13 March 2018




FRAN KELLY: The ASEAN summit comes amid rising tensions in the South China Sea, and Donald Trump’s snap decision to meet with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un. Penny Wong is the Shadow Foreign Minister, Penny Wong, welcome back to Breakfast.


KELLY: Well this is a great chance for Australia to exert some influence in our region. How should the Government be seizing that opportunity? If the theme is “Regional Security and Counter-Terrorism” what should the message be?

WONG: The first and key message is that ASEAN is central to the region’s security and stability. It’s central to Australia’s security and stability.

In terms of our interest in the region we’ve been saying for some time that we should ensure that we engage closely with ASEAN. We should have a regularised integration and we should be very clear that ASEAN is central to the stability of the region.

So we welcome the summit. We hope the Prime Minister and the Government uses it as a means of ensuring there’s ongoing regular engagement. There are obviously issues relevant to the region’s stability which will and should be discussed.

KELLY: What about the invitation to Aung San Suu Kyi? She is attending. Given her failure to condemn the violence allegedly perpetrated by her country’s military against the Rohingya people should she have been invited this time?

WONG: My view is Australia can disagree with actions which particular leaders take but disagreement should rarely lead to disengagement. We are where we are in the region. There are compelling facts which is our geography as well as our interests which lead us to engage with ASEAN.

Now in terms of our views about, for example, what is occurring in Myanmar, I hope the Government can use this opportunity of engagement to put our views about how we think these matters should be dealt with and express our concerns, just as the Government can and should use the opportunity when it comes to the situation in Cambodia and the visit of Prime Minister Hun Sen, to set our views on those issues.

But ultimately, we live in the region. Our interests lie in this region and ASEAN is central to our peace and stability in the region, to Australia’s security, so we should ensure that we can continue to engage.

KELLY: Well Julie Bishop, our Foreign Minister, will have a significant message at a pre-Summit meeting today. She’s going to say that Australia will work with South-East Asian countries to promote “a rules-based order to prevent larger countries using their economic might against smaller, less powerful nations”. That’s a pretty direct message to China isn’t it?

WONG: Look, I talked about the importance of the rules-based order and ASEAN’s role in providing and fostering such an order in a speech that I gave in Singapore earlier this year.

KELLY: No one disagrees with promoting a rules-based order.

WONG: It is important to recall what is the alternative to a liberal rules-based order? Well it’s hegemony. And the best way to promote peace and avoid conflict is to have institutions that respect the individual sovereignty of member states, that reflect the individual sovereignty of member states and that discourages the imposition of a particular view, regardless of where that may be emanating from. So, I think the ASEAN nations, like Australia, do have an interest in a rules-based order

KELLY: Is there a threat to the sovereignty of member states from China though? And the amount of, not just military might but economic might, it’s having and using and investing in some of these countries?

WONG: China has an interest in stability and peace in the region. China, like all of us, has benefitted from a period of great stability, a period of peace that’s been the platform on which China’s prosperity has been built and the platform on which the prosperity of the region has been built.

Of course China’s economic development has been to the benefit, not just to China and the hundreds of millions of people who have been lifted out of poverty, but of all of us. Australia has benefitted from that too.

In terms of the way forward though our view remains we need to have solid institutions that enable disputes to be resolved, that enable norms of behaviour to be established and that will continue to be Australia’s position.

KELLY: We do have institutions that enable disputes to be resolved but the countries before those institutions and those courts and tribunals have to respect that and China didn’t respect the ruling that came out on the South China Sea.

WONG: On the South China Sea that’s been well traversed. As the Government has made clear, Australia doesn’t take a position on the South China Sea territorial claims. We do have a view about the importance of the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea and that’s a bipartisan position.

