The Director’s Chair: Penny Wong on politics, China, and the job of Foreign Minister
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The Director’s Chair: Penny Wong on politics, China, and the job of Foreign Minister

In this episode of The Director’s Chair, Michael Fullilove speaks with Senator Penny Wong, the Shadow Foreign Minister and Leader of the Opposition in the Senate.

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In this episode of The Director’s Chair, Michael Fullilove speaks with Senator Penny Wong, the Shadow Foreign Minister and Leader of the Opposition in the Senate. Penny was elected to the Senate in 2001 and was appointed to Shadow Cabinet in 2005. She served as Climate Change Minister between 2007 and 2010 and as Finance Minister between 2010 and 2013.

Michael and Penny discuss the politics of climate change in Australia, the AUKUS pact, and the findings of the Lowy Institute’s Diplomat Database. Penny reflects on her upbringing, Labor’s priorities for the region, and the current state of the Australia-China relationship.



Michael Fullilove: Welcome to The Director's Chair. My name is Michael Fullilove and I'm the Executive Director of the Lowy Institute. On The Director's Chair. I speak with political leaders and policymakers about their lives, their careers and their views on the world. For the final episode of The Director's Chair for 2021, I'm delighted to be speaking with Australia's shadow Foreign Minister Senator Penny Wong. Penny was born in Kota Kinabalu, Malaysia, and she moved to Adelaide as a child. She studied Law at the University of Adelaide where she became involved with the campus Labor Club. After she graduated, she practiced law. And then she went into politics. She was elected to the Senate in 2001. And, four years later, she was appointed to the Shadow Cabinet. Between 2007 and 2010, Penny served as the Climate Change Minister, and between 2010 and 2013 she served as Finance Minister. Penny is currently the Leader of the Opposition in the Senate and the shadow Foreign Minister. Thank you, Penny Wong for joining me from quarantine in Adelaide for The Director's Chair.

Penny Wong: It's good to be with you, Michael. Thanks for the opportunity.

Michael Fullilove: So Penny, you were born in KK in Malaysia, you moved to Adelaide at the age of eight, I think. What were your early experiences of Australia?

Penny Wong: it was cold. I remember the first winter, I'd never sort of experienced cold - over months. I remember that, and I remember being very sad about the food at the time. I did have a difficult kind of integration into Australia. The school I went to, I was the first Asian most of those kids had ever seen. And you know, it was a difficult experience, but probably quite formative.

Michael Fullilove: You originally went to Adelaide University to study medicine. What was that all about? And why did you shift over to law?

Penny Wong: When I got into medicine, because I did maths, physics, chemistry in year 12, which is what good Chinese girls do, and got a place in Adelaide Uni medicine, I went overseas and did a student exchange scholarship to Brazil and decided - I did some sort of community work there, including some in some hospitals - and I decided that I really didn't like the sight of blood. So I came back. And in fact, I studies arts for a couple of years before I decided to do law, and then ended up doing a combined degree.

Michael Fullilove: But the sight of blood didn't put you off politics. Penny?

Penny Wong: You know, every time I say that, that's what people say.

Michael Fullilove: Tell me about that decision though. As I understand you got involved in Labor politics, when you were at university. When and why did you decide you wanted to have a life in politics?

Penny Wong: Although I was younger, reasonably young when I was first elected, my decision to stand for pre-selection wasn't something that I decided as a young person and kept focusing on it. In fact, I did question for some time whether or not you could make a difference in politics. And I actually went interstate rather than pursue a state parliamentary opportunity that had been tossed around. And I worked in New South Wales for a while and then ended up getting a job with the incoming Carr government. And I guess the question for me was, can you make a difference? And that experience instilled in me a pretty clear belief that who was in the room mattered. And, I decided I wanted to be someone in the room. And so that's when I came back to Adelaide and decided to stand for preselection.

Michael Fullilove: So in 2001, you were elected to the Senate. How did the reality of politics live up to how you imagined it to be? I mean, it is a tough and unforgiving world of branch meetings and airport lounges and early mornings and all that time in Parliament House. How did you find it when you first went into politics?

