Topics: Release of detained Australian Cheng Lei; Repatriation flights for Australians from Israel; Shadow Foreign Minister visit to Berlin;

05:05PM AEDT
11 October 2023


Andy Park: That’s Prime Minister Anthony Albanese speaking a short time ago. He also confirmed that the Federal Government will be assisting Australians stranded in Israel to return home. Two flights have been planned so far and will be operated by Qantas from Friday. For more on these two important developments in the last hour or so, I’m joined by the Shadow Foreign Affairs Minister, Senator Simon Birmingham, who’s in Berlin. Welcome to you.


Simon Birmingham: Hello, Andy. It’s good to be with you.


Andy Park: With Cheng Lei now officially back in Australia, I mean, this was something the Coalition government was pushing for. You must be pleased by this development?


Simon Birmingham: This is unquestionably very welcome news for Cheng Lei for her children, in particular her family, her loved ones and will be warmly welcomed by all Australians, I have no doubt. Her detention over the last three years has been a very painful episode for her and those near and dear to her. It’s been one where the pain has been exacerbated by the lack of transparency and information and the uncertainty attached to it right throughout that period of detention. And there are many to whom credit goes in terms of continuous persistent work, in terms of trying to seek her release. None, perhaps more so than Australia’s Ambassador to Beijing, Graham Fletcher, and his team and all of those across the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade who have worked tirelessly, I know, to try to secure her release. And I also acknowledge the work of the current government, their continued advocacy. Foreign Minister Penny Wong, and also the courtesy of her, in I know privately, acknowledging through communications to the former foreign minister Marise Payne, the advocacy and the work that she had done consistently as well and acknowledged the courtesy of Minister Wong in doing that.


Andy Park: Did you get wind of this prior to the PM’s announcement and what do you put the timing down to? What do you attribute this development to?


Simon Birmingham: Advice to the opposition and I personally learnt of it whilst on a flight between Brussels and Berlin just recently. But advice to the opposition to other parties, unsurprisingly, has been kept very, very tight as it has to. I understand basically all because of the significant sensitivity in this, and that is well and truly understood. Clearly the reasons are ones that others would have to speak to and ultimately, as to whether China gives any indication of the reasons of whether they have completed any processes or whether they have withdrawn any allegations, these are ones that many will speculate upon. The whole situation over the last few years has lacked transparency, lacked clear answers. Ambassador Fletcher, if we recall, was turned away when he sought to attend the court hearings that saw Cheng Lei allegedly convicted but convicted of things that have never been made clear or plain in the public light. But what we can be very grateful for today is her release, her return home and her being reunited with her children.


Andy Park: A text on the text line sums it up really nicely. Cheng Lei, in all the sadness in the news cycle, it truly is wonderful news. Not to get ahead of ourselves. But what about the plight of Australian writer Yang Hengjun? Is today’s development a cause for hope in his case too?


Simon Birmingham: Well, today’s news will be no doubt welcomed by Dr. Yang Hengjun’s family. He, of course, has been detained since 2019, an even longer period of time than Cheng Lei has. Similarly, there is a lack of transparency in information about precisely what he is accused of, what he has been sentenced to, and uncertainty continues to hang over his detention by China. The same authorities, the same diplomats, the same teams have been working tirelessly as well on his behalf. Whilst I’m sure his loved ones will very much be pleased to see Cheng Lei’s release, it will also come with, whilst some hope for them, also the tinges of uncertainty as to whether or not they will be able to see and secure the same type of outcome. Particularly when the most recent significant news in relation to Dr. Yang Henjun in was concerns about his health condition released earlier this year. And we would urge Chinese authorities to ensure he has all of the medical support treatment that is necessary, as well as to provide for his release, his return to Australia and far greater transparency in relation to the reasons for his detention.


