E&OE - PROOF ONLY
DAVID SPEERS: Penny Wong, thanks very much for your time.
SENATOR PENNY WONG, LEADER OF THE OPPOSITION IN THE SENATE: Good to be with you.
SPEERS: Can I start with this question, do you accept that foreign interference in Australian politics is a problem at the moment?
WONG: I always think matters such as this, matters going to national security, are best defended with less, rather than more fanfare.
What I would say is this; Labor has been saying for many years we should deal with this issue of foreign donations. The Government has consistently voted against this. Also, I think, some six months ago, Bill Shorten wrote to Malcolm Turnbull suggesting foreign agents register. The Government is now acting on the regulatory regime and that is a good thing.
What has been less helpful, however, has been some of the tone of the debate. We know that the relationship with China is a very important relationship, a relationship of great significance. Some of the tone of the debate, as the Prime Minister, Mr Turnbull, has sought to make a lot of political points, has not been helpful.
SPEERS: I want to come to that but as you point out Labor has suggested a foreign agents register and I understand you don’t like the fanfare around it but you seem to agree there is an issue that needs addressing here and can I ask does that extend to China itself trying to interfere in Australian politics?
WONG: We should ensure we have the tools to safeguard our sovereignty and stand up for Australia’s national interests, full stop, irrespective of which nations, or individuals, or non-state actors we are concerned about. So, of course, we will approach the legislation that has been put forward by the Government in that spirit of bipartisanship. I think that is an appropriate legislative step. We will obviously look at the detail of it, but that is how we will approach it.
SPEERS: A simple question – is China trying to interfere in Australian politics?
WONG: I don’t know that it is sensible to have a conversation through the media about that. There is no doubt China, like any nation, seeks to press its interest, just as Australia presses its interest.
Implicit in your questions, David, is a suggestion that we should somehow be fearful of China. I don’t think that is a sensible approach. We should be respectful, not fearful.
SPEERS: Not saying we should be fearful but it gets to whether we should do something about it and from what you’re saying you’re not arguing that the government is right to be taking the steps it is, it’s just the tone of its language.
WONG: I think it is reasonable to say we should make sure our regulatory regime is sufficient to safeguard Australia’s sovereignty against all comers. That is sensible.
I make a separate point that Mr Turnbull’s language, his rhetoric, his tone, in this debate, I don’t think has been helpful. We do recognise that our relationship with China is one of great significance.
SPEERS: So what’s the evidence of that? What’s he said, what’s he said?
WONG: I think you should have a look at his press conference on Saturday and I think you should have a look at some of Mr Dutton’s comments.
SPEERS: The double agent comment?
WONG: And other comments. I don’t think a person in my position should be parroting some of the things I disagree with. I simply make this point; it is possible to stand up for Australia’s national interests, it is possible to defend Australia’s sovereignty, without being inflammatory, and that’s the job of national leaders.
SPEERS: But do you go so far as saying Malcolm Turnbull is China-phobic?
WONG: He’s certainly, in some of his rhetoric, gone further than I would have hoped a national leader would go. I think that is true.
SPEERS: Do you think he’s China-phobic? As he points out he’s got a granddaughter who’s Chinese Australian. Do you really think he’s China-phobic
WONG: Oh, c’mon, I don’t think that is a defence to it. And I know that Malcolm, and you know that Malcolm was pursuing Sam Dastyari because he saw that was an important political target. I think his rhetoric of late…
SPEERS: Well he’d done the wrong thing, and you’ve agreed with that.
WONG: Can I finish an answer at some point David? He was pursing him because he did the wrong thing, but there is no doubt that some of his rhetoric has reflected the pressure that Malcolm Turnbull feels he is under. It was yesterday he suggested a vote against John Alexander would destroy our children’s and grandchildren’s future.
There is a fair bit of overreach in Malcolm Turnbull’s language at the moment, and I simply say that we can stand up for our sovereignty, and always should, and Labor has demonstrated our integrity on that issue. But you don’t need to be inflammatory, and that is the job of the national leader.
SPEERS: Ok, when you talk about overreach in politics and there’s a fair bit of it day by day, is the argument that Malcom Turnbull is China-phobic? And the other Labor argument that we’ve heard Kristina Keneally say this week that he’s somehow asserting Asians aren’t fully fledged Australians. I mean is that overreach as well, is that not dividing the community unnecessarily?
WONG: There are people in the Chinese and other communities who have some real concerns about the way the Prime Minister, Mr Turnbull, has been speaking about these issues. Certainly Kristina is responding to that and Bill is right to point that out.
Stepping back from the partisan fray for the moment – and as Shadow Foreign Minister that is my job on these sorts of issues – this is a relationship which is under some stress at the moment and that is demonstrated by the public comments which have been made, and our ambassador in China being called in for discussions.
