SENATOR THE HON PENNY WONG

LEADER OF THE OPPOSITION IN THE SENATE

SHADOW MINISTER FOR TRADE AND INVESTMENT

LABOR SENATOR FOR SOUTH AUSTRALIA

TRANSCRIPT

20 October 2015

ABC 891 BREAKFAST

TOPICS: LIBERAL PARTY'S TRADE UNION ROYAL COMMISSION, SENATE ESTIMATES

E&OE - PROOF ONLY

HOST: Labor Senator Penny Wong was, I think, leading the forensic piecing together, to use a play on words, of not just what happened to this table, this marble table that’s been smashed at a party after the leadership spill that saw Tony Abbott deposed as Prime Minister. The Party was held in the Cabinet Suite and we have had a number of texts saying why are you worrying about this, its trivia. Senate Labor Leader Penny Wong, welcome to the program.

SENATOR PENNY WONG, LEADER OF THE OPPOSITION IN THE SENATE: Good to be with you both.

HOST: Senator, apart from excruciating embarrassment, I suppose in terms of the questioning about this from the Government having to answer what went wrong and now the former Prime Minister is going to pay for it, what’s the issue here?

WONG: Well, look it wouldn’t have been an issue if they hadn’t tried to hide it and cover it up. I mean if someone had said ‘look this is broken, we are paying it back’, you know move on, I don’t think we would have had what we saw yesterday, where we had to uncover bit by bit the details of a party in the Cabinet Suite. A very expensive, unusual marble table, part of the furniture that was built for the Parliament specially in the 1980s, being smashed and then bits of marble apparently being souvenired and appearing in Minister’s offices.

Now if the Government had said ‘look this has happened, we’re paying it back’ I don’t think it would have been an issue. But we’ve had a month, we’ve had no response, or nothing happened on this until it got public. And I think the reality is no Australian accepts its appropriate to smash furniture at work, no matter who you are. We had this happening in the Cabinet Suite in the nation’s Parliament.

HOST: Is this also a great distraction from your leader, who’s having troubles arising from the union Royal Commission?

WONG: No look, estimates was yesterday, this has been raised, questions were asked and not answered. Along with a whole range of other questions, but obviously they don’t get as much media as this. We asked questions of the Parliamentary Departments and of Prime Minister and Cabinet, so this is a normal part of the Parliamentary process. But like I said I don’t think it would have been as much as an issue if there hadn’t been a bit of a cover up around what had actually occurred.

HOST: How would you rate the issue of a broken table against your leader and claims that the union that he was running at the time was receiving large amounts of money from a company, while reducing the benefits of that company’s workforce. I mean that’s a much more important issue isn’t it?

WONG: Well, I have a job as Senate leader in Estimates to ask questions of the Government. Bill Shorten also has a responsibility to answer reasonable questions and he went along to the Commission and answered many hundreds of questions over a couple of days about his position and his involvement and I think made very clear his views about what was being put to him. I don’t see how the two are relevant actually.

HOST: There relevant in this-

WONG: -As long as they are relevant to you David.

HOST: I’ll explain how I think they might be relevant to our listeners, because our listeners are sending us texts saying they don’t care about the table, but they do care about the allegations that have been surfacing in the Royal Commission. I’m just asking you to explain to our listeners when you weigh these stories, when you think how will I devote my time today Penny Wong, you say to yourself I will devote my time to forensically pursuing a table worth a thousand dollars, or I will take a good hard look at the union movement of which I am a member?

WONG: Well, in Senate estimates, the job is to hold the Government to account and I asked questions not just about the table, but about our role in Afghanistan, about the Federation White Paper around a range of things and obviously there is not as much media interest and I accept that. But this was an issue that was before us and it’s an issue we thought was appropriate to pursue because I think the standard that most Australians expect in their workplaces certainly wasn’t observed.

But look on the union movement issue, if what you are asking me is what’s my view about corruption in the union movement, I’ve said many times publically that corruption has no place in any walk of life and certainly not in the movement where unfortunately the action of some have besmirched a movement that has done a lot to benefit Australians. You know, there are a lot of things we enjoy in terms of our wages and conditions which were achieved over the last century because trade unions and their members have fought for them.

HOST: Do you think some workers though, and so often the unions we are talking about, including the one Bill Shorten did lead, they are the lowest paid workers in our workforce, and do you think for many of them it would come a surprise to find that the union had become the entity in itself, it had become the purpose and they were secondary to that. In other words you would take $100,000 dollars, with really not a lot of documentation by the looks of it, for a union and you may not get the outcome that you would want as a worker.  Certainly you wouldn’t be aware of the process, you wouldn’t be aware of money changing hands between a company and a union.

WONG: Well, a union is only as strong as its members and a union exists for its members. And my view about that is that ultimately union officials are elected democratically and they have to front up to their members and explain to them what they are doing. They’re democratically run organisations and ultimately they exist for the benefit of members.

And obviously governments can help there, I mean one of the things that we did in government was obviously try to ensure the cleaners, for example at Parliament House had a better range of conditions and better wages. And one of the things that hasn’t had much reporting about the table incident is the criticism of the cleaners that the Government has made because they reported it.

HOST: Why is that?

WONG: Well, allegedly because they saw the fact people had souvenired bits of the marble table and those bits of the marble table were in Ministers’ offices and when I asked what investigation was happening about the incident, the President of the Senate says ‘well I’ll be pursuing why the cleaners told anybody’.

Now that says something about priorities that you go after low paid workers, mainly women, who work and clean our offices very early in the morning, you go after them rather than the people who actually danced on the table and broke it.

HOST: So where is tablegate going next?

WONG: Well, I think I’m on to, from my perspective I’ve got Finance estimates today, so it will be on very different matters today. And we have Caucus and I’ll be talking about the China Free Trade Agreement. So my view about it is, I think Tony Abbott said he will now repay the amount, I suspect it will be a lot more than a $1000, but I think the principle-

HOST:  -We found one in Adelaide, it’s not pink, and it does have a slight crack in it , but its $185. You could save, he doesn’t have the PM’s salary now, you can save him a bit of dough.

WONG: I don’t actually think you can buy the table. Apparently this furniture, this is all before my time, but when Parliament House was built apparently there was a set of furniture which was developed for the Parliament for special suites like the Prime Minister’s Office and the Cabinet Suite and this is a special pink Italian marble. Now, I don’t know my marble, one marble from the other, but this is what I’m told.

HOST: Apparently there was so much marble when Parliament House was being built, apparently there are a lot of BBQs in backyards in Canberra with very nice marble surrounds.

WONG: Now that rumour I’ve never heard.

HOST: Senate Labor leader Penny Wong, thank you for speaking with 891 Breakfast.