Tom Connell, Sky News Australia

  • Transcript, E&OE
Subjects: The Foreign Minister’s comments on colonialism, Sanctions against Myanmar, IMF views on NDIS funding.

Tom Connell: Joining me live is Foreign Affairs Assistant Minister Tim Watts for more on this and some other issues. Thanks for your time.

Assistant Minister for Foreign Affairs: Good morning, Tom.

Tom Connell: These comments got a little bit of a gentle rebuke, perhaps, in the UK. Has the minister just slightly overstepped the mark here?

Assistant Minister for Foreign Affairs: Look, Tom, I mean, I was following Foreign Minister Penny Wong’s trip to the UK closely, and she spoke very warmly about our relationship with Britain. Indeed, we’re very closely aligned both on values and in our interests of protecting the rules-based international order. We’re standing side by side in the conflict in Ukraine in Russia’s illegal, immoral invasion there and fighting for the rules-based order there, as we are in our region.

Now, the point that the Foreign Minister was making is that in our own region, in the Indo-Pacific, there are countries that are competing with countries like Australia, the UK, the US, who like to characterise countries like ours as colonial nations that are out of step with our own region.

Now, the point that we’ve been making under the Albanese Government is that we think the full story of Australia, a story that encompasses our Indigenous heritage, our Westminster traditions and our multicultural migration is soft power asset. If we tell that whole story about the way that Australia has transcended that colonial period and become a modern, thriving multicultural nation, that’s a soft power asset for us in the region. So we want to tell the full story of Australia.

Tom Connell: Nonetheless, the message from Minister Wong was Britain needs to face up to its colonial past. The message from the UK was we have. So they didn’t take too kindly to this.

Assistant Minister for Foreign Affairs: Well, Tom, no-one’s saying that we shouldn’t be talking about history. I think there’s a lot of alignment between what Foreign Minister Wong and James Cleverly were saying. They were saying that if you tell the full story of our countries, the arc from the colonial period to today, that’s a story that embraces the strengths of the democratic system. That’s a story that embraces the ability of democratic systems to change and to evolve, to become greater countries today than we were the day before. I don’t think there was any difference at all there. Indeed, I saw James Cleverly’s tweets this morning and they started off with, “Best of mates.” So I’m not sure what this sort of difference that people are trying to make out of this is, to be honest.

Tom Connell: Well, of course, it’s not as if – I’m not saying relations are ruined there, and he’s a diplomat as well, but her message was that Britain needs to face up, and his return when he was asked by a journalist was, “We have faced up, and look at the multicultural government we are right now.” Now, clearly that’s a response from him that suggests that the need to face up to colonialism, he says it’s happened and he prefers the face of the future. That’s the difference.

Assistant Minister for Foreign Affairs: Well, Tom, I mean, we’re talking about a process here. You know, I think that there is merit and strength in talking about the journey that both of our countries have been on since that colonial period. Now, you know, the ability for democratic systems to change and to evolve and to grow, that’s our great strength. When you look at authoritarian systems, when you look at some of the countries that we are competing with in our region, they’re not able to change and adapt and evolve in the same way.

Tom Connell: Okay.

Assistant Minister for Foreign Affairs: So I think telling that whole story is an important part of talking about the evolution of our nation.

Tom Connell: Okay. Sanctions on Myanmar, the Australian Government has now announced them. It took a while. I mean, it’s impossible to ignore the timing, coming after the rerelease of Australian Sean Turnell. How much of a factor was that?

Assistant Minister for Foreign Affairs: Well, Australia announced a comprehensive package of autonomous sanctions earlier this week that make clear our determination to hold human rights abusers and their enablers accountable in our region. Now, we announced sanctions, autonomous sanctions, targeted financial sanctions and travel bans on 16 individuals in the Myanmar regime and two entities associated with the military regime.

