SUBJECTS: China Tweet; Brereton Report.

FRANK KELLY, HOST: The Federal Opposition has strongly backed the government’s furious response to China’s provocation over alleged war crimes in Afghanistan. The Labor Leader Anthony Albanese joined the Prime Minister in condemning that doctored image posted by a senior Chinese foreign ministry official, of an Australian soldier slitting the throat of an Afghan child. China is refusing to apologise for the slur. It says Australia should be ashamed of its war record. In fact, China has doubled down on this in the last 24 hours. Just as bilateral relations were being driven to a new low, the Defence Force has started walking back an earlier decision to strip 3,000 Special Forces soldiers of a Unit Citation they received for serving in Afghanistan. Richard Marles is Deputy Labor Leader and Shadow Minister for Defence. Richard Marles, welcome back to Breakfast.


KELLY: I am well, thank you. Labor’s in lockstep with the government over this China tweet, which was a cheap and offensive shot. But is there a danger that you both were overreacting to this post, that in fact, it was aimed directly at provoking this response from Australia?

MARLES: No, I think it’s important that there is unanimity at this moment in time between the parties of government in Australia in response to what I think you rightly just described then as a cheap and offensive shot, because that’s exactly what it was. And, you know, I’ve been involved in foreign relations and diplomacy now, for some time, I’ve actually never seen anything like it. It is quite an extraordinary intervention. And I think it was really important that the country spoke with one voice yesterday, in its condemnation of this tweet.

FRAN: Are you surprised, though? I mean, given the shocking findings of the Brereton Report, the allegations, these allegations of war crimes, were always going to be used against us by countries such as such as China and Russia. I mean, there was plenty of people forecasting this moment would come. It’s not a surprise, is it? And it makes it harder for us to claim the moral high ground in these debates.

MARLES: Well, I am surprised. I don’t think anyone would have forecast the tweet that came out from China yesterday. I mean, I’m genuinely surprised. I think it’s an extraordinary intervention into this debate. Sure, what has come about with the allegations that are detailed in the Brereton Report are obviously very disturbing and we’ve spoken a lot about that. And they in turn need to be dealt with very sensitively. And I think we were prepared for a reaction around the world, but I wouldn’t have expected this reaction from China, our largest trading partner, and a country with whom, you know, we clearly need to have a better relationship.

FRAN: Okay. China is being provocative and offensive, though. I mean, this is I mean, schoolboy prank is not quite the right description in that it plays it down but it was offensive and obvious. Are we overreacting with talk of repugnant slurs and demands for an official apology, which won’t come? Is that kind of talk counterproductive if we really are interested in a reset of this relationship, which we have to be interested in, don’t we in terms of our economy and jobs, if nothing else?

MARLES: We definitely need to get a reset in the relationship. You’re completely right about that. And you’re also right to reference jobs because what underpins our trading relationship with China is hundreds of thousands of Australian jobs. And they’re real people, with real lives and real expenses and needs. And so we need to have them foremost in our mind. But it is important that we make our voice heard clearly, in a dignified way. But I think that’s what has happened in the last 24 hours, in response to what was an extraordinary statement from a country, which is a great power. And, you know, you might expect this from other parts of the world, I wouldn’t have expected it from China.

KELLY: So what’s going on here? What’s your analysis, if this great power is behaving like this? Well, you know, I spoke to Hugh White earlier, he’s suggesting it’s trying to prompt a reaction and Australia has just fallen into the trap. And China, you know, just trying to, you know, beat us into submission in a sense, is that the endgame?

MARLES: Well, I don’t know what the endgame is-

KELLY: What do you think?

MARLES: Well, in terms of doing a tweet of this kind, I’m really not sure what purpose it ultimately serves. And I can’t think that there would be any other appropriate reaction to the one that we’ve seen in the last 24 hours. I mean, we’ve got to speak with dignity, with sobriety, but to the honour of our nation, and that’s what we’ve tried to do in the last 24 hours. I mean, clearly the relationship is in in a terrible place. I mean, that is obvious. And we do need to try and do something to get this back to a better place. The Prime Minister spoke about that yesterday. And to be fair to the Government-  and I’ve been critical in recent times about how the Government has handled the relationship- I do think in the last little while, there have been a number of attempts by the Government to try and say more conciliatory things in relation to China, reduce the temperature in respect of our relationship, and I’ve welcomed that. What we saw yesterday, though, obviously makes it quite – well makes it very hard. You know, this doesn’t help take the relationship to a place that both countries need to get it to. I think part of that-

KELLY: Well, let’s talk about how we do that. Because Labor’s support of the government on the Huawei ban, the foreign interference laws, the restrictions on foreign investment, the inquiry into the source of the corona pandemic, the Foreign Relations bill before the parliament. Now this tweet. We do seem to have basically a ‘Team Australia’ approach to China. Is that so? And if so, will it make it more difficult for Labor to take a more nuanced approach on some issues? And what is your- what would you do differently?

