ABC Afternoon Briefing with Patricia Karvelas - 23/09/2021

23 September 2021

SUBJECTS: France’s anger over cancelled submarine deal; AUKUS partnership; Melbourne protests; Malka Leifer.

PATRICIA KARVELAS, HOST: PATRICIA KARVELAS, HOST: Penny Wong is the Shadow Foreign Affairs Minister and she joins me from Adelaide. Penny Wong, always a pleasure to be joined by you.


KARVELAS: I'm alright. I'm doing alright. Prime Minister Scott Morrison says he has been unable to talk to French President, Emmanuel Macron, since announcing the scrapping of that $90 billion French submarine contract. He says he's happy to be patient. Will that be enough?

WONG: Well, perhaps he should have thought about this before. I mean, I think what this demonstrates yet again is Mr Morrison is so focused on making a flashy announcement, he simply doesn't do the leg work that is needed for the country. I mean, he clearly didn't engage with the French in a way that ensured we didn't see the sort of diplomatic fallout we have seen. We have seen the French say that on the same day he was standing up to make the announcement, they got a letter saying that all was well with their project. Now, that is no way to handle a partner – an important Indo-Pacific partner – and a country which does share many of our interests and values when it comes to the multilateral system as well as the region in which we live.

KARVELAS: US President Joe Biden spoke with Macron overnight and acknowledged there could have been greater consultation. Should Scott Morrison follow suit and apologise?

WONG: Well, I think what we have seen is leadership from President Biden in making that acknowledgement that you described, in the read out of their call, that he and President Macron have acknowledged that earlier consultation between allies would have been preferable. We have not seen that sort of leadership from Mr Morrison.

KARVELAS: Former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd has labelled the handling of the submarine announcement a 'foreign policy debacle' and says he doubts Australia will be able to mend ties under the Morrison Government. Is that too strong a language or do you agree with that sentiment?

WONG: No, I don't think that language is too strong. And not only am I concerned about the bilateral relationship, but I’m concerned about Australia's reputation, or particularly, rather, Mr Morrison's reputation as the leader of the nation. In relation to the bilateral relationship with France, it isn't helped by unnamed ministers in the Morrison Government describing the French as “having a sook”. It is not only a childish way to approach this, it's bad for the country and it's about time Mr Morrison and his cabinet started acting in a way that demonstrates they understand what is good for the country.

KARVELAS: He’s suggested Australia should have asked France, and the UK and the US to tender for the contract. What do you make of that idea? Would that be feasible?

WONG: Well, look that's something that the Government should answer. We obviously were briefed the day before the announcement and Anthony Albanese stood up a week ago and he made two points. One is that Labor supports the AUKUS partnership and we accept the capability argument that had been put to us about nuclear-propelled submarines. However, I think there are some reasonable questions that need to be answered as we go forward through what is an 18-month consultation period. They go to costs and jobs, capability and our capacity to act independently – and those are reasonable propositions. I would say it is really disappointing yet again that Mr Morrison has refused Anthony Albanese's very reasonable offer to have a bipartisan process in relation to this submarine project - recognising we're on the eve of an election, recognising we're in a pre-caretaker period - what Anthony has said is, look let's take this out of the realm of politics and put it into the realm of national interest. Let's do what is good for the country and work together. What has Scott Morrison done? He has turned his back on that and that is very disappointing for the country.

KARVELAS: In a speech to the US Studies Centre today, you've warned the Government against sacrificing the country's sovereignty as part of this deal. Given the technological dependence on the US that it requires, are you confident Australia can maintain autonomy under the deal?

WONG: Yes, I am if we have a government that deals with this intelligently and responsibly – and we haven't seen that. We saw Mr Morrison today, frankly, with a smirk on his face trying to pick a political fight on this issue. That is a very reasonable question and a reasonable proposition - how do we ensure we maintain our capacity to act independently? And that's a question that past prime ministers have all had to deal with, past governments have all had to deal with, as we have increased our interoperability and engagement with the US and other partners. Past prime ministers, past governments have ensured those arrangements do respect Australia's capacity to act independently. We are simply saying, this is something we need to ensure as we progress down this path.

