TV Interview with Andrew Clennell - Sky News - 31/03/2024

31 March 2024



Subjects: Immigration reforms; terrorist attack in Russia; return of funding to UNWRA; Russia’s illegal and immoral invasion of Ukraine; Australia-China relationship; Australia-US relationship.

ANDREW CLENNELL, HOST: Well, it's been a very busy parliamentary sitting fortnight, particularly for Foreign Minister Penny Wong. She's held talks with her Chinese counterpart, Wang Yi, been subject to criticism on her performance from former Prime Minister Paul Keating, who then appeared to backtrack, and of course she's had to deal with that immigration issue. I sat down with the Foreign Minister, Penny Wong, earlier.

Foreign Minister Penny Wong, thanks for your time.

PENNY WONG, FOREIGN MINISTER: Good to be with you.

CLENNELL: Let me start with this immigration legislation the government has been trying to introduce. One of the aims of it appears to be to attempt to designate countries like Iran and Iraq and attempt to force them to take back some of the detainees that are stuck in immigration detention, or their citizens won't be allowed in the country. Did your department advise on whether this might achieve that outcome, or whether this was a good idea?

FOREIGN MINISTER: Andrew, we're a cabinet government, so all of these decisions go through a proper cabinet process with appropriate advice from departments. But what I'd say to you is this legislation was about making Australia's immigration system stronger, it was about ensuring that people who don't cooperate with a requirement to return can be penalised, and it was about ensuring that we can have a new power, to stop granting visas in certain circumstances to those countries who are refusing to have citizens returned. Now obviously that's a power which would only be exercised where necessary, it's a power which is one tool in the ways in which we seek to manage the immigration system.

CLENNELL: Because it has been compared to Donald Trump's measures - he banned citizens coming in from seven countries - there is a bit of a similarity there, isn't there? I mean you're not tying it to someone being Muslim, but you're designating a particular country because their governments aren't doing what the Australian Government wants. It's pretty controversial stuff.

FOREIGN MINISTER: Look, first, I'd emphasise that this is one tool and not the only tool that we would use to try and ensure we keep a sensible, strong migration system.

The second point I would make is it's a power that would only be able to be exercised in consultation with the person in this job, so it's the Foreign Minister, and there may be other diplomatic avenues you would try and go through before you get to that point.

But obviously there's an issue that we are seeking to address, and we've worked through that carefully within government about how we might address it, and this is what the legislation is seeking to do.

CLENNELL: Because the Iranian Government probably wouldn't listen to us anyway, right, even if we did this?

FOREIGN MINISTER: Well, you wouldn't expect the person who's the Foreign Minister of Australia to have a discussion about what another government might or might not do.

What I would say to you is our job is to make sure we manage Australia's migration system sensibly and in the national interest. That we don't just talk about it, but we actually look at how we can make the system of laws and powers suitable for purpose, fit for purpose, and that's what we are doing.

CLENNELL: And as you've said yourself before, Iran's a difficult country for women, and yet the government potentially would be stopping Iranian women from escaping that situation to come here.

FOREIGN MINISTER: Well, that's a long bow, and the first point I'd make is the people that we are talking about who are the focus of the legislation, that is those who are here in detention and not cooperating with the requirement to return, have been found not to be refugees, so I think it is important that we recognise we're actually not talking about people who've been found to be genuine refugees.

But the second point I would make is obviously that the power that you're describing is a power, it's not something that would be used in a blanket way, and it's something that would be used as and when necessary. It's an important part of our toolkit in terms of managing migration.

CLENNELL: It looks like the PM rolled the dice on this. He tried to get the Coalition to agree in quick time on it, and the gamble didn't pay off. Is that a fair assessment?

FOREIGN MINISTER: No, I think what we what the Prime Minister and what the government was hoping is that Peter Dutton might act like an adult and look to the national interest rather than political interest, and I know, you know, I think what this week showed is his Party Room and he are in a mood to make sure that they say no to whatever they can, even if it's a sensible piece of legislation, which he himself should have put in place when he was Home Affairs Minister.

CLENNELL: All right. But there has been some claims by the Opposition that the government hasn't explained the need for the urgency. Can I put to you one possible reason for the urgency. Isn't this primarily about deterring more detainees from taking their cases to the High Court?

FOREIGN MINISTER: This is about the government identifying areas in our system of managing immigration and the removal of people from Australia who are found not to be refugees, and looking at what powers are needed to ensure we can manage that system properly.

