13 July 2020
FRAN KELLY, HOST: Well, this COVID pandemic has caused untold economic damage here at home and across the globe. It's also spawned great political disruption, which Shadow Foreign Minister Penny Wong is warning could end up destroying the rules-based system that's been in place since the Second World War.
Penny Wong has written a major essay on Australia's place in the post-pandemic world, which will see an even more volatile relationship between the United States and China.
Senator Wong joins us again. Penny Wong, welcome back to Breakfast.
SENATOR PENNY WONG, SHADOW MINISTER FOR FOREIGN AFFAIRS: Good morning. Good to be with you, Fran.
KELLY: Senator, your essay is called ‘The End of Orthodoxy - Australia in a post-pandemic world’.
Just how disruptive has this pandemic been so far, do you believe, to the rules based system?
WONG: Well, I think we are facing the biggest crisis since World War II. We're facing the biggest economic downturn since the Great Depression. We are seeing nationalism coming to the fore across the world. And we're seeing a breakdown of the international order.
So, the point I'm making the essay, is that we really can't rely on the old assumptions.
Where does that take us? It takes us, I think, to two key propositions.
The first is Australia has to act; we have to build the region and the world we want. If we don't, others will do it for us.
And that means, secondly, we have to be more self-reliant and more ambitious. And I think that requires true leadership.
KELLY: More self-reliant and more ambitious. We are a middle power at best. I mean, what sort of capacity does Australia have to set its own course, to navigate this uncertain world?
WONG: Well we do have agency and we do have the capacity to act in our own interests and to work with others in shared interests.
I mean, we need to work not only with allies, but also with aligned nations.
We need to work to secure the region we want. We want a region that's stable and prosperous, but also that respects sovereignty.
KELLY: Were you buoyed, then, by the comments of the Foreign Minister, Marise Payne, a couple of weeks ago, when she said that Australia needs to work hard to preserve and keep healthy, the multilateral bodies that, you know, we are a part of?
WONG: It's certainly a much better position than the “negative globalism” that we saw from Scott Morrison last year, when he railed against an international system, railed against UN bodies, really I think, in a way that demonstrated politics rather than strategy.
What we need is less political announcements, less sloganeering, and much more strategy and much more political leadership.
KELLY: I’ll come back to Australia in a moment, but just to go to your essay, you talk about - you mentioned nationalism already - but you call it a “macho strain of nationalism and confrontation” that's been reinforced by this catastrophe.
At this time, when we should be all working together, is it harder now than ever to strike any real level of cooperation, as countries turn inwards.
I mean, this is going to be the challenge for trying to, you know, develop and keep more robust, some multilateral institutions, isn't it?
WONG: Look, that's a very good point.
We're seeing a confluence of a number of dynamics, one of them is rising nationalism.
And you're right; that makes it much harder for the world to respond effectively to this pandemic, than it should have been.
It is a great sadness, I think, to all of us that if we look at the circumstances we face; the worst pandemic in a century, the worst financial position, economic position since the Great Depression, that the world has not been able to marshal an effective multilateral response, an effective collective response.
And there are a number of drivers for that failure, but it is a failure, nevertheless.
KELLY: One of the drivers would seem to be, sort of sitting atop, the tensions between and the mistrust between China and the US in particular.
You call out China in the essay for its growing influence over global bodies such as the World Health Organization and some other UN agencies.
But the call from the US and others just not that long ago really was for China to step up and play a greater role in the rules-based order, the global order.
Now you're worrying is trying to exert too much influence on these global bodies?
WONG: Well, I think I'm making the observation that China is doing precisely what you would imagine a great power will do; which is to strengthen its influence within the United Nations system and around the UN system.
That's consistent with the actions of a great power.
And my point is, that if we want a rules-based order, an international order that is consistent with Australia's interests - at a time we see China stepping forward, we see increased disengagement from the United States under President Trump - then Australia has to do more and we have to do it with aligned nations.
