Sky News PM Agenda with Kieran Gilbert - 19/05/2021

19 May 2021

SUBJECTS: Australia’s relationship with China; violence in the Middle East; Kurri Kurri gas-fired power plant.

KIERAN GILBERT, HOST: Joining me now is the Shadow Foreign Minister, Penny Wong. We'll get to the Middle East in a moment. I want to ask you about China, first of all. You gave a significant speech today, the launch of Peter Hartcher's book. You said during the speech, "My concern is that not only does the Prime Minister not fully comprehend Australia’s interests in relation to China, he doesn’t even seek to." What doesn't he understand, in your view?

SENATOR PENNY WONG, SHADOW MINISTER FOR FOREIGN AFFAIRS: In my view, the Prime Minister's first instinct is always to domestic politics. It's always to as I've said, the photo op, it's never the delivery. It's always the political opportunity. Now, in foreign policy, in general, there has been a view from both parties that we ought not take that approach. And I think that the Prime Minister does take that approach far too often. And I set out in the speech, the ways in which he's done that previously and my concern about that happening now in relation to the China relationship, which is obviously a challenging relationship for Australia.

GILBERT: And so obviously you would have thought long and hard about speaking and criticising a government on foreign policy, first of all, but secondly, on such an important relationship, but you've said it's time we call the Prime Minister out.

WONG: I do believe that.

GILBERT: Will Labor continued to call out the Government on what you see is a breach here?

WONG: Well, we should offer bipartisanship on things that are in the national interest and call out things which are not. And we are doing that today. And I have done that today. We've seen, and I've stepped through this, the Government, frankly, stoking anxiety on the China relationship; whether it be discussions about the drums of war, whether it be Peter Dutton talking about conflict, or George Christensen posting, 'war is coming' on his Facebook. I mean, you know, it doesn't leave much of the imagination. Now, what I think is we have very clear and enduring differences with China. We need to manage those, we need to do that calmly, consistently and confidently. And what we don't need is people stoking anxiety about the China relationship or conflict with China. As the Government is doing. Talking about the drums of war doesn't make Australian safer.

GILBERT: The Prime Minister would say to you that that was the Secretary of the Department in an email to staff...

WONG: Backed in by the Minister and by the Prime Minister - never disavowed. And it's in the context of not only that, but Mr Dutton's comments and Mr Christensen and a range of others. I mean, this is a government that has been happy when it has suited them to allow people to talk in ways which makes Australians more fearful. And I really have two criticism one, I think it's the wrong strategy. But secondly, it doesn't make Australian safer.

GILBERT: Max Suich has written a series in the AFR, where he's criticised the U turn, as he calls it in Australia-China relations, he says beyond the slogans like pushback, calling out and being out in front, he argues there's not a lot of clarity on what the strategy is. He also says that the intelligence agencies have had too much clout and there's been a lack, basically, of statecraft and diplomacy. Do you agree with that?

WONG: Well, I think statecraft and diplomacy do matter. I mean, we need to ensure we invest in our military capability. And I think it is of great concern that the submarine project is turning into such a debacle, because that goes directly to Australia's capability. So we should invest in our hard power, but we should also be investing diplomatically. We should be engaging all the aspects of government to manage our relationship with the region and our relationship with China. You know, I think it's a whole of government response, which is required. And one of the points I made today, was that a very point where we need more soft power, we were cutting aid and cutting our diplomats. It's not sensible at this point.

GILBERT: One of your concerns in relation to the rhetoric that's been used is that it's actually counterproductive because it gives China leverage. Can you explain that?

WONG: Well, one of the points I made in relation to Taiwan is that talking up the prospect of war in Taiwan, in fact, gives Beijing leverage. It catastrophises events and increases the incentive for a deal or for an acceptance of reunification on Beijing's terms. And my point is, it's not in the region's interests to allow that kind of catastrophising, because it does increase Beijing's leverage. Which comes back to my initial point; if it's not in our interest to do this, if it's not going to make Australia safer - the Government, for example, is well ahead of the Biden Administration in terms of how they're talking about Taiwan - then the question has to be asked, why are they doing it?

