E&OE - PROOF ONLY
SENATOR PENNY WONG, LEADER OF THE OPPOSITION IN THE SENATE: It’s good to be here at the AIIA which is always a great contributor to foreign policy and international relations in this country. I enjoyed the opportunity very much to engage with those in the room and I think on this issue the bipartisan engagement with both parties of government is very helpful.
JOURNALIST: You mentioned the BRI in your speech today. Luke Foley has recently said that Australia should sign an MOU, or potentially sign up to it. Do you agree with that approach or would you take a different approach?
WONG: I addressed this reasonably extensively in the speech I just gave. And that is first we need to approach the BRI both with an eye to our security imperatives, but also our economic opportunities and we shouldn’t simply take a simplistic either/or approach.
We’ve said that we would approach the BRI with an open mind, that we would assess opportunities for co-operation on a case by case basis always through the prism of our national interest. That remains Labor’s approach.
JOURNALIST: Isn’t it the case though that Australian companies are free to participate in the BRI at the moment? And do we need to do anything about that?
WONG: The approach Labor has articulated is a pragmatic approach which looks to opportunities for collaboration in the context of our security imperatives. I think that is a sensible approach and I would make the point that the Government appears to be moving towards this kind of approach.
JOURNALIST: Frances Adamson has highlighted concerns in the South Pacific about nations being crippled with loans or debts. Do you share any of those concerns, does that have strategic implications for Australia?
WONG: As I outlined in the speech I’ve just given I think there are both strategic and economic implications from the Belt and Road Initiative and we should approach it understanding that reality.
In terms of the sort of financial and governance to which you allude I suppose this is similar, to some extent, to the debate around the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank. Labor’s view was that we should participate, in part, to ensure that we could influence to the extent we were able the governance arrangements to ensure they were sound and consistent with best practice internationally.
What I’d say on the BRI is if you were looking to collaborate, if a Labor Government were looking to collaborate we would bring to that collaboration the same sorts of approach to international financial governance as we always do.
JOURNALIST: Some in your Party have expressed unease with the NSW branch of the Labor Party’s closeness to China and some of the comments that Luke Foley has made recently. Do you share any of those concerns?
WONG: Our relationship with China is a very important relationship and it is a complex relationship that we need a sophisticated and integrated approach to. That is why I today gave a speech that sought to combine both the security and strategic aspects of that relationship as well as the economic aspects. I think it would be a good thing if we could have a dialogue in this country about engagement with China that was less simplistic and less binary and recognise not only China’s place in the world but also how we continue to assert our national interest and our sovereignty.
JOURNALIST: Do you think Australia and the US are getting the rhetoric and diplomacy right with North Korea, or do you think it is only leading to tensions continuing to rise?
WONG: If there are tensions rising it is because Kim Jong-un is engaging in behaviour that is contrary to international law and engaging in unhelpful rhetoric. I think Julie Bishop’s public comments have been appropriate and they have been on point.
We do want to try to de-escalate, we do want to work towards the denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula and we do want to ensure that we resolve a situation which is creating the greatest risk to peace and stability in our region.
JOURNALIST: How appropriate is it however for Luke Foley to bash the Australian press and say the Australian press is led by a Cold War mentality. Do you think that is helpful?
WONG: I haven’t seen those comments Primrose, I’m sorry. They might have been reported but I haven’t looked at them. I’m not going to comment on comments I haven’t seen. I think I have outlined today a very sensible approach to engagement with China.
JOURNALIST: Do you think Australia deserves a seat on the UN Human Rights Council?
WONG: We give support to the Government’s campaign for that seat, in stark contrast, I may say, to the way in which Ms Bishop and others in the Coalition behaved in Opposition when they opposed Australia’s campaign for a seat on the UN Security Council. But we will give bipartisan support as the Opposition.
JOURNALIST: As Labor articulates its stance towards China do you harbour some of the concerns about what we’re seeing happening on Australian university campuses in terms of attacks on free speech and is there anything practically that can be done to address that?
WONG: I’d make this point; freedom of speech – the contest of ideas – is an important democratic practice. It’s an important aspect of Australian democracy and Australian sovereignty that is intensified in the context of a university environment where the contest of ideas is precisely what one engages in at university so we should seek to safeguard those values. I think Frances Adamson, the Secretary of DFAT, made that clear in her speech.
I certainly talked today about the importance, not only of engagement with China, but being clear that our acceptance of China as a global power doesn’t involve us stepping away from defending our sovereignty and that remains our position.
JOURNALIST: The Chinese media, obviously in China there’s a lot of people talking about these matters and it really hurts Chinese students here feeling that the Australian media see a lot of Chinese students as spies here, so why should China send more spies to Australia?
WONG: I don’t think anybody, well I haven’t seen anybody talking about spying.
JOURNALIST: Yeah, the media is talking about it.
WONG: Well I’m saying to you, I haven’t seen us talking about spying, I haven’t seen the media talking about spying. It’s possible that I haven’t read an article somewhere but that’s not what is being asserted. What is being asserted is that in a democracy like Australia’s a contest of ideas is a democratic practice that we value, and we particularly value it in our universities. And we would not want any group to seek to silence another in the contest of those ideas, regardless of race and regardless of their ethnic heritage.
JOURNALIST: Do you think the expulsion of some Chinese students in Australian universities is a kind of interference by the Chinese Government or do you think it’s something else – that a group of Chinese students holding different ideas conflicting with maybe mainstream ideas in Australia?
WONG: I’m sure people have views about that and people might assert different views about that. I don’t have firsthand knowledge of some of the discussions that you’re referencing. I’m making a principled point, and the principled point is the one I’ve articulated – that is the free contest of ideas is a democratic practice we hold dear and I thought what Ms Adamson was saying was that is something that a university should ensure continues, that no one should be silenced whether they are students or lecturers.
JOURNALIST: Just on Iran, if you could just comment on that. What do you make of the US call on that and then also on UNESCO as well? What’s your view in general on that and where does that place the US in the world?
WONG: First on Iran, I think it is a very disappointing decision by President Trump. In the absence of an alternative, I think this sends the wrong signal, both for multilateralism, but also, as Julie Bishop said, in the absence of a credible alternative, let’s not walk away from an agreement, a multilateral agreement which was designed to prevent further nuclear proliferation. I think she’s right to make the comments she has and I join with her in doing so.
Your broader point goes to the issue of multilateralism and it is true that under this Administration there’s been a different approach to multilateralism to what we might have known previously from past Administrations. I think Australia has a deep interest in a strong multilateral system, and even at this time where other parties may take a different approach, we should consistently assert the importance of the United Nations and of the multilateral system. It may not be perfect, but the alternatives are always far worse.
Thank you very much.