Penny Wong: I think I've described the experience of being in Parliament Houses as being on a spaceship. I remember one night, there was this enormous storm in Canberra, and we'd been sitting and I, I'd been doing stuff in the chamber or in committees and I hadn't really noticed the storm. And we're driving home and there were branches all over the road and the bloke who was driving me home said, I said I what's happened, he said, there's been this massive storm and I thought it's like a metaphor for how Parliament House can be - we were so abstracted from it, I didn't notice. I think politics has become much harder. I mean, if you look at democracies everywhere, that's the case. There are many more pressures on our democratic processes and our democratic institutions. Some of those are about the people in them, and the observation or lack of observation of democratic conventions, which are so important to the functioning of democracy. Some of those pressures arise from the media environment and the fragmentation of the way in which people get their information. And I think all of those things have meant that one of the preconditions of democracy - which is that we have agreed facts around which we can then contest policy - is no longer the case. So we are in a world where facts themselves are disputed, facts themselves are undermined. We see a lot more misinformation and disinformation. And I think that actually puts a deal of pressure on our democratic system. It's something we all have to deal with.

Michael Fullilove: You say you think politics is getting harder. Is it the kind of vocation you would recommend to your daughters or their friends, for example?

Penny Wong: That's a tough question. She didn't remember one time, my eldest daughter when she was younger, we were in a non-sitting week, she and Sophie were in Canberra. And I asked if they could let us into the chamber so she could just see where I worked. And so she was in the chamber, and I said, Oh, this is, this is where Ma sits, this is where I give speeches. And she looked at me, she said, when I'm older, I'm going to talk here, I'm going to wear a suit. And I'm going to talk here, and I said, No, no, no, no, no, no, don't do this - do something else!

Michael Fullilove: You succeed early in politics. In 2007, Mr Rudd, is elected as Prime Minister and you become the Climate Change Minister. There's an enormous amount of optimism about the way that that issue is developing, and the changes that the Rudd Government usher in. Let me ask you a kind of a long term question, if I can - it does seem to me that a generation or two ago, Australia might have led the world in finding market-based solutions to the problem of reducing emissions. We used to be very good at solving those kinds of problems. It hasn't been like that over the last decade or two. And in fact, climate change has broken prime ministers and opposition leaders on both sides of politics, it's gone close to breaking our politics, I would say. Why has this issue proved so insoluble for our country?

Penny Wong: I think it's less than we've gotten less good at solving problems. We know what the solutions are. It's become much, much harder to deliver them. And there are many factors which have driven that. One of them is the decision by parts of our politics to be prepared to engage in fear campaigns, scare campaigns, personal and vindictive campaigns, in a way that is - really, has, I think, become quite poisonous. And you might recall that I in fact, got a deal with Malcolm Turnbull when he was opposition leader, and I was Climate Minister on a carbon price. And what that - what ensued then, as you referenced is Barnaby Joyce, and others, topping him as leader whilst the bill was being debated in the parliament. And in fact we were so close to getting a bipartisan vote on climate policy, which would have said Australia up. That is instructive, because what it reminds us is when small groups of people are prepared to say and do anything, in order to obstruct and destroy the prospect of change, change is very hard to implement. So my greatest learning out of that whole experience of climate - and I think these last decade and a half, as you point out, which is so broken, - in terms of a policy outcome, and in terms of an outcome for the future of the country - is that we have to remember how hard change is and we have to be prepared to work together in order to give effect to that change. So part of the challenge was, we had the Greens voting with Barnaby Joyce, on the carbon price. We had the business groups walking away, over the subsequent years, from sensible economic policy on climate. And I think the reminder is, you have to build a coalition for change. Just as Joe Biden had to build a coalition to change the Presidency. And people have to be prepared to work together to achieve that. So my one message is always to people who want action on climate, you have to change the government - because this government is never going to act on climate in any way that is real.

Michael Fullilove: We'll come to this government in a minute. But after the 2010 election, you became the Minister for Finance and Deregulation. And at that point, the world was still recovering - getting over - the global financial crisis. What lessons did you draw from the GFC?

Penny Wong: Well, I learnt a lot about the role of government and the importance of sensible, informed economic policy. I learnt in a very real way that politics and budgeting are all about counterfactuals. You're never choosing between, or rarely choosing between, one great option and one bad option. You're usually choosing between a range of options that you have to determine which is most optimal. So  those were important lessons, I think.

Michael Fullilove: You've been Shadow Minister for Foreign Affairs since 2016, Penny. What's the biggest area of difference between Labor and the Coalition on foreign policy at the moment?

