ABC News Interview: Afternoon Briefing: Morrison and Trump, Hong Kong Protests, China’s Economy



SUBJECTS: Scott Morrison’s Conversation with Donald Trump, Hong Kong Protests, China’s Economic Status  

PATRICIA KARVELAS, HOST: I want to bring in my political panel now, Dave Sharma and Peter.  You’ve been in this position before. In your view, did Alexander Downer do the right thing? 

DAVE SHARMA, MP: Absolutely. Undoubtedly. He reported back a conversation which on the face of it raised some concerns back to Canberra. And that’s what you’d always do as an Ambassador. He left it to them to investigate and pass on the information as they saw fit to the US and that’s how these things should and do normally work.  

KARVELAS: If you were in the same position you’d have done the same thing?  

SHARMA: Absolutely. 

KARVELAS: OK. In the US you know they’re a key ally and are very concerned about it – the Trump campaign and the people around Trump – that it was inappropriate and he’s being, you’ve seen the stuff online, he’s being depicted… this is Alexander Downer… As some kind of, someone who is running interference for Hillary Clinton. What do you make of those claims? 

SHARMA: I’d say first of all as far as I’m aware they’re not coming from official parts of the US Government, people in the commentariat and spectators and what not. The idea that Alexander Downer, who I worked for for two years when he was the Foreign Minister, is part of a deep state, anti-Trump conspiracy, is laughable. He has very good relationships in Washington and including with past Republican administrations. I think he passed on a conversation. The FBI investigated it. I think the Trump supporters’ ire is more directed at what prompted this investigation to begin and the FBI. That’s the subject of these investigations. Alexander Downer, he was just a messenger.  

KARVELAS: Peter Khalil, The US is an ally that was asking for help. How could Australia have said no? The PM actually put it this way and said it would have been more extraordinary if Australia had said no. 

PETER KHALIL, MP: It’s interesting. Just before I answer that, you’ll find it strange I’m agreeing with Dave Sharma, I think… The diplomatic work Downer did, he did what he was supposed to do which was to report conversations. I have an issue with Scott Morrison because he should be acting as PM and acting in Australia’s national interest, not to try and be good mates with Donald Trump. That’s the problem. With respect to your question about releasing or helping when there’s a request for help, what we’re talking about here is a request for help to investigate the origins of an investigation. It’s political. And so I think there’s, it’s really problematic because the reason we’ve had such a good relationship with the US and the alliance has worked so well, is that whether you’re Republican or Democrat, Labor or Liberal, we have not intervened in each other’s domestic politics and kept out of that and maintained good relations regardless of which side of the aisle you might be on in any particular administration. And the job of Scott Morrison is to actually act in Australia’s national interests and put that first. As a by-product he can have a good relationship with the President whoever that may be. The first and foremost thing for me, the primary objective is to act in Australia’s national interests. He has questions he has to answer. What did he agree to? What was he asked? He needs to release the full transcript. 

KARVELAS: Should he release the full transcript? Is Australia being dragged into a domestic political debate?  

SHARMA: As a former ambassador and diplomat, I advised in and sat in on sat in on a large number of conversations and it’s not unusual and I think as the PM said, I’d agree with him, it would be unusual if we were to refuse a routine request. The extent of our cooperation and how much assistance we provide will always be determined by our own national interests and I think the PM flagged some things we wouldn’t be likely to do in the course of this. But to point-blank refuse to assist in an investigation would in itself politicising the relationship. I disagree with Peter there. 

KHALIL: Sorry to interrupt. I do disagree with Dave there. It’s not a routine request to assist in a normal investigation. There is a political element. A very heavy political element. This is an investigation into the Mueller investigation which was established by the FBI and the Department of Justice.  

SHARMA: You’re asking us to look behind the motive of every investigation. 

KHALIL: I don’t think you need to look pretty deep. It’s pretty obvious what it is. 

KARVELAS: I want to put it to you, if it had have been a Labor PM, what would happen? 

KHALIL: If I was advising him I think the correct course of action would have been to say, “Thank you very much. We’ll talk to our lawyers and see what we can do.” Simple as that.  

KARVELAS: What does it mean? 

KHALIL: We don’t know what Morrison said. This is the whole point. He is not telling and not being straight with the Australian people about what he agreed to do on behalf of President Trump in a very political action or initiative, if you like. And he needs to front up on that. I think the correct course of action would have been to say, “We’ll come back to you. We will have a look at this through our lawyers and determine if it’s the correct course of action for us and if it’s in our national interest.”  

