Sky News Summer Agenda with Tom Connell - 20/01/2021

20 January 2021

SUBJECTS: Australia-US alliance; climate change.

TOM CONNELL, HOST: Penny Wong is Labor's spokesperson for Foreign Affairs and has been good enough to join me now. Thanks very much for your time, Senator. First of all, what are your reflections on Donald Trump's presidency?

SENATOR PENNY WONG, SHADOW MINISTER FOR FOREIGN AFFAIRS: Well, I think I've described it as unpredictable and tumultuous. We've certainly not seen anything like it, but leaving aside things like the tweets and some of the initiatives with autocrats and dictators such as North Korea and Russia, I think that we will look back on this time as a time where America withdrew much more from its place in the world than is in Australia and the world's interests. One of the things that is very positive about the inauguration of President Biden is the indication from him and those close to him that they recognise the importance of America in the world; what Bill Clinton described and Anthony Albanese in a speech today reiterated: the indispensable nation.

CONNELL: That might well be good for Australia and I will turn to Joe Biden's approach in a moment, but your leader is saying today that Scott Morrison's relationship with Trump and the nature of it has damaged the alliance. What is the specific evidence of that?

WONG: What I'd say to you is the alliance is an enduring alliance. It's our closest strategic relationship and it is based on shared interests and values. What, regrettably, we have seen from Mr Morrison is an approach which put his political affinity with Mr Trump and his political interests ahead of the stewardship of the relationship. I would point to a few things: I would point to in recent days, his refusal to disavow, to call out the incitement of protesters who stormed the Capitol. I would point to his willingness to effectively attend a campaign rally with President Trump. I would point to his refusal to condemn Mr Christensen and Craig Kelly who are peddling the same lies, which founded the attack on democracy, which was the storming of the Capitol.

CONNELL: Let's pick out a couple of those things then. The campaign rally and this event in Ohio did very much appear to be at least doubling as a campaign-type event, but it was also to open a Visy recycling centre, an Australian company of course. So, wouldn't that have been natural for Scott Morrison to accept that invitation? Isn't there every possibility this sort of veered into a campaign rally? Should he have refused an offer to plump for an Australian company over in the US?

WONG: Well, you yourself said it doubled as a campaign rally. So, I think I'd just respond with what you put to me in your question, Tom.

CONNELL: Do we know what Scott Morrison knew about that though, perhaps in the lead up – do you get an invitation to help open Visy?

WONG: Look, you'd have to ask him, but I do think more importantly is what's happened in recent days. US democracy has been under attack and that is why you have seen world leaders, including on the conservative side of politics – Angela Merkel and Boris Johnson – both condemning not only what occurred, but also recognising the way in which that was stoked by the outgoing President. They didn't do that because of their partisan views, they did that because democracy matters. The strength of American democracy, the integrity of American democracy is a key interest of its allies and that's why its allies have been unambiguous in their defence of democracy, not so Mr Morrison.

CONNELL: He has been a defender of democracy, if you like, albeit an indirect criticism. So, he hasn't named Donald Trump but has criticised what's happened in the US. Isn't that just a cautious thing to do – what's the point in lashing out directly at Donald Trump with only a few days to go in his presidency?

WONG: Well, I don't think you steward the relationship – I noticed that Mr Morrison declared he was stewarding the relationship today – I don't think you steward the relationship by not being unambiguous in your defence of democracy. I don't think you steward the relationship by refusing to call out people like Craig Kelly and George Christensen who continue to peddle the same conspiracy theories and lies, which were central to that attack on democracy.

You've got senior members of the Republican Party including Senator Mitch McConnell making very clear his views, but our Prime Minister is allowing members of his own party to peddle the same conspiracy theories and lies. I don't believe that is responsible stewardship of the relationship. Going forward though Tom, and that's probably a more interesting proposition, one of the things Scott Morrison is going to have to do is to work out how he is no longer isolated on climate. Climate policy, obviously, under Joe Biden will be a very different situation to that as under President Trump – net zero by 2050. Mr Morrison is looking increasingly isolated.

CONNELL: That will be an interesting moment and plenty of commentary about what perhaps the Australian Government will commit to. So perhaps we'll talk about that if and when it happens. What about, just finally, looking at history one more time. When you're talking about stewardship of the relationship and importance of what's said in Australia, was Bill Shorten wrong to say Donald Trump was barking mad ahead of the US election?

WONG: Well, I think Bill has responded to that himself previously when he was leader. What I would say is this; as Shadow Foreign Minister I have been very clear as has Anthony Albanese, the alliance endures. And the alliance is between nations and it reflects shared values and shared interests. It transcends individuals. That is the approach we have taken consistently to the alliance. Notwithstanding at times the unpredictability of President Trump, that's the approach that should be taken. What I think we do have though with President-elect Biden, once he is sworn in, is a new opportunity and it's an opportunity to work more closely with the Americans to ensure that we do all we can to have a region that is stable, prosperous and respects sovereignty and the rules of the road, and that is absolutely in Australia's interests.

CONNELL: So, Labor today – and again your leader talking about a possible damaging the alliance. What we have so far in terms of public comments are those from Joe Biden's incoming National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan. He says that America will always stand by Australia; that was in response to the Australia-China feud if you call it that. That actually seems to indicate it's in pretty good health, doesn't it?

WONG: Well, that's your commentary I think, Tom. What I'd say is this; first we were very pleased and it was heartening and Anthony referred to it in his speech today to see Jake's comments because they are an indication of the willingness of senior members of that Administration to back the rules of the road at a time where we're seeing the difficulties with China and the consequent economic effect on Australia, that is a good thing. We want the Americans working with us on that. I'd also make this point; I think I know what Jake would believe and that is that the stewardship of this relationship is one that goes to shared interests and values and not to political interests or political affinity. That's the right approach, I wish Scott Morrison had taken the same approach.

CONNELL: Labor Senator Penny Wong, appreciate your time today. Thank you.

WONG: Good to speak with you Tom.

Authorised by Paul Erickson, ALP, Canberra.