Doorstop – Parliament House, Canberra

  • Transcript, E&OE
13 March 2021

MINISTER SESELJA:

I’m sorry to keep you waiting today, I was delayed at the memorial service for Sir Michael Somare at the High Commission today. I wanted to start by again expressing Australia’ sincere condolences on the death of the Grand Chief Sir Michael Somare. Obviously a very significant moment in PNG’s history, really the founding father of Papua New Guinea, so on my own behalf, on behalf of the Government I wanted to again express our condolences. Obviously, PNG is mourning at this time, mourning a great leader, and we pay tribute to him today.

I wanted to also take the opportunity to pay tribute to Mathias Cormann on his successful elevation as the Secretary General of the OECD. This is a great moment for Australia, a very significant moment, and it’s a great Australian story. Someone who came to this country not knowing a lot of English, but made an extraordinary contribution to our political life, to public life here in Australia, and I’m very proud, and I think Australia should be very proud that we have one of our own who is going to represent Australia at the highest levels of such an important organisation as the OECD. Anyone who knows Mathias Cormann knows just how relentless he is, it’s a tribute to him, it’s also a tribute to the Prime Minster and Foreign Minister and other senior members of the Government who worked very very hard along with DFAT officials to see this successful outcome, so well done to Mathias.

In relation to the Quad, another historic meeting that we had. The first leaders meeting of the quad. Prime Minister Morrison was very pleased to be part of that initial leaders meeting. It is about a strong and resilient Indo-Pacific. We thank President Biden, we thank Prime Minister Suga and Prime Minister Modi for being part of it. These are critical discussions and obviously a number of important outcomes came from those discussions. Obviously, we are dealing with the COVID pandemic and the economic and the health response. There was significant from all leaders to step up our efforts here in the Indo-Pacific, Australia in particular made an additional announcement of further support for vaccine rollout in South-East Asia, which is critically important. An extra $100 million to the rollout of the vaccine in South-East Asia. We’ve been very focussed on delivering the vaccines here in Australia and also supporting our neighbours in the Pacific and in South-East Asia most particularly. This $100 million comes on top of the already $523 million for the vaccine rollout in South-East Asia and the Pacific, but also in addition to that we’ve committed $80 million to the COVAX facility, so around about $700 million now in vaccine support.

We again affirmed our strong commitment to combating climate change, and working together with our Quad partners on that, and having very much a technology focus. That will continue and of course looking at emerging technologies in other areas now we would collaborate particularly in the rollout of things such as 5G. So, with that I’m very happy to throw it to you for questions.

JOURNALIST:

Just on the Quad vaccine announcement, can you explain how this additional announcement, what’s the interplay with Australia’s existing commitment to the rollout in the Pacific and South-East Asia?

MINISTER SESELJA:

It comes on top of that, so it is on top of that $523 million commitment. So for the Pacific we have already said that for those nine Pacific nations that we’ll be particularly focussed on we will deliver full vaccine rollout for those Pacific nations. The $300-odd million we have already announced for South-East Asia now becomes around $400 million. So what this will do is see more doses of the vaccines available. We’re going to continue to look at ways we can do that. We’ll do it through direct funding, though direct bi-lateral funding as we have already announced, and also through logistical support particularly for that, as we say, that last mile. So actually, not just about procuring the vaccines, but supporting health systems to be able to deliver those vaccines. So what we’ll see in South-East Asia from Australia’s perspective is an extra $100 million worth of support, over and above the $300 million that we’ve already announced, and between the members of the Quad we’ve committed to an additional one billion doses in the Indo-Pacific, with a particular focus on South-East Asia.

JOURNALIST:

Senator, you keep saying the Government’s, how it important it is the Government focus on South-East Asia, wearing my previous hat as Indonesia correspondent, when there’s around 1.5 million cases there now in Indonesia, the testing rates are woefully low. You’re talking about a commitment of money, what about a commitment of actual AstraZeneca vaccines for example, given we’re manufacturing them here, and given that China has already sent millions of doses as I understand it of the CoronaVac vaccine to Indonesia which is now being distributed on the ground? I mean there’s surely a soft diplomacy opportunity there for the Australian Government.

MINISTER SESELJA:

Well there’s a number of aspects to that, but let me just outline that we are providing the support for technical and logistical support as I’ve said, were providing the support for the procurement of vaccines, and what we have said as we rightly focus of course of delivering vaccines here in Australia, we will look at what surplus vaccines we are able to use to support those in our neighbourhood. So that’s very much on our agenda, in both the Pacific and South-East Asia, so we’ll do the support through technical and logistical support, through direct cash-grants to assist with procurement, we will work with the WHO and UNICEF on procurement, but we will also look at where there are surplus doses where they can be provided to assist as well.

JOURNALIST:

Just to the Pacific Islands if I can drill down a bit in terms of the support that we are offering there, what implications does that have for two-way travel bubble between Australia and some of these islands, and what would the timing of that potentially be?

