20 February 2018




LAURA JAYES: Malcolm Turnbull heads to the United States later this week Penny Wong. He might be happy to leave a few domestic issues behind him. He is going to talk to Donald Trump about the Trans-Pacific Partnership and wants to lobby the United Stated to get on board is that a good idea?

SENATOR PENNY WONG, LEADER OF THE OPPOSITION IN THE SENATE: On the Trans Pacific Partnership let me say this, obviously it’s a new trade agreement, as Jason Clare has said. Labor always judges trade agreements by which they support and enable Australian jobs and we’ll do that on this occasion too.

But as Shadow Foreign Minister what I have said, and will continue to say is this; we live in a time of great disruption and change and one of the things we know we need is greater cooperation in our region. So there is an additional strategic benefit to the Trans-Pacific Partnership Mark 2 which is that it does enable the sort of co-operation which does contribute to stability and I think that is a good thing

JAYES: Labor has been quite critical in recent history… criticising Malcolm Turnbull and government ministers for pursuing the TPP, or any kind of TPP without the United States, saying it was dead in the water. But, you agree, Labor agrees that any trade deal with the United States on board is going to be good for Australia?

WONG: Australia wants constructive US engagement in the region and a Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement that engages the US in the region economically can contribute to stability.

Now that is separate to the economic case that the government still has to make out and that we will obviously be pressing them on. But we do want constructive US engagement in the region and that includes economic engagement, but not only.

One of the things I would say is this – in going to America, which is a good thing – although he obviously has a few other things on his mind – Malcolm Turnbull should be advocating to the United States the sort of engagement Australia wants to see in the region. And that does mean that the US in its policy towards this region does engage closely with other regional partners, does engage closely with the ASEAN nations. We want the US engaged, not just bilaterally with its allies, but also bilaterally with other parties and multilateral institutions.

JAYES: But who are you talking about here? Because you have asked Malcolm Turnbull to seek clarification on what the US stance is and views on China and North Korea. What do you think needs to be clarified with those two countries?

WONG: I do think it is useful, particularly in relation to China, to have a discussion with the United States about the importance of two things. The first is a constructive relationship with China and second, what is the way we can work collectively – that is Australia, the US but also the ASEAN nations – to ensure we have a stable regional order.

What we do want is more co-operation, more constructive engagement and we don’t want to simply have competition in our region. There are areas where we are going to have disagreements, but the more we can be constructive, the more we can be cooperative in working together to ensure we buttress the regional ruled-based order the better for Australia.

JAYES: Do you see Donald Trump as being constructive with those two nations so far? Because we have seen quite provocative language. Is that constructive?

WONG: I think you are trying to draw me out there Laura.

Look, we’ve never had a President who tweets before and that has been new for the international community. We’ve had some different message at different times. I do think though that the weight of the US Administration’s language and approach to North Korea has reflected the international community’s resolute position – economic pressure, sanctions, diplomatic pressure – and the recognition that we need to try to ensure we achieve the outcome in a way that doesn’t lead to great conflict. The Secretary of Defense has made clear the problems and the human cost of going down that path.

JAYES: When President Trump was elected you said it marked “a change point” and said that his presidency meant Australians needed to consider a broader range of scenarios that we previously wouldn’t have had to contemplate.

Now many reported this as you saying the Alliance needed to be rethought. But more than a year on, have the concerns you held then in what you said eventuated? Is it any better or worse than you thought?

WONG: I think actually those comments have proved entirely correct. We have had to consider a range of scenarios we haven’t previously contemplated. We’ve seen a President make statements that we haven’t seen before. We’ve seen a range of differences between the Australian Government and the US Government, obviously on the Paris Agreement, that’s the most obvious one.

But I want to make it clear – and I know there was some mischief that Malcolm Turnbull sought to create at the time that didn’t go very far, I think he was trying to distract everybody from yet another domestic issue inside his Government – at no stage has Labor ever said anything other than the primacy of the US Alliance remains. We just have to understand the primacy of that Alliance – our key security relationship, our key strategic relationship – doesn’t mean at times we won’t have differences of view.

