An Interview with the Australian Ambassador to Sweden

On 28th November 2017, I had the opportunity to interview Jonathan Kenna, Australian Ambassador to Sweden, following on from an event where members of UPF were able to ask the Ambassador questions, especially pertaining to Australia’s new Foreign Policy White Paper. I asked him a few questions regarding recent domestic affairs in Australia, and Australia’s role in current global issues.

Thank you for agreeing to this interview, is there anything that you would like to say before we begin?

Ambassador Kenna: I’d just like to say thanks very much for the opportunity to be here, it’s been great to meet students from the UPF and I’m happy to answer any questions you might have.

I would like to ask you about some international issues since you are an ambassador; however, I would first like to start with domestic issues in Australia. At the moment, there is an issue in the Australian Parliament only maintaining his majority through alliances with independents, having lost it through to a number of resignations due to the ‘nationality scandal’. It is written in the Australian Constitution that Australian MPs have to only be Australian nationals, and not hold another nationality; and the constitution can only be changed via a national referendum. However, this begs the question: why is it necessary for Australian MPs to only be Australian and not hold a second nationality; especially in a country where half of the population were born overseas or had a parent who was born overseas, and the vast majority are descended from immigrants?

Well it’s a good question, and I guess at the time the constitution was framed back in 1901 there was a view that having sole nationality was a mechanism to ensure that your loyalties only lay with Australia. The initial rationale was about avoiding divided loyalties and that those in our parliament should have sole allegiance or consciousness to the Australian identity. Now, as you say, it’s proved to be a provision with a big impact in a very multicultural contemporary Australia. This is generating a debate in Australia as to whether this sort of provision is still appropriate in our constitution, and that debate might generate a decision on whether this provision should be changed. But if it is to be changed, you’re quite right, the government can’t change the constitution. We have a process for a referendum whereby the constitution can only be changed through a referendum; and a referendum has to be carried by an overall majority of Australian voters, but also a majority in each state and territory. So that’s the process that would have to be undertaken if we were to change this. But it a provision that is now being reconsidered in the light of contemporary Australia.

So, it’s something the government may potentially look to change, but it won’t be an easy fix?

It won’t be an easy fix. Referendums DO succeed in Australia, but the questions need to be carefully framed and they generally have to be bi-partisan. In other words, both of the major political parties have to support the change. Now we’re really dealing with the immediate political fallout, and I think we’re at quite early days considering whether or not there needs to be a referendum, and there’s certainly been no decision on that. If so, there would be quite a lot of thinking on what question would be the right question, and then in order for it to have a good chance of success it would need to be bi-partisan.

Ok, thank you very much. I’d now like to turn to some more global issues. In Europe we have a view of Australia as tough on migration, due to the points-based immigration system and the Australian Navy turning back ships coming from the North of Australia. Since migration is becoming increasingly important in Europe, particularly due to Syria refuges coming especially here to Sweden and African migrants trying to cross the Mediterranean Sea to Italy. How does Australia view the situation in Europe? Is it discussed much? And if it is, are there many people of the opinion that Europe should adopt a more ‘Australian approach’ to migration?

Yes, we are obviously aware that migration is a big issue globally, and we engage on the issue with many of our partners; and when we talk with Sweden about some of the challenges that it’s facing, when I talk to counterparts, migration comes up as one of a whole range of subjects. So we are aware of it.

In terms of whether or not Europe should adopt a set of policies that reflect Australia’s own policies, I think it’s definitely NOT our view. Each country within the EU, and the EU also, has to develop its own set of policies that meet their own objectives and reflect the circumstances that they face. I don’t think we’re into exporting our policy processes internationally.

I’d just go back also to the initial premise of the question, which is that we’re, I think you might have mentioned that we’re ‘tough on migration’, but actually Australia is a very welcoming and multicultural country (as I indicated in the talk just now). We get about 190,000 arrivals in Australia every year. We also continue to resettle quite high numbers of refuges, and Australia regularly ranks in the top 3 or so resettlement countries globally. I think  865,000 refugees have been resettled in Australia since our resettlement program was established in 1945. And 190,000 people move permanently to Australia every year. So it’s a misunderstanding to think that Australia is ‘anti-migration’ or has tough migration policies. We are, as you said, a very multicultural society. What we are tough on is people smugglers; and the government has it very clear that we will continue to be a very generous resettlement country, but we will take refugees through an ordered process in co-operation with the United Nations High Commission on Refugees. Our humanitarian program is increasing: 16,250 places in 2017/18, this will increase to 18,750 in 2018/19; and in addition, we resettle others under the humanitarian program including from Syria and Iraq. For example, 22,000 refugees from that region since 2015. But it’s our strong border protection policies that allow us to maintain the high level of public support for migration, allow us to continue to ensure the support for the humanitarian programs and pathways that are available. So we have put in place a set of policies that allow us to continue to bring in many migrants, to bring in refugees, but do that through our co-operation with UNHCR.

