17 April 2018




SABRA LANE: Australia’s Shadow Foreign Minister Penny Wong is in the United States meeting members of Congress as well as officials from the FBI and CIA. Senator Wong is part of a delegation from the Federal Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security. I spoke with her earlier.

Penny Wong welcome to AM. What have you been told about the cyber attacks on Australia?

PENNY WONG, LEADER OF THE OPPOSITION IN THE SENATE: I have seen those reports and obviously the US and UK Governments have made statements in relation to them.

I’m here as a member of the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security and also will be doing a number of side meetings as Shadow Minister for Foreign Affairs. A key focus of the visit is foreign influence, and obviously we have legislation that is being considered by the committee in Australia. The US has already responded previously, legislatively, to try to set up an appropriate regulatory response to these sorts of attacks and foreign influence more generally.

LANE: And on Syria, are you getting briefings about particularly what’s happening in Douma at the moment? What are you hearing about Russian or Syrian tampering of evidence there?

WONG: I haven’t had any additional briefings about that. I do note that it appears that officers from the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons will be given access to relevant sites this week. Obviously it was very disappointing that Russia used its veto to prevent a UN investigation separately into these facilities. But we look to the OPCW being given unfettered access to these facilities.

I think it is very clear from what the Foreign Minister has said, from what the United States, the United Kingdom and France have said, that the attacks on civilians using chemical weapons were the responsibility of the regime.

LANE: There is some unease in the UK and in some quarters in the United States that the weekend allied strikes took part without any Parliamentary or Congress approval. How comfortable are you that it took place without that and without a UN mandate?

WONG: I don’t think any of this, in terms of the use of chemical weapons, nor the necessitated use of military action, is something that anybody feels comfortable about.

I indicated before I left Australia, along with Bill and Richard, that Labor did support this limited strike on the basis that it was one; targeted and proportionate, and second; that the international community has to send a clear message in relation to the use of chemical weapons. The international community has come together historically to prohibit the use of these weapons. They were used and a response was required.

So, for those reasons Labor indicated we did support those strikes and I note that Secretary Mattis has indicated that they were of a limited nature and have sent the appropriate message.

LANE: What risk is there do you think that this action, this strike on the weekend will only foment more radicalisation in that area?

WONG: There is never any perfect response in these sorts of situations. But fundamentally for us it comes down to this issue; do we believe that the prohibition against the use of chemical weapons is one that the international community should seek to enforce? Do we want to try to shape behaviour of nation states and others, to ensure that prohibition is observed? And if the answer to that is yes, then obviously having a limited and proportionate response is an appropriate path of action.

LANE: What are you hearing there about ISIS? How do officials regard its capacity now to carry out attacks around the globe?

WONG: I don’t think anybody who’s been watching what has been happening in Iraq and Syria would believe that simply because military ground has been made, the military position has been secured, means that the organisation as a non-state actor, as a terrorist entity, has been removed. It remains a risk and a threat to all countries who oppose its objectives which is why you continue to see strong counter-terrorism mechanisms in Australia and elsewhere.

LANE: While you have been in the United States the former FBI Director James Comey has given a pretty frank assessment of Donald Trump. “Morally unfit for the job” he says and a stain on everyone. Your thoughts?

WONG: Well it was a very lengthy and interesting interview, and certainly he has got a lot of press. I’ve been here for a short period of time in Washington and it has certainly dominated a lot of the news and current affairs discussions.

What I would say though is that it is a domestic political debate for the United States and it is not one that we are engaging in. It’s obviously a robust democracy and they, like us, like Australia, believe in free speech and what we are seeing is an exercise of that in a robust democracy.

LANE: You wanted a reappraisal of the US-Australia relationship when Mr Trump was elected. Is that still your view given the assertiveness of China in this region over the past 12 months?

WONG: I don’t think I used the phase reappraisal. I made the observation, which I think has been proved correct, that the election of Mr Trump and the policies that he indicated he intended to pursue was a change point in terms of US policy which we needed to factor in. I think that has been demonstrated, certainly with the positions he has taken on trade as well as on climate.

On these there has been bipartisan agreement that the position of the Australian Government and the Labor Opposition is different to that of the Trump Administration. But this is a relationship that has been in place for very long time. It is a relationship that is strong, particularly at the institutional level and it is a relationship which contemplates differences of views in various policy areas and we’ve seen that on previous occasions.

LANE: Penny Wong, thanks for talking to AM.

WONG: Good to speak with you.

Authorised by Noah Carroll ALP Canberra.