MINISTER SESELJA:

Well look it’s a really good question, and it is a very strong focus for me in my ministerial role. There’s a number of factors at the moment, one of the challenges has been bringing in Pacific workers into Australia, that’s being a focus for both many Pacific nations but also for many in particular in our agriculture industries in Australia. National Cabinet recently announced a pilot program where we’ll be looking at in-country quarantine in some of those nations, starting with Fiji and Vanuatu. Those pilots, that pilot which South Australia has already indicated they will participate in, we hope that other states and territories will also sign up so that we can have more of that travel. I think obviously we’ve been working very hard on two-way travel with New Zealand, that hasn’t yet eventuated, but we are hopefully that as we roll out the vaccine here, as we continue to see low numbers of cases, and virtually no community transmission indeed in the last few weeks no community transmission in Australia, and low cases in New Zealand, that we would see two-way travel, and then we are looking at what opportunities there are for two-way travel into the Pacific. It is a work in progress, it is something that a lot of effort is being put in to. We are always cognisant, we are always working with not just our Chief Health Officer but CHOs from all of the states and territories, who in the end will have to sign off on any two-way travel, and fundamentally state and territory governments will have to sign off if there is going to be travel into their jurisdictions.

JOURNALIST:

Just back to the vaccine announcement, is it fair to describe this as new money, because as I understand it this will be drawn entirely from the 2021-22 aid budget, that’s accurate?

MINISTER SESELJA:

Well yes, it is an addition when it comes to the vaccines announcement that we have made, and as you know a number of those are in addition to our annual aid budget as we have made clear, but when it comes to this $100 million extra commitment for South-East Aid Budget it will be part of our aid budget for 2021-22.

JOURNALIST:

More broadly on the Quad, what do you think is the significance of the meeting and what do you think is likely the interpretation of this meeting? The four leaders have emphasised it’s not about containing China, it’s a positive agenda, focussed on climate change, COVID and the like, but it’s inevitable isn’t it that China will feel this is an effort to contain it?

MINISTER SESELJA:

Well that’s not what it is. But what it is, is very much four like-minded nations coming together and promoting a strong and resilient and prosperous and free Indo-Pacific. How other countries view it of course is a matter for them, but from Australia’s point of view and I think from the discussions that took place amongst Quad leadership, this is a very important step forward. It’s a recognition from the United Sates of continuing to have a very very strong presence in our region, and of course from our partners in Japan and India. We have been working with these nations for a number of years of course, many many decades, on prosperity and freedom in our region, but the Quad has been a significant step up in that, and what the Quad leaders meeting represents is just how seriously each of our nations are taking these relationships, the need for collaboration, the need for cooperation on many of these issues, and that cooperation will now only increase as a result of bringing it to a leaders level.

JOURNALIST:

We have seen the first case of community transmission in Queensland, so far no lockdowns, but that could change. Would you be urging the Premier to exercise some restraint there, and also other premiers to not close their borders?

MINISTER SESELJA:

Well yes, I think it is very important that we recognise the need for ongoing vigilance, that it absolutely right, and all of the measures that have been with us for a long time when it comes to social distancing and other things, will of course continue but in a slightly different form at the moment. No we don’t want to see shutdowns or border closures as a result of this. We have confidence, and I think growing confidence that states and territories are able to get on top of outbreaks. We’ve learnt a lot I think in this last year or so about how to contain these outbreaks, and obviously there’s going to be a growing confidence as the vaccines are rolled out as well.

JOURNALIST:

There’s a push for pharmacies to stay open 24/7 to administer the vaccine, what’s your view on that?

MINISTER SESELJA:

Well look I’ll let the Health Minister comment on those sort of specifics, but what I would say is where it I safe, and we can ramp up the rollout of the vaccine, of course we’ll consider all reasonable options, but I’ll let the Health Minister comment in detail.

JOURNALIST:

Just on Matthias Cormann and his victory, he came under pretty sustained fire from environmental groups over your government’s record on climate change, saying he basically slowed global efforts to bring down emissions. Do you think that criticism is fair, and is there a prospect given he is now in the OECD and has articulated some pretty different language on climate change, he might actually drag Australia closer to the centre of gravity, the European centre of gravity, on this topic?

MINISTER SESELJA:

I don’t fully accept all the premise of your question, because if you look at what Australia is doing in terms of the latest figures, showing a 19% reduction since 2005, that’s more than double the OECD average. If you look at the take up of solar energy and renewables, Australia is an absolute world leader, and of course Mathias was part of the Government that was driving may of those policies, but I would say that it was disappointing when we have the leader of the Greens in Australia arguing against having an Australian in such an important position. I think that is very very hard to justify, and I think some of the arguments that were put forward by the Australian Greens and by parts of the environmental movement clearly have not resonated. People have looked the record of the Australian Government and Mathias Cormann, they’ve looked at what he’s had to say, and they’ve looked at the action we’re taking, but in the end the OECD, the Secretary General’s role of the OECD is a very important one. Obviously climate action is a very important part of that, there are a number of other factors and Mathias is very well qualified to be a really important leader in that space, and of course his relationship with Australia will stand us in very good stead.

