Interview with Peter Stefanovic, First Edition, Sky News

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10 August 2022

SUBJECTS: Australia-China relations; Taiwan; Solomon Islands election; Jobs and Skills Summit.

PETER STEFANOVIC, HOST: Well let's head straight to Canberra now because joining us is the Acting Prime Minister Richard Marles. Richard, good to see you.  Thanks for your time this morning. So China has fired more shots at your Government overnight. With your comments last week you have created obstacles, it says. Australia is to blame for the breakdown, it says. What is your reaction to those comments? 

ACTING PRIME MINISTER RICHARD MARLES: Well we want to maintain the most productive relationship we can with China. We will always speak to our national interests, which is what we've been doing, and the global rules-based order. Freedom of navigation, for example in places like the South China Sea, are really fundamental to Australia's national interest being a trading island nation where most of our trade goes through that body of water. So we will always speak to those interests, but we also seek to speak in a professional, respectful, diplomatic tone, and that's all we can do. We control our side of this. We know how we're engaging, the rest is a matter for others. 

STEFANOVIC: Well I mean this is pretty heavy stuff that it's alleging overnight and it's a continuation of the attacks that it made against the former Morrison Government. Is any of it true? 

ACTING PRIME MINISTER: Well we don't accept what's being said, obviously.  I mean, as I say, we've made it clear that we value a productive relationship with China. They're our largest trading partner. We would like to see the relationship be put in a better place, and they're comments that we've consistently been making since the election, and we've also made it clear that the tone under this government will be very different to the one that we saw under the former government. But the Government has changed in Australia, our national interest hasn't. We will continue to speaker for our national interest, we must do that. And we will do that without fear or favour and if that differs from the action of any other country, including China, well so be it. But our first duty and our principal duty is to be speaking to Australia's national interest and we'll continue to do that. 

STEFANOVIC: China says it's staying in the Strait now for the foreseeable future. Is it now closer to an invasion than it was just a week ago? 

ACTING PRIME MINISTER: Oh, I don't want to speculate on that, but I do think that what we've seen overnight is deeply concerning and what we really want to see is de‑escalation of tension here, a return to a more peaceful environment. I mean that has to be the aspiration of the region, of the world. It's certainly of ours. We want to see a de‑escalation of tensions and that's what we would be calling for. 

STEFANOVIC: Taipei has meanwhile thanked Australia overnight but said that it needs more international help. What can, or what will, you provide? 

ACTING PRIME MINISTER: Well, we maintain again a good relationship with the people of Taiwan. We've had a productive trade and investment relationship with Taiwan, and we will continue to do that. And we will continue to stand firm on articulating the need for a global rules-based order and the application of that order all round the world, including in the Taiwan Strait. 

STEFANOVIC: Anything relating to military help though, would you be willing to provide Taipei? 

ACTING PRIME MINISTER: Well again I don't think it serves to walk down that path now. What we really want to see is a de‑escalation of tensions in the region and in the Taiwan Strait and that's our focus. 

STEFANOVIC: Okay. So it says overnight that it will conduct its own live-fire drills as a response to China, so is it within its rights to do that or when you say you'd like to see a de‑escalation would you prefer Taiwan didn't do that? 

ACTING PRIME MINISTER: Well again, we're not about to tell Taiwan what to do.  Ultimately that is a matter for Taiwan –

STEFANOVIC: But you've asked China to de‑escalate? 

ACTING PRIME MINISTER: Yeah, what we want to see is a de‑escalation of tension. That's self‑evident, we need to see that. And we want to see a return to a more peaceful environment around the Taiwan Strait. And all of that is underpinned by the fundamental position which Australia maintains, and that is that we don't want to see any unilateral changes to the status quo across the Taiwan Strait. 

STEFANOVIC: But Taiwan's the little guy here, it should have a right to send a message back, right? 

ACTING PRIME MINISTER: Well, again, we're not about to tell Taiwan what it can or can't do, so I'm not going to make any comment on that. I think what the world wants to see is a de‑escalation of tension here and a return to normality and a return to a situation where the status quo across the Taiwan Strait is unchanged. 

STEFANOVIC: Is our military on standby at all? 

ACTING PRIME MINISTER: Well I'm not going to go into that on air. I mean, our military in the ordinary course of events, in ordinary times, maintains an appropriate state of readiness and that's where it's at at the moment. 

STEFANOVIC: Do you hope the Ambassador calms things down at the Press Club today? 

ACTING PRIME MINISTER: Well, again, we'll see what the Ambassador has to say.  We do want to see calm restored in the Taiwan Strait but I'm not about to tell the Ambassador what to say or what not to say. That's obviously a matter for the Ambassador. 

STEFANOVIC: A couple of quick ones here, Richard. The Solomon Islands Prime Minister, he wants to delay the elections until 2024. Is democracy being denied to the people of the Solomon Islands? 

ACTING PRIME MINISTER: I don't think we can make that assessment yet. I mean democracy is fundamentally important in our region and constitutions are, but this is ultimately a question that is before the Solomon Islands Parliament and so I would note that. This is a decision that's being made by their Parliament and it's a democratically elected Parliament. So it's really at the end of the day a matter for the Parliamentarians.

STEFANOVIC: Are you prepared for any unrest in the Solomon Islands? 

ACTING PRIME MINISTER: Well again we're supporting Solomon Islands in respect of their domestic situation, and we've done that over a long period of time. We don't have any requests from Solomon Islands for further assistance but, you know, you can look at Australia's history in relation to those requests to have a sense of how we would respond. 

STEFANOVIC: Do you hope Peter Dutton goes to the Job Summit? 

ACTING PRIME MINISTER: Well again it's a matter for the Leader of the Opposition, but the Jobs and Skills Summit is going to be a really important step in terms of the rebuilding of our nation’s economy. One of the things that's really clear is that over the last nine years we've had insipid productivity growth. That's really what has underpinned flat lining wages, record low wage growth over the last decade, and we've got to turn that around. And a critical part of that is in respect of skills. We've got a skills crisis in this country, and again you can look at the de‑funding of TAFE as an example that has occurred over the last 10 years as a reason why we find ourselves with the skills crisis that we've currently got. We as a new government want to turn this around, get skills back into our economy, climb that value chain and in the process build productivity and, in the process, build wage growth and prosperity. The Jobs and Skills Summit is the starting point of that and we are very keen to get the country together to do this. You know, the Opposition's attitude to this is a matter for them. 

STEFANOVIC: Well they say that they don't want to go because it's going to be a Labor-union love in. 

ACTING PRIME MINISTER: Well, I mean that's kind of the puerile commentary that you would expect from the Opposition. At the moment what we're seeking to do is to bring the country together. There'll be unions there for sure, but there'll be business, and business are really keen to be there because business knows how important it is that we deal with the skills crisis. You can speak to any business, large or small, in this country today and what they will talk to you about is the fact that they are struggling to find the people with the skills that they need for their business. So this is a critical moment for them. They understand it. They're going to be there in force. And we are bringing the country together. Whether or not the Opposition want to be a part of that is a matter for them. 

STEFANOVIC: Okay, the Acting Prime Minister Richard Marles live from Canberra.  Thank you, Richard, we'll talk to you soon.

ENDS

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