Interview: Tom Connell, Sky News





TOM CONNELL: It is the Shadow Defence Minister Andrew Hastie, thank you for your time. Let's just start with the comments from Peter Dutton. So the Australian Government have criticised this action from China but in diplomatic, careful language. Peter Dutton calls the Chinese explanation propaganda. Is that a reason why the relationship between the two countries has improved under Labor?

ANDREW HASTIE: I don't think so, Tom, I think this is a pretty clear cut moment for the Prime Minister and his Government to lead and to act in Australia's interests. He had an opportunity last week at APEC to raise this very significant incident with Xi Jinping. And it turns out, well, it appears that he did not. And so now we have the Chinese Government deflecting. And indeed, you could say gaslighting us. And I think Peter Dutton was right to use those words today.

TOM CONNELL: Okay, so you agree that the explanation from China amounts to propaganda?

ANDREW HASTIE: Yes, I do. I stand with Peter Dutton.

TOM CONNELL: And on the Australian reaction, are you just explicitly saying whatever advice the Government might have got, I should say I'm not privy to it, so that's not why I'm asking it. But whatever advice the Australian might have got, it was incumbent on Anthony Albanese to raise this, in his meeting with the President, nothing less than that would suffice. Is that your view?

ANDREW HASTIE: Well, to use the Prime Minister's own formulation—cooperate where we can, disagree where we must. This was a moment to disagree and do so peer to peer, man to man with the leader of the Chinese government, Xi Jinping. We had divers under the hull of HMAS Toowoomba, conducting risky work on the propellers, cutting away fishing nets. And they were subject to a sonar attack from a Chinese warship. It's unacceptable. We're grateful that their injuries were not substantial and that they're okay now, but it could have been much, much worse. Indeed, the injuries could have been fatal. And so that's why this needs to be raised. And, Tom, I should mention, this pattern of behaviour is not isolated. We've seen the same sort of treatment with our Air Force personnel last year in February and May. So I think it was very important for the Prime Minister to draw a line under this and to raise it with the President.

TOM CONNELL: So the pattern of behaviour you alluded to, it appears to be escalating, if only by the metric of this has actually caused injury, thankfully, minor but it could have been worse. Is this a time for Australia to draw a line in the sand? And if so how?

ANDREW HASTIE: Well, it's the principle Tom. Sure, our divers are okay now, but it could have been a lot worse. If you understand what a sonar does, it sends pressure waves and our divers could have experienced a sinus rupture, an eardrum rupture, damaged their lungs and other tissue, including their brain. So this was very risky. And to go back to last year, when the Chinese fighter released chaff in front of a P-8 Poseidon that could have damaged the engine and caused an accident, or indeed, in February over the Arafura Sea where P-8 was lased by a Chinese warship—that could have done serious damage as well. So it's the principle of the matter. It's not so much the consequences. It's the principle, these are not the acts of a friend. And if we're going to talk about stabilising the relationship, you've got to have boundaries. We all have boundaries in our personal relationships, why wouldn't we insist on them at a geopolitical level as well, particularly as we're trying to stabilise our relationship with China.

TOM CONNELL: How do we draw those boundaries then? Because these incidents keep happening, we condemn them, and seemingly, the Chinese Communist Party doesn't care. So how do we need to draw those boundaries differently to what we've been doing them in the past?

ANDREW HASTIE: Well, we're not going to be taken seriously if we won't even raise it peer to peer, man to man, through the Prime Minister. If we're just going to have a mealy-mouthed diplomat, raise it through diplomatic channels, that's not going to do the job, which is why we are insisting that the Prime Minister should have raised this last week at APEC. President Xi was very happy to pull up the Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in November in Bali. He did it very publicly in front of the cameras. The Prime Minister won't even reveal that he had a conversation about this with President Xi. So what are  we to assume? I think we can assume he didn't raise it, unless he says otherwise.

TOM CONNELL: That's up to him to clarify. But is that really the only suggestion, I mean, this grey-zone warfare, if you like that China's been embarking on it's not just with Australia, it's with other countries, no matter what they say it keeps happening, is something further needed to draw the boundary you alluded to?

ANDREW HASTIE: Well, I think we already are, we're investing in defence. We've got a bipartisan AUKUS deal that will deliver nuclear submarines by the end of the decade. Now I'm concerned about the pace of delivery of AUKUS. I'm concerned that works for the establishment of Submarine Rotational Force—West in Perth doesn't actually commence until 2025. And it's from 2027 that we'll have US and UK submarines rotating through Perth. So I'm concerned about the pace, but we are taking actions to assert our sovereignty. That's what AUKUS is all about.

TOM CONNELL: Okay, and beyond that, in the shorter term, when China has reached peak frustration with us, we got trade punishment, is that something we'd ever look at doing?

ANDREW HASTIE: Well, look, we are a country with an abundance of resources, of food. We want to trade with everyone. And that means trading with even countries like China, because of course, it's good for business. But there are boundaries. And the first thing we should do in this instance, is for the Prime Minister to raise it directly. If we can't raise it at that level, then what else can we expect the Government to do?

TOM CONNELL: Okay, I wanted to ask you briefly as well about whistleblower protections, David McBride in the news this week, and the Government is looking at perhaps further protections. Is he a good case, given he tried to raise this internally, it didn't get any traction on it, and that's when he went public with what he amounts or he believed to be war crimes committed. And whilst we don't have final evidence the Brereton Report certainly found allegations, strong foundations to allegations of wrongdoing.

ANDREW HASTIE: Well Tom there's a case ongoing, I don't want to comment on an ongoing case. And moreover, some of the documents that were leaked were AUSTEO, which included details about me, so I'm not in a position to comment on that case. And I'd be very cautious about doing so.

TOM CONNELL: Well, fair enough on the specifics. What about general whistleblower protections, though? Do you think they are needed to be increased in Australia?

ANDREW HASTIE: Well, I think whistleblowers play an important part in our democracy. And, of course, you know where wrongdoing has been done, there needs to be transparency. Now the Government will seek to strike the balance. We'll work with the Government as the Coalition on establishing what that balance is. And you'll have to wait and see what that looks like. But that's about as much as I'd say. Suffice to say that I support transparency, particularly when wrongdoing has been done.

TOM CONNELL: Shadow Defence Minister Andrew Hastie, appreciate your time.

ANDREW HASTIE: But not at the expense of national security.