Penny Wong: Perhaps we start with where we are together, like what we share. I think we share an assessment or an understanding that, as I've said, this is the most difficult time in Australian foreign policy since the end of World War Two. I think we face more difficult and uncertain external circumstances than we faced at the end of the war. We also understand, I think, both parties of government understand the implications of China's increasingly assertive, at times aggressive, behaviour, and the changes in the relative position between the US and China and that we are in an era of strategic competition. Where we differ is how we would approach that. And I think the fundamental problem that we have, and it's been on display over the diplomatic spat, diplomatic rift that we've seen between the French and Mr. Morrison, and what has occurred in terms of the public comments of President Biden. The difference is: we would not seek to prioritize domestic politics over Australia's foreign policy interests. And I think time and again, this Prime Minister, Scott Morrison has demonstrated a willingness to do so. And we can point to the precipitous announcement about the move of the embassy to Jerusalem during a by-election. And we can point, more recently, to the government doing two things which I thought were extraordinary: one was the release of private text messages between the French President and Mr. Morrison, but also - and this got less publicity, but I think is as important - a National Security Council document being shown to a journalist in order to undermine the public comments of President Biden. Now, I think those things demonstrate a willingness to do enormous damage to Australia's relationships and our standing in the world as a trusted partner, all because Mr. Morrison was putting his personal interests first.

Michael Fullilove: Let me ask you, if Labor wins, you would be the Foreign Minister, what kind of foreign minister would you like to be, Penny? And is there a former foreign minister whom you would regard as a model?

Penny Wong: Well, I think on the first question, one of the things that I would identify as my priorities, I think the first is, I think the role of Foreign Minister is to project Australia to the world or explain Australia to the world and also to explain the world to Australia. And on that, I think I would want to be working to project an identity of Australia that is modern Australia, in all our multicultural diversity, and an Australia that is proud of and reconciling with its First Nations peoples. I think we don't express the full gamut of modern Australia in how we project into the region and the world. And I think that's to our detriment. Secondly, the approach I'd take is the one I've expressed to you previously, which is we take the world as it is, but we seek to shape it for the better. And that is, I think, the Labor tradition. And that is central, I think, to how you have to think about what foreign policy. And the third is, I would be instinctively focused on the region, in part because of who I am. And in part because I think the security within our region - particularly at a time of escalating competition between the great powers - is even more of an imperative for the nation. In terms of who, who do I look to as I suppose professional role models? Obviously, Gareth Evans is a great former Labor foreign minister and who was an activist and he brought an energy and an intellectual rigor to his diplomacy and to his work. Offshore, the person not a foreign minister, but an international leader, the person I would look to would be Angela Merkel. I think she's someone who's principled and tough and professional, and has demonstrated leadership in difficult times, and held the course calmly and resolutely, and at times bluntly. That's a real example of leadership.

Michael Fullilove: What about Mr. Albanese? What kind of foreign policymaker do you think he would be as prime minister? How would you divide the workload between the two of you - and what would be the main themes that he would focus on as prime minister, do you think?

Penny Wong: Look, I think Albo is in many ways a Labor traditionalist on foreign policy. And he talks very much in those terms: the alliance, the region, and multilateralism. And that is how he thinks about foreign policy and how we operate in the world. I think in terms of his personal attributes, he's a man of integrity, and he is somebody whose word you can trust. And that is what he would bring to his personal relationships with other leaders - that authenticity and that trustworthiness. I think also he is somebody who understands the importance of the national interest. It's an overused phrase, but it is, I think, important for politicians to remember when you're in this role, particularly in roles which go to Australia's national security or Australia's foreign policy, that you have to look first to what you think is the national interest, and you have to be prepared to put domestic politics aside in pursuit of the national interest. He's also somebody who is - he's pretty tough. And so he would assert our interests very clearly and without fear and bring that independence of mind to foreign policy.

Michael Fullilove: You mentioned, Gareth, and you described him as an activist. What do you say to those people who say that the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade has become less influential in Canberra. Is that correct, do you think? And if you think it's correct, how would you seek to change it as minister?

