Insiders with David Speers, ABC

  • Transcript E&OE
Subjects: ALP National Conference; AUKUS; Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons; Strategic competition; Nuclear waste; Detainment of Cheng Lei; Occupied Palestinian Territories nomenclature.

David Speers: Penny Wong, welcome to the program.

Penny Wong, Foreign Minister: Good to be with you, David.

David Speers: So, both the Defence Minister and the Defence Industry Minister, in their speeches there, really cited China's military build up as a reason why we need to go down the path of nuclear submarines. Are we now in an arms race with China?

Foreign Minister: Well, first, if I could pick up on the broader question, which is why that discussion was necessary, which I think the panel was talking through, I've said for some time, we've said for some time, including before the last election, we face the most challenging strategic circumstances since the end of World War II. And what we are doing as a government and as a party is discussing in a respectful way the strategic rationale for what we are doing, including AUKUS. And I think that's what you saw over these last few days, and particularly the AUKUS debate, where people of good faith, of good heart had different views, you saw that the government, from the Prime Minister down, articulating the strategic rationale for AUKUS. Now, I don't think about it in the terms you describe. I think about this as how do we achieve and ensure a peaceful, stable and prosperous region in which sovereignty is respected. A key part of that is strategic balance. That includes military deterrence, but it also includes reassurance through diplomacy and engagement.

David Speers: But your colleague Pat Conroy, the Defence Industry Minister, did say that an arms race is already happening before our eyes. Is that your view?

Foreign Minister: Well, I think this has been articulated, certainly in the context of the Defence Strategic Review. It is quite clear the build-up that we've seen in our region. But instead of talking about it like the previous government did, we want to do something about it. And what we want to do about it is ensure we contribute to strategic balance, which underpins the sort of stability and prosperity and peace that we all seek in our region, as well as engage with other countries.

David Speers: In simple terms, though, if China were to keep building even more submarines and warships, would we have to do the same?

Foreign Minister: Well, look, I don't want to talk about this hypothetically, I want to talk about what's really happening. What is happening is we are seeing a change in strategic balance in the region. We are seeing more challenging strategic circumstances. The question is not commentating about it. The question is what we do about it. And what we have to do with other countries is to ensure that there is a strategic balance in the region. We want to make sure that no country ever thinks that conflict is worth it. That's the calculus we always have to change and we do that both by deterrence and by reassurance. That's what AUKUS contributes to, just as that's what our diplomacy, our development assistance and our engagement contribute to.

David Speers: You say we should focus on what's happening can I ask you this, Minister, Is China making the world more dangerous?

Foreign Minister: Well, I think we know, and I think we've been very upfront about it. What is happening in terms of the military buildup in the region. We know that there is greater strategic competition between the great powers. We know what is happening in our region. We've seen recently, exercises in the Taiwan Strait, we've seen events in the Philippines.

David Speers: Sounds like a yes, it is making the world more dangerous -

Foreign Minister: No. You can use your words, I'll use mine. What I know is we came to government at a time where we were upfront about these being the most challenging strategic circumstances Australia faces, and the response to that is to be calm and consistent. The response to that is to do everything we can to ensure peace and to avert conflict. And that is what this government will do.

David Speers: Just a few other details on AUKUS. We heard repeated references to the unionised jobs that will be created in building the submarines. Can you just clarify? Will only union members be allowed to build them?

Foreign Minister: I think that this reflects the reality that these are very well-organised unions in this area. I was the Shareholder Minister for the Australian Submarine Corporation. I can tell you that those unions were very important partners in making sure that the Collins-class sustainment got back on track.

David Speers: But you can be a non-union and still build a submarine -

Foreign Minister: These are industrial matters that unions will deal with. But I know these unions well. I know that they are very clear about the national interest in making sure their members and the workforce contribute to our capability, and I have no doubt they will do that.

David Speers: But the government's not going to require union membership to build them, is it?

Foreign Minister: Well, I don't recall that ever being part of our procurement processes. But my point is, I think the unions are a very important part of the tripartite approach to making sure we improve our national capability. Which is what AUKUS is about, and which is what the Defence Strategic Review is about.

David Speers: One of the main concerns raised at the conference was about the nuclear waste. And the point was made when it comes to high-level nuclear waste, no countries really worked this out, have they?

