ABC Afternoon Briefing with Patricia Karvelas - 01/11/2021

01 November 2021

SUBJECTS: Scott Morrison accused of lying to the French President; COP26; interstate border restrictions; Tonga COVID-19 outbreak; vaccines for the region.

PATRICIA KARVELAS, HOST: Senator Wong, welcome.


KARVELAS: It's an extraordinarily blunt assessment from a world leader. What does it mean for the French-Australian relationship?

WONG: It is unprecedented, as you say. I think this goes to Mr Morrison's character. We know he is loose with the truth. We have all seen that. Remember the “we’re at the front of the queue” on vaccines as everyone remembers - which wasn't true. The problem is his dishonesty is now damaging Australia’s national interests - it’s damaging our interest in the world.

We have got a reputation as a nation for being straight shooters, that's Australia’s reputation internationally, we do what we say. And Mr Morrison's failure to be upfront, his failure to, as President Macron says, tell the truth is damaging our interests, at a time when we need more partnerships, stronger relationships, as we ensure the world order and the rules-based order is maintained, this is not the time to be trashing the relationship, to be trashing a personal relationship with the President of France, let alone obviously the comments made by President Joe Biden over the weekend also demonstrate Mr Morrison really has done very poorly here.

KARVELAS: The Prime Minister Scott Morrison says he didn't lie. In fact, he has made that quite clear when he has spoken now. What do you make of his response? He says he didn’t lie to the French President.

WONG: His response whenever he makes a mistake is always the same, Patricia - he denies making it. People can make their own judgement about the Prime Minister’s truthfulness from his past behaviour, but I would say this, in international relations, I think one of the worst ways to deal with somebody telling you, or a nation telling you that they feel deceived is to give them a lecture about why they weren’t, and to tell them that you don’t believe them. The reality is, we have a demonstration of how to deal with it better and that is the Americans. Look at President Biden. France, America's oldest ally, withdrew their Ambassador over this for the first time. And what did they do? They managed to find a way through and that involved President Biden acknowledging what had occurred and acknowledging the French experience of that. We don't have that sort of leadership from Mr Morrison. And the problem with that is it damages the nation's interests, not only his reputation.

KARVELAS: Okay, but on this issue of sharing this information earlier, in relation to this nuclear submarine deal with the UK and the US, Scott Morrison has said this was not something you go around having broad conversations about. That's reasonable, isn't it? You know, even a Labor Administration wouldn't go around, kind of having that conversation early on in the piece.

WONG: And yet again, more of Mr Morrison's usual behaviour, which is doubling down on his mistakes. Look, in a situation like this, a government has to balance the interests of the nation, and the interests of the nation are to look at a different capability for our submarines, and we understand that. But the interest of the nation is also to land that without substantially damaging key relationships. And the problem with Mr Morrison, is that he's always focused on the announcement, he's always focused on the hoopla, but he doesn't do the whole job. And the whole job here was ensuring that we managed this in the way that minimised the disruption to our relationship with France and certainly didn't put the Americans and the American President in the position that we have.

KARVELAS: Acting Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce says he's sure with time France will get over this and move on. It's time enough, isn't, it to resolve this? I mean, it's true with the passage of time, it'll kind of, it'll be over won't it?

WONG: Well, Mr Joyce also made a few comments - some of them very unhelpful - but he also said that in hindsight, it could have been done better, which is remarkable concessions from him at least. He's conceded that, unlike Mr Morrison. But look, again, we see this bungled handling from the Government, rather than recognising what the French are saying and trying to deal with that respectfully, we're giving them a lecture. Or we're telling people, I think one of the comments that was reported a couple of weeks ago, was a member of the Coalition saying they're just having a sook. I mean France is an important Indo-Pacific power. They have territories in both the Indian and the Pacific Oceans. This is our region. France is an important leader in the world. They're an important player in the European Union. And President Macron, particularly given the retirement of Chancellor Merkel takes a leadership role when it comes to the European Union. On what possible planet, is it a good idea for us to have a stoush with him? It's not.

KARVELAS: Foreign Minister Marise Payne has today met with the French Ambassador to Australia. How key will that meeting be in repairing Australia's relationship?

WONG: It's a good thing she has had that meeting. And I did ask her at Senate estimates about that and she was upfront that they were having a meeting. Unfortunately, whatever work she does here, is really undermined and damaged by what the Prime Minister has done and how he's now dealing with it. I mean it is unprecedented, really to see a world leader so bluntly assert that we are led by a man whose word he doesn't trust.

KARVELAS: The Prime Minister will have potentially another opportunity at this Glasgow meeting to have perhaps another exchange with Emmanuel Macron. How do you think he should handle it?

WONG: A little more respectfully than he's handled everything so far.

KARVELAS: So, what, should he apologise to him? What do you think he should do?