MARLES: Well, I think it is important that we attempt in – when it comes to national security, when it comes to strategic policy, that there is a Team Australia approach- and so we make no apologies for that. I think what’s really important is that we have a clear set of guiding principles which underpin what we are seeking to do in our relationship with China. I would like to hear the government articulate those. I think it’s really important that we do the diplomacy as best as we can do it. And that does mean actually having personal relationships of substance between members of the government and members of the Chinese government. And that is actually what has happened in- throughout most of the history of our relationship with China since the recognition of China.

KELLY: Sure that’s true, but as Hugh White pointed out, it’s a different ballgame now. China’s economy, sorry, trading equation with Australia is 16 times bigger than it was, you know, when John Howard was in government. China has emerged as a superpower. It’s different. So how –  it’s signalling it’s not interested in talking at the moment, none of our Ministers apparently can get their counterparts on the phone. I mean what else can we do? How do we do it differently?

MARLES: And certainly, you know, the tweet that we saw yesterday, doesn’t help us walk down a different path. And as I said earlier, I think it is very important that the government –  that the country speaks with one voice and the government makes its position clear, in relation to that. There is an argument that people will make that in order to stand up for our national interests, it makes the relationship with China impossible, I’m not sure of that. We clearly need to stand up for our national interest, that’s what we’ve been doing in the last 24 hours. We clearly need to articulate our national interest when it differs from Chinese action in places such as the South China Sea. But if you look at Japan, which has just as complex a relationship with China, as Australia, in fact, more so-

KELLY: More.

MARLES:  They’ve got territorial disputes with China-

KELLY: And history.

MARLES: And history. They manage to speak to their national interest in respect of China whilst maintaining a trading relationship with China. So I think it indicates that this path can be walked. What I know is that given that there are hundreds of thousands of Australian jobs at stake here, we have to do everything that’s within our power to try and get this relationship to a different place.

KELLY: And do you think the Government is doing that?

MARLES: Well, I think the Government has been trying to do that in the last couple of weeks, and certainly, as I said before, I think a number of statements that they’ve made, say to me that they want to get this relationship to a different place, and the Prime Minister was right to acknowledge that yesterday. We’ve got to do everything though we can to get there. And, we should never forget what’s at stake here. It is important that we- given that China is our largest trading partner that the starting position in respect of our relationship with China is that we value that relationship and that should be a completely normal and acceptable proposition to make in Australia’s public discourse.

KELLY: You are listening to RN Breakfast. Our guest is the Shadow Defence Minister Richard Marles- Deputy Labor Leader. Can I ask you about the Citation awarded to Special Operations Task Group that served in Afghanistan; the Chief of the Defence Force, Angus Campbell said on the release of the Brereton Report, he would accept the – all recommendations which included the recommendation that that Citation should be revoked for the entire squad of 3,000 Special Force soldiers in that operations task group. The Chief of the Defence Force now says that no decision has yet been made on that recommendation, it looks as though ADF is working that back – walking that back. What do you think? Should the soldiers who aren’t alleged to have done anything wrong in Afghanistan keep that Citation?

MARLES: I think it’s a really complicated matter. And I think the government and defence are right to take their time to work through this recommendation along with all the other recommendations of the Brereton Report because it needs to be dealt with very sensitively. Look, I think the Brereton Report is fundamentally an extraordinary piece of work, in the face of just the most appalling allegations that we could imagine. And the reading of it, even the public version of it, makes incredibly difficult reading. I think it’s the disposition of everyone; of the government, of Labor, of Defence to do all that is possible to implement the recommendations of the Brereton Report. The Chief of the Defence Force said yesterday that Defence was seeking to put in place an implementation plan in respect of, you know, the 140 odd recommendations of the Brereton Report. I think it is right to take the time to do that.

KELLY: Okay, but in walking it back, if they don’t decide to do it, then they are not accepting that recommendation of the Brereton Report and it does look as though the Government’s got involved here. I mean, the Prime Minister and the Defence Minister have intervened. The Defence Force says a final decision will be a matter for the government now. And the Prime Minister says Governor-Generals take advice- Governors-General take advice from their Prime Minister on such matters. I mean, has the government just overruled General Campbell?

MARLES: No, I don’t think that’s clear. I think what is happening here is there is a desire to take some time to get this right. And I think that’s appropriate and Labor supports that. Look, I can understand, I can understand the recommendation in the Brereton Report. I can obviously also understand the feelings of the thousands of Australians who served in the Special Operations Task Group with distinctions who had nothing to do with the allegations that have been made, feeling aggrieved by this recommendation. I think we’ve got to give Defence the time and the space to work this through and work out the way in which the recommendations- including this one – of the Brereton Report are going to be implemented. And it’s important to give Defence that time. And that’s what really, General Campbell was seeking yesterday in the statement that he made. We respect that and we’re keen to give Defence the time to do that.

KELLY: Okay, Richard Marles thank you very much.

MARLES: Thanks, Fran.


Authorised by Paul Erickson, ALP, Canberra.

Get the latest updates
  • This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.