KARVELAS: Scott Morrison has accused Labor of having a bet each-way over this deal. Is the bipartisan support for the announcement starting to fade given some of the comments you made in this speech?

WONG: Well, Mr Morrison is saying something that is not true - and he said it with a smirk on his face. And again, what I say is what we are actually seeing here is the leader of the nation, Scott Morrison, picking a political fight, picking a political fight when we have been really clear about our support for the partnership, our recognition of the capability argument, which is why we're prepared to take the approach that the Government is taking. But we have put reasonable questions – that past governments, both Labor and Liberal, have addressed - and instead of answering those reasonable questions, this bloke's reflex is to pick a political fight. That's not leadership, Patricia.

KARVELAS: Indonesia and Malaysia have warned the deal could cause a regional arms race. Has the Government failed to communicate with these nations?

WONG: Look, I think that the diplomatic leg work in the lead up to this announcement clearly could have been better. We have seen that in relation to the French where we have seen a very strong response. I hope that the Government will do the work now to engage with the region and demonstrate to the region that the concerns that, as you describe, Malaysia and Indonesia have raised are concerns that we can address. And I hope that we can continue because we need to, as a country, to partner with the nations of the region, ASEAN nations and beyond – India, Japan, Korea – to make sure, as the region is being reshaped, that it is reshaped in a way that will be respectful of Australia's interests and the interests of other small and middle powers in the region.

KARVELAS: The ABC has been told the Vice Chief of the Defence Force, Vice Admiral David Johnston, will visit the region in the hope of addressing these concerns next week. Do you think that's a wise decision or is that too late?

WONG: Well, I'd probably prefer the Vice Chief of the Defence Force than Mr Morrison at the moment, judging by the lack of success he's had when it comes to diplomacy lately.

KARVELAS: Paul Keating yesterday accused you of 'muted complicity'. How do you respond to his very strong criticism?

WONG: Well Patricia, Paul Keating is a respected former Labor Prime Minister – he did great things for this country – but on this we disagree. And the position I and the Labor Party today take is predicated on up-to-date briefings and assessments, and a judgement about where Australia's strategic circumstances are and where our national interest lies.

KARVELAS: You've also renewed Labor's calls for bipartisan consultation on that submarine program. Why does Labor see this as so important?

WONG: Well for the reasons I outlined earlier, and more. This is a really significant decision. It’s a big decision for the country. This will be a multi-decade, multibillion-dollar project and it would be best if it were a project that were managed for the good of the country, in the national interest by both parties of government. I think that way, you would manage the risks associated with the project, you would manage the implementation of that project far better if you brought both parties of government to the table, particularly in this period. I mean we're on the eve of an election, this is the pre-caretaker period. So, I do think it says something about Mr Morrison that he has rejected there. What Labor will do instead - because there are reasonable questions to be asked - is to ensure we have a Senate inquiry - there's an existing shipbuilding inquiry. So, we'll move to ensure that this submarine project and the cancellation - let's not forget, the cancellation of the French submarine project, the second subs program that this Coalition Government has cancelled, the first one being Japanese and now this - the costs of that do need to be transparently disclosed to the parliament and to the Australian people.

KARVELAS: Before we go, Senator, what do you make of the scenes we saw in Melbourne over the last three days particularly yesterday, and the reports that have emerged about the kind of people involved in these demonstrations.

WONG: Well, completely unacceptable, the behaviour that we've seen. And very distressing for many Melburnians. I have family in Melbourne, and I know it's been very distressing for many of us, for all of you. What is needed here is clear leadership. All politicians should be condemning the violence we have seen, unreservedly. All politicians should be pushing back against the extremist elements, the violent elements, the anti-vaxxer message - misinformation - that has fuelled these unacceptable behaviours. It's very disappointing to see members of this Government, the Morrison Government, including on your own program with Amanda Stoker, making excuses for these behaviours, referring to people as freedom fighters, and Barnaby Joyce refusing to pull into line Mr Christensen. I think the people of Melbourne, and our police, deserve a little leadership from their federal politicians.

