TV interview, ABC News Breakfast

Subjects: ASEAN Summit; Hamas-Israel conflict; US election.

Michael Rowland, host: The Federal Government is continuing to walk a tightrope on global issues as the ASEAN Summit progresses in Melbourne. Amid tensions with China and the wars in Gaza and Ukraine there's a lot for Australia to contend with. The Foreign Minister, Penny Wong, joins us now from the Summit. Minister, good morning to you.

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

Michael Rowland: It's great to have you on. It seems you're contending though with former Prime Minister Paul Keating who has gone after you, he reckons you're going after China too much. He says, "It doesn't take too much to encourage Penny Wong, sporting her 'deeply concerned frown' to rattle the China can. A can she gave a good shake at ASEAN on Monday." Gee, what do you say to that?

Foreign Minister: Well I'd invite you to read my speech. Actually what I spoke about was the sort of region we want, the importance of the maritime domain for our security, for our economic prosperity, the importance of ensuring that international law continues to operate and be respected and observed, particularly in the South China Sea and in the region, and that's important for stability. I think that's a pretty reasonable position and certainly one that was articulated also by the Philippines Foreign Secretary who spoke with me.

Michael Rowland: Have you rung Paul Keating to suggest that – just that hat he read the speech?

Foreign Minister: Look, Mr Keating is, we are often treated to his opinions, he's entitled to his opinions, but I have to say I'm much more focused on doing the work here. And the work here is in our national interest, in Australia's national interest, working with the countries of this extraordinary region, the region of Southeast Asia, which is so critical to Australia's prosperity and to our security. We want peace, stability and prosperity in the region in which we live and that's what we're working on in this Summit and we're really grateful and really pleased that so many leaders have come to Melbourne to be with us.

Michael Rowland: Okay, I want to talk about what one of the leaders said just yesterday. But Mr Keating does have a lot of opinions. He accused you last year of not conducting foreign policy that well, saying it was more than "running around the Pacific with a lay around your neck." Penny Wong, do you get the impression sometimes that Paul Keating just doesn't like you?

Penny Wong: Well it's, you know, Mr Keating's entitled to his opinions. If we want to talk about the Pacific, I think we know from history and from recent times why the Pacific matters to Australia. It matters to Australia because we're part of the Pacific family. It matters to Australian security. So I make no apologies for doing what the Morrison, the Coalition Government should have done, which is to engage with the Pacific respectfully. And we might remember that the way in which Mr Dutton engaged with the Pacific was to make jokes about climate change. Well, that's not in the country's interests. So I'm going to keep operating and working for Australia and for Australian interests. That's my job and that's what I'll be focused on.

Michael Rowland: At the Summit, Malaysia's Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim has told the Nine Newspapers that he believes the risk of conflict with China in the South China Sea is being exaggerated. In your view is he being a bit naive?

Foreign Minister: Look, Prime Minister Anwar had a very good meeting with the Prime Minister. Obviously, every country navigates the strategic circumstances we face differently, and I'd invite you to look at some of what obviously Prime Minister Lee of Singapore said yesterday too.

I think the point is this. Rather than thinking about, you know, what might or might not happen, we should focus on what we want to protect, what we want to ensure, what we want to assure, in order to preserve peace, stability and prosperity. And one of the things we all want to ensure, continue to operate is the legal, the Law of the Sea, the legal norms and principles that ensure that there is freedom of navigation, that trade can continue to operate unimpeded and that there is not miscalculation at sea. We don't want that. So a focus on the international Law of the Sea and operating in accordance with that is a good thing for peace and stability in the region.

Michael Rowland: One of the issues, the many issues ASEAN leaders will be talking about of course is the war in Gaza. On that front you, Penny Wong, are one of the ministers a Sydney legal firm has referred to the International Criminal Court accusing you directly of being complicit in genocide, their word, through your support for Israel. What's your response?

Foreign Minister: I don't think this conflict, or the cause is, you know, resolved. I don't think the cause of peace is furthered by misinformation.

Michael Rowland: How are they being misinformed?

Foreign Minister: Well I think people can see over a very long period of time, since the horrific events of October 7 and since, the Australian Government, including, you know, from me as Foreign Minister, has been utterly clear about the importance of Israel and all parties observing international law. And we have been very clear about international humanitarian law. That has been our consistent position.

Michael Rowland: The United States Vice President, Kamala Harris, in recent days has called out Israel directly, Penny Wong, for not doing enough to avoid what she describes as a humanitarian catastrophe in Gaza. Should Israel be doing more?

Foreign Minister: I think we have said for some time that there should be, we have said for actually many, many weeks and many months now that there should be humanitarian assistance provided into Gaza. We have called on Israel to observe international humanitarian law. We have called for a ceasefire, an immediate humanitarian ceasefire. So I would invite Australians to look at what the Government has actually been saying and doing.

I know this is a very difficult, distressing debate. I know that what we are seeing in terms of the loss of life is horrific. What we have to do as Australians though is ensure that how we conduct that discussion and debate here reflects the respect that our multicultural, diverse society has always prided ourselves on.

Michael Rowland: I want to finish with a big story from America. Of course, as you know, Minister, Super Tuesday presidential primaries are underway today and it appears as though by the end of the day Donald Trump will be the presumptive Republican Party presidential nominee. Just like Paul Keating, he has lots of strong opinions. Does the prospect of Donald Trump returning to the Oval Office worry you at all?

Foreign Minister: Look, the American political process is a matter for the American people, and successive Australian governments have had a strong relationship with whoever is in the White House. That will remain so. The US Alliance is bigger than any individual person.

Michael Rowland: Okay, we'll leave it there. Penny Wong in Melbourne, appreciate your time this morning. Thank you.

Foreign Minister: Good to speak with you, Michael.


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