ABC News Afternoon Briefing - 28/07/2020

28 July 2020

PATRICIA KARVELAS, HOST: The Foreign Minister, Marise Payne and Defence Minister Linda Reynolds have met their US counterparts in Washington.

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and US Defense Secretary Mark Esper, are holding a working dinner for their guests ahead of the annual AUSMIN talks.

The official trip comes as coronavirus cases surge in the United States. It was revealed yesterday the White House security adviser Robert O'Brien had tested positive for COVID-19.

Penny Wong is the Shadow Minister for Foreign Affairs and also my guest this afternoon. She joins me from Adelaide.

Penny Wong, welcome.

SENATOR PENNY WONG, SHADOW MINISTER FOR FOREIGN AFFAIRS: Good to be with you, Patricia. I hope you and the family are all well there in Victoria.

KARVELAS: We are. And I know you’ve got a new puppy. We are going to get to that in a minute. We will get to your portfolio, also in a moment.

But should the crisis in private aged care in Victoria have been anticipated given the problems identified by the Royal Commission?

WONG: Well, I think two things we need to remember: one is, it is the Commonwealth Government, it is Scott Morrison, who is ultimately responsible for the aged care system. And the second is that there were problems prior to the pandemic, prior to COVID-19.

My heart goes out to residents and families of residents who are obviously very frightened and many of them in a very difficult situation.

Newmarch House was some months ago now and it is really disappointing that the Commonwealth Government and the Minister, Mr Colbeck, have not had a more comprehensive plan in place to deal with the potential for further waves, as we are seeing.

KARVELAS: Are you worried we could see similar problems in aged care in other states if there were fresh coronavirus outbreaks there?

WONG: Of course. I think we all are.

We've seen that aged care is a particularly vulnerable sector. It’s a sector that was identified early as being a sector where widespread transmission could occur and obviously you have very vulnerable people, and we have the lived experience of Newmarch House.

I'm not sure where the Commonwealth Government has been these last months and certainly it is time for the Government to demonstrate some leadership here and take responsibility.

We all want to see a much stronger response. We all want to see aged care residents be safe.

We want to be constructive about this, but I think it's reasonable to call out the fact there's been an absence of leadership at the Commonwealth level.

KARVELAS: You are putting the blame on the Commonwealth, but obviously there are state issues here, too. That's in terms of the workforce and trying to deal with some of these issues - it was actually the Premier that made some of these calls today in relation to elective surgery, for instance for these people to make their way into the hospital system. Doesn't the State Government also bear some responsibility here?

WONG: Well, look, I'm not interested in buck-passing. I'm interested in the Commonwealth Government exercising its appropriate leadership of a system it funds and regulates.

As you identified, we had a Royal Commission which already identified great problems in the aged care sector and since the pandemic, we've seen this is a vulnerable sector.

I look forward to Mr Morrison demonstrating leadership as the Prime Minister to respond to what is a continuing and growing crisis in aged care.

KARVELAS: Let’s get to your portfolio. On these AUSMIN talks in Washington; how should Australia respond to any request to step up freedom of navigation exercises in the South China Sea?

WONG: Well, before I come to the FONOPs issue, the freedom of navigation operations, can I make this point about AUSMIN: AUSMIN is the single most important meeting in which Australia can communicate its interests within the alliance with the United States.

It is a good thing that the ministers are going.

And I would encourage my counterpart and also the Defence Minister to make sure they do press a number of issues from Australia's perspective.

The first is consistent US leadership in the region. That is, consistent leadership not just on matters strategic, not just on military matters, but also on economic recovery and on health recovery - for example, the development and also co-operation around the rollout of any vaccine.

The second thing they should be raising is the trade deal between the US and China, and making sure that the $40 billion per year for two years of US agriculture product that is going to go to China is not at the expense of Australian farmers and exporters.

And finally, they should also be pressing the US to think about what is the settling point between the US and China because we have to find a way to assert our interests, to have the region we want but to not engage in continued escalation.

On the issue of FONOPs which you started with, the international law of the sea is in Australia's national interest and ensuring that it has integrity and is observed is in our national interests. We have made that clear as the Opposition.

What I would say is this; it is very important that the region is involved on the front-line, with ensuring that the integrity of the law of the sea is upheld.

So I would urge our Ministers to ensure there is a comprehensive regional response, to the issue of the observation of the international law of the sea.

KARVELAS: Should our navy be prepared to sail within 12 nautical miles of the islands claimed by China?

WONG: Ultimately, that is a decision for the government of the day and that decision should be made on the basis of what is our national interests.

They are, first, we do have an interest in upholding the Convention on the Law of the Sea. We do have an interest in making sure that the integrity of that law is maintained.

Ultimately, we also have an interest in making sure the region is integrally involved in upholding the law of the sea.

