30 October 2018




KARVELAS: Penny Wong, welcome to the program.


KARVELAS: Today Bill Shorten promised foreign policy with an Australian accent. How is our current foreign policy not speaking in an Australian accent?

WONG: I thought today was a great speech by Bill and what he was doing was outlining very clearly the approach a Labor government would have to foreign policy. The focus on our national interest but also confidence, independence, making sure that our primary focus, as always, is on Australia’s national interests.

KARVELAS: So how would it differ to Coalition policy on foreign affairs?

WONG: Well, I think you’ve seen over these last couple of weeks one way in which it would differ and that is we don’t intend, if we are elected, to be a government that makes a knee-jerk decision to overturn 70 years of bipartisan foreign policy decisions in the shadow of a by-election, which is what the government has done and Scott Morrison did in the context of his announcement regarding moving the Australian embassy to Jerusalem. Clearly designed to try and win votes in Wentworth, failed to do so and I think was demonstrably not a good exercise in good government and against Australia’s national interests.

KARVELAS: Okay, so that’s one example and that’s still on the table. Beyond that would there be differences?

WONG: One of things Bill said today very clearly, and regrettably this is where the government has I think been behind the eight ball, was our focus on the Pacific. And he talked very clearly about the fact that the Pacific would be front and centre for a Shorten Labor Government. We recognise how important it is to work in partnership with Pacific island nations. We recognise that they might be small geographically, but they are, as they describe themselves, a Blue Pacific continent. They manage some 20 per cent of the world’s oceans in their exclusive economic zones and we need to work more closely with them and he set out a range of initiatives including on infrastructure investment.

KARVELAS: I’ll get to that in a minute but Labor’s also going to reinstate Pacific Affairs and International Development as a senior portfolio. Will that be a Cabinet position?

WONG: That has traditionally been a position in the Foreign Affairs portfolio as a minister. Unfortunately for some reason Scott Morrison, just at a time when Pacific island nations were expressing concern about the extent to which Australia wasn’t engaging, wasn’t partnering, he decided to put that portfolio to what used to be called a parliamentary secretary or an assistant minister and I think that sends exactly the wrong signal. Bill made it clear today amongst other things that we would make sure that was a full ministry inside the foreign affairs portfolio. Obviously, there will be a lot of work in that area should we form government.

KARVELAS: Take me through the infrastructure bank proposal. How would it work and what sort of projects would Australia be looking to fund?

WONG: To start with I think we need to understand what’s currently happening. What we have is a major infrastructure deficit in the region and we have Pacific nations very clearly saying “we need more assistance in our infrastructure”.

We also know that unless we do better in terms of development outcomes, we’re going to have, within a decade, some 10 million people living across Pacific islands, many of whom will be amongst the least developed nations in the world. So, we have a responsibility for doing better and we want to do better with Pacific island nations.

This is a financing facility which really draws on some of what countries are already doing. So New Zealand already has a facility like this, the US and China have already announced this is the path they’re going down. And it really comes about by listening to Pacific island nations about what it is that they need and they clearly need more infrastructure. This will be a financing facility which looks to leverage more finance to address this infrastructure deficit. Critical infrastructure such as airports, ports, water supply, energy networks and of course communications infrastructure which is increasingly important.

KARVELAS: The peak aid group has criticised this plan saying Australia shouldn’t be part of a lending race in the region. How do you take that criticism, do you think that that is a concern? That you need to think about that when you make these decisions?

WONG: I’m happy to respond to that. I think if you’re serious about development in a region you probably should listen to what people want and it’s been pretty clear from Pacific leaders this is what they want.

The second point is this is about more sources of finance, so it’s not about reducing aid and development grants. It is about making sure we can leverage more financing for projects which are needed.

And I would also make the point, if they are concerned about political parties and governments reducing aid, then they really should look at the $11 billion of cuts that the Coalition has presided over, which really demonstrates such a lack of commitment to developing nations worldwide.

KARVELAS: And where will the money come from?

WONG: We will make further announcements about that in due course. The idea here is that you would use taxpayers’ money to leverage private sector finance and to also provide concessional loans along the lines that you see, for example, the New Zealand fund providing.

So, we’ll certainly provide more detail of that in the near future, but this is precisely the path that many nations are going down. We do have to address the infrastructure deficit in the region and we need to work out how to make taxpayers’ dollars go further; and that’s what an investment bank would do.

KARVELAS: Central to all of this will be an increase in foreign aid spending. Can you say at this stage how much you’ll increase foreign aid spending by?