Penny Wong: Well, I think it is correct. Well, I hope that's part of the explanation for the latest debacle. Either that, or it's not being as competent as it should be. It is very important when you're facing the sort of circumstances we're facing that you don't just look to past playbooks, and you also employ all of the instruments of statecraft, to shaping the world that you want. And remember, foreign policy is not just diplomacy, it is about trying to shape the choices Australia has. So you want, at times where some of the choices from a strategist perspective, or a military perspective are pretty invidious. You want to be working as hard as you can to shape those choices and give the nation other options. I think DFAT has suffered obviously, in terms of resourcing under this government. We've seen around $12 billion cut from our aid program over the period they have been in government, their budget will be smaller next year than it was some 15 years ago. And with all due respect to my counterpart, I think in part their influence has also been diminished because it doesn't appear that the foreign minister is a key player in some of the major decisions when it comes to foreign policy and international relations. So I think there is work to do both in terms of resourcing of DFAT, leadership at DFAT, but also making sure that DFAT recognizes the situation the country faces, and is prepared to make the changes and develop more of the capabilities that are required, in order for it to best deal with the world as it is and shape it for the better. In terms of most recent diplomatic stoush, I hope that DFAT and the national security community do undertake an internal review about what has gone wrong in terms of the AUKUS announcement and the clear diplomatic problems with the French, and some of the public statements of the Americans. If it is the case that the advice was good, but Mr. Morrison didn't take it, then there's clearly only an issue at the political level. But I suspect there are also things that should be learned about how this was managed in government, in terms of the advice of the department and whether that advice was influential. It's interesting, isn't it? The submarine announcement is grounded in a capability argument and there is a compelling capability argument. But as you know, when you make a decision in the national interests, which you know is going to be a difficult decision to land, you have to do the whole job and you have to focus on what is it that we can do to minimize the blowback, minimize the damage to Australia from landing such a decision? Clearly, that was not done. And I hope those in the leadership of the department and the broader national security community take this opportunity to reflect on that. I think there are demonstrable failings from our leaders, politicians, some demonstrable failings from Mr Morrison, but I hope at a bureaucratic level that there is some thinking about it.

Michael Fullilove: Last question on DFAT Penny, recently, the Institute published the Diplomat Database, and one of the findings from that database is that Australia has more political appointees than ever in diplomatic posts and that former politicians are being sent to posts not just posts that have traditionally gone to pollies like Washington and London but also different kinds of posts like Tokyo and Singapore and New Delhi that traditionally were staffed by career diplomats. Is this a problem? And if it's a problem, will you commit to reducing the number of political appointees you send as minister?

Penny Wong: Yes, it is a problem. And it's a problem because the government doesn't think diplomacy matters, and have used too many diplomatic posts, essentially, to deal with largesse to mates, regardless of whether or not they have capacity. Now, I think some politicians can be very good heads of mission. And there are certain posts where having someone whose - the weight of their history and brings with them the capital of their personal relationships with senior people in the government is a good thing. But I think that there are so many announcements that we have seen where you would want someone with more diplomatic capability, rather than a political person. What I will be doing is to try and assess whether or not you've got the right person for the job.

Michael Fullilove: And would you reduce the number?

Penny Wong: Oh, well, there are a few people I certainly wouldn't have appointed regardless of party politics. I think you do need to turn it around. And I think there has to be a capacity argument. The former Premier of Tasmania going to Singapore, I just found extraordinary.  Mr Hodgman might be a nice guy, but Singapore has, given particularly the region and its place within ASEAN, and its really quite penetrating assessments and insights into China, the US and the region. It's a very important post, and it is beyond me why they would send Mr. Hodgman. And that's only one example.

Michael Fullilove: All right, let me ask you about, Penny, some contemporary issues. Let me start with China, as you've just mentioned it. We've seen a significant deterioration in the bilateral relationship over the past two years. You mentioned that at the beginning of the podcast. Whose fault is this do you think?

Penny Wong: I'm not sure that's the best question to ask. I think the relationship has deteriorated in great part because China has chosen to become much more assertive, and at times aggressive. And the relationship has also deteriorated because China is engaging in coercive economic activity. And that is something all of us should be pushing back on. Because it's not only detrimental to Australia, it is inimical to a rules-based multilateral system, which has served countries well and maintained peace and stability and founded a context for the sort of development that China has engaged in. And that has been a good thing. I have said previously that I don't think some of the handling from the government has been optimal of some of the aspects of the relationship. I try to think about it in this way: I think there are there are structural aspects to the relationship where those structural differences are going to mean we will have ongoing differences to manage, regardless of who is in government. And they are things like our views about the South China Sea, our views about trade and coercion, Australia's views about human rights and democracy. They are not going to change regardless of who is in government. I do think, at times, that the government has reached for the domestic rhetoric, because it has perceived there's some benefit in that. I don't think that has been helpful. So I guess in summary, I'd say China has changed, the nature of our relationship with China has changed, there are going to be enduring differences that need to be managed by whoever's in government. However, as you know, Michael, there is no scenario where China doesn't matter. So we can't simply disengage. What we do need is to take the politics out of this issue. And if there was one thing that I could say about the government's approach to China, I would say talk less and do more.

