18 August 2019




PATRICIA KARVELAS: Penny Wong, welcome to Insiders.


KARVELAS: Would Labor have signed up to this plan requested by the Pacific nations to obligate Australia to end coal mining or go carbon neutral by 2050?

WONG: I tell you what, we would have entered – were we in government – those negotiations with much more credibility on climate than the government. The problem is, what we have here, is a Prime Minister – Mr Morrison – who has been throwing his weight around, who is being pushy. If the reports from other leaders about what went on there are correct, this Prime Minister has presided over a reduction in Australia’s influence in the Pacific and he’s damaged our relationships.

Let’s understand what the Coalition went in with in terms of their credibility on climate; into a forum with a whole range of leaders from nations for whom climate change is an existential threat. He went in with emissions rising, without a plan to reduce emissions, with a history of people like Peter Dutton making jokes about Pacific Island nations sinking underwater. And of course, Michael McCormack saying climate change was fine, they would be fine because they can come here and pick fruit. Is it any wonder that he walked out of that having alienated people that we want to be close to.

KARVELAS: But what they were calling for and demanding Australia sign up to is actually at odds with Labor’s own policies, particularly Labor’s post-election policy on coal. You’ve got Joel Fitzgibbon who is the co-chair of a friends of exporting coal group.

WONG: Patricia, they were calling for a number of things. They were calling for us to actually sign up to targets which were consistent with the Paris Agreement. We should do that. We should raise our ambitions. Secondly, they were calling on Australia to actually reduce its emissions. They’re going up under this government because they have no plan. And thirdly, they were asking us not to use an accounting trick to meet our weak targets – that is the Kyoto carryover credits. We should do that. And they were asking for action on coal. Now, coal is an important industry for Australia.

KARVELAS: So you wouldn’t have signed up to shutting it down either?

WONG: Of course not. Coal remains an important industry for Australia and it remains part of the global energy mix. But the point is that these negotiations proceeded on the basis of an Australian government which did not understand nor respect the importance of climate to Pacific Island nations and did not bring to the table any realistic policies to reduce emissions, which is the core of what we should be doing as a responsible nation.

KARVELAS: Also some of the nations were pushing for a limitation of warming below 1.5 per cent. Would you have signed up to that?

WONG: Well, when I was Climate Minister many years ago, we talked about that goal and aspiration. The sad reality is that where we are, as a global community – we are in a much worse position than we were 10 years ago. But we should try – I want to emphasise this – these nation states are at the frontline of climate change.

You can’t walk into a room with the sort of history that Scott Morrison has – with the sort of refusal to act on climate – and then throw your weight around and expect it to work out well. The problem for Australia is this is our front yard, this is our neighbourhood, this is where we want to be the partner of choice. Instead, we have a Prime Minister who, if you look at what leaders have said – it’s not me, it’s Pacific Island leaders – he has alienated far too many leaders at a time we need to be closer.

KARVELAS: You say this outcome damages our Pacific Step-Up. Describe to me how it damages it and what you fear will happen now?

WONG: Well, I think that’s self-evident. When you have Pacific Island leaders making the sorts of comments that they’ve made. It is clear that we may have put additional resources into the Pacific, although I’d make the point that the $500 million is taken from other programs, so it’s just reallocated, not new money. And you get an outcome where you have Pacific Island leaders publicly talking about how Australia has let them down. That’s a problem for us and it’s a massive failure of Australian foreign policy.

KARVELAS: China has told Pacific nations it recognises the legitimate demands of small island states for tackling climate change. Has China seized the opportunity here?

WONG: Well, China will do what China will do.

KARVELAS: And what is that?

WONG: Well, China will press for its interests and China will seek to continue to expand its influence in the region. That’s what they’ve said, that’s what they will do.

KARVELAS: Do you think now that they exploit this?

WONG: We have to recognise that the Pacific Island nations can choose who they choose to work with. What we must do is work to be the partner of choice. And we should be, for historic and geographical reasons.

KARVELAS: Are you saying that we’re not the partner of choice now?

WONG: I don’t think that how Mr Morrison behaved, nor frankly how a number of ministers have behaved over a number of years, help us be the partner of choice. I think we have diminished our influence in the Pacific with our refusal to take climate change seriously. These are leaders for whom this is the most important strategic threat. It’s the most important threat to the livelihood and wellbeing of the people of the Pacific. That’s their words and we’re not responding.

KARVELAS: So are you suggesting that we’ve pushed these nations into the arms of China?

WONG: I’m suggesting that we should make sure we are the partner of choice. That was the logic behind the Pacific Step-Up, which Labor called for. At the moment, what we’ve seen is a Prime Minister who has really failed to discharge his responsibilities when it comes to Australia being the partner of choice in the Pacific. It’s important for us.

KARVELAS: Do you fear that China will exploit this opportunity?

WONG: I’m not sure fear is the word. I’ve said to you – China will do what China will do. China will continue in our region – in the Pacific, in Southeast Asia – will continue to assert its interests. They’ve made that clear. That’s what great powers do. We need to continue to assert ours. We need to continue to be the partner of choice in the Pacific and that’s taken a big hit at the moment with Mr Morrison’s behaviour. We need to continue to work for what sort of region we want.

KARVELAS: On China, Simon Birmingham was on Insiders just last week and he set up a threshold or a test, if you like, for speaking out on China; whether it’s in our national interest and that was in response, of course, to Andrew Hastie, the Liberal MP’s comments. Is that a test that you think should be met by all MPs? How should we progress on this conversation about the rise of China?

