ABC News Afternoon Briefing - 25/11/2020

25 November 2020

SUBJECTS: The cancellation of Abdul Nacer Benbrika’s citizenship; the use of RAAF jets for Mathias Cormann’s campaign for OECD; the Morrison Government’s lack of action on climate change; Australia’s relationship with China; incident at Qatar airport.

PATRICIA KARVELAS, HOST: Penny Wong, welcome.


Just before we get to your portfolio, the Home Affairs Minister has confirmed that the Government has cancelled the citizenship of terrorist Abdul Nacer Benbrika. What is your reaction to that decision? He's the first person to have his citizenship cancelled under the laws.

WONG: Well, the laws under which the citizenship has been cancelled are laws which were passed with Labor's support. In fact, I was on the intelligence committee at the time that we were dealing with some of those issues. Obviously, my colleague, Senator Keneally, will be seeking a briefing. I understand from what the Minister said the Government seeks a continuing detention order for Mr Benbrika, which the minister averted to in his announcement.

KARVELAS: So Labor supports this move by Peter Dutton. Obviously, this is a pretty significant issue. Are you concerned at all about the way the Government has handled this?

WONG: Look, I will leave more detailed comment to my colleague, Senator Keneally. But I would say that we did understand when we passed those laws through the Parliament that the cancellation of citizenship was a big step but a necessary step in certain circumstances and Mr Benbrika's activities and his conviction are well known to all of us. And that is why Labor supported the passage of that legislation.

KARVELAS: Let's move to a few other issues. What are your concerns around former Finance Minister Mathias Cormann being given the use of the RAAF jet for his campaign to become head of the OECD?

WONG: I was somewhat struck by Mr Morrison's double standard today, when defending the use of the private jet, he said it was because former Senator Cormann might contract COVID if he used commercial options. I would make the point there are 36,000 Australians who are currently stranded as a result of border closures. They don't get this sort of treatment, having a RAAF jet. They are required to fly commercial, so I thought that double standard would be pretty hard to hear for some of those families whose relatives are in difficult circumstances, stuck outside Australia.

I’d make this point; we have taken the view, a mature view, as an Opposition, that there's a national interest in having Australians in international institutions. It's a very different view to the pettiness that we saw when Kevin Rudd's candidacy for the UN Secretary-General was not supported by the Coalition, including by Senator Cormann. We think that was the wrong call and we have taken a more mature approach and indicated we're supportive of his bid. But ultimately, it's for the Government to explain the costs, the use of the plane, and all the costs associated with this bid.

KARVELAS: You say you took a more mature response, but also that it's double standards. So, does that mean that, on balance, you accept the Government's argument that he couldn't use commercial planes because of the risk of COVID-19?

WONG: You know what, I don't accept the fact that the Prime Minister promised to get 36,000 Australians home by Christmas, which he's clearly not going to do, yet another Scott Morrison announcement which is not being delivered on. I think if the Government wants to convince Australians that this is value for money, they should simply be transparent and up-front.

KARVELAS: The argument around COVID-19 being too big a risk, is that fair enough?

WONG: They're not my words.


WONG: I think you should be asking Scott Morrison.

KARVELAS: He's not on the show, though, you are.

WONG: Maybe he should be, that would be good, wouldn't it? My point is, if that is that good enough for Senator Cormann, why is there a different standard being applied to Australians stranded overseas? I think people want to hear that. There may be an answer to that and it's an answer the Government should give you.

KARVELAS: Is it in our national interest for an Australian to become the next head of the OECD?

WONG: Yes, it is. That's why we have taken the decision as I said in answer to you previously, a decision by an Opposition that shows some maturity and some focus on the national interest over partisanship to support Mathias Cormann's bid for this position. We have different views, but it is in our interest. Again, it was disappointing or extraordinary, actually, that the Abbott opposition opposed Australia's bid for the Security Council. These are matters that should be beyond domestic partisanship. And we have shown that we're prepared to do that.

KARVELAS: Is it appropriate for Greens MPs to lobby against Mathias Cormann's appointment over the Coalition's record on climate change?

