Sky News AM Agenda with Laura Jayes - 04/05/2021

04 May 2021

SUBJECTS: Port of Darwin lease; China; Australians stranded in India threatened with fines and jail.

LAURA JAYES, HOST: Joining me now live is Labor Senator Penny Wong, Penny Wong, thanks so much for your time.


JAYES: Do you think this deal should be revoked?

WONG: We've been calling for this to be reviewed for years. I think Anthony Albanese in 2015 raised concerns about this arrangement. I would note that the Government might have announced a review now but in fact voted against Labor amendments in the Senate, which called on the Government to in fact do this review. So, when Marise Payne passed legislation which enabled the veto of various state agreements, such as the BRI agreement that Victoria had entered into, we moved amendments that also required them to review this lease arrangement. Well, the Government voted it down and now they've announced it. So, I don't know why they just didn't do it the first time round.

JAYES: Why do a review when it just looks like you would do a review in order to scrap it?

WONG: Well, that's probably a question for Marise Payne, isn't it? I mean, I think there is a legitimate question about whether this lease was in the national interest. At the time we raised concerns. We also, as the Opposition, pressed for critical infrastructure to have proper arrangements, proper checks and balances on foreign ownership and foreign operations. That bill was passed - that legislation - was passed after this lease was put in place. Since then the Government's had yet another opportunity to look at it and refused to do so. So, it's one thing to talk tough, but it's another thing to actually make sure that your ownership arrangements, reflect the national interest and they should do that.

JAYES: Do you think, essentially, that that lease should be scrapped?

WONG: Well, I think there are concerns, and I would want a good look at it by our security agencies which is what we asked for, or sought, last year; Scott Morrison refused.

JAYES: We saw some comments from Henry Kissinger overnight saying China is the biggest problem for America and the world. We've also seen Marise Payne say, "we do not buy influence" and she's effectively accused China of targeting countries with debt diplomacy, if you like, and picking them off "like notches on a belt". What do you think of that?

WONG: Well, a few years ago I gave a speech in Singapore where I talked about the BRI - the Belt and Road Initiative - and I said very clearly this is a strategic plan. It's about the realignment, economically and politically and strategically, of nations in our region using infrastructure and financing to achieve that end. I think that that is clear.

But I want to just return to Mr Kissinger's comments; he is absolutely right to point out the disruptive effect that China's assertiveness - and at times aggression - is having on the world order. That is absolutely correct.

So, the question is, how do we deal with that from Australia's perspective? Well, one of the things we have to do is to work very closely with other nations in our region, nations who are allied to us, nations aligned to us, to ensure we have the sort of region we want. And that means being a reliable and sincere partner. I would say, Laura, that the Government's approach to the relationship with India, at the moment, really flies in the face of that imperative. We are not behaving in a way that I think is consistent with that national interest - which is to have a deep and secure friendship with India - by the way we're behaving.

JAYES: So, by abandoning India essentially, are you saying that makes our strategic partnerships with those countries that might counter China, at risk?

WONG: I would put it this way: the question of how we handle a much more aggressive or much more assertive China is the central question in Australian national security and Australian foreign policy. Central to that is our strong relationships in our region. I don't think the way the Government is currently dealing with the India relationship is consistent with that. I think that putting out a press release trumpeting tough sanctions overnight on a Friday night, as Greg Hunt did, talking of jailing people for coming to Australia, I just don't think it's the right tone and I don't think it's the right approach.

JAYES: We'll go back to that in a moment. I just want to ask you one more question about China because aggression seems to be ramping up against Taiwan. Would Australia be willing to step in and defend Taiwan against any Chinese aggression?

WONG: Now Laura, can I say this very clearly; I don't think any mature, sensible person in a position of leadership in this country - Foreign Minister, Shadow Foreign Minister, Defence Minister, Shadow Defence Minister - would get into hypotheticals around that.

JAYES: Sure.

