By Tanya Plibersek

06 May 2021




SUBJECTS: China; Budget. 

ALAN JONES, HOST: Well, our female panel needs no introduction. Concetta Fierravanti-Wells, who does her homework, and I don't give these women any preview of the questions. And Tanya Plibersek, an outstanding performer for the Labor Party. Concetta, if I can come to you. Earlier today, Beijing has announced, as I just said, that China has cut off all diplomatic contact with the Australian Government under the China-Australia Strategic Economic Dialogue. And this will block contact between key government officials below ministerial level and no doubt is a response to Australia’s stance on many things, including the cancellation of Victoria's Belt and Road Agreement. You were one of the first people in government to nail this Chinese expansionism in the Pacific. Prime Minister Turnbull didn't like it and you got the chop. What do you make of this latest move? 

SENATOR CONCETTA FIERRAVANTI-WELLS, SENATOR FOR NSW: Well, this is not surprising. I mean this dialogue was established in 2014. It hasn't convened since 2017. So it doesn't surprise me about this move, but Alan the leviathan ship of state in relation to China is slowly starting to turn, but regrettably, I think it's going to take quite some time before we completely and properly decouple from China. 

JONES: Good on you. Tanya, China seem to be everywhere, an armada of fishing boats serving as de facto paramilitary personnel, seeking control of almost all of the China Sea. Nick Whitlam, the son of the man who backed you in your preselection, perhaps got you over the line, has said this week that this is not Chinese aggression, they’re internal matters. Is that kind of naivety leading us into trouble?

TANYA PLIBERSEK, SHADOW MINISTER FOR EDUCATION & SHADOW MINISTER FOR WOMEN: I think it's very important that Australia continues to assert its interests and its values. We need to do that regardless of which countries we're talking about. And the best and safest way for Australia to remain safe and to protect our interests and values is to see a global rules-based system, where it doesn't matter if you're a small country or a large country, you abide by the rules. You have a say in setting the rules, and then you abide by them.

JONES: What do you do when China defies them? What do you do when China defies them?

PLIBERSEK: It doesn't matter who defies them, we need to work with our neighbours and with like-minded countries, and –

JONES: No but it’s China.

PLIBERSEK: We need to work with like-minded countries to keep saying everybody needs to abide by the rules or there are consequences.

JONES: But what are the consequences for China? They've defied the rules in relation to the South China Sea. So Tanya, if you were the Prime Minister or the Foreign Minister, what would you do?

PLIBERSEK: I'd always be working with our allies and our neighbours to make sure that every country abides by the rules. That's the best way to handle it. Using strategy and diplomacy, and making sure that we get our neighbours on board. One of the problems here, Alan, is that the Australian government, for several years now, has left a vacuum, particularly in the Pacific. You mentioned the port of Daru earlier – Australia should be the leading country in the Pacific. We should be the best friend and best neighbour in the Pacific, and because of the vacuum left by this government, people are looking around elsewhere. China has found that vacuum and is building facilities, not just in Daru, but in many other nations throughout the Pacific. Four years ago this government – 

JONES: Just taking those points that Tanya made. Politicians seems to have woken up to the folly of this 99-year lease on the port of Darwin. Concetta, if it costs 700 million dollars to get out of it, would that be money well spent?

FIERRAVANTI-WELLS: I think Australians would agree that taking back the port of Darwin on just terms and paying just compensation would be money well spent. Now we don't know the terms of the lease, because that's only within the purview of the Northern Territory Government. But I believe that under just terms, that the port should be taken back and I’ve advocated that. And in the recent hearing of the foreign relations legislation, I actually put those questions to the Northern Territory Government, and I asked whether just terms would be the balance of the lease, which is 94 years or other form of just compensation. So, I think Australians would be on board with that.

JONES: Definitely. Well, what about Daru? Tanya made this point, that you argued about this position in the Pacific, Turnbull didn't like it, gave you the chop. I mean we've got this Daru, this $40 billion Chinese city, three days in a rubber boat from Australia. What should we be doing? 

FIERRAVANTI-WELLS: Well, first of all, militarisation of any place in the Pacific, we should certainly, and we have in the past, objected to and we saw a similar possibility with Vanuatu, and when the issue was raised, it was quickly denied. But Alan, in the end, the reality is that, yes, we did drop the ball in the Pacific, and regrettably when the warnings were made and certainly at the time when I was Minister, those in charge of our defence, of our foreign and trade policy were prepared to use the language of appeasement, and the same sort of language that Nick Whitlam is using at the moment, and were prepared to turn a blind eye to Beijing skulduggery because the rivers of gold were flowing. 

JONES: Yeah, you got into strife for talking about it. Tanya, this base will be able to control all maritime traffic through the Torres Strait. As you heard me say, we import 80 percent of our oil, most of it from refineries in Singapore. The oil comes to the east coast of Australia. China have done this to ships from Taiwan, Korea and Japan, what happens if they hold – are we ready for them to hold a dagger to our throat and jeopardise our whole industrial progress? What should we be doing?

PLIBERSEK: We should have been more engaged with our neighbours for the last half decade at least Alan. The Pacific step up has been a failure. We should never have agreed to the long-term lease of the port of Darwin. And where Australia has left a vacuum others have stepped in. 

JONES: But who are our neighbours in this position. Who are our neighbours in the circumstance that you're alluding to?

PLIBERSEK: Of course, we should be working much more closely with PNG, to make us their first choice of partner in a development like this. 

JONES: But they don't have any power to withstand the might of China. They don't have any power to withstand the might of China. 

PLIBERSEK: They’re a there a sovereign nation: they can say yes or no to a development like this. And the same goes for other Pacific nations Alan. We should be their first port of call. 

JONES: We should be but we’re not. Concetta’s made this point. 

PLIBERSEK: No we’re not, because we have failed to be. We have failed. We have dropped the ball. 

JONES: Concetta, you’ve warned this. China is buying everybody off in the Pacific. 

FIERRAVANTI-WELLS: Alan, the important thing is that if we profess to have a foreign policy that is a rules-based and a values-based foreign policy, we should be prepared to call out bellicose and illegal actions by the communist regime when it happens. And as Mike Pompeo recently said, we have to call that out at every opportunity. But more importantly, we should be prepared to undertake, with our allies, freedom of navigation operations in the South China Sea, and that includes in those areas which China illegally claims to be within the nine-dash line, and which the 2016 arbitration said that they weren't entitled to.

JONES: Absolutely. And they just ignore that. Rules-based, but they ignore it. Just a quick one before we go. Concetta, Tanya mentioned freedom. My God. You think of the 1 million Uyghurs. You think of the civil rights in Hong Kong, they were promised Hong Kong a separate system before Britain handed over in 1997. Rules-based? They just ignore the rules. Who's going to enforce the rules?

PLIBERSEK: Well I think Alan, that's why it's really important that countries work together, of course to call out the behaviour with the Uyghurs, to remind China of the commitments it gave to one country, two systems. We need to work together with other countries in Asia and globally to keep reminding China of those commitments.

JONES: I agree. Look, we've got a real problem on our hands. Great to talk to you both. These are very, very important issues. I thank you for your time. We need debate on this above all else. Our sovereignty, I think, is at stake. Concetta, thank you for your time. Tanya, thank you for yours and we'll talk to you next week.