15 November 2018




KIERAN GILBERT: Senator Penny Wong, thanks very much for your time. Can I start by asking you about this suggestion that the Morrison Government has hinted to the Indonesians that there is less than five per cent chance of a move of the embassy. What do you make of this amid the ongoing speculation about when an FTA will be signed?

SENATOR PENNY WONG, LEADER OF THE OPPOSITION IN THE SENATE: Well, doesn’t this demonstrate just what poor judgement Scott Morrison has? Not only has he junked longstanding bipartisan foreign policy in a desperate attempt to get votes, not only has he failed to take it to Cabinet, done so against advice, only told his minister the day before, notified Defence chiefs after the media, he now is signalling a retreat. But he’s not quite prepared to bite the bullet, he’s not quite prepared to actually admit he was wrong and we’re seeing the cost of this poor judgement and chaos with the reaction from the Indonesians and the fact that the delay on the economic partnership agreement or the free trade agreement, which is clearly as a result of the government’s decision in the Wentworth by-election to suggest we might move the embassy.

LAURA JAYES: By holding to ransom the free trade agreement has Indonesia effectively tried to dictate foreign policy to Australia and are you comfortable with that?

WONG: Of course Australia’s foreign policy should always be determined by Australia in Australia’s national interest. My criticism of Scott Morrison is he hasn’t done that, so I don’t think people suggesting that somehow Indonesia is dictating – Indonesia is telling us what its position is, that’s not new. But the problem here is not Indonesia, the problem here is that foreign policy wasn’t determined by reference to Australia’s national interest. Foreign policy was determined by a bloke trying to get votes in the by-election for the seat of Wentworth. It didn’t work and we are now seeing the cost of that.

GILBERT: Do you welcome the fact, though, that he’s tried to calm down the more hysterical responses in all of this, like that from Senator Abetz where he suggested that the aid budget might be factored into all of this when really it was the Morrison Government’s thought bubble in the first place that had created this discussion? Mr Morrison has tried to calm some of those more hysterical suggestions, you’d welcome that wouldn’t you?

WONG: Well, he’s in damage control, isn’t he? But it does actually go to his judgement. What he’s done is not only compromise Australia’s national interest – I think compromise our standing in the region when it comes to our credibility and our consistency – he’s also enlivened an issue which is being weaponised now by the hard right of the party, such as Senator Abetz; the same people who tore down Malcolm Turnbull, who are now making clear their position is that they don’t want a retreat.

And as you said Kieran, I mean it is extraordinary, actually suggesting that we should look at the development assistance that we provide Indonesia. This is not in Australia’s national interest, and yes the Prime Minister didn’t support Senator Abetz’s really out there comments but it’s the least he could do. What he really needs to do is to resolve this matter now. We know he’s going to retreat on this before Christmas, why doesn’t he just do it now?

JAYES: Are you supportive of the Morrison Government’s recent flurry of activity in the Senate… in the Senate?!.. in the Pacific even though it has brought this accusation from China that Australia is adopting a Cold War mentality?

WONG: The Senate’s not that much of a foreign country is it to you Laura? (laughs).

JAYES: No (laughs).

WONG: I know it feels like it to the House of Representatives sometimes. Look, we welcome the government’s focus on the Pacific, it is a little belated. We welcome them adopting Labor policy. As you might recall Bill Shorten in fact announced an investment bank because we know we have to look at different ways of financing the infrastructure needs of the Pacific. We’re glad Scott Morrison followed that, that’s a good thing. So yes, we agree the Pacific does need to be core business, it’s belated but it’s welcome.

Let me say, if Labor is elected, if we have the opportunity to form government, the Pacific will be core business for us and we recognise that we have to earn being the partner of choice.

GILBERT: The Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson over the last few days pointed out – and it seemed a push back, it’s been interpreted as reference to Australia’s policy in the Pacific – the Chinese spokesperson said it’s no one country’s sphere of influence. Are they right when they make that point?

WONG: My view about how we should approach the Pacific is this: we should be focusing first on what we do rather than worrying about what other countries do; we should focus on what we’re doing. And the second thing is our focus should be, not other countries, but the people of the Pacific island nations. What we want is a higher standard of living, greater levels of prosperity, greater opportunities in an area where we still have a lot of challenges when it comes to development. That should be our focus, not worrying about what other countries might or might not be doing.

JAYES: And before we get off foreign policy issues, we have to ask you about the Brexit negotiations and the deal that Theresa May appears to have struck. This is obviously a positive development in terms of getting an agreement, but how do you view this? It’s obviously a bruising experience for the UK, but is there, I guess, cynically, opportunity for Australia in this divorce from the EU?

WONG: Well, there may or may not be. I think the more important opportunity is actually what you identified Laura, which is whatever your view on Brexit – and obviously people had very strong views about that, it’s proved more complex than many people might have thought, there’s been a lot of uncertainty – it is in our interests as a country which supports rules-based order, which supports open, transparent trading and economic arrangements, for these matters between Britain and the EU to be resolved. I don’t know what the detail of the agreement is, I saw the news breaking this morning on your program, but obviously I think it’s in the interests of Britain, the EU and more generally global trade for these uncertainties to be resolved.

GILBERT: Okay and on developments last night out Singapore, the Prime Minister met with Li Keqiang, the Chinese Premier. Do you feel that there’s a window of opportunity here for Australia, not just to smooth over the tensions of recent times with Beijing, but to really capitalise right now on what is obviously a freeze in trade relations between the United States and China?

WONG: It is good that we are seeing engagement again between the Australian Government and China after a period where obviously there were some difficulties, many of them as a result, not all, but many of them as a result of some clumsiness on the part of the Australian Government, on the part of people like Barnaby Joyce and others.

In terms of our relationship with China, our position on trade, the conflict between the US and China on trade, we should keep asserting what is in our national interests, and sometimes that will be convergent with what China wants, sometimes it won’t be. Certainly on trade we have a difference of view with the Trump Administration. We believe that trade conflict is not conducive to the prosperity of any nation and Australia has a long interest, and I hope bipartisan interest, in transparent and open trading arrangements.

JAYES: Now it’s one year since the same-sex marriage plebiscite – and I saw the former Prime Minister tweet yesterday there’s been some 5,000 same-sex marriages since then. How do you reflect on that time? It was obviously bruising, it was really traumatic for some people, but was it all worth it?

WONG: In hindsight what I’d say is it was a pretty bruising experience and I wish that the divisions in the Liberal Party hadn’t meant we had to do what we did. But you know what? The country did a great thing. The country did a great thing and we made a, collectively, all of us, Australia made a profound statement about inclusion and acceptance.

So a year on it’s great to see that in some ways things haven’t changed and the people who opposed it said the sky was going to fall. The sky hasn’t fallen, but we have changed as a country because we together said “you’re included and you’re accepted” and that has meant a lot, not just to the LGBTIQ community and our children but to all Australians.

GILBERT: Yeah, 80 per cent voted in a voluntary vote; there was overwhelming support for it. Penny Wong, we appreciate your time this morning, we’ll talk to you soon. Thank you for that.

WONG: Great to be with you both.

Authorised by Noah Carroll, ALP, Canberra.