ABC RN Breakfast with Patricia Karvelas - 21/04/2022

21 April 2022

SUBJECTS: Mr Morrison playing political games with national security; Australia’s relationship with China; Solomon Islands’ security treaty with China; Operation Sovereign Borders; Temporary Protection Visas; Julian Assange; Katherine Deves.

PATRICIA KARVELAS, HOST: Penny Wong is the Shadow Minister for Foreign Affairs and the Leader of the Opposition in the Senate. Penny Wong, welcome.

SENATOR PENNY WONG, SHADOW MINISTER FOR FOREIGN AFFAIRS: Good morning, Patricia. Good to be with you.

KARVELAS: There were strong words from Scott Morrison last night, he said Labor is taking China's side. And now we've heard from Simon Birmingham that he was referring to the record of Labor and the demands that have previously been made by Labor - senior people, including you and Anthony Albanese - to deal with China, to make deals with China. Is that a fair assessment that that's what you've done in the past?

WONG: No, it's not. And if you look at our record, we have been very clear that we understand what is occurring in relation to China. We are very clear about China's increased aggression and assertiveness - and the risk that presents to Australia's interests. And Labor has never, and will never, take a backward step when it comes to standing up for Australia's interests. We've given bipartisan support on all the key measures the Government has put in place, including foreign interference, the exclusion of Huawei, Australia's position on the South China Sea and human rights. And in fact, on at least two occasions, we've taken a stronger position; we have opposed the sale of the Port of Darwin, and I opposed, Labor opposed the China extradition treaty when the Coalition Government wanted that to be ratified. But I just want to make a point here about what is really happening. What is really happening is Scott Morrison is playing the game he has played for years, which is when he makes a mistake, or when he's under pressure, he does one of two things; he either blames other people, like he did with the pandemic when he blamed the states, or the failure to legislate an Anti-Corruption Commission - he's blaming Labor. But the other thing he does is he creates a fight on another issue. So, here we have, with Solomon Islands, the worst foreign policy blunder in the Pacific since the end of World War II. And instead of dealing with that, and fronting up to it and taking responsibility and showing leadership, what does he do? He tries to manufacture another fight, in which he attacks Labor's motives. I mean, I just think it is an abrogation of responsibility from the country's leader.

KARVELAS: But I spoke to Simon Birmingham, he says that we can't be looking to be ganging up and being sort of thuggish in our approach, using bullying tactics. Is that what Labor is suggesting? That we go and muscle up in an inappropriate way in a sovereign country?

WONG: Of course not. First, of course, Solomon Islands is a sovereign nation and of course they make their own decisions. But that does not absolve Mr Morrison and this government of their responsibility for what has happened on their watch. And what has happened on their watch, has made our region less secure and has increased the risks to Australia. I can tell you, what we should be doing and what we should not have done. The Government should not have dropped the annual bilateral development assistance to the Solomons - which is 28%, on average per year lower under them than under us. They should not have mocked Pacific leaders about water lapping at their doors, which is what Peter Dutton did with Scott Morrison standing next to him. We shouldn't have thumbed our nose at Pacific leaders who have said climate change is their number one national security issue.

KARVELAS: But is there really any evidence...

WONG: One more point - we should not have mismanaged the Pacific Labour scheme, where we've seen the exploitation of Pacific workers under this government. So, the fact is, this decision demonstrates Solomon Islands is no longer turning to Australia as the partner of choice and Mr Morrison should take responsibility for the implications for Australia.

KARVELAS: You can't say that doing those things would have stopped this deal being signed. Isn't that overreach?

WONG: No, it is an observation and an accurate observation of all of the missteps over years, which have occurred under Mr Morrison - that's what it's an observation of.

KARVELAS: The Prime Minister says that sending a more senior minister to the country, like Marise Payne, would not have helped. He said Australia needs to be conscious not to be seen as trying to tell Pacific countries what to do. They were trying to take a more subtle approach.

