Doorstop, Parliament House - 27/08/2020

27 August 2020

SENATOR PENNY WONG, SHADOW MINISTER FOR FOREIGN AFFAIRS: First, I want to make some comments about aged care and the Minister for Aged Care, Senator Colbeck.

Today we saw Senator Colbeck in the Parliament, turn his back on the Parliament, turn his back on accountability and walk out of the chamber, right after he told Australians that this performance was a high water mark. A high water mark.

What arrogance from this Minister. The same arrogance that we've seen from Mr. Morrison as he boasts of how well the Government's handle the aged care crisis, the same arrogance that the Royal Commission described, when they talked about the Commonwealth response being characterised by arrogance and hubris.

The reality is Senator Colbeck failed to act. He was warned. The warnings were clear in the interim report from the Royal Commission. Warnings were clear in what occurred at Newmarch, what occurred at Dorothy Henderson.

We saw these warnings. They were warned by the sector. They were warned by the Royal Commission but they failed to act.

Minister Colbeck has lost the confidence of the public, he has lost the confidence of his parliamentary colleagues, he's lost the confidence of the Prime Minister, who's taken him out of the decision making process and he has to go.

Before I go to questions, I'd also like to respond to the announcement that the Government has made today in relation to third party agreements.

I'd make this point; safeguarding Australia's sovereignty is more than passing laws. It is that. Labor has responsibly giving support to a range of foreign interference and foreign influence legislation.

But it's more than that. It's about the resilience of our Parliaments. It's about the resilience of our institutions. It's about the resilience of our universities. And it's about the resilience of the private sector. That means people need to understand what is happening and to know what to do.

It is disappointing Marise Payne still stubbornly and point blank refuses to brief the Parliament to ensure the Parliament understands some of the implications of our current environment and what we have to do as parliamentarians. It's disappointing that the Government has inadequately engaged with the states preferring to have a discussion through the media.

Now, the sort of powers that the Government is talking about to override arrangements that are counter to the national interest, of course Labor supports that and we will look carefully at legislation as it comes forward to make sure it is both workable and consistent with the powers of the Parliament.

But I would also make this point; we should never forget when Mr Morrison stands up, that it was on his watch that the sale of the port of Darwin, or the control of the port of Darwin was shifted to a private entity.

And we should never forget that it was also this Government, that engaged in a BRI agreement, which they still refuse to release, unless he has done so today, and which has sent mixed messages on these issues.

So in summary, I'd say this: we support the power. We'll look at the legislation to make sure it's workable. But safeguarding our sovereignty means more than just passing laws. I'm happy to take questions.

JOURNALIST: Senator, on that 2017 deal. The Government and the Prime Minister have said this morning that it involved commercial arrangements and third party...

WONG: Stephen, have you seen it?

JOURNALIST: No, I'd like to see it.

WONG: My point is you take as read...

JOURNALIST: I'm not taking it as gospel, this is what the Prime Minister has said. I'd like your response to this.

WONG: He's said a lot of things. And I say, well, why don't you release it? Because a lot was said at the time in the media about this, which they now want to run away from it. So my point is simply this: instead of the mixed public messages, release the agreement, make clear what you're doing. Let's not have fights through the media, let's actually work together to safeguard Australia's sovereignty. We're prepared to do that. Mr Morrison should be too.

JOURNALIST: Just on the question of state sovereignty, how concerned are you about that power resting with the Foreign Minister alone to determine what's a good deal and what's a bad deal. And what you can make when the Prime Minister said that "there is only one sovereignty in Australia and it's Australia, I mean, we're all sovereign Australians," what do you think he means by that?

WONG: You'd have to ask Mr Morrison that. But safeguarding, national security and safeguarding the nation's sovereignty is ultimately a responsibility for the Federal Parliament, for the Federal Government.

We will certainly look at the legislation, as I said, to make sure it's workable.

But I again make the same point; you don't safeguard our sovereignty only by passing laws.

We're happy to support reasonable legislative changes. And we always have been. I was on the committee the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security, which dealt with the foreign interference scheme, but it requires more than that.

You know, we need to make our institutions more resilient. We need to engage with the public. And we certainly need to engage with the Parliament, the States and our universities more so they are supported to make the right choices.

You see, it's fine to have the power to knock off a bad deal. But you know what's even better, making sure people don't enter into a bad deal in the first place because they know what they do should do and what they shouldn’t do.

JOURNALIST: Just on balancing our national security with the economics. Obviously, there's a lot of Australian jobs that do rely on trade, especially trade with China. Are there any concerns, there's got to be any kind of impact or side effect to that, to the trade relationship, particularly?

WONG: Australia has a set of interests, a range of interests we bring to bear on our engagement with other countries.

You know, they include economic interests, they include our democratic values and, of course, our central interest in protecting our sovereignty.