That is the point I was making at the outset, is I think it is important that Australia encourage a regional response to upholding the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.

KARVELAS: Should the Government be prepared to allow the US to station intermediate ballistic missiles on Australian soil if we're asked to?

WONG: I don't believe such a request has been made. I know the last AUSMIN, there was some reporting of that.

I think my colleague, Richard Marles, was asked about that this morning. But I don't believe that reporting was accurate. In fact, Minister Reynolds came out quite quickly to say it was not accurate.

KARVELAS: Do you see a domestic political agenda at play in America's tougher stance on China? And you mentioned that questions should be raised about the settlement, I think is the word you used about where this ends - does Australia need to be careful about being drawn into that and what sort of questions should we be asking?

WONG: We should never be drawn into domestic political campaigning in the United States for either political party.

KARVELAS: Do you think that is what is happening?

WONG: That is never in Australia's interests and Australia's national interest is in the alliance and in pressing our view and our interests about how that alliance should operate and in particular, what US consistent leadership and constructive leadership in our region should be.

We don't have an interest in partisan activity in the United States. And I think those occasions where Australian politicians have engaged in campaigning opportunities with President Trump - recently we saw Mr Morrison doing that - I think that’s unwise.

We are not part of a domestic political campaign in the United States. We are a sovereign nation asserting Australia’s national interest to our principal ally and our principal security partner.

KARVELAS: Does the US decision to shut down China's consulate in Houston set a dangerous precedent - is it something you're concerned about?

WONG: I am concerned by the actions of both parties and I'm concerned by China's increased assertiveness, obviously, in the South China Sea.

I'd make this point, and I've made it consistently; we have a great many differences with China. Obviously, they are one-party, authoritarian state - we're a democracy.
We have very different values and we have different interests.

However, our interests are not served by disengagement. Our interests are served by continued engagement, continuing to assert our interests and values.

And I would argue, to the United States and to China, it's not in either nation's interest for continued escalation.

So we would, my view, is that we should continue to engage, never stepping away from Australia's interests and Australia’s values.

KARVELAS: The US move arose from concerns China is trying to steal Western research on coronavirus vaccine. Does the international community need to respond to that?

WONG: Well, the international community should make very clear that the theft of intellectual property by any entity and any nation state is unacceptable.

And Australia has done so in concert with others and we should continue to do so - we should make that clear to whichever state is engaged in that activity.

But there's a broader point here, which is co-operation around the rollout of any vaccine.

We have not done well - humanity has not done well to collectively respond to the pandemic.

We've seen competition. We’ve seen disinformation. We've seen China taking much more assertive steps that we don't regard as being in our interests in the region, in the context of the pandemic.

We should not make the same mistakes and the lack of coordination when it comes to the vaccine - if and when, we hope, that one is developed.

I would be encouraging our ministers to be talking to the administration about how the US can provide international leadership on co-operation, on the development of and the rollout of any vaccine.

Our region needs it. Countries like Indonesia need it, as well as, obviously, other developed nations, including Australia.

KARVELAS: Just finally, Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak has been found guilty in the first of five corruption trials. Is this an important victory for efforts to stamp out corruption in South-East Asia?

Well, we should stand against corruption wherever it is, as a matter of principle.

I'm not going to comment on the proceedings in Malaysia - that's a matter for the Malaysian judicial system.

There are quite a lot of legal proceedings on foot, as I think you indicated in your introduction.

KARVELAS: Just another issue - I said "finally" but, you know, you can never trust me there...

WONG: Wasn't really final.

KARVELAS: It wasn't, so - you know, it's the only fake news that's ever happened.

There are reports that Australian academic Kylie Moore-Gilbert - who's been held in Iran - has been moved to a worse prison as punishment.

How alarmed are you by that, and what should we be doing?

WONG: Look, in relation to Dr Moore-Gilbert, I want to make it clear that the Opposition has received regular briefings on her case. We have maintained our support for the Government's actions in working to support her.

In my view, this is not a case, at this stage, based on the advice from the Government, that it is helpful for me to make public comment on.

So I don't propose to respond to the article other than to say we support the Government's continuing representations in respect of Dr Moore-Gilbert.

KARVELAS: Penny Wong, you know I'm a very serious journalist, but also it seems to me that your children have been successful in their campaign to make you relent and get them a puppy. What made you give in?

WONG: (LAUGHS) Well, it's pretty hard to withstand, I think it's three or four years of continued representations from she's now eight, nearly nine, I think she started when she was four, going on five. So that's a lot of years.

So, yes, we have finally got ourselves a dog, a little black Labrador named Shadow, who is busily tearing up our garden.

KARVELAS: Fantastic. And you'll be up all night, as you were when the children were small too.

WONG: Correct.

KARVELAS: Penny Wong, thanks for talking to us.

WONG: Thank you.


Authorised by Paul Erickson, ALP, Canberra.