7 November 2019




PATRICIA KARVELAS: I want to bring in Penny Wong now. She is the current Senate leader for Labor; she was of course a senior frontbencher in Bill Shorten’s frontbench as well and she joins us this afternoon. Penny Wong, welcome.


KARVELAS: What do you make of this election review and its findings and recommendations?

WONG: I think it is searingly honest and extremely well done. It doesn’t pull any punches about the sorts of mistakes we made and Jay and Craig deserve our thanks for doing this work, but also for making sure that we are presented with a report – with a series of findings and recommendations – which I believe are critical to laying the foundation for our push towards the next election.

KARVELAS: Why did Labor go into the election campaign with no strategy and no committee to run the campaign?

WONG: Look, this is precisely why we had the review, isn’t it? That question, along with a myriad of other questions that we asked, people asked us and have been asked since we lost that election.

We had this review to deal with that and many other questions about what we did wrong and what we need to do better. I think Jay and Craig have delivered a review which does show us; shines a light on the things we didn’t do well and the things we have to do better.

I was a member of the leadership team and I take responsibility for my part in the decisions that we made, which I think were demonstrably incorrect; just as Bill Shorten has also taken responsibility as leader of the Labor Party.

KARVELAS: Did Labor make up spending on the run?

WONG: Make up spending on the run? No, Labor did a lot of work on its policies.

KARVELAS: That’s what the report says.

WONG: I think that’s your version of it, I don’t think that’s actually what the report says, but we had too cluttered a policy agenda and the report lists that as one of the three key things. Weak strategy, cluttered policy agenda and Bill’s unpopularity – they’re the key three key findings as to why we lost the election. And of course, the policy agenda was associated with the revenue measures, which enabled the scare campaign to be run.

KARVELAS: The leader, shadow ministers and party officials gave the review widely
divergent answers to this key question – what was Labor’s strategy? Did you understand what Labor’s strategy was?

WONG: I think there is no doubt we had a difficult campaign. I think the review’s assessment of our collective failure, for want of a better word, to adjust to the change from Mr Turnbull to Mr Morrison I think is accurate.

What we have to do now is look at the review, understand it. I think the findings are sound and I think we should move on with implementing the recommendations. It is, as I said, a searingly honest report and one that is of high quality.

KARVELAS: But on that key question I asked you; you haven’t fully addressed it, I’m going to say politely to you. Do you feel like you understood Labor’s strategy going into that election?

WONG: Patricia, this is why we had the review. I’m not going to sit here and talk to you about what I might have said to Jay and Craig, what I might have said internally, what my private opinions are about where we were. What I wanted, what the Labor Party wanted and what our supporters want is what Jay and Craig have delivered, which is a searingly honest assessment of where we went wrong and what we need to do better.

There are a number of key things out of it, aren’t there? One of the key and critical things is we didn’t earn people’s trust on the economy. We have to do that if we are to win government.

KARVELAS: The recurring theme in this review seems to be that risks weren’t identified because Labor was just too confident of victory. Was that arrogance in some ways?

WONG: That is not a word I would use. Bill Shorten as Opposition Leader; he was very effective. He had a swing to him in 2016, he led the party to by-election victories, he went into the campaign with Labor ahead on the polls. There was observable evidence which suggested that we were in a good position.

I think what did happen was that – well a number of things happened – but one of them was that there was a lot more scrutiny on Labor than, for example, when Tony Abbott took on Julia Gillard in the last change of government in 2013. And certainly there was a lot more scrutiny on Labor as a result of what was demonstrated to be incorrect polling.

KARVELAS: The unpopularity of Bill Shorten as leader isn’t the only reason you lost, but it is a major one; as you say one of the three major findings of this report. What does that mean looking forward? Does it mean that you need to have a popular leader to win?

WONG: I think to win government you need to do what the Labor Party has had to do whenever we won government and that is to ensure you bring people together, you speak to Labor’s broadest constituencies, you earn people’s faith on the economy, you keep faith with your values. You do what Whitlam did, what Hawke did and what Rudd did – that’s what we need to do. We weren’t able to do that and we didn’t do that.

