16 September 2019




PATRICIA KARVELAS: I want to bring in my first guest today, Labor’s foreign affairs spokeswoman Penny Wong. Welcome to the program.


KARVELAS: Mathias Cormann says Labor thinks Gladys Liu is a Chinese spy. Is that what you think, are you suggesting that she is a spy?

WONG: The only person that has used inflammatory language like that has been Senator Cormann and also the Prime Minister. But let’s understand what’s happened here. We have had public reports in relation to Ms Liu for some time in relation to her membership of various organisations; and various donations. She gave an interview in an attempt to clear it up. I think that interview and subsequent statements actually raised more questions. It is legitimate for her to be asked to be accountable to the Parliament and to the Australian people about these matters and that’s what we’re asking.

KARVELAS: We have seen further revelations of questionable donations made to the Liberal Party by Gladys Liu, including $105,000 from a company she worked for. This is being reported. What are your concerns about those latest revelations?

WONG: Well, I think the concerns are that you have a number of reports that have not been responded to appropriately. So, I think what we have to remember here is as Members of Parliament – as senators and members – we are accountable to the people who elect us and we’re also accountable under the Westminster system to give truthful statements to the Parliament. As yet, the Prime Minister and his ministers have spent a lot of effort ensuring that Ms Liu doesn’t stand up and give a statement to the Parliament and really she ought to.

KARVELAS: But she has provided that statement and in fact the Prime Minister tabled it.

WONG: Yes, the Prime Minister tabled it and what was reported was that that statement was written for her by the Prime Minister’s office and that has never been refuted.

If you’re a Member of Parliament and accusations are made – externally by others – and concerns are raised, it is legitimate for people to say “you should make a statement” when these matters go to whether or not you’re a fit and proper person to be in the Parliament.

KARVELAS: It has also been reported that when Gladys Liu was president of the Eastern Multicultural Branch it proposed a motion to make foreign investment in agriculture and agricultural land easier – that’s a report from the ABC over the weekend. Is that significant in your view?

WONG: There’s a lot of arguments about foreign investment. I have had a view that some of the arguments against foreign investment haven’t been well founded. I have taken the view previously, for example, that it depends on the sector and we should look at which sectors we want foreign investment and which we don’t. I haven’t looked at the text of that, I’m more interested in a whole range of reports that haven’t been adequately responded to.

KARVELAS: On this argument that some of these organisations just put your name on a list and that perhaps it didn’t involve active participation or any attempt at interference, do you accept that’s possible?

WONG: That may be possible, but she should stand up in the Parliament and explain that. I’m sure you’ll get to this point but I do think it’s quite telling that the Prime Minister, Senator Cormann, the Foreign Minister and others have all been very happy to hurl accusations at Labor about our motivation – really? But not one of them, not one minister has been prepared to stand up in the Parliament of Australia and say, “I believe that Ms Liu is a fit and proper person to be in this Parliament”. I mean, that speaks volumes doesn’t it?

KARVELAS: They do say they stand behind her.

WONG: That is a very different thing. Words do matter when you’re making an assurance to the Parliament. No minister has been prepared to assure the Parliament of Ms Liu’s fitness to be in the Parliament. They want to make an attack and to obfuscate or cloud the issue but they don’t want to say that. That says something.

KARVELAS: Do you believe that any of the reaction to the stories that have emerged about Gladys Liu are tinged with xenophobia or racism?

WONG: I have always the taken the view, as somebody who’s been on the record all of my public life and before that about the importance of inclusion, respect, acceptance and support for multiculturalism, that we have to handle these debates sensitively. I don’t think it’s helped by a refusal to be accountable. I don’t think a refusal to be accountable and making accusations about the motivations of others is a sensible way to deal with this nor is it a sensible way to ensure we continue to have an accepting and inclusive society.

KARVELAS: Are you alleging that the Government’s deliberately using what many have described as the ‘race card’ to try not to answer questions on this?

WONG: I think it is a deliberate tactic and I think that’s demonstrated by the fact that when they are asked to assure the Senate, assure the Parliament, that Ms Liu is a fit and proper person to stand in the Australian Parliament – what do they do? They attack the Labor Party. They don’t stand up and say she is.