KARVELAS: According to Richard Willingham, the ABCs Richard Willingham, health sources are saying that a COVID positive man who is now in hospital, he's not in ICU, but he's in hospital, attended yesterday's protests in Melbourne. Now obviously that's alarming for obvious reasons. What does that demonstrate to you about the danger of this?

WONG: Well, it's self-evident, isn't it, and it reminds us of the importance of that political leadership, at all levels, to ensure that we confront the misinformation, don't allow some of the extremist elements and the incorrect arguments that are being used in the context of these riots and protests. I think all of us wish that Mr Joyce, Senator Stoker, Mr Morrison, Mr Christensen would show a little bit more responsibility in how they spoke about these issues.

KARVELAS: They have condemned the violence, what some of them have done - because they haven't all said the same things, the people you've talked about - but, you know, Amanda Stoker, for instance...

WONG: There seems to be a lot of "but" isn't there...

KARVELAS: Let's look at the motives, right - and that's what she was talking about, the frustrations - okay, well, okay, let's talk about that though, right? What is going on? Where is this coming from, this frustration? I mean isn't that what we need to do? I don't nuance is hard - not for you - but for the world at the moment, but I try to bring a bit of nuance on this show, what's going on?

WONG: I don't think when you're confronted by violence, and this sort of behaviour, that you can say, 'oh it's bad, but..'. And I think that's the problem isn't it? We know that in this pandemic. We have seen a lot of disinformation out there. What is really alarming is the way that disinformation and misinformation has been condoned, sometimes proselytized, sometimes communicated, by some political leaders - Mr Kelly, Mr Christensen and others. So, I think it's very important that we are all clear about what is factual and what is not. The second thing that is deeply concerning is the involvement of extremist groups in these riots, and there is evidence of that, the police have spoken about that. So, what I'd say to you is I do think political leaders have to demonstrate leadership - and yes, we have to engage with the facts. What we shouldn't have is political leaders who are prepared to promulgate, things that aren't true.

KARVELAS: Far right groups, as you mentioned, have influenced these rallies. Are you concerned that there is a genuine rise in their activities? I know that there is a lot of debate in in our community, I mean I'm broadcasting from Melbourne, about whether we're giving too much credence to their size, for instance, or whether there is a growing threat we need to take seriously. What's your view?

WONG: I think the pandemic has enabled the rise of more far right extremism, more extremism of all sorts. And I think that's been documented. My colleague, Senator Kristina Keneally, has been calling for the Government to take more action when it comes to far-right extremism. I think there's parliamentary inquiries and some listing processes underway through the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security. But there's no doubt that the circumstances the pandemic, which are greater isolation, people focused, obtaining a lot of their information online. And let's be frank, a great deal of community stress and concern. I mean it has been a very difficult period of time, I think, not the least of which for the people of Melbourne, who have had a very long series of lockdowns over the last year and a half. So, it's unsurprising, and we need to deal with it. We need to confront it, and we need to act, I think, responsibly and we need to work together.

KARVELAS: Just finally Malka Leifer will face the County Court of Victoria, after prosecutors convinced a Melbourne magistrate that there was enough evidence against her. Obviously, this has been a very long running case, the extradition was key and that's very much squarely in your portfolio of foreign affairs, that kind of negotiation around that. Are you relieved to hear this news?

WONG: Well, it's been a long road to justice, hasn't it? And whilst I'll leave the court process - I won't make comment on that, for obvious reasons - what I would say is to recognise the courage of the alleged victims, who have been such strong advocates for the extradition and for bringing this person to justice, and I want to recognise the work of Josh Burns and Mark Dreyfus in particular, who have worked with their community, and to support the extradition process.

KARVELAS: Penny Wong, thanks for coming on the show.

WONG: Good to speak with you.

Authorised by Paul Erickson, ALP, Canberra.