Interview with Andrew Clennell, Sky News

  • Transcript, E&OE

Andrew Clennell, Host: Well, this Friday we have an AUSMIN meeting. Involving the Prime Minister, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and US Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin. On Sunday Agenda, I revealed the PM is expected to announce the dates of a trip to the White House and a state dinner there. And joining me now ahead of that AUSMIN meeting is the Foreign Minister, Penny Wong. Foreign Minister Wong, thank you for joining us.

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

Clennell: We have these talks on Friday. The PM is expected to reveal details of his US trip there and a state dinner at the White House. Is that in October, perhaps after The Voice vote?

Foreign Minister: I think if you're telling me that the PM is going to reveal those details, then I probably should leave that to the PM to announce, shouldn't I? But look, we're looking forward to AUSMIN. I had a good conversation with Secretary of State Antony Blinken when I was in Jakarta for the East Asia Summit last week. I look forward to welcoming Secretary Blinken and Secretary Austin, the Secretary of Defence, along with Richard Marles to AUSMIN. It's a very important discussion, particularly at this time.

‚ÄčClennell: What are you planning to discuss there? Obviously AUKUS will play a decent part I imagine, and maybe some of the congressional difficulties there.

Foreign Minister: Obviously we will be discussing AUKUS, we will be discussing a lot of areas of our cooperation, our defence cooperation. But more importantly, I think the alliance and our cooperation, our relationship is - in these times where there's a lot more competition in our region, a lot more geostrategic competition - it's very important to have the US engage, to have the US deeply engaged, constructively engaged. They are the indispensable power in our region, in order to have that strategic equilibrium or the balance in the region that we've talked about, that enables us, Australia, to live in a region with the sorts of qualities that we want.

Clennell: How important are the Talisman Sabre exercises that have been going on in the Top End?

Foreign Minister: This sort of defence cooperation is of course very important, and we welcome this cooperation. It will continue just as on the diplomatic front, we'll continue to work together to coordinate better. I think whether it's defence capability or diplomatic capability, all our focus is on how do we ensure the sort of region we want to live in - which is stable, peaceful, prosperous region - in which the sovereignty of all nations, including Australia's, is respected. The US is a key part of enabling such a region.

Clennell: Now Greg Sheridan, the foreign editor of The Australian, hasn't missed the government again this morning in terms of his criticism of your government's defence policy. He writes, people are leaving the ADF, especially the army, at a rate of knots and can't be replaced. The Department is going through a frenzy of cost-cutting. It is seeing all kinds of capabilities deferred. Defence Minister Richard Marles has lost the battle of the budget. It's not clear he put up any fight. Foreign Minister Penny Wong is a far more powerful cabinet minister. Defence is suffering grievously as a result. What's your response to that?

Foreign Minister: What I'd say to Greg is this, Richard Marles has got more than, and his department has received more than, about $19 billion over the next four years to implement the immediate priorities identified in the Defence Strategic Review, which is what Greg talks about. We know that the Defence budget will continue to increase. And we know how focused Richard and the Department is on ensuring that we can get the capability we need. After years of inaction and after so much delay, I think it's very many projects, nearly, cumulative, 97 years delayed, was the legacy Richard Marles inherited. And he's doing an outstanding job at making sure we retool Defence for these times.

Clennell: To Sheridan's point, I've been told that you're Anthony Albanese's enforcer on the Expenditure Review Committee. Is that fair comment?

Foreign Minister: Enforcer?

Clennell: Yes.

Foreign Minister: Well, that's not a term I've ever heard. Look, I would say this. We work really well as an Expenditure Review Committee. Not everyone gets what they want. I don't get everything I want. No Minister does. But it's a very collective, collegiate process.

Clennell: All right, let's talk about this story today about China's trade sanctions. This story today that China's trade sanctions actually haven't had an effect on the overall economy. What's your reaction to that?

Foreign Minister: Well, I thought that was an interesting, I thought that was an interesting article today. And what it demonstrated was diversification in the Australian economy is underway, and that's a good thing. Having said that, we obviously do believe it's in our interest and in China's interest for these trade impediments to be removed, and that's what I put to Wang Yi last week at the East Asia Summit.

