SUBJECTS: China; Brereton Report.

TOM CONNELL, HOST: Joining me for more on this and a few other topics, Richard Marles, Deputy Labor Leader and the Shadow Defence Minister, thanks for your time.


CONNELL: It’s interesting re WeChat because this is something that Australian politicians use to try to communicate with the Chinese Australians here. It’s now being edited. Is this of concern and is there a role for our government here?

MARLES: It’s regrettable, there’s no doubt about that. We regard freedom of speech as a critical value of – an important value that we have in this country. And certainly, you know, consistent with that, we would want the opinions of people in politics to be able to be heard and judged by those who read them. So the idea that, in this circumstance, the Prime Minister’s tweet which, as I read it, is a pretty reasonable statement from our Prime Minister about the situation, both in respect of the Brereton report and the handling of that issue and the circumstances which are now evolving, I think it’s regrettable it’s been taken down.

CONNELL: Does it question whether we should allow WeChat? It’s previously described as a valuable way that Chinese Australians get their news. If it’s edited and the Australian Prime Minister can even post this, is that valuable? Or is that misinformation that becomes dangerous?

MARLES: Well, freedom of speech is fundamental to our society. The tweet was a reasonable tweet. More than that, it’s an important tweet and it should have been allowed to be viewed. I mean, WeChat is heavily used. So, I understand the question, but it is a platform which is extensively used by many Australians. But it’s really important that freedom of speech be central to the way in which social media, but all media, operates in the context of our society.

CONNELL: So, I guess the really direct question is, should there at least be a conversation about whether we allow WeChat in Australia?

MARLES: Well, I think the conversation needs to be about how we ensure that all forms of media in Australia live up to the expectations that Australia have-

CONNELL: But they won’t and WeChat won’t will it?

MARLES: Well, I think that’s the conversation that needs to be worked through.

CONNELL: But if it won’t, if it’s continued to be controlled by the Chinese Communist Party, which always has, is there a conversation about whether we allow it.

MARLES: I think, I do think the pulling down of the Prime Minister’s tweet is a significant moment. I do think that and I think that, you know, freedom of speech is fundamental to our society and it’s a core part of how we expect, you know, all forms of media –  including here – to operate, and you do. And so, you know, there does need to be a conversation about what this step means. In saying that, you know, I do acknowledge WeChat is heavily used by many, many Australians.

CONNELL: So, you’d be reluctant to talk about banning it?

MARLES: I think you need to hasten slowly with these issues. But I absolutely accept the significance of what’s occurred here and it’s very regrettable.

CONNELL: The relationship with China has broken down. How much blame should China get for that?

MARLES: Well, relationships have two parties in them, and China is one of them and certainly, in the last 48 hours, or since the tweet was posted by the Chinese official, I mean, the response from the Australian Government has been completely appropriate to that. So again, more than that, it’s what the Australian government needed to do. And we’ve been supporting that with total unity, in terms of the way in which the country needed to speak with a single voice in response to that intervention by that Chinese official. I mean, I’ve done a lot of foreign relations now over – since my time in Parliament, and I’ve never seen anything like that and I think it was important that Australia’s dignity and that our honour be maintained and expressed in this moment. I think the Prime Minister did that. It was important from the Opposition’s point of view that we support him in doing that, and that’s what we did.

CONNELL:  But you still had Anthony Albanese yesterday, harking back to what he sees is a broad failure from the Australian Government to manage this properly.

MARLES: Well, Australia is part of the relationship too and it’s the side of the relationship that we get to control. And so, it is the side of the relationship which rationally should involve the greatest degree of scrutiny from an Australian point of view, because it’s how we get to change things, it’s how we get to influence things. You know, I’ve had a position in respect of this for a long time now. And this time last year, earlier than that in fact, I was being criticised on the front page of The Australian for comments that I was making in relation to how the government might handle the relationship with China better. I think it’s important that we’re having that conversation in this country. That said, I think in respect of what occurred with the Chinese tweet this week, it was important that Australia respond to that with one voice, and we have and Labor has very much supported that.

CONNELL: Do you think and is there is some pause for thought here that having this tweet go out there and all the reaction since, Beijing hasn’t backed down at all-

MARLES:  No, they haven’t.

CONNELL: And then it hears Labor criticise the Australian Government for overall handling a relationship, overall handling of a relationship and they think; great, there’s a bit of a divide there, let’s keep pushing.

MARLES: It’s really important that this area of public policy, like all areas of public policy, has the kind of discourse and discussion which will see us do it to the best of our ability as a nation. And that’s what I’ve been trying to promote, that’s what Labor has been trying to promote for a very long time and we’ve been completely consistent about it. And you know, you asked the reasonable question about whose fault is it and I understand all that. I come back and I have been now for some time and making the point that wherever fault lies, the side of the relationship we get to control is Australia’s side. So that’s where we should focus and we need to be doing it to the best of our ability. And I’ve also made the point that, that given what China did, this week, there needed to be a response with a single voice from this country and we have supported that.

