15 October 2019




DAVID SPEERS: With me now is Shadow Foreign Minister Penny Wong, thanks for your time this afternoon.


SPEERS: There’s a bit to talk about. I want to get to your foreign policy speech yesterday on China as well. But just on the situation in northern Syria, it has unravelled quickly over the last week. The UN now says there are 160,000 displaced people there, aid organisations are struggling to get in and there is a real concern about the resurgence of Islamic State. What should Australia be doing?

WONG: When this news of this withdrawal and the imminent invasion first broke, I made some public comments. I said that an invasion and military intervention by Turkey would compromise and erode regional stability and global stability. I said it would exacerbate a humanitarian crisis, and it would compromise the fight against Daesh or ISIS. Those aren’t just my views, they are the views that quite a number of not only commentators, but General Votel, the former US Central Command General said the same thing as has Lindsey Graham. Now regrettably, I think we are seeing that playing out now.

I think the government is right to press the Turkish Government to cease the military intervention. I’ve also made the point, as have a number of Republicans and former military personnel, that this decision has been enabled by the decision of the Trump administration to withdraw. It is true that the intervention, the military attack, is Turkey’s decision.

SPEERS: But you think Donald Trump wears part of the blame?

WONG: Well, the words I have used, and I will use them carefully, is that it is a decision that has obviously been enabled by the decision to withdraw.

SPEERS: Now we’ve got Bashar al-Assad’s forces, the Syrian forces, moving north into some of these towns to try and take control and that sets up the prospect of a bigger confrontation between their forces and Turkey. Is this a good thing or not?

WONG: Well, escalation of violence – with all that that means for civilians, for women and children, as well as military personnel – is a bad thing, isn’t it? But it is not entirely unforeseeable that you would see a realignment, given these new circumstances as I and many many others said a number of days ago.

SPEERS: What more can Australia do beyond saying the Turkish should back off? Because they are clearly not going to.

WONG: It’s obviously not a region where any one country calls the shots, least of all Australia, but we should be part of the multilateral, the world community pushing for a ceasefire. I note that the US administration has today called for a ceasefire – today our time – and we should back that in very strongly.

SPEERS: What about some sort of peacekeeping force?

WONG: Well, I mean, let’s take one step at a time. I think the first thing is to try and see if the international community can work with the various nation states and forces here to try and at least have a ceasefire to see if there is a pathway towards a settlement.

SPEERS: And if that doesn’t work?

WONG: Unfortunately I can’t see the future here, at the moment I think it does look very grim and we should do all we can.

SPEERS: We have a more direct interest obviously in the Australian citizens who are there.

WONG: Yes we do.

SPEERS: There’s a small number of men, the foreign fighters who have been imprisoned there by the Kurds and a large number of women and children 60 or so. What’s your view of what Australia should do about them?

WONG: Well, Kristina Keneally I think went to this directly today and on Insiders earlier this week, and she made two very good points. One is that the government has, as a consequence of bipartisan legislation passed through the parliament, a very wide range of powers – a toolkit I think she described it as – as to how you might deal with the threat of returning people who are a risk who return.

She also made the point that this is a complex and difficult situation. It really is a matter the government needs to consider about how best to approach the very…

SPEERS: But do you agree with Kristina Keneally that Australia should consider bringing them all back?

WONG: I think Australia can’t simply turn a blind eye. I think there are real issues in terms of the security of any personnel dealing with this and you would never want people putting themselves in harm’s way. I think we all would agree that children are not responsible for the sins of their parents. I think it is a sensible thing for Kristina to articulate what she has, which is if possible the government should consider the options it has.

SPEERS: That includes though, the men who have been in prison – the actual foreign fighters – these are dangerous terrorists. To be clear, you are agreeing the government should at least consider bringing them back?

WONG: Well I think we should first look at those who are victims. There is an issue which the world has to deal with now as a consequence of the decision of the US to withdraw and what has now occurred in northern Syria and in terms of the security situation there. There were thousands of Daesh or ISIS fighters and supporters who were kept securely by Kurdish forces and that security has been compromised, so it’s not just an Australian issue and you’re pressing a certain point…

SPEERS: Well it’s an important point.

WONG: But I’d encourage you, let’s not walk into a Peter Dutton-style thing where you ask me a series of questions and the government tries to blow up what is a really difficult situation by alleging that we want to bring terrorists back, so please don’t…

SPEERS: No I’m not, I’m just wanting to be clear whether you agree we should at least consider…

WONG: We have to consider what we do with ISIS fighters who are Australians. Yes. How do we ensure the world and Australians are most safe…

SPEERS: What would be the ideal?

