29 April 2020




SENATOR PENNY WONG, SHADOW MINISTER FOR FOREIGN AFFAIRS: Thanks very much for coming. I wanted to make a few comments about some of the discussion in relation to our relationship with China, and also the Government’s inquiry.

Can I say this: when the Government announced an independent international inquiry, into the origins of the coronavirus, Labor made very clear we support such an inquiry.

We also made very clear that international support for it is crucial. It would have been preferable if the Government had gained some of that support before making the announcement. That would have been the usual diplomatic practice.

What we do say to Senator Payne and to Scott Morrison is we support your efforts to gain international support because that is what will make such an inquiry a reality.

That is what will make sure the inquiry into how this began, so that humanity can ensure it doesn’t happen again, actually occurs.

I also want to make a point about the current tone of the debate. There have been a lot of comments made by both sides, there’s been a lot of comments from Government ministers. I want to make this point; I think it would be a good thing for the country, if some of the heat could be lowered in the current debate. As Anthony Albanese said, it is unremarkable that Australia would be seeking an inquiry into a pandemic which has killed so many people around the world, and which has caused such a shock to the global economy. It’s unremarkable that the world wants to know how it began, so we can ensure that this never happens again.

But of course, we do have to keep our eye on the ball. We have a lot to do here in Australia. We have to focus on saving lives and saving jobs. We’ve got a big job ahead of us to safeguard the recovery, to ensure the Australian economy recovers from this, and we see both good public health outcomes, and people secure in their jobs. I’m happy to take questions.

JOURNALIST: China has released details of a private phone call between the Secretary of DFAT and the Chinese Ambassador. DFAT has criticised that as a breach of protocol. Does Labor join in that condemnation?

WONG: I support the response from the Department of Foreign Affairs. I thought the response from the Department was principled, and professional. And I want to reiterate our support for the Secretary of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, Frances Adamson, who is a fine public servant, and a fine diplomat.

JOURNALIST: Is China behaving as a responsible, great power should?

WONG: What I would say to China is this; we believe it is in the world’s interest for there to be an inquiry that gets to the bottom of how this virus started. It’s a pandemic which has spread across the world. It’s a pandemic which has caused loss of life in so many countries, including in China.

So, we believe it is important that we have an inquiry, that the world ensures that this doesn’t happen again.

JOURNALIST: How do you view the way China has conducted itself, during this diplomatic stoush, if it is?

WONG: Well look, I think, as I said earlier, it would be good if some of that heat could be taken out of this debate. And I would say to China and more generally, we think it’s in the world’s interest, including China’s interests, for the origins of the virus to be uncovered.

We want to make sure this doesn’t happen again. And what we would say to China and all countries is there is an international benefit to ensuring a pandemic doesn’t happen again. That means we need to get to the bottom of how it occurred.

JOURNALIST: Is it helpful to have two countries diplomatically, effectively, shouting at each other like this? And again, I just want to ask you, how do you view China’s behaviour during this incident?

WONG: We are clear about what our national interest is. Australia’s national interest is to have an inquiry and what I would say to China is we believe it’s in China’s interest.

So, I do also think that some of the heat, this discussion would benefit from having the heat taken out of this debate. Australia doesn’t resile from our national interests.

The Labor Party doesn’t move away from our support for an international inquiry.

As I said, I think the Government will need to gain international support for it. As yet, it doesn’t appear to have done so but we do support an inquiry being put in place.

JOURNALIST: Senator Patrick has today said he’s going to revive his call, his attempt to get a Senate inquiry up and running, into the broader, entire relationship between Australia and China. Labor was to have co-sponsored that inquiry last year but withdrew at the last minute. Would you now support such an inquiry when Senator Patrick brings it back to the Senate?

WONG: I’ve taken the view that the relationship with China is a matter that should be above partisan debate. It should be a matter that is beyond domestic partisanship.

I’ve also made clear, I think we are in a new phase in our relationship with China. I think China is asserting itself more strongly, particularly in our region.

That does mean there will be more issues to navigate in the bilateral relationship. We’ll have to do that constructively, but making sure we protect and promote Australia’s national interests.

We haven’t taken the view that an inquiry of the sort you describe is consistent with that.

We do think the government would do better to engage both the Parliament and the Australian people in a discussion, a sensible, mature discussion about how we handle our relationship with China and our approach to our region.

JOURNALIST: You’ve said repeatedly that the Government will need to get some kind of international, broad international support for an inquiry. Even if they are able to achieve that, with China as an unwilling participant, given they’re obviously at the centre of the outbreak initially, do you foresee that an inquiry would be able to have any kind of success, have any reasonable findings if it doesn’t get China on board?

WONG: Obviously there’s a lot of what ifs down the track with that. Our first job is to get broad support for an international inquiry. Look, I understand the challenges that this inquiry faces but I again say this, this is a pandemic, and the worst pandemic, that humanity is seen in the century. It has caused very extensive and tragic loss of life around the world. It’s delivered a hit to the global economy that will be larger than the Great Depression. It is entirely legitimate for the international community to want to know how it began. And what I would say to China is that it is in China’s interests to ensure that the world understands how this began so we can all work together to ensure it does not happen again.

JOURNALIST: Can I shift to education just quickly. Private schools will be given financial rewards to restart classroom teaching within four weeks. Is this simply a bribe by the Federal Government? May I get your reaction to this?

WONG: Well, it certainly adds to the confusion, doesn’t it? I recall Mr Morrison after a National Cabinet telling us all that the decision to keep schools open or to close schools, decisions as to when schools did reopen for onsite learning was a decision of the Premiers’. He said that repeatedly in answer to questions, including from some of those who are on the call today. So the Prime Minister said just a short time ago, just a few days ago, this is a matter for the Premiers and now the Federal Government is choosing to make it a matter for the Federal Government. I think it is confusing. It would be better if these decisions could be made by the State Premiers, could be communicated clearly to parents and to teachers.

Can I turn to one other issue which is Angus Taylor. There have been some revelations over the last few days about Mr Taylor. I’d make this point; integrity matters. It’s very clear from the evidence of the Police Commissioner and others that Mr Taylor has not told the truth to the Australian Parliament. He really does need to explain where this document came from. We also have revelations that the New South Wales Police did approach Mr Taylor for an interview, but we’re fobbed off to his lawyer. Well, I want to say this. It isn’t okay for Government ministers to hide behind their lawyers. Scott Morrison should ensure that Angus Taylor fully cooperates with police. That’s the right thing to do. And it’s what Australians expect. Is there anything further?

JOURNALIST: If I may, just one more on Mike Kelly. He is set to resign from Parliament soon. How confident is Labor that it will hold onto the seat of Eden Monaro? And what would his resignation mean for Labor?

WONG: Well, first, no announcement has been made. It is true, there’s been speculation, it’s also true and well known that Mike has had significant health issues. Those health issues are as a consequence of his service to Australia, as a member of the Australian Defence Force. He has continued despite those issues to serve his electorate and the Parliament. And I hope he can deal with those issues in the future. Thank you very much.

Authorised by Paul Erickson, ALP, Canberra.