TopicsCondolences for Mark DreyfusDr. Yang Hengjun; PM China visit; Israel-Hamas conflict; Mr. Benbrika: Pacific Island Games security;

11:40AM AEDT
1 November 2023

Simon Birmingham: Thanks very much for coming today. At the outset, I would like to convey personal condolences and also condolences of the Opposition to Attorney General Mark Dreyfus on the sad death of his wife, Deborah. We acknowledge that for Mark and his loved ones, this will be a very difficult time, that we respect their right to privacy and that we grieve with all of those who were loved ones to Deborah and send our best wishes to Mark and to his family at such a difficult time.

I also want to acknowledge today the letters released and the comments released by the family of Dr. Yang Hengjun. Dr. Yang has spent more than four years detained in China, without any details in relation to how long his detention will last, nor any details in relation to the nature of his charges. This arbitrary and indefinite detention of an Australian citizen must end, and it must be at the top of the list of priorities for Prime Minister Albanese when he travels to China later this week.

We have seen welcome progress in the release of Cheng Lei. Some progress in terms of the removal of China’s trade sanctions and attempted economic coercion against Australia. But we should expect to see the full removal of those trade sanctions, and we should be arguing for the timely return to Australia of our citizen, Dr. Yang Hengjun, whose health concerns are a worry. The nature of who’s detention is of concern, and the fact that he continues to be held indefinitely with no certainty, is taking an enormous toll on him and his family and needs to be ceased.

We should also be expecting the Prime Minister to make clear a number of other concerns Australia has in terms of China’s regional engagement, the risks created by China’s military confrontations with the Philippines and the South China Sea. The need for those to cease, and for China to respect the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea. The need for China to cease actions that heighten the risk of accident in the Taiwan Strait, and the need for China to respect international rights on intellectual property, as highlighted recently by the ASIO Chief, as well as address legitimate international human rights concerns. China equally should be taking a far stronger stance in relation to international conflicts, particularly Russia’s immoral and illegal invasion of Ukraine. Rather than pursuing a no limits friendship or partnership with Russia. China should be expecting Russia to cease that invasion and to show respect for international law and the type of sovereignty that China usually calls upon other nations to respect. Thank you and over to questions.

Journalist: Thanks, Senator. Just on Dr. Yang Hengjun, is it your belief that his release is effectively a precondition for full stabilisation of the relationship, to use the foreign minister’s terminology?

Simon Birmingham: Australians won’t believe that the Australia-China relationship has been properly stabilised, whilst an Australian citizen continues to suffer indefinite and arbitrary detention in Chinese jails. So, it’s critical that this progress is achieved that we see certainty for Dr. Yang, the release of Dr. Yang, his safe return to Australia, his ability to access medical treatment because those things are a precondition in the minds, I think, of all Australians for seeing any type of full stabilisation in the Australia-China relationship.

Journalist: Just briefly on events in the Middle East overnight, the foreign minister tweeted about violence by settlers against Palestinians in the West Bank. It’s been reported around 120 Palestinians have died since the conflict began. What’s the Coalition stance on this? Does the Coalition also hold concerns about violence against Palestinians on the West Bank? And do you believe the Government’s tone and approach on this has been appropriate?

Simon Birmingham: Nobody wishes to see the conflict between Israel and Hamas in Gaza spread beyond Israel, beyond Gaza. And so, we would urge caution in relation to the West Bank that we don’t wish to see an uprising there. We don’t want to see violence, be it from Palestinians in the West Bank or from Israeli settlers in that region, either. It’s important that across the region, including within other parts of Israel, outside of Gaza and within the West Bank, that every effort is made to try to ensure stability and peace. Whilst Israel has every right to defend itself and every right to seek to remove Hamas as a terrorist organisation from posing a threat to Israel in the future. That also needs to be done in an environment where we do see that respect shown elsewhere, and regard to try to make sure that conflict does not spread or escalate into other parts or regions.

Journalist: Just on another matter Abdul Nacer Benbrika, as I’m sure you’ve seen, has won his high court challenge to restore his Australian citizenship. This was a decision that was put in place by the former home affairs minister – of course, now Opposition Leader Peter Dutton. Is the coalition disappointed by this ruling? And does it indicate there was a degree of overreach by the Coalition in its approach to Benbrika and the legislative framework that it leant on?

Simon Birmingham: Mr. Benbrika is a convicted terrorist, and the first priority has to be keeping Australians safe. As a Coalition government, we sought to take every possible step to ensure that Mr. Benbrika as a convicted terrorist, pose no future threat to Australians by securing his ongoing detention and seeking to have him removed from Australia. The Government, having received this High Court action, needs to act with urgency. The Albanese Government needs to act with urgency to ensure that Mr. Benbrika can pose no threat to Australia, to ensure his continued detention, and to look at whatever means are necessary to keep Australians safe. They will continue to have the full bipartisan cooperation of the Coalition for actions that may be necessary, legislatively or otherwise, to keep Australians safe in this regard.

Journalist: Just finally, the Prime Minister of Solomon Islands announced on Monday that an additional number of Chinese police are coming into the country to help with the Pacific Games. He hasn’t said how many are coming in. Has the Coalition sought or received any information on this from the Government? Are you aware of how many Chinese personnel have come in, and are you concerned by this development?

Simon Birmingham: We’ll go through the usual processes in relation to the briefings that we receive from Government. But the Solomon Islands has consistently said that Australia remains their preferred security partner of choice. It begs the question, if that’s the case, why isn’t Australia providing any additional security if it’s required for the Pacific Games? So, I would hope and trust that those offers have been made, are being made to the Solomon Islands and that in terms of the commitments, they have repeated themselves about Australia being the security partner of choice. They also operate in conjunction with the desire expressed by the Pacific Islands Forum for Pacific led solutions to Pacific challenges, and if additional security is required for the Pacific Island Games, then that should be provided by Pacific Island nations consistent with that desire and I would hope and trust that Australia is willing to play our role in that regard.

Journalist: Just finally, do you believe, though, that Solomon Islands is effectively thumbing its nose at that very principle of Pacific led approach to regional security?

Simon Birmingham: I would think that all Pacific Island nations would prefer to see adherence to the principle of Pacific led solutions to Pacific problems, and that all of those who can, with Australia at the front of that list, should be willing to provide any additional security cooperation and assistance that the Solomon Islands might need for the Pacific Games. The Solomon Islands has stated, and the Albanese Government has repeated assurances, that Australia is the security partner of choice for the Solomon Islands. If that’s the case, then we should be there providing that security for these games. Thank you.