Penny Wong, Minister of Foreign Affairs: Salutations to all. Thank you very much for coming. May I begin by expressing my deep concern for Australian Professor Sean Turnell and clarify, as I did in a statement yesterday, that Australia rejects the Myanmar decision against Professor Turnell and that we continue to seek his immediate release. We do not accept the charges against him. I emphasize that Professor Turnell has spent years of his life working to improve the economic conditions of the people of Myanmar. We will continue to take every opportunity to advocate strongly for him until he is returned to his family in Australia.
I also want to reiterate, as did the Prime Minister, our concerns about the situation in Florida with Hurricane Ian. There was huge damage to homes, to infrastructure, obviously to livelihoods. The communities are really living through a terrible situation and anticipating, as the president said, loss of life. So our solidarity with all those facing this storm.
Today, I am also announcing new appointments that strengthen Australia’s diplomatic capacity and match people with the right qualifications and expertise to leadership positions. I would like to clarify that our government is reversing the approach of the previous government and we are rebalancing appointments towards more qualified senior civil servants, in line with community expectations and job requirements. In some circumstances, Australia also has a distinct advantage in being represented by people who have had distinguished careers beyond public service, such as businessmen and former parliamentarians.
The eminence of Australia’s relationship with the UK has long been reflected in the appointment of a senior former minister. So, in keeping with this tradition, the Albanian government is appointing Stephen Smith as Australia’s next High Commissioner to the UK. Mr Smith was a member of the Australian Parliament for 20 years and served as Minister of Defense and, before that, Minister of Foreign Affairs and Trade.
He will begin his posting after submitting the Strategic Defense Review in early 2023. Until then, Lynette Wood will continue as Acting High Commissioner of Australia, and I thank her for that.
A replacement for Arthur Sinodinos will be announced before his assignment ends in February 2023.
A Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade recruitment process will be conducted to appoint experienced officials as Heads of Mission in Singapore, New Delhi, Tokyo and the United Nations in New York.
Will Hodgman will finish as High Commissioner to Singapore in 2023. Barry O’Farrell will finish as High Commissioner to India in February 2023. Mitch Fifield will finish as Ambassador and Permanent Representative to the United Nations in June 2023.
Today I am also announcing the appointment of six career diplomats to lead Australia in overseas posts: Dr Simon Twisk as Ambassador to Argentina; Dr Axel Wabenhorst to Ambassador to Egypt; Ms. Melissa Kelly as Ambassador to Kuwait; Ms. Indra McCormick as Ambassador to Portugal; Mr. Tony Huber as Consul General in Istanbul, Türkiye; and Mr. Andrew Goledzinowski as Ambassador to Vietnam.
Our External Service is the engine of Australia’s engagement with the world and today I am announcing a team that complements the existing staff we have around the world pursuing Australia’s interests.
May I thank all those who have served Australia – outgoing Ambassadors, High Commissioners and Consuls General for their contribution to furthering the nation’s interests in these countries during their respective tenures.
I am happy to answer questions.
Journalist: Regarding Mr Turnell, does the Australian government know where he is currently being held and has anyone been able to speak to him after the verdict?
Minister of Foreign Affairs: We have requested consular access – we know where he is currently being held. We have – we have requested access to the court. Unfortunately, the Myanmar authorities did not allow this to happen.
Journalist: Where is he being held?
Minister of Foreign Affairs: I will not go into the private details of aspects of this case. But I will tell you very clearly that we completely reject the charges against him, and Australia will continue to advocate through all public and private channels for his return to Australia.
Journalist: Does the conviction of Mr Turnell show a failure of quiet diplomacy and is there anything more the Australian government can do to secure his release?
Minister of Foreign Affairs: First, Senator Payne, who previously held that position, and I worked very hard to express our views and use others to convey those views to the authorities in Myanmar. I – this is a very difficult situation, as are many such cases. I’m – what I would say to you is I think we’re doing everything we can, some of which is obviously public like I did today, but a lot of it isn’t. I would therefore like to assure all Australians that we are doing everything we can to press for his release.
Journalist: Can you confirm that the time Turnell has served will count towards his sentence, and do you hope that will be the end of it or could he face more years in prison, as we saw with Aung San Suu Kyi ?
Minister of Foreign Affairs: Well, what I can confirm is that since May 4, 2021, Professor Turnell has faced a number of procedural hearings as part of the investigation and pre-trial process. On June 9, 2022, the Myanmar court ruled that Professor Turnell should stand trial for alleged violation of Myanmar’s official secrets and immigration laws. On September 29, 2022, Professor Turnell was found guilty and sentenced to three years in prison. And I think that’s as much information because of privacy considerations and the sensitivity of this case that I’m going to provide.
Journalist: Just to be clear, did you or any officials speak with the military after the verdict?
Minister of Foreign Affairs: I’m not ready to divulge that at this point. But you should infer from what I say that every avenue available to us is and will be used to defend Mr. Turnell.
Journalist: On another subject regarding the Pacific announcements, does Australia welcome the new partnership signed by the leaders of the United States and the Pacific Islands?
Minister of Foreign Affairs: Yes. And we welcome US engagement in the region. And I think what was particularly significant about that — about the announcement that was made, is that we saw the Pacific unit show up. And as you know, among other things that we’ve talked about a lot since coming into government, was the importance of the Pacific family working together. Each Pacific country is a sovereign nation. They make their own sovereign decisions, and these – and they have in relation to this declaration with the United States. But we welcome the unity of the Pacific and the fact that the United States has worked through the regional architecture, which is the Pacific Islands Forum.
Journalist: What about the new commitments from Washington that Australia welcomes?
Minister of Foreign Affairs: We do. I was at the Pacific Islands Forum when Vice President Kamala Harris took the floor to announce additional compensation under the Tuna Treaty and its renegotiation. It’s part of this announcement, and we think that the American engagement in the region and, in particular, the focus on the development of the region is so important.