ABC Afternoon Briefing with Patricia Karvelas - 16/02/2021

16 February 2021

SUBJECTS: Alleged rape in Linda Reynolds’ office; workplace culture in Parliament House; citizenship cancellation; Myanmar; US engagement in Indo-Pacific.

PATRICIA KARVELAS, HOST: Penny Wong is Shadow Minister for Foreign Affairs and the Leader of the Opposition in the Senate. Penny Wong, welcome.


KARVELAS: Do you accept the apology given by Defence Minister Linda Reynolds for her handling of Brittany Higgins' rape allegations?

WONG: Well, it's two years later, isn't it, but I will come back to that. I want to first start by first expressing my personal sympathy to Ms Higgins for what she has been through. I want to acknowledge her enormous courage. I know she has made a public statement about the outpouring of support that she’s had and I hope that she knows as a consequence of that, that she is not alone and she has shown enormous courage.

Unfortunately, from what we are seeing from the Morrison Government these allegations have come to light, since these events have come to light, is a reliance on platitudes and nice words but it's very late and these platitudes and words should not be used as a mask to detract attention or to hide the fact that they failed to do what they should have done. They failed to take responsibility and act appropriately.

KARVELAS: Is Labor accusing the Prime Minister of lying when he says he only found out about the allegations in the last few days?

WONG: Look, I think it is very difficult for anyone to believe that neither an Australian Prime Minister nor his or her office wouldn’t know of an event of alleged criminal activity occurring in the Minister of Defence's office for two years. That statement becomes even less credible when you remember that the person who was the Minister for Defence's Chief of Staff at the time of the incident, at the time of the alleged rape, was someone who had previously worked for the Prime Minister and subsequently returned to work with the Prime Minister. And finally, we know from Ms Higgins’ own words that a person she has described as the Prime Minister’s fixer, I think his principal adviser, was involved shortly after the alleged rape and in fact even called her again in the week that Four Corners aired its program exposing sexual misconduct inside the Government. So those facts, along with I think the common sense view, do make it very difficult for Australians to believe that the Prime Minister knew nothing.

KARVELAS: So if Labor is asserting that it is not believable that the Prime Minister didn't know, how will you pursue this? Given he’s said now on the public record that he didn't?

WONG: I think the question is less, what will our approach be than what the Prime Minister should do. And I’d say just this simple thing to Scott Morrison; stop dealing with this as a political problem and start doing the right thing. That is what he should do. Stop dealing with this awful set of allegations as a political problem and do the right thing. Tell the truth, stop obfuscating, stop dancing around and do the right thing. Not just for Ms Higgins, but for all women, and men, in this workplace, and across the country.

KARVELAS: Are Celia Hammond and the Deputy Head of the Prime Minister’s office the right people to be recommending improvements in how these cases are handled? They’re the people that are being charged by the Prime Minister to overhaul the systems.

WONG: I don't believe so. I think if we are really going to have an inquiry or a review or a process which results in change, we need a very different structure and a very different approach to this. Anthony Albanese said some time ago that we are willing to work with anyone who is about trying to make sure this place is safer. A safer workplace is something we should all work towards. Anthony and Tanya put out a statement today setting out what we believe should happen and I’d refer you to that. We said look, there should be an eminent external person who was involved in this. It should be supervised or engaged with by a bipartisan committee, and I think those suggestions should be taken up. I would point out that Mr Morrison, after there were building allegations inside Coalition when Mr Turnbull lost the prime ministership did announce that he would have a review into the culture and operations of the Liberal Party. Let’s not have this announcement go the way that one did, which is nowhere.

KARVELAS: Richard Marles says this needs to lead to improvements across both parties, so what improvements does Labor need to make?

WONG: We are making them, and as a result of actions taken last year, under Anthony's leadership, there has been a review and a revision of our policies and our procedures, engagement with staff about that, and as I think others have said we are at the final stages of consideration and adoption of those.

KARVELAS: Is Parliament House a safe workplace for women?

WONG: Well, clearly it isn't. And we all have to work together to ensure that it is. And that starts with some honesty. And my great, I think the sadness and reaction from a lot of Australians is that when confronted with this issue of a very distressing and serious set of allegations from Ms Higgins, for two years, this Government has approached it as a political problem instead of reaching out to her and supporting her. She clearly doesn't feel supported and so all these words that I've heard over the last two days in the Senate chamber about Ms Higgins feeling empowered, being given agency, well, they are words that simply do not match up with her account of her experience.

