Sky News Afternoon Agenda with Kieran Gilbert

03 February 2021

SUBJECTS: Australia’s relationship with China; Myanmar; climate change; Craig Kelly; Labor; Senate nominations.

KIERAN GILBERT, HOST: Joining me now is the Shadow Foreign Affairs Minister, Penny Wong. Thanks so much for your time.


GILBERT: On the China front, do you think the Government, the Prime Minister and the new Trade Minister are getting their language right to try and dial things down? The tensions?

WONG: First, can I just respond to the news that still there's been no response from China in relation to the Trade Minister's overtures. I'd say that's very disappointing. It's obviously disappointing for the exporters, whose industries, whose jobs are being affected by the current impasse. Our position is very clear. We want China to abide by the trade rules that were agreed and we support the Government in their efforts to ensure that those are complied with.

I would say the Government has come late to the party when it comes to diversifying our markets. We are very dependent on the Chinese economy. The Government's been in for seven years. We are well beyond the point where we should be diversifying our export markets so we are not overly reliant on a single market.

GILBERT: When it comes to this language though, the Prime Minister talks about a mutually beneficial relationship. Has he got the message right in your opinion?

WONG: When I looked at his speech and he talked about the importance of a dialogue that was based on mutual benefit and concessions, I think that's correct. There's also been discussion about an approach of strategic patience. What I would say is if Mr Morrison and Mr Tehan are saying we're going to have more strategy and less politics, in terms of how we handle the China relationship, I would say well that's a big change and that's a very good thing. That would be a welcome change.

GILBERT: The New Zealand Trade Minister Damien O'Connor said that Australia should "show respect," I guess a little more diplomacy from time to time, he said, could be helpful. So, that was his input, was that appropriate?

WONG: I understand from public reports that he subsequently spoke to Federal Government ministers to clarify his comments and I think that was appropriate for him to do so. We don't take too kindly to those from across the ditch giving us advice, as you know.

GILBERT: That's true, indeed. So, let's look at some other issues now. Myanmar - Labor is calling for the Government to look at the defence engagement with Myanmar. There's been some training and other engagement there, and possibly sanctions. Is there a risk here though, that if the West, including Australia, imposes sanctions that this will push Myanmar even further into the arms of China?

WONG: So first, Australia has played a very important role - governments of both political persuasions have worked to support Myanmar in its democratic transition. I and many others including Senator Payne have made public comments about the very, very disappointing and distressing actions that the military have undertaken in Myanmar and our continued support for that evolution of democracy that was underway and this is obviously a retrograde step. In terms of the military and defence cooperation, I've asked questions about that at estimates. I have been told, and we have been satisfied until this point, at answers that this was about making sure the military were better trained to operate as decent military officers within a democracy. I think given what has occurred, it is reasonable for the Opposition to call for that to be reconsidered and reviewed. It is reasonable for us to say there's a case for that to be suspended. I think the Government does need to explain to Australians why it is still reasonable for that cooperation to continue.

GILBERT: Is China, the winner, the winner out of all that?

WONG: I think we need to always recall that we are supporters of democracy. And we have had a long history in relation to Myanmar of supporting a democratic transition.

GILBERT: The Joe Biden effect, it looks like it's having an impact here. The Prime Minister, increasingly, it seems more certain, that they're going to land at a 2050 net zero emissions. That's certainly the indication.

WONG: Have you told Matt Canavan that?

GILBERT: Well, I think the Prime Minister might have told him when he said it was preferable by 2050.

WONG: Well he's using very careful language, "preferable", and certainly, this must be challenging for him, given his affinity and his alignment with the former President Trump, but I know the Prime Minister has shifted his language. He will, when he finally does get to speak to President Biden, I think, need to be very clear about how Australia is going to shift from being an isolated laggard, to a country that is doing its share in the fight against climate change.

GILBERT: Is that a good thing, that there's a shift happening in the face of the new President?

WONG: It's only a shift in terms of words. I don't want the media and the community to let Mr Morrison off with a grammatical shift.

GILBERT: The road to Damascus is busy at the moment because Mathias Cormann, in running for the OECD...

WONG: He's on the road to Damascus?

GILBERT: Well, this conversion to the climate effort. He’s down to the final two and he's written an op-ed where he says achieving global net zero emissions by 2050 requires urgent, major international efforts.

WONG: There you go, it's a pity he didn't say this when he was Finance Minister. But look, I think the reality of Australia's isolation, particularly given the election of a US President who is very clear about his priorities when it comes to climate is becoming clear to us all. And I think Scott Morrison is not going to get away with simply changing sentence structure.

GILBERT: The Prime Minister deserves credit today, doesn't he, for confronting Craig Kelly both in person in his office and then in the parliament? He said he does not agree with Craig Kelly, that everyone should be listening, listening to the official advice. Labor's been saying the PM should step in. He's done that, and in a very strong way today. Do you welcome that?

WONG: Two points; one is, he's taken a very long time to do this. Secondly, he certainly wants some members of the public and some members of the journalistic profession to believe he's done the right thing, I don't think he's done enough. I think he has permitted Mr Kelly to retain all of the disinformation that he has on his social media platforms. He's got other members of his party and his Government - Mr Christensen and Senator Canavan - out there on social media backing in Craig Kelly, backing in a “debate”. This is not a debate of ideas. This is false information. Now, if the Prime Minister wants to show some leadership, instead of backgrounding journalists and saying ‘oh I did speak to him’. He should be absolutely crystal clear that these views are wrong, these views are factually incorrect, and they should not be listened to and that he expects members of his Government to remove false information because it’s not opinion, it's false information.

GILBERT: But he was emphatic, he gave a statement of indulgence at the end of question time, and it was pretty clear. He said that he repudiates the position held by Craig Kelly and that he should and everyone should be adopting the official advice.

WONG: And I hope that will now extend to Mr Christensen and Senator Canavan who both, as recently as Question Time made statements which are not consistent with what you've just said to me.

GILBERT: You're a strong supporter of Anthony Albanese. You name checked Bill Shorten and Tanya Plibersek at the end of last week when you said, they’ve had two goes, six years, lost both elections, is that basically your message to those, and others to pull their heads in?

WONG: It's not a name check, that an expression of fact, isn't it? Those are the facts. But what I'm more interested in, and I think what people out there in the public and the community are more interested in, is what is the plan going forward.

Australians deserve a Prime Minister who is on their side. Instead they’ve got a leader in Mr Morrison, who is delivering a reduction in JobKeeper, an ending of JobKeeper and a reduction in JobSeeker, and an economy where 2 million people want more work or are unemployed. Well, I think they deserve a Prime Minister who is on their side and that’s why Labor will be campaigning as hard as we can behind Anthony Albanese towards the next election.

GILBERT: And just finally, you've been in Parliament for a long time. You've made a big commitment, you've got a young family. Are you going to be here for a bit longer? I know Anthony Albanese had to, you know, make the case for you to stay. Is that going to continue?

WONG: Absolutely. And in fact - I don't know if it's public but I'll make it public – senate nominations have opened again in South Australia and I am putting my hand up again. So, I'm here to stay.

GILBERT: You’ll be here for a while. Thanks, appreciate it, Senator Penny Wong, Shadow Foreign Minister, talk to you soon.

Authorised by Paul Erickson, ALP, Canberra.