Penny Wong’s double standards

Apr 4, 2023
Penny Wong - DFAT official photo

Why is Australia’s Foreign Minister Penny Wong vocal about Australian-Chinese journalist Cheng Lei, jailed in China, but silent on Australian journalist Julian Assange, jailed in the UK?

Senator Wong tweeted on 31 March 2023, “It is one year since Australian citizen Cheng Lei faced a closed trial in Beijing on national security charges. She is yet to learn the outcome. Our thoughts are with Ms Cheng and her loved ones. Australia will continue to advocate for her to be reunited with her children.”

A quick search of Senator Wong’s Twitter feed reveals that since Cheng Lei, a dual citizen of China and Australia, was arrested in August 2020, and charged six months later with “illegally supplying state secrets overseas”, Wong has been a consistent advocate for the former (Chinese state broadcaster) CGTN anchor.

On 25 June 2022, Senator Wong, newly sworn in as foreign minister, tweeted: “Our thoughts are with Cheng Lei—especially today on her birthday. Our hearts go out to her children, whose birthday messages will be passed on during a consular visit to her next Wednesday.”

Three months earlier, on 26 March 2022 then shadow foreign minister Wong tweeted, in response to an ABC article reporting Cheng Lei faces up to life in prison: “This is a deeply troubling development. We join the Government in raising concerns about the treatment of Cheng Lei. We expect Beijing to adhere to its consular obligations to Australia and uphold basic standards of justice.”

On 13 August 2021 Senator Wong tweeted an image of this statement: “Today marks 12 months since Australian journalist Cheng Lei was detained in China. Our thoughts are with Ms Cheng, her friends and family–particularly her two children. Labor holds serious concerns about Ms Cheng’s detention and her welfare. We support efforts to provide Ms Cheng with regular consular assistance, as well as ongoing assistance for her family. Labor joins the Government in calling for acceptable standards of justice, procedural fairness and humane treatment to be met, in accordance with international norms.” (Emphasis added.)

And on 8 February 2021, six months after Cheng Lei’s arrest: “Our thoughts are with Cheng Lei and her loved ones following confirmation of her arrest. We support efforts to provide Ms Cheng with consular assistance and join the Government in calling for acceptable standards of justice, procedural fairness and humane treatment to be met.”

Contrast Senator Wong’s consistent, vocal advocacy for Cheng Lei, with her tweets about Australian Walkley-award winning journalist Julian Assange, jailed in the UK’s maximum security Belmarsh Prison since April 2019—15 months earlier than Cheng Lei’s arrest:

There are none—not once has Senator Wong tweeted about Julian Assange.

Senator Wong does talk about Assange, but only ever in response to questions, such as Greens Senator David Shoebridge asked in Question Time on 31 March, to which she reiterated “the government’s view that Mr Assange’s case has dragged on too long, and should be brought to a close”.

However, former Senator Rex Patrick has revealed through Freedom of Information requests there is zero documentation showing any formal advocacy from the Albanese government to the UK and US governments expressing this “view”.

Imagine if Senator Wong as shadow foreign minister and now foreign minister was as vocal in support of Assange as she has been of Cheng Lei.

At his National Press Club appearance on 15 March, former PM Paul Keating sized up Senator Wong’s modus operandi on foreign policy, which helps explain her double standards on Assange:

“Penny Wong took a decision in 2016, five years before AUKUS, not to be at odds with the Coalition on foreign policy on any core issue”, Keating said. “You cannot get into controversy as the foreign spokesperson for the Labor Party if you adopt the foreign policy of the Liberal Party… You may stay out of trouble, but you are compromised. Self-compromised.”

Under the previous Liberal government, China-bashing became a popular pastime, while Julian Assange was treated as a pariah, in keeping with the attitude of the US national security establishment.

On both issues, Labor has sounded mixed signals, but fundamentally maintained the Liberals’ pro-US (and UK) positions.

The truth about Cheng Lei is unknown, but Assange’s status is known—he’s a publisher who’s innocent of the espionage charges against him.

A foreign minister of a sovereign government would advocate vocally for both.

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