KARVELAS: I'm going to change the topic, if I can. Is it fair that Australia has cancelled the citizenship of a woman born in New Zealand who travelled to Syria on an Australian passport?

WONG: Look, citizenship cancellation is a very serious decision to be made. It is a decision that should always be made with a very clear focus on the safety of Australians. We did pass, with the Government, laws that enable the government of the day to cancel citizenship in certain circumstances. It is for the Government to explain to you and to the public, Patricia, why it has chosen to do so in these circumstances and I note you have been reporting on Prime Minister Arden's response. I think it is also important that the Government explain why it is that they have done this in such a way that we have that kind of negative response from one of our closest friends and partners.

KARVELAS: So is New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern right to say Australia has abdicated its responsibilities here?

WONG: Australian governments always have to look to the safety of Australians and our national interest but I think it is not unreasonable for people to expect the Australian Government to engage with its New Zealand counterparts so that we don't have this sort of disagreement being publicly aired in the way it is.

KARVELAS: What are your biggest concerns around the ongoing crackdown against demonstrators protesting the overthrow of the Government in Myanmar?

WONG: Well, the concerns we all have about Myanmar are deep and they are deeply held. Australia has been a supporter of the democratic transition, we have been advocates for it previously, supporters of it. We all view the events in Myanmar with deep sadness and deep concern. It is, given that this is an attack on the democratic transition, the actions of the military, it is unsurprising we have seen the response from citizens and what I would say is to add my voice to the voices of many in the international community, who are watching closely what is occurring in Myanmar, we would be urging the authorities to exercise restraint.

KARVELAS: Is there more that Australia, Penny Wong could be doing to put pressure on the military in Myanmar?

WONG: That's a good question, Patricia, and I said some days ago that the Government did need to reconsider our military cooperation, military training cooperation with the Tatmadaw, with the military. It seems to many people, including the Labor Party, that it is difficult to argue that that engagement is important and useful in the circumstances we now are. The Government may have a different view, in which case I do think that reconsidering it and reviewing it at this point is important. I've also said the Government should consider the need or the possibility of further sanctions and further actions if required. Those are suggestions to the Government. I think Australians everywhere who have followed what has occurred in this country for many years, are deeply, deeply saddened by what we are seeing.

KARVELAS: Is the United Nations in a position to make good on threats of severe consequences for the military in Myanmar?

WONG: Well, the United Nations is as strong as its members are, and the United Nations is as able to respond as the membership is willing to do. So, I think ultimately, that's a question of the will of the international community and the willingness of all of the international community to support democratic transition and to continue to express that in as many ways as we are able.

KARVELAS: Does Labor support Australia's decision to join an international Coalition against so-called Chinese hostage diplomacy?

WONG: Well, first, I congratulate Canada on that statement and I absolutely support Senator Payne's joining with the Canadian declaration against hostage diplomacy, which is the use of arbitrary detention in the context of state to state relations. I think that is, regardless of who is engaged in it, where it occurs, it is not consistent with a civilised international community that recognises the rule of law. So we are right to ensure that we join with Canada’s statement and I would encourage other nations to do so.

KARVELAS: How do you see the Biden presidency changing geopolitical relationships in the Asia-Pacific?

WONG: I think there are three points I would make on that, Patricia. The first is, what we do see from the Administration is a reinvigoration of what we would regard as the important role America has in the world, that is underpinning the global order, engaging with multinational institutions, supporting the rule of law. The second thing is, engagement in our region, in the Indo-Pacific, that is a good thing from Australia's perspective. And of course, the third is leadership on climate change. All of those things, I think, are good things for Australia. One of the very pleasing things for Australia as a strong US ally, during the lead up to the election and subsequently is the way in which President Biden and those around him have spoken about the importance of US alliances which of course, is such an important aspect of US power. As a US ally and in our region, those are very good things to hear.

KARVELAS: Penny Wong, thank you so much for joining us.

WONG: Good to speak with you.

Authorised by Paul Erickson, ALP, Canberra.