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What we know about Penny Wong and foreign policy

What we know about Penny Wong and foreign policy
Published 26 Jul 2016   Follow @JohnMGooding

Over the weekend Bill Shorten, leader of the opposition, announced a fairly major reshuffle of the Labor shadow ministry. Tanya Plibersek has left foreign affairs for the domestic battleground that is education; Senator Penny Wong (formerly of the trade and investment shadow ministry) will take her place.

Having such an effective retail politician as Plibersek in a shadow ministry far removed from the concerns of general public resulted in a sort of zero-sum game between Plibersek's domestic and foreign policy priorities (see, for example, this election-era Plibersek profile with absolutely zero discussion of the foreign policy differences between Labor and the Coalition).

As Kevin Rudd's climate change minister, Wong developed the emissions trading scheme that never was (in 2009, nine months before the Copenhagen UN conference, Wong addressed the Lowy Institute on Australia's contribution to international action climate change), and then, as Labor's finance attack dog and Labor senate leader, became famous for her grillings in Senate Estimates. But what do we know about her foreign policy? [fold]

Wong leans more towards the Plibersek approach on the South China Sea than the Stephen Conroy approach. Her position on the the US alliance is slightly more opaque (is she a Rudd-style realist or a Gillard-style sentimentalist?).

In the run-up to the this year's federal election, Wong was a vocal defender of foreign investment in agriculture. In an address to the Global Food Forum earlier this year, she argued that:

There is no credible evidence that Australia faces a food security crisis due to foreign investment in agriculture. What we do face is a shortage of the domestic capital we need to expand our agricultural sector so it can take advantage of future opportunities – opportunities that will deliver economic benefits both to our farmers and to the wider Australian community.

Her tone was sharply different to both Shorten's (who said he was 'uneasy' about 'putting everything up on the market to sell everything') and the general Australian public, 87% of whom oppose the Australian government allowing foreign companies to buy Australian farmland (a number some Coalition parliamentarians are leaning on to justify their position).

In reference to the Trans-Pacific Partnership, Wong has said the TPP 'has the potential to increase Australian market access for our goods and services exports which, in turn, will benefit the local economy and create jobs', but is suspect of investor-state dispute settlement (ISDS) clauses in free trade agreements:

I don't see in a nation like Australia what the public policy or economic benefit is to having a private arbitration system that operates both separately to, and in some instances above, domestic law...having said that I think the reality is — and Labor has said if we were in government we would not include them … — the reality is that they are already part of a great many agreements...certainly, were we to be elected I think one of the things you would need to do, apart from thinking about future agreements, is to do what we could to add Australia's voice to reform of ISDS.

In her first speech in the Senate in 2002, Wong accused then-Prime Minister John Howard of divisive rhetoric on asylum seekers ('Of course we decide who comes to our country…so why say it?'). In 2012, Wong argued for a Labor bill which would allow for the reopening of the detention centre on Nauru and the implementation of the 'Malaysia Solution', an ultimately- doomed effort to seal a refugee-asylum seeker swap deal with Malaysia:

What we collectively face as a nation and as a parliament is an enormously complex policy challenge, an enormously complex policy problem, which is not cured by sound bites or three-word grabs, a policy problem the world is grappling with and that involves millions of people seeking a better life in a different country. I do not stand in this chamber saying that I believe this bill is necessarily the complete answer, but I do know this: it is the only answer before us.

After opposing boat turn-backs as official policy for a number of years, Shorten moved to include them in Labor's asylum seeker policy at the 2015 Labor national conference. Through a proxy, Wong (along with Plibersek and number of other prominent Labor Left members) voted for an amendment excluding turn-backs, which ultimately failed.

As a South Australian politician, Wong is unsurprisingly supportive of local Navy ship construction. Wong cites pressure from Labor (along with the South Australian community) as the primary reason for the Coalition deciding to construct 12 new submarines locally (instead of purchased 'off-the -shelf' internationally), but the newly emerged Nick Xenophon Team no doubt deserves some credit as well.

On the more insubstantial side of politics, Wong's most famous interaction with the Department of Foreign Affairs to date is undoubtedly her late 2015 interrogation of then-DFAT Secretary Peter Varghese over Foreign Minister Julie Bishop's use of emoji. Wong asked Varghese to explain what Bishop meant when, in an interview with BuzzFeed, Bishop described Vladimir Putin with a 'red face emoji'.

The line of questioning appears to have had no real effect on Bishop (she later contended that Putin would 'be delighted' with the 'red face emoji' description), but as a publicity stunt the exchange was so absurd it made it into the New York Times, a rare achievement for Australian Senate committees.

Earlier this year, Wong was again grilling Varghese in estimates, but this time on the purchasing of three beanbags at a cost of $590 each for InnovationXchange, a DFAT initiative started under Bishop's tenure. Varghese argued that the three beanbags were actually cheaper than a three-seater couch. This response was evidently inadequate; during the election, Labor announced that if elected it would abolish InnovationXchange, referring to the $140 million program as 'focused on purchasing bean bags'.

Photo: Getty Images/Lisa Maree Williams

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