Foreign Minister: Look, nuclear waste is a big challenge. It is one of the consequences of going down this path that we will have to deal with. And we know that, which is why we're already starting that process of working through how this will happen. Obviously, we're talking decades away, given the timeframe. We don't get the first AUKUS submarine for a number of decades. So, the reality is this is some decades off. But it is right that people are raising it. We know this is a challenge and we will make sure there's a process in place to address it.

David Speers: Will it end up at Woomera?

Foreign Minister: I just said that there'd be a process in place to address this.

David Speers: Just thought I'd put that out there.

Foreign Minister: No, fair enough.

David Speers: The other concern too, about whether this is going to lead to more nuclear proliferation, will Australia sign the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons?

Foreign Minister: Okay, there are two points in your question. No AUKUS does not lead to greater proliferation of nuclear material. I want to say that really clearly. Australia under both parties of government, but particularly under Gareth Evans and the Labor Party has had a very proud history of advocating for and working for disarmament and supporting non-proliferation, and particularly the Non-Proliferation Treaty, which is the key mechanism by which the world manages this risk. AUKUS will be consistent. We will work with the International Atomic Energy Agency to make sure it is consistent with our obligations because we have, frankly, gold-standard credentials as a nation when it comes to nuclear non-proliferation and we will protect that. What I'd also say in relation to the TPNW, we share the ambition that the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons has for a world free of nuclear weapons. And which is why I've sent observers to the last conference. It's why we are looking at and considering very closely the treaty. But I would again make this point, the key architecture internationally to ensure that the world addresses the build up in, and the management of nuclear material, has to be the NPT. That is what the nuclear parties have signed up to and that's what we should be pressing them for.

David Speers: Okay, but on the Treaty to ban nuclear weapons, what's your own view on this? Do you want Australia to sign it?

Foreign Minister: I think it provides a very important tool internationally for progressing this discussion. I think, as I've said previously, there are questions about the architecture, whether or not there's universality, whether or not it's consistency with the NPT and enforcement and verification, all of which are the hallmarks of the NPT.

David Speers: So is that a maybe?

Foreign Minister: We are being constructive about engagements. We've set out the principles by which we'd consider it. But I again want to say, I know that the TPNW is a very important articulation, particularly from civil society, about why people rightly want a world without nuclear weapons. The way you deliver that best, the way you deliver outcomes best is through the Non-Proliferation Treaty.

David Speers: Okay, but your own department has previously said it wouldn't be in Australia's interest to sign this Prohibition on Nuclear Weapons Treaty.

Foreign Minister: And I've taken, I suppose, a more considered view than the previous government. The government sees the benefit of the discussion of the TPNW and I think it reflects the aspirations that people around the world have, which is we want a world that is free of nuclear weapons. And the question is how best do we get there and how best, particularly in the context of strategic competition, do we keep pressing for you know disarmament and certainly transparency.

David Speers: Let me turn to China. You visited there in December. The Trade Minister went in May. The Prime Minister is planning on going by the end of the year. Is there an imbalance here? When will China send a Minister to Australia?

Foreign Minister: Well, one of the things I discussed with my then counterpart, Foreign Minister Wang Yi, when I was in Beijing, as you said, was the restarting of the foreign and strategic dialogue with China. And obviously, the next iteration of that we would expect would be in Australia. So, I know officials are talking through when that would be convenient for a Chinese Minister to attend the dialogue. But the engagement does matter the way I've described it, and I think we've made clear we'll cooperate with China where we can, we'll disagree where we must, and we will engage in our national interest, because even if you don't agree, it is important to engage. That's central to the navigation of both cooperation but also of difference.

David Speers: So, are you expecting Foreign Minister Wang Yi to visit soon?

Foreign Minister: Officials are working through when this might work. We would anticipate that dialogue to occur in Australia at an appropriate time.

David Speers: This year?

Foreign Minister: Well, I'll let you know when dates are set, David. I promise.

David Speers: Okay. One of the big sticking points in the relationship is the ongoing situation for Australian journalist Cheng Lei. She's been detained now for just over three years on fairly vague national security charges. About a year ago, she did face a closed trial. We are yet to hear or she's yet to receive a verdict. Do you have any idea what the charges actually relate to?

