1 February 2017




JOE O’BRIEN: The Shadow Foreign Affairs Minister Penny Wong has been visiting the United States as part of a Parliamentary delegation. She joins us now from Washington DC. Welcome.


We have had conflicting messages this morning from the White House and the Australian Government about the status of this refugee deal. The Australian Government is adamant meetings are proceeding as planned. What does this reflect about the communication between the Australian Government, the Trump Administration and the state of this?


SENATOR PENNY WONG, LEADER OF THE OPPOSITION IN THE SENATE: First, good to be with you. On this arrangement you’d have to ask: Does the Prime Minister actually know what the agreement is and whether it will be implemented? It appears there are very mixed messages as your correspondent has just outlined.


When Malcolm Turnbull stands up in just over an hour in Australian time, he really does need to clarify with the Australian people precisely which of the versions that have been reported by the ABC is correct, and what the detail of the agreement actually means. I do think the Prime Minister is obliged to do that in these circumstances.


O’BRIEN:  If this agreement does go ahead, won’t it be a significant achievement in the current environment?


WONG: Look, we want the agreement to work. We have been saying for some time that the Government does need to find resettlement options for the people on Manus. We want the agreement to work. I think the concern is we’ve seen yet another announcement from Malcolm Turnbull, which the next day has unravelled or appeared to have doubt cast on it. That’s a problem the Prime Minister needs to remedy when he stands up in front of the Press Club.


O’BRIEN: Looking more broadly at the situation in the US now, it’s a pretty extraordinary time to be there. What’s the sense you are getting about the mood in the early days of the Trump Presidency?


WONG: I’m here as part of a Parliamentary delegation for the Committee on Intelligence and Security. We have obviously been talking matters associated with intelligence matters, security matters with our counterparts, Senate and House committees that deal with intelligence, homeland security and we’ll also be dealing with other agencies. There has been very strong focus on the partnership, the Alliance and the partnership which exists between the United States and Australia when it comes to these matters.


Having said that, obviously this is a big time of change. This Administration is in the process of appointing people and in the process of making a range of decisions. And certainly, the sense here is of a great deal of change, as I’m sure that people in Australia have been observing with some of the announcements that have been made.


O’BRIEN: Just on that point, just this morning Donald Tusk from the EU has listed the US alongside other threats like an assertive China and an aggressive Russia. What do you make of the reaction from the rest of the world to what’s happening in the US and should Australia be raising concerns too?


WONG: Well, before I left Australia, I said, and I think Bill Shorten has also said, that we should be prepared, the Prime Minister should be prepared, to stand up for Australian values and Australian interests. The executive order that has caused a lot of controversy, both here in the United States and globally, is an area where Malcolm Turnbull should be asserting both Australian values and Australian interests.


Australian values are that we believe in a non-discriminatory immigration policy and that has served us well. When it comes to our interests, I share the concern of Republican John McCain and Republican Lindsey Graham who make the point that this executive order and its implementation, however it was intended, has the risk of alienating the very many Muslims around the world who are our strongest allies against Daesh, who reject its ideology of hatred. That would be a very negative move in terms of Australia’s interests.


O’BRIEN: We have seen the protests over the immigration ban but does the rest of the world have to accept that this is what half of the Americans who went to the polls voted for? Doesn’t this reflect what they want?


WONG: Look, it does. The Administration does have a range of policies that it went to the polls with. We respect their democratic process but that doesn’t mean we don’t assert what we believe are in Australia’s interests and consistent with Australian values. That is the job of the elected Government.


It is disappointing Malcolm Turnbull hasn’t followed the example of other conservative leaders like Angela Merkel and Theresa May, both of whom have made comments in relation to this policy.


O’BRIEN: Malcolm Turnbull’s point on that is that he has discussed things privately with President Trump and that is the correct way for friends to approach this, and the diplomatic way to do this – to come up with the most effective solution in the long-term, like getting this deal which you support to resettle people in offshore detention?


WONG: Joe, are you seriously suggesting that the US Government would say to Australia “We’ll only do this deal if you don’t criticise us”? I can’t imagine that’s the basis of our relationship with the United States. It certainly doesn’t appear to be the basis of the alliance and relationship that the British have with the United States from the comments that Theresa May has made. It doesn’t appear to be the position that Angela Merkel believes is the situation. I don’t accept that that is a sensible rationale for not making clear what Australia’s views are about the impact of this policy.


O’BRIEN: But has Australia got a leg to stand on lecturing to the US on this when the UNHCR has repeatedly raised deep concern about Australia’s policy describing it as immensely harmful and aspects of it as highly concerning?


WONG: Well, look, we can have a debate about what an appropriate response is to unauthorised arrivals. We can have a discussion about whether or not boat turn-backs are the appropriate policy. Labor has gone through that debate. We have made clear our position. I understand there are some in the community who don’t agree with that but that is the position of the Labor Party.


But we are not talking about that here. We are talking about particular countries being singled out and the perception of that. I think that is the reason why we have seen the concern in Australia and in the United States but also globally.


O’BRIEN:  On the foreign policy front, how concerned are you about a potentially dangerous escalation of tensions in the South China Sea? What should Australia be saying to the US and China about that?


WONG: Well, we have an interest in continued constructive US engagement in the region. That has underpinned security in our region, peace in our region and has been the platform on which economic prosperity and economic growth has been able to operate. So that is very important.


What we would urge is strong, sound and good relations between the US and China. It’s in our interests for there to be a positive relationship between the United States and China. We don’t want to see issues escalate and we’d urge that differences be resolved by sensible diplomacy. That is the approach Australia has taken.


O’BRIEN: It sounds like Donald Trump may try to push the envelope on this with an increased US Navy presence in the South China Sea. What do you believe are the limits of reasonable diplomacy?


WONG: I’m not going to comment on hypotheticals. A lot of things have been said and commented upon in the days leading up to and since the inauguration.


I’d say we want a region that is peaceful and secure. There are tensions in the region when it comes to the South China Sea. We want them resolved, as far as possible, amicably. We want them resolved in a way that reflects the international law of the sea. We think that that rules-based order has served the whole region well and obviously American engagement in the region has underpinned that.  But I’m not going to react to every comment that’s made by members of the Administration.


I think we should look at the approach that the Administration takes and the Australian Government, I’m sure, will continue to and should continue to engage closely with the Administration about how it sees progress being made towards resolution of some of those disputes in the South China Sea.


O’BRIEN: Senator Wong, you mentioned at the outset you were there in the US looking at cyber security and intelligence as well. There have been reports of this strained relationship between Donald Trump and the intelligence community. Are you getting any sense of that strained relationship in the extensive talks no doubt that you have had with people in that field in the US?


WONG: I’m not going to add commentary to what has already been reported publicly about those. Some of those reports may be accurate, some may not and some are commentary. I’m not going to add to that. What I would say is, obviously, from our perspective, we value very deeply our intelligence relationship with the United States.


O’BRIEN: OK, Senator Penny Wong, thanks for talking to us today from Washington.


WONG: Good to be with you.