An interview with Julie Bishop


Interview with the Foreign Minister Ms Julie Bishop as she is on an official  visit to India:


By  Suhasini Haider

JOURNALIST        Ms. Bishop, Thank you so much for speaking with us. To begin with India and Australia are exchanging many different parts of their relationship with each other, the strategic relationship between the two; there is the economic relationship and possible Free Trade Agreement negotiation as well. As your Government now engages with India, what will drive the relationship between the two countries?

JULIE BISHOP        The incumbent Government is determined to make the Australia-India relationship a Foreign Policy priority. We already have a strong base to work from in terms of our economic relationship, the trade and investment is increasing between our two countries, we have a strategic partnership, we are determined to broaden, deepen and, in fact, diversify the relationship both bilaterally but also working together in our region and also in the global forums in which we both are members such as the G-20 and the East Asia Summit. So, we believe that Australia and India are natural partners in many areas and we are determined to build on the road that already exists for the benefit of both our countries.

JOURNALIST        Well, part of that is, of course, the partnership and the ongoing negotiations over uranium which seem to be unending, there is another round that is expected now. How soon, many would ask in India, before we actually see that come to some sort of fruition?

JULIE BISHOP        We recognize that India has energy security needs and Australia intends to be a trusted and very reliable supplier of energy resources to meet India’s growing needs, not just in uranium but also coal and LNG. By 2018 Australia is likely to be the world’s largest exporter of LNG. We hope that we will be able to supply to meet the increasing needs in this part of the world. On uranium, the last Australian Government supported, in principle, selling of uranium to India for peaceful purposes. There was a change in attitude by the previous Government, but thankfully the commitment is now there to sell Australian uranium to India. Negotiations for the agreement, the Nuclear Civil Cooperation Agreement, commenced earlier this year and the Third Round of Negotiations will take place shortly. There are some issues to be worked through because Foreign Minister Khurshid and I met recently in Perth and we both concluded that the Agreement should be finished as soon as possible.

JOURNALIST        Even so, the issue seems fairly serious. India is willing to give guarantees on the basis of what it has already given to the IAEA. Australia, perhaps, is looking for something more than that. Is that something Australia is willing to move on?

JULIE BISHOP        We are in the middle of negotiations and I am confident that we will be able to find common ground and so all the levels of negotiations will continue. But Foreign Minister Khurshid and I both agree that it is important for both our countries for this nuclear agreement to be concluded as soon as possible.

JOURNALIST        You met with Mr. Khurshid just recently. You have been at the Commonwealth Summit there in Sri Lanka. But Australia was one of the countries that, in fact, pushed for the Commonwealth Summit in Sri Lanka and, in fact, had also pushed for a high level participation from India there. Do you think that it was a mistake for India not to have participated at the Prime Ministerial level?

JULIE BISHOP        That is a matter for the Indian Government and the Indian Prime Minister. From Australia’s perspective, we decided that we should be engaging with Sri Lanka, not isolating Sri Lanka and it was the unanimous decision for Sri Lanka to host the CHOGM Meeting. So, we were prepared to support Sri Lanka in hosting it and also to raise with Sri Lanka face-to-face any concerns that have been there since the end of the civil war in Sri Lanka. Overall, I believe the CHOGM Meeting was a success and I am happy that the Australian Prime Minister was also present. I attended the Pre-CHOGM Meeting of Foreign Ministers there.

JOURNALIST        But given all that we saw there in Colombo, do you think the Commonwealth Summit was really overshadowed by the issue of human rights violations in Sri Lanka?

JULIE BISHOP        There were some unprecedented moments in this CHOGM Meeting. A number of Heads of States or Prime Ministers did not attend the meeting and that it is unusual. Sri Lanka is still a contributing member of the Commonwealth and we believe that it should be encouraged to continue to respond to the ideals of the Commonwealth and other member nations there were also equally supportive of Sri Lanka’s attempts to come to terms with the end of what was a bloody 30-year civil war and as my Prime Minister said, we need to praise as well as judge and I believe that it was courageous, in one sense, of Sri Lanka to hold an international conference, the first of those since the 1970s, because they would be subjected to considerable scrutiny. But nevertheless, many Heads of States and Prime Ministers did attend and I believe the CHOGM will be seen as a success from that point of view.

JOURNALIST        You are calling it a success, but the British Foreign Secretary, before the Commonwealth Summit, did say that to not have the Prime Minister would be a blow to the Commonwealth process. Do you think the fact that India did not have its Prime Minister there was, in some way, a blow to the Commonwealth?

JULIE BISHOP        I am not going to criticize India for making that decision. It is a matter for the Indian Government; it is a matter for the Indian Prime Minister. But I think that the Commonwealth is stronger than just concerns between particular member nations. The Commonwealth is a unique organization, made up of large nations, small nations from different continents and are bound together by their commitment to a set of values, democracy, rule of law and diversity. So, it is quite an extraordinary organization and the fact that Sri Lanka was able to hold the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting notwithstanding the concerns of some of the member States. I think it is a testimony of the strength of the Commonwealth and the bonds that tie the member States.

