Interview with Michael Rowland, ABC News Breakfast

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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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18 November 2022

MICHAEL ROWLAND, HOST: The Acting Prime Minister and Defence Minister Richard Marles joins us now from Perth. Richard Marles, good morning. Your reaction to this overnight verdict?

RICHARD MARLES, ACTING PRIME MINISTER: I think mixed emotions is the word, Michael. I mean, it is a really important step forward that this court has found where accountability lies, that there is a conviction that has been made and that there is accountability with Russia. Obviously, though, as you point out, those three people were tried in absentia. They remain at large. There’s no sign that Russia is about to hand them over. And so, I think that remains a sense that there is unfinished business here.

But, look, it is a very important step in the right direction to have accountability, to have that clearly laid at the feet of these three individuals and at Russia. And that’s important. And there will be some comfort for the families as there is, I think, for the nation that comes from that.

ROWLAND: Okay. I guess there’s better comfort for the family of Sean Turnell, the economist freed at last from that Myanmar jail. Obviously, a great step for the family and a welcome move on behalf of the Australian government.

MARLES: Well, this is a very joyous moment for Professor Turnell, obviously, but also for his family and literally the thousands of people who have been campaigning for his release. And I do want to acknowledge all of those dedicated officials at the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade who have worked tirelessly to bring about the release of Professor Turnell. We’re really, really pleased to see that this has happened. He’s in good spirits given all that has occurred to him. He’s spent the better part of two years in jail. We’re providing medical support. It’s going to take some time, I think, for Professor Turnell to recover. But we shouldn’t forget that this is a man who has spent the better part of two years in jail for doing nothing other than his job. And it is really important that we’ve seen his release, and, you know, this will be a very happy day for his family.

ROWLAND: One Australian is out after a foreign jail; another in the form of Australian TV news reader Cheng Lei is still in a Chinese prison facing espionage charges. We had that high-profile meeting this week between the Prime Minister and the Chinese President. What is the Australian government doing to try to get Cheng Lei home as well?

MARLES: Yeah, look, I mean, Cheng Lei again is a very distressing case. We continue to advocate on behalf of Cheng Lei to the Chinese government. We have raised our very serious objections to her detention in the first place, but, you know, she needs to be provided with appropriate consular assistance, appropriate consular access, access to her family. She’s not seen her children for the last two years. And it goes without saying that there needs to be proper processes of justice and procedural fairness here.

So, we are continuing to advocate with the Chinese government in relation to Cheng Lei, and hers is a case which remains very much front of mind in terms of the way we are engaging with China.

ROWLAND: Okay. We had that meeting between the Prime Minister and China’s President Xi Jinping. What’s next? Where does the Australian government hope this relationship goes next, Richard Marles?

MARLES: Well, it was a very important step that took place during the week with the meeting between Prime Minister Albanese and President Xi, the first meeting between our two countries’ leaders in six years. This is a relationship which is complex, it obviously has difficulties in it. It’s precisely because of that that we need to have communication in place, which is why we’ve wanted to change the tone of the relationship since coming to government and to try and have that communication there.

You know, we do obviously value a productive relationship with China. China is our largest trading partner and it would be good to see that trade brought back online. But, you know, I think there’s a lot of water still to go under the bridge here. There are a lot of challenges in the relationship, and we will continue to articulate Australia’s national interests when that differs from Chinese action. We’ll continue obviously to raise issues of human rights, the consular issues that we’ve just described with Cheng Lei and others. And that just highlights that there are a lot of issues that remain at large in this relationship.

ROWLAND: Can Australian wine growers, beef producers and the many others still hurting from these sanctions be more optimistic now than they were last week that those trade sanctions will start to ease sometime hopefully soon?

MARLES: Well, look, it’s a step in the right direction, and we continue to advocate to China about removing those trade sanctions. We want to see that happen. I mean, ultimately that is going to be a decision for China. And I do think that there is water to go under the bridge, still. But this is a step in the right direction, and we want to try and take the relationship to a better place. We want to stabilise it. And China is a – it’s our largest trading partner, and so there’s a lot of economic interest that we have with China, which is why it’s important to try and get this relationship into a different place to where it’s been over the last few years.

ROWLAND: Okay, I want to finish with some more big news from overseas this week – Donald Trump announcing his second tilt at the White House. How does the Australian government, Richard Marles, feel about the prospect of a second Trump presidency?

MARLES: Well, I mean, it’s not for me to comment on the internal politics of another country. I mean, we all watch, as I know you do and I do, American politics very closely, and we will watch that play out. And ultimately the American people will have their say, as they have over the course of the last week or so with the mid-term elections.

Our focus is on working with the US government that is in place right now, and we are doing that at a pace. There’s a huge agenda that we have with the United States. Our alliance with the United States is as important now as it has probably ever been in its history. And so, we continue to work with them through the AUKUS arrangement, through our alliance structures. And I’ll be visiting the United States in the next few weeks as part of that.

ROWLAND: Richard Marles, Acting Prime Minister, appreciate your time. Thank you.


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