KELLY: Former Labor Prime Minister Paul Keating recently praised what he said is “Donald Trump’s practical approach to engaging with China”. In particular the President’s statement that the US and China are not bound to be adversaries, and should seek common ground based on their shared interests. I presume that’s a sentiment that you support? Does it largely reflect the Turnbull Government’s position as well? I mean Malcolm Turnbull recently emphasised that China doesn’t view China as a threat

WONG: The Government has been all over the place, frankly, on China and we’ve seen quite a range of different statements about China from the former Deputy Prime Minister declaring China to be a greater threat than terrorism to the comments of Mr Turnbull trying to clean it up.

Countries are always better seeking less competition and more agreement and more co-operation. I think that was the sentiment of Paul’s remarks and he is right. We should look for co-operation. We should look for convergence. There are things on which we may disagree with any nation but your focus has to be in trying to find common ground wherever one can.

KELLY: Can I just ask you before I move on from China, China’s National People’s Congress voted to remove the term limits from the Chinese Presidency. That means Xi Jinping could theoretically be leader for life. The notion of strong man politics is alive and well in China. Are you concerned that could make things less democratic, less tolerant of human rights?

WONG: Well, China isn’t a democracy as we understand it. China is a communist state and a one-party state.

I’d make two observations. The first is this is a significant change and obviously a change of this significance in China self-evidently matters to Australia, it matters to the world.

The second observations I’d make is that this ultimately is a matter for China and the Chinese people. Their decisions about how they manage their state, their decisions about constitutional arrangements, are matters for China.

KELLY: Penny Wong we heard Chris Bowen on AM talking about Labor’s plan to wind back the dividend imputation scheme. A Labor Government would claw back $11.4 billion over the forward estimates and Bill Shorten will say today that Labor wants to end a tidy little arrangement for people who already have millions of dollars.

By and large on the numbers it might be a tax loophole that affects people with millions of dollars, but it’s also going to hit some people on low income retirees with some superannuation savings in this crackdown. Do you accept that this will hurt people who aren’t well-off? Who aren’t people who have millions of dollars?

WONG: I accept that Budgets are about choices and when I was Finance Minister I came on your program quite regularly and I make the same point that I made then, that every dollar spent via a tax concession like the one we’re dealing with is like expenditure out of the Budget. It affects the Budget and it is a dollar that can’t be spent on things like health and education.

KELLY: And it’s going to affect in this case some self-funded retirees who don’t have a lot of income.

WONG: 92 per cent of taxpayers will not be affected at all and this really is about making sure we return dividend imputation to the contours that Hawke and Keating designed. Let’s remember this is all about closing down the concession that gives cash refunds for excess dividend imputation credits. It is only those people who get cash refund.

When the system was first set up in the late 1980s, you could use it to reduce your taxable income. Howard and Costello said you could use it to get a cash refund. That is the aspect we are changing and I think in a time when we have to look at difficult Budget choices this is a sensible policy going forward.

KELLY: As a South Australian Senator, given the timing of this, as South Australians go to the polls on Saturday, has Federal Labor just made it a bit harder for Jay Weatherill?

WONG: I think South Australians have got a decision that they will be making on Saturday – which person, which man is likely to be the Premier who will stand up for South Australia and Jay Weatherill has demonstrated he is the only candidate running for Premier who actually does that.

Regrettably, we’ve seen Steven Marshall really simply toeing the line, doing what Christopher Pyne wants and Nick Xenophon tries to get a lot of media but really has no plan for the state. So, I think there is only one Premier and one party that has got a plan for the state.

KELLY: Labor is shooting for 20 years of Labor government.

WONG: That is a tough ask.

KELLY: Also there is a question is that good for democracy to have one party in there for such a long time?

WONG: Democracy has delivered Labor governments. That’s what democracy has delivered and there’s a reason for that and that is we’ve seen a Labor government, particularly under Jay Weatherill in this last term, that has been prepared to stand up for South Australia and we’ve seen no alternative offered by the Liberal Party. In fact the reason Nick Xenophon has been able to enter the fray to the extent he has is because of the weakness of the Marshall Liberals.

KELLY: Penny Wong, thank you very much.

WONG: Good to speak with you.