29 August 2019




DAVID SPEERS: We just heard the Foreign Minister there saying today there is no reason to think this arrest is connected to other issues. Do you agree that this may not be any sort of retaliation from China, this may have more to do with what Yang Hengjun himself has been writing and saying about China?

PENNY WONG, LEADER OF THE AUSTRALIAN LABOR PARTY IN THE SENATE: Well David first, good afternoon, good to be with you.

I want to start by saying how dismayed and concerned Labor is about Dr Yang’s detention and I want to express our support for the family. It’s a very difficult time. The question you raise goes to the reasons for Dr Yang’s detention and what I would say is this. In circumstances where it is not clear what the reasons for his detention are, in circumstances where the Foreign Minister has said publicly that there is no basis for any allegation that he has been spying on behalf of the Australian Government, it’s inevitable that there will be public speculation about the reasons for his detention.

We continue to join the Foreign Minister and the government’s call for him to be treated appropriately, for reasons for his detention to be clarified and we repeat our call – as is the government’s call – that is if he is being held for political reasons, for his political views, then he should be released.

SPEERS: Now as you know there’s a debate, there always is, about the best approach, whether quiet diplomacy is the best way to go or the sort of public pressure that we’ve certainly seen over the last couple of days. What do you think?

WONG: That’s a judgment governments must make. We have an Australian citizen who is being detained here. That is a very serious matter and the government of the day should make the best assessment it can; taking in all the advice from the public servants and agencies about the best way to proceed.

The responsible opposition of the day – that is us – obviously has been briefed by the government and should take the same approach as the government in these sorts of circumstances.

SPEERS: So you do talk about the best approach in matters like this. Presumably in the last couple of days you’ve talked about what sort of public pressure needs to be applied.

WONG: I think we’ve made clear our position publicly as has the government. What is important here is to recognise that there’s a situation regarding Dr Yang and that is very concerning. I’ve made a number of comments about that and we continue to join in calls for his release if he is being held for political reasons and to assert our expectation that he’s treated appropriately.

There is a broader point here. Australia is entitled, with any country, to make sure we protect our sovereignty, that we assert our interests and our values. That is what the government should do and is doing and that is what we will do and will continue to do.

SPEERS: Do you think it’s safe right now to travel to China if you are someone who’s been publicly critical of the Chinese Communist Party?

WONG: I would urge Australians to look at the travel advice – the government did update the travel advice earlier this year and that advice reflects the government’s view and I think the self-evident fact relating to the way in which laws are interpreted and the potential concerns which might arise about the application of those laws.

So I would urge Australians to look at the advice that is given by the government in relation to this travel as in any other travel

SPEERS: Would you expect a further review though after these developments?

WONG: I take the view in terms of travel advice that I’m very wary of making public pronouncements as a politician. The travel advice is worked through by officials, they do so carefully and I’m sure, given the circumstances, they will consider the travel advice. As I said, it was updated recently, I think subsequent to the detention of this Australian citizen.

SPEERS: Can I leave the case of Yang Hengjun there. Just more broadly on China and the trade war that’s been playing out. The Prime Minister says we’ve gone over a tipping point now and we’re now in a new era in which China is an advanced, developed economy, no longer a developing economy. Does Labor agree with that?

WONG: I think China is certainly in a very different place to where it was when it ascended to the WTO. Obviously there is still a lot development which is occurring, but it’s in a very, very different economic place. But I think that particular detail is not the only issue. The broader issue is we have a very different global economy. The weight of the Chinese economy is very different to that which it was when the WTO was put in place. It is reasonable to ensure that our trade arrangements, our trade rules are fit for purpose. It is a good thing for us to work through those and to try and reform the WTO and relevant trading arrangements to reflect those facts.

SPEERS: But it is an important definition, not just with World Trade Organization rules, but also emissions. Developed countries have very different expectations than developing countries when it comes to lowering emissions. So again, do you think China is still a developing country or a developed country?

WONG: I was Climate Minister as you might recall and I made the point that these labels are less important than the broader point, which is we all have to contribute to reducing global emissions and China has to be a part of any solution on climate change as does the United States.

SPEERS: You mentioned your time as Climate Minister. I remember being in Copenhagen there when you and Kevin Rudd – that all-night negotiation – and part of it was this very sticking point. Is China a developed or developing country? That was some years ago, they’ve grown a lot since then, obviously.

WONG: But I don’t think that’s the precise point in relation to emissions. I think the point is all countries need to contribute to the world dealing with climate crisis we see and things have worsened since Copenhagen. But look, China is a great power. With that comes influence but also comes responsibilities whether they are in trade or in climate, just as other major economies and other great nations – including the world’s superpower the US – has obligations and responsibilities.

