SUBJECTS: China Tweet; Brereton Report.
KIERAN GILBERT, HOST: With me live now in the studio is the Deputy Labor Leader and Shadow Defence Minister Richard Marles, what’s your reaction to that, that message from a Chinese official on Twitter?
RICHARD MARLES, DEPUTY LEADER OF THE AUSTRALIAN LABOR PARTY: Well, the tweet was appalling, there’s no other word to describe it. It should be taken down and China should apologise, no questions about that. It doesn’t add anything to what is obviously a difficult relationship right now. You know, I think the government’s reacted appropriately to this and I agree with the Prime Minister that, you know, I hope that this is an incident which actually allows the relationship to reset. But this is an appalling tweet, which should be condemned at every quarter, China should pull it down and they should apologise.
GILBERT: This comes a week after the Prime Minister made quite a conciliatory message in a speech trying to maybe reset the relationship then. Does that worry you that this sort of message is sent, inflammatory message, just days after the Prime Minister was trying to cool things down?
MARLES: Of course and I think the relationship has not been in a good place, so I agree with you that I think there’s been a couple of voices on the government side, which has tried to calm tensions between China and Australia. We do need to be getting the relationship back into a better place. But this tweet does nothing to help that, it’s incendiary, it is appalling, and China needs now to act in respect of it, by pulling it down, by apologising.
GILBERT: Do you think that this reflects a weakness on the Chinese part when it comes to what’s known as you know soft power? This is from their Foreign Ministry Spokesperson – that’s hardly diplomacy at work.
MARLES: Well it was not diplomacy at work. It’s hard to explain to be honest how, from a government account, you could have a tweet of this kind. It’s certainly not diplomacy at work. We really need to get the relationship back on track. I mean, it’s a critically important relationship for Australia, our largest trading partner, but there are obviously a whole lot of security anxieties, which exists with China as well. So at every level, you would want there to be good communication between China and Australia. A tweet of this kind takes the relationship in completely the wrong direction. And it’s really important that China now acts and rectifies this.
GILBERT: What it does do is embolden hawks, certainly in the debate here and in China doesn’t?
MARLES: Well, I think all of us want to see a reset in the relationship. I mean, there’s a lot at stake for both countries in having the best relationship that we can have and that’s why this tweet is really deeply unhelpful, it’s obviously repugnant, and it is offensive and, you know, it would be in Australia and China’s interest to get this relationship to a very different place. This tweet doesn’t help.
GILBERT: Do you believe there are enough people of goodwill on both sides to get that relationship back on an even keel?
MARLES: Well, I think it’s a very difficult road ahead and as I say, what we’ve seen today with that tweet makes the road harder. But there is enough common interest in the sense of the geography that we share, the East Asian timezone, the trade we engage in to mean that it should be in the interests of both countries to get the relationship to a better place. And that’s what we need to be working towards. But the starting point is amends needs to be made by China for this tweet, it’s an outrageous event to have occurred.
GILBERT: Does the government share any responsibility in where that relationship is at right now, given the call for that inquiry? Should they have been more cautious in – in calling for COVID inquiry out there, the first to do so? Should they have had other nations with them before they did that?
MARLES: Look, wherever we’ve got to in the relationship up until this moment in time, I think on this day, it’s important to reflect how inappropriate how offensive this tweet is and it’s also appropriate for me and the Opposition to acknowledge that the way in which the government has handled this matter today has been absolutely correct. It’s really important that we speak out against this tweet. It obviously goes to a very sensitive issue that Australia has been handling with enormous care. It is absolutely right that the government should have called on China to both pull the tweet down and to apologise and we support the government in their actions today.
GILBERT: So you don’t want to have any navel gazing or reflecting on government performance to this point?
MARLES: Look, there’s a whole lot of time for us to be thinking about and working out how we get to a different relationship with China, how we reset this relationship-
GILBERT: Because most of those complaints you agree with in terms of Chinese complaints of Australian policy, the vast bulk of them, in fact, I would say all of them, to some degree Labor supports almost entirely, so it’s a bipartisan row now with China.
MARLES: Well, the point to make today is that this tweet was deeply inappropriate. The government has reacted exactly as it should have, in terms of calling it out and calling on China to make amends by apologising, and pulling the tweet down. There’s – there is a high degree of bipartisanship, in the way in which we handle this relationship, about the importance of speaking up for Australia’s national interests, about the importance of speaking up for human rights. This should be an issue about which there is bipartisanship. Now it’s a complicated issue, there’s a lot at stake, there’s a lot to talk about as we go forward and we’ve got plenty of time to do all of that. But on this day, in the face of this act on the part of China, it is very important that the country acts with the unanimity, and that’s what’s happening.
GILBERT: Should the CDF recommend to the Governor General the removal of the meritorious group citation for the Special Forces Task Group, as the CDF said he would, in his initial response to the Brereton report?
MARLES: Well it’s a very difficult and complex matter that has been – is being dealt with by the Brereton report in full. I think the Brereton report is an extraordinary piece of work, actually and again, I think it’s been handled with sensitivity at the level of Defence and the level of the government. In respect of that question specifically, the government’s made clear that it’s not made a decision in respect of that and if I understood the Prime Minister correctly, in his statement this afternoon, he said that the CDF will be clarifying the position in respect of this later. I think we should allow that to play out.
GILBERT: Can you understand why some families of those dead soldiers who were awarded this posthumously would be devastated to have to hand the medal back?
MARLES: Yeah, of course I can and that’s why, you know, it’s a very complex and sensitive matter. I think it’s important that time be taken to work through how this recommendation is moved forward. It seems to me, that’s what the government is doing in making it clear that they’ve not made any decisions yet, in respect of that. From the perspective of the Opposition, we want to give the government the space and the time to work that through because we acknowledge how-
GILBERT: Are you uncomfortable –
MARLES: Can I just say Kieran, I totally understand the sense that people who have fought with distinction on behalf of our nation in Afghanistan would feel in relation to this question about the Meritorious Unit Citation. But indeed, the whole gamut of what is dealt with in the Brereton report and in that respect, I think it’s important to acknowledge the Distinguished Service of those people, to make it clear that it would be a tragedy if our engagement with Afghanistan was simply seen through the prism of these allegations. I mean the allegations in respect of a few should not detract from the sacrifice of the many thousands of Australians who have contributed in such a distinguished way, in this conflict on behalf of the nation.
GILBERT: Well, using that principle, isn’t it then unfair to tarnish all of the Special Forces task group with – tar them in the same brush with those alleged to have carried out war crimes?
MARLES: Well, there is a process that the government has articulated in relation to this. But in relation to the other Distinguished Service medals, which go to Officers around reviewing them, I think it’s important that that process be allowed to play out. I mean, obviously, the allegations contained in the Brereton report are themselves completely appalling and it’s important as a nation that we’re facing up to this, but we are. That’s what the Brereton report is doing. It’s why I said that I actually think it is a remarkable piece of work and I hope that Australia, and I’m confident that Australia has the capacity to deal with this issue and to deal with the mistakes that have been made. Now we’ve got to acknowledge that that’s occurred and there are going to be implications in relation to this. The whole question in respect of awards and medals, you know, there is a process to go through. I understand why the report has gone there and its recommendations but we need to put – allow the time for this to play out and that’s what we think the government’s doing and that’s what we want to support.
GILBERT: Richard Marles, thanks talk to you soon.
MARLES: Thanks Kieran.