ABC News Afternoon Briefing - 26/08/2020

27 August 2020

PATRICIA KARVELAS, HOST: Shadow Foreign Affairs Minister Penny Wong is my next guest this afternoon. Penny Wong, lovely to speak to you.


KARVELAS: Chinese officials rarely make themselves available for questioning by foreign media. What stood out for you in today's address from the Deputy Head of Mission?

WONG: Well, I think it is a good thing that the Deputy Head of Mission did front up to the Press Club and did take questions from the media.

Obviously this has been a challenging time in the relationship.

China has been more assertive. Australia has obviously had to assert its interests and its values.

But in the context of all of that, engagement matters, and even where we disagree we are going to have to work out how we engage.

So, I think it is a good thing for this engagement to occur, even if there are a number of things on which we obviously have different views.

KARVELAS: Wang Xining confirmed that Australia's call for an inquiry did anger Beijing. What did you make of what he had to say about a lack of consultation with the Chinese government?

WONG: Well, that's probably a question, actually, for Marise Payne.

On the inquiry, I've made quite a few comments and I think it's important to distinguish between the what and the how.

On the actual call for an inquiry, we made clear, in the context of a global
pandemic, it is an entirely reasonable proposition to want to understand how it occurred, so we can prevent it happening again. So that was an entirely reasonable proposition.

I did make the point that it would have been preferable, rather than Marise Payne announcing it on Insiders, that for there to have been some diplomatic work prior to the announcement, particularly with other countries who were supportive.

KARVELAS: And how about diplomatic work with China? Because that's the point that was made today.

WONG: I think it is useful to make sure you flag your intentions. It doesn't mean you're diverted.

But I thought it was particularly important to, it would have been particularly helpful, if the Minister had certainly engaged with countries who were supportive of such an inquiry ahead of time.

KARVELAS: You have made that point before. But the specific point about raising it with China ahead of time, do you think that would have been appropriate?

WONG: I can't see why that would have been a particularly problematic issue, as long as we were clear about what we were doing.

KARVELAS: Why should we have done that?

WONG: Why should we have been clear about what we were doing?

KARVELAS: No, why should we have consulted China?

WONG: I just think making sure you flag these things isn't a bad idea. But I want to make it very clear, Patricia, making sure you engage with people doesn't divert you from what you should do. And the Labor Party has been very clear that we were supportive of the moves for an inquiry.

KARVELAS: Yeah, no, absolutely, you have been. But the process is what we're talking about.

WONG: Sure, I think Julie Bishop has made similar points. That it would have been better if these issues had been particularly other countries who were supportive of the inquiry, were...

KARVELAS: …Ok, was China singled out by Australia? And was that unfair?

WONG: In the inquiry?

KARVELAS: In Australia's calls or commentary around Wuhan being the origin, the comments that we heard today in the Press Club - was China singled out by Australia, and do you think that was fair?

WONG: I thought that - I think Minister Dutton did reprise one of the theories around the Wuhan laboratory, even Prime Minister Morrison, I think, pushed back on that publicly.

So, I don't think it's reasonable to say that Australia sought to single out China in relation to the virus.

I have been asked, for example, about comments about a Chinese virus, and I have, put our view that that was not a helpful way of talking about it, as has, from memory, the Foreign Minister. So, I don't think that's a reasonable assertion.

KARVELAS: Do you share Mr Wang's view that it's Australia that damaged the relationship?

WONG: I don't think it's a reasonable assessment of what has occurred. I think we have a number of things occurring in the relationship with China, and what I would say on your show is this: we do want a productive relationship with China. And a productive relationship is one that respects Australian interests and Australian values.

And, you know, that is a position that I think is entirely reasonable. There will be occasions on which our views differ.

And if the proposition is we have to change our position on some of those fundamental issues, like democracy, like human rights, like our view about the application of international law, well, that's not a position that any government, of whatever political persuasion, can countenance.

KARVELAS: He said Australia could harm its international reputation if it continues to push away Chinese investment. What did you make of that comment, and do you think he has a point?

