ABC AM with Sabra Lane - 20/04/2022

20 April 2022

SUBJECTS: China Solomon Islands deal.

SABRA LANE, HOST: The Shadow Foreign Minister is Penny Wong. Good morning and welcome.

PENNY WONG, SHADOW MINISTER FOREIGN AFFAIRS: Good morning, Sabra. Good to be with you.

LANE: What's your reaction to this deal being done?

WONG: This is the worst failure of Australian foreign policy in the Pacific since the end of World War Two. We have China now with the security agreement with the nation of the Pacific, a nation that's just over 1600 kilometres from Cairns. So, what this means is, on Scott Morrison's watch, our region has become less secure and the risks Australia faces have become much greater. And what I would say is what we see again, is the same pattern of behaviour from Mr. Morrison. Yet again, he's gone missing, just like he did with bushfires, vaccines and RATs. This government was warned of this security pact in August, and yet we have a security agreement signed in our region on his watch.

LANE: How does this make the region less safe?

WONG: Well, I think people understand the strategic circumstances Australia faces, they understand the strategic competition which exists, and our region is being reshaped. The Pacific has been a region in which Australia has been who the Pacific turns to meet their challenges. What we now have is China with a security agreement with Solomon Islands in our region. And I would make the point that we were warned about this in August. The Opposition Leader of the Solomon Islands, Matthew Wale, he's made clear he warned the government last August that China was negotiating a security agreement that could lead to a Chinese base in the Solomons. That was what he has said publicly.

LANE: The government sends Australia's spy chiefs and the Minister for the Pacific to Honiara. Marise Payne, you just heard her say that she and the Prime Minister communicated with their counterparts to try and dissuade them from doing this. What more could it have done?

WONG: Well, this is such a serious issue and securing our region at this time is such an imperative for any government, that this should have been something that Mr. Morrison dealt with. But he went missing. And instead of taking responsibility, and dealing with this as a leader should in the interests of the nation, he sends a junior woodchuck at the last minute. Now, by comparison, as you put to Minister Payne, the US is sending their top national security adviser on the Indo Pacific. That says something about the weight the US places on this, as compared to the lack of response from a Prime Minister who simply went missing.

LANE: This deal has been done, as you point out, just before Kurt Campbell and the State Department's top official are due in the Solomon Islands, does this deal signal that US power in the Pacific is waning?

WONG: I think what this deal signifies is that Australia is no longer for the Solomon Islands, the nation to whom they turn to meet their challenges in every instance. And the government should have acted sooner. We live in a very risky world, we live in a world where the strategic circumstances we face are more riskier and more uncertain than in any time since the end of World War Two. And there are many things that an Australian Government needs to do to deal with that. One of them is to secure our region. And the government, under Mr. Morrison, has abjectly failed in that.

LANE: The US has warned that this deal could set a precedent for the wider Pacific region. What should Australia do to head off other nations doing similar deals, noting that you could be the foreign minister in five weeks' time?

WONG: Well, we have to put a great deal of energy and resources into making sure that we secure our region and the Pacific Island nations are a key part of that. We have to listen to what they're saying, we have to not only engage in the platitudes about the Pacific family and the security in the region being the responsibility of all of the Pacific family, but we have to listen to what leaders are saying. And I'll just remind you, the Minister talked about the Boe Declaration on Regional Security. The first article of that was Pacific leaders saying "we reaffirm that climate change remains the single greatest threat to the livelihood security and well being of the peoples of the Pacific". So, one of the things Australia has been lacking on is any genuineness when it comes to addressing climate change. Let's remember, Mr. Morrison worked really hard to try and take out strong references to climate change in 2019 at the Pacific Islands Forum. Let's remember Mr. Morrison, Mr. Dutton along with Mr. Abbott making jokes about water lapping at your doors. This is just a demonstration of a lack of leadership and a lack of responsibility for the Prime Minister.

LANE: Penny Wong, thanks for your time.

Authorised by Paul Erickson, ALP, Canberra.