Sky News Afternoon Agenda with Kieran Gilbert - 23/09/2021

23 September 2021

SUBJECTS: AUKUS partnership; French anger at cancellation of submarine deal; regional cooperation; CPTPP.

KIERAN GILBERT, HOST: Let's bring in the Shadow Foreign Minister. Penny Wong joins me live from Adelaide. “Each-way bet” says the Prime Minister. Are you having an each-way bet on national security? Is that true?

SENATOR PENNY WONG, SHADOW MINISTER FOR FOREIGN AFFAIRS: Well, that is not true. And it's just so disappointing, isn't it, that Mr Morrison thinks leadership is picking a political fight. I mean that's his default, instead of answering reasonable questions. Let's remind everybody; we have been clear in our support for the new partnership, the AUKUS partnership. We have also been clear that we accept the advice given to us as to the capability argument for nuclear propelled submarines. We've been clear about that. But what we are doing is asking reasonable questions - reasonable questions, which I think will need to be answered, and should be answered through this next consultation phase. It's so disappointing Mr Morrison always wants to pick a political fight. What I would say is, this is bad for the country. This reflex of his is bad for the country. You know what would be good for the country; Australians and the political parties on this multi-decade project coming together. And that's why Anthony Albanese proposed a bipartisan process that you would bring in this pre-caretaker period, both parties of government together, to make sure that this this project is not subject to any political conflict.

GILBERT: Has there been any positive reaction to that idea?

WONG: No, I think what you saw is a Prime Minister who always wants to pick a fight when it comes to national security. That's actually what's happening here. But look, that the questions that I laid out in the speech and that Anthony and Brendan have indicated we want to cover in a Senate inquiry - and we'll go down that path because Mr Morrison has yet again refused to act in the national interest, refuse to do what's good for the country and bring people together in a bipartisan process - there are reasonable questions about costs. There are reasonable questions about jobs. There are reasonable questions about capability. And there are reasonable questions about our capacity to act independently. And all of those issues are reasonable. And it is, as I said, very disappointing that we see the Prime Minister playing the politics again.

GILBERT: Paul Keating raised a similar concern about the sovereignty question. Is this a move to try and placate his concerns?

WONG: No, not at all. These are issues I was discussing with Anthony and my colleagues well before Mr Keating's column, which was printed yesterday. But look, you've raised the issue of Mr Keating, I'd just make this point; Mr Keating is a respected former Labor Prime Minister, and he did a lot of good things for the country. But on this, we disagree. And the reason we disagree is, obviously, as the current leadership of the party, we have the benefit of contemporary briefings about Australia's strategic circumstances. And we formulate our position based on that advice and more broadly.

GILBERT: So, I guess the crux of what he says, and other foreign policy analysts would share the view, that Labor has been small target on foreign policy and national security. Is that in the national interest, to be a small target?

WONG: What's good for the country, what's in the national interest, and what I've tried to do, and what Anthony seeks to do, is to look at what is right for the country. We face the most difficult strategic circumstances since the end of World War II. Our region is being reshaped. It's being reshaped, in great part, by the strategic competition between the US and China. What we have to do as a nation, is to do all we can to influence how that region is being reshaped. And to do that we have to work not only with our strategic ally, which is the United States, but with other countries in the region. And we have to think very carefully about how we maximise that engagement, so that in five or 10 or 20 years’ time, we can honestly say we contributed to the reshaping of a region in a way that reflects and which respects Australia's interests. That's the approach I've taken, that's the approach Labor will take.

GILBERT: Well, I do want to ask you about that, because it's relevant to the upcoming Quad meeting the Prime Minister's got, particularly, you know, in relation to ASEAN, and how we can work with those nation states of great importance to us. But I'm just, just to go back to the AUKUS set up, because you're talking today in this speech about Australia's sovereign capability, how will we control the use of technology and capability that is not ours, and so on. Your colleague, Peter Khalil, wrote today in the Nine papers that actually, interoperability is something that we do all the time. Just because we buy equipment from a country doesn't mean that we're losing sovereignty to them. Do you agree with that?

