andy Park: We'll have to leave it there. Federal Assistant Foreign Affairs Minister Tim Watts. Thanks for dropping into the Parliament House studio.

Assistant Minister for Foreign Affairs: Pleasure, Andy.

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