ABC News Interview: Weekend Breakfast: Dutton China Comments, Pacific Nations Relations, COAG Treasurers’ Forum



SUBJECTS: Peter Dutton’s China Comments, Relations with Pacific Nations, COAG Treasurer’s meeting   

JOSH SZEPS, HOST: It’s time now for our Pollie Panel. And we’ll continue investigating China’s reaction to Peter Dutton’s comments on Chinese interference, as well as catching up on the Prime Minister’s visit to Fiji. And also the meeting of State and Territory Treasurers yesterday. Joining us to discuss all that and more is Liberal Senator Eric Abetz and Labor MP Peter Khalil. Thanks to both of you for being here. Senator Abetz, is Peter Dutton being tactful there? 

SENATOR ERIC ABETZ:  Peter Dutton is speaking as Australians would want him to speak. We have a good trading relationship with China. We don’t have an argument with the Chinese people, but we do have an argument from time to time with the Chinese Communist dictatorship, which has had issues of foreign interference. Might I add not only in Australia, but in other countries as well. And in those circumstances, it’s right and proper for Australia to indicate not only to the Chinese Communist Party but to the world, and those that support freedom, democracy and rule of law in China, that we are actually on the side of those people that are seeking freedom, seeking democracy, seeking the rule of law, and we would encourage China and, indeed, every other country to extend freedoms to their people. Because beating inside everybody’s chest, irrespective of their ethnicity, is the desire for freedom, personal liberty, rule of law, democracy, all those things that we enjoy in Australia, sometimes take for granted. But we have a duty to defend those fundamental, universal, innate, God-given rights.  

SZEPSYou’re almost making me teary. That’s an inspiring depiction of Australian democracy, Senator! But isn’t that taken for granted? I think there is no ambiguity about Australia’s long tradition of democracy and our respect for human rights. We are obviously on that side of, I suppose, the Western Hemisphere, if you will. Why do you have to poke China in the eye, stand up and announce it instead of making it implicit? 

ABETZBecause China, – and when I say China, I mean the Chinese Communist Government – is interfering domestically, as it is in other countries. And I think the 1 million Uyghurs that are currently in the re-education camps, the Christians that are facing more persecution, I think we owe it to them to say that, yes, there are people around the world that support your right to liberty, your right to freedom, your right to practice your religion. And we have a duty to encourage them, provide them against an oppressive communist regime. That said, of course, we can continue to trade with them. And that is one side of the debate. But when the communist regime in China has refused to engage in a human rights dialogue with us now for some four or five years, despite the fact that’s part of the agreement between Australia and China, you know that something has been going on in recent times, and I don’t think it’s for the benefit of the Chinese people. And, indeed, we have a duty to speak out for freedom, for liberty, all those things that the vast bulk of us take for granted. 

FAUZIAH IBRAHIM, HOSTPeter Khalil, if we could bring you into the conversation here, I found it interesting that the Home Affairs Minister made a clear distinction that his argument was with the Chinese Communist Party and not with the Chinese community in Australia. Do you think that was enough to reassure Chinese Australians? 

PETER KHALIL, MPWell, thanks, Fauziah. I think the problem I have – if only the Coalition was as consistent as Senator Abetz right throughout their term in government. Because you’ve got, whether it’s Peter Dutton clumsily talking tough, kind of like Frankenstein’s monster bellowing out his talking points, and as you said, Josh, poking him in the eye. Or whether you’ve got Scott Morrison, the Prime Minister, putting his arm around Gladys Liu and claiming that because we asked legitimate questions of a member of Parliament about her views on the South China Sea, international law, the right of protesters in Hong Kong – which Eric Abetz just referred to – and by even asking those questions, somehow we’re antagonising 1.2 million ethnic Chinese Australians. Or whether you’ve got Malcolm Turnbull, the previous prime minister, who I said was kind of like the Basil Fawlty of foreign affairs. One moment he’s best friends, one moment he’s talking tough. They’ve botched this relationship. There’s something called diplomacy, diplomatic language. I wish there were more adults in the Coalition party room and Government. Fundamentally, what we’re talking about here, and Eric mentioned this, China is one of our most important trading partners. 30% of our exports go to China. We absolutely should stand up and speak for human rights and for the rule of law and for an independent judiciary. I’ve spoken up for Hong Kong protesters and their freedom of expression in the media for the last couple of months. But you’ve gotta do it in a way that understands what is Australia’s national interest. Because in the next part of this century, the next 50-60 years, Australian governments, Australian leaders, are going to have to be able to balance our two most important relationships: Our security and strategic alliance with the US, and our economic relationship with China. Those two superpowers that are so important for us. And it’s about making sure that we get the best out of those, both of those relationships for our national interests. And, frankly, this Coalition Government has absolutely botched the relationship with China because there’s one common thread, Josh, I’ve just gotta say this. With all of those leaders that I’ve mentioned, and that is they’re saying these things for domestic political point-scoring, not for Australia’s national interests. Because Peter Dutton wants to look tough for his base, you know. Scott Morrison wants to look like he’s defending Chinese Australians. They’re doing it for domestic reasons. 

