Sky News Interview: News Day: National Security, Hong Kong Protests, Religious Freedom



SUBJECTS: National Security, Hong Kong Protests, Religious Freedom 

TOM CONNELL, HOST: Let’s start on not one, but two reports out today suggesting we lack the ability to defend our northern borders. Trent Zimmerman how seriously should we take this? 

TRENT ZIMMERMAN MPWell the Government is very confident that the force posture we have in place does meet our strategic interests and northern Australia is obviously a very key part of our defence priorities. That’s why we’re investing something like $8 billion in defence facilities in the Northern Territory alone over the next decade. 

CONNELL: But you’ve got the lowest number of troop numbers there for 11 years despite a time of tension. 

ZIMMERMAN: Well we have 13,000 troops in northern Australia so that is a significant commitment and we also have that $8 billion investment in facilities happening. We obviously have the relationship with the United States which is seeing something like 2,500 Marines and US Air Force personnel coming to the Northern Territory each year. So it is a very significant commitment that we’re making and that’s obviously based on the best of advice. 

CONNELL: Peter Khalil what do you make of this? And I’ll also point you towards one your Labor colleagues’ comments that the Government should look at buying back Darwin Port, of course being leased out to a Chinese company at the moment. Do you agree? 

PETER KHALIL MP: G’day Tom, G’day Trent. It’s good to see Trent’s on top of his talking points today, but he failed to mention that this Coalition Government’s had five Defence Ministers in six years, really no long term strategy – you can’t really with that kind of instability and inconsistency with respect to the portfolio. And they have actually pulled ADF personnel from the North, and that really demonstrates a lack of focus on the importance of Darwin and the North with respect to our defence strategy. But look, Trent is right about the importance of Darwin and the North for our force posture. Obviously governments have to make decisions about what our force structure should be based on continental defence, our expeditionary forces and their needs with respect to our allies, work with our allies and so on. So he’s right about that. We are facing a critical juncture in geo-strategic realities in the region. We need to do better, with respect to that. We need to step up to the plate. I’ve always argued this. I have been arguing publicly. With respect to the Port, Tom, that you mentioned, yes that was a comment made by one of the Labor MPs as well. And all of this has to be discussed because it is all interconnected in many respects. Our strategic stance with respect to China and with respect to the US – [interrupted] 

CONNELL: Obviously the concern on the Port, Peter Khalil, would be that that could be seen as a sovereign risk. You think that discussion – what should actually happen? What? We should put up for discussion whether we get it back? Force it back into the Australian hands? 

KHALIL: I think we need to have a mature debate about what we need to be doing as a nation. Not just about our force posture, but right across the spectrum with respect to our strategic interests. And that includes big critical infrastructure and assets that we have that are important to our national security and our prosperity, our economic security. The Port and its ownership, as part of that, or the leasing – it’s just one part of that. There was debate about sales of gas pipelines and so on, like AusGrid, and so on. And other potential sales to foreign entities. So that all needs to be part of a broader debate. And I like that fact that the Prime Minister is engaging with Vietnam. I think this should have been happening on both sides of politics a lot earlier. The need for us to engage with those other middle powers in the region because we have common interests, we have strategic interests. And I’ve argued publicly that there should be a fulcrum of middle powers that really protect and defend a rules based order because it’s in all of our interests to have that in place to ensure prosperity, trade, security and so on. And if some of the bigger super powers are misbehaving, it’s a way to draw them back in to that and remind them of the importance of the rules based order. 

CONNELL: Weight of numbers perhaps. Trent Zimmerman, can I ask you just quickly on the Port as well? Where you sit on, whether you think that this should be considered? 

ZIMMERMAN: I think that horse has bolted or ship sailed, might be a better analogy. But what we have done since then is obviously change the arrangements with the Foreign Investment Review Act because when the Port was sold by the Territory Government – the Northern Territory Government, there was no referral or recourse for federal intervention. And that has now changed because, quite rightly, there is concern about the fact that an asset like this, and any state asset like this for that matter, can be disposed overseas without any reference – [interrupted] 

CONNELL: And fair enough. And certainly like the pipelines Peter mentioned there was, you know, people are stepping in now and looking at this stuff. But you’re just saying let the 99 year lease roll? Would China let us do that with one of their ports? 

