7 August 2019




JONATHAN GREEN: Shadow Foreign Affairs Minister Penny Wong met with Jens Stoltenberg today and she joins me now. Senator, welcome.

PENNY WONG: Good to be with you.

GREEN: What was the nature of those discussions today?

WONG: Well it was good to meet the Secretary-General again. I’ve actually met him, years ago when I was Minister for Climate Change, in that context. But I think broadly, the principal issue that we are all grappling with is how do we protect and advance multilateralism at a time when multilateral institutions and the multilateral system including as you described to the rules-based orders is under pressure. And it does mean that we have to work with like-minded institutions and like-minded countries to protect and advance multilateralism where we can. It’s in Australia’s interests.

GREEN: Defence Minister Linda Reynolds says Australia and NATO are looking at working more closely together in the Pacific. Is that something that Labor welcomes?

WONG: We would welcome more engagement with the Pacific. We’ve been on the record for some time as urging the government to engage more closely with our Pacific Island neighbours. Obviously, regrettably, our position on climate change – or rather their position or climate change, Australia’s position, I think impedes that. But more generally, working with like-minded entities, nations, multinational entities like NATO, in pursuit of maintaining a rules-based order – this is a good thing. I mean we have to deal with the world as it is. Labor’s view is you deal with the world as it is but you seek to change it for the better. And the world we know is a pretty disrupted and challenging place at the moment but we have to keep working for those principles and interests that matter to Australia and to Australians.

GREEN: What’s the role of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization in the Pacific? Is NATO just looking for meaning?

WONG: No, I think, taking a step back is a much broader question here. You mentioned in your introduction questions about what’s happening in the US-China trade conflict. Obviously we’ve said for some time, no one wins from a trade war and I think that is being demonstrated. We have disruption internationally. Obviously, there are a whole range of factors which we can discuss, which give rise to that. Now as a substantial power we have a deep interest in maintaining strong multilateral institutions. We have a deep interest in a regional order that is prosperous, safe, peaceful, and where rules are negotiated and not imposed, and we have a deep interest in a multilateral system that works, so we should work with NATO and any other organisation, multilateral organisation, and country, that has the same interests and objectives.

GREEN: That rules-based framework can be undermined and is repeatedly by state actors. Is that what’s going on between America and Iran and the situation that’s occurring the Strait of Hormuz.

WONG: Well, look, I think there are a few dynamics at play in relation to Iran. I think you’re referencing the agreement, or the Iran nuclear agreement, or the JCPOA as it’s technically known – the Iran deal. We didn’t agree with the US administration’s decision to walk away from that – I was very clear about that. And the reason we didn’t agree is that a nuclear weapons capable Iran would erode regional stability and threaten global security. And our judgement, which was also I think Julie Bishop’s judgement, was that was the Iran nuclear deal wasn’t perfect but it was the only deal on the table that might reasonably divert that outcome, which is a bad outcome for the region and the world.

[Crosstalk] Well you asked about the Strait of Hormuz, and I think that what we have to recognize is that, just as we have an interest in rules-based arrangements, and just as we took the view we did on the JCPOA, Australia also has a national interest in ensuring maritime security and protecting freedom of navigation. And it is – whatever your view about the JCPOA – it’s not tenable for what we are seeing in terms of Iran’s behaviour.

GREEN: Surely Iran’s behaviour is prompted by the American withdrawal from that, that, that treaty.

WONG: Well what I would say to you is there is a history of Iran destabilizing the region, which precedes the Iran nuclear deal and goes back decades. And I don’t think – whatever you view on the JCPOA – I don’t think that justifies what we’re seeing in terms of the attacks or the confinement of civilian ships.

GREEN: So is that a good rationale for Australian involvement?

WONG: Well we haven’t been briefed by the Government on the US request. We understand from what Linda Reynolds has said today the Government is still considering it. We would expect them to consider any request based on Australia’s national interests and we would also hope that would engage the Opposition prior to, or early in, their considerations of this.

GREEN: I mean in a situation where the intent from either side, you could argue, seems to be provocation shouldn’t Australia be wary of entering that sort of environment?

WONG: I think I’ve explained to you where I think our national interests lie, and our national interests, I think, did lie in a position we took, which was not, we were not supportive of the decision to walk away from the Iran deal. But equally our national interests also lie in ensuring that there is security in civilian shipping – maritime security. Australia works around the world, in a whole range of contexts, over the last years, to ensure maritime security, with other nations.

