13 May 2020




KIERAN GILBERT, HOST: We have now, live, the Shadow Foreign Minister Penny Wong. We’ve got a lot to talk about. Thanks very much for your time.


GILBERT: Are we in a trade war right now?

WONG: Oh, look, we obviously have some challenges in the trading relationship. We’ve obviously had decisions being implemented or flagged by China, which have an effect, a very substantial potential effect on our barley exporters and our beef exporters.

And we do need to work through them and ensure that we give those firms and in particular the workers who rely on these export markets the best opportunity to continue to trade into the Chinese market.

GILBERT: So do you think it risks spiralling though right now? How precarious is this situation right now that we’re talking about?

WONG: Look, I don’t think it’s helpful to hypothesize. Obviously, China is a very important relationship for us. There’s been a lot of debate and discussion about the China relationship recently. I think it is a debate that, you know, we should be considered and careful in. And we need to be very clear about what our national interests are.

I’ve spoken at some length previously that we are in a new phase in the China relationship, and we are going to have to think carefully about how we manage that relationship. But unlike some of the more extreme views expressed by some in the public debate, disengagement isn’t an option. And the reason that is the case is in part demonstrated by what’s happening now.

We have a very strong economic relationship with China. China is very important to Australian industry and Australian jobs, and the Government should be working to ensure that the economic, that the trading relationship is put back on track.

GILBERT: We’re not on our own though are we, when it comes to China using economic coercion against us? There have been many cases in recent years, whether it be Korea, Japan, other nations where, I think China is quite angry with New Zealand right now over the Taiwan issue and they are willing to use economic coercion from time to time, aren’t they? So this is not entirely surprising this modus operandi?

WONG: Well, I’d make two points; first, we agree with the Government, any form of economic coercion is not something Australia can accept and it’s not something that’s conducive to strong relationships and it’s not something that leading powers should engage in.

I note that the Prime Minister has said that these issues are not linked with some of the recent issues in the relationship – particularly the calling for the inquiry into COVID-19. Certainly they should not be linked.

We should continue to maintain our view about the inquiry, but equally, we should ensure we have a relationship with China that is productive and that’s an issue that the Government has to manage.

GILBERT: When the Government manages that, that relationship, Foreign Minister Payne rejected the criticism that you and Anthony Albanese have levelled at her. One, that she’s not prominent enough in the debate and the backbenchers are dictating policy. She says backbenchers, like you know, Andrew Hastie, Connie Fierravanti-Wells, James Paterson, that they’re entitled to their opinion, it’s free speech in a liberal democracy. That’s how she put it. What do you say to that?

WONG: Well, sure we are a liberal democracy and we do support free speech. I just would like Marise Payne to exercise a little more free speech herself.

Look, this is our view; this is a complex relationship, this is a complicated relationship, the stakes are high.

We know that the stakes are high and that means whilst backbenchers can have their say the relationship must be managed and the discussion must be led by the responsible ministers; the Prime Minister and the Foreign minister.

So, I don’t think anyone would look at these last few months or even more, and say that Foreign Minister Payne has been at the centre of the discussion and the debate within the Australian community about the China relationship.

And it is her job as the Foreign Minister to do that. It’s her job to frame the debate. It’s her job to explain Australia to the world and the world to Australia. And it’s her job, with the Prime Minister primarily, to manage the China relationship.

So a little more Marise Payne, a little less George Christensen, Andrew Hastie and other backbenchers, in defining and leading the discussion about the China relationship, would be a good thing.

GILBERT: Yeah. So in that, that’s an assumed sort of tick of approval for the way she is managing at least in terms of the tone, if not the frequency of her appearance in the media. Whereas Joel Fitzgibbon, he said, we may be just getting an initial taste of the economic cost of mismanaging our relationship with our most important trading partner. We must never forego our interest abroad in the interest of chasing votes here in Australia. And I think that is exactly what the PM has been doing.

Do you agree with him on that?

WONG: Oh, well, look, I certainly think that we’ve seen particularly from backbenchers, and in particular, the Prime Minister, allowing them to speak we’ve seen some of these backbenchers making very strident comments about China and using it for political campaigns, using posts on their Facebook to generate petitions, generate addresses for campaigning purposes.

Now, the problem, and this is all, you know, the Prime Minister allows this to happen, and I think we need to recognise that the fanning of this debate may not be in Australia’s national interests.

I mean, ultimately, we have to have a productive relationship with China. One in which we are very clear about our national interests, one where we don’t step back when we’re asserting them, just as we shouldn’t step back on our calls for the inquiry, which the Opposition is supporting.