ZIMMERMAN: I think that’s where we are left with. Because the Northern Territory Government made that decision. For us to acquire it back would be basically overturning that decision of the Territory government at considerable cost. And I think there are better ways that we could spend that money protecting our defence interests in northern Australia because you have to consider basically that cost weighed up against other measures that you can take. But I might just say, Peter made some comments which I don’t agree with and that is obviously the fact that the governments making a considerable investment in equipping our defence forces. We’re heading towards the 2% of GDP, and of course under Labor we saw our defence spending as a proportion of GDP fall to lows that hadn’t been seen this side of the wall. 

CONNELL: What’s your response to that Peter? 

KHALIL: Well Trent, I think there’s a bit each way really. The Gillard government did make the commitment to the marines being based in Darwin, which I think was a positive step. We should be able to exercise and work with all of our partners on our sovereign territory and I think that’s a good thing the Labor government did. He’s right, defence spending did drop under previous Labor governments and it’s coming back up again. I remember when I was national security advisor to Kevin Rudd we had a policy of 2% and we stuck to it for a while and then, obviously, that slipped away. Probably when I left, Trent, actually.  

CONNELL: It didn’t just slip away, it slipped a long way below that, didn’t it Peter Khalil? 

KHALIL: It dropped down, yes. And I’m of a view that we should ensure that it’s around 2%. I think that we need to play our part in the region with respect to the security and stability of the region we have a big responsibility, and part of that is our defence spending. 

CONNELL: I do want to move on and actually talk about Hong Kong and the protests that are rolling on. Trent Zimmerman, what should Australia be willing to do or say if, I guess, the worst happens here and these protests are eventually crushed by force? 

ZIMMERMAN: Well let’s firstly hope that doesn’t happen. We obviously have to continue the pressure that we’re already applying and make sure that the protest that we’re seeing – firstly, the protests themselves are peaceful, and yesterday we saw that incredible protest of almost 2 million people. That would be like 7 million Australians on the street, it’s just quite phenomenal when you think about it, very peaceful and respectful and that’s the way it should be but what is absolutely vital is that both the Hong Kong police force but also the Chinese authorities don’t respond in a heavy handed way to those kind of peaceful demonstrations. Yesterday I think the way it was managed by the Hong Kong police was how it should be. They didn’t have a huge presence on the streets because it was a peaceful protest and Australia – [interrupted] 

CONNELL: What’s your overall view on how Beijing has handled this throughout the 8 or 10 weeks or so or what it is getting up to? 

ZIMMERMAN: I think that from the Chinese authority’s response obviously so far we haven’t seem a direct intervention but there have been some actions that have been taken by China which certainly are designed to have a psychological impact like the build up of forces that that we have seen in Shenzhen. But it is just absolutely vital I would say in China’s interests to make sure that it does not deploy its military in Hong Kong. That would be a catastrophe for Hong Kong. That would be a catastrophe for the people of Hong Kong. But it would also be a catastrophe for China’s reputation globally. 

CONNELL:  Peter do you think that a line should be drawn if this does escalate? Obviously everyone’s hoping that it doesn’t but that doesn’t seem assured. 

KHALIL: We’re all hoping the same thing and I’ve got to agree with a lot of what Trent is saying and you know that I was on here a month ago – I put an op ed out as well – really calling on democratic leaders around the world to stand up and defend the right of peaceful protest, of people seeking their democratic rights because if we don’t as democratic leaders or political leaders in democracies then who will? So it’s encouraging that Trent and I are talking about this and I would say that there needs to be more than that. We’re starting to see more voices internationally step up and say that they support the right of peaceful protest and frankly there’s been commentary obviously from Beijing about you know respecting the rule of law. Well part of the rule of law as I understand it is the right to protest peacefully. Every citizen has that right in a democracy, you know subject to certain standards and what we saw in Hong Kong was a demonstration of that done absolutely right. Very peaceful, almost 2 million people, the young, the elderly, pregnant women. Everyone was out there and they were expressing their and articulating their voice for their future for their political freedoms and their democratic freedoms. 

