20 April 2020




FRAN KELLY, HOST: Senator Penny Wong is the Shadow Foreign Minister. Penny Wong, welcome back to Breakfast.

SENATOR PENNY WONG, SHADOW MINISTER FOR FOREIGN AFFAIRS: Good Morning Fran, good to be with you again.

KELLY: You hear our Foreign Minister there, spearheading the push for a global investigation. Is this the right course of action? No matter what Beijing thinks about it, is this what we need?

WONG: Of course we need to get to the bottom of how this happened and the review is a welcome idea and we’ve welcomed it. I would say though, that Senator Payne has to see this through. We need to move from talking points and words to actions. We need to get the support of members of the international community, if this review, this investigation, is going to be anything more than a line in an interview.

So I would encourage Marise Payne, with our support, to make sure she gets out into the international community – virtually of course – engages with counterparts, and gains support for this approach.

KELLY: And is Australia of sufficient sort of weight to be able to do that? Do we have a track record of this?

WONG: Look, I think this is an international issue of international importance in which the countries of the world all have such a strong collective and national interest in in getting to the bottom of it.

So, you know, obviously we’re not a superpower, but we are substantial power. We have, we are a country that’s worked multilaterally in our region and we should be leveraging that. This is an important issue. We simply can’t allow this to simply be something we talk about but don’t do anything about.

KELLY: We are not a superpower. But as Labor has pointed out in the past too, we need to be careful not to seem to be the lackey of the other superpower, the United States. Overnight, Donald Trump is warning that China should face consequences if it was “knowingly responsible for the pandemic”. He said it could have been stopped in China before it started, and it wasn’t. And the whole world is suffering because of it. Are there’s sensitivities, we need to be aware of there to make sure that Australia is not seen, if we go out and lobby for this, to be doing America’s bidding?

WONG: We are asking, we are proposing this as a country because of our national interest and the global community’s national interest and making sure we understand why this has happened and make sure it doesn’t happen again. That’s why Senator Payne is doing it. And that’s why Labor is supporting it.

KELLY: And what should it look like? Who should run it? Because Senator Payne said it shouldn’t be, the Minister says it shouldn’t be the World Health Organization because that’s like poacher turned gamekeeper. Who should be running such an inquiry and what should it be trying to, terms of reference, I suppose, what should it be trying to get to the bottom of?

WONG: Well, I think these are the questions that Senator Payne really has to come forward with answers to, and be proposing to the international community. I mean…

KELLY: Do you have any ideas? Is, is there a model that you’ve seen that we should be looking at?

WONG: No, I think, I think it is important that we have an investigation that is independent, that is multilateral – that is, it draws from more than one country, experts from more than one country.

And I also believe that given the concerns that have been expressed about the WHO, that it is better if it’s not run by the WHO, although they’d need to have an input.

But this is, these are the precisely the sorts of questions that are required to be asked of the Government if this is to be more than something that is just floated but is something that is acted on. And I think Australia should act on it.

KELLY: We’ve seen international investigations in the past, into, into countries where they wouldn’t have been happy about it. You know, there was the investigation into Iraq to see if they had chemical weapons, there was into Syria to see if they used chemical weapons. There was resistance, but ultimately, those countries agreed to allow international inspectors in. Now that, they were both I think UN precipitated. The catch here is China. It has a veto capacity on the UN. China would have to be persuaded to allow international investigators into China. What are the chances of that do you think?

WONG: Well the only prospects of there, that being possible is if we gain international agreement for this idea. The proposition would have to be supported by many nations, small and large, for it to gain the weight that meant that China would see it is, it is in its interests as one of the great powers, as an international, as an international leader, to do the right thing around the calls from the rest of the international community to be very transparent.

KELLY: What are the chances of that? China’s showed no inclination to accept responsibility for this. It’s putting out false stories suggesting you know, all others…

WONG: That doesn’t mean we walk away, Fran.

KELLY: No, no I agree.

WONG: That doesn’t mean we don’t stop trying to call for transparency.

And, you know, what we can say is that the only prospect of success is if we gain international support.

So I give the Minister bipartisan backing for the work she’s going to do and I say, let’s do it. You know, let’s get out there and talk to our partners, to our allies, to our friends, to the whole international community about why this is necessary.

And it is necessary not because anybody wants to play games, it is necessary not because now that people want to take sides, it is necessary because this is the worst pandemic humanity has experienced in over a century and people across this globe are entitled to understand how it happened so we can ensure it does not happen again.

KELLY: You’re listening to RN Breakfast it’s 8:12. Our guest is Shadow Foreign Minister Penny Wong. Yesterday the Minister was asked whether she trusts China at the moment. I think you could describe it as she sidestepped that question, but what’s your answer to that question? Do you trust China on this?

