Interview with Sarah Ferguson, ABC 7.30

  • Transcript, E&OE
Subjects: Visit to Vietnam; British engagement in the region; Cheng Lei; The Voice to Parliament.

Sarah Ferguson, Host: Penny Wong, welcome to 7.30.

Penny Wong, Foreign Minister: Good to be with you. Thanks for having me.

Ferguson: You're in Vietnam to announce funds for climate adaptation there. What's that money going to be used for?

Foreign Minister: Well, I'm in Vietnam to do that, but I'm in Vietnam as my second visit here as Foreign Minister, coming on the back of the Prime Minister's visit, because Vietnam is a really important partner for Australia. It's an important partner bilaterally, but it's a particularly important partner in our region. So, we're very pleased to work with them on their priorities, and one of the priorities is obviously climate change. And I've announced just over $94 million today, which is about programs in the Mekong Delta and climate change adaptation, which, as you know, is such a big issue for the countries of the Mekong, particularly including Vietnam.

Ferguson: Now, how much is this particular partnership, and I'm talking here about the money for the Mekong Delta, how much is this about countering China's impact on that incredibly important river system?

Foreign Minister: It's about responding to the priorities that Vietnam - but also other countries of the Mekong, including Laos, for example, and Cambodia, have expressed to us. And we recognise that climate change is real. We recognise that, we have to urgently transition to renewable energy and clean energy. And alongside that, we also have to ensure we are more resilient. And particularly for countries with the sorts of vulnerability we see in Vietnam and the levels of development, it is a good thing for us to try and share knowledge so countries can build their resilience.

Ferguson: Now, you posted this yesterday after your meeting with your British counterpart. I'll quote, you said, “Australia and the United Kingdom are working to contribute to a region and to a world where no country dominates and no country is dominated”. It's unquestionably a very nice sentiment, but how do you do that in the face of China's rapid military buildup?

Foreign Minister: Look, that is something I have said for some time, and the reason I keep saying it is I think it encapsulates what we want. We want a region, just as Vietnam wants a region and the UK wants a world in which no country dominates and no country is dominated, in which we are free to make our sovereign choices. We are free to disagree and to agree. How do we do that? That is the question of these times. And what we think we do is to contribute to strategic balance or equilibrium that ensures that through our economic engagement, through collective strategic capability, as well as diplomatic reassurance, we work to ensure there is that balance in the region. We think that is the best way to avert conflict and prevent escalation.

Ferguson: The reason I asked you in particular, because I know you've said it before, but I was interested in the fact that you were doing it with your British counterpart. Now, what role can Britain have in securing peace in this region, especially given its history in the region in Malaysia, in Singapore, and given where you are in, handing Vietnam back to the French at the end of the Second World War, why do they have a role?

Foreign Minister: If you look at what James is doing, the Foreign Secretary is doing, I think he is very clear about how he engages with the region, including with countries where the United Kingdom has had a previous relationship as a colonial power, but has a very different sort of relationship now. And I think he's a very good interlocutor for the United Kingdom.

Ferguson: Imprisoned Australian Cheng Lei gave a statement to the Australian people on this programme a couple of weeks ago. I think a lot of Australians were shocked when they heard about some of the conditions of her imprisonment, including very limited access to sunlight. I think she described her bedding being aired just once a year. Is there any influence you can bring to bear on the Chinese to improve the conditions of her situation?

Foreign Minister: Well, I work to bring whatever influence I can to advocacy for Ms Cheng Lei, also for Dr Yang. We have made clear at all senior levels in our engagement with China and our Chinese counterparts that these are important matters, that we wish to see them reunited with their family. I think all Australians were very moved by what your programme aired, and what Ms Cheng Lei said or wrote, and all Australians would be united in wanting a mother to be reunited with her family.

Ferguson: Let's just come back to The Voice debate in Australia, because audio has emerged of comments that you made during the Labor Party Conference at the weekend. You were expressing distress at the way that debate is being conducted in Australia. You referenced in particular an argument made by John Howard on this programme in the early 1990s during the seminal - the debate over the seminal land rights case, Mabo. I'm actually going to play the audio of that particular clip that you were talking about:

John Howard: This shows 78 per cent of the land mass of Australia coloured brown on this map. Now, the Labor Party and the Democrats are effectively saying that the Aboriginal People of Australia should have the potential right of veto over further development of 78 per cent of the land mass of Australia.

Ferguson: Penny Wong, is there a connection between the way that argument was being conducted there by John Howard and the way the No campaign is being run in Australia today?

Foreign Minister: Look, your viewers, I'm sure, can make their own decision about that. But can I tell you what I think, and what I believe, and what I see. I think this is a debate which has the potential to bring Australians together. I believe it's important for the country and I believe it's that listening to people - recognising our First Nations People, listening to them and getting better results is a good thing. I also observe that there are those who oppose this, who don't seek to unite this country, who seek to remind us of difference, who seek to say things which are designed to make people fearful. And I don't think that is the way we should be having this discussion.

Ferguson: Were you talking about that particular clip, of John Howard's on the programme, because you think it does that? That it sought to make people fearful or to misrepresent the argument of the time?

Foreign Minister: I think history has shown that that argument was exaggerated. And I do remember how I and many Australians felt at the time of that interview, about what was said and the Prime Minister of the day holding up that map.

Ferguson: Are you surprised, so many years later at the profound influence that John Howard and his acolyte Tony Abbott is still having on the debate, on the current debate?

Foreign Minister: No, they're very effective politicians. But what I would say to your listeners, and to your viewers, is that a lot of change in this country has been resisted on the basis that things would be really bad if it happened. Whether it's Mabo and Wik, whether it's the Apology, whether it's marriage equality and those fears turned out to be unfounded. And I believe it will be the same when it comes to the Voice.

Ferguson: Penny Wong, thank you very much indeed for joining us from Vietnam. Thank you.

Foreign Minister: Good to speak with you.

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