26 November 2019




GERALDINE DOOGUE: Penny Wong is the Shadow Foreign Minister and Labor leader in the Senate. Good morning and welcome to the program.


DOOGUE: Penny Wong, we’ve all had a few days now to absorb the enormity of the claims being made about planting a “Manchurian Candidate” – virtually – plus the other forms of alleged Chinese interference. How does Labor assess the risk posed by Beijing to democracy here in Australia?

WONG: Look, I’ve said for some time, we are in a new phase in our relationship with China. It’s a relationship that’s complex and consequential. It’s a relationship where we will have differences by virtue of the fact we’re a democracy, but we also have interests. So we do need to work out as a nation how we best engage with China in a way that ensures we safeguard our democracy and continue to engage on interests we share.

I think these latest allegations, which are disturbing, need to be, as they will be, considered and investigated by the appropriate agencies. The broader issue is the government does need to lead a national discussion about how we best engage with China in a way that safeguards Australian sovereignty and democracy, but continues to recognise we have an interest in engagement.

DOOGUE: Yes, in that press conference that we just had that small grab from there, I heard the Prime Minister say and repeat it – and I think the wording was we are looking more broadly at this, more broadly. I just didn’t quite know what he was getting at and I wonder whether you do?

WONG: Well I think you have identified precisely the problem. We have a complex, important relationship and there is no issue in the foreseeable future in terms of Australia’s place in the world, the shape of our region, our economy, to which China is not relevant. Now, what that means – given that there are differences and disagreements – what it means is the government does need to lead when it comes to the China relationship.

I have pressed for some time that it would be a sensible thing for the government to ensure parliamentarians are properly briefed, so the government can ensure that the Opposition more broadly is properly briefed because this is a complex relationship. Regrettably, what we have instead is Liberal and other backbenchers leading a discussion and I don’t believe that is helpful to managing a complex relationship. It’s up to the Prime Minister to lead, and the Foreign Minister and the Cabinet.

DOOGUE: Well, Labor has sought urgent briefings on the latest allegations.

WONG: We have.

DOOGUE: Have you received them?

WONG: Not as yet. Not as yet in relation to this particular issue. But more importantly, we need to ensure our parliamentarians, and our community more generally, but certainly our parliament is resourced to recognise how best to handle this relationship. How do we manage disagreements? How do we safeguard our sovereignty? The Government should work with the Opposition to that end.

DOOGUE: Another allegation came through today that a Chinese agent allegedly tried to buy into a biotech company in Melbourne that shared a building with the CSIRO. Now, security experts say such a deal would have raised a lot of questions; suggesting it might have resulted in the theft of intellectual property. I think that’s the big worry here is that how you read it?

WONG: I think we have to recognise that we need very clear guidelines for both the private sector, for the higher education sector and other parts of our economy about areas of engagement which might be sensitive. Disengagement is not something that would be in Australia’s interest. Engagement that reflects our values, engagement that safeguards our sovereignty is.

Now I note that the Government has recently released guidelines in relation to higher education institutions and I think we do need to continue to ensure that firms and the community – the private sector and the public sector – have a very clear understanding of the boundaries and safeguards which need to apply to engaging with China.

DOOGUE: Listening to AM, what appears to be happening, apparently, is that there’s a closer link in China between military institutions and the tertiary institutions – that’s the claim anyway. And that that may be happening at a pace that we haven’t quite grasped here or the universities haven’t grasped here. So what’s happening is developments in China are moving, as well as here.

WONG: Well, China’s not a democracy, it’s a one-party state. The relationship between the state and individual firms, individual institutions, is not as it is in Australia. I mean, that’s a reality that we…

DOOGUE: But it may not have even been as it was five years ago in China?

WONG: Certainly China has become much more assertive in pressing its interests. China is continuing to develop and change politically and we need to have a very clear understanding of that. I think the China relationship should be above domestic partisan politics. I’d encourage the Prime Minister, Mr Morrison, and the Foreign Minister, Senator Payne, to make it so.