WONG: Well I wouldn’t profess to know what the ideal is – the ideal would be…

SPEERS: But this is the very conundrum.

WONG: No, no, the ideal would be that people didn’t fight with ISIS…


WONG: But we don’t live in that world. The ideal would be that we lessen the ungoverned space around the world. That is a critical aspect of making people safer.

SPEERS: When it comes to women and kids, though. I mean, you’re right the kids can’t be blamed for the situation they’re in. The Prime Minister and Peter Dutton keep saying that’s very dangerous and you agree. How, practically, could you get them out?

WONG: Well I think that is a matter for the government and we wouldn’t want to make partisan points around that. I think Kristina was quite correct when she said that we don’t want people put in harm’s way. They’re judgments ministers have to make about these situations and…

SPEERS: You think it’s possible though, obviously…

WONG: Oh, no, I don’t know. I’m not the minister and I’m not being briefed about these issues.

SPEERS: You’re not being briefed?

WONG: Well, not about – I wouldn’t discuss what I’m being briefed on, but I’m saying those are very difficult decisions that ministers would have to make. And I assume that ministers are doing so with the best intelligence and security advice.

SPEERS: Let’s turn to your speech yesterday on China. You said, quote “China’s not a democracy, nor does the Chinese Communist Party share our commitment to the rule of law”. You spoke to the differences in our values in fact, I mean, frankly, it did sound a little bit like what Peter Dutton was saying the other day.

WONG: There was a very clear point about how I did that. I didn’t just go out and do a press conference where I decided to create a domestic political debate. It was a considered speech. It was a speech that talked through the differences between China and Australia, but also the areas of convergence.

It talked about the fact that this is a challenging time in the global environment, challenging time in the bilateral relationship given China’s increased assertiveness across a whole range of domains and talked about how we ought to deal with that. It talked about we need to continue to engage and we also need to be really clear about the terms of that engagement. I think I used, picked up a phrase, about bounded engagement.

SPEERS: I want to get to that, because you did talk about the need for Australia to define the boundaries in our engagement with China. Now what does that mean? What would this sort of boundary drawing look like?

WONG: Can I just make the point, which I didn’t get to my previous answer; I should have got there straight away. My concern about Mr Dutton’s intervention is really my concern about much of what the government is doing on foreign policy, but China more specifically: is there a plan? Or was the plan just for him to have a domestically focused press conference? Was there actually a plan for the Home Affairs Minister to go out and be that blunt. And frankly, his language was quite rhetorically colourful. My point in the speech also was it’s not just about content; what matters also is how you do this. You then had the Prime Minister backing away from Mr Dutton’s speech, it doesn’t seem to me that that’s a thought out plan.

SPEERS: Okay perhaps, he was asked questions about it. He gave an answer, which, from substance at least, doesn’t appear to be too far from what you’re saying about Chinese Communist Party values…

WONG: Well, I have said a number of times that we are a democracy, China is not – that is inevitably going to create…

SPEERS: So to your point about the need for some boundaries here, what does that look like?

WONG: Well, that is something we ought work through together and that is partly why I have expressed to Senator Payne a desire for the parliament to get a better set of briefings. She can decide how that might operate. But a better engagement, a more informed engagement, more briefing about how to manage the China relationship.

SPEERS: I mean should we draw, for example, red lines?

WONG: Of course there are things where we should say we can’t – on these issues, we want these matters excluded from engagement, but on these matters, we can engage closely. I mean critical infrastructure, for example. We have foreign investment, we need foreign investment, but we’ve made decisions about where you can and can’t.

I used an example from a recent research piece, which talked about how you might draw more specific boundaries around research and which research we would engage very closely on and which research we might have actually…

SPEERS: Just on that, is there some research that is going on in collaboration with China that shouldn’t be.

WONG: No, I wasn’t I wasn’t actually referencing that. I just saw this academic who had – and this is an issue that has been discussed at various times in the strategic communities, and there has been much commentary about it and seemed to me, rather than just talking about it, what was useful about that research was it was actually proposing a set of policies that universities might actually adopt.

SPEERS: You’re right to say there are some mixed signals coming from the government on China, do you concede there are also some mixed signals coming from Labor on China, and perhaps this is inevitable as this assertiveness continues to grow.