SZEPSPeter, I take your point. Excuse my interruption. The problem here is a tactical one, a diplomatic one, not with the content of what Peter Dutton actually said? You agree with the content? 

KHALILOh, there are issues with respect to our relationship with China, and I’ve spoken in public, just as Eric has, about them. Whether it’s political interference in our universities, whether it’s interference with respect to our political system, whether it’s standing up to talk about human rights for Uyghurs in China or the right of the people of Hong Kong to protest peacefully in their semiautonomous system of governance. We should be able to freely express those views because we are a democracy. And as democratic leaders, if we don’t speak up for democratic rights, who will? So, I absolutely think that’s necessary. But what I’m saying is there is a way of being diplomatic about this and not using the relationship with China to score domestic political points, and look like the big tough guy in the room, which is exactly what Peter Dutton is doing. 

ABETZOK, well, on that point… Peter, Neville Chamberlain knew how to talk the language of diplomacy, took people like Winston Churchill to cut through and call it out for what it is. 

IBRAHIMSenator, we’re going to have to move on. Peter, on that point of diplomacy, we’ve had rugby diplomacy. We’ve got the Prime Minister in Fiji, taking two rugby teams with him to try to repair the rather testy relations between Australia and so on Fiji. Do you think it’s too little, too late?  

KHALIL: There’s a bit of too little, too late. My criticism of the Coalition Government’s Pacific strategy, if you want to call it that, for want of a better term, is they have largely ignored the Pacific. We’re talking about development aid being cut by $11 billion. That is just not good enough. And obviously they’re being outplayed by China and other countries in the region. Eric is gonna be shocked by this. Credit where credit is due. Rugby league is an important thing for Fijians and Pacific Islanders. Something good in sports diplomacy, doubling imports of Kava, fine, great. Even the announcement of Australian defence forces and Fijian defence forces being part of a peacekeeping mission in southern Syria is an important step in the relationship. But he’s actually hiding and burying his head in the sand from the two big things. That is the issue around China and the fact that they’re building all the roads and networks in Fiji and other Pacific islands, and debt trap diplomacy. And the other big thing that’s missing in this is climate change. Because Pacific Island leaders and nations are on the front line and Scott Morrison refuses to even raise it as a major issue in his meetings there. There’s a real gap there, as far as I’m concerned, about what they’re doing with our Pacific Island neighbours. 

SZEPS: Senator Abetz, that is the elephant in the room. Nations say, fundamentally, until Australia gets serious about tackling climate change, which they regard as an existential threat to their nations’ existence, that everything else is putting lipstick on a pig? 

ABETZ: Look, I don’t agree with that assessment. We’ve had a very good relationship with the Pacific Islands, be it in areas from fisheries to diplomacy. We have had Pacific Island ministers, in fact, from previous Labor governments and with the current Liberal government in its three terms, and we seek to build on that relationship. We focus on the Pacific Islands as being a very important strategic, strategically, because we want nation states in the Pacific Islands that are able to cope with all the domestic issues. And, look, financially, it would be exceptionally difficult for us to compete with China’s bankrolling of infrastructure. And former minister Concetta Fierravanti-Wells called some of this out, where white elephants are being built in the Pacific Islands, putting them into a debt trap. And that is, can I say, THE issue that will confront the Pacific Island nations in the future. And that is why the Prime Minister is so right to continue with his diplomacy in the Pacific Islands. And there is nothing better to combine two peoples than friendly sportsmanship. And that is why this rugby diplomacy, I think, is a very good move. 

