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Transcript: Press conference: Parliment House, Canberra: 27 March 2018: Expulsion of Russian diplomats; Liddell power station; Australian cricket team; Company tax; Labor's pensioner and retiree tax

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Tuesday, 27 March 2018

Press Conference with the Minister for Foreign Affairs, the Honourable Julie Bishop MP, Parliament House, Canberra

SUBJECTS: Expulsion of Russian diplomats; Liddell Power Station; Australian cricket team; Company tax; Labor’s pensioner and retiree tax.



Good afternoon. Australia is expelling two Russian diplomats. We’re acting together with 23 other nations around the world in response to the shocking chemical warfare attack in Salisbury in the United Kingdom on the 4th of March.

This was the first act of chemical warfare in Europe since the Second World War. It was a calculated attempt to carry out an assassination. It was a disgraceful assault on the sovereignty of the United Kingdom and on the rule of law. We utterly condemn it.

As the UK authorities have made clear since, this was a fundamental breach of international law prohibiting the use of chemical weapons. Russia has an obligation under the Chemical Weapons Convention and the United Nations Charter, the fact that Russia is a member of the United Nations Security Council - the body tasked with ensuring global security - makes this breach of international law especially dangerous and shocking.

It reflects a pattern of recklessness and aggression by the Russian Government, including the annexation of Crimea, the invasion of eastern Ukraine, the downing of MH 17, cyber-attacks and efforts to manipulate western nations' elections.

This latest incident demanded a response and has received a concerted international response from the United Kingdom's allies and partners around the world. To do nothing would only encourage further efforts to undermine the international rules-based order upon which our security and our prosperity rely.

As I said when introducing the new foreign interference legislation into the House of Representatives last year, Russia is threatening the democratic world, right around the world. There are credible reports that Russia was actively undermining the integrity of the Brexit

referendum. Last year’s presidential elections in France, Catalonia's unauthorised referendum in Spain and in the United States, one of the oldest and certainly the most formidable democracy in the world, debate is raging about whether Russian intelligence operations may have tipped the presidential election.

The Foreign Minister and I want to stress that Australia has no dispute with the Russian people. Indeed today, we offer our condolences for the devastating fire that has killed scores of people in a shopping centre in the Siberian city of Kemerovo.

This is about the actions of the Russian Government. And it’s about our national security interests which we will always defend.

We cannot and will not stand by and watch when the sovereignty of our allies and partners is threatened. That’s why we’ve taken this strong action today. It reflects our values as a nation; respecting the rule of law, adhering to international conventions and the rules-based order and upholding our own sovereignty, as well as supporting the sovereignty of our allies and partners. This type of activity is one of the key reasons why we’ve prioritised laws to disrupt and prosecute foreign interference and covert behaviour.

We call on the Parliament to pass these laws once they are through the current committee process.

The brazen attack, the criminal attack in the United Kingdom, in Salisbury on the 4th of March, was an attack on all of us, it was an attack on the sovereignty of every nation that respects the rule of law and that is why we are taking this action today, with another 23 nations around the world. We are defying this recklessness, this lawlessness of Russia and expressing our solidarity with the United Kingdom and other nations that share those values, that we will not tolerate this type of reckless undermining of international law, this reckless assault on the sovereignty of nations.


Thank you, Prime Minister. Earlier this morning, the Russian Ambassador was informed that I had declared two Russian officials persona non grata pursuant to the Vienna Conventions on diplomatic and consular relations and that they had seven days to leave Australia.

We do not take such decisions lightly. In fact, the last time diplomats were expelled from this country was in 2012 when two Syrian diplomats were expelled because of the use by the Assad regime of chemical weapons and in this instance, we share the outrage of the British government and other allies and partners over the deployment of a military grade nerve agent in an attempted assassination in Salisbury, in the United Kingdom.

We should not forget that the manner in which this nerve agent was deployed put at risk possibly hundreds of other lives. We see this as a direct challenge, a direct attack on the international rules based system, and Australia is a staunch defender of the International rules based system. We are also a member of the Organisation for the Prohibition Against Chemical Weapons and we chair the Australia Group, which is a grouping of nations determined to control the export of chemical weapons. With that background, Australia could not tolerate this act on the part of the Russians in the United Kingdom.

As the Prime Minister points out, Russia is in a unique position to uphold global peace and security. As a permanent member of the Security Council, Russia has a unique responsibility to

defend and strengthen and uphold the international rules based order, yet there has been a pattern of conduct over recent times that shows Russia is in direct defiance of that very rules based order, with political assassinations, cyber-attacks, the illegal annexation of Crimea, invasions of other countries’ territory, Georgia, Ukraine, its disruptive role in the investigation into the downing of MH17, when it should be assisting the investigations.

I have remained in constant communication with Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson in relation to the investigation and the ongoing actions that may well be taken in response to this matter.

We will continue to support our friends and allies, particularly Great Britain in relation to this illegal, reckless, and atrocious attempt to use chemical weapons in Europe - the first attempt since the Second World War, as the Prime Minister has indicated.


