16 October 2018




GREG JENNETT: Joining us in the studio today Labor’s Senate Leader and Foreign Affairs spokeswoman Penny Wong. Senator, welcome back. Middle Eastern foreign policy – has bipartisanship just been shattered today?

SENATOR PENNY WONG, LEADER OF THE OPPOSITION IN THE SENATE: No, you know what’s been shattered today? What’s been shattered is any semblance Scott Morrison is prepared to be sensible.

Scott Morrison is prepared to junk a long-standing position in relation to a two-state solution and the status of Jerusalem, a position held by Alexander Downer, held by Julie Bishop, held by Malcolm Turnbull, because he’s so desperate about the seat of Wentworth.

JENNETT: He says by switching the game up, changing, and being a bit more creative, if you like, you might get to a two-state solution sooner than has occurred in the past. Why not try something?

WONG: This is a cynical, cynical ploy to try to pretend that he’s shifting position for votes in Wentworth, for perceived advantage in Wentworth. What it really shows is the extent to which this Prime Minister is prepared to compromise the national interest for his personal political interests.

I, for one, don’t actually believe that he will carry this through, which is why you’ve seen today that the Government has been very careful to use words like “consider” “review” and “look at it” because they want to signal a change in position, but not necessarily carry it through, which demonstrates again, cynical politics about Scott Morrison’s personal and political interests, not about the national interest.

JENNETT: So in one sense, you’re actually quite relaxed about this and you think it’s a flash in the pan, designed only to last about four or five days?

WONG: I’m not relaxed at all. I think that this is a highly risky proposition. It’s a proposition which is unhelpful to progressing a two-state solution. It is a proposition which risks some of our relationships with other nations, and particularly in the region.

JENNETT: Which ones?

WONG: Well, I think what it does demonstrate is the Government’s prepared to play politics on foreign policy, and I think that that demonstrably is problematic.

I know that the Prime Minister has said, for example, he did make sure that he spoke to the Indonesian ambassador before this was announced. He didn’t indicate how that discussion went, but I think, more broadly, what it does do is demonstrate to the world that this is a Government that’s prepared to compromise national interest foreign policy positions which have been held on a bipartisan basis by successive Liberal governments in order to try to save the seat of Wentworth.

JENNETT: Advice is only advice. Do you think that he’s spurned the advice of the Foreign Affairs Department? And in particular, its Secretary, in shooting out on this adventure?

WONG: What I would say is this – if you look at the consistent position articulated, not just by this Secretary, but by the department over many years, the position that Mr Morrison has now announced is not consistent with the position that has been put by successive officers.

Now, governments change position. I think it would be interesting to know whether or not Mr Morrison actually even sought advice. I suspect, looking at Senator Payne standing next to him today, that this was done for political reasons in the shadow of the Wentworth by-election. Certainly not something, I suspect, that Marise Payne would have brought forward, because generally, she’s been much more sensible.

JENNETT: And Julie Bishop had never entertained the movement of the embassy.

WONG: No, in fact, Julie Bishop, as I’ve referenced publicly, came out quite recently while still Foreign Minister, saying that the Government would not be doing so. And she made the point that Jerusalem is a final status issue.

The issue of Jerusalem is highly contested. And by doing this, what we are doing is pre-empting a negotiation which has to be part of any discussion, any process towards a two-state solution.

JENNETT: The Prime Minister denies, absolutely, that he has drawn any inspiration here from Donald Trump and his position on Jerusalem/Israel.

WONG: So where does the inspiration come from?

JENNETT: Do you have any…?

WONG: I suspect that the answer is that the inspiration is what’s happening on Saturday and the fact that the Liberal Party is desperate about the seat.

And what I would say is this – Scott Morrison’s problem with the seat of Wentworth isn’t Israel and where the embassy is. Isn’t the Iran nuclear deal. You know what it is? It’s fundamentally that his values do not reflect the values of the people of Wentworth. Whether it’s on climate change, whether it’s on discrimination against LBGTIQ kids. Whether it’s on the ABC.

JENNETT: But this must be a powerful issue there? If your thesis that he has responded to political pressure in Wentworth is true, then it must be a powerful political issue in Wentworth?

WONG: What I would say to the people of Wentworth is that it doesn’t matter how much colour and movement he engages in. It doesn’t matter how much he’s prepared to compromise the national interest by flipping foreign policy issues which have been long standing and bipartisan. This bloke doesn’t represent your values.

JENNETT: Ambassadors of Arab nations at a meeting this afternoon to caucus and to come to some sort of a position. Do you think that this could be the start of some diplomatic blow back around this decision?

WONG: Well, I’ll go back to what I said earlier. If you change position on a dime like this, obviously and patently for political purposes, it sends a poor signal to the nations of the world about how you wish to deal with them.

JENNETT: I know that you had a busy day straddling other issues. We are hearing today from the Government, that with pressure being applied, it must be said, from doctors and from its backbench, that it is warming to the idea of the New Zealand option for the resettlement of refugees currently on Nauru. To get there, though, the Senate would have to pass a migration legislation bill that’s been sitting in there since 2016. Is Labor prepared to stand between the resettlement of the children and families and the status quo?

WONG: Well, the only people who have been standing against the resettlement arrangement with New Zealand is the Government. The only people who have been standing against this is Mr Morrison and Mr Dutton. Let’s be clear about where responsibility for this lies.

I think Australians have become increasingly distressed and concerned about what is happening on Nauru. Increasingly distressed and concerned about the way in which children are responding and their need for medical treatment, and I think the Liberal backbenchers breaking ranks demonstrates just how widespread it is.

But what you’ve just put to me, if that is Mr Morrison’s position – I’ve obviously been engaged elsewhere in the Senate – it’s just a pathetic attempt to try to blame someone else for their own mistake. They should have dealt with this earlier and now they’re saying, well, now, it’s actually all about some legislation that’s been around for a couple of years.

JENNETT: By way of explanation, and I’m sure that you’re aware of this, that legislation would prevent any resettled refugee in a third country, be it America be it New Zealand or wherever, coming to Australia, ever. Are you any more comfortable with that now, with the prospect of New Zealand resettlement, than when Labor previously considered this?

WONG: Well, I think that we’ve made it quite clear that people should be resettled in New Zealand or in another country.

But on this point, are they really suggesting that we’re going to deny tourist visas to New Zealanders? I mean, is that really the threshold? I mean, this is really an excuse that the Government is engaging in because they’ve got problems, finally got problems, within their own ranks.

JENNETT: Finally, we are going to recap off tape the shenanigans in the Senate today, that it’s OK to be white. It seems to have been a debacle, really. What, ultimately, did you achieve in the Senate on this?

WONG: I think what is very clear is that the Government first voted for a motion which includes a phrase used by white supremacists. It wasn’t a surprise. It’s a
motion that has been around for a long time and a motion that they were aware of.

It was shameful and I think that they clearly made the wrong call, and I wonder in part, as I said in the chamber, if it’s because they don’t really want to take on Pauline Hanson, which is what they should do.

JENNETT: Obviously the Senate has rejected that.

WONG: Correct. We recommitted and we said they should vote against that which they finally did. But let’s remember, it can’t have been that much of a mistake when people including the Attorney-General and the Leader of the Government in the Senate were backing it in hours after the vote yesterday. They only decided to change their position because it was a problem in Wentworth.

JENNETT: And they are accepting the word “embarrassing” by the way as a description of the episode. Penny Wong, I know it’s been a busy day, but thank you for updating us with your thoughts today.

WONG: Good to speak to you.