GILBERT: I know you'll cop flak from people who will say, 'Oh, look, you've gone soft on China'. But to read from your speech today, you say, you're basically on all the substance, to abandon our positions on the UN Convention of Law on the Sea, on Huawei on the NBN, on foreign interference, on Hong Kong, universality of human rights - on all of that, actually all of the substantive concerns about China, you don't disagree with the government.

WONG: Absolutely not. And this is my point, we will continue to offer bipartisanship on those things where that is merited, and that is absolutely merited on those issues. Australia, regardless of who is in government is not going to shift on those issues. And that message needs to be very clearly put to China. I'm making a different point about what the Government is currently doing. And I am saying, and Labor is saying, we do not make Australians safer by beating the drums of war.

GILBERT: So, in simple terms, you're saying don't poke them in the eye?

WONG: No, I'm saying don't escalate your rhetoric for domestic political purposes in ways that don't help us.

GILBERT: One of the key questions is, what would Labor's policy objective be when it comes to China? If you were to win the next election, what would the policy objective be?

WONG: I think what we want to see and what the world wants to see, what the region wants to see is a settling point or a set of arrangements between the two great powers that are on terms that are agreeable to us, and to the region. That's what we want to see. Now to get there is going to take some time. And to get there, we are going to have to work with the region, and with our principal ally, the United States to get the outcome we want. We need to do that calmly, confidently and consistently. And we need to do that understanding that this is a very different period in Australian foreign policy and in the region to what we have seen to date. And none of those challenges are made easier by the sort of domestic rhetoric we're seeing from the Government.

GILBERT: What if the US and China started to work together on climate and so on? Is there a prospect that Australia - being as hardline as we have in certain areas - end up being out in the cold?

WONG: I actually think it would be a good thing if the US and China work together on climate. I think that would be a good thing for humanity and we might actually get more movement. I think Secretary Blinken had it right; you compete where you have to, you cooperate where you can, and you stand up where you must. So they are, the Americans, are thinking about what does this look like? It's in our interests for that kind of, I suppose contained competition to be arrived at. We should be intelligently applying ourselves to that.

GILBERT: So, if I asked you what would Labor's differences be with the Government when it comes to China policy? there's not a lot of the substantive...

WONG: I think the domains of diplomacy, how we discuss it domestically, how we would try and engage the parliament, how we will try to engage in the community would differ. But I think on the fundamentals about where there are substantial differences, clear differences, you know, the 14 demands that have been written about, there is no difference between the parties.

GILBERT: Now, what's your message to the nations in the Middle East. Obviously, we're seeing this latest flare up of violence, this endless cycle of violence in the region.

WONG: It is an endless cycle, and it is an escalating cycle. All casualties, all deaths are tragic, but it is even more so when we see as many children who are amongst those who have been lost. I would be urging the international community to agree to the terms of the ceasefire or call for a ceasefire. I would urge our government to be part of that. And I would urge leaders, if such a call can be made, to respond to the call for a ceasefire.

GILBERT: Finally, before you go, a bit of internal tension within Labor today. Chris Bowen calling on the Government to explain their thinking on the Kurri Kurri gas-fired power plant. Joel Fitzgibbon couldn't be more strongly in support of it.

WONG: That's been Joel's consistent position. You know as a local member, he should be advocating for local jobs.

GILBERT: He's out on a limb though, is he on this one?

WONG: He's a local member advocating for local jobs, you know that is perfectly reasonable. But Chris is making a very different point, which is, does this stack up? The experts say this can be very expensive power, and it's going to cost a lot of taxpayer's money. Why? Because the Government has no policy framework that the private sector will respond to.

GILBERT: Penny Wong, thanks.

WONG: Good to be with you.

Authorised by Paul Erickson, ALP, Canberra.