ABC Insiders - 06/12/2020

06 December 2020

SUBJECTS: Australia’s relationship with China; trade diversification; Foreign Relations Bill; 2022 Winter Olympics; Australians stranded overseas.

DAVID SPEERS, HOST: Penny Wong, welcome to the program.

Good to be here, David.

SPEERS: You gave a speech earlier this year noting that China's
nationalism, authoritarianism and assertiveness had increased under President Xi Jinping. How would you describe the relationship right now and who do you think is responsible for the nature of it?

WONG: Well, let's go to the first point. The relationship is obviously in a very difficult and challenging place. Going forward, I think we should assume that a more assertive, at times more aggressive China, is here to stay. We will continue to see the sorts of behaviours we've discussed. I would make the point, this hasn't happened overnight, David. President Xi has been in power since 2013. We have seen - the world has seen - China become much more assertive, at times much more aggressive in prosecuting its interests, yet over the same period of time, under this Government, elected also in 2013, we've seen Australia become more and more economically dependent on China. In fact, we are the country that is most economically dependent on China. So, I think it is legitimate to say where is the Government's strategy for diversifying our exports? Where is the Government's strategy for the effects of a more assertive China? What we have had is the Agriculture Minister blaming exporters for failing to find alternative markets. For me, that just underlies the lack of a strategy.

SPEERS: And I want to come to that, what absolutely can be done to diversify our trading relationships, help businesses find new markets and so on, but the issues, the problems between Australia and China are really focus here. Again, is it fair to say that the relationship has completely broken down on the Government's watch? Is that blaming the Australian Government for the problems in the relationship?

WONG: Look, I think that is an obvious statement of fact, the Government is in power and we know what's happened to the relationship, but I think in many ways the more important point is, what is the strategy? Anthony and the Labor Party have been talking at length in recent times particularly, but for some time about what is the strategy to deal with the effects of a much more assertive, at times aggressive China? What is the strategy in terms of our economic diversification? And what is the strategy in terms of working with others in the region? Allied nations, aligned nations for the rules on the road, not only on defence, which is important, but on trade and on diplomacy.

SPEERS: But just take the first of those you mention there, the strategy in terms of
fixing the problems with China, what are you suggesting needs to be done there?

WONG: Well, I think that's the wrong way to articulate it, actually. I think the strategy should be working out how we deal with the effects for Australia and the region of a China which demonstrably is taking a very different stance towards us and towards the region. That's the question we should be asking ourselves. On that, I think the Government really does need to stop focusing on splashy headlines and work out what is it doing, how is it helping our exporters, how is it helping those who are so dependent, have become more dependent on China for Australian jobs. What is our strategy?

SPEERS: What are you suggesting needs to be done there, to help them, what, find new markets?

WONG: Well, if the question is: What would Labor's strategy be? First, we would be calm and strategic in our response - I think that is very important. Secondly, as I said, we should work with other nations, allied nations, aligned nations, to support the rules of the road, including on trade. Third, we do have to work with our exporters to diversify our markets, to enable them to make sure we have more diversified opportunities, instead of what has happened which is a greater reliance on China. And finally, if we were in government, we would be focusing on the national interest. I fear under this government there is altogether much too focus on announcements, underlined or exemplified by the revelation on Friday that Senator Payne came on your program and announced the coronavirus inquiry because she "wanted an announcement". And I think that really diminishes her in the eyes of the international community and she should come on this program and explain that.

SPEERS: On this issue, the coronavirus inquiry, on the issue of foreign interference laws, on the issue of banning Huawei from the 5G rollout - correct me if I am wrong, Labor has supported the Government on all of these. You have argued they could have handled thing a little better, their language, the tone, but you've supported the substance?

