Topics: Cheng Lei
11 August 2023
Simon Birmingham: The words of Cheng Lei are both beautiful in their poignancy yet heartbreaking in the cruelty they expose. This Sunday will be the third anniversary since her detention and yet it is still a secret as to precisely what she was charged with; how long she’s being detained for; let alone the terrible circumstances within which she is detained and the horror of the lack of access to her family, especially her young children.
Journalist: What leverage does Australia have in pushing for her release? Would you be expecting the Prime Minister to be able to secure her release if he was to visit Beijing in the coming months?
Simon Birmingham: This issue needs to remain top of the list of discussions between Australia and Beijing. We need to make sure that the Prime Minister and every other Minister use every opportunity to advocate for Cheng Lei and also for Dr Yang who has been detained for an even longer period of time, and these circumstances – lacking in transparency – lacking in what we would consider to be true justice – deserve full attention.
Journalist: Should her release be a precondition on any visit by the Prime Minister to Beijing?
Simon Birmingham: Well I’ve said before that the Government needs to be confident that it’s making real advances and significant advances before it commits to a visit. Ultimately, that is a judgment call for Government as to how well they are advancing in terms of these issues around the detention of Australians and the trade and other significant policy challenges we have with China. But of course, they should be making sure there is confidence that the types of breakthroughs we would be hoping in access to family and children on a regular basis – in terms of transparency around what the sentencing and the terms actually are – and ultimately in terms of a pathway that may see her return to Australia and/or release are being achieved.
Journalist: Realistically what do you think the chances are of her release actually being possible? Has China given any indication to think to the Australian Government that it might happen?
Simon Birmingham: Australia can never control the justice system of another country. But we should make sure that our expectations of justice are continuously made clear and that we apply as much pressure as we can, and the Albanese Government applies as much pressure as it can to China to see a greater level of justice applied than has been the case.
Journalist: Three years now as of this weekend that she’s been imprisoned, your government was in the seat of power for two of those years. Are you confident that you did all that you could to try and progress the case for some clarity and ultimately her release?
Simon Birmingham: I know that under the Coalition Government and, in credit, under the Albanese Government, this has been a key issue that we’ve been reassured is raised at every ministerial dialogue and engagement that occurs constantly by our diplomatic representatives and officials. And so, yes, Australia continues to pursue this issue as a priority, as it should. What I perhaps hope occurs out of the release of these words, and it’s just so remarkable to think after three years, detained in the conditions that she is in, for Cheng Lei to be able to dictate this message and have it conveyed back to Australia, is a show of her strength and her true sense of humanity in the way that she describes the circumstances she faces and the gratitude she expresses to Australians. But I hope that the Chinese officials in Australia at the Chinese Embassy equally view the footage, read the words and convey the messages and sentiments of all Australians back to Beijing in the strongest possible terms that we expect to see a greater level of justice apply.
Journalist: Now that barley tariffs have been lifted, is that enough progress in the relationship for the Prime Minister to visit China or do you think that there should be other trade improvements before that happens?
Simon Birmingham: The removal of barley tariffs is a good step forward, but we should be expecting to see China on the trade front honour all of the terms of the China-Australia Free Trade Agreement and seeing progress in relation to wine. Again, it’s for the Government to determine in the negotiation to be Beijing’s de how are they best advancing that. But I would want to know that the Government has confidence that a Prime Ministerial visit is actually occurring while those issues are being advanced – while we’re getting those breakthroughs – and of course, seeing and seizing every opportunity to try to get breakthroughs in relation to the detained Australians too.
Journalist: The PM foreshadowed a potential meeting on the sidelines of G20 in recent days, previewing that. Do you think that a face-to-face meeting provides additional avenues for trying to raise an issue like this that might bring about progress where others haven’t?
Simon Birmingham: A meeting during G 20 would be very welcoming between President Xi and Prime Minister Albanese, it would be an opportunity to pursue these issues around detained Australians as well as a trade and other regional and security concerns we have – and an opportunity to do that, without taking the step of agreeing to the full, imprimatur that comes with a Prime Ministerial visit to China – those occasions are significant occasions – they involve significant symbolism and it’s why government needs to make sure it has confidence that significant, real meaningful progress is continuing to be made resolving the trade disputes, that a visit can help to address issues around detained Australians. But a meeting between leaders in the margins of the G20 summit is a very good opportunity for frank, direct dialogue to occur to really raise and drive home Australia’s concerns about these issues.
Journalist: Senator, the Government has increased the humanitarian visa intake to 20,000 places. Do you first of all think that is a good move given the humanitarian crisis that we’re seeing, particularly in Europe and the Middle East? And do you have the belief that some advocacy groups have those places should be prioritising in particular Afghan and Sudanese applications?
Simon Birmingham: We will certainly want to scrutinise the details around how the Government is allocating those places and ensuring they’re being allocated in the fairest possible way and also the implications more broadly on the permanent migration program, which needs to ensure balance between humanitarian needs, but also the focus on the skills needs that Australia has. More broadly, the Government needs to come to the party in terms of having a clear migration strategy and approach and how that intersects with the population pressures that Australian cities are facing at present in terms of infrastructure, housing, and other real pressure points that concern many Australians.
Journalist: We heard from Home Affairs at Senate Estimates – it’s not directly your portfolio but it strays into it – but they’re unable to finalise these applications in Afghanistan, for obvious reasons, can’t conduct biometric checks other security checks, the only way to really do those is in neighbouring countries and obviously it’s not easy for Afghan nationals to get out of the country at the moment. Do you see any other alternatives there to help process some of those applications, to work around the obvious issues with dealing with Afghanistan applications at the moment? Is there anything that you think the Government could be doing to process those faster system and assist in that issue?
Simon Birmingham: I met with Afghan representatives again in the last week and the real challenge that continues to exist in terms of the humanitarian crisis, the oppression of women, of girls, of anybody with any political dissent is a tragedy that continues to unfold in Afghanistan. Australia continues to have a duty to try to support those who worked with us during our time in trying to support and help the Afghan people – and that duty means that we should be deploying whatever efforts and abilities we can to process visas to help people who helped us to settle in Australia in safe circumstances. But there are many challenges to that. I acknowledge those and I’m not going to pretend that I’ve got any easy answers to pre-judge how are officials managed to achieve it. Thanks, guys.