WONG: Well, it’s time for the Prime Minister and the Foreign Minister to lead a calm and mature discussion on China. We have backbenchers out there making a whole range of comments. I think it would be far better, at a time where it is a complex relationship and getting more so, that we have a mature, sensible and calm discussion on our relationship with China and how we make it work for us. That should be led by the government, it shouldn’t be led by backbenchers.

The fact that backbenchers are feeling a need to lead; it is a demonstration of the failure of the government to do so. I think Andrew Hastie talked about the intellectual failure of the current discussion and I think that’s a failure of the Morrison Government.

Now, what I will be doing is writing to Marise Payne, the Foreign Minister, and requesting that parliamentarians get access to briefings about the relationship on China from the Department of Foreign Affairs and the Office of National Intelligence, because I think we are at a point where the relationship is more complex, also more consequential. It matters to us and we should have a much more sensible and mature conversation about how we make it work for us.

KARVELAS: So you want these briefings to be provided to all MPs who request them. Where do the briefings lead? The government will articulate its current position – we know what that position is. What do you want to happen as a result?

WONG: I think that we should have a more informed debate. I think we have a debate at the moment where Liberal backbenchers or other parliamentarians feel a need, because of the leadership vacuum on this issue, to make a whole range of comments.

Some of them I agree with, some of them I don’t agree with. Some of them, I think, are inflammatory. We do have a national interest in managing this relationship in a way that works for Australia and that requires a great deal more maturity, calm and sense than we’ve seen. It requires much more leadership from Mr Morrison and Senator Payne.

KARVELAS: If you remove the ‘rise of Nazi Germany reference’ from Andrew Hastie’s comments, do you have sympathy for the broader message he was sending?

WONG: This is actually my point. Andrew Hastie shouldn’t be the template against which we discuss our China relationship. That’s exactly the point I’m making. There are some aspects of what he said which may be valid, there are some aspects that I think, were inflammatory; obviously the one to which you refer. But Andrew Hastie and other backbenchers shouldn’t be the ones defining the discussion about China. That should be a matter for political leaders, and unfortunately, we’ve seen a real vacuum when it comes to Scott Morrison and Senator Payne on this, and I think that has to change.

We need to work out how we make the relationship work for us. We need to work out how we make it work for us knowing that China will press for its interests, as we should press for ours, and also knowing that we should always stand for who we are. We should protect our sovereignty, assert our values and assert the strength of our democracy.

KARVELAS: And should we be asserting also to Pacific leaders that China’s emissions are also an issue. This has been raised by Winston Peters, the Deputy Prime Minister of New Zealand, this week. Do you think that’s a relevant point here?

WONG: I think that all countries’ credibility on climate will matter to the Pacific.

KARVELAS: Including China’s because it seems the scrutiny is on us?

WONG: Well, China is included in “all countries”, but yes, I do. But I do again say – rather than getting into quite an unhelpful debate about who is better, why don’t we just try and be better? Why don’t we just try and do the right thing? Why don’t we try and treat Pacific Island nations with a little more respect than they’ve been shown? I think it will take us a long time to get over some of the disrespect that Peter Dutton’s comments and also Michael McCormack’s comments – and add to them, a range of others – the effect of those comments in the Pacific.

KARVELAS: How concerned are you on the crackdown on protesters in Hong Kong?

WONG: Well, I’ve made public statements about this. I’m deeply concerned. I would make a few points. We support – Australia supports a right to peaceful protest. I emphasise peaceful, we don’t condone violence. We urge the authorities to exercise maximum restraint and we urge all parties to find a peaceful resolution that is consistent with the ‘One Country, Two Systems’ promise, which was made to the people of Hong Kong.

KARVELAS: Are you satisfied by the comments made by the Prime Minister and the Australian government or do you want them to go further in supporting the protest movement?

WONG: They have made public comments and I understand there would also, I assume, be private diplomatic representations being made and that’s as it should be.

KARVELAS: So you don’t expect them to go further than they have?

WONG: Well, each day we see a new set of images, a new set of propositions out of Hong Kong. The government should continue to do what I think it is seeking to do, which is to assert Australian interests and Australian values. What happens in Hong Kong matters to us, it matters to the world. We have a particular interest, obviously we have a lot of Australians in Hong Kong. I would encourage, as I’ve always encouraged every time I’ve done media on this, people to ensure that they keep themselves briefed and advised by Smartraveller.

KARVELAS: How about the ugly scenes we’ve seen. We’ve seen protests here where there have been conflicts on our streets and also on university campuses. Being raised today by a couple of Liberal MPs as well that universities need to do more to deal with this. What are your reflections on this?

WONG: This actually goes back to what I was saying that rather than having backbenchers raise these issues, let’s have a sensible, mature discussion about the relationship with China, and this is an aspect of it. I would make this point – we in Australia do support freedom of speech, freedom of expression and we also support a right to peaceful protest, freedom of assembly.

We would expect that people in Australia are entitled to exercise those rights, if they do so respectfully and peacefully, and that they are free from intimidation. We would expect any person in Australia, citizen or not, to respect those rights.

KARVELAS: Before I let you go, are you going to stay in the Senate for your full term?

WONG: Yes.

KARVELAS: You’re going to live out the whole term, stay in the parliament?

WONG: Actually, I think I’ll be seeking pre-selection again, because that’s before the next election.

KARVELAS: And you will seek pre-selection again? You want to stay in the parliament?

WONG: Yes, I do.

KARVELAS: Just wanted to clarify that. Senator Penny Wong, thank you so much for joining us this morning.

WONG: Good to speak with you!

Authorised by Paul Erickson, ALP, Canberra.