WONG: Yes, we have, and when you hear people criticising Labor for a lack of bipartisanship, we have offered an enormous degree of bipartisanship. But bipartisanship does not mean you never criticise, and bipartisanship doesn’t just mean you do whatever Scott Morrison says. What it does mean is you look to the national interest. And I am saying that I think this government has a reflex towards announcements and seeking the splashy headlines, rather than focusing on both how the tone of a response and whether a response is actually in the national interest.

SPEERS: What does that mean then in relation to this tweet – with the hindsight of a week - do you think the Prime Minister handled it appropriately?

WONG: First, we made the decision - despite there being no discussion with us before the press conference or before anything was said publicly - that we were very clear in our unified condemnation, not only because we believe it, but because it was very important that the condemnation across the Australian community was unified, and I think we demonstrated that. On whether it should have been the Prime Minister, I heard your commentary in the introduction. I would make this point; in diplomacy you always have to think carefully about how you calibrate your response. It is a big call to go directly, escalate directly to the national leader, and I hope that Scott Morrison thought very carefully about that decision. I hope that he took advice and thought carefully before he did escalate it to the national leader level when we responded. But having said all that, I think what is important is that we remain unified in our condemnation of it, and I made very clear comments in the Parliament immediately after Senator Payne made her comments.

SPEERS: Sounds as though you're not convinced the Prime Minister should have been holding such a press conference?

WONG: Well, I think he should, I would hope that he took advice and thought carefully about the escalation to the level of national leader.

SPEERS: As I understand it, he spoke to the Foreign Minister. Are you indicating he should have spoken to the Opposition about this?

WONG: Look, I think generally it is good practice on these issues where you are dealing with an assertive, at times aggressive, great power - which is China - for there to be stronger engagement with the Opposition. I think that would be helpful. Regrettably that doesn't happen much, and I do recall many occasions on which Ms Bishop - and we had a fair few ding-dong battles - but she would call me and we would talk through how we would talk through particular issues.

SPEERS: That doesn't happen now?

WONG: I regret that doesn't happen now.

SPEERS: Just to clear this up, when Anthony Albanese says, "I used to be able to pick up the phone to my Chinese counterpart when I was a minister," are you suggesting here that that is some failing on the part of the Morrison Government or are you suggesting that China won't allow any phone calls right now, any communication?

WONG: Look, I think we all understand that China has a very different view about what it wants from Australia than what we are prepared to give, regardless of who is in government. You ran through the policy issues where there is bipartisan support.

SPEERS: There are a few things coming up that I want to get your thoughts on. One is the Foreign Relations Bill. The substantive bill has passed, there’s some amendments still being negotiated, one of them is a cross bench Rex Patrick amendment to require judicial review of any agreements that are terminated. Is that something you will insist on? Is it a deal-breaker?

WONG: First, I’d emphasise the scheme has already passed the Parliament. So, the Foreign Minister, as long as the Act is made into law, is in place, so the Foreign Minister has the power to veto agreements. As you say there is consequential amendment about judicial review. I’ve written again to Marise Payne saying if this is a problem, we invite your engagement. She messaged me saying her staff would speak to ours, but I haven't had any engagement from her. I have to say, we have been trying to engage with the Government on this because I think it is better for that to occur. I would emphasise, we support the objectives of this legislation which is why we've passed it. This is yet another example of headline first. Mr Morrison rushed the announcement of this legislation to get out of the bad headlines on aged care, remembering that he announced it on the day Richard Colbeck walked out on us in the Senate chamber.

SPEERS: But you supported it?

WONG: But we support the objectives and we've supported the legislation, and as soon as it is proclaimed, it can be operative. I would say this; I hope that this minister and this government use the power that the Parliament has given them wisely.

SPEERS: Just on that.

WONG: I hope they do so calmly and strategically, because on the BRI which you mentioned earlier, where there is a difference of views between the Federal Government and Federal Opposition and the State Government, instead of sitting down calmly with the Premier, what Scott Morrison has chosen to do is run a political argument through the media. I do not think that is a responsible way in which to manage this.