DOOGUE: The alleged operative Wang Liqiang is in hiding after he blew his cover with these claims about interference. Beijing moved very quickly to discredit him and the Global Times, which is owned by the Communist Party, says Wang is a fraudster, that he served time in prison, he’s an opportunistic liar making up stories all to secure asylum. Do you personally think his story stacks up?

WONG: My personal view is that these are the sorts of allegations – and they are extremely disturbing allegations, let’s be clear – but these must be assessed by our security agencies and I understand from the statement from ASIO yesterday they will be assessed appropriately.

DOOGUE: I mean, given the hostile reaction in China, you can’t imagine he could ever go home. Has the Government any option but to grant him protection?

WONG: Well, the Government obviously needs to consider that. Given the circumstances of this case, it needs to look at his case very carefully.

DOOGUE: The second case – there are just so many coming through; trying to make sure we’re all clear what we’re talking about – in a way his allegations were gazumped by the case of Bo Zhao, the Melbourne businessman who told ASIO he’d been offered a million dollars to run for parliament as an agent of the Chinese Communist Party and then, of course, he was found dead. Is it that easy, theoretically, for foreign players to infiltrate the Parliament?

WONG: Well this is why the China relationship needs to be above partisan politics. And this is why major political parties, all political parties, but certainly the parties of government, need to be responsible in how they handle these issues.

Now you might recall, in the last Parliament, Labor pressed the Government for a ban on foreign donations. Eventually the Government agreed to that. Labor will also be pressing in this Parliament for a reduction in the disclosure threshold and real time disclosure.

Political parties need to set aside their partisan views in order to ensure sovereignty is safeguarded through party processes as well as through parliamentary processes, and I’d encourage the Liberal Party to do just that. It’s unfortunate that on some of these transparency issues, which are about ensuring the integrity of our democracy, have been resisted by the Coalition.

DOOGUE: How does Labor ensure that it’s not caught in this particular bind, particularly as we want people from our multicultural society to step up. That’s one of the great desires that they step up and do put their hands up for sitting in various parliaments, but clearly there are challenges here.

WONG: From my perspective, it’s not an issue of ethnicity, it’s an issue of transparency.

I have been critical of Ms Liu, the Member for Chisholm. I was critical because her story had discrepancies and there was a failure of disclosure in relation to substantial donations. This is not about ethnicity, this is about making sure we have appropriate transparency.

It is, I think, a matter of record and a matter of regret that this government dragged its feet when it comes to a whole range of transparency issues around foreign donations, which at their heart, are about protecting the integrity of Australia’s democratic system.

DOOGUE: I mean, the PM says he’s open to any improvements – quotes – that might be needed to try to blunt the threat and to change the conversation. We had Senator Rex Patrick on yesterday calling for security checks for all people; for MPs and people who put up their hands…

WONG: Well if the Prime Minister’s up for any checks – I’m sorry to interrupt you, Geraldine – why was he not prepared to allow Gladys Liu to make a statement to the parliament?

DOOGUE: Well in fact, Senator Cormann was very strongly defending her yesterday when he came on the program. Her seat is the same seat associated with Bo Zhao, though there is no suggestion of any link between Gladys Liu and these latest allegations.
I mean, obviously there is a real concern that here is a woman who isn’t really – the clear implication is they don’t want her further exposed to have to discuss this.

WONG: And that’s my point. Leaving aside whatever people may or may not think about Ms Liu, the fact is there are issues on the public record to which she has not responded in the parliament and the Prime Minister, Mr Morrison, and Senator Cormann, have protected her from making such a statement to the parliament.

DOOGUE: It’s a very tricky time indeed for Australia, isn’t it?

WONG: It is, it is. I again go back to where I started. This is a complex, consequential relationship. It’s a relationship that we need to continue to engage, but we have to recognise that engagement does entail us ensuring we safeguard our sovereignty and our democracy. And that, I think, demands a discussion and a policy framework that is led by the Government not, with all due respect to the media who are doing their job in making sure there is transparency. This should be led by the Government and it should engage the Parliament and the Opposition.

DOOGUE: Thank you indeed for your time.

WONG: Good to speak with you.

Authorised by Paul Erickson, ALP, Canberra.