21 May 2018




KIERAN GILBERT: The Trump Administration has put on hold plans to impose tariffs on Chinese products. This of course comes amid ongoing negotiations between Washington and Beijing. One of the big priorities of President Trump is to try to reduce the US trade deficit with China and this news was confirmed by the Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin who says the two countries have made progress on these negotiations which have been undertaken over the last couple of weeks. The planned tariffs on $150 billion of Chinese goods are going to be put on hold. They’re putting the trade war on hold is the way Steve Mnuchin put it.

For reaction I spoke to the Shadow Foreign Minister Penny Wong, of course also the Leader of the Opposition in the Senate.

SENATOR PENNY WONG, LEADER OF THE OPPOSITION IN THE SENATE: It’s in the world’s interest and in Australia’s interest for there to be a constructive stable relationship between the US and China and obviously trade impinges upon that. It’s a good thing that people are being sensible and of course as I have previously said to you no one wins from a trade war, least of all Australia or the world more generally.

GILBERT: Do you think this might characterise the Donald Trump approach where he negotiates, pushes to the brink and then backs off a bit when he extracts what he wants? Is that what we are seeing here?

WONG: He has had a position on trade for a long time. As a candidate he made very clear his views on trade. As the Government has said and as we have said, no one wins from a trade war and we would encourage the US to ensure that it has a reasonable trading arrangement with China and not to unravel the global trading arrangements which have served us all well.

GILBERT: Does it show that what we are seeing here is Beijing being good to its word in the sense of wanting to liberalise its own trade regimes? Certainly they been big on the talk via international speeches and so on and now are they delivering on that?

WONG: On trade I think what you have seen is China asserting what you would anticipate as a global power. That’s the reality, China is a global power and President Xi has consistently been asserting their view about the importance of global trade and the importance of those multilateral arrangements.

GILBERT: The Foreign Minister meets with her counterpart tonight on the sidelines of the Foreign Ministers G20 meeting in Argentina. What do you want to see out of that meeting from your counterpart, your opposite number?

WONG: There’s been a lot of commentary about the China relationship and I think it is pretty undeniable that the Government has been very clumsy in its handling of it. And we see at the moment the relationship has some challenges.

The reality is China is very important to Australia. China is an important regional player. Its economy is, by some measures larger than the US now and certainly will be by 2030, so we have an interest in a good and stable relationship with China.

What do I think the relationship with China needs? I think it needs consistency, I think it needs clarity about where our interests come together and where they differ. I think we need to ensure we have a sophisticated approach to managing difference as well as working together where we can. And we should always, as I have previously said, approach China with respect and not fear. I think what we have seen from the Government to date is clumsiness, which has contributed to difficulties in the relationship.

GILBERT: What specifically do you think?

WONG: It is an extraordinary thing when the Deputy Prime Minister of Australia Mr Joyce comes out earlier this year and says China is a worse threat than terrorism. We’ve seen statements from Connie Fierravanti-Wells, the junior Foreign Minister, and I don’t think Malcolm Turnbull has handled this well also.

What I’d say this is too important a relationship to be mishandled. It’s too important a relationship for there to be partisanship involved in it. We want a bipartisan approach to improving and deepening the relationship with China. We are prepared to work with the Government to do so.

GILBERT: Mr Turnbull is heading to China apparently later this year. You’d welcome that?

WONG: Absolutely. As I said, we are happy to work with the Government, we are willing to work with the Government in a bipartisan way to improve and manage the relationship with China.

GILBERT: One of the former ambassadors said that Julie Bishop should be replaced. That’s a bit much isn’t it?

WONG: There is no doubt she has been an active Foreign Minister but there is also no doubt that under this Government this relationship is facing a difficult time and obviously she has to take responsibility for that and I welcome her meeting with her counterpart if it occurs.

GILBERT: Do you think some of the debate is too polarised in that some of the national security and academic debate seems to be you’re either for China or you’re against them?

WONG: I agree with that. We need a sophisticated approach to this relationship, one which ensures we are clear about what our interests are, where they converge with China’s and where they differ. I agree with you, I think the debate at times is overly simplistic. China is a global player and that’s the reality and we have to deal with that reality appropriately and we also have to recognise the benefit Australia has received from China’s rise. Not only has it benefited our economy it’s benefited hundreds of millions of people.

GILBERT: That pragmatism you refer to seems to be on show recently from the Japanese even and the Indians who have border clashes with the Chinese and yet are having high-level talks with them?

WONG: China is a global player and that’s the reality we should respond to and we should do so with respect and not fear but with a very firm eye on what our interests are.

GILBERT: Let’s turn our attention to the Middle East and Hamas threatening ongoing protests on the border with Israel. There’s been terrible bloodshed to this point and I guess from a Labor Party perspective it will be front and centre when you are having your National Conference in the next month or so?

WONG: Firstly, on the current fatalities that we have seen, we would urge both parties to de-escalate. Israel does have a right to secure its border, but I have previously said that we would urge restraint and we would urge both sides to seek to deescalate what is a volatile situation currently.

Our position is we seek a two-state solution and Labor’s approach has always been what are the things that we can do to contribute to that? What are messages we can send to contribute to that?

GILBERT: When you talk about deescalating do you feel that the Israeli force was not proportionate?

WONG: It is clear that there have been a number of fatalities. It is clear that those fatalities have caused great distress and have been the subject of some condemnation and a lot of discussion globally. My view is that it is appropriate for Israel to secure its borders but that response has to be proportionate and as I have said, and as Julie Bishop said, we would urge restraint.

GILBERT: Let’s bring our focus back home now and there’s a big debate over the next few weeks and months as the Government tries to get its full tax plan through. Some endorsement today from Chris Richardson, a respected Budget watcher who has said that the income tax plan is going to hit higher income earners more than any other cohort. This would not necessarily endorse Labor’s position on it. Are you willing to look these numbers?

WONG: Do you know what is happening? Malcolm wants a fight over tax cuts that you have to elect him twice to get. Let’s be clear. He’s laying the table for a fight for tax cuts where you have to elect him twice, that’s the game that is going on in the Parliament.

We have said, Chris Bowen has said, we’ll vote for tax cuts. The tax plan that starts this year, there is bipartisan support for those. We are not, at this stage, indicating our longer term view but more importantly I don’t think the Parliament should have to.

GILBERT: But would you stand in the way of those tax cuts?

WONG: You have to understand what the Government is doing. They are trying to create a fight over what happens in 2024. I mean that only needs to be said to be demonstrated to be, frankly, pretty silly.

GILBERT: Finally you have got Senate Estimates today. Leading the charge for Labor and one of the focuses will be the Public Service Commissioner John Lloyd. What exactly do you want from him?

WONG: I’d make a couple points. Anyone who has watched Mr Lloyd, either in Estimates or publicly over these last years would come to a view that this is not a person who demonstrates the sort of impartiality that should be required of someone in that position, the Australian Public Service Commissioner. And there was a concerning story last week where the Prime Minister’s Department is refusing to release emails because they relate to an investigation that deals with a breach of the law and that investigation appears to relate to the Public Service Commissioner. Now, we will be pursuing that.

GILBERT: And what exactly does that relate to?

WONG: They’re not telling us.

GILBERT: But the Institute of Public Affairs is linked with him.

WONG: He’s made no secret of his political allegiances when it comes to the Institute of Public Affairs, that well-known very right wing think tank. The important issue here is the Commissioner is supposed to be an impartial officer, someone who upholds those values in the public service and I think there are great questions associated with Mr Lloyd in that regard.