Interview with David Speers, ABC Insiders

  • Transcript, E&OE
Subjects: Premier Li’s visit to Australia; Australia’s relationship with China; Ministerial delegation to Papua New Guinea; Peter Dutton abandoning climate change targets; Hamas-Israel conflict.

David Speers, Host: Penny Wong, welcome to the program.

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

Speers: I'll come to Taiwan in a moment, but first, how would you characterise the relationship with China at the moment? Premier Li said in a statement last night differences have been shelved. That's not exactly Australia's view, is it?

Foreign Minister: Well, first, I want to say this is obviously a really important visit, it's the first visit in seven years by the Chinese Premier and it comes after two years of very deliberate, very patient work by this Government to bring about a stabilisation of the relationship, and to work towards the removal of trade impediments.

I said before the election, you know, we wanted to stabilise the relationship. What that meant was a recognition that there will be differences that have to be managed in the relationship. We are better if we engage to deal with those differences, as you used – the phrase you used, I think, David, was navigate that relationship.

So you've heard us say, you know, we will cooperate where we can, we will disagree where we must, and we will engage in our national interest.

Speers: Let's look at some of those differences you're having to manage. The Pacific: we know China's efforts to increase influence and presence in the Pacific is a concern. You're constantly trying to counter that. In fact you're off to PNG with six other ministers as soon as Premier Li's gone. That sounds like a pretty big delegation. How concerned are you about what China's doing in PNG and the Pacific?

Foreign Minister: That is a very substantial and serious ministerial delegation to Papua New Guinea, and it's because this government understands the importance to Australia of engagement in the Pacific. We understand that it matters to Australia's stability, security, prosperity in the region, and because we want to be and are being more involved members of the Pacific family.

The reality is Mr Dutton and the Coalition abandoned the field in the Pacific, and others have filled that space. We are now in a position where Australia is a partner of choice, but the opportunity to be the only partner of choice has been lost by Mr Dutton and his colleagues, and we're in a state of permanent contest in the Pacific – that's the reality.

I wish there were a rewind button, we could, you know, recover the last ten years, but we don't, we have to deal with what we have now, which is a permanent contest in the Pacific.

Speers: Okay. But in fairness, it's not all Peter Dutton's fault, this has a bit to do with China and what it's doing in the Pacific, right? Now we know climate change –

Foreign Minister: Well, hang on, can I just stop you there. It is incumbent upon governments to deal, to ensure they place Australia in the best position possible, and the reality is Mr Dutton and his colleagues did not do that over ten years, and so we are where we are, which is a permanent contest.

Speers: Which brings us to climate change because I wanted to get your thoughts on the debate we're having in Australia right now and will have now until the election, and how that's going to play in the Pacific.

Foreign Minister: Yes. I was listening with interest to your panel's discussion, and I'd make a few observations. The first is this: Mr Dutton's walking away from climate action again is a recipe for higher energy bills in Australia, and I'll come back to that.

It is also him yet again abandoning the field in the Pacific. You know, I still get, when I move around the Pacific, people remembering him joking about climate change by talking about water lapping at the door of Pacific nations. People still remember that. That is, apart from being not a very decent thing to say, it is also a diminution of Australia's influence, it affects Australia's influence in the region. So he's walking away from it at home, he's also abandoning the field in the Pacific.

But can I come back to the cost issue, because that was obviously a discussion on the panel.

Speers: You are a former Minister, so I will let you go just briefly on that.

Foreign Minister: Yeah, it's just, you know, it is mind boggling, mind bogglingly absurd for him to suggest that more uncertainty will do anything other than increase costs.

His policy is a policy that will lead to higher electricity bills for Australians. Higher electricity bills for Australians. During their tenure of government where they had in excess of 20 policies, what did that uncertainty mean? Remember 24 coal stations announced closures. 24 coal stations announced closure.

So you have a situation where, as Jennifer said, that the market looks at this and says, well, there's a lot of uncertainty, so we're not going to invest. Meanwhile, the old technology is exiting the market – you're reducing supply. What does that mean? Higher electricity prices.

Speers: Okay. But on the strategic implications of this climate debate, are you saying it would cost Australia strategically in the Pacific if we were to water down those targets?

Foreign Minister: Of course it would. Yeah. Peter Dutton abandoning climate change means higher prices at home and it means he yet again abandons the field in the Pacific. That's what it means.

Speers: Does the government need to, therefore, step up to, when it comes to a 2035 target before the election?

Foreign Minister: Look, I am upfront with Pacific neighbours about our Pacific family –
the Pacific family about this. What I say is, look, we have a big, big policy task. We have a big task in our economy to meet the 2030 target.

Of course there are many people who would like higher targets, would like more action, but I am upfront about, this is after 10 years of inaction, we have a lot of work to do, and we are doing it.