Michael Fullilove: What would be one thing you would do if you became Foreign Minister tomorrow to try to restart the relationship given that they don't seem to be taking our calls? How would you start?

Penny Wong: I don't know that we alone can restart the relationship, China has to make a decision that it wants to reengage. But I think we would try to take a different approach to how we talk about this domestically, or we would seek to do less around inflaming some of the domestic rhetoric. And one thing I will do is to talk much more openly about the experience of Chinese-Australians through this period, which as you know, from some of the research you've done at Lowy, this has been a very difficult time. And I think some outreach to that community and some articulation of the experience of them of the discussion about China has been very difficult. But what else would we do? I think you need to focus on the region, you need to engage as closely as you can with the region about what sort of region we want. The features of the region we want: a region which is stable, prosperous, and where sovereignty is respected. And I would also be engaging on what is the what I've described as the settling point, I think Kevin Rudd could term managed strategic competition, but what are the guardrails around US-China engagement and US-China competition? And finding commonality of interests with the region on that is important, because the region should be asserting to those great powers - our ally and China - what it wants, in terms of that settling point. I think there are also economic diversification imperatives that we have to engage when we are more or less dependent on China. We know that we need to diversify our exports - that's in part a function also of the world moving to a more carbon-constrained world - so we have to diversify our export markets, that means diversify on what we export, that will make us more economically resilient.

Michael Fullilove: Alright, speaking of the region, what would be your priorities as foreign minister for Southeast Asia?

Penny Wong: On Southeast Asia, we have to do more with Indonesia. And we have to recognize where Indonesia is. The impact of the pandemic has wreaked an enormous development disadvantage onto Indonesia, that's been a big step back in terms of their economic development. So we do need not only to do more when it comes to vaccines, but to work out how it is we can best work with other partners to enable stronger recovery from Indonesia. I read one report that said that Indonesia had lost a decade of development as a consequence of the pandemic. Now, that may or may not be true, but it gives us an insight into the importance of working with Indonesia, which, as you know, is so central to ASEAN and the security of our region. One of my concerns about the AUKUS announcement - there are a number of foreign policy challenges arising out of the way in which the Morrison government handled it - and one of those has been the concern raised by Indonesia, and that ought to have been landed better.

Michael Fullilove: Labor supported the AUKUS announcement. If you were Foreign Minister, how would you reassure countries like Indonesia and Malaysia, that AUKUS was a net contributor to regional security and stability and not a non-proliferation concern? How would you persuade them?

Penny Wong: Engagement, and I would not have handled the announcement in this way. Whenever we're dealing with Southeast Asia, we have to remember the way in which historical narratives can shape people's interpretation of events. So we still have a way to go in demonstrating to the Southeast Asian nations that we're not simply a primarily Anglo-outpost post-colonial power. And we've only recently had a prime minister kept talking lovingly of the Anglosphere. So, we have to remember that how some things are understood and received is in part informed by historical frames, and so we need to be very clear about the modern Australian narrative about who we are. Part of that on AUKUS, I think is to remind people that this is 'in addition to', not 'instead of'. So a partnership between the US, Australia and the United Kingdom that shares greater technology - that is actually quite unremarkable. It's what we already do. It's been formalized into an agreement between governments. It's not an alliance, it's not a treaty. It's an articulation and a formalization of what we already do. And part of the problem with the way in which it was announced, is because Mr. Morrison sought to make it as big as he did - it was interpreted I think differently in the region. On the second issue you raise which is the submarine capability, that does have to be worked through with Indonesia. As you know, they've raised a concern that this exploits what they describe as a loophole in the NPT. Well, we need to engage with them about our commitments around not arming ourselves with nuclear weapons and not allowing this capability to ever be utilised for that purpose. So we need to talk them through how we would manage the fact that we had nuclear propelled submarines and we need to look at IAEA safeguards for the management of that material. So there are a whole range of more technical discussions which occur, but I think it starts with a much more deeper and respectful engagement than it appears that government has participated in thus far.

Michael Fullilove: Why does Labor support the idea of nuclear powered submarines for Australia?

