20 May 2020




PATRICIA KARVELAS, HOST: Penny Wong, welcome.


KARVELAS: Chinese state media has branded Australia ‘a giant kangaroo that acts as the dog of the US’. Is this dispute escalating?

WONG: I’m not going to get into the escalation of unhelpful rhetoric. I would say this, that the inquiry is something that has been in Australia’s interests, it’s in the world’s interests, and it is an entirely unremarkable proposition that we want to know how this pandemic began and how we better respond to it.

And I’m pleased that the Chinese Government, as well as the United States, agreed to the motion at the World Health Assembly that has been announced.

KARVELAS: There’s now speculation that China is preparing a hit list of Australian exports, including beef, wine and dairy. If that happens, would it be evidence of a trade war and economic retaliation?

WONG: Well, obviously the relationship with China at the moment is challenging. And we’re seeing that in our beef exports and, most recently, in terms of Australian barley. And we hope the Government does have a strategy to resolve that issue.

Look, more broadly, in terms of the relationship with China, I’ve said for some time, we’re entering a new phase in that relationship. It’s going to be harder for us to manage difference. We obviously need clear and consistent leadership from Scott Morrison and Marise Payne.

And we need a deal of discipline amongst politicians and leaders about how we engage.

I would also make this point, Patricia, and that is the effect of the US-China Free Trade Agreement. There has been an agreement between President Xi and President Trump which involves $40 billion worth of US agricultural product being bought by China. I think it is important that we ensure that that deal doesn’t disadvantage Australia.

KARVELAS: I want to explore that with you. Is it your view that what we’re seeing play out at the moment is a consequence of that deal?

WONG: I think we need to understand what the consequences are. I did ask questions about this in Senate Estimates. I noticed that the then-ambassador to the US, Joe Hockey, dismissed the agreement.

But the concern that I wanted to explore, and I think it’s reasonable to explore, is whether an agreement that gives American agriculture greater access to the Chinese market is going to have an ongoing effect, or a consequential effect, on Australian farmers.

What I would say to the Government is, is that the case? If so, we need to fix it with the United States.

KARVELAS: OK. If it is the case, and of course, you know, we haven’t established it is, but if it is the case, how can Australia actually deal with that with the United States? What are you suggesting?

WONG: Well, we have to be clear about standing up for our national interest, in any context. And that includes with our friend and ally, the United States, if their engagement, particularly on trade, harms Australia’s interests. I think that’s a self-evident proposition.

Any Australian Government should assert Australia’s national interests. Our national interest is for open, fair, transparent trading arrangements, strong multilateral arrangements, and that’s a position that is a bipartisan position.

KARVELAS: And at what level do you think that should happen? Do you think that the Prime Minister, Scott Morrison, should be making contact with Donald Trump to get those assurances or make that point?

WONG: Well, if that’s what works, then that should be done. All I’m saying is we have a situation where we have a very large trade agreement between the US and China, the Government hasn’t been clear about whether or not there’s any consequences for that agreement for Australian farmers.

Obviously Australian growers are facing difficult circumstances, and we need to ensure that they’re not further disadvantaged.

KARVELAS: MPs including Dave Sharma, Simon Birmingham, the Minister, others, are continuing to criticise the Chinese ambassador to Australia. Is the Government doing enough to take the heat out of this?

WONG: Well, I think we need to be clear and assertive about what we believe and what our interests are. As I said at the outset, though, in this interview, when invited to do so, I’m not going to get into what is an unhelpful escalation of rhetoric.

We do need to manage difference in this relationship. We need to do that whilst maintaining our commitment to our values, our sovereignty, and might well continue to assert Australia’s national interests.

My concern more recently has been the way in which some Coalition backbenchers have seen some political benefit, or maybe pre-selection benefit, in engaging in increasingly inflammatory rhetoric about China. I don’t think that’s helpful at a time we are trying to manage substantial challenges in the relationship.

KARVELAS: Do you agree with the Victorian Treasurer, Tim Pallas, that these tariffs are a consequence of the Federal Government vilifying China?

WONG: Well, I think that we need to manage our relationship with China with discipline and consistency.

I think there are a lot of people who’ve made a lot of comments about where the relationship currently is. I think we do need leadership from Marise Payne and Scott Morrison.

Obviously, there are a lot of people putting their views, as they’re free to in a democracy.

But ultimately, this is an important relationship for Australia, and one we need to manage sensibly, whilst always making sure we hold to the things we believe are right and the things we know are in our national interest.

KARVELAS: Australia’s top diplomat in Taiwan has publicly congratulated Taiwan’s President on her second term. Is that the sort of potentially inflammatory conduct we should be trying to avoid?

WONG: Look, in relation to Taiwan, both parties of Government have a One China policy. That means we recognise the position of the People’s Republic of China and the position of Beijing.

However, we continue to have a relationship with Taiwan which is an economic and trade relationship, and that’s a consistent position between both parties of Government.

KARVELAS: Going back to this World Health Assembly motion, China says that this motion that passed is “totally different” from Australia’s proposal. Is this a diplomatic achievement Australia should be proud of?