GREEN: Our maritime resources, our naval resources are limited and the bulk of, for example, our oil supply comes through the South China Sea, not the Strait of Hormuz. Would that not be a better place to deploy our naval resources?

WONG: Oh look there’s obviously always a question about where you deploy your resources and that’s a matter for the government. They have to make a judgment about what’s in Australia’s national interests. I’m making the broader, principled point about what we see is our national interests.

GREEN: How worried are you about that escalation between the US and China? The talk about currency manipulation?

WONG: I’ve said repeatedly no-one wins from a trade war and whilst we understand the concerns the US administration have about some of the ways in which China has obviously, for example, they have questions about intellectual property, questions about whether some trading arrangements have been reasonable and fair. Obviously trade conflict is problematic, not just in terms of the bilateral relationship, but also in terms of the broader impact on the rest of the world.

I mean as, as Anthony Albanese said, we think there’s a risk for Australia in the escalation in the conflict. We see a risk of us being collateral damage. We have a deep interest in – as a substantial power but a trading nation – in open, fair multilateral trading arrangements and we would urge, and we did urge in our discussions with the US, in the last couple of days last few days, we did urge them to recognize Australia’s interests and the broader interests of the global trading community, in the context of these negotiations.

GREEN: Is there a possible way in which Australia can win – well not win in this situation but can secure its interests, when it is so, so torn between commercial and strategic alliance?

WONG: I think it’s very important that we are very clear in our own minds about what our national interests are. What do we have an interest in? Obviously we are a US ally. We also recognize the importance of our trading relationship with China. But more generally, what we want? We want, as I said, a particular type of region. We want a region that is safe, secure, peaceful – where rules and negotiated and not imposed. And in terms of trading arrangements, we want open fair and transparent trading arrangements that we can access, just as Indonesia and other countries in the region can access. So, how we advocate for that, both with our ally and more broadly in the region is a matter for the government but is an important interest for Australia.

GREEN: Treasurer Josh Frydenberg has called for calm. Is that sufficient?

WONG: Well I don’t know how well that’s working at the moment. We’ve seen pretty significant economic consequences and fallout, which we hope will stabilize. I think rather than him only calling for calm he might want to work on making sure the domestic economy is a little more resilient. We’re facing this period of uncertainty at a very difficult time. The economy’s weaker than we would like it to be. We’ve seen the lowest economic growth in the last ten years – since the GSC. Wages are stagnant. I think Australians know the economic challenges we face. I think it is disappointing that we are facing, that Australia is facing, what is a period of economic uncertainty that is externally generated from a position of less economic strength.

GREEN: So when Prime Minister, Scott Morrison, meets with Donald Trump in just a few weeks’ time his, his message about that conflict with the US and China and about Australia’s position and that should be what?

WONG: I think his message should be that ultimately no one wins from a trade war. We understand that there are concerns, some of which we share in terms of what is occurring in the US-China trade relationship. But more broadly, the world needs open, fair, multilateral trading arrangements, and Australia needs those, and we should be pressing for them.

GREEN: Is Scott Morrison the man to hose down Donald Trump? Make him see reason?

WONG: He’s the bloke who’s been elected Prime Minister so that’s his job.

GREEN: It’s a tricky world that we confront. We talked about US and China, we talked about Iran, we could talk about Yemen, Kashmir. We could talk about Hong Kong, there are a number of global flashpoints, the risk of serious military conflict must be must be increasing.

WONG: Well I think we all worry about the disrupted world in which we live, we worry about the era of strategic competition we’re living in, and it’s a challenging set of circumstances. But that’s what any Australian government will have to navigate to the, to the best of its ability.

GREEN: In the instance of Hong Kong, do you have anxieties about the future course of that unrest and perhaps the role of the Beijing government in resolving it?

WONG: Well I think we’re all concerned about the situation in Hong Kong, and it’s you know it’s clear that there are legitimate concerns about the erosion of certain rights and freedoms. I would emphasize that Australia believes that people everywhere, including in Hong Kong, have the right to express their concerns, including a right to peaceful assembly. And we would encourage authorities to refrain from excessive violence and to ensure that that freedom of assembly is upheld.

GREEN: Should we, and do you think we are, making direct representations on those matters?

WONG: Well, you’d have to ask what representations Marise Payne is making. Obviously she’s made some public comments. I do know that the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade have updated the travel advice, and you know I would urge any of your listeners to ensure that if they’re considering travel, that they look at that updated advice, which does indicate that people should exercise a high degree of caution,

GREEN: Senator Penny Wong is the Shadow Foreign Minister.

Authorised by Paul Erickson, ALP, Canberra.