Topics: Detained Australian Dr Yang; U.S. Osprey helicopter accident; Defence estate audit; AEC referendum decision;  

05:05PM AEST
Monday, 28 August 2023



Andy Park:  Detained Australian writer Yang Hengjun has expressed fears he may die in prison in China after a large cyst was found on his kidney. His supporters want him released to Australia on medical parole or at least be given access to medical care under Australian supervision. Defence Minister Richard Marles says he wants to see the democracy advocate return to family and friends.


Richard Marles: We make representations to the Chinese government whenever we can and that literally means constantly in respect of all the consular cases that exist with China and that includes this individual.


Shadow Foreign Affairs Minister Simon Birmingham joins me to talk about this case and other matters. Welcome back to Drive.


Simon Birmingham: Good afternoon, Andy. It’s great to be with you again.


Andy Park: The Government says it’s constantly raising the plight of detained Australians with China. I ask you realistically, is that all that they can do?


Simon Birmingham: Well, Andy, it is always a reminder and this is something that all Australians need to bear in mind when travelling around the world, that we cannot control the legal and justice systems of other countries. But the situation Dr. Yang Hengjun finds himself in is deeply troubling and completely unacceptable. He has faced now more than four and a half years of detention, and yet there is very little transparency, very little more that we know today than we did the day that he was detained. In terms of the nature of the allegations against him, he faced a one day trial to which Australia’s ambassador was refused access to observe that trial back in 2021. And we know little now about the terms, duration or nature of his intended imprisonment by China. And of course, what is now very clear is aside from the justice concerns in relation to how he has been treated or the lack thereof, there are these very serious health concerns. And I would hope that Australian officials and the Australian Government is doing all possible to ensure that he receives the type of medical treatment and care that he should be receiving.


Andy Park: Of course sovereign nations have their own legal and judicial systems, but that shouldn’t stop our government fighting for our citizens. I mean, I think about Professor Sean Turnell, for example, who was in Myanmar for 21 months. It shouldn’t deter the Australian Government from pushing their case. What could it be doing better here? What could Labor be doing to improve this situation?


Simon Birmingham: Indeed, Andy, the Australian Government should be pursuing in these sorts of troubling circumstances in detentions that appear to have political or other overtones attached to them. Everything that we can in terms of support for detained Australians, that will vary from case to case. Clearly the types of representations that should be being made by officials, by ministers are the bare bones basics in that regard. In other cases around the world, we have been able to work through special envoys, work with different partner nations in terms of applying additional pressure. In some cases, public campaigns are seen to be useful and others, they are not so helpful in terms of the way in which a country responds. So it is a case of recognising that there are different circumstances that have to be weighed in each and every case. But here, as we’ve got with this case of Dr. Yang, as well as of course the case of Cheng Lei, both of them now have very strong humanitarian aspects, not just related to the lack of justice in the detention of the individual, but in Dr. Yang’s case, these very serious health concerns and the desire for him to be able to be reunited with his family as he faces these health troubles. And in Cheng Lei’s case, of course, young children being denied appropriate access to their mother and in both cases, a deep and troubling lack of transparency about why they are being detained and for how long they will be detained.


Andy Park: The Australian Government has sent condolences to the US after three Marines died in an aircraft crash during routine exercises. This aircraft was the US Osprey helicopter. It is a rather unusual aircraft and there have been issues with that kind of aircraft in the past. I believe this is the second such crash in Australia by a US Osprey in what the last five years. The operation of the aircraft, of course, is a matter for the United States. But do you want to see a directive to ensure Australian men and women in the armed services aren’t boarding these aircraft?


Simon Birmingham: Andy, they are very much operational issues for the Australian Defence Force and of course for the US in relation to the operation of their own aircraft. I am confident that our Defence Force would be wanting to ensure that any types of aircraft or other types of means of transportation that are service personnel travelling meet the types of safety standards that we would expect. As you said, this is a unique type of aircraft. It serves particular operational purposes for the US Marines and we, like the Government, convey our deepest condolences to those impacted, pay tribute also to the first responders and hope that their huge efforts in terms of getting so many people to safety can also be recognised and achieved the outcome of those individuals who have been rescued having a swift a recovery as possible.


Andy Park:  You’re hearing from Shadow Foreign Affairs Minister Simon Birmingham. Defence has begun an audit of its estate and infrastructure to kind of consider whether to consolidate or divert or even dispose of assets that are no longer needed. I mean, we know Defence is a pretty major landholder in this country. Is this long overdue? Why is this happening now?


Simon Birmingham: Well, this type of work is big and serious work. That said, it should be in some ways the constant business of Defence to ensure that it’s work and the lands that it operates and holds across the country meet its needs. And if they don’t meet their needs, then they should be looking to dispose of them or invest elsewhere if if that’s necessary as well. There’s nothing particularly wrong about this review in and of itself, but it is piling up now the number of reviews that this Government is undertaking across the defence sphere. We had the big defence strategic review that they initiated, which in many ways was billed as the review to end reviews, but instead out of it we’ve now got a review into the naval surface fleet and shipbuilding of that surface fleet, review into guided weapons, review into ADF recruitment and reserves and a different review, in terms of you’ve just mentioned, the defence estate and facilities. So all of these are piling up and the real risk is they are delaying decisions and actions by having these types of reviews rather than getting on with what’s necessary in terms of investment. And it’s particularly troubling when the last lot of Senate Estimates found that Labor has in fact cut some $1.5 billion from the Defence budget for this year and also needs to find or Defence needs to find a further $1.8 billion worth of cuts to different programs or investments just to meet the budget that they’ve been given at present.


Andy Park:  Just before you go, I do want to ask about the upcoming Voice to Parliament referendum. Do you agree with Peter Dutton, the Opposition leader, that the Australian Electoral Commission is trying to favour the yes vote in allowing ticks for a Yes ballot but disallowing crosses for a No vote? Peter Dutton used the word rigged. Do you agree?


Simon Birmingham: Well, I am troubled by this, Yes, tick and yet a cross being considered informal. I do think the AEC, who do an exemplary job of ensuring that Australia has one of the best and most regarded electoral systems in the world. I think the AEC should take another closer look at this to ensure what would seem to be a degree of consistency and common sense-.


Andy Park: But it is consistent. Every other referendum has used these same mechanisms.


Simon Birmingham:  Well, Andy, we, haven’t had a referendum since the republic referendum in the 1990s. There’s a long time between gaps here. I think it is reasonable for the AEC to take a close look here as to whether this is, as I say, consistent with the type of common sense and practical approach most people would think is inherent in the way these matters are assessed. And I would urge them and the government to put the confidence in integrity and the process and the result at the forefront of all of their considerations, which I know is how they go about conducting elections and how they should go about conducting this referendum too.


Andy Park: Shadow Foreign Affairs Minister Simon Birmingham, thanks for your time this afternoon.


Simon Birmingham: Thanks, Andy. My pleasure.