E&OE - PROOF ONLY
MATT ABRAHAM: Penny Wong we are learning this morning on our news that Donald Trump’s nominee Rex Tillerson has been confirmed by the US Senate as Secretary of State. Do you welcome that appointment?
SENATOR PENNY WONG, LEADER OF THE OPPOSITION IN THE SENATE: I absolutely welcome the confirmation. Ensuring that key positions are filled – and obviously Secretary of State is one of the most important positions in the Administration – is important for stability and important to ensure that the Administration can operate effectively. Yes, we do welcome the confirmation and we look forward to the Government and the Opposition working with Secretary Tillerson.
ABRAHAM: Senator Ben Cardin, the Foreign Relation’s Committee’s top Democrat said he feared Mr Tillerson would be a ‘yes man’ and he would not be able to prevent Mr Trump from pursing a misguided foreign policy that leads the country “on a march of folly”. Is there any substance in those fears?
WONG: Obviously domestic politics here is pretty, what’s the word?
WONG: That’s a good word. Domestic politics in the US is obviously, there’s a fair amount of argy bargy at the moment, which you would expect in the US system, as it goes through this process of confirmation of various individuals after what was a hard fought election. But ultimately, we, as Australia, will work with whomever is confirmed and I think it is a good thing, at this point in time, particularly as there is a lot of change, for there to be a confirmation in a key position.
ABRAHAM: You are over there as part of a Parliamentary intelligence committee?
WONG: Yes, the Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security, meeting with both elected people as well as agencies.
ABRAHAM: So, the FBI, the CIA?
ABRAHAM: Are they in a state of sort of suspended animation? Or is that the impression you get but behind the scenes when you meet these people is it just carry on as normal?
WONG: There’s obviously a lot of change in place at the moment with the change in the Administration. And of course the American system has a lot more changeover than the Australian system. We have a public service which is essentially apolitical. You might get some change at the top, but not much, whereas in the American system a lot more of what we would regard as the public service changes over at the top levels. So, you do get a lot more change upon a change of President and particularly a change of party.
ABRAHAM: I wouldn’t think you would see that with FBI operatives though would you?
WONG: No, but there is obviously a change in direction and a change at the top. But in the interim these positions are filled and things continue to proceed operationally in terms of intelligence and security matters.
ABRAHAM: I was going to say they’re not guns for hire, but in a way they are I suppose.
Senator Wong, we are getting on our news last night conflicting signals about the status of the deal to transfer refugees who are trying to get to Australia, who are on Nauru, to the US, and whether that would survive the first few weeks of the Trump Administration. We’re told on one hand that yes, it is all go, but there have been concerns that no, it is uncertain. Do you regard that deal as locked in?
WONG: No, I don’t think you can say that on the basis of what has been said publicly. What we did see was a reporter asked Mr Spicer, the President’s Press Secretary a question about the agreement, was given a particular answer which suggested the agreement was proceeding. But then, and this was all reported, an ABC reporter was contacted by another White House spokesperson to suggest that there was some doubt about whether the deal would proceed.
Now I understand that the Prime Minister made some comments at the Press Club yesterday saying that he had been given an assurance. Certainly we have some contrary messages coming out of the Administration here today. I do think that the Government does needs to clarify what the actual position is.
ABRAHAM: So, you’re in Washington and you’re saying there are contrasting messages still?
WONG: Certainly I haven’t seen anything today which resolves the double message that was given late yesterday when you saw one message being given by the press secretary and then the ABC reporter told something different. Now, it may be that’s been clarified but I haven’t seen that reported publicly.
ABRAHAM: This is being seen as a bit of a favour to Australia. Do you think that’s almost small cheese, is it not, compared to the millions of dollars and the lives and the troops we committed to fight with America in the War On Terror?
WONG: We fight with America in the Middle East and across the globe, in terms of our co-operation against terrorists because they are a threat to Australians and their security. We don’t do it because they are going to do us favours and that shouldn’t be how we think about it.
In terms of this agreement, we want the agreement to proceed. It’s taken a very long time and it is disappointing that we have such little detail from the Government about what is going to happen under this agreement and I’d certainly encourage the Government to be more up front with Australians about what will actually happen.
ABRAHAM: Senator Wong, thank you for talking to us from Washington.
WONG: It’s good to be with you, have a good day.