WONG: Not at this point. I’ve made that clear Patricia. Obviously, we have to fund a whole range of initiatives – schools, hospitals, child care and early childhood education – and we’ve made some very substantial announcements there.

What I would say is we have made clear we will make a greater investment than the current government, but I’d also say for your listeners and for those who are interested in development matters, this government set us on a trajectory which is going downwards and we are reducing the amount of investment we make in development as a proportion of our national income and it’s going to take a lot of work, and frankly, many years to turn that around.

I regret the lack of bipartisanship on this issue and I hope that at some point the Coalition can decide that it’s going to restore the bipartisanship when it comes to international development that we saw over many decades.

KARVELAS: Last week Labor spent a lot of time making fun of the decision to send Malcolm Turnbull to the Oceans Summit in Indonesia. But if it keeps the free trade agreement on track, is it the right call?

WONG: I think it’s a better call than sending the current Environment Minister, don’t you?

KARVELAS: I don’t have a view on who you should send. I ask the questions here.

WONG: (Laughs) My view about it is if Malcolm’s going to do a good job, that’s great. I think he certainly has better views or has a better knowledge of how to deal with these issues than the current Environment Minister who obviously has had a lot of problems in the short period she’s been in the portfolio.

KARVELAS: The Government hopes to sign the Indonesia FTA by December. Could Labor’s determination to retrofit that deal to accommodate demands from the unions end up sinking the whole thing?

WONG: Well, I haven’t seen the agreement so you’re asking me a question which is a little difficult because I don’t know precisely what is in the agreement. One of things that we have made very clear – that certainly I’ve made clear, Chris Bowen’s made clear and Bill made clear today – Indonesia is a very important relationship for Australia; that is a relationship which is important for Australia’s strategic interests, it’s also important for Australia’s economic interests going forward given the growth in Indonesia’s population.

So, we will obviously ensure that we look at that trade agreement very carefully. It is a pity the government on a range of matters when it comes to trade agreements has included clauses and approaches which are both unnecessary and have not enabled the sort of public support that I think we should be trying to engender in terms of trade’s benefit to Australian jobs.

KARVELAS: Another part of today’s announcement is that Labor would appoint an ambassador for refugees and displaced people. What would that role entail? Would it be finding third countries to resettle asylum seekers?

WONG: I think it is very important that we grapple with the scale of the challenge that the global community faces and that is we have, not just in our region, but globally, more people who are displaced than at any time since or including World War II. And we do need to make sure we put in the resources to contribute to that effort.

Now of course we have said we would made it a priority to seek third-country resettlement arrangements, something to the nation’s great regret Mr Morrison has not done, which is why we see the situation we see on Nauru. But we do want to resource a global response and a regional response and this is an additional leader at an officer level; an ambassador to help with those diplomatic efforts.

KARVELAS: And Bill Shorten says there will be no changes to offshore processing, presumably boat turn-backs will continue. Is New Zealand your only viable option for resettling the remaining people in PNG and Nauru now?

WONG: He also said that it’s important that deterrence not be equated to indefinite and punitive detention.

KARVELAS: So, should you have time limits then on detention?

WONG: No, I think what you do is you have a government that actually tries to ensure people are resettled. And Bill set out in his speech our framework for doing that, which includes increased investment in the UNHCR and an increased humanitarian intake which would enable us to enter these negotiations with a substantial amount of demonstrated capacity and willingness to assist with these issues on the table.

I think that the issue we have here is that the Government has been completely disinterested, completely uninterested in finding a response, finding third-country resettlement arrangements.

KARVELAS: But obviously it’s a difficult thing to do. I don’t know if they’ve been disinterested. I don’t know if that’s the right characterisation?

WONG: I’m afraid I don’t agree with that, Patricia.

KARVELAS: You don’t think they’ve been trying? They obviously struck the US deal but that only has so much capacity.

WONG: We have a situation where the New Zealand offer has been on the table for how long? Under the previous conservative government, from memory, in New Zealand. And it is only now in the lead up to the Wentworth by-election that Mr Morrison suggested he might look at it. So, I don’t think those are the actions of a government that has actually made this a priority.

KARVELAS: But it’s taken Labor some time to come to the New Zealand offer as well?

WONG: Well, I’m not sure that’s correct and certainly we have indicated we would make it a priority to find resettlement arrangements. But let’s remember we’re not in government

KARVELAS: No, but there could be an election in around seven months or even earlier.

Penny Wong, thank you so much for you time.

WONG: Good to speak with you, Patricia.

Authorised by Noah Carroll, ALP, Canberra.