ABC RN Breakfast with Fran Kelly - 24/11/2021

24 November 2021

SUBJECTS: Peter Dutton amping up prospect of war; atmosphere in Parliament; One Nation posting Jacqui Lambie’s mobile number online; divisions within the Morrison-Joyce Government; Mr Morrison’s failure to unequivocally condemn violent protests; Gerard Rennick’s vaccination status; religious discrimination legislation.

FRAN KELLY, HOST: Penny Wong joins us in our Parliament House studios. Senator Wong, welcome back to Breakfast.


KELLY: Yes, it's good to see you face to face. The Defence Minister said it would be inconceivable that Australia wouldn't support the United States if it chooses to take action over Taiwan. Is that any more than an acknowledgement of the obvious that Australia would likely be drawn into the conflict, into any conflict under the ANZUS Treaty, which is now 70 years old? What's this got to do with electioneering?

WONG: Well, his comments, let's be clear, when he uses those words, "inconceivable" that Australia would not join a war he is radically out of step with a strategy that successive Australian governments have long adopted, and the strategy and position that successive US administrations - our principal ally - have adopted, most recently confirmed by President Biden. So, I think the real question that Mr Dutton ought to answer is why is he amping up talk of war, rather than simply working to maintain long standing policy to preserve the status quo?

KELLY: So, the longstanding... sorry.

WONG: My point to yesterday was I think his motivations do go to election tactics. And I think that is the most dangerous election tactic Australia has seen - to talk up the prospect of war against a superpower.

KELLY: Well, just to quote Peter Dutton again, he says it wasn't anything other than a statement of reality, but just about your talk describing it as the most dangerous election tactic - what's so dangerous about it?

WONG: Well, the reason people have not, have chosen not to declare a definitive position on armed conflict is because we have to all work - the US, the Taiwanese, other countries of the region, US allies like Australia - to maintain the status quo. And we do so by the US maintaining what's described as a position of strategic ambiguity, which is reflected in Australia's position, and by ensuring that the Taiwanese do not declare unilaterally independence. Now, there is a fine balance here, in Taiwan. And the reason is that we all know as I said yesterday that war in and over Taiwan would be potentially catastrophic for humanity. So, it does require an approach that has been adopted under successive governments. It's Mr Dutton who's out of step.

KELLY: This policy of strategic ambiguity, as you say, that's been the status quo but is it untoward to look and think if China did attack Taiwan, that ambiguity would come to an end? I mean would that be the position of a Labor government?

WONG: Well, I think the question is, whether we think, disincentives for conflict are provided by Mr Dutton talking tough? Do we really think that? That Mr Dutton talking tough is the way to deter conflict? I don't think so. I mean, I think there is a place for deterrence and disincentives, and we should always be working to maintain the status quo. But what we have is a Defence Minister, who is prepared to amp up rhetorically, the prospect of war, and I think it's about elections. Now an interesting point to date, just an interesting point to date; he has not been backed up by the Prime Minister or the Foreign Minister, who have declined to repeat those words. Now maybe this is actually about, after Laura Tingle's package last night, maybe this is actually about leadership ambitions inside the Liberal Party. But either way, it's not responsible.

KELLY: If it is about elections, Peter Dutton's language is pretty strong. He accused you of being weak when it comes to standing for Australian values. He said you fold in a fit of weakness. He talked about being weak on national security. If it is about electioneering, how much tougher does that make it for you, if the Morrison Government's going on a sort of national security, khaki election footing?

WONG: I believe that you should call out these political tactics for what they are. And I believe that Australia's national interest should always be the lodestar, the objective in how you handle national security. And interesting - Mr Dutton's comments yesterday - I think he's proving my point. He's lying about what I said. He is lying about Labor's position. And he wants to turn this into a domestic political fight.

KELLY: There were many elements of his speech. One of the complaints he made about you yesterday was that he said that you're just following Paul Keating's analysis of foreign policy. But one broader point that comes from your speech. I mean, do you believe that Australia currently has an overly securitised foreign policy at the moment?

WONG: Well can I just make the point - I think I've responded to you on this and I've certainly responded publicly - Mr Keating and I might agree on many things, we do not agree on China. And I know he's attacked me about that. But I have a view about China, the way in which China is behaving. China has changed and our relationship with them has changed, and Labor's position has reflected that.

KELLY: Paul Keating also said recently that we do have an overly securitised foreign policy. Do you believe we do?

WONG: The point I was making is that I'd just like a foreign policy that worked better. We've got a position from this Government, where it's clear that we don't have an approach to foreign policy that is commensurate with the challenges we face.

KELLY: Let's move on to some other issues, now. The atmosphere in parliament is pretty feverish at the moment in this final two weeks. Yet another Liberal MP - Llew O'Brien now - has threatened to withhold his support for government bills unless the Prime Minister overrides the state on vaccine mandates. Is parliament getting to a point where it's unworkable?

WONG: What I think is actually happening is you've got extraordinary divisions inside the Coalition and the way in which Mr Morrison is trying to deal with those divisions - we know there's divisions on climate, for example, we're Barnaby Joyce doesn't actually support the Government's position - but the way in which Mr Morrison is trying to deal with these divisions is by, let's be honest, pandering to the extremists and we saw that earlier this week in his qualified condemnation or his qualified comments about the violence.

