20 April 2017




FRAN KELLY: Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull will meet Mike Pence on Saturday, as will Opposition Leader Bill Shorten and Shadow Foreign Minister Penny Wong joins us now, Penny Wong welcome back to Breakfast.


KELLY: Mike Pence continues the tough talk. He said from on board the USS Ronald Reagan that “under President Trump the shield stands guard and the sword stands ready” and any aggression would be met with “overwhelming and effective response”. What do you make of this kind of talk? Is military conflict inevitable? Are we getting beyond the point of no return here?

WONG: Everyone understands that North Korea is a threat to regional security, a threat to global security and everyone understands that every nation has an interest in resolving this threat.

Now, obviously there are a few key players in this – the US, with its global leadership role, but also China which is a regional leader and what we do have to do is ensure that there is a co-ordinated response to this threat. It’s not going to be resolved bilaterally, it’s going to be resolved by co-ordination, particularly between the US and China.

KELLY: So when Julie Bishop says Pyongyang won’t willingly give up its nuclear program; given that Pyongyang has also said it’s going to continue to test missiles on a “weekly, monthly and yearly basis” doesn’t that mean we’re headed towards some sort of military intervention? Or you think Beijing can come to the party and achieve what hasn’t been achieved so far?

WONG: Certainly what we need to do is to try to avoid a military conflict, but also try to resolve the issue. I think everyone would agree with that, and it is true that China is uniquely placed to exercise greater pressure on the regime, the rogue regime in Pyongyang.

China obviously has taken action already and I think people should recognise that. But we would urge, all of us would urge, China to do more. It’s a regional leader, it’s a responsible stakeholder and most importantly, like all of us, China has an interest in regional stability.

KELLY: Everyone, as you say, wants to avoid military conflict, but I’m just wondering if there’s some missteps going on in this, given the confusing messages from Washington, which may make us doubt the resolve of the President and his tough talk. We had Donald Trump last week saying this:

TRUMP: We are sending an armada. Very powerful. We have submarines. Very powerful, far more powerful than the aircraft carrier, that I can tell you.

KELLY: The US Navy then announced the aircraft carrier the USS Vinson and its battle group were steaming towards the Korean Peninsula. We’ve since learned over the last day or so that it was actually heading the other way for naval exercises with the Australian Navy in the Indian Ocean. Was this a game of bluff? Did America’s allies know the truth? Do you have any insights into this for us?

WONG: I’d make two points; the first is we have regular exercises with the Americans, so that is nothing new.

KELLY: No, that’s nothing new but the Secretary of Defence said they’d been rescheduled because the armada, the battle group, was heading toward the Korean Peninsula.

WONG: But in terms of these sorts of operational decisions, I think that is a question for the United States. There may be a range of reasons for the decision about where the carrier group was deployed to, but that’s really a question for the Americans.

KELLY: What do you think that some of the US allies, particularly the Japanese and South Koreans might make of such false statements and obfuscation?

WONG: I think that’s something you’d have to look at what the Japanese and South Koreans might say. But I think there is a broader issue underpinning that question which is co-ordination with allies. As I started out by emphasising, this isn’t an issue that is going to be resolved bilaterally. It’s an issue that has regional implications. It’s a risk to regional security. So, any actions that the United States and/or China are taking need to be co-ordinated and certainly what we would encourage is co-ordination, particularly between South Korea and Japan, and of course Australia.

KELLY: And what’s your view, from a distance, admittedly – you’re in opposition not government – about how the US is going in terms of co-ordination with allies. Bill Shorten, of course, famously called Donald Trump barking mad, someone who was “entirely unsuitable to be leader of the free world”. Has he changed his view? Are these comments he now regrets?

WONG: Fran, there were a lot of things said in the context of the election campaign, including by many Republicans, as you might recall. But Mr Trump is the President of the United States. He holds an office. Our relationship is with the nation, our alliance is with the nation and we deal with whomever is in office, just as Bob Hawke, and Paul Keating and frankly John Howard, and others dealt with people who might be seen as of different political persuasion. We have a relationship that is bigger than the individuals who hold the position of President or Prime Minister.

