10 October 2019




SHADOW MINISTER FOR FOREIGN AFFAIRS SENATOR PENNY WONG: I wanted to speak to you today about the situation in Northern Syria, and I want to start by saying that Labor is deeply concerned about the unilateral military action taken by Turkey. This risks regional security, this risks global security and it risks a new humanitarian crisis in a region which has already seen so many people, millions of people have to flee their homes. And importantly, it risks undermining progress against Daesh or ISIS. It risks undermining that progress. It is a useful and sad fact to recall that in excess of 10,000 Daesh fighters are detained by Kurdish-led forces.

Now, I note that Mr Morrison has today expressed some concern – he is certainly at least a little more consistent today with Senator Payne than he was yesterday. He should call on Turkey to refrain from this unilateral action. That’s certainly what Labor does, refrain from this unilateral military action that does undermine stability in the region and has such dire humanitarian consequences.

I also wanted to make some comment about the US decision to withdraw. It is true that this is military action launched by Turkey. It has, however, been enabled by the decision of the Trump Administration to withdraw US forces from Northern Syria. I agree with Senator Payne that the US has been a stabilising presence in the region since the rise of Daesh in around 2014. This is a controversial decision in the United States. Can I remind you what the senior Republican Senator Lindsey Graham has said about this US withdrawal: he said it “ensures the re-emergence of ISIS”. The former commander of US Central Command, Joseph Votel said the decision “could not have come at a worse time and that it threatens to undo five years’ worth of fighting against ISIS, and will severely damage American credibility and reliability and any future fights where we need strong allies”. These are the words of the former commander of US Central Command.

I would make this point: We are concerned regarding the consequences of this decision by the Trump Administration. And the Government, the Australian Government should express these concerns.

Amongst the greatest strength the United States has is its network of alliances, and credibility and reliability are critical to that strength. I also note that Kurdish fighters were the backbone of the fight against Daesh.

Happy to take questions.

JOURNALIST: Senator, you expressed concern, do you condemn the actions here?

WONG: Of Turkey? Well, look, I think we are deeply concerned and the Government should be expressing those concerns. We call on Turkey to refrain from unilateral military action for the reasons I’ve described.

JOURNALIST: Senator, the PM has says it’s the Turks and not the US that has created the unstable situation. Do you agree?

WONG: Well, he’s contradicting his own foreign minister in saying that. His own foreign minister said quite clearly the US has been a stabilising presence in the region. Of course, the action taken, the military action is a decision by Turkey. But as I said, in my opening, it’s been enabled by decision of the Trump Administration to withdraw; the US has been a stabilising presence in the region.

JOURNALIST: So was that a wrong decision by President Trump then?

WONG: Oh, look, he’s the President of the United States, he makes the decision he makes. As allies though we can express our views, and I think it is telling that you have senior Republicans and a former military commander, amongst many others, raising concerns about this decision.

JOURNALIST: Does Donald Trump have responsibility for creating this situation?

WONG: Well, I’ve answered that question. This decision has been enabled by the US decision to withdraw.

JOURNALIST: Do you think Turkey’s actions here could destabilise the region and allow Islamic State to re-form?

WONG: I’ve made that clear in my opening. I think that Turkey’s actions risk destabilising the region, risk regional and global security and risk undermining progress against Daesh, and I am not alone in making those assertions.

JOURNALIST: Do you believe there should be some sort of coalition involving Australia to restabilise the situation?

WONG: Look, these are early days and those are matters for the government of the day. Certainly there is a situation in Northern Syria, which is highly unstable, and with great humanitarian consequences and the international community will want to deal with that.

JOURNALIST: Senator, what do you want the Australian Government to demand of President Erdoğan?

WONG: Look, I think these concerns should be expressed and I think we should be calling on the action to cease.

JOURNALIST: Would you have hoped for the Prime Minister’s comments to be a little more strong around President Trump’s decision today? He said it was more an issue for Turkey not President Trump.

WONG: Look, I think the Prime Minister needs to recall always in foreign policy that his first focus should be Australia’s national interest. And as a strong ally and friend of the United States, it is incumbent upon us to say, call it as we see it. And as I said, one of America’s greatest strengths is its network of alliances; reliability and credibility is a central part of that.

JOURNALIST: Do you believe today’s decision of the launching of today’s action would be disappointing for the Australian men and women who served in that region, stabilising it?

WONG: Well, I don’t wish to speak for the men and women in the ADF, who do such an extraordinary job, I’m sure they will have their own views, and they serve governments of the day of both political persuasions and always have loyalty and, too, an extraordinary capacity.

WONG: Any other matters?

JOURNALIST: There is actually, if you’ve got time. Can I please ask is Labor a divided party over climate change, senator?

WONG: I like the fact you said “can I please ask?”. It was very polite, is this is Sydney journalist thing is it?

People would know my position on climate change. I was the minister in the Rudd government where we fought to introduce a cap on pollution. And let me say, if we had obtained the votes of the Greens, as well as the moderate Liberal senators who crossed the floor in 2009, I think Australia would be in a far better position in terms of energy security, reliability, and having reduced our emissions. Now, obviously, there are various opinions being expressed; Mr Fitzgibbon has expressed his opinion, it’s one opinion. I’m very firmly of the view that this is a key challenge for any government, a challenge this government is not meeting, hence high prices and less reliability for energy. Climate change is not going to go away. And we should hold to our principles. What that means in detail is obviously something we’ll talk about, but I do believe that any emissions reduction targets and policies must be consistent with the Paris Agreement. Mr Butler is right on that point.

JOURNALIST: Speaking of Mr Fitzgibbon, he has suggested that perhaps Labor has underestimated Scott Morrison’s leadership. Would you agree with him on that perception?

WONG: Well we lost the election. That’s true, and we take responsibility for that. And I certainly think this prime minister, Mr Morrison, has demonstrated himself to be a very talented tactical politician. He has no plan for the country, but that’s another matter I suppose.

JOURNALIST: And Bill Shorten has said this morning you don’t have to be ‘the Leader’ to be ‘a leader’, do you believe him?

WONG: Yes, yes I do.

Authorised by Paul Erickson, ALP, Canberra.