The only point I make is the one I made to your colleague. It's great. It's fine to have the power to get rid of a bad deal. But why don't we all work together and why won’t Mr Morrison work with the states and universities to make sure they understand what a bad deal is, what they should and shouldn't do.

JOURNALIST: This is taking agreements that go from your Belt and Road initiative level down to like local councils, sister cities arrangements, cultural exchanges that sort of thing. Is it I guess a bit of an overreach, has it kind of taking in too much of these agreements, do you think?

WONG: Well, I haven't seen the legislation. I think in principle, the power to override a bad deal is the sensible one. We'll certainly look at it.

It's a different approach to the one that government took when they allowed the port of Darwin's control to go to a foreign entity. But I again make the same point.

We should be investing in the various tiers of government, in the institutions of our democracy to ensure people understand what safeguarding our sovereignty means.

So instead of simply passing legislation, let's work together to do that.

JOURNALIST: Your colleague Katy Gallagher has said that nationally consistent rules and frameworks for state borders would be very useful. Do you agree?

WONG: I'm not sure which comments you're referring to. But I would say on the state border issue, one thing that hasn't been consistent is the Morrison Government's position on this. On the one hand, they tell people that they want the states to follow public health advice, but then they run a political campaign against various state governments about borders being closed. So I think the failure of consistency is with the Federal Government.

JOURNALIST: On universities, there have been calls from some politicians, including within the Labor Party for a parliamentary inquiry of some form, into foreign influence in Australian universities, are you inclined to support that?

WONG: Look, I've seen some discussion about that. To be honest, I've been very focused on the failure of accountability and the incompetence of the Aged Care Minister, at a time where we see continued and rising tragedies in the aged care sector.

We're certainly open to a discussion about it. Obviously, my colleague Tanya Plibersek will have views on that. I spoke in a speech, I think last year, about the importance of the Government actually giving universities greater guidance and more resources to understand how to manage the sort of engagement that you're referencing.

JOURNALIST: Could such an inquiry be done in a way that avoids it becoming a sort of witch hunt, could it be done in a sensible way?

WONG: I hope my colleagues are always sensible. Unfortunately we’ve seen, at times a fair bit of theatre, but I hope people can be sensible about these issues.

JOURNALIST: Just following up on the local councils question. We've seen some recent examples where a council in the Riverina, for example, suspended a sister city relationship and then apologised. There were claims it was xenophobic. Are you worried that perhaps a particular ruling governments’ ideological standpoint could blow into local communities and sort of override some of those really important local relationships?

WONG: If I can, at a sort of level of principle, respond.

We are in a challenging time in our relationship with China.

China is much more assertive about its interests. There are areas on which we, where we will disagree. And we make sure we engage in a productive relationship, one that respects our values and our interests.

Part of that job is the job of the Foreign Minister, the Prime Minister and the Federal Parliament, but it is also making sure the Australian community is engaged in the discussion about what that looks like.

Disengagement is not an option for us. The important question is how we engage.

And I believe the Federal Government could do a far better job in leading the discussion in the Australian community and with other levels of government about what that engagement should look like.

I'm sorry, I have to go to the chamber shortly, so I'm happy to take a couple more.

JOURNALIST: Just on JobKeeper…

WONG: I’m leaving that to Tony Burke.

Stephen, I did interrupt you about a gibe about taking the Prime Minister at his word, so I’ll give you another question.

JOURNALIST: Just the main concern around the BRI MOU in Victoria seems to be the fact that it's been used to splinter the domestic consensus on the BRI, rather than a specific concern about individual projects. Is that a concern that you share?

WONG: I think there's been a lot of mixed messages on the BRI and a lot of mixed messages about the Victorian BRI, including mixed messages, not just from Mr Ciobo when he was here, but from Senator Birmingham and Senator Payne.

My consistent position, and you know Mr Albanese has said, we will not sign up to a BRI agreement if we were in government.

But my consistent message to the Federal Government is instead of having a political argument through the media, why don’t you sit down and try and sort it out.

JOURNALIST: The Chinese Ambassador’s speech yesterday made a few interesting points. On his claim or his raising doubts around the origin of Coronavirus, that it may not have come from Wuhan, it could have come from other places. What are your thoughts on that?

WONG: Well, I think science will be - the inquiry that is that is currently underway will make clear where the virus originated.

I think the world is less wanting countries to argue about where it came from. And more wanting countries to work out how we ensure we deal with it, and to make sure it doesn't happen again.

So there's been a fair bit of politics around the origins of the virus. And I think the science speaks for itself.

And we would all do better and the great powers would do better to focus on what the science says about what the origins are, and how we work together to deal with it.

JOURNALIST: If the government doesn't put amendments to JobKeeper in the Senate, are you are you going to support it in the senate?

WONG: I will really refer that to Tony Burke as the relevant shadow.

Thank you very much. Thanks, guys.


Authorised by Paul Erickson, ALP, Canberra.