ABC Afternoon Briefing with Patricia Karvelas - 16/06/2021

16 June 2021

SUBJECTS: US-Russia talks; Future submarines contract; visas for Afghan interpreters and staff; Biloela family; Middle East ceasefire; minimum wage rise; QAnon.

PATRICIA KARVELAS, HOST: I’m joined now by Penny Wong, who’s the Shadow Minister for Foreign Affairs. She joins me now. Senator Wong, welcome.

SENATOR PENNY WONG, SHADOW MINISTER FOR FOREIGN AFFAIRS: Good afternoon. It is good to be with you, Patricia.

KARVELAS: Does this meeting offer the realistic prospect of a reset in US-Russian relations, or is that too ambitious?

WONG: First off, I think a number of the observations Stan (Grant) made were very, very good and very astute. I don’t want to comment on what outcomes of the meeting might be, but I think it is instructive how the US President has gone about publicly approaching this summit with Mr Putin. He is doing so on the back of the G7, where there was obviously very close engagement with allies and partners, reaffirmation of the importance of NATO. The reaffirmation of the importance of a liberal, rules-based order. He has also publicly messaged about his engagement with allies and partners as to what should be on the table, what should be discussed with Russia. There are many aspects of Russia's behaviour which are deeply concerning. Obviously the treatment of Mr Navalny, the approach Russia takes to cybersecurity or cyber issues and ransomware. I think these are all issues the international community are concerned about. We will look to the way in which those matters are progressed at this meeting.

KARVELAS: Penny Wong, from Australia's perspective, what would a positive outcome from this meeting look like?

WONG: Well, obviously, it is still Russia and the United States. They are two key players in terms of, you know, the arrangements around nuclear weapons. We also know that Russia, has been implicated in a lot of cybersecurity issues and having some arrangements around that are things Australia has continued to assert.

KARVELAS: The US President does plan to raise the issue of cyberattacks, that you have mentioned, which have affected businesses even in Australia. How much progress should we expect here?

WONG: I think you’re asking me to comment on outcomes of the meeting. I think it is always risky for politicians to do that – it’s probably okay for Stan to do that but not something I can do. This is a domain in which we have to keep pressing both as Australia, as an ally and partner of the US and other nations. This is a domain that is, I think, underdone in terms of national security preparedness, it is a domain in which Western democracies and liberal democracies and sovereign nations around the world need and want to become more resilient in, and there is more work to be done both at home but also in terms of international norms.

KARVELAS: Senator, what assurances should Scott Morrison be seeking from the French President about the contract to build Australia's new fleet of submarines?

WONG: That is a very good question. Mr Morrison is known for all announcement, no delivery but despite backgrounding people that there was going to be a lot of discussion about these issues, there was no announcement. I hope there was actually a discussion that might affect delivery. The reality is we are in real trouble with this project and I say that without any, without any joy at all. In terms of Australia's national security that is deeply concerning. We are years late, we are $40 billion over budget, many years late. And even on the current trajectory we will - at best - have seven out of 300 million submarines in the middle of next century [decade], in our region will be Australian – and that’s based on a decision the Government still hasn’t made about refurbishing the Collins submarine. This is a project that it is unsurprising that there is a Plan B being developed by the Defence Department. It is a project which this Government has mismanaged. Eight years in and we are still at a point where we are having to have conversations between the Prime Minister and President Macron in order to try and get the project back on track.

KARVELAS: Should Australia start thinking about buying an off-the-shelf submarine design, given the capability gap we are facing?

WONG: Well, I think it is reasonable for - it is unsurprising that the Defence Department confirmed in Estimates to me that they are working on a Plan B, given where we are.

KARVELAS: No, certainly it is very much behind schedule, there is no doubt about it. Do you believe the proposal to extend the life of the Collins class submarines is viable, and does Australia have any other options?

WONG: Well, that is one step that should be taken, and I think that is clear if you look at the advice, look at the answers to questions that I and other Labor senators have been asking for years, that a Life of Type Extension for the Collins submarines is a necessary step. It is not the only step but it is a necessary step. And I am actually bemused as to why this Government has still not made that decision.

KARVELAS: What are your concerns around the 108 Afghan interpreters still waiting for visas to come to Australia, given what we know is happening, a deteriorating security situation there?

WONG: The end of your question there really demonstrates the urgency, doesn't it, Patricia. The security situation is rapidly deteriorating. We know the sort of risk that those Afghans who have worked with Australia and other partners face. We know that. These visas should be fast tracked. These are friends of Australia. They have put themselves and their families at risk for working with us and we need to look after them. I am pretty concerned by the passivity by which this is being approached by members of the Government. I think we have an ethical obligation to people who assisted us over many years.

KARVELAS: Would delaying the closure of the embassy in Kabul have sped up the process? Did we move too quickly?