KHALIL: Then why have you cut foreign aid by $11 billion? Why has the Prime Minister’s own policy for Pacific loan facilities not dispersed $1 in the last 12 months since it was established? It’s all very well to make these talking points. But the fact is the Pacific Island leaders will tell you – and they’ve said it publicly – that there has been a real failure here on the part of Australia. And it is a bit too little, too late to jump in and have a rugby league game and shake hands and slap backs. There’s got to be substance to the relationship. And this has been ignored for too long. And when you don’t make the real substantive commitments, then the relationships suffer. 

ABETZ: Well, we cannot compete financially with China in relation to cuts to… Well… At least…Let the senator answer, please, Peter? Can I finish? The so-called cuts to foreign aid, just remember the legacy of debt and deficit that we were left with. And if we would have continued with the funding that you’re suggesting, the Australian people would be faced with an even greater legacy of debt and deficit that the next generation needs to pay back. So, just keep in mind that the profligacy of previous Labor government has consequences down the track. The consequences are there is now not as much money for foreign aid as there used to be, because we have this debt and deficit legacy… 

KHALIL: What a charade. Seriously, if you really want to address debt and deficit, you were in debt for the last couple of years. And you were in deficit. Why don’t you make corporates pay their fair share of tax and multinationals? 

ABETZ: We do. 

SZEPS: We’re not going to talk about corporate tax rates, because I want to get your thoughts about other news this week, which is the meeting of state treasurers with the Federal Treasurer. Basically, look, the state treasurers, in particular the treasurer of New South Wales and Victoria, went to Josh Frydenberg and said, “Our economies are slowing. We can’t do all of this by ourselves. You’ve got to have some federal assistance for infrastructure. Let’s put together some sort of a program that can put some juice into the economies of these big states.” And Frydenberg basically said, “No. ” Is that right, Senator? 

ABETZ: No. Look, we have a 10-year plan, with $100 billion of infrastructure spending, and it’s not often that I find common cause with the Queensland Labor Government, but on this occasion I do. They’ve come on board immediately, identifying projects that will be of benefit to the Queensland people. And I would encourage the other states to do the same. Because if we were cooperatively, as state and federal governments, in rolling out the infrastructure, not only will it be a good economic boost, if will also be a good lifestyle boost for many, many thousands, if not millions, of Australians, who spend too much time on the road, getting to and from work, not being able to visit friends and neighbours as they quickly as they otherwise might want to because of the infrastructure deficit. It was some six years ago that Tony Abbott himself said that he wanted to be known as the infrastructure prime minister. We had a bit of a hiatus, but the Morrison Government is now fully focused yet again on ensuring that we have the infrastructure that is so needed, so vital, and we are seeking to deliver that in cooperation with the states. And Queensland’s come on board. It’s time for the other states to do the same. 

IBRAHIMPeter, just very quickly, a quick reply from you? 

KHALIL: Well, where do I start? A 10-year plan? That says it all, doesn’t it? I mean, in order to have their confected surplus, which is based, by the way, on not actually funding the NDIS properly, raising funds on robo-debt, and pushing out infrastructure spending well beyond the forward estimates so no-one can see it impact their confected surplus. The fakery is unbelievable. These state treasurers and state governments have been asking the Government to bring forward infrastructure. They have been piling on with this, and then Josh Frydenberg goes to the COAG meeting, kind of like a little Santa Claus and says, “Ho, ho, ho, everyone, give me your wish list. Tell me what you want me to fund.” We have been telling them for a year. Scott Morrison wrote to them a while ago. I mean, Seriously, Eric, do you really believe? Does anyone out there watching believe a 10-year plan on infrastructure? Why don’t you bring the infrastructure spending forward? Why don’t you do small infrastructure projects? Things that can go up straight away. Maintenance. These are things that can be done now. You don’t want to do it, because you don’t want to jeopardise your confected surplus. So Josh can get up and go, “Look at me. I’ve got a surplus.”  

IBRAHIM: Unfortunately, gentlemen, we’ve got to leave it there. We are running out of time. Thank you so much for your time, Liberal Senator Eric Abetz and Labor MP Peter Khalil.