That’s a very detailed answer, thank you very much. There is one issue which has been brought up in the press though: that last year Papua New Guinea forced the closure of the Manus Island detention camp, dubbed ‘Australia’s Guantanamo’, stating that the treatment of refugees there was illegal and in violation of their human rights. However, Australia said it would still not take any of the refugees from Manus Island, leaving many stuck in the camp even after its official closure. Should Australia do more to help rehome the people still on Manus Island? And should Australia now perhaps look at closing its other detention camp in Nauru?

They’re not Australian detention centres, these are regional processing centres under the sovereign control of Papua New Guinea and Nauru respectively. Australia has negotiated memoranda of understanding with both of those governments, and both of those governments have committed to providing the persons in those processing centres with treatment that meets their human rights’ needs and affords them the dignity that they deserve. If there are departures from that, then Australia will work very diligently with Papua New Guinea and Nauru to try and support processes that will address those issues.

In terms of the specific question about the regional processing centre at Manus, all those refugees and those who have failed [in their  asylum claims] who are on Manus have now peacefully relocated to alternative accommodation. So that regional processing centre is closed, and there is nobody there now. They have all moved to alternative accommodation. There are clear pathways for the community who are there in Manus: those who have been accepted as refugees can resettle in Papua New Guinea, they can apply alternatively for resettlement in the US. We have a bilateral agreement with the US, and subject to US vetting, the US will take a particular number from Nauru and Manus. Or [the people on Manus] could apply to move to Nauru. That’s for the refugees. Those whose claims have been finally determined as unsuccessful should return to their country of origin, or to any other country where they have the right of residence. And many hundreds of that cohort have. In the meanwhile, those people who were in the processing centre, the refugees have moved to a refugee transit centre, and the failed asylum seekers have moved to alternative accommodation at a place called Hillside Haus. The facilities, of course, have been inspected. I know that there’s a quote from the Papua New Guinea Prime Minister to say that in his view the facilities are much better than the closed centre. So for that particular situation at Manus, that’s the state of play, and those are the pathways open to those cohorts.

The other major global issue at the moment is of course the environment, due to the signing of the Paris Climate Accord, which Australia is obviously party to. However, there are currently outlined plans for potential new shipping lines in and around Australia, and arguments for the building of new coal-fired power stations along the coast, despite the harm that these could cause to the Great Barrier Reef. Having committed to the Paris Climate Accord, should the Australian government do more to protect the Great Barrier Reef, as well as simply cutting down on emissions?

As you say, we’re committed to the Paris Agreement. We’ve set a 2020 target, which is a short-term target, and we’re confident that we’ll improve on that target, that we’ll meet and beat that target. Our 2030 target is a 26-28% reduction of emissions against 2005 levels, and that’s apparently one of the strongest of any of the G20 economies.

In terms of the Great Barrier Reef, this has been an issue that Australia has really done a lot of work on, including through the UNESCO World Heritage Committee – the Great Barrier Reef is one of the World Heritage Sites, and therefore the committee looks at it, and Australia has been working very closely with other members of the committee to discuss its plan for the Great Barrier Reef. And what we have don is put together a plan that goes right out to 2050, and that is a plan that addresses a long-term management approach to managing the challenges that the reef is facing; including water quality and coral bleaching. Overall, this ‘Reef 2050 Plan’ has a commitment of over $2billion in funding attached to it, just over the next decade; and it’s our view that there has never been an undertaking of its scope and complexity with this financial commitment in a marine environmental World Heritage Site.  So we are making a very, very significant investment and putting a lot of very careful, science-based management practices in place to ensure the long-term health of the reef, and this is something we are discussing extensively, including in the UNESCO setting, and our plan has been endorsed by UNESCO and others. So it is very important, and we are taking it very seriously.

Thank you very much. Just a quick final question. Since you are the Australian ambassador to Sweden, I would like to ask quickly about another major issue for Australians: how would you explain The Ashes to a Swedish audience, and who is going to win it?

(chuckles) Ok, so cricket itself is a bit of a challenge, but let’s just say: The Ashes is a cricket contest between Australia and England; and it goes back, I guess, to our former status as a British colony. So there was always, I guess in the early days, a great sense of national pride when the ‘colonial outpost’ could beat the ‘mothership’, so to speak. And I guess that it’s just the history and intensity of the competition that captures the attention, both in Australia and in England. In terms of the winner this time around, it’ll be Australia without any shadow of a doubt, and, uh (starts laughing) you know we’ll prove it over the next few matches.

Tristan Fleming-Froy

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