Speers: So you might not have a 2035 target before the election?

Foreign Minister: Well, that's a matter for –

Speers: All right.

Foreign Minister: Well, yeah, we've got a 2030 target, and we're working pretty hard to achieve that. And we also need to, as you know, again, confront a Coalition which is stuck in, you know, stuck in the past, but also stuck in an absurd place where they're not actually dealing with the reality of prices.

Speers: Let's come back to the issues on the table over the next few days with the Chinese Premier. On Taiwan, Kevin Rudd said it would be foolish to ignore the increasing clarity of China's military signalling.

He says Xi Jinping's intention to take Taiwan by force, if he can, is relatively clear. Do you agree?

Foreign Minister: I would say on Taiwan, and this is obviously one of the riskiest flash points in the world, I would say on Taiwan, our position, it's a long‑standing bipartisan Australian position, which we advocate very clearly, is that we support the maintenance of the status quo. That the status quo is the best path for us to maintain peace and stability in the Indo‑Pacific and in the world. We oppose any unilateral changes to the status quo.

In terms of the military activities in and around the Taiwan Strait, you have heard me and others speak very clearly about this, we are deeply concerned about the increased activities and the risk of miscalculation, the risk of mistake, and that is a view we have put publicly, and we have put directly to China.

Speers: And you will put directly to Premier Li as well?

Foreign Minister: Consistent with what we have done, we will deal with those issues and many other issues where we do have to navigate a set of differences of views between, you know, how China operates in this region and how the sort of region Australia and many others want to engage in.

Speers: Earlier this year you said you were appalled at the suspended death sentence handed to Australian citizen Yang Hengjun in China. You said you would not relent in advocating for justice for Dr Yang and appropriate medical treatment.

Can you give us an update? Are you aware, has he been given appropriate medical treatment at least?

Foreign Minister: Look, that is our – look, first, I'm obviously constrained for privacy reasons about what I'm going to say on a television interview. What I would say to you is what I said then is still my position and still the Government's position. We will continue to advocate for Dr Yang wherever we are able, and we will continue to advocate, including for appropriate medical treatment.

Speers: Is his life at risk? Are you able to –

Foreign Minister: I'm not – look, we will continue to advocate for appropriate medical treatment. I'm not going to go through someone's medical treatment on national television.

Speers: What about China's support for Russia during its war in Ukraine. G7 leaders yesterday issued a statement on this. They're calling on China to cease the transfer of weapons components and other equipment to Russia, they have threatened further financial sanctions. Do you support this sort of tougher stance from the G7?

Foreign Minister: I think I said on your program some time ago that just after, or in the period after Russia's invasion of Ukraine, as I said, you know, the world does look to China, which has a special responsibility as a great power and as a member, a permanent member, of the Security Council to use its influence to end this war.

We have expressed concerns similar to those expressed by the G7 about potential activities of Chinese firms. We'll continue to express to China our views about the importance of the war ending, and Ukraine being able to secure peace on its own terms.

Speers: On a brighter note, Minister, will Adelaide Zoo be getting some new pandas?

Foreign Minister: Well, my family, like many other South Australian families, have enjoyed the pandas over many years. You know, I went to drop my daughter off at school, and the class had done a panda conservation, a panda habitat project that was on the wall, and you know, the pandas have been a great part of the lives of many Adelaide families, and so we look forward to that continuing.

Obviously I can't make announcements ahead of time, but I can say to you I'll be heading off to the zoo this morning.

Speers: You'll be there in a couple of hours.

Foreign Minister: I will, that's right.

Speers: We'll stay tuned to that. Look, we know on the trade front things have improved a great deal, and we know Premier Li will also go to Perth and look at some critical minerals there as well. I'm just wondering if you can clear up for us, does Australia want China's investment in critical minerals or not?

Foreign Minister: Well, the right question is what do we want for our critical minerals industry? We want to grow our critical minerals industry.

Speers: Yeah, but the question I asked –

Foreign Minister: Well, no –

Speers: – was about China's investment.

Foreign Minister: Yeah, no, I'll come to that, I'll come to that. I'll come to that. And we want more jobs and more downstream processing, and we have put in, through the Budget, through the Future Made in Australia policy framework, more incentives to ensure we have more critical minerals industry here.

Your question goes to foreign investment; what is our position on foreign investment? One, we welcome foreign investment, that is in accordance with the national interest. We have a more, a clearer foreign investment framework that the Treasurer, Jim Chalmers, has announced, that looks to both transparency and predictability, but also how we ensure national security, and it's clear about which sectors we will take particular interest in as we consider foreign investment applications. Critical –

Speers: Yeah, but just to cut to the chase here.

