SUBJECTS: Australia-France relationship; Ukraine; CHOGM; climate change; India visit.
ISKHANDAR RAZAK: Climate change and human rights will be top of the Deputy Prime Minister’s agenda at this year’s Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting in Rwanda. Richard Marles has touched down in the capital of Kigali and that’s where we find him this morning. Richard Marles, thank you so much for your time. I know it’s late there. We will talk about CHOGM in a bit but I just wanted to get your thoughts and views on some of the news of the day. First off, Afghanistan. What aid is Australia providing and what more can we do to help Afghanistan after this earthquake?
RICHARD MARLES, DEPUTY PRIME MINISTER: Well, thank you, Isk, for having me. Obviously what we’ve seen in Afghanistan is absolutely tragic, playing out in a country which has already seen its fair share of tragedy over the last – well, over a long period of time, particularly over the last year. We will be working closely to see what sort of assistance we can provide and I know that Penny Wong is putting her attention to that right now. But our thoughts and prayer are very much with the people of Afghanistan and those that have been affected.
RAZAK: The Prime Minister is on his way to Europe. He’s going to go to Spain for NATO, but he’s been invited to meet the French President, Emmanuel Macron. He’s already said this is about redefining, reintegrating, reshaping the relationship. Apart from words, what physically, what real things are being done between Australia and France to mend that relationship?
DEPUTY PRIME MINISTER: Well, it’s an important relationship to reset and so it’s very good that Prime Minister Albanese has been invited by the President to visit France and it’s very important that that meeting is happening so soon. It’s an important relationship to reset because France is in many ways our closest neighbour. We don’t necessarily think about them in those terms but the closest overseas population to where you are right now is in France. It’s Nouméa and New Caledonia. The biggest border that France has with any country is with us and that speaks to the fact that France is a Pacific country and we have a lot of shared interests there. They have a lot of assets in the Pacific, including defence assets, and we need to build our cooperation with France in the Pacific as a liberal democracy which shares our part of the world. We have a lot of strategic alignment and we are putting a renewed focus on the Pacific as we’ve been able to see with the travels of Penny Wong and making the Pacific a focus. Getting our relationship right with France is central to that equation as well.
RAZAK: I’ll talk to you about the Pacific in a second but still on the Prime Minister, he’s been invited to go to Kyiv to meet with the Ukrainian leader. Will he be going or could you, in fact, go in his stead?
DEPUTY PRIME MINISTER: Well look, I know that the Prime Minister would like to go to Kyiv. It’s obviously a question of the practicality of that and I know that that is what’s being worked through. But the point here is that while Ukraine is a long way from Australia, the issues which are at stake in that war, the principles which are at stake, are principles which apply everywhere. I mean, we are a country which has been committed to building and protecting a global rules-based order where countries resolve their disputes by reference to international law, not by reference to power and might, and yet that’s exactly the way in which we’ve seen Russia behave in respect to Ukraine, in an appalling way, and it’s really important that we stand with Ukraine in this moment. I spoke today with the Ukrainian Defence Minister to make clear the solidarity we have with Ukraine and just to observe to him how inspiring the resistance of the Ukrainian people has been to the Russian aggression that they have faced but what they are doing is upholding international principles which are just as applicable right here in the Indo-Pacific and that’s why the war in Ukraine matters so much to us here in Australia.
RAZAK: Let’s talk about CHOGM now. There are a number of Pacific leaders who are there. What are you talking to them about when it comes to China and what are they talking to you about when it comes to China and climate change?
DEPUTY PRIME MINISTER: Well, firstly, what we’re making clear to the countries of the Pacific, and you’re right, there’s a very big presence of the Pacific Island countries here in Kigali – Prime Minister Fiamē of Samoa I was speaking to this evening. We’re making clear that the Pacific is front and centre in our world view. That there is going to be an emphasis on the way in which we engage with the world in engaging with the Pacific and, again, we’ve seen that with what Penny Wong has been doing. Penny was sworn in on Monday. She was in Fiji on Thursday. She has visited many of the countries of the Pacific in a matter of a few weeks. That’s completely different to what we saw happening under the former Coalition Government. So the message that the Pacific is front and centre in terms of the way we see the world is the first message that we want to give to the people of the Pacific. And the second is that our interest is fundamentally in them improving their development outcomes, working with them to improve their social conditions and I think that is a message which has been well received. And right at the heart of that, obviously, is a very different attitude compared to the former government of Australia in respect to climate change. In many ways, climate change is the entry ticket to engaging with the Pacific because they are on the front line of climate change. For them, it is an absolutely present existential threat and we do have a credible position in relation to climate change now in terms of our own emissions journey. But we also want to use our voice to help the Pacific tell their story to the global community about what it is to be on the front line of climate change and we see that’s a really important position of leadership that Australia can take and we mean to take it.
RAZAK: Richard Marles, just finally, you have met with Indian heads of state, defence leaders on this tour and now you’re at CHOGM. You’ve described China as a friendly entity but also one that can make us anxious because of its military expansion. What discussions are happening in CHOGM regarding China’s military expansion and growth?
DEPUTY PRIME MINISTER: Well, you’re right, I visited India on the way to here in Rwanda and part of the point of visiting India is again to make clear how important India is in terms of the way we see world and that’s because we do have a very close strategic alignment now with India, perhaps as close as we’ve ever had. But China is our largest trading partner. It is the same for India. China is our biggest security anxiety, that is the same for India. How you reconcile those things is not obvious, but one thing is really clear, we need to be comparing notes and working with friends. And that’s certainly how we regard India, it’s how we regard the countries of the Commonwealth and it’s really important, particularly with India, where we share a geography, where we share values, and where we really now have a relationship with deep affection underpinned by a large Indian-Australian community, that we work with them very closely in respect to our shared strategic alignment, and a lot of that is obviously driven by China.
RAZAK: Richard Marles, Deputy Prime Minister, thank you so much for your time.
DEPUTY PRIME MINISTER: It’s a pleasure.