Andy Park: In other significant news this hour, the Prime Minister Anthony Albanese’s announced repatriation flights for Australians stranded in Israel. Is this something that you’ve been- well, this is something you’ve been calling for. Are you happy with this announcement? Is it enough?


Simon Birmingham: Andy, it is also good news. I wrote to Foreign Minister Wong urging the Government to make clear how it was going to help Australians stranded in Israel to be able to return to Australia. There are many precedents in the past for governments to providing repatriation services, putting on charter flights and ensuring that Australians can get out of trouble spots when normal commercial services are limited or unable to get them to do so-


Andy Park: But this is sorry, but this is quite different in the sense that there’s about 12,000 Australians in Israel, many of whom are dual nationals who may not necessarily wish to leave. So how should the government logistically navigate this? Should more flights be guaranteed?


Simon Birmingham: Well, the government should be clear about the number of Australians who have registered with consular lines and services and particularly who have indicated they are looking to leave Israel and need assistance to do so. You’re right that not all Australians, particularly those of dual nationality, will necessarily be seeking to leave. But we know there are more than 10,000 Australian citizens in Israel and so many of those people will potentially be looking to leave. We have had many, many calls and contacts into my office as well as many other members of Parliament, from individuals contacting us who are in Israel, as well as their concerned family members in Australia wanting some certainty about how they will get home. Two flights is a start. It is help, it is welcome and I don’t wish to be critical at all of two flights, but of course the Government needs to be clear about just what the demand is and what has been indicated to them from those potentially thousands of Australians who may have registered with the consular services. And if more are necessary, then the Government needs to be clear as to how and when those additional services will be made available to help Australians get out of a location that is now acknowledged in Australia’s travel advice as one that people should not travel to unless absolutely necessary.


Andy Park: Senator Birmingham, you’re also a committee member for the Senate inquiry into bilateral air service agreements. You’ve heard today that the chair of Qantas, Richard Goyder, will go. Do you welcome that development?


Simon Birmingham: Well, they are in many ways, two separate matters in my mind. Qantas clearly has got a number of reputational challenges that it has acquired over the last little while. Challenges in terms of the trust of its consumers, the trust of its employees, legal findings against it or and or investigations into it. And so the board and others have to acknowledge their responsibilities in fixing and addressing those issues. And that’s a matter for the board and the shareholders and Mr. Goyder. But in terms of the air services agreements and the rejection of additional flights by the Albanese Government for Qatar to operate in and out of Australia, that remains a real and ongoing concern. They should review that decision because it’s one that is costing Australia’s tourism industry potentially billions of dollars and one that sees Australians paying more for hard to get airfares to and from Europe and yet could be so easily reviewed, the decision reversed and potentially those flights available by Christmas, which would be welcomed by so many.


Andy Park: Just finally, you’re in Berlin this week. I’m just curious about the timing of your trip. Has it got anything to do with the Voice referendum? Why leave the country during such a significant vote for the nation?


Simon Birmingham: Well, I am the Shadow Minister for Foreign Affairs. This is a trip that has been scheduled since the very start of this year when I accepted an invitation to travel through Brussels and Berlin, and that was well before the date for the referendum was announced only, of course, a couple of months ago by the Prime Minister. So it is, I can assure you, entirely coincidental in that regard. But as Shadow Foreign Minister, I’ve been in Brussels meeting with European Council, members of the European Parliament, having discussions, urging them to do things that we hope are in Australia’s national interests, such as finalising the free trade agreement between the EU and Australia, as well as visiting yesterday NATO headquarters and speaking with military commanders of Allied Command about the situation in Ukraine and of course also the work of Europe and the Indo-Pacific. So, these are the types of discussions I’m sure your listeners would expect to Shadow Foreign Minister to be having and trying to do so firmly in the national interest and get outcomes that are of bipartisanship in their nature.


Andy Park: Senator Simon Birmingham, appreciate your time this afternoon. Enjoy your time in Berlin.


Simon Birmingham: Thanks so much, Andy. My pleasure.