You made the point in an earlier question that we're ‘only a middle power’. That’s true. But we do have agency and we do have, in this world, a great number of nations who share our perspective.
They want a world that is stable, prosperous, but that respects sovereignty.
They want a world where we are not drawn into continued escalation of competition between the great powers.
They want a world where there is a multilateral system, a rules-based system, where we can all participate.
So that means we have to think about our foreign policy, not just in terms of the competition between great powers but to work both within the US Alliance, which remains critical, but also beyond it with aligned nations, in our own interests.
KELLY: But are you worried that China's doing more than what you'd expect an emerging superpower to do?
Because you warn of China wanting a more illiberal form of global governance designed to suit the interests of authoritarian states – what are you seeing that's concerning you?
WONG: Well, I mean, China is a one-party, authoritarian state. That is a fact.
Under President Xi, we’ve seen nationalism and authoritarianism increase.
We want to continue to engage with China. China remains one of the world's great powers.
But we must be very clear; there are differences between us, between our values and our interests.
We have to work out how we engage whilst we stand up for those values and interests, including our sovereignty.
KELLY: And is it a reality that the deeper ties we need to forge in our region, that you've been talking about, ties with countries like India, Japan, Korea, Indonesia…
KELLY: … because we can no longer trust that the United States can be depended on as a reliable partner at this time?
WONG: Oh, look, I wouldn't put it quite in such black and white terms.
I think you need to do both.
A US presence in the region is critical for the sort of region we want. US constructive engagement in the region is critical for the region we want.
So we have to work within the alliance, as an alliance partner, and as a loyal friend of the United States to maximize that constructive engagement.
But we also should work with our neighbours. We should work with other aligned nations in our collective interests.
KELLY: Shadow Foreign Minister, Penny Wong is our guest.
Penny Wong in Malaysia, five Australian journalists are being questioned by police over a story they did on the plight of migrant workers during the pandemic. It angered the Malaysian government.
The journalists could be charged with sedition and defamation - both of which carry jail terms.
Is this a return to the bad old days when the Malaysian government was intolerant of criticisms?
WONG: Well, I'm certainly concerned about those reports.
And I'd make just a couple of points. First, media freedom, free press is a central Australian value. And that point, I hope is being made by the Government to the Malaysian authorities and I make it here on behalf of the Opposition.
Secondly, I assume the Government will or is providing appropriate assistance, consular assistance to the journalists.
I hope that the Malaysian authorities recognise the importance of freedom of media expression, in their handling of these matters.
KELLY: Are you aware that the Australian Government is making representations on behalf of these journalists?
WONG: No, I have not had a briefing as yet, in relation to those matters.
I would assume that the Australian Government, consistent with the long standing Australian position, would be expressing the view I’ve expressed this morning.
KELLY: And can I just ask you briefly, the Government's offer, on another matter, to resettle some skilled migrants from Hong Kong.
There are about 10,000 people who are already here on skilled worker or student visas and others would be welcomed, given this five year visa.
Where does that leave pro-democracy Hong Kongers who may fear persecution because there is no safe haven visa being offered specifically here.
WONG: Well, the person who put safe haven, who said he would be offering safe haven was Mr Morrison.
And it's regrettable, yet again, that we've seen yet another announcement fall short, when it comes to delivery.
The Government has refused, for example, to guarantee that any Hong Kong in Australia would not be involuntarily deported.
KELLY: Only if they are a security threat or a bad character threat…
WONG: Well, you know, I think it's very clear that the Government hasn't gone as far as Mr Morrison's announcement.
The reality is we have an interest in making sure that we uphold the rules-based order, we uphold human rights.
And that has governed the way in which Labor has spoken about Hong Kong over some time now.
KELLY: Senator Wong, thank you very much for joining us.
WONG: Good to speak with you.
Authorised by Paul Erickson, ALP, Canberra.