Prime Minister you’ve outlined a whole series of allegations and incidents of poor behaviour, unlawful acts by Russia. Is the expulsion of two spies a sufficiently strong reaction given the seriousness of those things you’ve outlined?


The reaction, the response, obviously has been carefully calibrated Mark, the force of it comes from the large number of countries that are undertaking the expulsion of Russian diplomats. It is a very strong, concerted response and it’s one that sends a clear and unequivocal message to the Russians.


Just in terms of the response Prime Minister, what response are you expecting now from Russia? They have threatened a response, what do you expect?


Well, I think we expect that they will expel a number of our diplomats as well, that is what they will do. That is the response that they will make. I’ll ask Julie to describe the Vienna Conventions, but broadly speaking, countries have the right to declare a diplomat persona non grata if they choose to do so, and this will be the response.

But the fundamental point is, we are sending a clear and concerted message of 23 nations supporting the United Kingdom. That’s critically important.


Given the fact that the Russians expelled 23 British diplomats in response to the British expulsion of 23 Russian diplomats, it is my expectation that Russia will likewise expel a commensurate number of diplomats from each of the countries that have taken action overnight.

Also, our conversation with the Russian Ambassador would lead us to believe that Russia intends to expel Australian diplomats from our embassy in Moscow. We anticipate this and are taking contingency actions in relation to it, in other words we are planning for this to occur and our expectation is that pursuant to the Vienna Convention, they will expel Australian diplomats. They are under no legal obligation to give reasons as to why.




Well, I can't comment on that.


Were they based in Canberra and has there been any investigation about whether they have attempted to infiltrate the political process here or had contact with politicians?


It may disappoint you, but it won’t surprise you to say that I won’t be going into any further detail into the two undeclared intelligence officers, diplomats, that are being expelled.


PM, are there any further sanctions being considered against Russia and should the Socceroos boycott, and other countries boycott, the World Cup in Russia later this year?


Well, I will ask the Foreign Minister to talk about the existing sanctions that we have. But we will continue to engage with the UK and our other partners and allies around the world in terms of the response. But it will be one that is concerted because that is where its force comes from. I pick up the point that Mark Kenny made earlier, asking “is this enough”? The force comes of the fact that so many nations are taking the same action, so it’s that solidarity that sends that very strong message to Moscow.


In relation to sanctions, Australia has already a range of autonomous sanctions against Russia, in particular those that were imposed in the aftermath of the illegal annexation of Crimea, and those sanctions have been reviewed and updated over time. We have sanctions against a number of individuals and a number of Russian entities.

The impact of sanctions, of course, is strongest when it is done collectively, and so we will continue to liaise with the Foreign Office and other allies and partners on this issue as to whether further action will be taken in response to the deployment of a chemical nerve agent in Salisbury.


Is non-attendance at the World Cup one of those possible outcomes?


There are a whole range of options of further action that could be taken. The World Cup is one of the further actions that could be taken in relation to this matter.


When did the Government actually find out that these two people were undeclared information officers, was that before or after the UK attack?


These are intelligence matters and we will not be going into that kind of detail.


This sort of stuff is reminiscent of the Cold War and credible commenters are talking about a Cold War 2.0. Are those sorts of observations justified?


Well, you’re the commentators, I think you can commentate on fellow commentators.




Well look, this is a very different environment to the Cold War. There are obviously some similarities, but without getting into a discussion - which I’d love to engage in at some point with you all, but it would take too long to talk about the history of the Cold War and subsequent developments - I think it’s just important, rather than getting sentimental about John le Carré novels and bygone eras, let's just focus on the very hard facts here.

We have a government which has used a chemical weapon on the soil of another nation, in an attempt to assassinate individuals in that other country, the UK.

This is a shocking crime. It is a shocking infringement on the sovereignty of the United Kingdom. It is a shocking breach of the rule of law and the use of a chemical weapon illegally, contrary to international law, and for the first time, as we have both said, in Europe since the Second World War, this cried out for a concerted response.

So I think, I don't dispute the interesting history and background and historical analogues. But let's just focus on what happened in Salisbury on the 4th of March, a shocking crime called out for a concerted global response. Australia is playing its part in that strong response today.

I’ll just take one more question I think.


In regards to Liddell power station, would you like to see the lifespan of that power station extended and would you like to hear more from the Chinese interests who have contacted your office about that?


Well, as you know, the Liddell power station does not belong to the Australian Government, it belongs to AGL. There are a number of people that have expressed interest - I don’t know if it’s much further than that - including Australian parties - in acquiring Liddell from AGL. But that’s a discussion that they have to have with AGL.

From our point of view, our concern is to ensure that we have affordable, reliable energy. Labor's policies have resulted - most notably in South Australia where thankfully there’s now been a change of government - in unaffordable and unreliable power in that state. We don’t want that to happen anywhere else, so that’s why the Energy Minister asked the Australian Energy Market Operator, AEMO, to examine whether there would be a gap in dispatchable power, in reliable power, consequent upon Liddell closing. That report has come in, it’s been published. It shows there will be a gap of around 850 megawatts, absent of other actions being taken.