Foreign Minister: – critical minerals is one of the ‑ critical minerals is one of those sectors, David.

Speers: Isn't the whole –

Foreign Minister: I'm actually saying something important there.

Speers: No, okay, no, it is. Well, just to be clear on that, the whole Future Made in Australia idea seems to be here to have more critical minerals processing in Australia because China's got too much of a monopoly on it, is that right?

Foreign Minister: Well, the critical minerals strategy reflects the importance of securing supply chains for those things which matter, particularly as we move to renewable energy. I mean this is a critical capability for us as a renewable energy superpower.

These are inputs into renewable energy transmission and generation which matters. Of course we want to make sure we can do more here. That's what the policy's about.

Speers: I'm still a little unclear. Can Chinese companies take advantage of processing critical minerals in Australia under your policy?

Foreign Minister: Well, that is dealt with by the foreign investment framework, which is what I was trying to say before, that we have a foreign investment framework, it is open to all to apply to that, there is more predictability and transparency as a result of Jim Chalmers' reforms. We have also said there will be areas where we'll pay particular attention to national interest considerations. Critical minerals is one of them.

Speers: Let me turn to the war in Gaza, Minister. Last week Israeli Special Forces rescued four hostages that were being held there, but they inflicted heavy civilian casualties. Estimates vary; we know Israel says less than 100 people were killed, Gaza's Health Ministry, he says it was more than 270 civilians who were killed. Either way, a very heavy death toll. Was it worth it?

Foreign Minister: David, you know, we mourn every life that is lost in this conflict. We mourn every Israeli life and every Palestinian life, and this conflict has been horrific, and the loss of life, what occurred on October 7, what has occurred since, the loss of life, that people are starving, the civilian casualties, all of this is horrific.

I think what we have to do, and what I have been seeking to do, is to add our voice to the call for ceasefire, the release of hostages, the humanitarian aid to be provided. We have an opportunity now as an international community with the resolution in the UN Security Council that was backed across the world, we have to keep pressing for that.

Speers: But on this operation in particular, Benjamin Netanyahu says it was heroic; Europe's foreign policy chief has called it a bloodbath. It goes to whether it's proportionate or not. What do you think?

Foreign Minister: Well, you know, what I think is all of this has been horrific, and you know, what we need to focus on now is a ceasefire, and that's what I'm doing.

Speers: Look, you've insisted Australia's not selling weapons to Israel. The International Arms Trade Treaty does include references as well to parts and components. It says they should not be sold if there's knowledge of crimes against humanity or civilians being targeted.

Australia does sell parts of course to the F35 Joint Strike Fighter that's used by Israel. Is Australia being consistent with that treaty?

Foreign Minister: Well, we have to be consistent with that treaty, and we are, and we will be. But can I start at your point to me about what I've said and what others have said, I do think that the Greens' propaganda about this has been just so irresponsible, and you really can't come to no conclusion other than they are using misinformation in order to, frankly, incite conflict here in Australia, and I think that is really reprehensible. We have not exported weapons to Israel either since the conflict began or in fact for the last five years.

Speers: But parts?

Foreign Minister: I'm coming to that. Secondly, you know, we have, as Defence estimates made very clear, we have calibrated our approach to ensure that what we have in terms of arms permits is materiel that comes back to Australia for, you know, law enforcement or for the ADF capability.

In terms of the F35, we have F35s, they are the large proportion of fast jets in the Royal Australian Air Force, and we are part of 18 nations who are part of that consortia. We are involved in non‑lethal parts, but of course we will always continue to consider, as Defence estimates made clear, our obligations under those treaties.

Speers: You'll continue to consider that. All right. Look, final one: can you give us any update on the former Defence Chief Mark Binskin? He's gone to find some answers from Israel over that attack in April that killed seven aid workers, including Australian Zomi Frankcom. You appointed him Special Adviser, you said you expected full accountability. Has that happened?

Foreign Minister: First, I again express my sympathy and condolences to Zomi Frankcom's family and to the families and friends of all of those who were killed.

I am meeting with Air Chief Marshal Binskin soon to talk through his work to date. Obviously we'll also want to continue engaging with Zomi Frankcom's family, and I'll have more to say when I'm able to after those processes.

Speers: Did he get any new information from Israel?

Foreign Minister: Well, I just told you what I was going to say on that, David. Obviously we were pleased that Israel did accept our request for Mr Binskin to have access to and to engage with relevant personnel.

Speers: So his work's now complete?

Foreign Minister: Well, as I said to you, I'll be meeting with him soon, and I'll be able to have more to say after that. Thank you.

Speers: Foreign Minister, Penny Wong, thank you for joining us. Busy day in Adelaide, so we appreciate your time.

Foreign Minister: Great to speak with you.

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