JOURNALIST        Alright. I am not going to try and pin you down, but I will ask this. Australia is the outgoing Chair of the Commonwealth and as the outgoing Chair of the Commonwealth, given the controversies that almost seem to have overshadowed the Commonwealth itself, do you think the Commonwealth countries should have rethought the decision to hold that Summit there in Sri Lanka this time?

JULIE BISHOP        No, I believe that it was the right thing to do to give Sri Lanka the opportunity to host a meeting of this stature and Sri Lanka believed it was ready to emerge on to the world stage again after 30 years of its civil war and the Commonwealth should have given that opportunity. It was a unanimous decision at that time and I believe that the holding of the CHOGM Meeting there was the right thing to do. It also gave the countries that have concerns with human rights record and the reconciliation process in Sri Lanka the opportunity to raise those matters directly with the Sri Lankan Government.

JOURNALIST        Alright. If I can move on to another issue of rights in the sense, an Australian national is Julian Assange and many have criticized Australia for not doing enough for a person who is an Australian citizen who is now, practically, in incarceration for more than a year. Do you think that the entire Wiki Leaks controversy, in a sense, has shadowed that light on Australia? Should Australia be rethinking to support Julian Assange?

JULIE BISHOP        On the contrary, I believe that Australia has provided appropriate consular support to Mr. Assange. He chose to seek political asylum in the Ecuadorian Embassy, but the Australian Government has provided appropriate level of consular support throughout the challenges that he has faced. There are court proceedings in Sweden, there are court proceedings in Britain, he has had access to those court proceedings, he has had support from lawyers and I am satisfied that we provided an appropriate level of consular support. At any time, there are hundreds of Australians in trouble overseas in one form or another and I have judged that the support that we have given to Mr. Assange is appropriate in the circumstances.

JOURNALIST        Alright. Given all the new revelations about the kind of surveillance that the Embassy has been undertaking, many would say what Wiki Leaks has done in bringing out a lot of these is justified. Does Australia now, in a sense, want to rethink the kind of support Mr Assange has got? So far, Australia has not actually tried to help him in his asylum or in terms of his freedom to express himself there.

JULIE BISHOP        Well, I don’t accept that proposition at all. The Australian Government has provided consular support as requested. But in other instances Mr. Assange has not requested support. But we stand ready to provide an appropriate level of consular support that we provide to any other person in similar circumstances.

JOURNALIST        Alright. Let me come back to India-Australia ties at the end. A few years ago, it seemed that the issue of the safety of Indian students in Australia was actually at the top of India-Australia relations. Do you think that part of the relationship has been reworked, in a sense, because India and Australia have moved ahead?

JULIE BISHOP        I certainly hope so. There have been lessons learnt. But we still have a significant number of Indian students coming to Australia. We value their presence, we appreciate the fact that they come to Australia, we hope that they have a quality educational experience and, in fact, the new Government intends to reverse the situation by putting in place a programme which will send Australian students to study in the region. So, over time, I hope that not only we would be able to have Indian students in Australia for a quality educational experience, but young Australians will come to India to study in your universities here and have a quality education in India. So, that kind of two-way student exchange will certainly the bolster the relationship and hopefully set up friendships and networks for generations.  

JOURNALIST        And of course, as part of those shared Australian-Indian experience involves cricket. You were in Mumbai for that final day of the Cricket career of Sachin Tendulkar. Just give us a sense of what it was like?

JULIE BISHOP        It was really exciting to be in Mumbai on the day of Sachin Tendulkar’s last Test Match. It was just a shame that West Indians buckled to the might of the Indian cricket team. Otherwise, I might have got a chance to view some of the test match. But the crowds were euphoric. He is obviously an awesomely good sportsman. But Sachin Tendulkar is also a great ambassador for India, not just in the cricket loving world but beyond and I am sure that there will be many people who will not be seeing their ”˜God’, but wishing him all the very best. I noted one of the headlines in the papers today, “The Sun has left the Solar System”. So, I gauge that Sachin Tendulkar is most certainly one of the most popular sportsmen of all times in this sports-mad country.

JOURNALIST        And, of course, Australia was first in giving that Civilian Honour to Sachin!

JULIE BISHOP        Absolutely. Australia recognized what a great sportsman and an ambassador he was for India and we awarded him the highest Civilian Honour that Australia can provide in the order of Australia and so, we note with some pride that India has now decided to award him the highest Civilian Honour here in India. But he has done a great deal to strengthen and deepen the ties between Australia and India and cricket lovers around the world.

JOURNALIST        Yes.  Among all the other things, Sachin is also bringing closer the India-Australia relationship. Julie Bishop, thank you so much for speaking with us.


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