It was a very sensible approach, it's an approach which I think the need for which is demonstrated by the fact that we have people who are kept in immigration detention who are refusing to cooperate with a return to their country of origin, and we have insufficient powers to deal with that situation.

You would have thought Mr Dutton would have acted sensibly. It's regrettable that we've got the Peter Dutton Adam Bandt alliance preventing action on this, but so be it. But it does say something about the political opportunism.

CLENNELL: Do you think Parliament could sit in April to settle this, or the fact that the inquiry doesn't report until May means that's unlikely?

FOREIGN MINISTER: Well, you know, we were prepared to vote for it, and we worked with the Opposition to give them an inquiry, to brief them on the bill. They initially were supportive of the legislation, or positive about it, and obviously then decided that they could play some politics, and that's regrettable. It's up to Mr Dutton to explain and all of the Coalition to explain, as the days go by and the fact that the government doesn't have this power, why they think that's justified.

CLENNELL: Would you bring Parliament back early if they changed their mind?

FOREIGN MINISTER: That's a big hypothetical, and at this stage all we have is Peter Dutton alongside the Greens saying no. The fact that this has been deferred for a couple of months is entirely on their heads.

CLENNELL: All right. Can I ask you for a reaction to the terrorist attack in Russia, and Vladimir Putin's claims that Ukraine might somehow be involved.

FOREIGN MINISTER: Well, first, we mourn the loss of every innocent life. The second thing I would say is Islamic State has claimed responsibility. And my third point is Mr Putin is well known for putting information into the public sphere which is not correct, or which suits his purposes.

CLENNELL: How long do you think the Ukraine Russia war could go for? Do you think there's any prospect in the next year or so there might actually be some sort of truce between the two countries, some sort of settlement?

FOREIGN MINISTER: Well, I think we all hope that the war will end, and that it will end on terms that reflect the sovereignty of Ukraine. This is an illegal and immoral war, it's a breach of the UN Charter, and Russia should cease its war on Ukraine.

And it is important to remember, and I know for some people, this seems to be a war a long way away. Why does this matter to us? It matters to us because when the countries of the world, after World War II, came together, they agreed a number of things, and one of them was we would respect the territorial integrity and sovereignty of other nations. In other words, we wouldn't invade. And what we have is a member of what's called the P5, one of the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council, breaching the UN Charter.

That's quite an extraordinary situation, and really, all countries of the world should continue to not only support Ukraine but put pressure on Russia to end this illegal and immoral war.

CLENNELL: You've copped some flack in terms of returning funding to UNRWA in the Israel Palestine conflict. Why did you make that decision and why are we taking a different approach to the US on this?

FOREIGN MINISTER: Two points. I think there's two things about UNRWA which, you know, are both true. One is that UNRWA is necessary as the vehicle to get aid into Gaza where people are starving. I don't think there's any dispute that UNRWA is the best way and the only organisation with the capacity to deliver on the ground in Gaza at this time.

Second point is that the allegations were serious, and they required action. That's why I suspended the funding. It was the right thing to do, that UNRWA sacked the people concerned, undertook its own investigations. It was we have a UN investigation, and we have steps that UNRWA is taking now and more steps it will take in the future.

The advice I received, after a lot of consideration by government, was that UNRWA was still necessary to provide aid into Gaza for people who are starving; secondly, that the best available advice was that it was not a terrorist organisation and that the risks could be managed by an updated funding agreement to safeguard Australia's interests.

Now I think this is ongoing process, I think there is more reform of UNRWA required, and I think the UN understand that. So we have a

CLENNELL: Why has the US taken a different approach?

FOREIGN MINISTER: Yeah. Well, the US has taken a different approach, but the US but others haven't. The European Union has re started funding, Canada has re started funding, New Zealand did not pause funding. So we're there are a range of different views from like mindeds. Obviously there are different issues, the US has taken a different view, but Canada, European Union, other European countries have re started funding.

This is the dilemma for the world. We know what is happening in Gaza, and we know that people are in desperate need. And so not only ensuring we can provide that aid but continuing to call on the Netanyahu government to allow aid in, this is what the international community should do, and I again reiterate the need for the Netanyahu government to allow aid into the Gaza.

ANDREW CLENNELL: Minister, once again this week, just a week after the visit with the Chinese Foreign Minister, you found yourself putting out a statement complaining about the Chinese Government, this time on cyber-attacks on the UK. Is it difficult to play nice with your Chinese counterpart when this sort of thing's going on?

