14 October 2019




PATRICIA KARVELAS: In your speech today you described the Prime Minister’s approach to foreign policy as driven by tactics rather than strategy. What do you see as the clearest dangers of that?

SENATOR PENNY WONG, SHADOW MINISTER FOR FOREIGN AFFAIRS: Well there are enormous dangers. I think what we’re seeing from Scott Morrison, and I outlined this is my speech, is a focus on political manoeuvring. He’s very good at that, a focus on political tactics; he’s very good at that. But a willingness to compromise the national interest for those ends.

And my point is this: we face a very challenging time in foreign policy, a very challenging regional and global environment, and a very challenging time in our relationship with China. It would be best if those issues were managed with a very clear focus on the national interest, and in a bipartisan manner. Instead, what we have is a Prime Minister who does seek partisan advantage, who does seek to manoeuvre and play tactical games, and really Australia can’t afford it.

KARVELAS: The Prime Minister’s tightly scripted visit to the US produced agreements on rare earths and ocean plastics and a general affirmation of the strength of that relationship; are you saying there was no strategy in that?

WONG: What I thought was interesting about the Prime Minister’s trip is he really didn’t achieve anything through that trip when it came to the trade war between China and the US. Certainly there are a lot of other distractions that the Prime Minister chose to engage in including his discussion about China’s status at the WTO, making that announcement in the US. But fundamentally, I think it did distract from the fact that we have a deep interest both for stability reasons and for economic reasons in that trade conflict being resolved and that’s what his focus should have been.

KARVELAS: Last week Peter Dutton, Home Affairs Minister, accused the Chinese government of engineering a series of cyber-attacks on Australian targets, stealing intellectual property and muzzling free speech; the Chinese Embassy called it a malicious slur, but everything Peter Dutton said is true isn’t it?

WONG: Well, you’d have to ask Peter Dutton that. I’d make a couple of points: first, it is the case that we are, as a democracy, we are a very different society and polity to China under the Chinese Communist Party. I’ve made that point for quite a long time, that inevitably – because we are a democracy – we will have differences of views on a range of issues as between us and China.

My question about Peter Dutton’s foray, I suppose, was was this part of a thought through plan, was this part of a clear strategy, or is this just another political tactic? Because from where we sit, and I suspect from where you sit, it’s very difficult to understand what the Government’s strategy on China is. If you accept that we are as we are, an ally and partner of the US, and we have a very important economic relationship with China, you want to make sure you have a sensible strategy in dealing with a China which is much more assertive, where we are going to have differences of views and where the relationship is more challenging.

KARVELAS: He says it’s a matter of just calling it out, in terms of strategy isn’t that what he’s trying to do, just to call out the facts?

WONG: Well is that what he’s doing? I mean Scott Morrison appeared to try and downplay it, so it does look from the outside like yet another tactical, domestically focused press conference. When we have…

KARVELAS: …But if it’s accurate, then why does it matter?

WONG: Well of course it matters, of course it matters how you handle the relationship as well as what decisions you make. I mean, this is not just about substance – that is important – but it’s also about how you handle rhetoric and advocacy.

Now, what my concern is, we don’t appear to have a plan when it comes to dealing with a challenging, increasingly challenging relationship with China which is becoming more assertive and is becoming much more willing to press its interests. There will be times where our interests converge and we should engage closely, but there will be times when our interests are very different and we should be able to handle that sensibly and I think a lot of people watching this Government are not convinced that they have a strategy through this.

KARVELAS: The Chinese President Xi Jinping has said threatening China will end in crushed bodies. This of course is in relation to the unrest and protests we’ve seen in Hong Kong. “Crushed bodies”, what’s your reaction to that?

WONG: Well I was advised of those comments shortly before this interview, obviously I haven’t been able to verify them. I think any language of violent repression is deeply disturbing. As a matter of principle I think we would all agree that it is not acceptable for any leader to use violent language, regardless of the circumstances.

In relation to Hong Kong, as you know, I’ve made repeated comments about the importance of One Country, Two Systems and for there to be restraint shown by authorities and by those protesting, and for the authorities to engage with protesters on their demands.

