26 November 2019




SENATOR PENNY WONG, LEADER OF THE AUSTRALIAN LABOR PARTY IN THE SENATE: First, obviously we’ve seen a lot of reports over the last few days about our relationship with China and some very disturbing allegations. I’d make a couple of points. The first is those allegations are being, and should be, considered and investigated by the security agencies and that is occurring as we’ve seen from public statements. The second point I make is this: our relationship with China is a complex and consequential one and it is getting more so. We need to, as a country, work out how we engage best with China in a way that furthers our interests and safeguards our sovereignty and our democracy.

I’d encourage the Government to lead this discussion and to engage the Parliament, the Opposition, the community on this discussion. As you know, I have sought briefings for the Parliament from DFAT and the Office of National Intelligence and those have been refused by the Government. Is incumbent upon the Government, it is their job, to lead this discussion with the Australian community and I’d encourage them to do so.

Before I go to questions, can I just make the point about this week in the Senate. The bills in the Senate will be proceeded with today, or tomorrow, include the Ensuring Integrity Bill. This is a bill that is about attacking the trade union movement. It is about undermining the capacity of nurses and teachers and midwives, to organise in their unions and I’d say to the crossbench: understand that this is a fundamental attack on the conditions of working Australians. Happy to take questions.

JOURNALIST: Do you think the denial of briefings is damaging the national interest?

WONG: Look, I think the China relationship should be above partisan politics and I’d encourage Marise Payne and Scott Morrison to act in that way.

JOURNALIST: What about the backbench, the Liberal backbench?

WONG: Well my point is precisely that. We shouldn’t have a discussion about how best to manage the China relationship which is being led by members only of the backbench. We should have a broader discussion that ensures the Parliament is properly briefed.

JOURNALIST: Should there be vetting of candidates before the election? And do you think Gladys Liu owes the Parliament an explanation?

WONG: Well in relation to the second part, Gladys Liu has refused to give a statement to the Parliament. She has been protected from doing so by Mr Morrison. I do believe that in circumstances where discrepancies have been raised on the public record, where issues have been raised, Parliamentarians should make a statement to the Parliament. Mr Morrison has never explained why he refuses to do so.

JOURNALIST: And in terms of potential vetting of candidates?

WONG: Look, I think all political parties, particularly parties of government, do have to ensure that our processes are robust and that Australian sovereignty is safeguarded. You might recall that in the last Parliament, Labor sought for a number of years – and the Government finally reluctantly agreed – to the banning of foreign donations.

JOURNALIST: Did you say that you’ve sought briefings on these particular allegations?

WONG: Sorry, there are two sets of briefings. You might recall earlier this year I called for briefings for the Parliament because I believed it was better for the Parliament to be better engaged and better resourced to understand how to manage the China relationship. Mr Albanese has also requested a briefing in relation to the current allegations.

JOURNALIST: Senator, you talked about how to manage the China relationship. In your view what does that look like? How does Australia manage a relationship with a country where we have allegations of such high levels of foreign interference?

WONG: Well, we have to be very clear that we want to engage but our engagement is on the basis that we safeguard our sovereignty and our democracy. Now there are various ways in which that occurs, obviously foreign interference laws has been one, I think ensuring that we have appropriate guidelines around research engagement and so forth are another. Fundamentally, the challenge before the country, and that the Government needs to grapple with – that we all need to grapple with – is that this is a nation that is not a democracy which is important for Australia now and into the future, important to the region and to the world. We have to work out as a nation how we best engage in a way that safeguards Australian sovereignty.

JOURNALIST: There is a New York Times report that says that 23 Australian citizens are in detention in Xinjiang. I think the number is disputed because there’s not clarity about who is in those camps, but do you have any information about that and any view on that situation?

WONG: I assume from the public reports that we are talking about dual citizens. Obviously the Government should continue, or should be, advocating strongly for Australian citizens. In relation to the situation in Xinjiang, on this there is a clear bipartisan position: both the Government and the Opposition have made clear our deep concerns about the arbitrary detention and what is occurring in respect of the human rights of the population in Xinjiang, particularly the Uighurs.

Authorised by Paul Erickson, ALP, Canberra.