CONNELL: Part of standing up Peter Khalil, these world leaders you want to stand up. Is part of that actually coming out there and saying if you do take these further steps there will be some consequences from the rest of the world. Is that a way of standing up? Rather than just saying please de-escalate? 

KHALIL: You could take both pathways Tom and that is a tactical decision by Prime Ministers and Presidents around the world I guess and other political leaders. I would agree a bit more with Trent that we want a de-escalation of this. We want to see this sorted out. We want as the Prime Minister and Anthony Albanese have asked for the Chinese government and sorry the Hong Kong government to listen to the concerns of the people protesting in Hong Kong and address some of those issues in a peaceful way. I think that’s an important step going in that direction. What we don’t want to do is to raise the tensions because Trent is right. We want this to end peacefully with some sort of compromise and with some of those issues that the people of Hong Kong wanted addressed, addressed. And that is the dilemma that we’re facing right now because China has to make a choice about whether they intervene or not. At the moment – for the moment – they haven’t directly intervened which is probably a good thing. 

CONNELL: Well I guess you can measure to what extent they might be involved and allegations that they are placing people in the protests and so on. A lot of that hard to verify. I want to talk finally about the religious freedom bill reportedly going to be at least going to Cabinet this week and possibly being signed off. Has the backbench been made aware of exactly what this bill will look like? And from what you know Trent Zimmerman, please feel free to canvas what you know. Are you satisfied with it? 

ZIMMERMAN: Well actually I’ve got a copy of the bill here. I was just going to give it you after. 

KHALIL: Can you share it with me Trent? 

ZIMMERMAN: That will happen and the Government has made it quite clear Peter that we want to talk to you and not just you, we will talk to the less sensible members of the Labor party as well. But I think that obviously it will go to Cabinet imminently. I’m not privy to the Cabinet timetable. But obviously there has been extensive consultation with the backbench. But the normal process is that once it goes to Cabinet it will come to backbench committee and then ultimately the party room. 

CONNELL: But this is not a normal bill right, so should it had been or was the government actually not just – it wasn’t just a process of letting you know what’s it in or what the plans are but also getting feedback. Because this has clearly been handled differently. 

ZIMMERMAN: Well I think it has actually been handled differently in a very positive way. The Attorney-General has travelled around the country meeting with backbenchers both to hear their views and to also outline his own thinking and I think that’s been really positive and I think Christine Porter is to be congratulated for the way he’s handled it. 

CONNELL: Peter Khalil I know you want to have a look. Labor’s going to be consulted you know before the actual legislation gets put forward. Is that fair enough? 

KHALIL: Well I mean the Attorney-General by Trent’s admission is more concerned about discussing this with a certain band of right wingers on his own backbench on the Government’s own backbench. We have not been provided with a copy of the bill. We haven’t been – they haven’t reached out to the Labor side to our Shadow Cabinet Ministers on this. They basically haven’t provided a practical response to the recommendations of the Ruddock report which came down on the 18th of May by the way. So we’re still waiting to see something to look at basically so we can actually have that consultation with the government. We’ve been waiting and we’ve been waiting. I will say from my perspective there’s a matter of principle on this. My view has always been – and I’ve said it on this program before on Sky – my principle here is freedom of religion and freedom from religion. These are two really important principles and that guides my thinking around addressing this particular issue in a legislative sense. 

CONNELL: Let’s end of furious agreement. Trent how you feel about that? 

ZIMMERMAN: Well can I say firstly that in terms of the process, obviously Cabinet needs to sign off on the on a bill before it can hold formal discussions with the Opposition but I think Peter you might find that this was one of issues and I say this in good faith that Scott Morrison raised with Anthony Albanese during their early meetings and I obviously the Prime Minister made a commitment that he would be holding discussions with the Opposition at that time. But if we can get bipartisan support that would be great and I would just say that on Peter’s final point the PM has also always made it clear that this is about protecting or preventing discrimination against people for both what they do believe but also if they don’t have a religious faith. 

CONNELL: Well there you go. 

KHALIL: Let’s hope we all keep faith on the process.  

ZIMMERMAN: It’s all about faith Peter. 

CONNELL: Trent Zimmerman, Peter Khalil we better end before it gets too cosy. Thank you gentleman, speak soon.