Interview with Deborah Knight, 2GB Afternoons

Minister for Women, Minister for Foreign Affairs

Deborah Knight: Now the massive volcanic eruption in Tonga has taken a tragic turn. We’ve had confirmation of the death of British woman Angela Glover, who was swept away in the tsunami that came as a result of the blast. And she was swept away while trying to save her dogs. There are fears, of course, for the safety of many more, and for the many Australians who have loved ones in Tonga, it is such an anxious wait. The fact that communication lines are down, they can’t get in contact and they’ll be down for some time. The cable linking Tonga to the rest of the world was cut by that blast, and it’s made the tricky task of getting help to Tonga that much harder. Communication issues on top of that thick ash, cloud, stopping supplies, getting in by air. For the latest on what is happening in Tonga, Foreign Affairs Minister Marise Payne is on the line for us now. Minister, good to talk to you for the first time in 2022.

Marise Payne: Good afternoon, Deb, and Happy New Year to you and to all of your listeners.

Deborah Knight: Yeah, it’s not a good start to the year in Tonga. Tell me the latest on what’s happening. I understand that our High Commissioner in Tonga, Rachael Moore, was able to speak with the Prime Minister. How are they coping on the ground?

Marise Payne: Well, there’s no question this is an absolutely devastating event for the beautiful country and the beautiful people of Tonga. Our High Commissioner, Rachael Moore, has had a very good meeting today with the Tongan Prime Minister, and he is very grateful for Australia’s assistance and assistance also of New Zealand. Of course, we’re expecting them to set out their specific requests today. They have had a cabinet meeting today as well. But as you said in your remarks just a moment ago, the impact not just of the inundation, but of the extraordinary volume of ash which is covering everything, plus the communications issues, of course, makes this very difficult.

But the High Commissioner has assured me – and she and I are in touch by email – that the Government of Tonga really is bringing everything together in this response. They have two of our Australian-built Guardian Class patrol boats. They also have a landing craft which came through our association with His Majesty’s Armed Forces in Tonga. They’re using all of that maritime capability as well, to make sure that they are reaching out right across the islands because, of course, the impact is expected to be felt not just in Nuku’alofa, in the capital, but certainly right across the country.

Deborah Knight: Well, I mentioned this photograph that’s been released on Twitter by the New Zealand Defence Force because they sent along with our own surveillance flight to Tonga yesterday. And it is that ash that seems to be the biggest impact. A lot of the buildings in this photo are still intact, which is a good sign. But has our surveillance flight been able to assess any of the damage from the air yet?

Marise Payne: We shared some of our material with the Tongan Government today, and we’ve conducted two further surveillance flights which departed this morning. One was another P-8 and one a C-130. And as well as that, as they are cleaning the airport and re-enabling it for air traffic, we will be able to provide further humanitarian assistance through those C-130 flights. We also have HMAS Adelaide ready to take humanitarian and disaster relief supplies. And we can also include on HMAS Adelaide, engineering personnel and equipment, medical personnel and equipment, and importantly, helicopter support to help with logistics and distribution. There is also a COVID challenge … (indistinct).

Deborah Knight: Well, they’re covered free, haven’t they been?

Marise Payne: That’s right. And they’ve had a very, very strict and consistent approach to allowing outsiders to enter Tonga. So, we’ll work extremely closely with their Government on that. One of the things that we have been able to do from Australia in the Pacific during COVID is establish this Pacific humanitarian pathway. We’ve had to support in Fiji, for example, we’ve had to support in Papua New Guinea, in Vanuatu post-cyclone as well. We have done that successfully and, you know, I touch wood every day, because we know how hard COVID it is to manage, but successfully in terms of ensuring any defence personnel, any medical assistance personnel, are able to engage in those countries and support their COVID-free status where that’s the case, and certainly observe all of their COVID protocol.

Deborah Knight: Well, we know that they are desperate for our help, but that would be a tragic side effect if this COVID-free nation would then see this virus introduced into their country as a result of the international aid which is coming. It’s a very difficult bind that they’re in.

Marise Payne: Yes. We don’t intend to compromise on any of the protocols that they require in their sovereign approach to managing this. Water is a key issue …

Deborah Knight: Water is, isn’t it, because they rely on rainwater and with the amount of ash and with the rain, that will come down, too. We know that the impact that that’s going to have, not just for drinking water, but for growing crops – the acid rain.

Marise Payne: That’s right. And we will ensure that we have water purification supplies provided in our humanitarian assistance, as is New Zealand.

Deborah Knight: And with the water, is it just a case of getting it in on our ships? The HMAS Adelaide, as you said, would be the main source of that. When are they likely to arrive?

Marise Payne: Well, it’s a combination of things. It’s also providing the equipment to do the water purification on the ground there in Tonga themselves, so that we are not having to transport large amounts of water. But we can fly water on C-130s – not in vast quantities, obviously. There are limitations to that …

Deborah Knight: Purification is key.

Marise Payne: But the purification requirements, whether they are – and I’m not an expert – but whether they are tablet based or – and certainly there are other mechanical supplies that we’ll also be able to provide. We will be doing all of that. HMAS Adelaide will take approximately five days. It’s much further, I think, than people often appreciate. But when you think of the vastness of the blue continent that is the Pacific Ocean and the South Pacific in particular, and all countries across the Pacific are rallying to support Tonga. We’ve had very positive messages from Fiji as well, in particular, who are keen to provide support.

