Topics: Reopening of international borders; laser pointed at an Australian aircraft by a Chinese vessel; borders; Australian-China relationship; Australia’s trade links with China.
MATT WEBBER: On ABC Gold Coast Mornings, last week Senator Murray Watt was my guest, the ALP senator for Queensland. This week Karen Andrews, member for McPherson re-joins us, Minister for Home Affairs. Minister, good morning to you.
KAREN ANDREWS: Good morning, Matt. How are you?
MATT WEBBER: I’m particularly well. And most enthusiastic to talk to you about our borders reopening here in Australia – well, for the most part anyway – for people who’ve had their two vaccinations in a minute. If we can dwell first on China, because there’s been a lot of talk over the last couple of weeks, particularly last week, and then over the weekend we hear that apparently a Chinese warship pointed a laser at an Australian Defence plane. Peter Dutton described this as an example of the kinds of hostilities that we experience. How many other times have we endured similar incursions? When did they happen and why is this incident being highlighted now?
KAREN ANDREWS: Well, it’s a very concerning development with what’s happened with the pointing of a laser towards one of our aircraft that was just undertaking its normal surveillance duties. So it has been called out by Defence, it’s been called out by the Prime Minister and by the Defence Minister.
It is very concerning, and, quite frankly, Australia is wanting answers from China – you know, what was the purpose behind this, what were you doing? And there’s been silence from China. Now that leads us to be concerned. Now, that sort of behaviour can endanger lives as well as clearly the equipment that was involved, but, more importantly, it could endanger lives. And China has not come out and explained what happened, why that action was taken. So that leads us to consider what the act of aggression actually meant, what they were trying to do. So it is a concern to us.
MATT WEBBER: When did it happen?
KAREN ANDREWS: I believe it was around about the 17th of February.
MATT WEBBER: 17th?
KAREN ANDREWS: So very recent.
MATT WEBBER: And is this a singular incident of this type? Has it happened before?
KAREN ANDREWS: It’s the only incident of that type that I’m aware of. We’ve obviously called out in the past where there have been cyber attacks and we have been able to attribute that to China. Where we have been able to, we have called that out. So we have been quite strong on that. And I should also say, too, that we’ve also called out cyber actions by other countries, too, including Iran and others, quite frankly, including Russia. So we do call it out. But this is concerning behaviour by China, and we need to understand what that act of aggression was intended to do – was it an act of intimidation?
MATT WEBBER: Karen Andrews with me, ABC Gold Coast Mornings. Ms Andrews is Minister for Home Affairs, member for McPherson here on the Gold Coast. On that, you know, timing is everything and coincidence or otherwise, the rhetoric about China and Australia’s relationship with China has been front and centre for the last week in parliament and some pretty unsavoury scenes from the lower house in particular last week. Border issues do tend to emerge in the run-up to elections. Even the most cursory glance at the history books reveal that this kind of thing has a way of emerging in the run-up to an election.
KAREN ANDREWS: Well, there’s a couple of things that are happening now. We’re all very much aware of trade action that China has taken against Australia, the impact that it has had on lobsters from Western Australia, what’s happened in relation to our wine. So there’s already things happening. We’ve had cyber attacks, which we have been able to attribute to China. So there has been this happening really over the last few years at least.
Now, we’re more than comfortable with working with all nations, but it needs to be a relationship with ourselves and other nations that is, quite frankly, sensible, mutually beneficial. Now, we want to re-establish our trade links – our strong trade links – with China. We are in a position to be able to do that, quite clearly, but we are not going to be cowed by any aggressive actions, whether they be military or whether they be cyber or whether they be trade in nature.
So Australia will always stand strong in the face of that level of intimidation. So, yes we were prepared. We are willing, we are open to speaking. We are very happy to follow the diplomatic channels. But quite clearly we are not going to be taken advantage of. We are not going to be intimidated.
MATT WEBBER: Why in the public realm now, though? I mean, you just mentioned yourself you’re happy to go down diplomatic channels if need be. But your government’s given the nature of the relationship and the challenges of it a very public face in the last week, a lot of it under the veil of parliamentary privilege. Why now? Who’s advising you that this is an issue that resonates?
KAREN ANDREWS: Well, it’s not electioneering, so let me be clear about that. And I think we should also not dismiss what happened in the Senate last week either where the previous week we had had the Director-General of Security come out and make his annual threat assessment. Now that timing was of his calling. So he made his annual threat assessment. He went through the story where he referred to an individual as a ‘puppeteer’, and we had a Labor senator in Senate estimates seek to name who that individual was and seek confirmation from the head of security, the Director-General of ASIO. Now, that is actually taking it way too far. In terms of risk to national security, that was a standout of poor behaviour. And I think it’s inexcusable. So I think you’ve actually got to look at the entirety of what happened over the last couple of sitting weeks.
But the work that ASIO has been doing has been on going. Now the Director-General did not say which election it was. He didn’t say whether it was local, state or federal. So this is work that happens continuously by our national security agencies and our law enforcement agencies. It’s highlighted at the moment, firstly, by the actions of the Senator in Senate estimates who chose to go down that path and put the Director-General of ASIO in a terrible situation, which he called out as well during Senate estimates. But I also think, too, that people are very conscious of national security and it is something that is important to them. And, of course, as we get into an election, what you will see is the two major parties draw the distinction between what their policies are and what their track records are.
MATT WEBBER: What is the distinction? What is the distinction between the LNP and the ALP on China?
