20 June 2012




DENNY: Senator Penny Wong, good morning.

WONG: Good morning.

DENNY: And Christopher Pyne, good morning to you.

PYNE: Good morning Spence. Good morning Penny.

DENNY: Joining us from our studios in Canberra this morning …

WONG: Yes, we’re right next to each other, so watch out.

DENNY: Are you two playing nicely?

WONG: So far we are.

PYNE: We’re a sword’s length from each other (laughs).

DENNY: (laughs) Now the breaking news story today – and we’ll get to the issue of Fairfax shortly if we can – but the breaking news is that Julian Assange is seeking asylum in Ecuador. Whether or not they’ll grant that remains to be seen, but the question here is, is the Australian Government doing enough to actually assist Julian Assange? Penny Wong.

WONG: Obviously Mr Assange’s decisions, including this decision, are a matter for him. The Australian Government as we’ve made clear has offered him the same consular assistance that is available to other Australians. And I don’t understand there to be any evidence, for example, that there’s anything inappropriate in terms of the legal proceedings in the UK to date., But ultimately this is a matter for him.

DENNY: Has he made application to the Australian Government to come home?

WONG: I’d have to ask the Foreign Minister to speak to you about that. He’s certainly made public statements about issues. But we’ve made clear that he is being treated, in terms of the consular assistance available to him, as any other Australian citizen.

DENNY: Chris Pyne, does it seem unusual to you that an Australian national would be seeking asylum in South America?

PYNE: Well, Spence, what it suggests to me is that Julian Assange believes that he’ll get asylum from Ecuador. And there is some evidence that that will happen because he’s been communicating with Ecuadorian officials over some time. I understand he’s been doing radio there through the President of Ecuador – I think I’m right in saying that. And obviously he believes Ecuador will grant him asylum.

Our view in the Opposition is that the Australian Government has largely got this right, apart from Julia Gillard’s premature declaration of the criminality of Julian Assange, which was an error from which she resiled earlier in the piece. We think that due process has been followed in English courts. The Australian Government has given appropriate assistance. Julian Assange of course could have returned to Australia at any time before he was charged in England, and if he’s chosen to seek asylum in Ecuador that’s obviously because he thinks that that will protect him from being sent to Sweden.

DENNY: If we could move on to the future of Fairfax, it’s obviously been dominating the news over the last couple of days, with news that 1,900 jobs are going to go; the Age and the SMH are converting to tabloid; Gina Reinhart’s acquired a lot of shares and refused to commit to the Charter of Editorial Independence – she’s after three seats, we understand, on the board of Fairfax; and Wayne Swan has described it as a ‘threat to democracy’. Penny Wong, what’s your take on this?

WONG: I think there are a few things here. Obviously we do have a different view to Ms Rinehart on how much tax she and other wealthy miners should pay. We think they should pay a fairer rate of tax and that should be shared more broadly amongst the Australian community, something which I know Christopher opposes.

But, I think what we also have said is that the principle of editorial independence is important, and Ms Rinehart should express support for it. But what we don’t agree with is any proposition that Government should regulate to seek that outcome because I think that would be a contradiction in terms to have Government’s trying to regulate for editorial independence.

Ultimately, this is a matter for the company. And the point I made, when I was asked about this previously is, I said, look, it seems to me that one of the things that is an important part of the Fairfax brand is people do have a regard for the quality of the content and the quality of the journalism and anything that would undermine that reputation would obviously be a bad thing in terms of the company’s brand and the value proposition.

DENNY: Well, that was the immediate thing that sprung to mind for me. I mean, who’s going to buy a paper if they think, even if they perceive, that it’s somehow commercially affected.

WONG: And actually Malcolm Turnbull makes that point – he’s made that point previously and he makes that point today in one of his op eds – where he, on this issue I think, is pretty close to the Government’s position, which is we don’t agree with regulation, but if there’s any suggestion that somebody would utilise their ownership or part ownership of a newspaper to express their commercial interests that that’s not a good thing for democracy. And it wouldn’t be a good thing for consumers and consumers would see through it.

DENNY: Christopher Pyne?

PYNE: Spence, I think the interesting thing that’s been exposed in this story in the last couple of days is that the biggest threat to democracy in Australia is not wealthy Australians but the Australian Greens, who believe that to protect freedom of the press, the Government should be regulating it. Of course, that was the view of the Soviet Union, East Germany, the current view of North Korea.

The only way, of course, to maintain the freedom of the press is to do just that. It’s not for Government to regulate or control what should be printed in our newspapers. And it speaks volumes that the Greens are a very different party to just an environmental conservation party. There are a lot of people in the Greens who think that the Government should be doing just that, regulating the press in order to allow public comment that supports their position.

Now, if Gina Rinehart decides to increase her stake in Fairfax, to go on the board of Fairfax – it’s a publicly listed company, she’s perfectly entitled to do that. As Malcolm Turnbull has said, if she then turned the papers into a mouthpiece for herself, people would stop buying them and therefore of course she’s not going to do that. So, the hysteria that this is being met with by some sections of the Government, like Wayne Swan, and the Greens, just doesn’t meet the ‘barbecue test of fear’ that they are trying to create.

WONG: If I could make a couple of comments there. I think it’s a little unfair to put Wayne Swan in the same position as the Greens given that he doesn’t agree with them –

PYNE: It’s a little unfair.

WONG: (laughs) – and given that the Green’s position is not the Government’s position and we’ve expressed our view on that. In fact the person who’s closest to the Government’s position is probably Malcolm Turnbull. But the point I’d make to people who are concerned about this –and I know there are people concerned about this – is the reason you don’t want Governments to regulate independence, apart from the fact that, as I said, it’s a bit contradictory, is imagine if you had Barnaby Joyce in a future Liberal government, a future Coalition government, as the Minister for Communications. Would you really want Barnaby Joyce making a decision about what was editorial independence? And I guarantee –

PYNE: … or the current Minister for Communications, Steve Conroy, who made something of a hash of the Australia Network tender. But since we’re getting along so well this morning, let’s not start fighting now.

WONG: (laughs) I actually thought we would be a unity ticket when it came to Barnaby Joyce, Christopher. I think you privately would agree with me.

PYNE: (laughs) You know what this has exposed, it’s exposed that Matthew and David are the ones that cause all the trouble when we’re on.

WONG: Maybe I’m just tired and I can’t be bothered having an argument with you (laughs).

DENNY: (laughs) You can’t be bothered fighting with each other. Penny Wong –

WONG: It’s a cold morning in Canberra, it’s been a –

DENNY: (laughs) It’s always a cold morning in Canberra.

WONG: No, no, it’s minus four.

PYNE: It’s minus four.

WONG: So I think we’re both like ‘it’s too cold to argue’.

DENNY: Penny Wong, Labor Senator for South Australia, and Christopher Pyne, Liberal MP for Sturt, thank you so much indeed for your time this morning.

PYNE: That’s a pleasure.

WONG: Thank you.