WONG: Look, that's correct. And the point I've made in discussions with others, including with colleagues, is this issue of how we ensure that we can still act independently whilst also increasing our interoperability and our engagement with allies is not new. I mean, this is not a controversial proposition, you know, governments for decades, as we have increased our engagement with and our interoperability - particularly with the United States but not solely - have also had to consider how do we ensure that within those arrangements, Australia can still make its decisions independently about what's in its national interests. And that's why I'm so surprised that when that reasonable question, and frankly, what should be non-controversial question is asked, saying, look we need to work out how we do this, in the context of the path down which we're proceeding, we get a Prime Minister who wants to pick a fight.

GILBERT: Do you think the French are picking a fight at the moment? Is this a bit of posturing coming from Emmanuel Macron? He's got a presidential election coming up in April.

WONG: Look, I don't think any reasonable observer looking at how Mr Morrison has handled this would think that he's handled this well. I don't think people would think he's handled this with deftness. And I don't think people would think he's handled this in an upfront way. And overnight, we saw a readout from the meeting between Presidents Biden and Macron, in which both leaders recognised that earlier consultation between allies would have been a good thing. We see no such statement from the Australian Government. Instead, we see Government ministers being quoted anonymously as the French "having a sook". Now these are, the French are, an Indo-Pacific power. That's my first point. Secondly, at a time when we have, as we've discussed, the most difficult circumstances the country faces since World War II, we want to work with nations around the world who have an interest in the rules-based order, who believe in a multipolar world, where the rights of all states are respected, the French have been important players, and this Government has not dealt with this in a way that demonstrates any diplomatic deftness.

GILBERT: Now, the Quad leaders meeting is happening Saturday, our time, where the ASEAN cooperation in Southeast Asia is going to be front and centre. I was interested in this message that you sent today about those nations not wanting one hegemon or power dominating the whole region and that we need to engage them on that. How do we, how do we do that better? How do you see that operate?

WONG: That's a really good question. And I was reflecting some of the comments in the region from leaders such as Prime Minister Lee from Singapore and others who talk about not being asked to pick between the US and China but wanting a region in which rules are respected. And so how do we ensure that we are part of that? Well, I think in part, it obviously does include making sure we have the sort of strategic capabilities such as the submarine capability we're discussing, but it also means that we need to work with other partners to demonstrate that we are serious about regional stability. And regional stability, of course, it isn't just about military power, it's also about the economy, it's also about vaccines. It's about charting a course out of the pandemic. These are the tangible contributions, the tangible engagement, that Australia and its allies and partners should be engaging in the region, demonstrating real and tangible results. We know that that's what other nations are doing. I welcome President Biden's statement about vaccines. He's right to say the world needs to take a big step. And I hope that one of the things that the Quad meeting can do is really make some concrete steps around vaccine availability for Southeast Asian nations, where we have seen, particularly in Indonesia, but more broadly, the Delta virus really take hold.

GILBERT: And just finally, quickly before you go, I had Shiro Armstrong from the ANU, the trade expert, on the program a short time ago. He says that Australia should engage constructively with China's bid to enter the Comprehensive and Progressive Trans Pacific Partnership. Is that your view?

WONG: The first priority for Australia with the CPTPP - it's a long acronym, isn't it - is for the US to engage. And you might recall on the day that President Biden was inaugurated, Anthony Albanese called, encouraged the new Administration to engage in the CPTPP. In relation to China, what I would say is we want China, and all parties, to respect the rules-based order, to respect trade rules. We retain deep concerns, as does the Government, as to China's behaviour in relation to Australia's exports. And we would want to see those resolved.

GILBERT: Shadow Foreign Minister Penny Wong, appreciate it.

WONG: Good to speak with you.

Authorised by Paul Erickson, ALP, Canberra.