WONG: That is not the right way to approach it. But what I would say is this: we should be making clear, in terms of our engagement with Taiwan, and our engagement with the region, that we want a peaceful, secure and prosperous region, and that the amping up of, the escalation of threats, the escalation of military activity, the escalation of rhetoric is unhelpful to that.

JAYES: Well, is this really a hypothetical when we're seeing a top commander today warn that we need to prepare for war with China. This comes just a week after Mike Pezzullo said the drums of war were beating. If this is being, for want of a better term, war-gamed in our departments, shouldn't we know about it?

WONG: A couple of points; I think the article you're referring to, refers to a speech that was made last year by a then officer of the ADF. But I'd made two points; when I was asked about this last week I said, you know, this is a challenging situation that we find ourselves in. The world order is being remade. The focal point of a lot of strategic competition is in our region. At a time like this, I think our language should be sober and cautious. I think that is the best way for us to approach these issues.

JAYES: Is it? Does it remain that way?

WONG: Yes, I do. I don't believe that talking tough, is the same as being tough, Laura. And there's been a lot of tough talk. I think we should be looking at what action we should take. And turning to the second point I'd make; what action should we be taking? We should be deeply engaged with the countries of our region, who want the same sort of region we want, who want disputes, territorial disputes, other disputes settled through international arrangements, international law, international norms. We should be working more closely with India, with Indonesia, with countries of our region. That is the action we should be taking.

JAYES: If I could briefly return to India is Labor really on board with leaving these Australians stranded?

WONG: We've been talking about bringing stranded Australians home for over a year. And the critical policy to enable that to occur is safe, national quarantine. And the reality is, our borders - there's such a sorry history to this isn't there? Our borders closed in March of last year. We said at the time Australians are stranded, we've got to get them home or their situation will become more perilous. Regrettably, that is what is occurring. Now, we will always act consistently with the public health advice. That is the way in which the Opposition has dealt with this.

JAYES: But how do you read the public health advice? Do you think the CMO actually advised, from what you've seen in the data, it seems like they advised for all flights to stop and the Government imposed possible jail terms. I get what you're saying about quarantine, but we are in the situation we are now. So, do you think those flights should be stopped, as they are?

WONG: I think, we have supported suspension of flights from the UK, from the United States, we supported the closing of the borders previously on the basis of public health advice. I think the Government's suggestion though, that they're going to lock people up, really, is an example of, frankly, trying to talk tough at a time where what we need is a much more sensible approach. I noticed the Prime Minister today said on morning television that these penalties would probably never be imposed. I think he said pretty much zero chance that they'd be imposed. Well, my question is, and I suspect many Australians questions would be, well, why did you announce it? Why did you start talking about putting people in jail? The reality is we have to have safe, national quarantine. If we don't have safe, national quarantine.

JAYES: It is safe, though, isn't it?

WONG: Well hang on. No, I think there is no system that the Federal Government is leading that would enable the numbers of people who are stranded overseas to come home within a reasonable timeframe and without significant risk to the Australian community. So, the two things that are required; one is national standards for hotel quarantine - still waiting for that. We have people without PPE, people who are not vaccinated and we don't have standards around ventilation that we ought.

But the second point is safe, national quarantine for emergency or surge capacity - which is what the Government was briefed about last year - that they have not acted upon. And as a consequence of the failure to act upon that, we see Australians stranded - including 10,000 in India. You know what, Laura? Australian citizenship has to mean something. And we have to work out a way to make sure we honour the right of Australian citizenship at the same time, as we keep the broader Australian community safe. And the only way for that to happen, has been for the national Government, for Mr Morrison, to step up on quarantine and he has consistently failed to do that. And we are in the situation we are now.

JAYES: Yep, and it's pretty tragic for those 10,000 Indians stuck on the sub-continent.

WONG: Absolutely it is, and my heart goes out to them and to the many people in the Australian Indian community here in Australia who so desperately worried about people who are trying to return.

JAYES: Penny Wong always appreciate your time. Thanks so much.

WONG: Great to be with you, Laura.

Authorised by Paul Erickson, ALP, Canberra.