KARVELAS: There is something that the PM said that piqued my interest. He said it’s highly unlikely Australia will provide DFAT cables where Alexander Downer outlined this conversation with George Papadopoulos. Do you think those diplomatic cables should be kept secret and not shared with the US? 

SHARMA: I’m not going to get into what we do and don’t provide but the normal course of events is confidential and classified communications between, within government, effectively. This is a high commissioner reporting back to his own government. This is advice to our government. It would not be something in the normal course of events we would share with foreign governments and I expect that principle would guide us in this case as well. 

KARVELAS: Would it be your view against our national interests to break that rule? 

SHARMA: Look, I don’t know what was in the cable. I haven’t seen it. I’ll leave it to the national security committee of cabinet and the government. Just to jump out here, I think the gist of what George Papadopoulos is alleged to have told Alexander Downer is quite widely known. There’s a whole lot of smoke being kicked up here. What are we going to tell the US? Alexander Downer had a conversation with George Papadopoulos. You know all about it. End of story. I know Labor keeps trying to embroil us in this story. This is an internal US matter and it\’s a matter for them to resolve. We’re not a part of it.  

KARVELAS: Peter, the final word?  

KHALIL: A quick point about that. We’re not trying to embroil you into this. Your own ambassador Joe Hockey wrote to the administration, offering help. The PM had a conversation where it seems, we don’t know, that he said he would do everything he can to assist and cooperate, in a matter which is very political and an investigation into the Mueller investigation. And when we say, not interfering in each other’s domestic politics, it just looks a bit dicey when the PM is going to a political rally in Ohio, instead of going to the UN climate conference.  

KARVELAS: Just very briefly, I would have liked to give it more time. But the PM has gone on Sky and spoken this afternoon on Sky News. I’ve been trying to address the many things he said. Just on what we’ve seen in China and some interesting things we’ve heard from the PM, he says on China it’s a big developed nation. Do you regard China as a big developed nation now?  

SHARMA: Look, I think their weight in world affairs has increased by orders of magnitude, in the last 20 years. They’ve gone from 2% of the global economy to 16%. They’re now the world’s largest manufacturer, the world’s second largest military spender, the world’s largest of any number of minerals and raw materials. It’s natural China’s actions have a much bigger impacts on the world system and it’s natural we expect their behaviour will change with the high level of maturity. How you classify them and what rules apply to them is a matter for negotiation. I think we need to recognise that as the baseline reality here. 

KARVELAS: Peter, the Labor Party has taken a different line on China to the Government. Are you concerned about what we were seeing in Hong Kong, that there has been police brutality? 

KHALIL: Without doubt. If anyone watching the news or seeing some of these reports come through, there was a protester shot in the chest at close range. The police, one of the demands by the way of the protesters is an inquiry. An independent inquiry into the tactics of the police throughout the three months of protests. I’ve been on the public record very, very clearly and the media saying we should be standing up for the right of peaceful protests, for the people of Hong Kong. They are protesting for their democratic freedoms, for their rights around the rule of law, universal suffrage which was part of the basic law. And we should be standing up and supporting it and standing by them on this. If we don’t as democratic leaders in democracies, who will do that? So, yes, I’m very, very concerned. Just to the point about the PM in China, I’ve got to say, again, being critical of the PM, his job is to actually advance Australia’s national interest. What he should have been doing, instead of all the hoopla and stuff at rallies and whatever with President Trump, is trying to convince President Trump with whatever influence he has, to actually convince Trump to end the trade war with China because it’s in our interests for that not to go on any further as a trading nation which is so dependent on international trade. 

KARVELAS: Dave Sharma, I would like to hear your views on the protests we’ve seen in Hong Kong. I imagine you’re disturbed by what you’ve seen? 

SHARMA: I am disturbed. And I do believe that the demand of some of the protesters for an independent inquiry into police actions during the course of this protest is a legitimate one and should be one that’s considered by the Hong Kong administration. I think my overriding view here is that there’s a legitimate right to peaceful protests. At times some of these protests have veered off the peaceful path and the police responses to these protests have been a little ill disciplined. The most important thing is Hong Kong institutions resolve these disputes and these challenges. If we want to preserve – and we do – Hong Kong’s unique status, we need to make sure these issues are resolved within Hong Kong’s own structures. 

KARVELAS: I want to thank you both for coming on the show. You both regularly do it. I appreciate your time.