Labor says government must explain claim it called for Covid inquiry so it could make an announcement

Paul Karp
·4-min read
<span>Photograph: Mick Tsikas/AAP</span>
Photograph: Mick Tsikas/AAP

Penny Wong has accused the government of failing to consult Labor on foreign policy and demanded the foreign minister explain a report that the timing of Australia’s push for a Covid-19 inquiry was motivated by a desire to make an announcement.

The shadow foreign minister appeared on Insiders on Sunday, questioning the Coalition’s apparent lack of strategy on China and seeking a personal explanation from Marise Payne about one of the central grievances in the deteriorating relationship.

Labor is walking a fine line of supporting the substance of disagreements with China and acknowledging that China’s assertiveness is driving division, while criticising the Coalition’s failure to manage the fallout.

Related: Kevin Rudd says Scott Morrison's 'public relations eggbeater' is harming relationship with Beijing

Wong said Australia should assume “a more assertive and at times more aggressive” China but noted that the deteriorating relationship “hadn’t happened overnight”.

Asked if she was blaming the Coalition for the failure, she said it was an “obvious statement of fact” that they had been in power since 2013 – the same tenure as President Xi Jinping – “and we know what’s happened to the relationship” in that time.

“But I think in many ways the more important point is: what is the strategy?”

Rather than ask who is to blame, Wong argued the focus should be on a strategy for “how we deal with the effects for Australia and the region of a China which demonstrably is taking a very different stance towards us and towards the region”.

Wong noted that Australia was the country most economically dependent on China, and queried why the government appeared to blame exporters rather than develop an economic diversification strategy to help find alternate export markets.

Wong accused the government of pursuing “splashy headlines”, citing a report in the Sydney Morning Herald that Payne called for an inquiry into the origins of Covid-19 because she wanted to make an announcement on Insiders:

Wong said the allegation “diminishes [Payne] in the eyes of the international community and she should come on this program and explain [it]”.

“If we were in government, we would be focusing on the national interest.”

Wong’s critique echoes former prime minister Kevin Rudd’s warning that Morrison has put “a premium on domestic political messaging in Australia” while ignoring the impact on the China relationship.

Wong said Labor had offered an “enormous degree of bipartisanship” on China, including being “very clear in our unified condemnation” of an inflammatory tweet from a Chinese official featuring a depiction of alleged war crimes in Afghanistan – despite the fact the government had not consulted Labor before escalating its response.

“In diplomacy you always have to think about how you calibrate your response.

“It is a big call to go directly, escalate directly to the national leader, and I hope that Scott Morrison thought very carefully about that decision.

“I hope that he took advice and thought carefully before he did escalate it to the national leader level when we responded.”

Asked if the government should have consulted Labor, Wong replied it is “good practice” to engage the opposition when dealing with an “assertive and at times aggressive great power” like China.

She recalled that former foreign minister, Julie Bishop, on many occasions would call and “talk through how we would deal with particular issues”.

“I regret that doesn’t happen now,” she said.

Wong said she had written to Payne to discuss independent senator Rex Patrick’s proposed amendments for judicial review to be added to a Coalition bill to enable the foreign minister to cancel deals with foreign powers, but was yet to hear back.

Related: Forget the ridiculous tweet: Australia still needs to know the truth about Afghanistan

The legislation was another example of a “headlines-first approach”, Wong charged, arguing that it had been announced to deflect attention from bad press relating to the federal government’s handling of coronavirus outbreaks in aged care.

Labor supports the objectives of the legislation and has already passed it through the lower house, she said, despite the Morrison government running a “political argument through the media” against Victoria’s belt and road initiative deal with China.

Unlike the Andrews government, federal Labor opposed the deal but the new powers should be exercised “sensibly and calmly” with respect to it. “I don’t think it has been good to have the prime minister and others engaging in a public argument about this.”

Wong opposed calls to boycott the 2022 China Winter Olympics, suggesting instead Australia should attend and use it as an opportunity to highlight issues including human rights abuses.