FOREIGN MINISTER: This is the nature of the job I have, and the nature of the relationship with China. It's what I try to encapsulate with the "cooperate where we can, disagree where we must and engage in the national interest". I mean we're not going to agree on everything with China, just as we don't agree on everything with, you know, other countries, so it doesn't mean you don't engage, you don't try and find areas of cooperation, and you speak when you believe it's necessary and in the national interest.

CLENNELL: What's been behind the decision of the Chinese Government to lift these wine tariffs? It's taken some time. You've been involved in a lot of diplomatic efforts on this.

FOREIGN MINISTER: When we came to government, I think it was around $20 billion of impediments, effective impediments on Australian exports to China, and over time we progressively worked to try and negotiate the removal of all of those impediments. We've come a long way. I think with wine it would be about $19 billion per annum in 2019 terms, approximately.

We've still got a way to go. We've got lobster, red meat establishments. We have said, in addition to the actions taken in the World Trade Organization, we simply keep engaging with the Chinese and saying it's in their interests for these trade impediments to be lifted. We have continued to advocate for that.

I raised again with Foreign Minister Wang Yi when he was here just in the last week, the importance of removal of all impediments, and predictability of trade being a good thing for stability and for economic growth for everybody.

CLENNELL: Do you see the prospect Yang Hengjun could be released, or do we have to accept he'll be in jail for a long time? Obviously that's another issue you've raised.

FOREIGN MINISTER: That's extremely distressing for, certainly for his family, but for so many Australians. You would have heard what I said after my meeting with the Foreign Minister of China about Dr Yang. It reflected what I said in the meeting: we will continue to advocate for him; we will continue to express our view about the sentence which was imposed, and we will continue to provide Dr Yang with all consular assistance. We're not going to cease our public and private advocacy for this Australian citizen.

CLENNELL: Let me ask about Donald Trump and the prospect of him becoming president again. Do you believe that would be a bad thing for Australia?

FOREIGN MINISTER: I believe that Australia has an alliance with a nation, the United States, and that alliance is bigger than whoever is in the White House and whoever is in The Lodge, and that has been so for decades.

CLENNELL: Do you think Kevin Rudd will be able to smooth things over with Donald Trump?

FOREIGN MINISTER: Well, I think Kevin Rudd is doing an outstanding job, and of the many things he's been engaged in, you know, the one area where I would invite you to have a look at is how much progress on AUKUS and the legislation he has under his leadership, our embassy in Washington, has made with our friends both in the State Department and the Pentagon, and we know there's been a lot of legislative progress on that, on the legislation required to enable the submarines and the broader engagement on technology in terms of AUKUS.

You know, I think Dennis Richardson, who's a very well respected former ambassador, former head of, I think both Defence and DFAT, wasn't he? He made the point that those who are pursuing this matter in relation to Mr Rudd are doing so, you know, not in the national interest, and I would invite people to remember that whoever's in Washington, whoever's in London, whether it's Joe Hockey or Kevin Rudd, they represent our country.

CLENNELL: And I wanted to ask you about Paul Keating's behaviour while Wang Yi was here. He criticised you during ASEAN, then appeared to praise you. Has he had any conversations with you at all over this period, over the last month or so?

FOREIGN MINISTER: Well, I don't wouldn't discuss any private engagements with anybody, as you would anticipate. Look, Foreign Minister Wang Yi meets with former leaders in countries which he visits; that's a matter for the Chinese. Mr Keating's obviously a respected former Prime Minister, and it's a matter for them if they choose to meet. I simply made the point: the government speaks for the government and for the country.

CLENNELL: And just very briefly, a party official told me you're one of the most trusted and liked politicians in their research. Have you heard this, and what can you attribute it to?

FOREIGN MINISTER: Well, no, I hadn't heard that. But thank you for bringing me into, you know, your circle of confidence, Andrew. I don't think it's a good thing for politicians to discuss polls anyway, as you know, they come and go. I've been in politics a long time and I've seen good and bad. So I think you should treat both good and bad with the same level of equanimity.

CLENNELL: Foreign Minister, Penny Wong, thanks very much for your time on Sunday Agenda.

FOREIGN MINISTER: Good to speak with you.


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Authorised by Senator the Hon Penny Wong, Minister for Foreign Affairs, Australia.