We had a difference of view, for example on the immigration ban. We had a difference of view on the Global Gag. We’ve had a difference of view, including the Government had a difference of view on the Paris Agreement and there will be others. We shouldn’t shy away from those. As a long time Alliance partner we are able to voice those views just as we are able to be constructive in communicating to the United States what we think is the best way for them to engage in this region for stability.

JAYES: Looking once again at the region, Kevin Rudd has criticised Malcolm Turnbull in the last week. We all know the history between the two men, but Kevin Rudd knows China very well. He said that Turnbull’s China strategy “is all over the place”. Would you agree with that assessment?

WONG: He’s right. And I don’t think it has anything to do with the history between the two of them.

JAYES: Why is he right? Give me some examples

WONG: In recent times the Government’s approach to the relationship with China has been nothing short of clumsy. You’ve had the Foreign Minister and the aid Minister at odds. You have had Barnaby Joyce, the Deputy Prime Minister and the Foreign Minister and Prime Minister at odds, with Mr Joyce making some really quite outlandish about China being a greater threat than Islamist terrorists. This is not the way you deal with these issues and I think even Malcolm Turnbull and some of this rhetoric around China has, I think, been clumsy.

My view is we need to approach China with respect, not fear. We need to ensure we don’t get into some of the inflammatory language that regrettably we have seen, China is an important trading partner, it is an important power in the region. We won’t always agree but we need to deal with those disagreements appropriately and respectfully. Instead you have seen a really ham-fisted approach, regrettably, from this Prime Minister and other ministers.

I will say a word of praise for Julie Bishop, who I think has had to, unfortunately as Foreign Minister, clean up a few messes from her leader, the Deputy Prime Minister and her junior minister.

JAYES: Can I just ask you one final question about Tony Abbott’s immigration plan? He is no longer the Prime Minister but he has a pretty powerful voice.

WONG: He is the gift that keeps giving isn’t he?

JAYES: Perhaps a gift to Labor, yes. Malcolm Turnbull might disagree with you there. He wants to see Australia’s immigration intake cut by half. It’s about 190,000 per annum at the moment he want to see that at 80,000. He says until infrastructure and housing can keep up that level should be cut. Is there an economic argument for cutting immigration intake?

WONG: Not one that Tony Abbott has put forward and not one that he observed in Government.

I think this is more Tony Abbott attention-seeking and the wedge or the political strike that he is aiming is actually not at the Labor Party, it is at Malcolm Turnbull, let’s be clear that is what he is doing.

My view on immigration, Labor’s view is that you have the level of immigration that a Government judges is right for the country, including the right mix of skilled migration, the right mix of humanitarian migration. That is the approach Labor has always taken – what is the right level for the country.

JAYES: Do you think it is the right level though? Is 190,000 the right level and what makes you say it is the right level if you agree with that?

WONG: I’m not in Government at the moment and not part of a Cabinet that sets the level?

JAYES: What would you be looking at in Government?

WONG: First you look at the economic activity, you look at employment needs. You look at areas in which migration can add to employment. You also do have look at the exploitation of temporary workers. I think that is a separate issue where this government has fallen down. You also look, obviously, at your humanitarian intake, given the number of people who are displaced. So these are all factors that a Government and Cabinet take into account. Certainly that is the approach we took.

But it is for Malcolm Turnbull to answer Tony Abbott’s criticisms, which I think are more for attention-seeking than anything else.

JAYES: Just when we thought we were talking about people’s sex lives too much, Cory Bernardi has said on radio that he knows of other ministers sleeping with their staff. Do you know of such things happening?

WONG: I’m not going to comment on rumours. I don’t think that is what the Australian people want.

I would say the thing that has struck me most about this set of circumstances that we have all unfortunately lived through is Malcolm Turnbull’s weakness. He is refusing to enforce the set of standards he already has. What it has led to is this extraordinary breakdown of the relationship between the Prime Minister and the Deputy Prime Minister. I thought that Barnaby Joyce’s press conference was unprecedented and it is clear from reports that have continued that their relationship has broken down. Now that is not a good thing for government in this country

JAYES: Penny Wong thanks for your time.

WONG: Good to speak with you.