Australia’s national interest on both these fronts – firstly in relation to trade, we’re a substantial economy, a substantial nation and a trading nation. We have an interest in fair, transparent, open trading arrangements. We don’t have an interest in the winner-takes-all approach. In relation to climate, we are a country which is vulnerable to climate change as are many countries and all have to be part of the solution.

SPEERS: I don’t want to make too much of this but, the Prime Minister is now saying China’s an advanced developed country. It just sounds to me like Labor is not actually recognizing China is an advanced developed country necessarily, is that fair?

WONG: I think in many ways they are. But it is true that there is still a lot of development which has to occur. One of the great things for humanity has been China’s capacity to lift many millions of people out of poverty.

SPEERS: I’ll turn to Iran. Labor last week backed the Government’s decision to send a frigate and a surveillance plane to help control the Strait of Hormuz, this was clearly discussed at the G7 summit in France, but it is still only the US, the UK, Australia, and Bahrain that are involved in what’s meant to be a multinational mission. Does it concern you that more countries haven’t joined?

WONG: Every country will make its decision as to its national interest and I cannot comment, obviously we’re not in Government, as to where those decisions and discussions are up to. I’d make a couple of points. The first is a very important point I think about the JCPOA or the Iran nuclear deal. Labor has continued as has the government to support that arrangement as the best way to avert a nuclear armed Iran and I think it is very important that we separate out this operation, which is an operation focused on freedom of navigation and the security of civillian chips from the broader Iran policy issue where Australia has the same view as the United Kingdom, which is we continue to support the JCPOA.

SPEERS: Well yes, but when it comes to this mission, which were told is separate but it’s also a multinational mission, as I say there hasn’t exactly been a flood of others, jumping on board since we made our commitment. Is that a concern, would you like to see more join up after this to give it that international flavor?

WONG: I think countries have to make their own decisions. I would say that we believe freedom of navigation is an important principle, and Australia has a national interest in asserting those rights, and in asserting the cogency and the application of those principles.

SPEERS: A couple of domestic matters, quickly, the ICAC hearing in Sydney, that’s been underway again today. Look there’s a bit of back and forth over who knew what about this bag of cash that was allegedly handed over from the Chinese billionaire Huang Xiangmo. Is there a problem when it comes to the culture in the party, of taking donations that rules can be avoided rules can be ignored to ensure the money is still coming in. Is that a problem do you think with when it comes to the culture in the Labor Party?

WONG: Well I also remember ICAC investigating donations being funnelled from developers and through other Liberal Party entities. I make that point, but the general principle is and should be that electoral disclosure laws should be complied with. That is the expectation. I’d also make the point that federally Labor argued for the ban on foreign donations. I personally did. Don Farrell, our Shadow Special Minister of State spokesperson, also did. We continued to argue for ban on foreign donations for a couple of years prior to the Government finally acting on it, which they finally did. I do think electoral disclosure laws can be improved. I think that we can reduce the threshold for a donation disclosure. It’s too high at the moment, Labor has been arguing for it to be reduced. And for real time disclosure, and I think that would certainly contribute to better public confidence.

SPEERS: When you talk about public confidence, let me ask you this. Clearly when rules are broken, that brings down the reputation of all politicians. Should someone who deliberately breaks donation rules be expelled from the party?

WONG: I think that’s a hypothetical, but I know where you’re going. What I’d say to you is this is a hearing. I’m not going to comment on every day of evidence. And when ICAC makes its findings in relation to these matters I’m sure those will be considered very closely but on the New South Wales branch of the party more broadly.

SPEERS: Okay let me finish with John Setka, who of course Labor does want to or at least Anthony Albanese wants to expel from the party, yesterday he lost his court challenge to stop that happening. So, when will he be expelled?

WONG: Well that’s a matter for the National Executive, obviously they will deal with this matter at the Leader’s request, at Mr Albanese’s request, and it’s a request I support and I think is consistent with where most Australian’s would be. I make this point I’ve seen some commentary that Mr Setka’s is entitled to his private life, people are entitled to their private life, but when you are convicted of harassment, when you breach a family violence order, these matters are not private matters. I think privacy ends where there is abuse and violence and breaches of the law, and Mr Albanese is doing the right thing in seeking to ensure that Mr Setka’s membership is terminated.

SPEERS: And to be clear on that. It’s because of those convictions that he’s being expelled in your view?

WONG: Look I’m not a member of the National Executive and I don’t want to be drawn on how they will go through that decision making process after the court has demonstrated they’ve got the power. I think you know there is a board question about whether or not his actions put the party into disrepute, but I’m making a point – that we all I think should observe – about violence and abuse. Those are not private matters.

SPEERS: Penny Wong, Shadow Foreign Minsiter and Labor Senate Leader appreciate your time this afternoon. Thank you.

WONG: Good to speak with you.

Authorised by Paul Erickson, ALP, Canberra.