The accusation seems to be if you ask a person who is of Chinese heritage a difficult question that that’s somehow a racial attack. Well you have asked me a couple of difficult questions, you’re probably going to ask me a few more – do you think you’re racist? Do you think that’s a racial attack? I mean, it’s absurd and wrong.

KARVELAS: How about the impact on Chinese-Australians because that’s what the Prime Minister’s suggesting…

WONG: Absolutely.

KARVELAS: That it’s having a broader impact on Chinese-Australians, perhaps their participation in public life. Is it something you’re concerned about?

WONG: I am, and I am concerned about the debate because of the way the Prime Minister, in a really very low political tactic, has sought to bring in all Chinese-Australians into this debate. It’s really not the act of a leader. I don’t think he should be trying to stand behind the many Australians of Chinese heritage from the very diverse backgrounds from which we come. I don’t think he should be doing that.

The way in which this debate is being handled by the Prime Minister is really all about political tactics, not about what’s right. I think that was demonstrated by, frankly, how he misled the Australian people. He tried to pretend he never said the words “Shanghai Sam” and as the country knows, he said it many, many times.

KARVELAS: He fronted up to an interview that afternoon – this was at the end of last week on Friday – and said he acknowledges he used the words. Isn’t that enough?

WONG: This was after he denied ever using those words and after it ran on television so it became clear that he wasn’t telling the truth. Okay, well you can accept that that’s a …

KARVELAS: I’m just asking the question.

WONG: Sorry, others might say that shows that he’s fronted up. I think he just got caught out.

KARVELAS: On the broader implications for Chinese-Australians and the way we’re having these debates, is there a sense of ‘China panic’ going on in this debate?

WONG: If you look at how I’ve handled these issues in the period, not only in my previous portfolios but as Shadow Foreign Minister, I do think we have to be careful about how we have a discussion about the relationship with China and how that impacts upon Chinese-Australians

I think it is really irresponsible for the Prime Minister to try and drag the whole Chinese-Australian community in to defend himself politically. I think that is the wrong thing for the leader of the country to do.

KARVELAS: Will Labor continue to pursue this issue throughout the week?

WONG: The Prime Minister could end this pretty quickly. He could stand up in the Parliament. He could say “we move that the Member for Chisholm be heard”. She can give a statement which responds to the many public reports, some of which you have referenced today in this interview. He could give a statement as Prime Minister that he assures the House that she’s a fit and proper person to stand in the Parliament. That would end it.

KARVELAS: Let’s move on to another issue. Oil prices have risen by as much as 20 per cent today following the weekend drone attack on Saudi Arabia’s largest oil refinery and a major pipeline. Should Australians be worried about the security of our supply?

WONG: That’s really a question for the Government but it is deeply concerning, these attacks. It’s deeply concerning, what is occurring, and we would really urge that these matters be resolved calmly. We would really urge that there not be escalation in response to what we have seen over the weekend.

KARVELAS: US President Donald Trump has tweeted that America is “locked and loaded” following the drone attack on Saudi Arabia. How worried are you that this could be the trigger for a wider conflict?

WONG: Which is why I responded in my first answer that we urge that this not escalate. Escalation I believe doesn’t serve anybody’s interests and that’s language obviously for the President to choose, but we would not be supportive of rhetoric and actions which escalate the situation.

KARVELAS: Labor backed the Government’s decision to join freedom of navigation exercises in the Strait of Hormuz. If Scott Morrison is asked to do more, should he refuse?

WONG: I will make a couple of points. You are asking me to speculate. We made clear our support for the Australian engagement in that operation. Like the government it was on the basis of supporting freedom of navigation.

We also, like the Government, recognise the importance that this be a very limited and confined engagement which is as the Minister for Defence and the Prime Minister announced. We did also make clear – and I make it clear again – that the position that the Australian Labor Party has taken and the Government has been different to that of the Trump administration when it comes to the Iran nuclear deal and we continue to support the JCPOA as the way forward.

