26 November 2019




KIERAN GILBERT: Penny Wong, thanks so much for your time. This is such a volatile time it seems right now with the China relationship, off the back of a couple of explosive claims of foreign interference. Do you think that Australia needs a strategic council as Richard Marles suggested yesterday? A bipartisan strategic council?

SENATOR PENNY WONG, LEADER OF THE AUSTRALIAN LABOR PARTY IN THE SENATE: I certainly think, and I’ve been calling for some time, for a stronger bipartisan focus in the relationship, and bipartisan engagement, parliamentary engagement. As you might recall, I’ve asked the Foreign Minister for briefings for the Parliament because I think it would be beneficial.

In terms of a strategic council, that’s an idea Richard’s been floating for some time. Obviously, it’s one of the ideas we’ll consider in our policy phase as we lead up to the election. It’s consistent with the view I’ve taken, and that Labor does take, that we do need better engagement from the Parliament when it comes to dealing with this relationship.

GILBERT: Is it better if everyone’s off the same song sheet, basically, on this relationship as well?

WONG: This is a complex and consequential relationship and it is in a new phase. It’s in a phase where we have to manage the differences, which arise from the fact that we are a democracy and China is not. But we have to continue to engage. So the question for the country is how do we best do that? What I believe, and I think Australians would welcome, would be the government leading this discussion. Unfortunately, too much of it is being led by backbenchers or the media – and obviously it’s important the media report these issues – but the policy response and the framing of the response needs to be led by the government. I’d encourage them to do that and to bring the parliament with them in that process.

GILBERT: And in terms of how to do that, what is the message to Beijing because obviously you need to push back against attempts to interfere?

WONG: The message to Beijing is we recognise China’s importance to Australia, the region and the world. We want to engage with you, but our engagement will be in a manner that safeguards our sovereignty and our democracy. We will safeguard our democracy and our sovereignty.

GILBERT: In terms of doing that though, is it possible to maintain a healthy trading relationship while pushing back against some of their attempts to interfere?

WONG: Well, that is the challenge but it’s a challenge we have to find a way through, because disengagement from China isn’t realistic. China is going to be the world’s largest economy. China will influence the shape of our region. So we do need to engage with China in a way that reflects our interests – whether that is our economic interests or our interests in terms of our democracy and our sovereignty.

I’d also make the point, I think this is as much about the sort of region we want as the bilateral relationship. We want a multipolar region. We want a region where the Americans are constructively engaged. We want a region where ASEAN continues to be central. We want a region which is rules based; where there are rules to guide behaviour and manage disputes. So we need to work not just in the bilateral relationship but in our relationships with Indonesia, India and other nations of the region to continue to bolster and buttress the region we want.

GILBERT: When you look to China; and Peter Hartcher in his Quarterly Essay says that they are now seeking to gain as much power as they can over Australia. Why is that do you think?

WONG: I think great powers do what great powers do, they assert their interests, but we’re not without our agency. Substantial powers, middle powers are not without our agency. We want such power and we need to assert our interests and work strategically and intelligently with other nations of the region to continue to advocate for and protect our interests.

GILBERT: Well we have a lot of nations with likeminded interests like Korea, like Japan, like Singapore. Are you thinking along the lines of, say, a Hugh White idea of an Asia grouping to work together?

WONG: I think we do do that through the Indo-Pacific Strategy and we should continue to invest and engage very closely with our region. I recently went to Indonesia, Malaysia and Vietnam and I did so because ASEAN – as the fulcrum, as the centre of the region – is so important. What we need to continue to advocate for and what we need to continue to work for is partnerships that ensure we have the sort of region we want.

GILBERT: And finally on the Ensuring Integrity Bill, is it time that Labor accepts some tougher rules on the unions if it does have to go via a court for judgement?

WONG: I have to say, the hypocrisy of a government that says 23 million breaches of federal law, which is what Westpac has engaged in, is a matter for the board to manage in terms of the leadership of Westpac – that’s what the Prime Minister said. But the leadership of unions representing nurses and midwives is a matter that the parliament can regulate and can be taken away for paperwork breaches. This is an ideological attack on working people and working people’s representatives.

GILBERT: And what if it has to go via a judge though; if a judge talks about the gravity of any breach?

WONG: I think there are already ways in which these matters can be dealt with. This is about undermining and weakening the capacity of trade unions to advocate on behalf of their members. It’s very clear. It’s the same ideology as WorkChoices.

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

WONG: Good to be with you.

Authorised by Paul Erickson, ALP, Canberra.