WONG: Well I think transparency and openness are the basis of trust and the world wants to trust China. China wants to be trusted. And that requires China to be more transparent.

KELLY: Do you trust China at the moment on this? And the soundings of this?

WONG: I think we all want to trust China, but that requires China to be more transparent. And I’d make two points about that; trust isn’t something that is, you know, set and forget. It’s something that, that is derived from and built on actions. That’s the first point. The second point I’d make is that, you know, China, it has become much more assertive internationally, and it has, it has a view about its position in the world, as all great powers do. I’d make this point; that power is only able to be exercised with authority if there is legitimacy, and legitimacy requires transparency.

KELLY: The minister admitted her concerns about China are “at a high point” and the bilateral relationship she says will need to be reviewed. Peter Dutton says there’ll have to be “a reset in the way the world interacts with China”. I mean, what would that look like, reviewing our bilateral relationship or, or what kind of reset to quote Peter Dutton, do you think the world could, could put in place with China?

WONG: First, I think it is not necessarily helpful to have Mr Dutton and Senator Payne making different comments about a complex, bilateral relationship.

What I would say about the China relationship is it’s not straightforward. I think that’s self-evident. We all know that. And it is likely to get more difficult to navigate for Australia.

Now, you know how this plays out and what the strategic and economic consequences of COVID-19, we’ve got a long way to go, regrettably. There is a lot more that will happen, many more consequences, which we will see.

What I would say about this, is that I do think this is a discussion which needs to be conducted in a mature and calm way. And in a way that is as bipartisan as possible.

KELLY: The strategic consequences are worth looking at now, because despite China’s role in the, in the spread of the pandemic, it’s actually, it seems to be working to shore up its strategic position in our region, for instance.

The pandemic, on the other hand, seems to have debilitated the United States, not just at home, but also overseas. One of its major aircraft carriers in the Pacific, the Theodore Roosevelt, has been back at base because of the, of the virus. Will Australia still be able to rely on the US in the Pacific as a key ally. Or, do you think the pandemic which has changed that relationship, that equation and we need to rethink that?

WONG: Look, I mean, I think American leadership is not going to end anytime soon and America will remain engaged in our region.

However, obviously, America faces enormous health and economic domestic challenges. And as friends and allies of America, you know, we’ve been very distressed by the images and the news out of the US and we wish them all the best. We send them all our good wishes in trying to tackle this.

In terms of, you know, China’s ambitions in terms of the strategic implications, I will just make this point: I think, the international community, I think this is the time we should be working together. It’s not a time to be pressing differences, and it’s not a time to be pressing for advantage. And I think the world would look less kindly on countries who are seeking to take advantage of such a difficult time, but seeking to use the opportunity of countries focuses being elsewhere, that is on health crisis, in order to project, press their strategic position.

KELLY: Do you think China’s doing that now?

WONG: Well, China is certainly becoming more assertive and we’ve seen that. We’ve seen that recently, over the weekend in relation to I think Paracel and Spratly Islands. We’ve seen that in Hong Kong. We’ve seen, we’ve seen that, we’ve seen that more prior to that in the Natuna Islands and you know, I would simply say, this is a time for us to work together. This is a time for us to be focused on how, you know, in our in our common humanity, we confront the greatest challenge we have seen since, since World Wars, and the worst pandemic in a century.

KELLY: And Senator, on another issue, can I just ask you finally, it’s a month now since the Government upgraded the formal advice to “do not travel”. But as the Minister told us yesterday, there’s still about 11,000 Australians who registered for consular assistance overseas, but have yet to make it home or not all of those want to come home. More than half of them are in India. Do you accept the extreme difficulty in flying these people out, given that that country and other countries are in total lockdown, some of the locations very remote, our Government has assisted many to get home?

WONG: Well, first, yes, those difficulties exist but they’re difficulties being navigated by, similar Governments, you know, friendly Governments like the United Kingdom, which has had multiple fights that the Government has organised out of India.

The 11,000 figure are people who have actually registered with the post in countries, so they’re probably all people who want to come home.

I am surprised that this is still such a big problem. I think the Government has been reluctant to step in. I think the Government has wasted too much time stubbornly insisting people take commercial options, when in some locations, they are not available.

KELLY: So why do you think that is? Do you think that’s a cost thing?

WONG: Well, you’d have to ask the Minister that because I do not understand it. But more importantly, Australians overseas don’t understand it.

If you’re in India, and you’re an Australian citizen in the lockdown, and you see the United Kingdom, organising through the Government some 38 flights over the last week and the coming week, and you see that that the Australian Government is leaving this for private charters to be organised on the ground by ex-pats, you’d have to wonder what is the Australian Government’s strategy?

KELLY: Penny Wong thank you very much for joining us.

WONG: Good to speak with you.

Authorised by Paul Erickson, ALP, Canberra.