23 November 2017




SENATOR PENNY WONG, LEADER OF THE OPPOSITION IN THE SENATE: Can I first say that we do welcome the release of this White Paper, and I, on behalf of the Opposition, want to thank the Secretary of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, Frances Adamson, and Richard Maude, who headed up the taskforce, for their work on this White Paper. We are very well served in this country by our foreign service, and I think they’ve demonstrated that in the document that they have produced for the Government of the day.

There are a few things in this document that we want to specifically support and endorse because they reflect much of what Labor has been saying in this term of Opposition. First, we welcome the focus on the shape and stability of the regional order. This was identified by us, particularly in a speech I gave earlier this year, as one of the key four national interests that Australia needs to prosecute.

The paper also identifies correctly the way in which economic power is being applied in our region, something Labor has been speaking about, and we agree with Malcolm Turnbull when he says we should approach this period with confidence. That is something Labor has also been saying.

A critical aspect of what the White Paper does is to acknowledge that we are facing a period of disruption. We said, some time ago, when this White Paper process was announced, that it was critical that the Government confronted that, and we are pleased that the White Paper seeks to do so.

A few issues that we would raise. It’s all very good to have a chapter on climate change but if you don’t have a mechanism to reach your targets that rings somewhat hollow. Similarly, it’s all well to say we want to support a more resilient Pacific but when the Abbott and Turnbull Governments have cut some $11 billion from aid, including in our region and in the Pacific that does, obviously, make that particular priority ring somewhat hollow.

Finally, I’d make this point in terms of the focus on the Indo-Pacific and Asia, and I note that the Indo-Pacific is a term that has been around for some time, and that Labor actually referenced and utilised in its Defence White Paper when in Government. I make this point – one of the benefits and insights of the Australia in the Asian Century White Paper that Prime Minister Gillard’s Government undertook was it recognised the importance of our domestic policy settings in order to deliver the capability that we needed to engage more closely with our region. I think that is something the Government would do well to pick up and focus on more broadly.

Finally I end on this point. The challenges outlined in this White Paper are substantial. The interest Australia has in advocating and prosecuting those national interests are substantial. Regrettably, I do not believe and, frankly, I don’t think the Australian people believe, that this divided and chaotic Government is capable of advocating and prosecuting those interests efficiently. We saw the spectacle today not only of Cabinet leaks, but leaks from Cabinet about Cabinet leaks on the day this White Paper was being launched. I think it really underlined that this is a divided and chaotic Government that Mr Turnbull leads and that is to the detriment of the national interest on a day where that is what Labor is focused on.

JOURNALIST: The White Paper has a pessimistic tone in parts. Would you agree that the rise of China poses strategic challenges for Australia?

WONG: We have to look at China’s place in our region from a number of perspectives. The first is China’s rise, as you describe it, has been the key contributor to Australia’s increasing prosperity over recent years. It has also been a good thing for humanity. To have hundreds of millions of people lifted out of poverty is a good thing of itself, as well as having been, as I have outlined, something from which Australia has benefitted.

I think we also should recognise, and should continue to advocate to China, stability in our region is not just in Australia’s interests, not just in Indonesia’s interests, it is in China’s interests because it’s that peace and stability which has been the platform on which China has risen, has enabled China’s economic development.

JOURNALIST: The Prime Minister made it clear Australia won’t agree to the principle of might is right. Is that something Labor agrees with?

WONG: We are consistently on the record over decades, and certainly in recent times, as talking about the importance of a rules-based order, a liberal rules-based order in our region and we agree with the Government’s focus on that. And again I would reiterate that is something from which China and the countries of the region have benefitted.

When it comes to China, my view is we invest in the relationship, we seek to work together as much as we are able and we are prepared to stand up for our interests and our values.

JOURNALIST: Has China ignored international law?

WONG: We have made our view about the South China Sea very clear and our view about the importance of the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea and our position is the same as the Government’s.

JOURNALIST: Were there any surprises outlined in the White Paper?

WONG: I haven’t read every single word but from what I have read in the last hour, no real surprises. Really the issues that I have identified are the ones that we would reference.

I do want to emphasise the cuts to the ODA, the cuts to aid. I think it’s difficult to talk about increasing your soft power and increasing resilience in the Pacific when you’re cutting $11 billion out of your Overseas Development Assistance.

JOURNALIST: The White Paper talks about the importance of building up alliances with Asian countries, for Australia to make alliances. The Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, Australia has moved to revive that recently. Is that something that Labor also believes should be resuscitated?

WONG: We were briefed on the commencement of senior official discussions about the Quadrilateral, and we look forward to seeing how those will develop and particularly to understanding how the Quadrilateral will relate to other important multi-lateral bodies such as the East Asia Summit in our region.

The way in which Labor would look at this or any other proposal is to assess, first, what contribution does it make to the stable regional order that we all seek, that we all wish to continue to support? How does it help that? Does it make a contribution to maintaining that kind of stability in our region? That’s the framework by which we’d assess this or any other proposal for further dialogues.

JOURNALIST: On the much talked about Belt and Road Initiative, China’s big plan for the – well, the world. What’s Labor recent thinking on that? The Australian Government has been supportive in some way of the plan but also hesitant to become involved for various reasons. Is Labor’s position similar to that of the Government or is the Government being too hesitant?

WONG: It’s a little difficult to determine sometimes what the Government’s position is because Mr Ciobo’s articulation of it has at times been different to other ministers.

I would simply make this point. We said China is investing through the Belt and Road Initiative, and it is obviously working with many countries on that front. There is certainly an infrastructure deficit in our region. There are economic benefits to dealing with that infrastructure deficit.

In terms of Australia’s engagement we have said we would, were we in Government, look at projects on a case by case basis and always with reference to our national interests. So I think it’s not a sensible way forward to have a sort of blanket approach either way. Frankly it would probably be of benefit if the Government could clarify their position a little more.

JOURNALIST: One final question on Donald Trump. How does his rise shape your calculations about the role the US will play in the region? The Prime Minister says there’s a debate about the scale of US commitment to Asia but fundamentally he’s confident the US will always play a crucial role as a security power in the region. Do you agree with that?

WONG: I agree with this proposition – that US engagement in the region is important, not just to Australia, but to the region, and I would argue to the world. And it is a good thing for the US to continue to be constructively engaged in our region, and I do welcome the comments Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Secretary Mattis have made particularly about that.

Mr Turnbull is right to point to the fact that the place the US has in the world, the way in which it projects that place, how it approaches alliances, have been a matter of political debate and varying degrees of political rhetoric inside the United States. In fact I gave a speech last night where I referenced this.

From Australia’s perspective we should continue to advocate for what we see as our national interest and frankly the interests of the region which is continued constructive US engagement.