Now, I don’t want to overstate that. That is the normal practice of diplomacy in these sorts of circumstances. But I think it is important for Malcolm Turnbull particularly to remember this is a long standing relationship. There will be times where our interests differ and there are times when our interests converge and it is necessary for us to look at those with a very clear eye and without inflammatory rhetoric.
SPEERS: All right but on the substance of it, just getting back to where we started, there are areas as you point out where we disagree with China. Labor’s had disagreements we know over things like extradition treaties and so on with China as well, but on this one you’re with the government aren’t you on the need to tackle foreign interference whether it’s from China or anyone else?
WONG: There is demonstrably a need to update our regulatory framework. Whether it’s on donations where Labor’s reforms have consistently either been opposed by the Government – let’s remember they voted against banning foreign donations – or not progressed. We have said these matters need to be progressed.
Now, the legislation concerned will be referred to the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security of which I’m a member. We’ll obviously look at it closely and I’m sure there’ll be a process for submissions and then as with any other national security legislation, that will be considered carefully by the Parliament and our instinct on these is to take a bipartisan approach.
SPEERS: In principle you agree with what the government’s doing here and you do agree that Sam Dastyari did the wrong thing and was right to leave the parliament altogether?
WONG: Yes, we’ve said that and I’ve said that. It is sad to see someone’s political career end but Sam has done the right thing in the circumstances by leaving the Parliament and effectively ending his political career.
SPEERS: In the Fairfax media today there was a report about a letter that is being distributed on a Chinese social media website WeChat from someone linked to China’s United Front Work Department. Are you aware of what this United Front Work Department is firstly?
WONG: I have some knowledge of it but I certainly don’t have any knowledge of this letter, I’m afraid. But WeChat has been used for political campaigns before, for example against the Safe Schools policy, frankly in the last election, to the benefit of the Liberal Party so that platform has been used before.
SPEERS: The United Front Work Department is responsible in China for building influence overseas. This man Yan Zehua apparently met only a couple of months ago with the United Front Work Department. He has written this letter that has been circulated in the Bennelong by-election campaign, and it says “voters should take down the far right Liberal Party ruling party”. Does it look to you as though this may be an attempt at political interference?
WONG: Well, I’m not going to be drawn on a letter I haven’t seen. What I would say is people in Australia should make their judgements about who they vote for. In this case, in the Bennelong by-election, it is a chance to send Malcolm Turnbull a message and I’ll be advocating for a vote for Kristina Keneally and Labor.
SPEERS: I’m, sure you would, I’m sure you would, I’m just wondering any attempt at political interference from China…I
WONG: Well I haven’t seen that letter so I’m not going to comment on it David.
SPEERS: This is an important by-election for the government’s numbers in the house, indeed, but also for the fate of Kristina Keneally. As the Senate leader, if she does not win, would you like to see her join the Labor Senate team?
WONG: I suppose that’s a question I should anticipate and you should anticipate the answer which is: we wanted to win Bennelong so that’s what I’ll be focused on.
SPEERS: Fair enough, I did not expect you to bite on that one. Just back to the China question, this is a point of contention, you are absolutely right about that. There are some other issues though too, the restoration of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue – Australia, the US, Japan, India – having at this stage bureaucratic level discussions, and we will see if that is elevated to ministerial level. China doesn’t like it. Where does Labor stand on that? Do you support this Quadrilateral Dialogue?
WONG: What we’ve said is we’ll wait and see where the bureaucratic, as you said, the officer-level dialogue will get to. We’re open to arrangements which go to regional stability and I think the best way to think about this or any other regional architecture idea – and there are a lot of ideas that get put about from time to time – is in the rubric of this question; does this help, does this contribute to, peace and stability in our region? And that’s the basis on which we consider the Quadrilateral or indeed any other new architectural proposition in relation to the region.
SPEERS: So you’ll see how it goes at that level before embracing it?
WONG: Yes, we’re certainly not closed to it. I think it is a good thing to see where officers get to. It’s obviously an important relationship, our relationship with India as well, and to continue to deepen that relationship.
SPEERS: Penny Wong finally, this has been quite a year for many people in Parliament, for you, in particular, an issue you fought for many years, same-sex marriage, finally legislated. Every time the camera has gone near you, you have been asked about it, next year are you looking forward to not being quizzed about this every other day and focusing on other issues.
WONG: I am actually, I am. It’s been many years of being asked questions about it. It took me a little while, frankly as you probably know David, to get comfortable over the years of talking about something which ultimately became quite personal but I did get used to it. It will be quite nice not to be asked about it. But I would say looking back over the year this is one of the defining moments of the year isn’t it? The passage of the marriage equality legislation.
I think we will remember 2017 for two things: I think we’ll remember it for Malcolm Turnbull’s weakness and indecision, but on a good note, we’ll remember it for the decency and generosity of the Australian people which was so demonstrated during the survey and which has led to discrimination being removed in our laws.
SPEERS: Well that is a positive note to finish on. Penny Wong, thank you for your time. Have a good Christmas. We look forward to catching up next year.
WONG: Good to be with you.