On Bill Shorten, he was an effective Opposition Leader, as I have outlined, but regrettably the Australian people didn’t trust him to become the Prime Minister of Australia. I campaigned for that outcome, but the Australian people chose differently.

KARVELAS: Another key error seems to be that Labor didn’t re-evaluate its strategy when Scott Morrison replaced Malcolm Turnbull; it’s something you’ve already mentioned in this interview. Was Scott Morrison underestimated?

WONG: I think that we had a very clear strategy that was very consistent and it was less that people underestimated Scott Morrison, although he is a very, very good political tactician, but I think underestimated the extent to which he was able to then shift strategy. We didn’t adjust sufficiently and I think that is a legitimate criticism of us.

KARVELAS: The review argues Labor can be bold but reform should be part of a coherent Labor story and be limited and easy to understand. Do you think the party needs to be less ambitious?

WONG: I think the review is right in saying we had too many policies. It was difficult for people to follow them, and while each of them was worthy in its own right, policies and announcements have to be targeted towards or be part of a very central narrative and key theme or vision, I suppose, about what sort of country you want. Obviously we didn’t do that in a way that was sufficiently compelling for the Australian people. In part, that is how we talked about them, in part also, it is the number of policies we announced in a short timeframe.

KARVELAS: Low income people who were going to be helped by your policies – that’s what you were arguing – voted against you, while higher income voters – who were going to be hurt by some of these policies – voted for you. What do you make of that?

WONG: I think it really lays bare the task we have. The task we have is to earn people’s trust on the economy. There has been a lot of talk about this; I have not been one of the members of the caucus or other commentators who have been engaged in this discussion. What I would say is let’s not walk into the trap Scott Morrison wants us to walk into. It is the same trap John Howard set many years ago and that is to position as opposing forces, working people and progressive voters. Labor wins when we bring people together. Labor wins when we earn people’s trust on the economy and we hold faith with our values, and that is what this report says and that is what history tells us. Whitlam, Hawke, Rudd – that’s what those leaders did.

We didn’t earn people’s trust on the economy and we have to hear that, we have to accept that and we have to go about earning their trust. That is what Anthony Albanese is very focused on as you would have seen from his speech in Perth.

KARVELAS: So what does it mean for policy going forward? The authors of this review have spoken today and said policy is up to you, essentially, and it is. What do you think this review says about a policy like the franking credits policy or perhaps climate change? On those two issues, how does it inform those policies going forward?

WONG: On climate change, I think you have already got an example of how we ought to approach that and that is the way in which Albo approached it in his recent speech in Perth where he talked about the opportunities and jobs associated with, or that can be generated by moving to a clean energy economy, by modernising and moving to a renewable energy economy. That is important. We have got to talk about the opportunities as well.

The reality is, as the report says – climate change, we can’t walk away from that challenge. We have to tackle it and we have to demonstrate to working people that unlike the Coalition, we understand the transition that is under way in the global economy and we want to ensure that we maximise job opportunities for working people, as a result of the changes.

KARVELAS: The review recommended better engagement with Chinese Australians who swung against Labor heavily in contested seats. Does the party need a bigger presence in Chinese language media, in digital platforms, or to look at the way it’s talking to migrant communities?

WONG: Yes we do, and I think we have acknowledged that. Particularly on WeChat we saw a lot of disinformation, not just disinformation but outright lies on the WeChat platform including the death taxes scare campaign and others. That’s an issue for the democracy. Do we really want a situation where people vote on the basis of things which are not true? There’s one thing to have a difference of opinion and to campaign harder on that. And it is another thing to actually run a scare campaign which is based on something which is untrue; based on a lie. So of course we have to improve our digital campaigning and we have to improve our engagement with a whole range of communities, the Chinese community being one of them; or Chinese communities I should say.

KARVELAS: Some self declared also Christians turned away from Labor. That’s identified in this report. Is that blowback for your support for progressive issues? What’s your analysis of why that’s happening?

