11 April 2018




FRAN KELLY: The stand-off between the US and Russia is playing out in New York where the UN Security Council is still debating resolutions on Syria. Shadow Foreign Minister Penny Wong joins us. Penny Wong, welcome back to Breakfast.


KELLY: Donald Trump has promised a forceful response to the chemical attack. He says the US has “a lot of options”. If it comes to it would Labor support co-ordinated military strikes by the West against Syria?

WONG: I’m not going to get into hypotheticals about what might or might not occur. What must occur is the Security Council must act. What we have seen are credible reports of two breaches of international law, both the provisioning of chemical weapons and also the targeting of civilians and it would be an intolerable position if that were not investigated properly. It would be an intolerable position for that not to be acted upon.

KELLY: When you say acted upon what do you mean? It will be investigated but what do you mean when you say “if it were not acted upon”?

WONG: The question is whether it will be investigated and whether or not the reports that I’ve seen about Russia’s veto at the Security Council are correct. If that is the case I think that is an intolerable position for a major power.

KELLY: As I understand it there is an OPCW team destined to go in to investigate this attack.

WONG: As they should. And they should and the world must ensure that this is properly investigated. We have international law, we have these conventions, we have these agreed norms of behaviour for a reason – it is about the management of conflict. And if we simply allow them to be flouted if we simply allow particular regimes to flout and breach these laws in ways which are inhumane, cruel and murderous then really the international community is left with very few options in terms of how we manage conflict.

KELLY: And in terms that what do you have in mind when you say that then the world must act?

WONG: I refer again, the UN Security Council must act, we must have a proper investigation as has been called for by the majority of the Security Council.

KELLY: And if that investigation finds that there were chemical weapons used and that they were used by the Syrian forces, you’ve said it would be intolerable if the world did not act, what would action look like?

WONG: I’m not going to get into hypotheticals. What we have to focus on is Security Council action and the United Nations working as it is intended to.

KELLY: Given that the UN Security Council works via a veto of the major powers, it doesn’t work as intended to, can’t we say that now?

WONG: This is the system that we have and the veto was put in place for historic reasons and I think if nations use their veto in ways which are intolerable for the international community that has to be expressed most strongly. Russia, as a major power, aspires to global leadership and I think the international community must continue to assert to Russia what comes with such leadership.

KELLY: Russia denies any involvement, any responsibility for the chemical attack, in fact it denies any chemical attack occurred. It says it sent investigators in and there is no sign and no evidence. Do you believe that?

WONG: Then it has nothing to fear from an independent investigation.

KELLY: Do you believe Russia when it says that?

WONG: I accept what the Foreign Minister told you in your interview yesterday which is her advice was that the Assad regime was responsible for this attack but if Russia and other parties, including the regime, believe that they were not involved in this attack then they have nothing to fear from the independent investigation the United Nations is seeking.

KELLY: Donald Trump has been talking tough, as is his want, he says there is “a big price to be paid” for what happened in Douma and his ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley has called Assad a monster. This is a very complex situation but would it be dangerous if after all this talk there was no price to pay, so to speak, to quote Donald Trump, if chemical weapons were used. That this is a red line, that there must be some kind of significant response, presumably military response?

WONG: I’m not going to get into hypotheticals on a military response. I think the pressure that should be applied internationally is for the independent investigation. I think the international community does expect that. The majority international community will expect that and that should continue to be the focus.

KELLY: And in your view if there is some kind of action would you see a role for Australia?

WONG: You’ve asked me the question a number of times and I’m simply not going to get drawn into hypotheticals.

You will recall on the last occasion, which, regrettably I think is about a year ago the opposition did support the limited strike for the reasons we outlined then, but I’m not getting in to hypotheticals about what might or might not have occurred.

KELLY: This gas attack, if indeed it is proved did occur, has had its desired outcome in a sense, it has forced opposition fighters to relocate from Douma. Bashar al-Assad has all but regained control of Syria. So a seven-year war and status quo except for the hundreds of thousands of people killed and 11 million people displaced. Donald Trump was last week talking about withdrawing US troops from Syria. Bashar al-Assad has won the civil war hasn’t he?

WONG: Well what we do need is a political solution to find stability in Syria. and to date we are not seeing that and I don’t know that you could assert that what has occurred in these recent weeks, and the reports that we see now, is anything other than barbaric acts against civilians.

KELLY: Penny Wong let’s go to our own region now. China has been making its presence felt throughout the Pacific for some time now. Vanuatu is denying that it is in any kind of talks with China about a military base being built on a South Pacific island but experts think otherwise. Earlier we spoke to China expert Dr Jonathan Holslag.

HOLSLAG: I think it is quite clear and it has even stated formally that China is taking a great interest in protecting its overseas economic interest and with regard to the Pacific even the timeframe is quite transparent. China has the intention by 2025 to become a resident power in the Western Pacific by use of its Navy and by 2050 to essentially overtake the United States as an important military player in that region.

KELLY: Dr Jonathan Holslag from the Brussels Institute of Contemporary China Studies. Do you agree with that interpretation and how big a threat does that pose to our national security?

WONG: I think the better way to look at this is to consider what we have to do. Rather than getting into analysis about everybody else’s agenda what the facts on the ground are.

The reality is those reports yesterday we do regard as a wake-up call. I welcome the indication from the Prime Minister of Vanuatu that this is not in fact proceeding but I think there is a wake-up call to Australia, and in particular to this government. We need to demonstrate greater leadership in the region. That is what the Pacific expects. We need to articulate a clearer vision of a stable and prosperous Pacific. We need to stop cutting the aid budget and we need to commit to greater engagement to getting there because obviously this is a sphere that Australia has played a leadership role in. I think your guest earlier described how we have behaved as complacent. I think that is a reasonable criticism.

I saw the Prime Minister yesterday coming out and getting very muscular about this again. Well, I’d suggest instead of getting muscular at press conferences he might try to get muscular in terms of what he actually does, and perhaps stopping the cuts to the aid budget – we have seen an $11 billion cut – and engaging in a much more deep and a realistic way with the Pacific.

KELLY: Is it fair to say though that money talks and there is no way, even despite our long relationships with countries in the Pacific and our long aid relationship with countries like Vanuatu, we’re not going to be able to compete with the billions of dollars that China is showering on some of these Pacific nations?

WONG: No, but we are in the region and there a whole range of people to people links, a whole range of other ways in which we already engage and we do have to play to our strengths.

It’s certainly a very different environment to the one we were in 10 or 20 years ago but I think Australia does have to respond. Development is a key part of how we respond and so too are the different ways in which we engage in people to people links and obviously the various visa arrangements we have for temporary workers.

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

WONG: Good to speak with you.

Authorised by Noah Carroll ALP Canberra