KAREN ANDREWS: Well, let me talk more broadly – and I know you’d like me to focus in on China – but let me actually talk more broadly about our –
MATT WEBBER: Well, it’s the talking point, Minister, at the moment. And a lot of people have said, well, actually, the difference between the LNP and the ALP on Chinese foreign policy, I mean, it’s a hair’s width between you both. So why? I’m just curious about why this issue and why now?
KAREN ANDREWS: Well, I’ve always been very keen to say that we can’t just call out China, that there are other nations that potentially are out there doing us harm. And you would know that I have been very clear on saying that. So it’s not just China at the moment; we’re also seeing played out across the world what’s happening with Russia and Ukraine. So we can’t just talk about China if we’re talking about national security here in Australia. And there are a number of areas where the Coalition government has been able to demonstrate its strong position in relation to national security.
Now, in terms of the recent incident with the laser, the Prime Minister was out there extraordinarily quickly making some pretty serious comments about acts of intimidation. And, yes, the Leader of the Opposition did come out subsequent to that and say he condemned that. That’s great. But the strong statements have been coming from the Prime Minister and from the Minister for Defence followed up by myself and the Foreign Minister. So we will always be strong in the Coalition in relation to national security.
Now, if we talk about borders, which is actually in my portfolio area, you’ve actually got a very strong contrast between Labor and the Liberal-National Party. So we have been strong on borders. We’ve had to deal with the legacy of the Labor years where – and I’ll go through the numbers again – more than 50,000 people arrived illegally on over 800 boats, and more than 1200 people died at sea. Now we have worked for the last 10 years to reduce the number of people in held detention here in Australia. When we actually came to government there were about 10,000-plus people in held detention here in Australia. It’s now down to just over a thousand, 1500 is where we are at the moment. And there are no children in held detention whereas previously there were a thousand.
Now, it takes a long time to turn around that sort of policy destruction. And we are doing it. We are well on the way to dealing with those issues. So if you want a stark contrast between the policies of Labor and the Liberal-National party, just look at border security.
MATT WEBBER: ABC Gold Coast Mornings, Karen Andrews with us. I want to talk about our international borders from another perspective in moment. But while this Chinese rhetoric is bouncing around in our parliament and while it is a hot topic, what would you say to the more than 500,000 Australians of Chinese origin that currently call our nation home? Are there any concerns at large about their position in society while this issue is being politicised?
KAREN ANDREWS: The Australian government’s issue is with the government of China, not with the people of China and particularly not with Chinese Australians here. So they are very welcome in our country. They are great contributors to our nation.
MATT WEBBER: These things do have a tendency to bubble over, though, don’t they?
KAREN ANDREWS: Look, potentially they do. But we’ve always been very clear as the government that our concerns are with the Chinese government and that Chinese Australians are very welcome here in Australia. They are huge contributors to our communities. They are very welcome here. They are part now of who we are as Australia. So I would ask them to look at what is being said by the Australian government in relation to the Chinese government, but they will always be welcome.
MATT WEBBER: And if those players in Australian politics who do work around the fringes, minor parties that run on certain issues and certain platforms, if their rhetoric starts to pipe up, you won’t tolerate it in the slightest?
KAREN ANDREWS: Look, I’m really focused, to be honest, on national security from Australia’s point of view. I don’t concern myself too much with what independents or minor parties are doing. My focus is really on making sure that we are in the best possible position to keep Australians safe and secure.
MATT WEBBER: Can we talk about international borders opening up to those who’ve had a couple of vaccinations? Welcome news for our traders on the Gold Coast, first and foremost the town that you represent?
KAREN ANDREWS: Yes, absolutely. Look, it is very exciting that our international borders are now open. So we’ve seen international students coming in. We’ve seen skilled visa holders coming in. We’ve seen families coming in. You know, we’re now at the final stage, which is international visitors and, importantly, tourists. So here on the Gold Coast it’s particularly important.
And, look, I’ve just noticed over the weekend when I was out and about, you know, there’s spring in people’s step, you know. People are out and about. I mean, the travel, which I hate to talk about as a negative, but it was actually like mid-January here being out on the weekend. And that’s fantastic.
MATT WEBBER: It was good. I was in it, too.
KAREN ANDREWS: Yes. Yes, exactly. So, I mean, that’s fantastic. So I think people are recognising that, you know, we’ve dealt with a lot with Covid, but we’re coming through the other end. And the light at the end of the tunnel is actually getting closer and closer. It’s right there; we can reach it.
MATT WEBBER: The one thing I will raise, though, is that international arrivals are only required to have two vaccinations, recognised vaccinations, to be allowed entry. We don’t have our booster levels anywhere near where we would like them to be here in Australia. Are you concerned that by opening the gates to international arrivals who are required to do certain things against a certain set of rules may somehow diminish health messaging here on the home front?
KAREN ANDREWS: Well, we will always take the health advice, and that’s what we’ve followed in relation to opening the international borders. We do have an extremely high level of vaccination here in Australia. So it is, you know, around about the 94 per cent double dose. So, you know, that’s an outstanding result. Many people have rolled up their sleeves and got the boosters, and we do know that if you’ve had your booster shot you’re in a much better position than just relying on the first two shots. But we will follow the health advice in relation to our international borders, which is what we have done so far.
MATT WEBBER: Appreciate time your time.
KAREN ANDREWS: It’s a pleasure. Take care.