30 January 2018




KIERAN GILBERT: Reports today in the Fairfax papers that Australia’s police and intelligence chiefs are ramping up their efforts when it comes to charging spies and cracking down on foreign interference, conceding the previous catch and deport system needs overhauling. The ASIO chief Duncan Lewis and the Federal Police Commissioner met to discuss a new law enforcement regime that could include a new joint agency.

I spoke to the Shadow Foreign Affairs Minister and the Leader of the Opposition in the Senate, Penny Wong, and began by asking her would Labor welcome that sort of development.

SENATOR PENNY WONG, LEADER OF THE OPPOSITION IN THE SENATE: Australian sovereignty is paramount and governments of the day should always take the advice of the security agencies and act accordingly. I do have some concerns that when you are discussing operational matters through the media, I’m not sure that is a helpful way to deal with national security matters.

GILBERT: Is it all about China? This sort of stepped up effort in terms of foreign interference.

WONG: I think it is always important to do two things. Firstly, to make sure you safeguard Australia’s sovereignty – obviously that’s paramount – but secondly, not to cause undue concern through excessive comment in the media. My view about this is we would take the advice of security agencies, were we in Government, and act accordingly.

GILBERT: A joint parliamentary committee is looking at those foreign donations laws. What’s your view on where these stand at the moment, because a number of media outlets are worried about the implications for the freedom of the press. We know that others, third parties like GetUp also have their concerns about the reach of this legislation.

WONG: I’m actually a member of that committee and that is why I am in Canberra today. That is a committee that has looked at every tranche of legislation dealing with national security matters in recent times. It’s the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security and we operate, generally, in a very bipartisan manner and we will certainly be looking at the submissions, some of which have raised the concerns that you have outlined.

Broadly, Labor has said, subject to the detail and subject to this inquiry, we do think it is appropriate for additional regulation to ensure that our Australian sovereignty, and the need to safeguard it, is reflected in our legislative framework.

GILBERT: In terms of the Chinese approach, obviously they have been assertive in cyberspace as well as the South China Sea. The comments made this week by the Government on China – what have you made of those? Because we saw Barnaby Joyce tell David Speers on Sunday that it is a statement of the bleeding obvious that any country that has the capacity to overrun you is always a greater threat. And yesterday Julie Bishop told me on this program that Australia has a different perspective on Russia and China, that they’re not a threat, as articulated by General Mattis, the Defense Secretary in the US. What’s your take on all of that?

WONG: Ham-fisted. That’s how the Government’s approach is, ham-fisted and clumsy. The Government is taking an approach at the moment which is all over the place, which lacks discipline, which is exceedingly clumsy on a relationship which is very important to Australia.

My view about it is this – we should approach China with respect but not fear. I thought Barnaby Joyce’s comment were reckless. The Prime Minister was right and the Foreign Minister was right to distance themselves from them. But the problem is you have a Government that is making a series of clumsy and ham-fisted statements and contradictory, which you have outlined. That is not the way you deal with an important relationship such as the one we have with China.

GILBERT: But your opposite number Julie Bishop was right to downplay any imminent threat?

WONG: She was. I agree with her and we shouldn’t regard, apart from North Korea, we shouldn’t regard any country in the region as a threat. We should seek to build constructive relationships with those nations.

There are times our interests will differ and Australia will continue to need to assert our national interests even when they differ from other nations. But that’s the nature of diplomacy, the nature of international relations.

GILBERT: General Mattis in his statement, that defence strategy, said that inter-state strategic competition, not terrorism, is now the primary concern in US national security. Do you agree with that?

WONG: I agree with Julie Bishop. I think she is right to recognise the continuing threat to Australians of terrorism. The continuing security threat of terrorism from state and non-state actors represents. So I don’t think we should be approaching countries of the region – other than North Korea where self-evidently they are an enormous threat to peace and stability – but we shouldn’t be approaching countries in the region with the kind of fear and frankly inflammatory rhetoric we saw from Barnaby Joyce.

GILBERT: Do you think it was a bit of a knee-jerk support of the US doctrine? Because that traditionally, certainly in recent decades, has been the approach of Australian policy makers – to get in lock-step behind the US.