Penny Wong: First, it's very important to understand the decision that's actually been made. The only actual decision that - there are two decisions, I should say that have been actually made. One is to junk the second submarine contract after having junked the first submarine plan, which was the Japanese submarines. So eight years in, we're faced with no contract for construction of submarines and a looming capability gap about which no one appears to have an answer. The second decision that has been made, is to have an 18-month consultation. So they are actually the only decisions which have been made. There is a compelling capability argument, which has been put. And that has been put in the public arena. And on that basis, we accepted the government's decision to go down this path. I think after the announcement, more questions have emerged about how this is going to work. There is a long way to go on this and I am more worried than I was at the announcement, given the evidence to Senate Estimates about the capability gap for the nation which appears to be emerging as a consequence of two discarded submarine contracts.

Michael Fullilove: So leaving aside the capability gap, after taking this evidence in Estimates and so on, how confident do you feel about Australia's capacity and the wisdom to pursue nuclear powered submarines?

Penny Wong: As I said, the capability argument, which has been put publicly, I think, is compelling. However, there remain many questions which need to be resolved over the coming months. So I would anticipate a lot of work needs to be done about how this would actually work, what sort of timeframes are involved, and what it would require in terms of the training of Australian personnel. And, what role Australia will have in the construction of the submarines.

Michael Fullilove: What about the cost of the program, Penny? We know it would be more expensive than the attack class submarines, which were already I think, the largest contract in the history of the Commonwealth of Australia. You mentioned before that counterfactuals in government. Do you think there'd be the appetite within Labor, if you're elected, to press go on such an enormous exercise, given that - as you say - everything involves trade offs. And if you're doing that it makes it harder to spend on health or welfare, education?

Penny Wong: Well, first - submarine capability is important. We are of the view the nation does need submarine capability. Second, in terms of the cost, you're right. I mean, I used to say the submarine contract is the largest procurement of the nation's history, particularly not just acquisition -  remember, sustainment and this will be even larger. But on this, I think this is a must-have capability for the foreseeable future.

Michael Fullilove: Alright, last couple of questions, Penny. We talked earlier about how personally unforgiving politics is. But the travel schedule of the Australian Foreign Minister is sort of out of this world and other foreign ministers often marvel at how much time Australian foreign ministers need to spend in the air and attending all these sorts of conferences. If you were lucky enough to be elected and then appointed Foreign Minister, how would you balance that with your sort of your obligations to be in Australia and playing a part as a senior national figure and also your obligations and your responsibilities to your family?

Penny Wong: Yes, well, I think the last one is the more difficult one, isn't it? Politics is pretty hard on your partner and your children. And being foreign minister is particularly hard. So that's something we've talked about and we know it's going to be difficult. Marise Payne has travelled very little, obviously, because of COVID. I would hope we can prioritize travel very clearly. And I would be prioritizing the region, to a great extent. But these are unfortunately, this is part of the job. One of the benefits, or one of the great privileges of being Foreign Minister though, is you are engaged in working to shape the world, working to shape the region and working to shape outcomes and opportunities for your country. Very few people get that opportunity. It's so important at the moment, because we are facing - as we started - very difficult circumstances.

Michael Fullilove: Final question, Penny. If you became Foreign Minister, is there one international figure that you'd be most interested to work with? You mentioned Angela Merkel, but of course, she's exiting the stage. Is there another figure whose work you really admire, whom you you'd be keen to work with - an international figure?

Penny Wong: Obviously, you know, as the Foreign Minister, you have to work closely with the United States, you want to work closely with your principal strategic ally. But I do think the Singaporeans and Prime Minister Lee, whose speeches over the last few years have given me the most insight into a Southeast Asian perspective of great power competition. Both an individual but also people within the Singaporean foreign policy community, really do bring a degree of insight which I think Australia should engage with more closely. Their insight into China, their insight into the region are second to none and are advantages. They are fluent English speaking as well as Mandarin speaking. So I think Singapore, certainly from an intellectual perspective, is a partner. Prime Minister Lee is a thinker and a leader whose writing and speeches on these issues, I think are second to none.

Michael Fullilove: Penny, I've enjoyed hearing about your journey today from Kota Kinabalu to Adelaide to Sydney to Canberra and beyond and to hear about your foreign policy views and ambitions and also to hear some birdsong in the background. Thank you for that.

Penny Wong: Yes. Sorry about that. I'm in quarantine by myself. And so you're getting the bird song from the outside.

Michael Fullilove: It was a lovely touch to finish the year on. So thank you very much, Penny Wong for joining me today from Adelaide for The Director's Chair.

Penny Wong: Thanks very much, Michael.

Areas of expertise: Australian foreign policy; US politics and foreign policy; Asia and the Pacific; Global institutions