ABC RN Breakfast with Sally Sara - 20/01/2021

20 January 2021

SUBJECTS: Australia-US alliance; the threat of foreign interference in Australian universities; 38,000 stranded Australians.

SALLY SARA, HOST: Labor's Shadow Foreign Affairs Minister, Penny Wong, joins us now from Adelaide. Senator Wong, welcome to Breakfast.


SARA: Senator Wong, just to begin with 'undermining the alliance' is a very serious accusation to make, how has Scott Morrison done that?

WONG: I think it is a fact that Mr Morrison has been playing politics with the alliance. He has put his political affinity with President Trump and his own political interests ahead of the values that underpin the alliance and Australia's interests. It is Mr Morrison who refused to call Donald Trump out when other world leaders had the courage to do so, including those on the conservative side of politics. And he has indulged extremists within his own ranks who continue to spread these conspiracy theories. Let's remember democracy has been under attack in the United States. We have seen world leaders, including those on the conservative side of politics, whether it's Boris Johnson or Angela Merkel, being very clear and unambiguous in their defence of democracy and instead of our Prime Minister doing that, he has been defending and indulging Craig Kelly and George Christensen. Those actions are not in Australia's interests and are not consistent with the values that underpin the alliance.

SARA: Senator Wong, how would Labor have managed Donald Trump differently? We don't get to choose who's in the Oval Office, we have to deal with who's there. Would you have had the guts to call out the American President? Which, in itself, could have damaged that relationship.

WONG: I've said consistently, as have all of my colleagues since Mr Trump was elected, that the alliance transcends any one individual. Ultimately the relationship is between two nations, and as Anthony says in his speech, it is in the world's interests and in Australia's interests for American democracy to be strong and be an example to the world. Democracy in the United States has been under attack. That is why world leaders have been clear about their defence of democracy. And instead of doing that, you've seen Mr Morrison indulging those extremists in his own ranks, who had been peddling the same conspiracy theories. It was Mr Morrison who attended a political rally with Donald Trump. It was Mr Morrison who refused to back democracy. And it was Mr Morrison who is defending George Christensen and Craig Kelly and I don't think that's in Australia's interests.

SARA: Senator Wong, there were significant wins over the past four years; we've dodged trade tariffs on our steel and aluminium and Donald Trump was forced to honour the refugee deal that was struck with Barack Obama. Aren't they tangible outcomes? Aren't they the ones that matter most?

WONG: Look, I think what matters most - and I'd just note that the arrangement with former President Barack Obama was, in fact, pressed by Mr Turnbull and I think that did demonstrate the challenges of dealing with the Trump administration. But I think where we go from here is critically important. President-elect Biden has made clear, he understands the importance of alliances to American power - they are a central component of American power. We have to do more work in the alliance. It's more than a series of photo ops and a discussion about mateship. It is critical to the sort of region we want and what we need to do as a nation is to work very closely with the incoming Administration on ensuring we build and protect the sort of region we want, in which sovereignty is protected, where states are respected and where trade is open and fair. We've got a lot of work to do.

SARA: I want to ask you about the incoming Administration. With Joe Biden's inauguration tomorrow that relationship will enter a new phase between the US and Australia. How important do you think issues such as climate change will be as one of the President's new top priorities?

WONG: This is one of the main challenges that Mr Morrison faces. Mr Biden campaigned on the promise of making America a leader on climate, including a commitment to net zero emissions by 2050. And yet we have a leader in Australia - Mr Morrison - who refuses to commit Australia to net zero emissions. We are isolated and our economy and jobs will suffer as a consequence. So, if Mr Morrison wants to come to the table in a meaningful way with the US President on climate, he's going to have to shift his position.

SARA: Senator Wong, Joe Biden is expected to take a tough line on China. Does that mean that Australia can depend on the US for support in our trade difficulties and disputes with Beijing?

WONG: I've been heartened by some of the comments of those close to the incoming President, including Jake Sullivan, about the importance of open trade and more importantly, criticism of what is occurring in relation to China's blockage, frankly, of a number of Australian resources and exports. But more fundamentally, the US alliance and US engagement in the region is critical to the sort of region we want. And how this Biden Administration handles the competition with China is critical to Australia's interests and what we have to do is work with them to ensure Australia's interests are protected and promoted, that we do have a region which respects sovereignty, and where all countries can benefit from the prosperity that comes from open trade.

SARA: Let's take a look at another issue that's connected with China and there are more concerns today about Chinese spies infiltrating Australian universities. Is there enough due diligence being done by the universities themselves to make sure that that's not happening?

WONG: Let's remember this is all occurring under Mr Morrison. This is occurring on the Morrison Government's watch.

SARA: But the universities, I'm asking about their role.

WONG: Yes, and I want to make this point; foreign interference in Australia is a serious issue. But what we have is a Government that talks tough on sovereignty but is insufficiently supporting the universities to build their resilience to these sorts of risks, and to improve transparency and due diligence. I mean, we've had a foreign interference task force for over 12 months. The Government now has the power to cancel foreign arrangements. I think it is for this Government, not only to explain, but to demonstrate it is prepared to move from tough rhetoric to making sure it works with institutions such as the universities to protect Australia's sovereignty.

SARA: Finally, on stranded Australians, you've been campaigning for the Government to do more to help the approximately 38,000 Australians who are still stranded overseas. With the international border likely to be closed for all of 2021, does that sound like that's what the reality will be for the COVID pandemic now, that people won't be able to get home maybe in this calendar year?

WONG: Well, the reality is Mr Morrison promised to get people home by Christmas - Christmas 2020. And as you say, we still have 38,000 people stranded. That's not the totality of the number of Australians overseas. That is those who want to come home and the roadblock is Scott Morrison’s stubbornness in refusing to discharge his responsibility for national quarantine. Quarantine is a federal responsibility. We need a safe national quarantine system. But we've got a 'I don't hold a hose, mate' moment from the Prime Minister who stubbornly refuses to step up and is allowing...

SARA: But more than 20 charter flights are being organised to cut down that number.

WONG: Well, two points about that Sally. One is, that is too little too late. But more importantly, flights are not the primary blockage. The primary blockage is quarantine. If we have more quarantine, we can then arrange more flights. The problem is, there is no safe national quarantine system. Mr Morrison has handballed this to the states. He has refused to take responsibility and, as a consequence, we have Australians who have been stuck overseas and having lengthy delays, which we always said was going to make things much more risky. And some of the stories you've seen about families who have been stuck, flights cancelled, people experiencing health difficulties and financial difficulties are a consequence of Mr Morrison's failure to take responsibility.

SARA: Senator Penny Wong, thank you for joining us on RN Breakfast.

WONG: Great to be with you.

Authorised by Paul Erickson, ALP, Canberra.