WONG: But he was happy to tell them what to do when he pushed back on climate. He was happy to tell them what to do, when he turned up to a Pacific Leaders Forum and pushed the leaders hard to take out reference to the climate crisis, which they wanted to put in. So, Mr Morrison is very selective about when he wants to throw his weight around. And you know, I think Australians rightly will be asking, why did you not do more? Why did you not send a senior minister earlier? And why did you not do more when you found out? And I was really interested to listen to your, if I may say, very good questions of Simon, where the inconsistency in the Government's story on this was laid out. When we know from the Opposition Leader in the Solomon Islands that the Government was told about this in August last year. As you point out, the Prime Minister and Minister Payne have spoken about the fact that they knew about this. I think, Mr Joyce has said we were all over it. And then Zed says 'oh, we only found out about it when it was leaked'.

KARVELAS: Look, there was also back and forth in this debate, Penny Wong, about Anthony Albanese's time in the National Security Cabinet under the former Labor Government. The Prime Minister is right, isn't he, that that government didn't support boat turn backs?

WONG: Look, I think Anthony made very clear, in his comments at the end of the debate, you know, when something works, we'll take it on. And the fact is, Operation Sovereign Borders, and all three elements of it, is something Labor supports...

KARVELAS: All three? You don't support temporary protection visas?

WONG: ... turn backs when they're safe to do so. Temporary Protection Visas, as you know, no matter how much, again, the Coalition and Mr Morrison want to try and make this an issue, these are visas which were given to people who arrived before the Sovereign Borders policy framework came into place. These are people who have been in place in Australia for over a decade. And we've got, we do have a view that it is not a sensible position nor a good use of resources, to have them reapply for their visas every few years. They are people who are working here, and who employ people here, and they came before Operation Sovereign Borders was put in place.

KARVELAS: Just some quick questions. You would have seen the news about Julian Assange this morning. Do you believe that Julian Assange should be extradited to the US? And if you become the government, will you make specific representations to the UK Home Secretary?

WONG: Well can I make a few comments; the first is, the ruling isn't a surprise. The second is, this is far from the end of the matter, because the UK Home Secretary has to make a final ruling. Mr Assange has the right to further appeal any decision of the Home Secretary. I would say, I do understand why not only Mr Assange's personal supporters but many Australians more generally are worried about this. It has dragged on a long time - it would be preferable if it hadn't. As an Australian citizen he is entitled to consular assistance. We also expect the Government to keep seeking assurances from both the UK and US that he's treated fairly and humanely. Ultimately, the decision on extradition, however, is a decision for the UK Home Secretary.

KARVELAS: But shouldn't the Australian Government step in? And if you become the Foreign Minister, shouldn't that be your job to make those representations?

WONG: Well, I understand from reports - although she's, I think, declined to comment in detail - that Minister Payne has already raised this with the US administration, I think, in September of last year. I would simply say this - consular matters are regularly raised with counterparts, they are regularly raised and this one would be no different.

KARVELAS: There's a latest unearthed tweet from the Warringah candidate, Katherine Deves. In it she says surrogacy is a human rights violation, in relation to gay men having a child. The Government has stood by her. I didn't hear exactly an enthusiastic endorsement of her from the Finance Minister, Simon Birmingham. But the Prime Minister yesterday said that people are sick of being, you know, silenced essentially or feeling like there's always outrage. What's your take on this?

WONG: I think her candidacy is a divisive matter and her views are divisive. And they are divisive not only in the community, but they are divisive inside the Liberal Party. And you heard Simon Birmingham decline to back her. We've seen other Liberals, including Matt Kean from New South Wales, say she shouldn't be their candidate, as have others inside the Liberal Party. So it's obviously divisive inside the Liberal Party. But can I just make the broader point; on this I actually agree with Marise Payne. She talked about many of these issues and dealing with transgender issues - these are sensitive issues. And they shouldn't be issues about which there are political games played. And my view is we shouldn't be dealing with divisive issues in a politically weaponised environment.

KARVELAS: Penny Wong, thanks for your time.

WONG: Good to speak with you.

Authorised by Paul Erickson, ALP, Canberra.