14 May 2020




FRAN KELLY, HOST: Senator Penny Wong is the Shadow Foreign Minister. Penny Wong welcome back to breakfast.

SENATOR PENNY WONG, SHADOW MINISTER FOR FOREIGN AFFAIRS: Good morning Fran. Good to be with you again.

KELLY: Advice is flying into the Government from all quarters on how it should be handling the relationship with China and responding to these trade barriers. The states have now weighed in. Does the Morrison Government need to recalibrate its approach to Beijing, given what’s at stake? What’s your view?

WONG: Well first I want to make very clear that we remain committed to continued support for an independent inquiry into the outbreak. And as Anthony Albanese has said on numerous occasions, it is an unremarkable proposition.

It’s not remarkable to say that the world should try and find out how it is that this pandemic began, given how many people have died. We want to know how we can ensure this doesn’t happen again.

But more broadly, the relationship with China is a complex relationship; it’s a relationship in which we have an interest in a productive relationship – but it is a relationship in which there will be differences, and very clear differences of views on certain issues. It’s a complex relationship; it requires leadership.

We should be guided through this challenging relationship, by clear and consistent – a clear and consistent voice nationally – and that is the job of the Foreign Minister and the Prime Minister.

KELLY: Aren’t we getting that? I think we just heard the Foreign Minister there say, we’re not backing down on it. It’s an unremarkable position, which you agree on. What’s your problem with the messaging?

WONG: I actually don’t have a problem with the messaging. I just think that the Foreign Minister and the Prime Minister should be engaging much more publicly and clearly in framing and leading this debate.

I think it is regrettable that much of this debate is being framed and led by conservative backbenchers, trying to outdo each other as to who can be more strident on China and I don’t think that serves the national interest.

The Australian national interest is served most by consistently holding to what our interests are, holding to our position. I think that Marise Payne should engage much more clearly and consistently in this national discussion.

KELLY: But as Marise Payne says in response to those comments coming from some of the Coalition backbenchers, including people like George Christensen, Concetta Fierravanti-Wells, Andrew Hastie, James Paterson, they’ve all weighed in. As Marise Payne says, well it’s a democracy, why shouldn’t they, what’s wrong with a contest of ideas at a time like this?

WONG: We are a democracy and we do believe in free speech and I simply think Senator Payne should engage in a little more free speech, on her part.

I think that the Foreign Minister’s job is to explain Australia to the world and the world to Australia. And we would benefit from the Foreign Minister, as her predecessors have, from engaging much more in leading and framing, in this debate.

I think it’s unfortunate that we have the temperature turned up by a range of backbenchers who, as I said, really see a domestic political benefit in turning up the dial.

We need to think less about domestic political interest from the Prime Minister down. We need to be focusing on the national interest.

KELLY: And I’m going to come to that in a moment but just before we leave the calls for the debate, former Foreign Minister Julie Bishop weighed in this week. She said that we should have done a lot more quiet diplomacy behind the scenes before coming out publicly, with a call for a global investigation. We should have built a coalition of countries to convince China about the need for an investigation. Is she right, do you agree with that?

WONG: Look, I think that’s sound advice, and I’ve made the point myself. We do agree with inquiry, but we think it would have been better, before Minister Payne announced this a couple of weeks ago on Insiders, if Australia had gained diplomatic support behind the scenes, before that announcement was made here in Australia.

And it’s very clear that that work did not begin until after the domestic announcement was made. And I think Julie Bishop is making a very sensible point, as an experienced former Foreign Minister, as to how it might have been better dealt with.

KELLY: Let’s go to the national interest because there’s a few blows coming our way with these trade sanctions, being threatened by China and concerns they’re going to put them, threaten them on more sectors of the economy. One of the country’s most powerful unions, the AWU, is urging the Government, the Prime Minister to hold his nerve, Australia should resist any attempts to be bullied, to paraphrase, our sovereignty is at stake. How do we defend our sovereignty, while also looking out for the best interests of the economy? Because we’ve got Premier after Premier standing up, urging the Government to be careful because they can see their economies are really vulnerable.

WONG: Well, a few comments in response to that; and first, the AWU letter is absolutely right. We should be looking to our national interests. We should be making sure we continue to assert our national interests when it comes to Australian jobs, and of course, Australian sovereignty.

The AWU makes a very reasonable point that all countries should play by the rules when it comes to international trade, that is our position and it is the right position.

In terms of the Premiers and others, I think what this demonstrates is the breadth of the relationship with China and the extents of the interests that we have to manage in that relationship.

We have a very strong economic interest in the relationship, that serves the benefit of both China and Australia. Our economic ties have benefited both peoples. And sometimes this debate proceeds without, with a lack of recognition of that from some quarters.

Having said that, that doesn’t mean we should change positions which are important for Australia, simply because there are economic disputes. We should not change position in relation to the inquiry.

KELLY: So what do we do now then? What does the Government do now? It should not change its position on the inquiry; you’re backing the Government on that. But we have this trade dispute threatening that could be a significant blow to the Australian economy if it goes any further. What should the Government do now?

WONG: Well ultimately this is a job for Scott Morrison and Marise Payne…

KELLY: …Yeah, but what should they do? Can you help them with this?

WONG: …The Government needs to manage this relationship, and it needs to do that in the best interests of the country. I think the management of the relationship would benefit first, as I have said, from a greater, consistent, clear voice from the Foreign Minister on the China relationship.

I think the relationship would benefit from less fevered rhetoric and more calm and considered discussion. I think the relationship would benefit from a little a stridency from Coalition backbenchers and a little more considered diplomacy from the Government.

Now, as I previously said, a little less George Christensen, and a little more Marise Payne would be a good thing.

KELLY: But apart from that, a little less George Christensen – let’s say the Prime Minister, or the Foreign Minister tells them to button it – what can the Government do now, in terms of trying to salve this trade dispute? Because the trade, China’s trade representative won’t even take, at the moment, our Trade Minister Simon Birmingham’s call.

WONG: We should continue to seek engagement.

But the key thing we need to do, is to make sure that we work to have this dispute resolved in accordance with the multilateral rules. And this comes back to a point that we need to keep holding to; which is we have an interest in a strong multilateral trading system, given the size of our economy and the extent to which we export.

We have an interest in continued strong, open, transparent and fair trading arrangements, which is one of the reasons why I think Mr Morrison’s push for, assertion about negative globalism, last year, was the wrong way to go. Because it’s clear that we do need a strong multilateral system.

We don’t need to start attacking international organisations and international cooperation. What we need is to strengthen it. And that is a position we’ve been articulating for a very long time.

KELLY: So the Government says publicly that these trade strikes from China had nothing to do with its push for an international inquiry into the COVID-19. Do you accept that?

WONG: That is the very clear advice from the Prime Minister, from Mr Morrison, and Senator Birmingham and we agree they should not be linked.

KELLY: You’ve been around a while though; do you think that they’re not linked? I mean, as I mentioned, China’s still to respond to Trade Minister Simon Birmingham’s request for a conversation to try and sort it out. That’s a sure sign isn’t it, that it’s not just a trade spat?

WONG: Well, again, two points: the Government has been very clear, they’re not linked. We agree they should not be linked. And we agree with the Government that we should not be shifting position in relation to the inquiry.

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

WONG: Good to speak with you.

Authorised by Paul Erickson, ALP, Canberra.