ABC RN Breakfast with Fran Kelly - 29/10/2020

29 October 2020

SUBJECTS: Treatment of Australian women at Qatar airport; energy policy; zero net emissions.

FRAN KELLY, HOST: Senator Penny Wong is Shadow Foreign Minister. She joins us in our Parliament House studios. Senator Wong, thanks very much for joining us.


KELLY: The Government, you heard there, the Prime Minister expressing his disgust in the strongest of terms. What more do you believe our Government should be doing or could be doing to look out for, stand up for these women?

WONG: Well, it's all very well for Mr Morrison to express his concern now but the reality is the Government hasn't done what it needed to do. I mean, I cannot fathom how it is that the Government didn't pick up the phone and express in the strongest possible terms, as soon as we became aware of these events, to the Qatari Government that we expected this to be resolved and to register the strongest protest. I mean they haven't even spoken to their counterparts.

KELLY: Well, some have. I mean Foreign Affairs was advised of this incident very soon after it occurred – I think the same day or the next day, two days later – took the matter up with the Qatari Ambassador to Australia almost immediately and there have been, I'm sure you've seen the list, multiple representations made by embassy officials in Doha. Is that enough? Is that not the right place to start? Are you saying this should immediately be escalated to ministerial level?

WONG: It should. I believe ministers have a particular role in expressing what the country expects to other nations, what the country's reaction is. And I think, to rely on bureaucrats, to rely on officials as efficient as they may be, really demonstrates an absence of leadership from both the Foreign Minister and the Prime Minister. I think these women deserve people to be held accountable. They deserve transparency, but they also deserve a government that's going to go into bat for them.

KELLY: Is this just picking a fight here?

WONG: Not at all, not at all.

KELLY: I mean, when this story broke the Foreign Minister came out and spoke in the strongest terms. She described it as a grossly disturbing, offensive, concerning set of events. As I say, the Ambassador had been called in within days of it occurring...

WONG: No, no, hang on, let's be really clear. The Minister has not spoken to the Foreign Minister in Qatar yet.

KELLY: No, she says she's waiting for the formal...

WONG: And the Minister had not spoken to the Ambassador until after the story broke. Now, they are not the actions of a government that is registering at the highest possible levels, the strongest possible protest for the treatment – this extraordinarily appalling treatment – of our citizens.

I mean, there is a difference between – I think people deserve more than waiting for a report. Of course, a report needs to be undertaken, but the point we are making is when Ministers and the Prime Minister heard about this, surely, they could have picked up the phone. The least they could have done is picked up the phone and said, 'this is not acceptable, we expect a full response, we expect transparency and accountability'.

It is about sending a message and setting expectations, and that has not been done at the senior levels of government. I don't think it's reasonable to say that officials are doing your job for you.

KELLY: I mean, what the Australian Government did do I think, as I understand it, is the Government through their officials demanded that there is a full report done and they want to see it.

WONG: Yeah, you and I both know that Ministers have a different role. You and I both know that there is a difference between a departmental official, as good as they may be, making representations and a nation's Foreign Minister. What should have occurred is Marise Payne should have picked up the phone.

KELLY: The fact that the Qataris have now expressed some regret – it's a qualified apology at best, I must say. Does that indicate that certainly there's no need to wait for any reports now because it's an expression of some kind of responsibility?

WONG: Well, I think an apology is only just the beginning, or an expression of regret is only just the beginning, and I think much more needs to be done. I think these women deserve a very clear and transparent report about what occurred and accountability for those who perpetrated it.

KELLY: What would accountability look like? And what kind of capacity does another government – the Australian Government in this case – or in fact the governments of the other women involved – there were 10 flights searched I think – other nationals from French and British...

WONG: Well, that's what we were told yesterday, yes.

KELLY: That's right. So, we understand there's other governments concerned but what kind of accountability can our Government – this is an horrific thing that has happened here – I mean these women were forced to undergo very intrusive internal procedures...

WONG: Without consent

KELLY: It must have been terrifying. What kind of accountability could be demanded?

WONG: I think this goes back to why Ministers need to be engaged with this. Because ultimately, you're right, these events occurred outside of our jurisdiction and ultimately the response of the Qatari Government in great part depends on Australia's response. This is why I come back to my central criticism. I understand that officials may do good work but in our system of government, and I think internationally, engagement by Ministers communicates something and sets expectations.

KELLY: I mean, really what you're saying is you believe, from what you know, that the Federal Government only became exercised about the incident at the highest levels after it broke in the media on Sunday night – is that what you're saying?

WONG: The facts demonstrate that. There was no engagement by Minister Payne or the Prime Minister on this until after it became public.

KELLY: In terms of what this offence is here – the Foreign Minister Marise Payne was asked a few days ago whether she believed it was a sexual assault. She certainly left that hanging as a possibility. Do you believe this is classed as that? Have you had legal advice on this?

WONG: I haven't had any legal advice. I think clearly these women did not consent. People can draw their own conclusions. Given the intrusive and shocking experience that these women have had, I'm fairly reluctant to continue to engage in a long discussion about what occurred in public, but I think it is clear that there was not consent.

KELLY: What do you want our Government to do now?

WONG: I think they should be registering their protest at the highest levels. As yet, I don't believe Minister Payne has spoken to the Foreign Minister unless she's done it overnight. The Prime Minister hasn't spoken to his counterpart. That should happen and expectations should be set about not just the report, but what will occur as a consequence of the report. Regrettably, we have Ministers and a Prime Minister who are happy to give press conferences, saying how bad this is, but not do very much to deal with it.

KELLY: You're listening to RN Breakfast. Our guest is the Shadow Foreign Minister, Penny Wong. We have made requests, repeated requests for an interview with the Foreign Minister, but so far, she is unavailable.

Penny Wong, on another issue. This week we now know that two of the nation's biggest mining and manufacturing unions gave a presentation, a PowerPoint presentation in fact, to some Labor MPs about the need to keep supporting coal and gas; for Labor to keep supporting coal and gas. They say these two fossil fuels, as energy sources, will be required for years to come. Were you at that briefing?

WONG: No, I was in Estimates I think, asking Minister Reynolds questions about some major problems in the acquisition of military capability, including a helicopter which doesn't do the job it was intended to.

But look, I've read those reports; I haven't obviously seen the PowerPoint. What struck me about those reports is those unions also recognise the importance of, and the imperative of moving to net zero emissions and the discussion was about how that transition occurs and obviously gas particularly is part of that transition to a greater reliance on renewables. But it is a reminder, we've got unions agreeing with a net zero emissions target. We've seen in recent days, Japan – net zero emissions by 2050, South Korea – same target. This really demonstrates that the Morrison Government is increasingly isolated when it comes to climate change.

KELLY: Isn't that just bearing out exactly what these two big unions were saying this week? That they're warning the 32 MPs and Senators who attended that the Labor Party will continue to lose blue-collar workers unless it tones down the anti-coal and anti-gas rhetoric – one unnamed colleague saying 'we are not doing a good job of sending a message to these men and women that we have got their backs'.

WONG: Well, I think Labor has always got the backs of working people, that's the first point I'd make. The second point I'd make is that people around the world, and leaders of unions recognise that net zero emissions, which is a target the Labor Party caucus has all agreed, is required. The question is how do we manage that? Obviously, gas will be a part of that. Gas does play a part of firming renewables. I think that's demonstrated by even the Government's own energy market operator.

KELLY: Okay, Penny Wong, thank you very much for joining us.

WONG: Good to speak with you.

Authorised by Paul Erickson, ALP, Canberra.