5 August 2019




KIERAN GILBERT: We’re joined by the Shadow Foreign Affairs Minister Penny Wong. Thanks so much for your time. The new Defense Secretary says that he would like to see the US deploy intermediate range conventional warheads to our region. What do you make of that? Is that a welcome development?

PENNY WONG, LEADER OF THE AUSTRALIAN LABOR PARTY IN THE SENATE: Well, first good morning to you – good to be with you Kieran. I’ve seen those reports. I also heard Australia’s Defence Minister Linda Reynolds indicate that there’s been no request made of Australia in relation to missile deployment. I think it is a good thing the government has clarified that. Look what I would say is, you know, it was a very welcome thing to sit down with both Secretary Pompeo and the Secretary of Defense. Obviously, the US Alliance is beyond politics. And it’s a very, very important relationship – the key strategic relationship for Australia. On the issue of the sort of region we have and the sort of region we want, I’d make two points. One is we have to be very focused on what sort of region we want as Australia. We want a peaceful, stable region, sovereignty respected, and rules negotiated – not imposed. And we also have to be conscious of the risks and consequences of militarization.

GILBERT: So in that context, do you see this as a positive development that the US is looking to have these mid-range missiles deployed as a balance, as a sign that they’re committed to the region? Is it a positive in that sense? Or is it a negative? Because it’s leaning to what you just warned about – the militarisation of the region?

WONG: Well, I’d make the point, again, that the Defence Minister today has said that there’s no such proposition on the table. I think constructive US engagement in the region is critical to the sort of region we want. And what I would say is decisions around deployments, decisions around how we deal with our desire for the sort of region we want, are decisions that need to be worked through with allies and partners, and the region more broadly.

GILBERT: If the US were to deploy these mid-range missiles, how would Beijing react?

WONG: Oh, well, I think that’s self-evident. But I think more importantly, I don’t want to get into a hypothetical discussion about something that is, as I understand from the Government’s statement, and that’s consistent with the discussions we had with the Defense Secretary, something that is not currently on the table. I’ve simply made the general principle about the region we want. I’ve made the general point about militarisation. And I make the general point that any decisions about additional deployments obviously would need to be worked through with partners, allies, and the region more broadly.

GILBERT: Would Labor – would you be open to having some of these facilities deployed on Australian soil?

WONG: Well, I don’t understand that to be on the table from what Linda Reynolds said today.

GILBERT: No, it’s not but you know, it’s possible isn’t it? Would you be open to it?

WONG: Well, it’s not on the table, Kieran. And I refer to what I said earlier. Decisions, these sorts of decisions would need to be worked through, and I’d also made the point about increased militarization that carries risks and consequences. We’ve made that point generally. And I’d continue to make that point.

GILBERT: Some interesting remarks from Secretary Pompeo, I want to get your thoughts in relation to what he said: on the one hand, the allies and nations don’t need to choose between the US and China; but then he went on to say “you can sell your soul for a pile of soybeans, or you can protect your people”. What do you say to that?

WONG: Look, I was in the audience during that speech, and I did hear those remarks and the broader remarks that the Secretary made. We do live in an era of strategic competition between the US and China, I think the US has articulated that and China has articulated that. We are a US ally. What we must do is to continue to work for constructive US engagement with the region. I would make the point: China remains a very important trading partner for Australia, remains a very important relationship and our interests lie in working to ensure the sort of region we want, but also to ensure that competition doesn’t escalate. There is a place for cooperation as well, in today’s world.

GILBERT: Do you think there will be circumstances where Australia will have to give up a trade relationship, or at least a trade deal, on certain occasions in order to defend what we hold dear in terms of our relations?

WONG: I think we should be clear with the region, including China, that we will always assert and advocate for our national interests. We have a trade agreement with China and Labor supported that – I supported that when I was Shadow Trade (Minister). But we also do have a right to make decisions in our national interest. And sometimes they won’t necessarily be as particular countries, including China, may wish. But it is important that we focus very clearly on Australia’s national interests. Now we’re a democracy, we have a view around the rule of law and the importance of that. We have a view around, for example, the rights of individuals and human rights of citizens. And we also have a view about the importance of a rules based order in the region, in which rules are negotiated and not imposed. And we can’t shy away from asserting and advocating for that position.

GILBERT: From one region facing some tensions to another, which is almost a flashpoint right now, in terms of the Strait of Hormuz, would Labor endorse a commitment – a military commitment – whether it be a vessel or surveillance planes to accede to that US request?

WONG: This was something that was discussed broadly. I understand as yet, unless this has happened while I’ve been waiting to come on air, there’s not been any confirmation of any requests. But can I make some points about how we would look at this. I think it’s clear that the Iranian regime’s behaviour continues to destabilise the region, that is a bad thing. Second, I’ve said previously, maybe not on your program, but on your colleague’s program on Sky: maritime safety, the safety and security of passage of civilian vessels in the Strait is key, and we have an interest, the whole world community internationally has an interest in ensuring that there is security of passage. We’ll await what the Government indicates is being proposed, if anything, but those are the principles we would apply to any such consideration.

GILBERT: The Defence Minister Linda Reynolds seemed to link the possible deployment of an Australian warship to a deal that Australia is seeking to finalise with the US in terms of its strategic petroleum reserves. Does that make sense to you? Is that fair enough?

WONG: I’m not sure the extent to which I’d link them. I think that we look at our national interests in relation to both sets of decisions. One is our interest in maritime security. Obviously, you know, we have an interest in our region as well, but the broader interest in a multinational or multilateral interests in maritime security. But the second issue about fuel security, and I think that that is an issue that has been raised for some time. I think when were in government, we commissioned a report on this. I think that there has been a lot of discussion about that, since the Coalition won government. If the Government is looking at ways in which Australia can increase its resilience, including through fuel security, then that seems a sensible thing to consider and we’d look at what they propose.

GILBERT: But this deployment, if it were to eventuate in the Strait of Hormuz, would be more than just the US Alliance and the US request, wouldn’t it – because of course, Boris Johnson and the British have their own challenges with the Iranians right now?

WONG: That’s right. And this is the point I was making. I think there’s a broader interest, which isn’t just about whatever views people have about Iran, which is acting in ways which are threatening and destabilising to the region. I think there’s a broader interest about maritime security, a multinational interest. And we wait to see what the Government’s proposition around that is.

GILBERT: Would you be open to the idea of nationalising the Darwin port, as your South Australian colleague, Nick Champion, has suggested?

WONG: Well, you know, Nick’s entitled to put his views. He’s a backbencher and this is obviously an issue around which there’s been a range of different views, even in the Government. I mean, this was a decision that was taken under this government. I’d make a couple of points. The first is, this isn’t an issue that’s been raised with me in recent times by US counterparts. The second point I’d make is investment decisions are matters for the government of the day and they should always look to – foreign investment decisions should always consider – the national interest. So it’s really up to the Government to, again, explain the decision and what was in the national interest.

GILBERT: Do you think this was, in simple terms, a stuff up?

WONG: Well that’s really a question you’d have to put to the Government as to why that decision was made. And I think there has been, since that time, an improvement with bipartisan support in Australia’s foreign investment laws and that was appropriate.

GILBERT: Shadow Minister Penny Wong, appreciate your time as always, thanks.

WONG: Good to speak with you, Kieran.

Authorised by Noah Carroll ALP Canberra