KARVELAS: It is incredibly alarming language.

WONG: It’s deeply disturbing, isn’t it? As I said, I think we would all agree, if correct, that this is not language that we would expect of leaders.

KARVELAS: But it might go beyond language and signify something about action, is that what worries you?

WONG: Well, I’d like to get a little more understanding of what is understood from that language, but I would make the general principle about Hong Kong: we, in the Labor Party and I think all Australians support the right of people everywhere to engage in peaceful protest. That is a principle that is beyond politics, and we assert that in relation to our society and we advocate that in relation to the protests in Hong Kong.

KARVELAS: You talk about this collapse of the bipartisan approach to foreign affairs but specifically I suppose it’s China and the US alliance. Do you take responsibility for that collapse in the bipartisan approach, because it takes two sides of that agreement doesn’t it?

WONG: I think if you read my speech, which you may not have time to, or may not have an inclination to Patricia…

KARVELAS: I like your speeches, I read them.

WONG: That’s very kind of you. Well I made the point I don’t take any pleasure from the diminution, I don’t think it’s a complete collapse, but I think that the walking away from bipartisanship by Scott Morrison – I don’t take any pleasure in that. I think anyone who’s observed me in this portfolio over the last few years knows that we might have had disagreements on some points, but broadly I’ve taken a bipartisan approach as has Labor.

I don’t think you’re right to say there’s not bipartisanship on the US alliance, there is. The view we do take though is it is important as a friend and ally to make our views known and to assert our interests, even if they may be different to those views and interest from the administration.

KARVELAS: As a direct result of the US decision to allow Turkey to invade northern Syria we’ve seen the Kurds side with the Syrian government, which is backed by Russia and Iran. Has the West lost the Kurds as an ally? And what are the implications of that?

WONG: I said on Thursday, in a press conference, that the decision by Turkey to initiate this military action – which is their decision, but it has been enabled by the United States administration – would erode regional stability, global stability, would lead to increased humanitarian catastrophe, and would compromise the fight against Daesh or ISIS. Regrettably I think all of those points, which are not uniquely mine they were made also by Lindsey Graham, by General Votel, the former head of US Central Command, about the decision; both the US decision, and importantly Turkey’s decision.

KARVELAS: Do you agree with the Foreign Minister Marise Payne that Turkey is totally accountable for what’s happened here?

WONG: Turkey is accountable for its actions, and we have been very clear that we believe as the Opposition, we’re obviously not the government of the day, but we have been very clear as the Opposition that we call upon Turkey to desist from this military action, and the humanitarian consequences of this action are there for all to see. But I made the point, and I continue to make it, that this military action has been enabled by the decision of the Trump Administration to withdraw from northern Syria and that is not uniquely my point. As I said, it is a point echoed by Senator Lindsey Graham, a point echoed by General Votel, who was the head of US Central Command that this would lead to greater instability and will compromise the fight against Daesh or ISIS.

KARVELAS: Experts say that up to one million people could be displaced as a result of this conflict. Should Australia be offering aid or should we be offering to resettle refugees, what should our strategy be here?

WONG: That’s a matter for the Government and certainly the international community will have to deal with a worsening of the humanitarian crisis in Syria, and particularly in northern Syria. And the Government, I hope, will look at being a participant in the international community’s response to what is a worsening situation, humanitarian situation.

KARVELAS: Sure, the Kurds have been guarding 10s of thousands of Islamic State prisoners, but overnight we’ve also seen video footage of hundreds of IS fighters escaping. Could we see a fresh wave of terrorist attacks across Europe and the Middle East, is that something you’re concerned about?

WONG: Yes, it is. It is something I and many others are concerned about. I mean, there are a lot of Republican politicians in the United States who have been talking about the likelihood of the re-emergence of Daesh or ISIS as afforces; a consequence to the fallout from these decisions. Yes it is deeply concerning.

KARVELAS: In question time today, Labor continued to push the Prime Minister on whether he sought to invite the head of the Hillsong Church Brian Houston to a state dinner in Washington. Why is Labor pursuing this?

