17 April 2018




BEVERLEY O’CONNOR: To Washington now where Shadow Foreign Minister Penny Wong is meeting members of Congress, as well as officials from the FBI and CIA. She’s part of a delegation from the Federal Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security and she is with us live from our Washington studios. Senator Wong, many thanks for joining us this evening.

SENATOR PENNY WONG, LEADER OF THE OPPOSITION IN THE SENATE: Good to be with you. Good evening, good morning from Washington.

O’CONNOR: A different time for you. It is eight o’clock in the morning, but we are getting the story out of South Korea which is gaining momentum and I wondered what the atmosphere in Washington was like that there could be a really significant breakthrough coming up in the next few weeks?

WONG: Well, we all hope that there is, don’t we? Obviously, the peaceful denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula is a long-held objective of Australia, of the United States and most importantly of South Korea. So we’d welcome positive steps, we’d welcome the positive signs which you reported on earlier.

I would sound a note of caution, however. We know that North Korea has a history of intransigence. We know that North Korea has had a history of saying it will do things that it then does not fulfil. And we know it has a history of not being trustworthy when it comes to the sorts of commitments it might make.

So this isn’t the time, notwithstanding these positive discussions and signals, for the international community to lessen the pressure on the regime.

O’CONNOR: We heard that it will depend heavily on what the US can offer North Korea in terms of achieving any breakthrough here. What is your sense of where Donald Trump is standing at the moment?

WONG: I think that’s a good question. I think that it is unclear as yet from what the Administration has said how it wishes to approach the engagement with Kim Jong-un. It is obviously a very big step to take. It’s something we’ll be certainly seeking to explore with officials that we’re meeting today. But as yet I don’t have a clear sense, and nor I think does the world, about how President Trump will approach this.

O’CONNOR: I’m sure Senator Wong you are abreast of the cyber attacks that have dominated news here in Australia today. The Defence Minister has said Russia is responsible. What do you believe is the case?

WONG: I accept Marise’s assertions and we know that not only Russia, but non-state actors are very active in cyberspace and in terms of these sorts of attacks.

This is a reminder this is a domain that will become increasingly risky, a domain which will increasingly be used by those who seek to disrupt countries, governments, institutions and business. And both governments and the private sector need to continue to improve their resilience and their vigilance because we can anticipate that this is a domain where we will see increasing events such as these.

O’CONNOR: You are having briefings with key intelligence agencies around foreign interference. This is two sides of the same coin isn’t it, to a degree?

WONG: Well, we’ve seen actions by various parties to influence or disrupt the actions of governments or of institutions and I think what we are seeing is an increasing focus from Western democracies as to how we go about ensuring that we are protected against that kind of interference.

Certainly here in the United States they have had a legislative approach looking at foreign interference. The committee of which I’m a part is considering the legislation that the government has put into the parliament in relation to foreign interference. But more broadly, it is an issue that is of increasing focus.

I think there is a general principle that all nations want to preserve their sovereignty. Certainly that’s the position Australia has and that is the way in which the Labor Party will be considering how we handle this legislation.

O’CONNOR: China, of course, is highly sensitive about this legislation. I notice you have become highly supportive again of the concept of the Quadrilateral. This is Japan, the US, ourselves and India in fact running joint exercises. Do you think that is not going to be very provocative to China?

WONG: Let’s remember what the Quadrilateral actually is. At the moment, it’s a discussion between senior officials and I think there’s been one discussion to date at senior official level.

So, it seems to us that dialogue with like-minded nations is a reasonable proposition. China and other nations also have dialogues with other nations. That is a good thing. It is something that we encourage.

In terms of the continuing dialogue that is the Quadrilateral, the point I have made and the point Richard Marles has made as well, is it should be seen as complementary to the centrality of ASEAN. We recognise that ASEAN is central to the regional architecture, to regional stability and we should approach the Quadrilateral respecting the place that ASEAN has, respecting ASEAN’s centrality

O’CONNOR: Syria, of course, is the other big global issue dominating. We understand there will be access to the OPCW inspectors later this week to inspect the site of this alleged chemical attack. There’s a lot of accusations and denials going on from both sides. Do you think these attacks that were launched over the weekend will really go any way to trying to bring both sides together and to end this conflict?

WONG: I think the conflict in Syria has been long and complex and has become increasingly so in many ways. What we saw on the weekend was a limited, targeted and what we regard as a proportionate response to the regime’s use of chemical weapons.

Secretary Mattis was clear about that when he said that this was a response to that use of chemical weapons. It was to send a signal around a principle and a norm that the international community has agreed and that is the prohibition against the use of chemical weapons.

We need a political solution in Syria. We do need the UN and the major powers, particularly Russia, to participate in providing a pathway out of this conflict. To date, that looks extremely difficult and that is a very sad thing for all those involved as well as the Syrian people.

O’CONNOR: In fact Sergey Lavrov says the two sides have never been further apart and relations are worse now than they were during the Cold War?

WONG: That is a matter for comment by him. I’d make this point that we cannot condone, nor allow to pass without action the use of chemical weapons in the way that we’ve seen the Assad regime engage. And that is an international norm that needs to be preserved and needs to be protected and that is what the strike on the weekend sought to do.

O’CONNOR: You are in Washington Penny Wong. What is the distraction of James Comey like at the moment?

WONG: He is certainly getting a lot of media attention which, I suppose, is unsurprising. It is getting a lot of focus.

Look, it’s a robust democracy. Free speech is a tenet of American society and American politics. That’s a matter of domestic political debate.

O’CONNOR: Does it not disturb you that it becomes a major distraction for one of the leaders that is so critical for some of these big global affairs?

WONG: Leaders are always in a position where they have domestic politics to handle as well as international events and international politics. This is no different. It certainly is getting a lot of focus, but ultimately there are a lot of people who are not focused on it and who are doing their job.

When we meet with intelligence agencies and counter-intelligence agencies and discuss things like the sorts of matters you and I have been discussing tonight, whether it is foreign interference, or cyber attacks, people are very focused on those matters and much less so on what the media is discussing.

O’CONNOR: I appreciate your time as always. Thanks Penny Wong.

WONG: Good to speak with you.

Authorised by Noah Carroll ALP Canberra.