Deborah Knight: And so many anxious loved ones here in Australia, because there’s a very strong Tongan community down under. But for those who can’t make contact because of that communication cable being cut, and it could well be down for a fortnight – that’s what it was when it was last cut by a ship’s anchor, it was thought, and it was down by two weeks at that point. What can we do to, I suppose, ensure that people can find out if their loved ones are okay and to get a sense of the damage?

Marise Payne: Well, we’re working very closely with our High Commission there in Tonga. They have been in touch with the hospitals in terms of Australian citizens themselves. And I must say, of course, we extend our condolences to the family of Angela Glover. I know that she is well-known and well-loved across the islands, and that is a deeply sad experience for her family in this disastrous event. In terms of communications, we also are going to work with Tonga, particularly on what we can support in terms of satellite communications. Ash clouds don’t help with satellite technology, but we are making available our satellite connectivity from our High Commission to support communication by the Government of Tonga in the first place, and to help telecommunications companies to re-establish connections as well. We will ensure that further satellite communication support is also on our flights and on HMAS Adelaide to assist with that.

Deborah Knight: It’s hard to imagine this high-tech age that you’d have no communication with the outside world at all. So, there’s a lot of challenges being faced. I wanted to talk about a couple of other issues, Minister, as well. North Korea has fired two ballistic missiles into the sea. That happened yesterday, and it’s the fourth weapons-launch this month, causing a lot of worry, understandably, in the Asia Pacific region. How concerned are you about this?

Marise Payne: Well, we’ve been very clear, Deb, in terms of our views on these recent missile launches. We have condemned them explicitly. They all violate UN Security Council resolutions and, frankly, they are undermining of both global and regional stability and security. We are strong supporters of the UN Security Council sanctions regime, including participating in sanctions implementation, and we’ll continue to do that. But in terms of our interests, we share the views of the five permanent members of the Security Council. These are actions which threaten our interests in a stable, a secure and a rules-based Indo-Pacific. And we have consistently, with partners, called on North Korea to cease all provocations. This is a very overt example, but we know that there is malicious cyber activity. We know there is proliferation and transfer of offensive technology. That’s all about funding, supporting and developing this nuclear weapons programme. So, we are very clear about this and very clear about our commitment to the UN Security Council resolution.

Deborah Knight: China is another concern, too, and we’ve got Australian writer Yang Hengjun. He’s been in a Chinese prison for three years now on espionage charges. The courts delayed the verdict until April this year. A lot of concerns about his medical condition, though, and we’re hearing that his supporters say that they’re fearful he could well die. Have you or any of Australian officials been able to speak with him?

Marise Payne: Deb, I feel deeply for Dr Yang and for his family. This is a very difficult situation and, frankly, we regard it as arbitrary detention. Neither he nor the Australian Government have been given details as to the charges against him or of the investigation, so it certainly falls into the category of arbitrary detention. We are concerned about his health and we’ve been consistently clear that he needs to be provided with the necessary treatment for both his physical and his mental health. We have had semi-regular consular visits to Dr Yang since he was imprisoned, 27 consular visits in total since January of 2019. A number of those in more recent times have been conducted whilst within the detention centre by video link because of COVID issues. That is the case in many other countries and that is something we have had to work with. But they have taken place approximately monthly. So, our officials in Beijing have been able to engage with him through that process.

Deborah Knight: And on the issue, too, of your other hat, the Minister for Women. There’s been criticism – which I think is justified – of the consultation period for the draft National Plan to End Violence Against Women and Children – very important policy issue and very important framework work to set in place. But it only opened for comment on Friday and it’s meant to close at the end of the month. And a lot of groups who’d like to comment, they’re not operating during the summer break. Surely that consultation period can be extended.

Marise Payne: So, the Women’s Safety Task Force, which is made up of all of the state and territory responsible Ministers, plus the Commonwealth Ministers, myself and Anne Ruston, have determined to extend that period until the 25th of February.

Deborah Knight: So you will be extending it?

Marise Payne: Yes, until the 25th of February. But I would say that this is in fact part of an 18-month process of consultation. There has been a House of Representatives Standing Committee inquiry, chaired by Andrew Wallace, now the Speaker of the Parliament, and Sharon Claydon, the Labor member in Newcastle, into family, domestic and sexual violence. We have conducted comprehensive online public surveys, run a range of workshops and interviews, including importantly with victim-survivors. And, of course, towards the end of last year our very extensive national summit on women’s safety –

Deborah Knight: Which is all important for the consultation period which is vital in this whole process to only be open during that summer period, a lot of the groups, the essential groups were initially thinking, well, you’re not taking it seriously.

Marise Payne: We’re taking it very, very seriously and that’s why in the last budget in our Women’s Budget Statement we also announced a record $1.1 billion of investment in women’s safety. So, what we are doing through that is funding a smooth transition from the current national plan to this new national plan and we are inviting those comments, as you say and I’m glad that we’ve been able to extend that to assist with that process and I’m glad it’s been such a productive 18 months of consultation.

Deborah Knight: Well, I’m glad it’s been extended too – it’s important.

Marise Payne: We are world-leading in this, Deb, and it’s very important that we continue to work together right across the country. Governments can’t solve this problem by themselves but this problem is most definitely something which takes community and family and individual leadership as well.

Deborah Knight: All right, Minister, we thank you for your time and we look forward to speaking to you more often here on afternoons during 2022. Thanks again.

Marise Payne: Thank you very much Deb.

Deborah Knight: Foreign Affairs Minister and Minister for Women, Marise Payne.

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