WONG: And I think it is very important with the United States to remember they are our most important strategic relationship and our most important security partner – there are times when we have different views. The Turnbull Government has had a different view on the Paris Climate Change Agreement to the Trump Administration. The Turnbull Government’s had a different view, for example, on the Trans-Pacific Partnership.

So, there will be times when governments have different views and Julie Bishop was correct to articulate the position she did. What is disappointing is she has had to clean up, yet again, after Marise Payne and Barnaby Joyce just as she had to clean up after her junior minister who made some inflammatory comments about aid in the Pacific. The Government really has to get over the lack of discipline and the clumsiness which is the hallmark of their handling of the relationship with China.

GILBERT: When it comes to defence exports, the Government says part of it is about trying to enhance interoperability with allies as well as to boost exports. What is your take on this as an industry? Is there this sort of scope for growth and what is your assessment of the Greens’ analysis of this that the Government is acting like warlords?

WONG: The Greens have got a consistent position on this and it is not the position of the parties of government. Can I say on defence industry, it is a bit rich isn’t it for everyone to forget somehow under this Government we’ve seen 2,000 shipbuilding jobs go. We have a Government that said the ASC in Adelaide couldn’t build a canoe. A Government that fought tooth and nail the construction of the submarines here in Australia now wants us to believe with a $20 million announcement from Christopher Pyne that they are really supportive of defence industry.

Now I hope this does go somewhere, but I suspect this is more about a Christopher Pyne announcement in the lead up to the South Australian election than any real strategy.

GILBERT: But you support this idea of enhancing interoperability with like-minded countries?

WONG: That’s been a consistent position of both parties of government. That has been an approach under both the Rudd and Gillard Governments as well as the Abbott and Turnbull Governments. I think that is a separate issue to this, frankly, bit of window dressing from Christopher.

GILBERT: Is Labor being short-sighted when it comes to the revived TPP? Because, at a broader level, isn’t it important that Australia throws everything behind a rules-based trade regime in our region, as opposed to other models that might be discussed?

WONG: Firstly, on the liberal rules-based I gave a speech in Singapore just last week where I talked about why we need to defend it, why we need to support it.

On the TPP I’d make two points; the first is Labor has always taken the view when it comes to trade agreements that the test is Australian jobs and the benefit to Australians and we will be consistent in this new TPP assessment as we have in relation to other trade agreements.

As the Foreign Affairs Spokesperson I would say this – there is undoubtedly an additional strategic benefit from an institution which enables greater regional co-operation. That, of itself, enhances stability in the region.

GILBERT: So that is a positive. On that speech you gave, because I did see the main arguments of that related to ASEAN, to engage them, empower them as much as possible to try to maintain the rules-based order that we discussed. But ASEAN traditionally has been quite softly-softly in its foreign policy hasn’t it?

WONG: Yes, one of the points I made in that speech is that sometimes Westerners can look at ASEAN and be negative, I suppose, because it doesn’t match up to the sort of theoretical benchmarks that we would want. I think we should turn it around and say where would we be without ASEAN?

It’s true that ASEAN is consensus-based. It’s true at times it hasn’t taken as a strong a position on some things as Australia would like. But it is also a regional institution that has lasted 50 years. It is a regional institution that has contributed to peace in the region, and it is a regional institution which Australia needs. It is a strategic buffer for Australia, as I said, and we need to continue to invest in it.

GILBERT: Finally Mr Shorten to address the Press Club today. He’s going to announce some new policy. Can you give us a hint?

WONG: That’s not a good thing is it, to announce your leader’s policy on Sky News, even for you, Kieran. But what I’d say is this – Labor in opposition has set the policy agenda. Our housing affordability policy is a prime example of that, as well as, obviously, education which the Government has partly followed although it’s also cut funding to schools. What I would say is you will see the same approach today

GILBERT: Mr Shorten is apparently going to declare this a year of courage, substance and decisive action, so he’s trying to maintain that lead like we saw on housing affordability issues, negative gearing and so on?

WONG: We want to win the election and if we want to win the election we know that we have to show the Australian people what sort of Government we will be and that means policy. So you won’t see a small target approach from Labor. What you will see is us leading on policy as we have to date.

GILBERT: Penny Wong, great to see you, appreciate your time. Thank you.

WONG: Good to speak with you.