Now, sanctions aren't the first tool in the diplomatic shed; you don't reach for them in the first instance necessarily. What we’ve been doing over the last two years is seeking to maximise pressure on those that undertook a coup over democratic government in Myanmar. And the best way that we’ve sought to pursue that over the last two years is through our region. ASEAN centrality is very important to us. We’ve sought to work through ASEAN for the five-point consensus in ASEAN to seek a durable, peaceful resolution to the conflict in Myanmar. And we thank the ASEAN Chair and the ASEAN Special Envoy for doing that.

Tom Connell: Okay.

Assistant Minister for Foreign Affairs: So that’s what we’ve been doing. There are lots of tools of influence and leverage in the international sphere. Sanctions are an important tool, but they’re not always the first one that you reach for.

Tom Connell: Okay. Just letting our viewers know – I believe they’re not actually live pictures, but just from a few moments ago you can see on your screen there, this is the First Ministers of Australia to the PM, Premiers and Chief Ministers. They’re signing a document committing to working collaboratively to support a constitutionally enshrined Voice to Parliament. So they’ve all signed that document. So we’ll hear from the PM in a moment on that and on a big push around health as well.

Tim Watts, we’re talking about Myanmar sanctions. No sanction on state-owned enterprises. Australian-linked mining companies and investors are still doing business. Why is the government still allowing that?

Assistant Minister for Foreign Affairs: Well, these – the sanctions that we’ve announced this week are a result of careful deliberation and consultation, of discussion within our own system and within our region. And they’re very carefully targeted at those who are responsible for the coup that occurred two years ago. So they’re targeting the individuals that overturned the democratic government in Myanmar as well as a few military-related organisations, designed to try and reduce financial support directly for that regime.

Tom Connell: But don’t these mining companies have links to the junta? There are direct links aren’t there?

Assistant Minister for Foreign Affairs: These sanctions are designed – these are targeted sanctions that we’ve announced this week to maximise pressure on the individuals who are responsible for this to say that their stubbornness and maliciousness won’t be tolerated

Tom Connell: So, none of the mining companies Australians are doing business with have any links to the military junta, is that what you’re saying?

Assistant Minister for Foreign Affairs: No, what I’m saying is that the sanctions that we’ve announced this week on 16 individuals and two entities are carefully calibrated and they’re the result of significant consultation and discussions in our region and designed to maximise pressure on the individuals who are most responsible for the coup that occurred two years ago. That’s what we’re trying to do – we’re trying to work collaboratively in the region to maximise pressure.

Tom Connell: But if you’ve got Australian-linked mining companies and investors doing business with companies linked to the military junta it’s not maximising pressure.

Assistant Minister for Foreign Affairs: Look, all of our sanctions regimes remain under careful consideration. I’m not going to speculate on any subsequent action that we might or might not take. But I can say that this week the sanctions that we have announced have been carefully targeted.

Tom Connell: All right. Just finally and on another topic here, the IMF has been viewing the NDIS. It talks about the cost being well above OECD nations for comparative programs. We know it’s a huge and spiralling cost. It says we should look at means testing and/or co-payments to make this be sustainable. Is Labor open to that?

Assistant Minister for Foreign Affairs: Well, look, we welcome all views, and that IMF report I thought was a glowing report card on Australia’s economic management. It gave a big tick to our policies on cheaper child care, fee-free TAFE, parental leave. It also said that our budget restraint was helping to constrain inflation, help the Reserve Bank do its job.

Now, it correctly identified that, secondly, after increasing interest on the trillion dollars of debt that we inherited from the previous government, growth in spending on the NDIS is the second-fastest growing expenditure in the budget. Now, the minister, Bill Shorten, has been in discussion with the Treasurer and Finance Minister on this, and he’s kicked off a review of the NDIS. And this is one of the things he’s looking at.

You know, we founded the NDIS, we are strong believers in it. We want to ensure that it’s affordable and sustainable but, crucially, that it’s delivering for participants.

Tom Connell: Okay.

Assistant Minister for Foreign Affairs: In my community NDIS is a really important thing. It’s really a valued reform institution in our democracy.

Tom Connell: Tim Watts, thanks for your time today.

Assistant Minister for Foreign Affairs: Pleasure, Tom.

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