Clennell: And it does seem that the PM will visit China this year from comments he made on Afternoon Agenda last week. What do you think we can hope to get out of that meeting? And has there been any progress on the case of Cheng Lei? Because I know with other countries like Burma, you've had success there.

Foreign Minister: The government is very concerned about Cheng Lei. I think we're very concerned at the delay in her verdict. We're very concerned at the length of time she's been incarcerated. As we are concerned by Dr Yang's incarceration, and it's something we raise regularly. I raised again with Councillor Wang Yi recently. So we will continue to press for Dr Yang and Ms Cheng Lei to be reunited with their families as soon as possible.

In relation to the Prime Minister's visit, what I'd say is this, we want the most positive circumstances for such a visit. We've expressed that publicly. We want to work with the Chinese to enable those positive circumstances. And we've expressed our view about the importance, for example, of those trade impediments to continue to progress in terms of them being lifted. We've had some progress today and we'd like to see more.

Clennell: The recent agreement between China and the Solomons, and the visit of the Solomon Islands PM, Sogavare, to China. How concerning is this? You're obviously quite critical in opposition and the previous government couldn't make any headway here. Do you fear China could ever set up a military base there?

Foreign Minister: What we've seen recently is the implementation of the agreement which occurred under Mr Morrison's government. That's what we've seen. And we've expressed a view as a government which is consistent with the rest of the Pacific region, that Pacific interests are most assured if we can provide security within the Pacific family. That remains our view. And that is the view we will express not only to Solomon Islands, but more broadly to the Pacific Islands Forum. We are neighbours. We share a region. And we have a shared interest in that region being peaceful and secure. That's the way Australia will keep approaching this.

Clennell: The resignation of Kathryn Campbell, you inherited her as secretary. Why was she given that AUKUS job? Was the government forced to give her another job because of contractual arrangements? Was it because she was tight with Greg Moriarty? Why did that occur?

Foreign Minister: Secretary Moriarty has responded to that publicly, in defence estimates and elsewhere. And I note the news that Ms Campbell has resigned. Obviously, there are more matters as a consequence of what occurred in the Royal Commission, which will need to be ventilated and considered. And I'll leave it to the appropriate authorities to deal with that.

Clennell: So the ALP National Conference coming up in Brisbane - there seems to be a rear-guard move by the PM not to have AUKUS discussed or created a fuss of, but there's this Palestine issue, recognising Palestine as a state. Does any of this cause you difficulty as a Foreign Minister? Are you confident that there won't be an embarrassment, embarrassing or difficult moment for the government at this conference?

Foreign Minister: ALP National Conferences like any other political party, we hold our national conferences in full public view and often people give very impassioned speeches. I've been one of them in the past, on many issues. It's a display of the democracy of the Labor Party. But we have these open debates and then we resolve a position, and we are a disciplined party and a disciplined government. So I've no doubt there will be debates, but I'm very comfortable as Foreign Minister in advocating for the position of why the government has made the decisions it has. I have a lot of faith in the decisions we've made as a cabinet on national security issues. And I know my very good friend Richard and I will be as one in arguing for the position that the Government has taken, whether it's in relation to AUKUS or the position that we have previously endorsed as a party in relation to Palestine.

Clennell: And finally, Environment Minister Tanya Plibersek has announced this morning that the Government has received formal advice that the Murray-Darling Basin Plan cannot be delivered on time. That's got to be pretty disappointing for you as a South Australian, doesn't it?

Foreign Minister: Yeah, I think beyond disappointing. And as a South Australian who's been advocating for fixing up the Murray-Darling for a couple of decades, and was Water Minister. And bought a lot of water for the environment while I was Water Minister. The news out of the Independent Authority that because of, frankly, the sabotaging of the plan by the Coalition Government that it's not able to be delivered on time, is extremely disappointing for every South Australian.

I'm confident that Tanya can take the plan forward. I'm confident she can do what's required to make sure we get the plan that all states agreed to, and the Commonwealth Government agreed to, delivered. But it's going to take work. We've got a lot of ground to make up and a lot of water to make up. And I am pretty disappointed with what has occurred over the last decade under the previous Government.

Clennell: Foreign Minister Penny Wong, thanks so much for your time this afternoon.

Foreign Minister: Good to speak with you Andrew.

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