ABC Afternoon Briefing with Patricia Karvelas - 19/05/2021

19 May 2021

SUBJECTS: China; speech to launch Peter Hartcher’s ‘Red Zone’; Violence in the Middle East; Kurri Kurri; vaccine rollout.

PATRICIA KARVELAS, HOST: Labor has attacked the Morrison Government's approach to China, labelling it "frenzied, afraid and lacking context". In a speech today, the Shadow Minister for Foreign Affairs, Penny Wong, accused the Prime Minister of stoking tensions for domestic political gain, but the Prime Minister has pointed to the booming iron ore trade as evidence that China's trade sanctions haven't been as damaging as some have suggested. Penny Wong joins me now, welcome to the program.


KARVELAS: China's Foreign Ministry spokesman today identified Australia's views on Hong Kong, Taiwan and Xinjiang as problems with the relationship. Would Labor's position on those be different?

WONG: No. And I made that very clear in the speech. I said there is a structural aspect to our relationship with China, whether our structural differences – where positions are clear, the interests differ – and no matter who is in government here in Australia, our position will not change.

But I also made the point that we have a government who appears to be willing to stoke anxiety, to fuel anxiety about conflict, about war and that I do not think it is in our national interests for there to be talk of the 'drums of war', as we have seen in recent weeks from the Government.

KARVELAS: Where is your evidence that changing our language is enough to improve the relationship with China?

WONG: Well, I am making a slightly different point, actually. I am making a point that is this: we are not made safer as a nation by a government that starts to talk about the 'drums of war'. I think that simply fuels anxiety. We have very substantial differences in our relationship with China. As I said, some of those are structural. They exist because of our interests, our different interests and our different values and they won't change regardless of who wins the next election. But we ought not try and make management of those enduring differences more difficult by escalating rhetoric for domestic political purposes. I think this Prime Minister – Mr Morrison – has a habit, which is not in the national interest, of escalating rhetoric for domestic political purposes.

KARVELAS: Let me take you to that. Again, where is the evidence that he's done this for domestic political purposes?

WONG: Well, what is the purpose of people going out and talking about the 'drums of war'? What is the purpose of the Defence Minister talking about conflict with Taiwan? What is the purpose of George Christensen putting a Facebook post up saying "war is coming"? Do any of those things make Australians safer? I don't think so.

KARVELAS: So, your view is that they are doing that, what, to chase votes, for stoking fears?

WONG: I think the Government has been far too interested in talking about the risks involved in the China relationship, talking about those risks in ways that do fuel people's anxieties. Now, we are in a difficult position in terms of our relationship with China and we would be no matter who was in government, but I think the Prime Minister's willingness along with the rest of his team to talk this up is unnecessary, and unhelpful and not in the national interest.

KARVELAS: And why have you decided that you want to take on the Prime Minister on this issue and challenge this; what you have described as this increasing rhetoric around China? What is your motive?

WONG: Because I don't think it is good for the country. I don't think it is good for the country. I mean, we have offered bipartisanship and will continue to do so, as I made clear today; on those things which are in the national interest. But we will not and cannot offer bipartisanship on things which are not. With this Prime Minister, what we have seen is a series of pronouncements about foreign policy, decisions on foreign policy which I think were very clearly motivated by domestic politics rather than by the national interest.

KARVELAS: Does Scott Morrison have a point when he says China's trade sanctions against Australia are mostly theatrical?

WONG: Well, I have to say – first they’re wrong and we remain resolutely of the view that Australia should be pushing back very clearly through what we say and also through the WTO on the trade sanctions, which do amount to coercive behaviour by China. That is the first point.

Secondly, it is true that many of our industries have been lucky enough to find other markets and that is a great thing. There are some industries which haven't and that has affected jobs and parts of the regional economy. So, I am not sure it is good to dismiss it as theatrics. I think it is a strategy by China and we have to have our own strategy in response, which should include diversification of our export markets. We remain the most China-dependent economy in the world in terms of our exports.

KARVELAS: What did you make of AI Group’s Chief Innes Willox saying we face a day of reckoning between our security and economic relationships?

WONG: Well, you probably need to ask Innes what he meant by that. I think we are, as a nation, going through a challenging period. We have previously been able to have our principal, strategic relationship with the United States and our trade relationship with China really be very successful and operate in many ways separately. And now where we are is in a very different position where we have strategic competition between the great powers.

We have Australia rightfully asserting its interests and where those interests have differed from China's, that has led to disagreement. So, we are in a very different phase in Australian foreign policy and we need to be calm, confident and consistent in our behaviour. We need to focus on what it is we need to do to manage this situation. I talk about some of the possibilities in the speech. And what we also need to do is to make sure that we don't engage in domestic politics around what is a very great challenge in Australian foreign policy at this time.

KARVELAS: Senator, is business as conscious of the security challenges in the China relationship as it should be?

WONG: Well, if they are not, I think that is on the Government. I mean, I think one of the things we have needed to do as a nation is have a sensible conversation about the ways in which China has changed. China's behaviour has changed. Chinese nationalism has a particular international execution as part of how it is operating in the world. We ought have a sensible discussion led by the Government about how we manage all of our interests in our relationship with China, bearing in mind, as I said at the outset, there will be enduring differences in this relationship because we are not going to be shifting on some of those key points that you started with.

