Topics: Australian held hostage in PNG; President Biden visit to Ukraine; foreign interference and national security;

07:10AM AEDT
21 February 2023


Peter Stefanovic:  A police operation is underway after an Australian professor and three colleagues were taken hostage in Papua New Guinea. It’s believed a group of armed men in the Highlands region of the country have taken the four researchers at gunpoint and a ransom demand has been made for their release. The Australian archaeologist was in a remote area of the country doing a field study with local researchers and a project manager when they were taken hostage. The news follows a New Zealand pilot being taken hostage over the border in West Papua last week. Joining us live now is the Shadow Foreign Affairs Minister, Simon Birmingham. Simon, good to see you. Thanks for your time this morning. Just first of all, what do you make of this and what does the government need to do?


Simon Birmingham: Hello Pete, it’s good to be with you. This would be very troubling indeed for the families of all of those affected, the Australian professor and others who have been taken hostage. Our thoughts are with them. Australia has some of the best, most experienced consular service officers as well [indistinct] to affected individuals, to foreign governments and to others. And obviously we need to be working hand in glove with the government of Papua New Guinea, with their law enforcement authorities, to try to ensure the swift and safe release of these individuals.


Peter Stefanovic: Just, our apologies, Simon. We missed the first half of your answer there because of some audio issues. It’s all good now, but just back up again on what you started with there on your reaction to what’s going on in PNG and what the government needs to do.


Simon Birmingham: Pete, I was indicating obviously this would be terribly distressing for the families of those affected individuals, and our thoughts are clearly with them. We have, though, some of the best consular service officers in the world and they, working through our high commission in Port Moresby, need to be working hand in glove with the Government of Papua New Guinea to make sure that we are doing all we can to assist them to secure the safe and swift release of these individuals.


Peter Stefanovic: Should we be paying the ransom?


Simon Birmingham: Well, it’s not in Australia’s interests to be handing over ransom necessarily. It’s also, though rarely in our interest to talk too much about the detail of negotiations. So, I appreciate that the government would be wanting to make sure that what they are doing with the Government of Papua New Guinea is done in the most effective means possible. And sometimes that means they will have to work quietly behind the scenes to try to secure the best outcome.


Peter Stefanovic: A reminder, too, isn’t it, that PNG in some parts still a very dangerous place and and so people do need to be aware of the risks that they are taking, don’t they, when they’re going and venturing into some parts of PNG?


Simon Birmingham: Well, there is that reminder there. People should always look at the travel advisory notices that are provided. Now. I was there on a parliamentary delegation in Papua New Guinea looking at critical investment in a whole range of health services that Australia supports across Papua New Guinea. And there’s so much that Papua New Guinea does have to offer. But people safety and security, they should take seriously, they should follow it and read those travel advisories in advance and then act accordingly to those travel advisories.


Peter Stefanovic: You’ve seen the pictures of Joe Biden, the US president. He made a surprise stop to Kyiv overnight. Simon, he’s also pledged another half a billion dollars in aid to Ukraine. Does this, I don’t know, put more pressure on us to do more beyond what we’re already doing?


Simon Birmingham: This is a historic visit and powerful in its symbolism by Joe Biden, but also substantive in terms of the further additional commitment of support from the United States to Ukraine. Australia should continue to be at the forefront of those global efforts supporting all of our NATO countries, and particularly supporting the people of Ukraine, who for almost precisely 12 months now have put up a massive fight in defence of their country. They have really shown a heroic ability to defend themselves. And so providing more military support, providing more humanitarian support and making sure that we double down in terms of any areas of pressure that can be put on Russia are all crucial steps that should be taken by the Albanese Government in support not just of Ukraine, but of principles of sovereignty, liberty and freedom.


Peter Stefanovic: Well, speaking of sovereignty, liberty and freedom, I just want to close here. Claire O’Neill, she’s giving a speech today on national security. She’s fired a shot at hostile foreign actors who might seek to influence our democratic processes. This comes after the CCP tried this on the Canadians a couple of years ago. What are your thoughts on this as it’s timed to coincide with Mike Burgess’s speech tonight?


Simon Birmingham: Well, in fact, it also coincides with a daylong set of hearings that the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security will be undertaking, looking at the operation of our foreign interference scheme and to make sure that it is as effective as possible. There’s a series of big reforms that were put in place by the previous Coalition government around foreign interference, around the way in which we need to make sure that critical infrastructure is protected in Australia. And of course, data and information is an extension of that type of critical information and critical infrastructure. And so this government should be working to make sure that it builds upon those that reforms put in place which were world leading are tested and re-evaluated to be as effective as possible. And we’ll make sure we play a constructive role in that. We always need to be mindful of not overburdening business with additional costs through these types of measures. But we do need to ensure that Australians can have confidence that their data is going to be managed properly, held securely, and that when it comes to foreign interference in Australia, that we are ensuring as much transparency as possible and that it does not be undertaken and is not undertaken in nefarious or negative ways for our country.


Peter Stefanovic: Okay, that’s Simon Birmingham, the Shadow Foreign Affairs Minister, live from Adelaide. Thank you, Simon. We’ll talk to you again soon.