But equally, where we are calm and considered about how we deal with difference. Now, if you listen to some of the rhetoric from some of the Liberal backbenchers that we’ve, that we’ve talked about, if you look at some of the things they’ve been saying, I don’t think that is calm and considered.

And that the Prime Minister and the Foreign Minister simply allow that to occur, we need to think about whether that’s in fact in Australia’s interests

GILBERT: So you would like him to intervene and tell them to rein it in. But, as the Foreign Minister said, they are entitled to their own view.

WONG: We are, of course, but this is ultimately about a relationship that’s important for the country. People need to decide, what is the outcome we want? Do we want an outcome, where we have a productive relationship, where we manage difference in a sensible way where we continue to assert our national interests, but also recognise that we want a productive economic relationship for the jobs and families that that means something to. Or do we want to, you know, put things on our Facebook and in other forums, which are really very strong in their rhetoric against China.

I mean, there are consequences that people need to consider and I don’t think the Prime Minister and the Foreign Minister can simply take their hands off the wheel and say, ‘Oh, look, it’s just free speech, you know, people can say what they like’.

I mean, these are members of the Government. And as I said, a little more Marise Payne, a little less George Christensen, be a good thing for the country.

GILBERT: So just in terms of something you said that a bit earlier saying that it’s fanning some of these opinions. I just wonder what you say to many Australians, who, and I think that there are there are plenty of people who do harbour anger and resentment about the way that the Chinese authorities managed this outbreak. And just the huge cost, whether it be in lives or, or wealth or whatever else.

What’s your message to those Australians who, who harbour resentment and an anger towards that regime?

WONG: Well, first, I think we have to remember a virus has no ethnicity. That’s the first point. And that we shouldn’t allow any concerns that we have about the way in which the Chinese authorities behaved in the early days of the pandemic, particularly, to translate into prejudicial views or discrimination inside the Australian community. I think that’s very important. Second, I do think and I’m on the record as saying, I think there are legitimate criticisms of the way in which China handled the pandemic in the early days. In particular, what was disclosed and what was not. And that’s on the public record.

I think an inquiry is merited because this is a pandemic which has killed many people around the world. It is a pandemic, which is causing the biggest economic downturn since the Great Depression. I think humanity is entitled to make sure we understand how it began, how we could have managed it better and what more we have to do to ensure it doesn’t happen again.

As Anthony Albanese said that’s a pretty unremarkable proposition.

GILBERT: Now, Andrew Leigh, a Labor backbencher, if we’re just talking about backbenchers a bit earlier, out of step with the main party line, he said that it’s basically that inquiry that investigation idea is Australia playing Deputy Sheriff to the US. Given you back the investigation; it seemed like an odd thing to say. I think the Senate bells are ringing; do you have to go, do you?

WONG: Look, I think we’re alright. We’re alright. If I miss a vote, I’m going to blame you. I think the inquiry is merited. I think there are questions as I’ve raised before, about the way in which Marise Payne and Scott Morrison have handled this inquiry. I think that it would be good if the Foreign Minister could explain to you why she announced this on Insiders without getting any Government aboard before she made a domestic announcement of it. Was that something that might help us get the outcome we want? It might be useful for her and Mr Morrison to explain why I took the Prime Minister a couple of weeks to write to G20 Leaders to actually get support for the inquiry.

I mean, we are interested in having an outcome, which is the inquiry. We’re not interested in announcements, and I think the Australian people want the outcome.

So I think those questions, it’s legitimate for those questions to be answered.

GILBERT: We’ve only got about a minute left. And tough to answer this in a minute, but I’ll give you, I’ll give you a chance. You know, we’re seeing rising nationalism in China and in the USA, the two major powers in the world. How are you worried about this spiralling out of control? I’ve used similar words in terms of the trade war, but this is like a new Cold War we’re facing.

WONG: Well, I think we live in a time where the US and China have both identified the other as a strategic competitor.

I think that strategic competition is hardening in the context of the pandemic. And that will mean Australia has a more difficult strategic environment to navigate. I think that is true.

And what that means is the Government of the day has to be calm, considered and disciplined in how it approaches foreign policy, has to look to the national interest and not play domestic politics. And has to take a very long term view, not a short term view, I think I’ve said think in 30 year terms, not in three year terms, about our relationship with China and foreign policy more broadly.

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

WONG: Nice to be with you.

Authorised by Paul Erickson, ALP, Canberra.