KELLY: The Prime Minister has come back since then and said he does not condone any violence.

WONG: Sure, but people can remember he always says he didn't say something. We all know that. But he did. And the reason he has been circumspect about condemning the violent protests and violent extremists, and those who have a view that they are expressing in very aggressive and violent ways, is because he has people in his party room who have a similar view on vaccines. And we're seeing that play out on the floor of the parliament.

KELLY: How are you seeing it play out on the floor of parliament?

WONG: We saw Coalition Senators voting, splitting from the government on the floor of the Senate and voting for a Pauline Hanson bill that was essentially a bill that was about so-called vaccine discrimination, against vaccines being required in particular sectors.

KELLY: During that vote, Senator Jacqui Lambie, crossbencher, spoke out...

WONG: It was a good speech by Jacqui.

KELLY:...very powerful against it. She then had her personal mobile number leaked by One Nation. She says she's received since "any number of nasty abusive and threatening phone calls and messages". Are we at a new low here?

WONG: Yes, I think we are. And yesterday, when this arose and Jacqui raised this before question time, I reminded people that when Senator Cormann left and in his valedictory, I talked about the importance of contained conflict, and that there are some things - we're going to disagree with each other - but some things have to be off limits. And the problem at the moment, is that leaders in this place and senators and members in this place are not ensuring that there are boundaries to the contest. And this was an example of it. Publishing someone's mobile number, in order to enable people who are very aggressive about vaccines to contact her and make threats is simply inappropriate.

KELLY: And just before I move on to the religious discrimination bill, the Queensland senator who is one of those - Gerard Rennick - who is one of those who's holding the Government to ransom at the moment over this vaccine mandate...

WONG: Well, he talks tough.

KELLY: Well, that’s his stated position.

WONG: Well, he talks tough, but actually, other than that one bill with Pauline Hanson he has been voting with them. So, let's see.

KELLY: He admitted yesterday he's not vaccinated. He says he wants to see the longer-term data. Should an unvaccinated politician be in the Parliament at the moment? Do you have a view on that?

WONG: I have a view that we as leaders in our communities should demonstrate responsibility, the sort of responsibility that so many millions of Australians have demonstrated by making sure they are vaccinated, and by lining up to get vaccinated across this country. That's the sort of leadership we should be demonstrating. And it's disappointing that Coalition Senators are refusing to do so.

KELLY: Just on the religious discrimination bill. The Prime Minister will introduce the bill himself in the Parliament tomorrow. The bill has now been released. Word is Labor's likely to wave it through once the Senate's reviewed it. Will you support this bill?

WONG: We've not yet made a decision on the handling of that bill.

KELLY: Can Labor afford to alienate religious communities heading into an election? It hurt you last time.

WONG: Our position and the position that I think is correct, is this; I support and Labor supports protection against religious discrimination. That protection should not come at the cost of reducing protections for other forms of discrimination.

KELLY: And have you looked at this bill to see if it does?

WONG: I have had a pretty busy 24 hours so no, I haven't. And we should work through that.

KELLY: Those who have, note that the bill would override existing state and territory anti-discrimination protections in some cases. So, it would diminish existing protections even as seeks to provide new protection for people of faith, who discriminate. Are you happy with that?

WONG: I think our principled position has been that this right should not - the right to practice your faith freely, which is a human right - should not be protected through the reduction of protections that other Australians have against forms of discrimination.

KELLY: So would Labor support the overriding of...

WONG: That's a decision... We will work through the bill. But that principled position is the view I hold - a shield, not sword.

KELLY: The bill will allow some discrimination along faith lines when it comes to hiring practices but the Attorney General Michaelia Cash says the new laws won't allow gay staff to be sacked by faith-based schools, hospitals or aged care facilities. She says the Government's clear expectation is that a student is not expelled on the basis of their gender or sexual identity. Are you satisfied by those reassurances?

WONG: I'll tell you - this is three years. Do you remember the first time Scott Morrison promised that he'd actually protect kids was 2018 in the...

KELLY: Wentworth by-election.

WONG: Yeah, well, what's happened?

KELLY: Well, now they're saying...

WONG: It's 2021 and we still haven't seen those protections for kids.

KELLY: Are you satisfied by the Attorney-General's reassurances?

WONG: I'm not satisfied by anything about the way in which the Government has handled this over the last three years in refusing to engage in a genuine bipartisan process. This goes back to elections, doesn't it Fran? It would be much better - because this is a sensitive issue and a complex issue - if the Government had done what Mark Dreyfus sought, which was to have a bipartisan, consultative process about how to manage this and how to deal with it, but that's not Scott Morrison's way. He doesn't want to bring people together. He always wants division.

KELLY: Penny Wong. Thanks very much for joining us.

WONG: It's great to be here. Last time in the studio with you, Fran. It's been a privilege to be questioned by you - if irritating at times! But thank you for your contribution to the democracy.

KELLY: That's what we strive for - balance and sometimes irritating! Senator Wong, thank you.

Authorised by Paul Erickson, ALP, Canberra.