WONG: I think he should remember that when he sits at that table, he represents the country. So, his own ego, and his own stubbornness, and his own desire to deny he made mistakes, or to give them a lecture, they're actually his personal character on display. He's leading the nation. He's representing Australia. He should try and manage that discussion with Australian interests at heart, not Scott Morrison's interests.

KARVELAS: The COP26 Climate Summit is underway in Glasgow. The UK has warned the warning lights are flashing red. Does the G20 nations’ vague commitment to see carbon neutrality by or around mid-century go far enough?

WONG: I think what we've seen is the G20 making clear that the majority of the world is moving in a direction which Scott Morrison hasn't wanted to move and Barnaby Joyce certainly doesn't want to move - whether it's net zero by 2050, or a stronger 2030 target, which the Prime Minister, Mr Morrison should have taken to Glasgow. The reality is, both climate change is real. But equally, the economic reality of nations' response to climate change is real. And if we want to ensure not only that we have cheaper energy, but that we continue to protect and build Australian jobs into the future, we have to have a clear, consistent, and fair dinkum response. And the problem with this Government is they're not sincere on this. I mean, do you, does anyone believe - you've watched national politics over a long time, Patricia - does anyone believe that anything Barnaby Joyce signs up to on climate is real? Really? I mean, this bloke has campaigned for over a decade against any action, aided and abetted for a fair part of that by Scott Morrison. They're just not sincere.

KARVELAS: The former UN Climate Chief says Australia's climate commitments are irresponsible. So, when is Labor going to show us your alternative? We know that you want to wait for the Glasgow conference. And clearly, it's unfolding. What's the timeframe then, for actually giving us a clear indication of what Labor would do in office?

WONG: Before the election, you will be very clear about what our policy approach to climate change is.

KARVELAS: Sure, but that could be way into next year.

WONG: Let's not have one of those interviews where you ask the same thing, and I give the same answer, because as you know, I'm disciplined enough to give the same answer, and that is my answer. But I would make this point, Patricia; I don't think anybody watching either the shenanigans in the Coalition over these last few weeks, and how many of them clearly are still completely opposed to action on climate, or the history of this country over the last 15 years, can come to any view other than this: if you want action on climate change, you have to change the government.

KARVELAS: I just want to change the topic to COVID recovery, international travel beginning as of today, you know, obviously from the big COVID states, that's what they are now but that's okay living with COVID as we are here in Victoria and New South Wales, doing our best. I know you're in isolation for 14 days in Adelaide.

WONG: Yay!

KARVELAS: I'm sure you're enjoying that immensely. Mark McGowan has made it clear that he wants to keep the hard border, that he won't be pushed on that issue. We have a really disjointed country right now, do we not? I'd like to hear your thoughts on that. I mean, international travel - you can go to London from Sydney, but you can't go to Perth. How does that, how do you kind of work that out?

WONG: Well, I think that Premiers and people within states where there's been much less COVID than in Melbourne, Victoria and in New South Wales, obviously want greater movement. People want to see families, and you know, I've got family in Melbourne too, but we also want to keep our families safe, and they have been kept safe. So, I don't think it's particularly helpful to have, I think Barnaby Joyce did it again today and certainly Scott Morrison and the Coalition have done this, attacking Labor Premiers - and it's interesting, they're only attacking Labor Premiers. Stephen Marshall, the South Australian Premier, I don't think has come in for the shellacking that Mark McGowan has. I understand why Premier McGowan wants to try and ensure he keeps the Western Australian community safe. He's doing his job. So instead of having a fight for show, which again, back to Mr Morrison always wanting a bit of show. Perhaps have a conversation that's a bit more respectful and recognise that the Western Australian border decisions are ultimately a matter for the West Australian Government and they're seeking to make the best decisions they can.

KARVELAS: Penny Wong, this is breaking news, but Tonga is actually going into a snap lockdown at midnight. I suppose it brings into sharp focus the fact that in our own region, the vaccination rates are low. We're getting booster shots. I know when I can get mine, that would be my third injection of this vaccine and there are people in our region who don't even have access to vaccines. What do you make of what's happening in Tonga and our international responsibility to try and help our neighbours?

WONG: It's a really good question - and thank you for asking it, Patricia - because it's important that we pause and remember that we don't beat this virus, until we beat it everywhere. And as long as it continues to circulate unabated around the world, and as long as people continue to be affected, and tragically so many have died, that affects all of us. And it affects all of us in terms of mutations which can arise. So we have a strong, not just ethical interest, but a national interest. It's in our own interest to make sure we vaccinate more of the world and we can do far more in our region and we should. We shouldn't be doing more for our region. We should be doing more particularly for Indonesia. And we should continue to support, as much as we can, the Pacific, because it matters. It matters to them, but it also matters to us.

KARVELAS: Senator, thanks for joining us.

WONG: Great to be with you.

Authorised by Paul Erickson, ALP, Canberra.