WONG: I can only respond to what I am advised by officials – what officials tell me - that the security advice was such that they needed to do that. But this was a foreseeable issue that we had to have a solution to. And that we are still in the process of processing visa applications when we knew what was coming does seem to be pretty risky. I'd urge the Government to fast track these visa applications.

KARVELAS: The Immigration Minister yesterday, when granting this move to Perth for the Biloela family, said he was concerned that allowing the family to stay permanently in Australia could restart the people smuggling trade. Is that a risk?

WONG: I don’t think this family is a risk to national security. And I think that having seen so many Coalition MPs and Senators also calling for them to go home to Biloela really demonstrates that. I do have to say, the lack of compassion on display here, particularly by Minister Andrews, seeking to diminish the illness of a four-year-old girl, has been pretty poor. It’s a pretty low episode, I think.

KARVELAS: What did Minister Andrews say that you found troubling?

WONG: I found it troubling that you saw a Federal Minister, by her comments, suggesting that the illness of a child was less serious than had been reported. I do not think that is helpful to this situation and it does say something.

KARVELAS: There are others who have suggested that the parents have used the kids as political footballs. What are your thoughts on that?

WONG: I think that sort of language in this sort of situation is really disappointing. We’ve got a family in a difficult situation, a sick child in hospital, I don't think they are a risk to national security, even the National MP who is the Member for their electorate says they should go home. I think the Government should just do the right thing.

KARVELAS: Just finally, very unfortunate news today, the collapse of that ceasefire in the Middle East between Israel and Hamas. Was that inevitable given there was no real effort to address the underlying tensions between the two sides? That it was a matter of time?

WONG: I think we all – and none more so than the Israeli and Palestinian peoples - regrettably we keep seeing a cycle of tension, escalation and violence. If there is to be a just and enduring peace, that cycle has to be ended and the only way in which that can happen is if leaders from all sides are prepared to do so.

KARVELAS: It doesn't look like they are prepared to do so. Do you see a change in the Israeli leadership leading to any shift on this?

WONG: Let's see where the new government, when all of that is resolved, heads on this. But what I would say is that I retain the view, as does Labor, that a just and enduring two-state solution is ultimately the only peaceful and viable outcome for both Israeli and Palestinian people.

KARVELAS: Finally, I know this is not your portfolio, but I do want to cover it off with you.

WONG: Just in case.

KARVELAS: Well it’s really important. It’s the minimum wage decision. The Fair Work Commission's decision to lift the minimum wage by 2.5%. Is that a reasonable place to land?

WONG: Look, we always have to accept the outcome of the tribunal. I would say it may well have been more if the Government had actually made a submission in support of higher wage increases. It won’t address some of the fundamental problems in our wage system. It won’t address those workers who do not get the benefit of the minimum wage, those workers in the gig economy, for example. Nor will it address those workers who aren’t paid as they should be - people who experience wage theft. And of course, you may recall the extraordinary approach this Government took when it took its own wage theft provisions out of its legislation because it was so angry that it couldn't get the rest of the legislation through. I think that childish tantrum will have an effect on so many Australian workers throughout the country.

KARVELAS: Just one other issue, because you have been pursuing it in Senate Estimates previously, in relation to the Four Corners story on QAnon and the friendship the Prime Minister has. Government ministers – obviously the Prime Minister is overseas at the moment – but Government ministers have been asked and they say he has denounced QAnon and their views, he is not associated at all, does that satisfy you?

WONG: The question I would like answered is why, for two years, did the Prime Minister refuse to answer questions on this. You say he has now denounced QAnon. He has failed to before. But more importantly - and it's a good thing he has denounced them - but more importantly, these questions have been asked for nearly two years. Questions about the association, questions about what we now know, Mr Stewart's own boasting as to how we managed to get the Prime Minister to change his speech - now that may or may not be true. The Prime Minister should be clear about that. But what I find really striking about this is yet again, we see the Prime Minister simply refusing to answer simple questions about his friendship, and what it meant, and in particular, whether or not the speech was changed at Mr Stewart’s request. I think now that is all on public record, it’s pretty reasonable for the Prime Minister to be asked to respond to that.

KARVELAS: So, will Labor be pursuing that when the Prime Minister is back in the country?

WONG: I don't know what the House of Representatives will do in their Question Time.

KARVELAS: Convenient.

WONG: I’ve got my own Question Time to resolve. But what I would say to you is Australians expect their leaders to provide clear answers when things are put to them. Obviously, Mr Morrison is entitled to have his friendships but as the leader of the country he is also, I think, obliged to ensure that some of those issues are responded to openly and transparently when they are raised.

KARVELAS: Penny Wong, thank you so much for your time.

WONG: Good to speak to you.

Authorised by Paul Erickson, ALP, Canberra.