12 July 2018




VIRGINIA TRIOLI: Let’s take you to Washington now, where the Shadow Foreign Minister Penny Wong has been busy meeting US security and intelligence officials. She’s also attending the annual Australia-US Leadership Dialogue. And not surprisingly, events at the NATO summit are the focus of many of her discussions.

Penny Wong joins us now. Senator, good morning. Thanks for joining us.


TRIOLI: So, what has been the key focus of your discussions so far? What are the big security issues as they affect Australia and the US?

WONG: Well, I’m obviously here to have meetings with counterparts, and I’ve met with members of the National Security Council, individuals at the State Department, some intelligence agencies, and obviously think tanks, and also, as you said, attending the Australian American Leadership Dialogue, which is a very important initiative.

There are obviously – we live in a region where there is a lot of change, a lot of change in terms of economic weight and strategic weight, so the single message that I want to express, and have expressed, is how important constructive US engagement in the region is, to underpin peace, stability, and the sort of region we want. So, that is obviously a key and continuing focus.

There has also been a lot of discussion about alliances, and as you said, obviously the NATO Summit has been in the media whilst I have been here.

TRIOLI: And as a staunch ally of the US, what’s the risk in Donald Trump’s war of words with Europe and the possible consequences for NATO?

WONG: One of the points I have been making privately and publicly is that a key aspect of American power is its network of alliances. There is no nation that has the sort of system of alliances that the United States has, and in this post-war period it has been a critical component of American power.

Now, obviously, President Trump has a position around 2% of GDP on defence spending. That’s a consistent position he’s had and, in fact, it’s not a new position. I think it’s been the position of successive US presidents, including President Obama and President Bush so it’s not a new position that is being articulated.

We simply want to keepemphasising that, whether it’s NATO, whether it’s the alliances within East Asia, that these are key components of American power, and very important as the world goes into a decade where we will see, no doubt, more disruption and more change.

TRIOLI: As you say, key components. But as we have been discussing, Donald Trump has urged NATO allies to commit 4% of their annual output to military spending, that’s double their current target. Should that be the focus in your view?

WONG: The US has consistently pressed its view about defence spending, and any administration is entitled to press that view. I think that’s a separate issue from the broader issue, which is why these alliance networks are important, these system of alliances are important.

And can I say, in the context of being here, there is a very clear and deep understanding across institutions, historical understanding, about the importance of alliances and the contribution they make to a more stable world, and, of course, to US power.

TRIOLI: Of course. I mean, and no-one would be suggesting that any of those alliances, and in particular the US and Australian one, was in any way at risk. But it’s very challenging, isn’t it, when you have a very unpredictable US President?

WONG: I wrote an opinion piece a couple of years ago, where I talked about President Trump’s election, just after he was elected. And I pointed out that, as a candidate, he had articulated a set of positions which were quite different to those which are being articulated by presidents both Republican and Democrat for some time, and that his election did represent a change point, and we had to recognise he might actually do what he said.

Well, he has. He has taken the US out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership. He has taken the US out of the Paris Agreement on climate change. He has taken the United States out of, effectively, the Iran nuclear arrangement.

Now, all of these are positions with which Australia – the current Government and the Opposition – did not agree. They have been articulated by Mr Turnbull and by Julie Bishop, and by us.

There are times within the alliance framework we are going to disagree on key policy matters. That is, I think, really not unusual, and we should continue to articulate the position we believe that is in Australia’s interests.

TRIOLI: Senator Wong, just before I let you go, just one question to bring you back home: Speaking to Sarah Hanson-Young on 7.30 last week, I asked her to lift the veil, as it were, on what is said to her and other women in the Senate. Can you tell us what’s said to you?

WONG: Look, I’ve never wanted particularly to personalise these issues. I think most, well, some of what’s said to me is pretty much on the public record, because you end up in a bit of a ding-dong battle with various senators, don’t you?

But I think what’s more important, frankly, than what is said to individuals is that we should be trying to lift the standards for all women. And the sort of language, the way in which she was spoken to, and the way in which many other women are spoken to – but on this particular incident, which has been publicised – isn’t appropriate. It isn’t appropriate in any workplace.

TRIOLI: I’ll jump in there if I can, Senator, because that’s actually what my question goes to. Isn’t this a basic matter of workplace harassment and workplace safety? Doesn’t Parliament itself, and the President of the Senate, have a duty to make sure the workplace is compliant with workplace law?

WONG: I think we all have that duty. And I think we do need to address this when we come back. We need to think about what is the way, leaving aside whatever dispute is occurring between Senator Leyonhjelm and Senator Hanson-Young, what is it we need to do to try to not only lift the standards, but actually make clear the expectations of behaviour.

There is this incident, we’ve seen some in the past in Estimates, for example, the behaviour of Senator Macdonald and Senator O’Sullivan, and the way in which they spoke to Professor Gillian Triggs, I thought, was well beyond the way in which people should be dealing with each other in the workplace.

Now, we’re a robust workplace. Politics is – we’re going to, you know, have a go at each other, we’re going to get into hard debates and harsh debates, but there are some things which should be off limits and I think the kind of gender-based abuse, or diminishing, is not appropriate.

TRIOLI: Senator Wong, thanks for joining us all the way from Washington this morning. Thank you.

WONG: Good to be with you.

Authorised by Noah Carroll, ALP, Canberra.