KARVELAS: Is the US Navy right to be conducting navigation exercises through the Taiwan Strait even if it upsets Beijing?

WONG: I think the freedom of navigation and compliance with the observance of the international convention of the Law of the Sea is something that Australia has supported. The US continues to operate in accordance with that convention.

KARVELAS: Is there more Labor could be doing as an ally of Israel to encourage an end to the violence with Palestinians?

WONG: More Labor or Australia?

KARVELAS: Australia and what is your view too?

WONG: Well, I think all of us would say what is happening is tragic and there is tragedy in so many areas. There is tragedy we see on television, that we hear about and most tragic of all is of course the death of children that we are seeing. What we should be doing, and I have joined with Marise Payne on this, is calling for leaders to de-escalate. We should be calling for a ceasefire. I understand from reports that this is something that the international community is seeking to come together on and I hope that the Security Council can do so because we do need to see a multilateral call for a ceasefire which is then observed by all sides.

KARVELAS: How concerned are you by the sectarian violence that we are now seeing in Jerusalem and the West Bank?

WONG: Well, there has been incitement, there has been an escalation of violence. As you say, it is multifaceted and this is a cycle of violence and escalation which simply leads to tragedy. Whatever people's views about who has right on their side in any particular conflict, what we know is we end up seeing so many children lose their lives and so we must as an international community, I think, step forward and call on a ceasefire; and Australia should be doing that and encouraging leaders to respond.

KARVELAS: Do you believe Israel's use of force against the Palestinians in Gaza City has been proportionate?

WONG: Look, Israel does have a right to defend itself and the Palestinians have a right to live in peace. There has been an escalation of violence in many quarters and on all sides and certainly we have seen the civilian loss of life, which is deeply distressing.

KARVELAS: But it is disproportionate though, right?

WONG: I think it is much better – rather than getting into who is less right or less wrong in a situation where we are seeing so much loss of life – for us to be putting our shoulder to the wheel in diplomatic efforts for a ceasefire. No-one can be but moved by seeing the images that we are all seeing. And our focus should be – as I said, we are a friend of Israel and we are a friend of the Palestinians, we should be putting our shoulder to the wheel to get agreement on a ceasefire.

KARVELAS: Today, the Government has announced it will invest $600 million on a gas-fired power plant. Are Labor MPs Joel Fitzgibbon and Meryl Swanson wrong when they say the Hunter Valley gas-fired power station proposed by the Coalition is vital?

WONG: Look, I don't think there is an MP around who is not going to advocate for local jobs. It doesn't surprise me we have got a couple of good local MPs who are out there advocating for local jobs. But at the higher level of policy, I think what we are seeing is a failure of policy from this Government. This is taxpayers' money being thrown after projects which will produce expensive power because this Government will not give the private sector certainty to invest and so it now has to step in with taxpayer funds. And I think that is a demonstration of a failure of policy.

KARVELAS: Joel Fitzgibbon isn't just the local member. He also had a pretty key portfolio and moved on where he was pushing, actually, for a different policy position from Labor.

WONG: Sure.

KARVELAS: Doesn't this demonstrate there is a split in the Labor Party about how to go forward on these issues?

WONG: No, I don't accept that at all. I think it is completely explicable for local members to argue for things in their electorate. I understand that. But we are very clear about the need for a much more coherent energy policy that enables there to be a much greater development of new energy jobs for the long term. I mean, this is not sustainable long term to have government policy that is so all over the place.

KARVELAS: But it makes Joel Fitzgibbon's job pretty hard going into a federal election campaign with Labor saying that you don't think that this should be funded.

WONG: I think we have been very clear about the need to get the settings right so the private sector can invest. The fundamental failure here is a failure of policy, which means the market is not investing. Let's be clear about that.

KARVELAS: Do you think this $600 million is wasted on this project?

WONG: I would like to see the Government explain why this project stacks up.

KARVELAS: But do you think that $600 million is a waste?

WONG: Hang on, I am the shadow Foreign Minister...


WONG: And I have read about this and I have seen some of the information, but it is for the Government who is spending $600 million of your and the rest of the Australian taxpayers' money to step up and explain why this is a good idea when you have the experts saying this is expensive power and it doesn't stack up. So yes, I reckon when you have got people like Kerry Schott and others saying this doesn't stack up, I would like to see what Angus Taylor says to counter that.

KARVELAS: Finally, almost one-third of adult Australians say they are unlikely to be vaccinated against COVID-19 according to this survey conducted by the Sydney Morning Herald and the Age from research company Resolve Strategic. At the same time a nurse said she administered one COVID vaccine in eight hours in a Victorian hub, which is just staggering. Are you worried about those reports?

WONG: I am deeply worried about the shambolic state of the vaccine rollout here in Australia. I am deeply worried by the Federal Government's failure to roll out the vaccine well; to have in place proper plans. I am deeply worried about the mixed message we are getting from the Government. I am deeply worried as a consequence of those that we are seeing so much vaccine hesitancy and I am deeply worried about the effect on the Australian economy as well as the potential risk to health of Australians of the failure to get the vaccine rollout right. So yes, I am worried.

KARVELAS: Penny Wong, thanks for joining us.

WONG: Good to be with you.

Authorised by Paul Erickson, ALP, Canberra.