WONG: I don't know what his intention is. I think foreign investment has been a part of our economy for many, many years. We've always been a capital-hungry economy. Any foreign investment should be assessed on the basis of the national interest.

KARVELAS: And what did you make of the distinction that he drew between foreign interference and foreign influence?

WONG: Well, I have to say I might have been in the Senate chamber for that aspect of the speech, or of the questions.

But I would make this point about foreign interference. It is entirely reasonable for this democracy, or any country, to ensure that our democratic system is not unduly influenced by external parties.

That is a reasonable position. It's a position Labor has supported.

We have obviously, with bipartisan support, supported the foreign interference laws.
We continue to support reform of those, not only the legal framework, but also the regulatory framework, and the resourcing of agencies to ensure this occurs.

KARVELAS: We know government ministers can't get their counterparts on the phone. I've had that confirmed from Simon Birmingham, the Trade Minister, also the Agriculture Minister. But today Mr Wang said diplomatic channels remain open. How can that be the case?

WONG: Well, my response to that would be if the doors of diplomacy, or diplomatic channels remain open, we would encourage the Chinese authorities to respond to the Australian ministers' invitations to engage, to have a discussion about some of the difficult trade issues which are on the table.

And I would say that the Australian ministers who are making those offers of engagement to their Chinese counterparts do so with full bipartisan support.

And we would encourage that the Chinese authorities respond.

KARVELAS: Just on a couple of other issues before I let you go: Labor has been really hammering this issue of the Government's handling of the aged care crisis, coronavirus crisis, and today talking about withdrawal of funding being linked. How are they linked? How are past budgetary decisions linked to the handling of the COVID crisis?

WONG: Well, just read what the Royal Commission has said, just listen to what Russell Broadbent has said, listen to what Senator Connie Fierravanti-Wells has said.

The reality is under this Government the system has got worse. It was already broken before COVID-19.

And what we see with this Aged Care Minister, Senator Colbeck, and Prime Minister Morrison, Scott Morrison, are people who have had warning after warning after warning after warning, and they have failed to act.

And the consequences of that failure are tragic.

They are consequences which are being felt by so many families, particularly in Victoria, but in other parts of Australia too, since COVID-19, unfortunately, reached our shores.

So I extend my deepest sympathies to all those who have lost someone, and I say it is absolutely right that we should be calling this Government to account for what they have failed to do, and pressing them to do what they should have done.

KARVELAS: Look, I just want to go to a couple of issues if we can...

WONG: Can I just say something quickly about Richard Colbeck? You know, I sit in the Senate every day with this bloke, and I tell you, Patricia, I would not trust the care of my parents to him.

KARVELAS: That's a really strong point to make... You wouldn't trust the care of your own parents with Richard Colbeck, why not?

WONG: I genuinely do not believe this man understands what it is to be a responsible minister in the portfolio.

I do not believe he is competent.

I think, you know, we watch him in the Senate, talking about process and webinars and letters and talking, in circumstances where it is clear he has been warned by their own task force, by their own royal commission, and by the events in Australia in the sector itself this year.

I mean to suggest that the workforce, they didn't plan for a withdrawal of the workforce, when we saw what happened in Newmarch House, is extraordinary.

KARVELAS: Just before I let you go, Victoria's human rights watchdog says racial vilification complaints have doubled during the pandemic, with abuse often directed towards people of Asian appearance. Has enough been done to combat that kind of racism?

WONG: We always have to stand up against racism. If we don't, unfortunately, it rears its head.

And we need, particularly in these times, when we see nationalism on the rise around the world and to some extent in this country, where people are fearful, where we have the borders closed, we have to work even harder to ensure unity and acceptance and respect are the prevalent values, the dominant values in our community.

And that means all of us, all political leaders have to work to ensure that that is the case.

KARVELAS: Senator, thanks for coming on the show.

WONG: Good to speak with you.


Authorised by Paul Erickson, ALP, Canberra.