WONG: Why is the Prime Minister not answering? I really actually don’t understand it. I was away overseas for a period of time – for a week or so – and in catching up on media, I read some of the Prime Minister’s interviews on this and I found it very confusing as to why – he was asked that direct question a number of times whilst in the US, and he kept saying I don’t comment on gossip. Well, it’s only gossip because you’re not responding. The answer is very simple: is it yes or no? I think the question to the Prime Minister and to Australians is: Why won’t he answer? What’s the problem?

KARVELAS: So is it a test then to just see if he will answer, or is it about the substance? What are you trying to find out?

WONG: I think there is a legitimate question, it was a report, he was asked about the report. He’s made this into a bigger story because he refused to answer the question.

KARVELAS: You’ve used the strongest language, saying that the Prime Minister is all about politics that we’ve seen thus far, correct me if I’m wrong.

WONG: I don’t know, other people use strong language too, it might just be that you read mind.

KARVELAS: Okay, as I say I read everyone’s. Everyone’s speeches are my favourite, all the speeches are my favourite children.

WONG: She loves everyone is what she’s saying. Any Parliamentary colleagues watching, it’s not that I’m her favourite.

KARVELAS: Just send your speeches over, I’ve got nothing else to do. I do read them. But you did use very strong language. Does this signify that Labor is going to go very hard for the Prime Minister to try and basically paint a picture of him as being what tricky and just political. Is that sort of a larger strategy that you’re trying to paint him as?

WONG: Actually, I thought very carefully about this speech. As you would know, it’s not usual for me to have so much political attack in a foreign policy speech.

I gave a speech in Jakarta on my recent trip to Southeast Asia and I talked about strategic competition in the region and I focused very much on foreign policy, there was some criticism, but this was considered. It’s considered because I do think, whether you look at his most recent speech at the Lowy Institute where he rails against negative globalism; whether you look at his decision on Jerusalem, where he sought to walk away from you know a bipartisan position on Jerusalem when he first became Prime Minister; whether you look at his language on China; this is a Prime Minister who is prepared to play domestic politics and domestic political tactics in foreign policy in a way I haven’t seen.

I thought the Lowy speech was really interesting and quite disturbing. Disturbing because it was so lightweight at this time. But disturbing also because it really broke from Julie Bishop’s Foreign Policy White Paper. The one plan the government did have which is ‘we want a rules based order and we want to work in our region and multilaterally to achieve that’, and we have a Prime Minister, an Australian Prime Minister, doing what really no Prime Minister has done of either political persuasion which is railing against global cooperation at a time we need more global cooperation. Now, he should be called out on that, just as he should be called out on the fact you can’t be an isolationist and a free trader. He claims he wants free trade, he wants more trade, but he doesn’t like multilateral institutions which presumably include the World Trade Organization which is critical to Australia’s interests.

KARVELAS: Just a final question on an issue that’s bubbling away and it’s a big legislative item that will come up: that’s the religious freedom or religious discrimination bill. The Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews has talked about this today and he’s concerned that these laws would perhaps allow religion to be used for gay conversion therapy to continue; something his state has tried to outlaw. Do you share those concerns of the Victorian Premier?

WONG: If Daniel’s raising them, given his commitment to these issues, I do share those concerns. He and his Government have a very strong commitment to these issues and I think most fair-minded Australians would share his concerns and my concerns about gay conversion therapy which we know is harmful and damaging.

KARVELAS: Do you really think there’s any evidence that these laws would allow it to continue?

WONG: Well, that’s his assertion and I share his concerns, given that the Victorian Government has looked at this closely. As a matter of general principle, we don’t want laws around religious discrimination to weaken protections which already exist for Australians broadly.

People do have a right to practice their religion, people do have a right to religious belief, and there is a balance which must be struck here between that and the protections which Australians do expect that we all have before the law.

KARVELAS: Penny Wong, thank you so much for joining us.

WONG: Good to speak with you.

Authorised by Paul Erickson, ALP, Canberra.