Foreign Minister Penny Wong insists Kevin Rudd understands his obligations as ambassador to the United States after being quizzed about his recent commentary on the AUKUS security pact and America’s treatment of allies.
Wong has also defended a controversial speech she gave in the United Kingdom last month in which she called on the nation to face up to the uncomfortable reality of its colonial past.
Rudd, who will take up the Washington posting in March, said last month that America needed to stop throwing its allies “under a bus” if it wanted to counter China’s economic influence in the Asia-Pacific.
In a Senate estimates hearing on Thursday, the opposition’s leader in the Senate and foreign affairs spokesman, Simon Birmingham, asked Wong whether Rudd’s remarks were appropriate given his new role.
Wong said the former prime minister had been speaking in his capacity as president of the Asia Society think tank.
“As Australia’s ambassador, he knows and understands that his role is to represent the Australian government and progress the Australian government’s policy,” she said.
Birmingham replied: “Neither you nor the secretary are giving a straight answer. Are these appropriate comments and has he been counselled?”
Birmingham also highlighted comments made by Rudd in 2021, when he criticised the Morrison government for ending an agreement with a French submarine builder to sign up to the AUKUS agreement with the US and UK.
“I’m concerned about the long-term impact this has on Australian sovereignty on our own naval forces. Because there are times when we’ll disagree with the United States,” Rudd said at the time.
Wong said Rudd was an expert on Chinese affairs and had been sought by governments around the world to provide advice on the relationship between China and the US.
“It’s very important at this time that somebody that has that sort of knowledge and has taught about those issues is appointed in Washington,” she said. “We have chosen someone of substantial seniority for this role, as befits our most important strategic relationship.”
In a testy exchange, Birmingham also accused Wong of causing offence to a crucial ally and creating a distraction during her first visit to Britain as foreign minister, when she made a speech referencing the history of the British empire.
He asked Wong several times whether she would put more emphasis on Britain’s positive contribution to the world and the way it had transformed into a thriving multicultural nation if she were to deliver the speech again.
“I feel like you think you’re my counsellor,” Wong replied to Birmingham at one point as he grilled her about any regrets she may have about the speech.
She defended her speech, saying: “If we recognise our history and we recognise how we have changed, we find more common ground and we deal with some of the ways in which others seek to constrain us.
“And in the context of the AUKUS and the Quad [alliance between Australia, the US, India and Japan], that is about Australia’s influence and power in the region, and if you can’t see that I’m surprised. Because I would have thought you understand that, unlike some.”
In her speech at King’s College London last month, Wong evoked her own family’s experience of British colonialism and said: “Such stories can sometimes feel uncomfortable – for those whose stories they are and for those who hear them. But understanding the past enables us to better share the present and the future.”
Asked at a press conference after the speech whether Britain had faced up to its colonial past, UK Foreign Secretary James Cleverly said: “You’re asking the black foreign secretary?”
Source : The Sydney Morning Herald