Interview Greg Jennett, ABC News

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The Hon Richard Marles MP

Deputy Prime Minister

Minister for Defence

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02 6277 7800

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17 November 2022

SUBJECTS: Sean Turnell; Freedom of Navigation Operations; Australia-China relationship; Letters sent to asylum seekers; War in Ukraine

GREG JENNETT, HOST: OK, so the Prime Minister is moving on from Indonesia to Thailand for the APEC Summit today and that means Richard Marles is Acting Prime Minister for a few more days. He joins us now from Perth. Welcome back, Acting PM. Sean Turnell - the news reaching our shores today, that movement is imminent. What do you have on his release? Has it happened? Is it in train? Any word through official channels?

RICHARD MARLES, ACTING PRIME MINISTER: Look, I don't have much to add, Greg, and that's for obvious reasons. We obviously welcome the news that we have heard, this is good news. We've been very focused on advocating on behalf of Professor Turnnell for a long time now and our focus very much is on his welfare. And so with that in mind, I don't want to add anything to what is currently in the public domain, but this is very much welcome news and we're looking forward to a good outcome.

JENNETT: Would you describe it as a work in progress for that core of DFAT officials? Who we know, as a matter of record, have put quite some time into this.

MARLES: Well, they have, as you rightly say, put a lot of time into this and I think at this point, whilst welcoming the news, I think it's important in a sense, to keep it at that. We are very focused on Professor Turnell's welfare, but what we've heard today is very much welcome news.

JENNETT: Does that hint at some doubt or distrust about the process that would normally accompany a release and then obviously a transfer to something like an airport?

MARLES: No, I wouldn't want you to read any of that into it. It's really about saying that at this moment, it's probably fair to say less is more, in terms of what I say, given that our focus is very much on Professor Turnell's welfare. As I say, we do welcome the news, but I will keep it at that.

JENNETT: Okay. I understand you are in an elevated capacity as I ask you those questions. I wanted to ask you one, though, more as Defence Minister. We've seen the Prime Minister having those discussions with President Xi this week and trade and human rights were among the topics canvassed. You've made a lot throughout this year about Chinese military conduct in the South China Sea, in particular. Harassment and shadowing of Australian ships and planes. Was that raised by the Prime Minister? Do you see the cessation of those activities as essential for any restart in this Sino-Australia relationship?

MARLES: Well, we engage in a number of activities, and we have done so for a long period of time, decades, which asserts the global rules-based order, in this instance, the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea and freedom of navigation, freedom of overflight, because it goes to our trade routes. And as a trading island nation, we are very dependent upon those routes. And most of our trade actually goes through the South China Sea. And so we engage in activities which assert the rules-based order, which in this instance, assert freedom of navigation, as it's understood under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea. Now, we understand that in doing this, there are, from time to time, interactions with the Chinese military. All we've ever said there is that we want to make sure that that is done in a way which is professional and which is safe. And going back to the incident which occurred in May of this year, the point that we made then was that we wanted to see these interactions as being professional and safe. But we will certainly continue -

JENNETT: But it's bordered on the dangerous on numerous occasions, hasn't it? So it's not just about being professional and safe. It's actually crossed a line at times. I suppose the question is, do you demand the cessation of those activities?

MARLES: Well, we've obviously advocated very clearly our right to firstly undertake our activities, which are the assertion of international law at its heart. And we've made it really clear that actions which are not safe and are not acceptable, and we've made that very clear. And what we've said is that interactions need to be done in a professional and a safe way. Now, you're right that the incident which occurred with our P8 back in May of this year was not safe, and we made our position known to China at the time. I think, looking forward, what we seek to do is to continue our legitimate activities of asserting freedom of navigation and freedom of overflight on the high seas and to make sure that the interaction between our militaries occur in a manner which is professional, and one which is safe.

JENNETT: All right, let's bring it back home. You may have caught some of our earlier conversations regarding these letters that Home Affairs - and you are very familiar with this portfolio on immigration more generally. Clare O'Neil describing the letters to asylum seekers as inappropriate. The Department says they were not sent in error. How do you reconcile these conflicts between Minister and Department?

MARLES: There's no need to reconcile. The Minister has made her position really clear that these letters were sent and they were sent inappropriately. And I think the point to be made here is that whichever way you look at it, we're talking about a vulnerable group of people. We're talking about really sensitive matters and they need to be dealt with sensitivity. And really, that's the point that the Home Affairs Minister is making and going forward that's how the Department will operate.

JENNETT: So what was inappropriate was only the language? I mean, will letters of any tone be sent again by this Government to people in this cohort?

MARLES: Well, the point that the Home Affairs Minister was making was that these letters sent to this group of people were inappropriate, inappropriate in their tone and did not deal with, in the way I described it, with a group that is vulnerable dealing with sensitive matters, it did not deal with them in a sensitive way. That's really the point that the Home Affairs Minister has made and she couldn't have made it more clearly.

JENNETT: Okay, but, those forms of communication, whatever the tone, will continue, will they?

MARLES: Well, I mean that the Home Affairs Department communicates with people, but in all instances it needs to be done in a way which is sensitive and obviously deals with the content of the situation that any person finds themselves in, but which deals with people in a sensitive way and particularly when we're talking about such sensitive issues as this. And really, that's the point that the Home Affairs Minister is making. And she's made it very clear, she's made it clear that these letters do not meet her expectations and that they won't happen again. And that's really the end of the matter.

JENNETT: Yeah, okay. Look, also on Ukraine, Minister, there is a consensus emerging - Jens Stoltenberg for one - says there's no indication that the missiles that landed, unfortunately, in Poland were the result of a deliberate attack. And there is consensus view that they were probably part of a Ukrainian missile defence shield. If that were the case, does it give you any pause for thought about the military aid being pumped into this war by Australia? Of course mistakes can be made at any time, but does it cause you to reflect on the volume of material that that country is receiving right now?

MARLES: Well, there's an investigation underway in relation to this particular matter and I think we need to wait for the outcome of that investigation. But as you say, I'm aware of the comments that have been reported by NATO and others in respect of it. I don't think it fundamentally changes the basis upon which we're engaging with Ukraine and the fundamentals of this conflict, which are that what we have seen with Russia's invasion of Ukraine is a large country seeking to impose itself on a smaller neighbour and not by reference to the rule of law, but by reference to power and might. And the challenge that represents to the global rules-based order is so significant that it cannot be allowed to stand. Because the global rules-based order obviously matters in Eastern Europe, but it matters in the Indo-Pacific as well. And it's for all those reasons that we see there are principles at stake in this conflict which engage Australia's national interest and why we will stand with Ukraine for the duration of this conflict so that Ukraine is in a position to determine the outcome of this conflict on its terms. And this is a very tragic and unfortunate incident, but it doesn't fundamentally change the circumstances as I've just described them. And for that reason, we will continue to support Ukraine for as long as it takes.

JENNETT: Yeah, I guess it only underscores the dangers of everything that's going on there. We've covered a bit of ground today. Richard Marles, comes with being Acting Prime Minister, I suppose, as well as Defence Minister. Thanks for your time today.

MARLES: Thanks Greg.


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