WONG: It is a different phase – that was the title of my speech. It’s a different phase in the relationship because China is in a different place, it is much more assertive, it’s a different place economically and strategically in terms of how it’s projecting…

SPEERS: You can’t just have a go at the Government for lacking clarity on this…

WONG: We’re not the Government. And I think if you…

SPEERS: So it’s okay for you to be inconsistent?

WONG: Well, I don’t think I am inconsistent.

SPEERS: Not you, but the Party. You have Kim Carr one and Kimberly Kitching saying another.

WONG: Well, with all due respect backbenchers in our party, whether they are on their way up or in the twilight of their career, they are entitled to…

SPEERS: Which one’s Kim Carr?

WONG: Was I still at university when Kim Carr…


WONG: Well he’s got his views. I mean I haven’t read the articles concerned.

SPEERS: But you don’t agree with the headline points he’s making.

WONG: Of course not, and my speech is clear about that. But he is entitled to make them. I think it is a very different thing when you’ve got the Prime Minister disagreeing with his minister. I’ll give you two examples: Mr Morrison went to the Lowy Institute, talked about negative globalism and talked about international organisations controlling what we do; just a month before Marise Payne gives a speech talking about how wonderful and important multilateralism is to Australia. Now she’s right and she’s actually reflecting a foreign policy tradition, which has been pretty consistent. But Mr Morrison goes out and says something completely different.

On the World Trade Organisation, before he gives the speech in the US, Senator Birmingham gives a measured speech about China’s place in the WTO and how we need to work together to work out how it can take on further responsibilities. And then we get Mr Morrison after a Trump rally, giving a speech where he declares…

SPEERS: Where he said that China is developed…

WONG: That China’s a developed country…

SPEERS: What do you think on that point though? Is he right on that point?

WONG: What is the strategy when you’ve got the ministers saying one thing and the Prime Minister saying something else. What is the strategy?

SPEERS: Just on that point though…

WONG: You tell me what the strategy is, what do you reckon?

SPEERS: I’m not here to answer for the government.

WONG: No, but you’re an intelligent person. Can you see the strategy?

SPEERS: I’m just asking the questions. Do you think China is a developed economy?

WONG: We’ve had this discussion before and I thought about that after we had the discussion. I thought, actually I don’t think it’s the right question. The right question is the one Simon Birmingham posed and I went to yesterday in the speech, which is how do you make the WTO fit for purpose? How do you make sure, through that multilateral organisation, that China takes on responsibilities that is commensurate with its size and its economic position?

SPEERS: So it’s somewhere on that trajectory.

WONG: Yeah, sure, but my point is if you want China to do that, do you reckon calling for it in the US after you’ve gone to a Trump rally is going to get anything other than a dismissive response? Not only from China but from other countries – ‘ah, you’re just running the US line’, and that is precisely what happened.

SPEERS: A final one, Labor’s agreed to…

WONG: Apart from anything it also distracted everybody from noticing whether or not Mr Morrison got anything from Mr Trump on the trade war.

SPEERS: Look, we’ll leave that for another day. The Labor caucus today agreed to move a motion declaring Australia is facing, the world is facing, a climate emergency. What’s that going to do; a motion along those lines?

WONG: Obviously, you need a policy to back up a response to this position and certainly the government hasn’t got one.

SPEERS: The motion doesn’t deliver…

WONG: But I think it’s important for us to, as the UK Parliament did – and I heard Senator Canavan in the chamber railing on about this and I thought ‘is he really saying that the people of Westminster have somehow turned into radical socialists or something?’ I mean the reality is, we are facing really dire circumstances and we need governments and political leaders to show leadership.

SPEERS: Is this also about the Labor caucus pushing back a bit at Joel Fitzgibbon?

WONG: Oh no, I think people do worry about, and as does Joel, what do we do as a party of government who is in opposition to try and change where Australia is at if…

SPEERS: Well he’s worried you’ve gone too far; that you should back the government’s target.

WONG: I think Joel has made very clear that he recognises the importance of climate change and the reality of the science…

SPEERS: But but he wants to back the government’s target. Do you?

WONG: No. I agree with Mark Butler. I think you’ve got to be consistent in these issues and I think you should have targets consistent with your Paris agreement, which the government does not.

SPEERS: Shadow Foreign Minister Penny Wong, we will have to leave it there, but thank you for joining me this afternoon.

WONG: Great to see you.

Authorised by Paul Erickson, ALP, Canberra.