CONNELL: Well that’s the response that only lasted till yesterday, though, because you can still seize on those comments, broadly made though they were. I want to get to the specifics, Labor keeps mentioning that it’s the way the inquiry into COVID was called for. So Marise Payne called for an inquiry into COVID, before actually securing support, but then she got support a month later. When you go to China’s list of 14 grievances, it simply says, ‘call for an international independent inquiry into the COVID-19 virus, acted as a political manipulation, echoing the US attack on China’. It’s angry that we even called for an independent inquiry and indeed got one up. Labor agrees with that action, does it not overall, in the fact there will be an inquiry?

MARLES: It’s really important that we, as an international community, get to the bottom of how the Coronavirus began, I mean, we need to, so that we can be best placed to understand the science around that and understand how we can respond to events of this kind going forward. And so it was a critical global call, precisely because of how important it was it needed to be well thought through and well planned out and that’s the kind of points that we’ve been making in respect to this previously. I mean-

CONNELL:  It just feels like nit-picking when you agree with the inquiry, the Foreign Minister did the work behind the scenes to get support, including key allies, and so much support China voted for it. But it’s just the case that she went out a month early asking for it publicly in a measured way in an interview, apparently, is meaning that the relationship between China and Australia is sort of a bit of both to blame because of that one small element within a policy that you still agree with.

MARLES: Tom, well before that, as I said, last year, and earlier than that, I was making points about how I thought we could be managing this relationship in a better way. I don’t resile from-

CONNELL: It all goes to tone though doesn’t it, there’s no specific issue on policy?

MARLES: No, I think it is about being clear in articulating who we are as a people –

CONNELL: But tone and rhetoric and so on. There’s no policy the government has with China that you disagree with, is there?

MARLES:  If I can just finish. Foreign relations is about first and foremost, about understanding our national interest and understanding what we stand for as a people and being prepared to go out there and articulate that without fear or favour. That’s the first thing. And then the second is about making sure that we have a set of guiding principles in terms of how we seek to relate with all the countries that we do, and particularly a country as important as China. That’s the point that I’ve been making, it’s actually a really significant point. And then it’s about making sure that you carry through the diplomacy in respect of that and that’s about having the best set of relationships that you can possibly have. Now, I mean, I’ve been making that point for a long time, as has Penny Wong, as has Labor. I actually think that’s a reasonable discourse for Labor to engage in and it hasn’t been just in the last couple of days, it’s been over a very long period of time, and it pre-dated the call in respect of the origins of the coronavirus. But I also make this point Tom, in respect of this week, because there’s a time and place for all of this discussion –
In respect of this week, the most important point is for us to be speaking with unity in response to that tweet that came out from the Chinese Government –


MARLES: We have done that and all the comments that Anthony Albanese has been making-

CONNELL: Alright.

MARLES: And everybody else, we’ve been supporting the Prime Minister in his response to it, which was really important.

CONNELL: Okay, just finally, some crossbench calls for the Chief of the Defence Force to resign in the wake of the Afghanistan- well, the allegations of war crimes there –  that he was head of the entire, in charge of the deployment from 2011 for a year, must have known something, was how Jacqui Lambie phrased it. What do you make of this call?

MARLES: Well, I completely disagree with that. I think General Campbell has been exemplary in his entire service in the Defence Force and has been a fantastic Chief of the Defence Force and I think he’s been handling this matter with enormous sensitivity and with a great deal of compassion. I, you know, I don’t think that call helps at all. It is a difficult issue. It needs to be worked through with that sensitivity and I’ve got complete confidence in General Campbell.

CONNELL: Do you get a sense he was forced to change his mind on these citations being taken away?

MARLES: The particular issue in respect to the Meritorious Unit Citation itself is complex. I think the government and General Campbell and Defence are right to take a pause in respect of this. The disposition of the government and Labor and I think Defence has been to see the recommendations of the Brereton report be implemented in full. How exactly that is done, you know, needs some careful thought and particularly when it comes to this recommendation-

CONNELL: You’re not worried about political pressure from his first comment and then this statement?

MARLES: It’s very important that there is not political pressure. But I also acknowledge that at the end of the day, the government needs to own the management of the Defence Force and this issue and the way in which these recommendations are ultimately carried through so they’ve got a right to express their view. It’s important they do actually in terms of how these recommendations are carried through and I understand their disposition, which is one we agree with, is to see the recommendations implemented in full. But the specifics of the Meritorious Unit Citation, it is complex, I get the recommendation. I also get a feeling you know, for the thousands of Australians who have served with distinction, who have done nothing wrong here that something is being unfairly taken from them. So exactly how that’s managed and worked through, I think, needs to be thought through very carefully and that’s I think what Defence is doing, or General Campbell is doing.

CONNELL:  Richard Marles, appreciate your time today. Thank you.

MARLES: Thanks, Tom.


Authorised by Paul Erickson, ALP, Canberra.

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