A female foreign minister of Asian heritage would boost Australia’s reputation, Penny Wong says


“He is supporting figures whose views hark back to the White Australia Policy, harming the perception of our nation in the region,” she said.

Later in the speech, she said that failing to stand against prejudice and discrimination harmed leaders’ ability to advance Australian values and interests overseas.

“Those who have been willing to toy with the race card in recent times are not only damaging national cohesion and eroding our national identity, they also diminish our national power,” she said.

She branded the Coalition’s vision “divisive, chaotic, impoverished and cynical”. The Liberal Party has cut a preference deal with Clive Palmer’s United Australia Party while the Nationals have made preference agreements with One Nation.

Having the country’s first Asian-Australian foreign minister would send a positive signal to the region and the world, Senator Wong said.

“What would be significant about an Asian-Australian being our foreign minister is what it says about us, what it says about who we are,” she said.

Senator Wong revealed that when One Nation leader Pauline Hanson sat in the Senate in the late 1990s, her father, who was then living in Malaysia, had contacted his daughter to ask whether she needed to leave Australia.

Her place on the international stage would project “an independent multicultural Australia confident of our place in the world”, she said.

Senator Wong said Labor’s early priorities in foreign affairs would include climate change, foreign aid and promoting democracy and human rights. It would also focus heavily on Australia’s near neighbourhood, the South Pacific – though she stressed deepening these relationships should not be seen purely as a competition with China for influence in that region.

Labor has promised to boost foreign aid every year following a series of Coalition cuts but has not committed to a target.

On China she said she would “reject the binaries” that characterise China as a security threat or an economic opportunity, though she did not say how this would practically change Labor’s approach.

“I have found it at times frustrating to watch some of the foreign policy debate around the China relationship, which does seem to descend into those two extremes. We need to deal with the relationship in all of its complexity as a whole … I don’t think to date we have managed that as well as we will need to.”

She expressed scepticism about the work of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, pointing to a “very interesting and useful” article by journalist Peter Greste in The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age earlier this month that was broadly critical of Mr Assange. But Mr Assange, who was forced out of the Ecuadorean embassy in London where he was enjoying refuge and handed over to British authorities, should receive Australian consular help, she said.

David Wroe is defence and national security correspondent for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age.

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