Sky News Afternoon Agenda with Andrew Clennell
ANDREW CLENNELL, HOST: Jacinda Ardern, we know she’s retired from politics today. And joining me now is the Foreign Minister Penny Wong. Penny Wong. Thanks for joining us.
PENNY WONG, FOREIGN MINISTER: Good to be with you.
CLENNELL: Well, what’s your reaction to the departure of this pretty big figure in New Zealand politics?
FOREIGN MINISTER: Look, Prime Minister Ardern has been a great friend of Australia’s. She’s been someone who’s brought commitment to our relationship. We thank her for that. The country thanks her, and for her friendship. On a personal level, what I’d say is Jacinda Ardern brought compassion and kindness, as well as strength to her leadership and she was an inspiration for many people. And I wish her well, as I know so many Australians do.
CLENNELL: Do you think this change will mean anything for the relationship between the two countries?
FOREIGN MINISTER: Look, I think that the relationship between Australia and New Zealand is one of our – they’re our closest friends, they are family and regardless of who’s in government, regardless of who the Prime Minister of the day is, they’re going to be, as always, family. That’s how we approach the relationship. That’s how they approach the relationship. And I’ve no doubt it will continue to be as strong as it always is.
CLENNELL: Now, you put out a statement today around the anniversary of the detention of Yang Hengjun, four years in detention. Do you want to expand on that, and how are you going in terms of a possible release of him and Cheng Lei?
FOREIGN MINISTER: I have continued to put to my counterpart, just as the Prime Minister also did, and as we continue to do at every level, our desire for Dr Yang and Ms Cheng Lei to be reunited with their families. We are deeply troubled that there’s been a further deferral of Dr Yang’s verdict and sentencing. We’ll continue to advocate for them and we’ll continue to press for consular access and we will continue to press for procedural fairness and rights to be observed.
CLENNELL: It’s the first opportunity for me to talk to you after your China visit late last year. What can you tell us about the continued, albeit slow, thawing of relations, and what are the respects of a Prime Ministerial visit to China?
FOREIGN MINISTER: As you would have seen, Andrew, after that visit, I was very, I think, upfront with Australians that this was a step-by-step process. That obviously it was an important event for an Australian Foreign Minister to go to Beijing. It was important that the Foreign and Strategic Dialogue between the two countries restarted. Obviously, there wasn’t a lot of dialogue for some time. I said, as the Prime Minister said, we believe engagement is in our national interests. That’s how we will engage. But, you know, we will cooperate where we can and where we will disagree where we must.
The point I made to my counterpart, State Counsellor Wang Yi, is that it’s possible to grow our relationship in a way that is consistent with both of our national interests if we navigate our differences wisely. And that means we will have to do that - we will have differences and we will seek to navigate them wisely.
CLENNELL: We seem to be getting hints they might lift the trade sanctions, or am I reading too much into it?
FOREIGN MINISTER: Well, I think it is in China’s interests as well as Australia’s interests for the barriers to trade, the impediments to trade, to be removed. And ultimately, you know, we think it’s better for China and Chinese consumers for that to occur. In the meantime, obviously Australia, Australian business, has done a very good job in seeking to diversify its markets. That’s good. That’s about economic resilience and ensuring, in a globalised economy, that you’re able to export goods and services to a range of export markets.
CLENNELL: Now, the Chinese have made no secret of the fact they really oppose AUKUS, they see it as some sort of threat. Despite this, you’ve got this thawing of the relationship. How have you been able to navigate that?
FOREIGN MINISTER: Look, I want to be, again, very clear about AUKUS. AUKUS is us working very closely with our principal strategic ally, the United States, and the United Kingdom with whom we have an historic relationship. In terms of the nuclear-powered submarines, as I’ve said previously, in the region and more broadly, this is about Australia replacing an existing capability. We see this as an important contribution to peace and stability in the region. We think increasing the capability of the Australian Defence Force is important for stability in the region, and we’ll continue to be a country that works for a region that is prosperous, that is peaceful and that is stable and in which sovereignty is respected.
CLENNELL: Now, I did want to ask you about Kevin Rudd’s appointment as our Ambassador to Washington. When did you and the PM first discuss this potentially occurring?
FOREIGN MINISTER: Andrew, I’m not going to go into that, and you wouldn’t expect me to. But I would say this about Mr Rudd: Mr Rudd is a former Australian Prime Minister. And his seniority demonstrates the importance of the relationship. He’ll bring unmatched experience to the role. And, really, at this time where we see a lot of strategic competition between the US and China, as someone who has written and thought deeply about this issue, I think he brings unique capabilities to the role.
CLENNELL: I don’t think there’s much doubt about that, Minister, but Wayne Swan called him a vindictive psychopath. Are you confident that embassy staff will be okay working for Kevin Rudd in Washington?
FOREIGN MINISTER: Well, I’m not going to go and respond to what might or might not have been said by people in the past. I think Kevin Rudd as a former prime minister brings enormous experience, really an unmatched level of expertise. Mr Rudd since leaving office has engaged in a lot of private sector leadership, including at the Asia Society. And I am sure he will fulfil the expectations in all regards that government has of anybody taking that role.
CLENNELL: And those expectations I assume include relinquishing, for example, his chairmanship of this Australians for a Murdoch Royal Commission or speaking out on all these other issues. Have you had conversations with him about that?
FOREIGN MINISTER: I did anticipate you might get to that issue. Look, he will operate in accordance with the principles and values and requirements of the Australian Public Service.
CLENNELL: Has he assured you of that personally?
FOREIGN MINISTER: Well, that is the nature of the position. That is the nature of the position and that is my expectation.
CLENNELL: I just wanted to ask you –
FOREIGN MINISTER: And I’m sure Mr Rudd understands that.
CLENNELL: I just wanted to ask you finally about the Defence Strategic Review. It seems like a pretty big deal in the defence space this year. Could we see defence spending in this country go from, say, 2 to 3 per cent of GDP? Are we about to see a really big uptick in spending, particularly with the submarines in mind?
FOREIGN MINISTER: There’s no doubt that, you know, the submarine capability, which is critical to Australia’s defence capability, is a very expensive capability. It was under the Attack Class. I think you would have heard me in opposition pointing out that that was the biggest procurement in the nation’s history. But it is a critical capability.
I would make this point, Andrew; we had a lot of noise from the previous government but not a lot of capability. So, there was a lot of tough talk but, you know, the basic work of ensuring that our defence personnel have the capability that Australia needs in a much more contested world, they paid less attention to that than they should have. But we’re determined to change that, and that, in part, is what the Defence Strategic Review will do.
CLENNELL: Foreign Minister Penny Wong, thanks so much for your time this afternoon.
FOREIGN MINISTER: Good to speak with you.
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