WONG: I make the point the report actually says there wasn’t evidence of a widespread shift amongst voters of the Christian faith. Having said that, there were a number of groups for whom some parts of what the Labor Party was putting forward didn’t gain their support. What I would want to say is we are a party that has a long history of engagement with and by people of faith. Members of the Catholic Church, Catholic community, have been such an integral part of building the Labor movement in Australia including the creation of the Australian Labor Party. There are many people of faith still in our party and in our caucus. We have a strong faith tradition inside the Labor Party and I think it is important when we discuss issues that we continue to be respectful of different faiths, different faith traditions and people’s views.

KARVELAS: There was some other commentary in the report I found really interesting. It warns that care needs be taken to avoid Labor becoming a grievance focused organisation. Do you agree?

WONG: Look I do. But what I what I’d say is exactly what I said in answer to an earlier question, which is we also don’t want to fall into the trap that Morrison is seeking to set up, that John Howard set up, which is progressive voter versus working class voter who is “inherently conservative”. That is the way they try and posit these things. Labor’s always won when we do both. When we have earnt people’s trust on the economy and were we’ve held to our values and I think the review is consistent with that. What I would say is – we are in an environment where many of the messages to a whole range of voters are obviously not controlled by the major political parties. I would say at times, some of the Greens’ messages make it very challenging for Labor. I think and the review does touch upon this, I think Bob Brown’s Adani convoy, or anti-Adani convoy helped keep Scott Morrison in power. And perhaps some of the so-called progressive voters who thought that was a great idea should consider that.

KARVELAS: In past reviews recommendations have been accepted in full, but not always acted on. Will Labor act on all of the recommendations from this review?

WONG: Well, I think we should. But ultimately that’s a matter for the broader party, the National Executive and the caucus and party officials. But I think they are very sound findings and very sound recommendations.

KARVELAS: So, your advice to Anthony Albanese and the shadow cabinet is that it should all be adopted, not cherry picked?

WONG: My advice to the National Executive of which I am not a member, and to Party Officials, which I am not, is that we should look at its findings and act upon its recommendations.

KARVELAS: Has the review being too kind to Bill Shorten? Some of your colleagues have told me they think it has been.

WONG: I heard you say that in the intro and I suspect there’d be some people who might have the other view. Obviously Jay and Craig have come to a view that Bill’s popularity as a factor but not the only one and we shouldn’t run away from the other mistakes we made during the campaign. We should recognise that it is one of the three key findings that Jay and Craig have made. The report does go through in detail the polling. Obviously as I said, Bill was a very effective Opposition Leader, he worked extremely hard. He performed well in the election campaign. Regrettably Australians didn’t elect him Prime Minister. And that factor I think is laid out in the review and some of the factors that contributed to that.

KARVELAS: Bill Shorten says you don’t get reruns but if he did he’s said a few things he’d change. If you could get a rerun given he’s articulated the things he would change, what would you change?

WONG: I really liked the way you set that question up. You’re good. Bill did it, so will you do it, too?

KARVELAS: Pretty much what I’m saying.

WONG: Yeah, no. I don’t think so.

KARVELAS: What would you do?

WONG: I don’t think I’m going to engage in a discussion about what I would have done differently. The whole point of the review was because we needed to go through in a great amount of detail, the mistakes that were made, the things we did right, the things we did wrong, so we can look to the future. Because the issue really isn’t really I might have done differently or even what Bill would have done differently. The issue is what we will do differently in the next election, what Anthony Albanese will do differently between now and election day in just under three years’ time.

KARVELAS: How long is does the navel gazing get to go on for in your view?

WONG: Didn’t I just decline to do the navel gazing?

KARVELAS: Well broadly this discussion, about this review

WONG: It’s a reasonable point. It’s up to people to make their own judgements. I think we need to take this review and focus on what’s next. I think it’s been a difficult period. Obviously we lost an election. We have to listen to what the Australian people told us and we have to learn from that. They’re right, and we’ve got to get it right.

KARVELAS: Penny Wong, thanks so much for joining us this afternoon.

WONG: Good to speak with you.

Authorised by Paul Erickson, ALP, Canberra.