SPEERS: You've mentioned this word "calmly" a few times here already. When it comes to this decision now that the Government will be able to make on whether to terminate Victoria’s Belt and Rad Initiative with China, what do you think it should do?

WONG: I think it should try and resolve this in a way that respects engagement with the State Government and that recognises that China will observe how this is handled carefully.

SPEERS: Does that mean terminate the deal or not?

WONG: We have said we would not sign up to the BRI. We have made clear our position on that. Our position is different from that of the Victorian Labor Government.

SPEERS: But that's different to actually terminating the deal?

WONG: Well, leaving that aside, what I would say is that they have the power, they should exercise it wisely because they should recognise that this should be handled sensibly and calmly, and it has not been to date. I don't think it has been good to have the Prime Minister and others engaging in a public argument about this.

SPEERS: Sensitively and calmly, does that mean terminate the deal or not? I appreciate you're not the minister…

WONG: Exactly…

SPEERS: But it's going to be a delicate question, right?

WONG: Yes, it is. I think Anthony Albanese has made clear we would not have - we will not and would not sign up to the deal. I think that now that the minister has the power, it's time for sensible discussions with the Victorian Government.

SPEERS: A couple of other things in relation to upcoming decisions on China: Should Australia boycott the Winter Olympics in China in 2022?

WONG: Look, I've seen concerns about that. Look, our view has been that - and I think it is the Government's view too - that it does provide an opportunity for there to be a focus on China and I think a legitimate focus on questions of human rights. China talked about the importance of human rights this week in the tweet. Equally, I assume that they will therefore recognise the right of other nations and other communities to raise the issue of human rights in the context of the Olympics.

SPEERS: What does that mean, still go to the Olympics, but be free to talk about the Uighurs and so on?

WONG: Precisely. I think obviously the Government may want to talk to us down the track about this, but I think that the Olympics, rather than boycotting, should be used as an opportunity to highlight our concerns about a range of issues, including human rights.

SPEERS: Finally, on the issue of returning travellers, there are still thousands, more than 36,000 Australians overseas trying to get home, can I take you to the Halton
review of quarantine arrangements, recommendation 6 says “the Australian Government should consider the establishment of a national facility for quarantine to be used for emergency situations”. What do you think the Government should do? Are you suggesting it should set up some sort of national facility?

WONG: Absolutely, and they should have done it earlier, and if they had, we wouldn't have increasing numbers of Australians being stranded overseas. The Prime Minister made a promise that people would be home by Christmas. He won't deliver on that promise, and what is clear is that he is more interested in avoiding bad headlines and getting good headlines, than actually helping people. The stories that the revelations today that you referenced in your opening about people being asked to come off the list...

SPEERS: Well Foreign Affairs denies that, to be fair.

WONG: Well, have a talk to some of the people who are involved. Have a discussion with some of the stranded Australians.

SPEERS: But just on the idea of national facility, sorry, there is Howard Springs in the Northern Territory. It has just been expanded to 1,000. The Federal
Government is the one funding that. Are you saying something beyond Howard Springs or what exactly are you suggesting?

WONG: Well, the Halton report raises that possibility. The Halton report raises Learmonth. What I would say is the Government has had this report, the Government could act. I'm old enough to remember when the Federal Government accepted it had responsibility for border security and quarantine, and so are you, David. In fact, it was only a few years ago. So, the facts are we have a Prime Minister who could act. He is refusing to act. I have to say I wonder whether it's because he would prefer to blame the states, which he continues to do, rather than actually help people.

SPEERS: Just to be clear, though, you are suggesting they should set up a new facility to take in returned travellers?

WONG: I think they should act on - and they should have acted - I think my colleague Senator Keneally has already said, they should have acted on the Halton report and their failure to do that means people won't be home by Christmas.

SPEERS: Penny Wong, thanks for joining us this morning.

WONG: Good to speak to you.

Authorised by Paul Erickson, ALP, Canberra.