Now, one of the actions that will result in that gap being filled is the adoption of the National Energy Guarantee - this is AEMO's judgement - because it prioritises dispatchable power. So the important thing is that we are able to keep the lights on and that we’re able to afford to keep the lights on.

That is what the National Energy Guarantee delivers.

The truth is, as you know, with Labor you pay more.

You pay more for energy, we’ve seen that.

Look at the action we had to take to make up for Labor's failures on gas, strong action which has resulted in wholesale price of gas coming down, from getting up to $16 a gigajoule and close to $20, coming back down to around $8, around the export price. Now that’s action that I took and my government has taken, strong action to make up for failures of Labor policy in the past.

We need energy policies that are driven by engineering and economics. Affordability and reliability; that’s what the National Energy Guarantee will deliver. Again, you don’t have to take my word for it, or Julie’s or Josh Frydenberg's, that’s what the Energy Security Board’s analysis presents. Independent analysis showing it will bring down wholesale power costs while maintaining dispatchability. That’s the critical objective.


Are you happy with the response of Cricket Australia Prime Minister?


Well, the answer is the decision of the captain’s to stand down was correct. They’re conducting an investigation. Look, I did speak to David Peever on the day, as you know, about it. I conveyed my views very clearly to him and he was very appreciative of that advice. They now have to make sure that this great national game, this great international game that is synonymous with fair play is once again a game that is played by champions that everybody can look up to.

I mean, this has been a shocking affront to Australia. How many of us as children, how many of us as fathers and mothers, have had children who have looked up to the Australian team, have looked up to their idols, to their role models?

This cheating is a disgrace. We all know that, it is a terrible disgrace. Cricket Australia is dealing with it, they have to investigate it and they have to continue to act decisively and emphatically.

Where do we want to get to? I’ll tell you where we want to get to; we want to get to the point where we can all say once again - not rhetorically, but heartfelt and with sincerity - that cricket is a fair game, cricket is a game that is synonymous with a fair go and fair play. That’s what has to happen.

I want to add one other point and I’ve said this to David Peever, I won’t go onto everything I’ve said to him but I will say this: I think there has to be the strongest action taken against this practice of sledging. It has got right out of control, it should have no place in, on a cricket field.


Doesn’t it happen in Parliament?


I want to be very clear about this; the game of cricket should be one that once again is held up as a role model. I think that some of the sledging, some of the shocking conduct that we’ve seen, is also part of the process of review and reflection that’s going to be undertaken.

So thank you all very much.


Prime Minister, just on company tax?



Alright, this is always the problem, we get to the end of the press conference and there’s one more question. Company tax?


Well, your negotiations with Senators Hinch and Storer, how are they going?


Well they are progressing and as you know we don’t run a commentary on negotiations with the crossbench. I just want to be very clear about this though; what we are seeking to do is to put Australian companies in the position where they can invest and employ. Where they will be able to grow and make more investment, create more jobs and better paid jobs.

Now Bill Shorten has said that if the company tax reforms are passed, he will repeal them if he becomes Prime Minister. So what he’s saying is that he wants to go to the election on the platform of fewer jobs and less well-paid jobs.

It shows you cannot trust anything Bill Shorten says. This is a man who stood up at the dispatch box in the House of Representatives only a few years ago when Labor was last in government and said: “Lower company tax results in more investment, higher productivity, more jobs and higher wages”.

You know what? He was right, he was absolutely right. Now of course, it doesn't suit him to say that and he’s done a backflip. He is trying to do a backflip on pensions, on his pensioner tax. Grabbing the franking dividends from pensioners.

He says now, he says “Oh the pensioners won’t be hurt”. This is a man who two weeks ago said that it was carefully considered, they were all millionaires, yes, there were some pensioners, but you know, accused me of using pensioners as a human shield.

He treated those self-funded retirees - pensioners and independent self-funders retirees not on the pension alike - treated them with contempt. Now he’s trying to do a backflip.

Well he hasn’t landed on his feet, because pensioners will still be caught. After the 28th of March, pensioners will be caught again by his proposal. So he hasn't even done his homework properly.

He’s done a backflip but he hasn't landed on his feet. He has landed once again with his hand in the pockets of hard-working Australians who have saved all their lives and are entitled to support and respect.

Bill Shorten cannot be trusted with your money.

He cannot be trusted with your savings.

Pensioners, self-funded retirees, Australians who are looking for work, Australians who want to get a job, businesses who want to get ahead, want to invest, they cannot trust Bill Shorten because he says one thing one day and another thing the next.

He cannot be trusted. All of those backflips demonstrate just one thing; he cannot be trusted to put Australians, Australian jobs, Australian business, Australian savings, first.

Thank you very much.