KARVELAS: Prime Minister Scott Morrison is visiting the US later this week, as you know, but he’s not going to the UN Climate Change Summit. Is that a mistake?

WONG: I think it is. I think you only need to talk to millions of Australians, particularly young Australians who care about this issue, to know that we need to be part of responding to climate change.

We’ve spent a long time as a country fighting about how we deal with climate change and whilst we’ve been fighting things have got worse and harder to respond to. As someone who was minister over 10 years ago – who worked very hard to try and get an emissions trading scheme up and was part of a government that did get an effective carbon scheme up – it is quite sad to see where we are as a country and the sort of discussions we’re having where ministers are actually saying they’re not sure about the science. I mean, where are we?

KARVELAS: Do you support the target Labor took to the election of a 45 per cent reduction in carbon emissions by 2030?

WONG: I support strong action on climate change and that absolutely was our target at the last election. I want to make a point about targets. Every time we talk about targets I have to say how sad I feel. A decade ago I was in the chamber downstairs advocating for an emissions trading scheme which would have ensured we could have had even more ambitious targets than the ones we’re talking about. That was voted down by the Greens and the Coalition. I think that was a sad day for the country. I said at the time it would get harder and it has. We will go to the next election with a climate policy that reflects our values and our principles, but right now we’re not the government. If you want to talk about targets I reckon you should be talking to the Government.

KARVELAS: There’s no doubt the Government should answer questions on targets, but I’m interviewing you right now. This 45 per cent reduction – do you think that should be relooked at?

WONG: We went to the election with a clear set of targets. We will look at those targets between now and the next election. We will ensure that the Australian people are very clear about what our targets will be. Anthony Albanese has made that clear. We’ll look at our policies but we won’t re-examine our values.

KARVELAS: So you accept that the 45 per cent – because some of your colleagues have said this is perhaps too ambitious.

WONG: I support ambitious action on climate change and so does the Labor Party. We’ve been trying for many, many years to achieve a system of regulation, a system when it comes to carbon abatement and mitigation that works. Now, we lost government. It was repealed and we have to continue to fight for effective action on climate.

Now, unfortunately we lost the last election so we’ll have to look at the world in the lead-up to the next election to ensure we have appropriate mechanisms, appropriate policies in place. As I said though, I do think it is a sad time for Australia that we are having this discussion when we could have had – if the Labor Government had been able to continue its legislation – much more ambitious targets on the table.

KARVELAS: Fiji’s Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama is visiting Australia today. He was offended by the Prime Minister’s conduct at the Pacific Islands Forum. It seemed more of a friendly exchange today across the Cabinet table, at least from what I saw of what the cameras captured. What does Australia need to do to mend fences today?

WONG: I’m not sure whether this government is able, ultimately, to do what it has to do in the Pacific whilst it retains the position it has on climate change. They are the facts.

The Pacific step-up has bipartisan support. We certainly support closer engagement with the Pacific and there are a range of measures as part of that closer engagement which Labor has contributed to and which we continue to support.

But ultimately, climate change is front and centre for the Pacific Island nations. They’ve made clear it’s their number one economic and security threat, and we have a government that doesn’t accept the science, and as importantly, doesn’t want to act. So it’s very difficult for the Government – the Coalition government – to do what has to be done in Australia’s national interest in the Pacific for as long as it continues to have ministers who don’t believe that climate change is real.

KARVELAS: Finally, Reuters is reporting that it was China that was behind that hack on emails and, of course, even the Australian Labor Party; also the Liberal Party; the Nationals. Should the government reveal who was behind the hack? Should it be publicly disclosed?

WONG: Well, that ultimately is a matter for the Government. It’s up to the government of the day to make those decisions in the national interest and they’re questions you should put to the Government.

KARVELAS: You don’t think it’s in the national interest for us to know?

WONG: Whether or not I think that isn’t actually the point; I’m not the person who can make that decision. The person who can make that decision is the relevant minister inside the Government. They make the decisions about what is disclosed and what is not.

KARVELAS: Penny Wong, thanks for joining us.

WONG: Good to speak with you.

Authorised by Paul Erickson, ALP, Canberra.