KELLY: The US Vice President Mike Pence comes tomorrow, he’ll be reaffirming the US commitment to the alliance. Will you in turn be expressing Labor’s commitment to work with the Trump Administration?

WONG: Of course, we work with whoever’s in government in the United States, we’ll work with whichever administration in the interests of Australia. The US is our principle security ally. That means we press Australia’s interests, that means we press for constructive engagement in the region. There will be times we disagree just as John Howard and Bob Hawke disagreed.

KELLY: Is there a key message you’ll be taking to these talks with Mike Pence then?

WONG: I think regional security is the key message. We’re very pleased that Mike Pence is visiting Australia, but as importantly, we’re very pleased that he’s also ensured that he’s engaged with South Korea, Japan, and I think he’s in Indonesia as we speak. That is a demonstration of US engagement with the region, so our view will always be to talk about what a constructive US engagement in the region looks like, what are the priorities, and to ensure the US remains constructively engaged, because that has underpinned regional stability for decades.

KELLY: The Government’s redrafting migration laws, there will be tougher citizenship tests put in place, which includes a higher standard of English required – this overall will have to pass the Parliament. Will Labor back these changes?

WONG: We haven’t seen them, but let’s make a few points about this – the test is currently in English, it’s a test that was largely designed by John Howard, so I have to say this looks to me like the change you make when you want people to notice. One suspects that Malcolm Turnbull is having much greater focus on Tony Abbott or perhaps One Nation, than on any real and substantive change here.

KELLY: Are there changes necessary that you see? Are there weaknesses in citizenship laws that leave Australia vulnerable to or our society weakened by poor integration, is this a concern?

WONG: I don’t quite understand what he’s proposing, I mean frankly…

KELLY: We’ll you’ve got speak English, live here longer…

WONG: If English grammar is the test, there might be a few Members of Parliament that might struggle. But let’s understand, what does our current pledge say? It says you pledge your loyalty to Australia and its people, “whose democratic beliefs I share, whose rights and liberties I respect, and whose laws I will uphold and obey”.

That’s our current citizenship pledge. I think those current sentiments are pretty good. I saw some suggestion that there’d be questions about violence against women, well let’s remember that these are criminal acts that are proscribed by Australia’s criminal law. That is the harshest way of ensuring as far as we can, that these are values that people uphold.

KELLY: If it’s appropriate though, if what we want is for people to respect Australia’s laws and values, is it appropriate in a revised test? We understand there will be questions about whether someone supports genital mutilation, whether someone supports forced marriages or underage marriages, or whether it is okay to beat your wife.

WONG: You know what those questions are? They’re saying do you support complying with Australian law. All of those actions are criminalised in Australia.

KELLY: Is there any value or danger in spelling them out, I guess that’s what I’m asking you.

WONG: I want to see what they’re saying. I have to say it seems a little odd to me that you’d actually people whether or not they’re going to obey the law when they’ve already pledge to obey the law. These are – as appropriate – these are criminalised activities.

KELLY: This is the second charge a government’s crackdown follows the 457 visas we saw released yesterday. Labor got the ball rolling on that back in November when Bill Shorten unveiled your ‘Australia First’ policy: Build Australia First, Buy Australia First, and Employ Australians First. You’ve just been outflanked by the Government, haven’t you?

WONG: This is Malcolm Turnbull again trying to look like he’s doing something.

KELLY: Well he’s saying exactly the same things you’re saying.

WONG: I don’t think that’s right. I can recall, you might remember I was on your program a few times in the context of the China Free Trade Agreement, we were putting out our concerns with the removal of labour market testing, that is checking whether an Australian could get a job before you brought in somebody, for example who is a tradesperson, and Malcolm Turnbull and the Government were hoeing into others, to us, including me, saying that this was wrong, and now he’s done an about face. I think everybody knows this is all about Tony Abbott, this is all about One Nation.

KELLY: Penny Wong, thank you very much for joining us.

WONG: Good to speak with you.