WONG: It’s an achievement the world needed…

KARVELAS: …But how about Australia’s part in it all for pushing it?

WONG: Of course, Australia has played an important part. It was a European Union-led motion at the World Health Assembly, but obviously Australia’s played an important role internationally, and so we should.

So what I’d say is it does differ from what Marise Payne announced on Insiders some weeks ago. Obviously then the Minister said the WHO wasn’t the appropriate body to undertake this sort of inquiry. That’s not the position that’s been taken at the World Health Assembly.

But regardless of that, my view has been consistently, as has Anthony Albanese’s and the Labor Party’s; it’s a pretty unremarkable proposition to say, in the middle of a once-in-a-century pandemic, that we should look to how it began and we should look to how we better respond.

KARVELAS: If I can pick you up on that, if it isn’t the same as what Marise Payne said, is that a problem? Or do you think it’s reasonable that Australia would go, ‘OK, this is what we could achieve’?

WONG: We always have to get agreement. And I the think I said at the time, we have to get out and into the international community to gain agreement for this.

I did express some concern at the time that we hadn’t done that before we announced it domestically. The European Union had been pressing for this motion, and it was led by them, and I think Australia’s participation in that is sensible.

The world does need to make sure we do what we can to learn from this pandemic.

We work out where it came from and how we better respond. This is about human lives.

KARVELAS: President Trump has given the World Health Organization 30 days to reform or face permanent loss of US funding. Should Australia be lobbying the US not to do this, in your opinion?

WONG: Oh, well that’s a matter for the Government. What I would say is we disagree with the position that President Trump’s articulating.

Whilst reform is always beneficial, and there have been criticisms of the World Health Organization through this, and I’m sure it would benefit from further reform, vacating the space is not the way to get that reform.

And, if you ever needed an international or multilateral body to deal with health, it’s probably in the middle of the worst pandemic in a century.

So I think Australia’s interests, and, in fact, the world’s interests, are not served by the US disengaging. I hope that they don’t. I hope that they stay and work with friends and partners to reform the World Health Organization so that it can better respond and better deal with both this pandemic and its consequences, but any further threats to human health.

KARVELAS: Should the Federal Government now take that tariff dispute we’ve been talking about to the World Trade Organization, given an outcome we know could actually take years?

WONG: This is the barley dispute, you’re referencing?

KARVELAS: Yeah, that’s right.

WONG: Yes, I agree. We’ve said that, I think Joel Fitzgibbon and Madeline King have said that, we would support action being taken under the WTO.

I think Simon Birmingham has made clear the Government’s view, which I think is very reasonable, about the sort of support Australian barley growers get and the fact that these are, the current dispute is not reasonable in Australia’s view, and we should continue to assert that.

KARVELAS: Just on another issue, DFAT is warning that international actors are exploiting the pandemic to launch cyberattacks, including on health networks. Do you think enough is being done to guard against that?

WONG: Well, look, malicious cyber activity is a problem internationally. It’s a problem now, but it is an ongoing problem, and it’s one of the examples in which international cooperation is so necessary. It’s why we should support strong multilateral arrangements and frameworks to deal with these sorts of international problems.

KARVELAS: Your home state of South Australia has joined Queensland, WA, the Northern Territory in planning to keep borders closed. Do you think that’s the wrong decision?

WONG: No, I think that our public health officer here has done a great job. I think that South Australians have responded magnificently.

People have complied with social distancing over and above what was legally required. Remember that much of the public health campaign here was asking people to do more than the legal requirements, and people did that.

I think, given we have done so well here in South Australia, it’s a pretty reasonable decision for government to make based on health advice to continue to maintain border restrictions.

The Government obviously needs to make its decisions based on sensible public health advice, and so far I think the South Australian advice has been sound.

KARVELAS: Well, I spoke to the Deputy Chief Medical Officer, Paul Kelly, on my other show, RN Drive. He said there’s never, ever been any advice to say that state borders should be closed, and yet we’ve seen this. Is this sort of, why have states taken this action if this committee has never provided that advice?

WONG: Well, I assume you should ask Premiers that, but I would…

KARVELAS: Fair enough, but…

WONG: I would infer it’s because they’ve been given that advice from their state health officials. And I think that that’s sensible.

Look, I do think it’s a little bit concerning, and I don’t want to bring Mr Kelly into it, but certainly from Mr Morrison, where we’ve seen this space open up between the Federal Government and State governments, where the Federal Government is criticising State governments for making their decisions based on health advice.

The Prime Minister, Mr Morrison, can’t really have it both ways. He can’t talk up the federal system and states making their own decisions and then send Dan Tehan out on Insiders to have a go at Daniel Andrews, something for which he then had to apologise.

I think State governments, particularly Gladys Berejiklian and Daniel Andrews, have really, I think, demonstrated leadership, as have other Premiers. And they need to make their best decisions. And I’m not sure it’s helpful to have the Prime Minister being critical of them.

KARVELAS: Penny Wong, thanks for your time.

WONG: Good to speak with you.

Authorised by Paul Erickson, ALP, Canberra.