Foreign Minister: Look, I want to say very clearly, the Australian government retains concerns, holds deep concerns in relation both to Dr Yang, Yang Hengjun, who's also been detained, and as well as Ms Cheng Lei. We continue to advocate for their return to their families, we continue to advocate for their interests, and our concerns are expressed and raised in every senior interaction that we have with the Chinese government. We'll continue to do that.

David Speers: What do you say about their legal system, though, if even you don't know what she's charged with?

Foreign Minister: Well, I don't know that it is helpful to Dr Yang or Ms Cheng Lei for the Foreign Minister of Australia in the role I have to be commenting on another country's legal system.

David Speers: Best to hold your tongue.

Foreign Minister: What I would say well, you can make comments, I can't. I have a role, right? But what I would say is we will continue to advocate for them. And I’ll say what I have said privately, publicly, that I think Australians do look at Ms Cheng Lei and Australians do want to see a mother reunited with her children, just as they wish to see Dr Yang released.

David Speers: In the lead-up to the Labor Conference. You changed Australia's position on Israel. You've gone back to declaring the West Bank and Gaza as occupied territories. Does that mean you think Israel should withdraw from those territories?

Foreign Minister: Well, look, you're right. How you phrased the question in the first part was right. We've returned to a more centrist position. And a position, if I just may say this, because there's been a lot of incorrect information around. The Morrison government, in fact, past coalition and Australian governments, but the Morrison government actually did agree that it was subject to UN Security Council resolutions which both referenced the illegality of settlements and occupied Palestinian territories. It's just that what they said to the voters of Wentworth differed from what they were saying internationally.

David Speers: Okay, what about now your government? I'm just trying to get to what this means now. Should Israel withdraw from those occupied territories?

Foreign Minister: We are making a change in nomenclature. What we would urge, what we would urge is the parties to return to peace negotiations. What we would urge is the cessation of violence from both sides, particularly the targeting of civilians, and we would continue to abhor all violence. But I want to make this point. The fact that we have articulated this position, consistent with the UK, the EU and New Zealand, does not prejudge final status issues, including the final status of Jerusalem.

David Speers: Does that include East Jerusalem? What's your position on East Jerusalem?

Foreign Minister: Well, I think East Jerusalem post 67, has been regarded under international law as occupied. But Jerusalem is a final status issue. So, by using the term that others use, the majority of the international community use of occupied Palestinian territories does not mean the Australian government would pre-judge final status issues, including of Jerusalem. Despite the fact that some people wish to say that that's what we're doing, we're not. Neither is the rest of the international community. And I think on this issue I know this is an issue people feel deeply about. We tried to take a principled and consistent and coherent position and that is how we have approached this issue, not through the prism of domestic politics, but to try and return Australia to more consistent and principal positions internationally and domestically.

David Speers: The Labor Party platform now again calls for recognition of a Palestinian state as, quote, an important priority. When, and I guess importantly, under what circumstances would you do that?

Foreign Minister: I'm not going to engage in hypotheticals about that.

David Speers: But why do you now?

Foreign Minister: David. Because one of the reasons I've argued so strongly inside our party for that wording, and I have been probably the principal advocate of that wording for some years now, is that I do believe that this is something the party is entitled to express a view on, but ultimately, these are sensitive diplomatic decisions -

David Speers: They are but is there a reason you're not declaring it now?

Foreign Minister: Yeah, let me finish this. That should be made by a cabinet, and a cabinet should make such decisions when considering all of the diplomatic issues that would necessarily be before it. So, I'm not going to get drawn, as much as you ask me, into hypotheticals about that.

David Speers: It's not so much a hypothetical. With respect -

Foreign Minister: It is actually -

David Speers: Those who would want you to declare a Palestinian state might wonder why you're not right now.

Foreign Minister: Sure. And what I'd say is we have taken the last 15 months. I think you will see whether it's in returning Jerusalem to a final status issue in our rebalancing of our votes, making them more consistent in the UN context or the return to a more centrist nomenclature in relation to occupied Palestinian territories and the recognition that settlements are illegal, which is in great part of response to events on the ground that we are seeing this year. What you'll see is consistency in how we approach this issue.

David Speers: Foreign Minister Penny Wong. We'll have to leave it there, but thank you for joining us this morning.

Foreign Minister: It's been great fun. Good to speak with you.

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