WONG: Well, Mr Bandt can explain why and I'm sure there are many Australians who share my concern and Labor's concern with the behaviour of this Government when it comes to climate. I think I would rather continue to advocate for a Labor Government that would deliver action on climate. It's been extraordinary, hasn't it, we've seen a US election with the most ambitious policy on climate ever put forward by a Presidential candidate, and that really has served to underline just how isolated Australia is on this. I would say this; if former Senator Cormann does not succeed in his bid, I would venture this view, which is that the fact that Scott Morrison has been so isolated on climate, refused to be part of the solution, simply continues to be part of the problem - that would be a big reason why.

KARVELAS: You mention the Australians trying to get home. Do you believe all Australians will be home by Christmas? Particularly given the addition restrictions on hotel quarantine?

WONG: Tomorrow we have another Senate Select Committee which will hear evidence from Departments and some stranded Australians. And we will get a better handle on what the current status is. What I can tell you from the numbers we've seen to date, is the numbers are going the wrong way and the only thing that's really happened since Scott Morrison made that announcement is the number of people trying to get home has increased. So, in fact, more people are stranded than when he made the announcement that people would be home by Christmas. He'll try to get out of it, as he always did, he’ll say I didn't mean everybody, I just meant the vulnerable people. We'll get a chance tomorrow to listen to what departments had to say on it and see whether the Prime Minister's announcement turns out to be as hollow as his previous announcements.

KARVELAS: So, is it time now to explore other options outside of city hotel quarantining, not only because hotel quarantining has proven perhaps to be quite vulnerable, and also to maximise those numbers?

WONG: We’ve said this for some time. It's not just Labor who has said this for some time - that the Commonwealth needed to step up and take some federal responsibility for quarantine. One of the Government's own handpicked advisors, Jane Halton, who undertook a review, did make a recommendation about greater federal involvement in quarantine. The reality is, Scott Morrison could show some leadership here. He’s left it to the states and there's been some pretty dreadful consequences of some of what has occurred. But more importantly, there hasn't been federal leadership and we have seen both more people stranded overseas and problems in some of the state-run facilities.

KARVELAS: What did you make of the Prime Minister's article in the Australian Financial Review, arguing that China and the US should respect our decision not to pick sides?

WONG: If you have read or heard anything I’ve said over the last year, I’ve said for some time we shouldn't let our foreign policy be defined by the strategic competition between the US and China. We should be looking to building the region we want. The reality is our region is being reshaped, in part by strategic competition, in part also by the pandemic, and by climate change. This strategic change is something we have to take responsibility for. Australia has to be more self-reliant and more ambitious. And we shouldn't allow our foreign policy to be entirely defined by competition between the United States and China. I think the way I phrased it was, when people say there's a choice, I say, well, we’ve already made a choice, we're a US ally, but that's not the end of the matter.

KARVELAS: Do you think the Prime Minister's words will have an effect on Beijing?

WONG: I think China observes very carefully the discussion in Australia. But really, the resolution to the challenges that we face in the bilateral relationship with China really have to be resolved at the leadership level. John Howard put it pretty clearly, he said this has been to be dealt with between President Xi and Prime Minister Morrison – it needs to be resolved at that level.

I would say this; we're seeing ongoing trade disputation. There are many people whose jobs and livelihoods depend on a productive trading relationship with China, and there's a fair way to go before those people have confidence in the Prime Minister's leadership on this issue. There seems to have been a bit of a view about ‘there's nothing to see here’. Well, we know there are challenges, and the Prime Minister should take former Prime Minister John Howard's advice and seek to resolve them at leadership level.

KARVELAS: Do you welcome the decision by Qatari authorities to charge the airport security officials who conducted those invasive medical examinations of women at Doha airport?

WONG: I think that the people who engaged in these actions should be held to account. And justice should be done and be seen to be done. That is what the women who experienced such a horrific, went through a horrific experience expect and deserve. I've been disappointed by the response of Senator Payne, the Foreign Minister, and the Government more generally. They didn't act until this became public. As you know, Senator Payne didn't call her counterpart until she was asked to and it was suggested to her she should publicly, by me and the Opposition, when Parliament was sitting. I'm disappointed by the lack of support these women feel they received from the Government. In fact, phone calls are reported not to have been made until the Minister indicated that they would provide help and really, given the horrific experience these women went through, I would have hoped we would have seen more empathy and more private and public support from the Australian Government.

KARVELAS: Penny Wong, thanks for joining us this afternoon.

WONG: Good to speak with you, Patricia.

Authorised by Paul Erickson, ALP, Canberra.