16 June 2017




SENATOR PENNY WONG, LEADER OF THE OPPOSITION IN THE SENATE: It’s great to be here in Darwin with Luke Gosling. I’ve just done a forum with members of the multicultural community here in Darwin who’ve expressed their strong views around the importance of diversity, multiculturalism, and jobs and opportunity for our children – things I know Luke has been working very hard on.

I’ve just come from Timor-Leste; I’ve spent two days there. Timor-Leste is an important neighbour of Australia’s, a country I think Australians have a great deal of affection for, and a country whose independence and continued democratic practice is something we have a great stake in.

Happy to take questions.

JOURNALIST: I could be wrong, but I don’t think any federal minister has actually visited East Timor since 2013, is that the case, and what do you make of that if that is the case?

WONG: Certainly from the Labor side, we visited in government and my predecessor and Deputy Leader Tanya Plibersek visited in the last term of Parliament and I think it’s an important relationship and one we should continue to invest in to show respect for, and that’s why I wanted to go in this term of Parliament. It is disappointing that we haven’t seen a Coalition minister visit Timor-Leste since the change of government, and I hope that’s remedied soon.

JOURNALIST: Does that bode poorly for the conciliation process that’s happening?

WONG: I am pleased that the government has shifted its position. As you might recall, Tanya Plibersek announced on behalf of the Labor Party last term, we believe that the finalisation of the maritime boundaries with Timor-Leste needed to be resolved, and we were prepared – were we to win government – to do that. We were criticised by the Coalition at the time, we’re pleased they’ve now changed position, and are participating in the conciliation process. We hope that process will resolve this issue. This has been a long running issue of concern between our two nations, and it’s in both our interests for it to be resolved.

JOURNALIST: And you’ve committed to coming to some kind of agreement either through negotiation with Timor-Leste or through international arbitration. But Timor-Leste want a median line boundary, doesn’t that open up the possibility you may need to renegotiate seabed boundaries with our biggest maritime neighbour, which is Indonesia.

WONG: There’s a bipartisan view that the Indonesian maritime boundaries is something that is agreed and settled, but the broader issue of how to resolve this is before the conciliation commission at the moment, and I would acknowledge that the government is participating in that process; from what we can see, obviously it’s a confidential process. The government’s participating in that – in good faith, in confidence – and we hope there’s a resolution. This has been a long running issue, we need to resolve it. It’s in Australia’s interest to resolve it, so I hope the conciliation process is successful.

JOURNALIST: So you wouldn’t expect Indonesia to want to start renegotiating maritime boundaries if there was a better deal that was done with East Timor?

WONG: The position on the maritime boundaries with Indonesia is a bipartisan position.

JOURNALIST: Can I just ask, would you call on the federal government or federal ministers to actually go over to East Timor?

WONG: Their travel itineraries are matters for them. I think it is unfortunate that no minister under the Coalition has visited Timor-Leste since they won government and I’ve said that.

JOURNALIST: Was the maritime border issue something that came up during your trip there?

WONG: Of course it did, and you’d anticipate it would, but the discussion reflected the fact that both parties are in a conciliation process. I think both parties are treating that with respect and good faith and that’s certainly the way it was discussed with me.

JOURNALIST: Do you think the East Timorese government’s spending patterns are sustainable at the moment?

WONG: That’s a matter for them, every country has to make its own decisions about what its priorities are. What I would say is I visited a couple of Australian aid projects and I think Australian international development assistance in Timor-Leste is doing very good work.
JOURNALIST: Would you like to see them start spending a bit more on the sustainable sectors that the Australian government is spending money on like the agricultural sector?

WONG: I think these are matters that you should be addressing to Timor-Leste ministers. We make our judgements about the best way to partner with them through consultation and looking in our expertise, and certainly agriculture is one of the areas we’re investing in.

JOURNALIST: But if they don’t start boosting spending on sustainable sectors and they run out of money from the petroleum fund, doesn’t that increase the pressure on the Australian government to increase aid to Dili?

WONG: As I said, if you’ve got questions about the spending patterns of the Timor-Leste government, you should probably address them to Timor-Leste ministers.

JOURNALIST: Would Labor increase the amount of aid given to East Timor?

WONG: That’s a good question, what we do know is that development assistance under this government has crashed to its lowest levels ever recorded. We’ve seen $11 billion taken out of our international development program. We’re spending about 22c in every $100 that we earn as a nation. It’s a very low level of contribution and I think if you go around the region and see the very good things that Australian development assistance does – it invests in people, in schools, in health and also in sustainable development, and they’re good things. So I’m disappointed that the federal government has continued to reduce development assistance and I hope we can get to a better place of bipartisanship in the years ahead because that’s what we require.

JOURNALIST: How much more would Labor give to East Timor in particular do you think?

WONG: We made announcements before the last election about increases to our aid budget. I assume we can have a discussion when we make those announcements before the next election. But I would make this point, this is an issue of national interest, it’s also an issue of our values and it’s deserving of bipartisan support.

JOURNALIST: As Shadow Minister, do you think there’s enough scrutiny on aid spending in our neighbours, for example Timor-Leste or Papua New Guinea in particular?

WONG: I’m not the minister, but my observations through Senate estimates and through the Parliament is that accountability and scrutiny is something the Department of Foreign Affairs take very seriously, and if there are issues raised, the appropriate action is taken.

You asked about the Prime Minister?

JOURNALIST: What do you make of Malcolm Turnbull’s comments – or fun jokes perhaps – about Trump?

WONG: That’s probably a matter for Malcolm Turnbull, but I would say this – if you’re the Prime Minister of the country and you’re talking foreign policy, it’s generally a good idea to be dignified and statesmanlike.

JOURNALIST: The whole point of that night is to poke fun at yourself and others; do you think he should’ve just poked fun at himself at kept it at that point?

WONG: I think you should ask Malcolm Turnbull that, I’ve answered the question.

JOURNALIST: Do you think the journalists were a bit naughty leaking that out?

WONG: That’s a discussion that you and your profession can have with each other, I’m not going to involve myself in that.