TIMING QUERIED: Penny Wong wants the foreign minister to answer questions as to whether a review of the pandemic origins was announced just to make a splash on TV

  • The Guardian

Australia’s shadow foreign minister, Penny Wong, has accused the government of failing to consult the Labor Party on foreign policy and demanded the foreign minister explain a report that the timing of Australia’s push for a COVID-19 inquiry was motivated by a desire to make an announcement.

Wong yesterday appeared on the Australian Broadcasting Corp’s (ABC) Insiders program, questioning the governing coalition’s apparent lack of strategy on China and seeking a personal explanation from Australian Minister for Foreign Affairs Marise Payne about one of the central grievances in the deteriorating relationship.

Labor is walking a fine line of supporting the substance of disagreements with China and acknowledging that China’s assertiveness is driving division, while criticizing the coalition’s failure to manage the fallout.

Labor demands Canberra explain COVID-19 inquiry

Photo: EPA-EFE

Wong said Australia should assume “a more assertive and at times more aggressive” China, but added that the deteriorating relationship “hadn’t happened overnight.”

Asked if she was blaming the coalition for the failure, she said it was an “obvious statement of fact” that they had been in power since 2013 — the same tenure as Chinese President (習近平) — “and we know what’s happened to the relationship” in that time.

“But I think in many ways the more important point is: What is the strategy?” she said.

Rather than ask who is to blame, Wong said that the focus should be on a strategy for “how we deal with the effects for Australia and the region of a China which demonstrably is taking a very different stance towards us and towards the region.”

Australia was the country most economically dependent on China, she said as she asked why the government appeared to blame exporters rather than develop an economic diversification strategy to help find alternate export markets.

Wong accused the government of pursuing “splashy headlines,” citing a report in the Sydney Morning Herald that Payne called for an inquiry into the origins of COVID-19 because she wanted to make an announcement on Insiders:

The allegation “diminishes [Payne] in the eyes of the international community and she should come on this program and explain [it],” Wong said. “If we were in government, we would be focusing on the national interest.”

Wong’s critique echoes former Australian prime minister Kevin Rudd’s warning that Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison has put “a premium on domestic political messaging in Australia,” while ignoring the impact on the China relationship.

Wong said Labor had offered an “enormous degree of bipartisanship” on China, including being “very clear in our unified condemnation” of an inflammatory tweet from a Chinese official featuring a depiction of alleged war crimes in Afghanistan — despite the fact the government had not consulted Labor before escalating its response.

“In diplomacy you always have to think about how you calibrate your response… It is a big call to go directly, escalate directly to the national leader, and I hope that Scott Morrison thought very carefully about that decision,” Wong said.

“I hope that he took advice and thought carefully before he did escalate it to the national leader level when we responded,” she added.

Asked if the government should have consulted Labor, Wong replied it is “good practice” to engage the opposition when dealing with an “assertive and at times aggressive great power” like China.

She recalled that former Australian foreign minister Julie Bishop on many occasions would call and “talk through how we would deal with particular issues.”

“I regret that doesn’t happen now,” she said.

Wong said she had written to Payne to discuss independent Australian Senator Rex Patrick’s proposed amendments for judicial review to be added to a coalition bill to enable the foreign minister to cancel deals with foreign powers, but was yet to hear back.

The legislation was another example of a “headlines-first approach,” Wong said, arguing that it had been announced to deflect attention from bad press relating to the federal government’s handling of coronavirus outbreaks in aged care.

Labor supports the objectives of the legislation and has already passed it through the lower house, she said, despite the Morrison government running a “political argument through the media” against Victoria’s belt and road initiative deal with China.

Unlike the Andrews government, federal Labor opposed the deal, but the new powers should be exercised “sensibly and calmly” with respect to it.

“I don’t think it has been good to have the prime minister and others engaging in a public argument about this,” Wong said.

Wong has opposed calls to boycott the 2022 Winter Olympics in China, suggesting instead that Australia should attend and use it as an opportunity to highlight issues, including human rights abuses.

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