Penny Wong has made a remarkable effort in demonstrating that the nation’s foreign policy and diplomacy are in pretty good hands – despite what Paul Keating might think.
Australia’s Foreign Minister delivered a powerfully impressive speech to the National Press Club on Monday (17 April), during which she covered territory as diverse as Taiwan and the threat of war in the Pacific, the AUKUS agreement, Australia’s place in the region, and the roles of America and China in the world.
In the Q&A that followed the address, the Minister was pressed further on those issues and more, including trade, Julian Assange, and just what she thought of the former Labor prime minister’s scathing critique of her stewardship over the foreign affairs portfolio.
Last month Mr Keating described the AUKUS agreement as one of the worst decisions ever taken by a Labor government, adding that Senator Wong and Defence Minister Richard Marles were “two seriously unwise ministers” in the Anthony Albanese government.
He took a particular swipe at Senator Wong’s concerted efforts to engage with the governments of Pacific island nations.
“Let me just make this point – running around the Pacific islands with a lei around your neck handing out money, which is what Penny does, is not foreign policy,” Mr Keating said.
“It’s a consular task. Foreign policy is what you do with the great powers. What you do with China. What you do with the United States.
“This government, the Albanese government, does not employ foreign policy.”
Paul Keating was somewhat of a hero for Senator Wong. He was one of the reasons she got into politics.
Who knows now?
Both Mr Albanese and his Foreign Minister dismissed the Keating attack last month as belonging to another time.
But when asked about those comments again on Monday, Senator Wong was more than a little blunt.
“The importance of the Pacific to Australia, the importance of a peaceful, stable region to Australia … has been well understood by previous prime ministers and governments,” she said.
“I think on Mr Keating, what I would say is this – I think in tone and in substance, he diminished both his legacy and the subject matter.”
Penny Wong is calm under fire, delivering both barb and bedrock in similar monotone.
She would have been anticipating the question. She was dignified in her response.
The exchange over Mr Keating, however, followed 35 minutes of real substance that countered (without naming him) much of the criticisms hurled by the Labor legend.
“Many countries in the Pacific have lived the reality of great power competition spiralling into catastrophic conflict when their own agency was sidelined and their voices ignored,” Senator Wong said.
“Anyone who questions the strategic importance of Pacific islands to Australia’s security need only acquire the briefest familiarity with history.
“While our strategic circumstances have changed in the last 50 years, our geography has not. Nor has the centrality of the Pacific to our security.
“With the return of strategic contest to the region, the security enhancements work together when we respond to Pacific priorities. When we respect Pacific institutions.”
Addressing directly the criticisms of AUKUS and Australia’s close alignment with the US, Senator Wong had this to say: “Many who take self-satisfied potshots at America’s imperfections would find the world a lot less satisfactory if America ceased to play the role.
“Having said that, we can’t just leave it to the United States. All countries of the region must exercise their agency through diplomatic, economic and other engagement to maintain the balances.”
On Taiwan and whether Australia would join the US in defending it militarily if Beijing attacked, Senator Wong was a wise head while also offering up a caution.
“Let me be absolutely clear – a war over Taiwan would be catastrophic for all. We know that there would be no real winners,” she said.
“Maintaining the status quo is comprehensively superior to any alternative. It will be challenging, requiring both reassurance and deterrence. But this is the proposition most capable of averting conflict and enabling the region to live in peace and prosperity.
“So I’ll say it now at the National Press Club – to avoid any possible misunderstanding – our job is to lower the heat on any potential conflict, increasing pressure on others to do the same.”
Noting the comparisons of the current geopolitical tensions to those directly before both world wars and the Vietnam War, Senator Wong gave this advice: “We are not hostages to history. We decide what we do with the present.”
Wise words, indeed. And there were plenty more.
Enough to make any former Labor PM proud.