JOURNALIST:

Senator, James Hook of the Macquarie Group, son of a former New South Wales Liberal State Treasurer, has said that he had contemporaneous conversations with both Christian Porter and the deceased woman at the centre of the allegations against the Attorney General, and that he’d be happy to provide evidence or information to any inquiry, and that he would support such an inquiry. What’s your response to that?

MINISTER SESELJA:

I don’t have any of that detail, that’s the first I’ve heard of that but in terms of inquiries, I’ve put my views on this on the record again this week as has the Prime Minister in terms of we believe, these matters where there are serious allegations like this, we believe these are matters best raised with the police, and of course if anyone ever has any information on such matters they should take them to the police.

JOURNALIST:

This is a man who has known Mr Porter and the deceased woman for 30 years, who considered himself to be friends with both of them, and he said ‘I would happily provide evidence to an inquiry’ for non-criminal allegations element of this story. You don’t think that there could potentially be a forum, an appropriate forum, outside the coronial inquest, potential coronial inquest, in South Australia, in which these details could be aired?

MINISTER SESELJA:

Well again, not knowing all the details of what he has said it’s difficult for me to comment in absolute detail, other than just to restate when it comes to these kind of serious allegations, they should be taken to the police. If people have other information, they are free to put it forward but what I would say is that the Australian Government’s position very clearly is that these are police matters.

JOURNALIST:

But sorry Senator, the police have said they can’t investigate with this woman has tragically taken her own life, there is no recourse for the police.

MINISTER SESELJA:

The police have said they’ve concluded their investigation, for a number of reasons and I think one of the reasons stated by the New South Wales Police was because the person, before she was deceased, withdrew her complaint. The police have examined the matter and formed those judgements, and I agree with Arthur Moses, the former head of the Law Council of Australia, that we don’t want to provide a shifting-sands approach to these investigations, when criminal investigations are complete.

JOURNALIST:

Is it tenable for the first law officer of this country to return to his role as Attorney General, given the ongoing questions about this matter?

MINISTER SESELJA:

Yes it is.

JOURNALIST:

Minister, Cockatoo Island in WA, there’s a Chinese company that’s been granted a mineral exploration licence. Some national security officials have told colleagues of mine in the ABC they hold deep concerns about this, is this something that the Government is taking a hard look at, are you aware of any analysis being done by Federal Government agencies on this question, and is it possible that that lease can be cancelled?

MINISTER SESELJA:

Well look I’ve seen these reports, but I don’t have probably some of the detail that you’d be seeking and I’d just make that point that as a general proposition, when it comes to specific examinations of foreign investments and the like, we don’t tend to provide ongoing commentary, but in terms of some of those more detailed questions perhaps they’re better directed to the Department of Defence or the Department of Treasury depending on the precise matters.

JOURNALIST:

Still on WA, they’re expecting a wipe out today, will there be collateral damage to the federal Liberals?

MINISTER SESELJA:

No, I wouldn’t think so. Look, lets wait and see what happens. We know obviously that we’ve seen the opinion polls, and we’ve seen the difficult task that the WA Liberal Party have in front of them. They’re obviously working very very hard to make sure they get as many as possible Liberal seats in the Western Australian Parliament, and I certainly wish them well in that endeavour.

JOURNALIST:

Senator, just on WA as well, Mathias Cormann was obviously a very influential figure in the state for a very long time. Do you think the state party would have promised to shut two state owned coal fired power stations if he was still running the state?

MINISTER SESELJA:

Well that’s really quite a hypothetical. That’s really difficult to answer, in the end state parties as I’ve found make their own policies and they make their own judgements, and in the end they’re held accountable for them at the ballot box.

JOURNALIST:

There is no influential figure there. I mean you’ve got: Mathias Cormann’s gone, Christian Porter and both Linda Reynolds now have some pretty serious allegations against them, how do they rebuild following this election?

MINISTER SESELJA:

Well I think it’s a bit unfair to my WA colleagues. I think we are very well represented including at the very senior ranks, in addition to those you’ve mention I’d mention my good friend and colleague Michaelia Cash for instance, or Ben Morton, or Andrew Hastie, I mean we have Ken Wyatt of course in the Cabinet, we have a number of senior WA Liberals. Obviously state issues are often quite different, we often see quite different results, and we’ve seen that over the years in places like Queensland, where we have a state Labor government, but of curse many many Coalition seats in that state. WA at the moment seems to be in a pretty similar position, but in the end of course we want to see our colleagues do as well as we can as Liberals. I fear that may not be the case at the election today, of course we’re hoping for as many seats as possible but let’s wait and see what happens see what happens.

JOURNALIST:

Just back on the vaccines, Brendan Murphy said that the international supply has been a significant issue of vaccines, do you expect that will continue?

MINISTER SESELJA:

We’re obviously working very hard, and we worked very hard to make sure that we didn’t put all of our eggs in any one basket, and that’s been the really important part. Obviously procuring different vaccines from different places, and also developing our own sovereign capability, so we’ll continue to work through those issues but what I would say is that having that sovereign capability here means that as those issues arise from time to time with supply chains, we’ll be very well placed as we see those doses manufactured here in Australia, tested by the TGA, giving Australia great confidence. Thank you very much.

[ENDS]

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