Interview with Tom Connell, Sky News

  • Transcript, E&OE
Subjects: Matildas victory, Julian Assange negotiations, China’s detainment of Cheng Lei.

Tom Connell: Saturday afternoon and evening saw the biggest television audience - there are different measurements of this – ‘but let's call it the biggest one, according to many of the measurements, since Cathy Freeman won, of course, the 400 metres at the Sydney 2000 Games. Everybody's on the Matildas' bandwagon, it seems. Can they go all the way? Joining me now is Assistant Foreign Affairs Minister Tim Watts, who unofficially, we'll just call him a bit of a sports fanatic. And I know you don't want to talk about the Bulldogs, of course, on the weekend, so this gives us a good opportunity. That TV audience. This has captured hearts and minds, hasn't it, the Matildas' run?

Assistant Minister for Foreign Affairs: It's extraordinary, Tom. The whole nation has united behind the Matildas, and I think it does say something really positive about the kind of country we are that now, the two highest rating television programs over the last two decades are two women's sports events. This shows the egalitarian nature of our country, a country where everyone can reach their full potential and, you know, pulling behind the Matildas, showing what we can do on the national stage. It's been an extraordinary couple of weeks. We've just got a few more games to go before we can really celebrate.

Tom Connell: Yeah, let's hope two more is when we'll be happy at the end of that. Interesting all the talk of a public holiday. It looks like New South Wales has stolen the march on Victoria. They're offering a ticker-tape parade. What's the Victorian government going to do in response? Do we need it? I mean, a ticker-tape parade's good, right? It's good for small business, better than a public holiday for them.

Assistant Minister for Foreign Affairs: Well, Tom, my principle when it comes to sporting contests has always been to avoid, in any circumstances, putting the mockers on a team. I'm not going to tempt fate by talking about the result of a final that we haven't even qualified for yet. My heart could barely survive the quarterfinal and that longest penalty shootout in World Cup history as it was. I think if I was worried and that I'd contributed in some way to giving bad luck to the team by putting the mockers on them, by talking about the final, I wouldn't be able to live with myself.

Tom Connell: I don't normally like politicians not answering questions, but I'm in furious agreement on that. I mean, to that end, the PM cursed the Australian men's cricket team, didn't he? He held up a two-nil sign with Rishi Sunak and then two all was the result. Should he apologise to the nation?

Assistant Minister for Foreign Affairs: I'm not sure what you're talking about there, Tom. We won that series. We retained the ashes. So, I'm not sure what kind of curse you're talking about their given the result.

Tom Connell: Didn't win the series. Didn't win the series.

Assistant Minister for Foreign Affairs: It was pretty good. We got the urn.

Tom Connell: Yeah, we got the urn. Anyway, look, let's get into slightly more serious stuff. Interesting to note from the US Ambassador what might happen around Julian Assange. Now it seems like the Biden Administration won't drop the extradition request. Would a plea deal, do you think, be an acceptable outcome?

Assistant Minister for Foreign Affairs: Well look, Tom, I'm not going to go into the legal details here but let me just say that the Albanese government has made clear our view that Mr Assange's matter has dragged on for too long and that it should be brought to a close. And we've made that point clear at the appropriate levels to both the US and the UK government. But the reality is that we can't intervene in the legal or judicial processes of any other country in the same ways they can't intervene in our own legal processes. Now, that being said, we've continued to advocate for Mr Assange's interests, advocating about our expectations that he receives due process, fair treatment, access to all medical assistance that he requires, and access to all legal counsel that he provides. And we are continuing to provide consular assistance to Mr Assange.

Tom Connell: We know in diplomacy the way this works, though, that two sides want different things and a side door is sort of found. Is that what a plea deal could be, the diplomatic side door?

Assistant Minister for Foreign Affairs: Well, Tom, you'd be unsurprised that I wouldn't talk about side doors on a television broadcast. Let me say that we have made clear our expectations to both the US and the UK governments, and we've made it clear that this matter has drawn on for too long, dragged on for too long and needs to be drawn to a close.

Tom Connell: But is that the key, though, drawn to a close? You're not being specific around how that needs to happen. However, it happens, if Julian Assange manages to be free of that legal issue, that'd be a good outcome. Is that your view?

Assistant Minister for Foreign Affairs: Well, the matter needs to be drawn to a close. There are constraints on what the Australian government can do in this context. As I say, we can't intervene in the judicial or legal processes of another country any more than any other country could intervene in our judicial or legal processes. So, we've made our expectation clear. This has gone on for too long and should be brought to a close.

Tom Connell: The Prime Minister has indicated any visit he makes to China won't be dependent on Cheng Lei, Australian citizen Cheng Lei being released beforehand. Why not?

Assistant Minister for Foreign Affairs: Well, let me first say, Tom, that the thoughts of the Australian government, indeed all Australians, are with Ms Cheng Lei and particularly her children, her loved ones, at this time. Yesterday was the third anniversary of her detention and it's difficult for any of us to comprehend what she's had to endure in this time. She's shown enormous strength, resilience, courage in this time. And that public statement that she released over the weekend to the Australian people, I don't think any Australian could have read that and not be moved.

The things that she talked about missing, not just her love for her family, but for her love for the things that we all love and appreciate about our country, about Australia, about our love for the natural environment and our way of life. So, our primary focus here is on the welfare of Ms Cheng Lei and we continue to make representations on her behalf at all levels. All ministers do that, the Foreign Minister, both in public statements and in meetings with ministerial counterparts, as do I, as do all Australian government officials. Now, the Prime Minister has said that -

Tom Connell: Given -

Assistant Minister for Foreign Affairs: - he would welcome.

Tom Connell: Go on.

Assistant Minister for Foreign Affairs: Well, the Prime Minister has said that he would welcome a visit to China to meet with Xi Jinping. They have already met in November on the sidelines of the G20 in Bali. And that was a positive meeting. It was an opportunity for Australia to press our national interests. And the Prime Minister has said that dialogue, discussion is always a positive thing. Now, no date has been set for any such visit to China and we've also made clear that any such visit, we would want to happen in the most positive circumstances and that we'd want to work with the Chinese government to continue the positive pathway that the relationship has been on in recent times. Now, Australia has shared interests with China, but we also have differences that need to be managed. And our view is that we can continue the path of the stabilisation of the relationship between Australia and China. We continue to deepen and develop the bilateral relationship while still upholding Australia's national interest if both sides navigate our differences wisely.

Tom Connell: The extent, though, well, the nature of her being detained on what looked like, frankly, ridiculous charges, in addition to how she's being detained, she spoke of seeing 10 hours of sunlight a year. Australians might be saying, well, we get relations are important, but what about principles? Is a visit really appropriate when that's not something China is shifting on?

Assistant Minister for Foreign Affairs: As I say, the welfare of Cheng Lei remains our primary focus and we've continued to make representations at every opportunity, at the ministerial level, at the officials' level. And we've made clear our expectations that Ms Cheng Lei receives due process, fair treatment, access to medical care, ability to speak with her family and access to consular assistance. This is something that we have raised in every ministerial meeting. And as the Prime Minister said, dialogue is a positive thing. It's an opportunity for us to press our national interests.

Tom Connell: Tim Watts. Appreciate your time. Thank you.

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