29 April 2020




VIRGINIA TRIOLI, HOST: Senator Penny Wong joins you, Shadow Minister for Foreign Affairs and Leader of the Opposition in the Senate. Senator, good morning. Good to talk to you again.


TRIOLI: This war of words with China is getting worse. You’ve got the People’s Daily now directly criticising the PM, I think it’s the first time they’ve done that in a couple of years. Has the Government overstepped?

WONG: Look, two things; first, it’s unfortunate that this has escalated, but the Government has done what it should do in Australia’s national interests, which is to express our view that there should be an international inquiry into the origins of the virus.

I’ve made the point that this is a pandemic like we’ve not seen in over a century. All of humanity, I think, should be working to work out where the virus originated, how it originated, so it doesn’t happen again.

I think that’s in the interest of Australia and I would say also it’s in China’s interest.

TRIOLI: But there are ways and ways of doing that surely, and if calling for yes what some might argue correctly or rightly is just an independent inquiry actually results in trade retaliation threats against us. Then, that’s not the desired outcome, is it?

WONG: I think that we need to be very clear what our national interest is and our national interest is that we have, we get to the bottom of how the virus originated, so we can ensure it doesn’t happen again.

I have made the point that Marise Payne, after announcing it, that she needed to ensure we had international support, broad international support, that is critical. It doesn’t appear, as yet, that we have it and it probably would have been preferable to have locked some of that support down before we announced it.

But ultimately, I think we can’t be deterred from asserting what is the right thing – what is in Australia’s interest, and in the world’s interest.

And what I would say to China is all of us, including China, have an interest in making sure we work out how this happened so it doesn’t happen again.

You know, the virus doesn’t discriminate. We’ve seen loss of life across the world, including in China, and we have an interest in making sure that doesn’t happen.

TRIOLI: In your view, though, is this just a battle of diplomatic words that comes and goes from time to time or are you worried about where this ends up? And, that at a time when Australia can’t afford to lose any more business, any more economic activity, this might end up with a form of boycott of some aspects of our economy?

WONG: Well I hope that’s not the case because…

TRIOLI: …Don’t you think at this stage, what’s your instinct tell you?

WONG: Well, I hope that’s not the case because, as you correctly point out, we’re already taking an enormous economic hit, as we’ve seen from what the Treasury Secretary and others said over the last day or so. The world is taking an economic hit, that you know, we’re looking at figures akin to or worse than the Great Depression.

So this isn’t the time for countries to engage in recrimination. I note the Chinese ambassador himself talked about this not being the time for recrimination or division and we agree with him.

We do need to work together, and we also need to work together to get to the bottom of the origins of the virus.

TRIOLI: I’ve spent a bit of time on this program speaking to industry and manufacturers and we will a little later in the program as well, talking about the health supply chain with a manufacturer here in Victoria. And I’m pretty sure it’ll be galling to them to now, at this stage, suddenly hear Australian politicians sort of talking tough with China, when after years of refusing to brook any criticism of our economic relationship with, and dependence on China. They’ve been arguing that we needed to find other sources for our supply chain and diversify out of that. Do you understand why they might find this a little teeth gritting at the stage?

WONG: Yes I do and I know you you’ve been exploring those issues on your program, Virginia. And, look, I think there is a legitimate discussion about what the pandemic teaches us in terms of our self-reliance, the extent to which some global supply chains leave us exposed and lacking resilience in the face of this sort of pandemic or other economic shock. I think there is a legitimate discussion about that.

And what I would say, and I’ve said this in an opinion piece that was published earlier this week, that it is important we recognise that our relationship with China will continue, that any discussion about that should recognise China’s continuing economic weight in the world, and the benefit that we have had of China’s rise.

Having said that, I do think there’s a legitimate discussion which is already being had about what do we learn from this pandemic. What do we learn about what we need to make sure we can produce here, or, where are there global supply chains which are really too vulnerable in times where there is an economic downturn or a global shock like we’ve seen.

TRIOLI: Has the support been too unqualified and rosy-eyed? This is Bill Shorten from May of last year when he was leader – “If I’m Prime Minister, I welcome the rise of China in the world,” he said he saw China, not as a strategic threat, but as a strategic opportunity. Was that all a little bit too wide-eyed back then?

WONG: I made the point in, at the end of last year and I’ve made it again more recently, I do think we are in a new phase in our relationship with China. And I think that new phase arises from a couple of drivers; one is China is becoming, it’s asserting its interests more strongly in our region and more broadly.

That necessarily is going to mean at times we have differences and we have to work out how we constructively manage those differences. And those differences arise from our different interests. They also arise from our different identities, we’re a democracy. We have views about the rule of law and our democratic values and we can’t step away from them.

I think this has also been augmented by the impact of the coronavirus, where obviously this is a time where there’s a lot of disruption, a lot of geopolitical disruption, as well as economic, as well as the cost of human life. So inevitably, this is going to mean we have to work harder to navigate, both that relationship but our place in the world more broadly.

TRIOLI: Penny Wong, good to talk to you this morning. Thank you.

WONG: Good to speak with you, Virginia.

Authorised by Paul Erickson, ALP, Canberra.