28 October 2017




NICK GRIMM: Barnaby Joyce’s comments in the immediate aftermath of yesterday’s High Court decision might yet deepen the Government’s troubles. Joining me on the line now is Labor’s Leader in the Senate Chamber Penny Wong. Good morning Senator, thanks for joining us.


GRIMM: What are the chances do you think that we have seen the end of the courtroom drama that has characterised this? Are legal challenges to ministerial decisions looking likely in your view?

WONG: Well certainly they are eminently possible as a result of the extraordinarily poor judgment the Prime Minister has shown on this matter.

Let’s just go through this. This is a Government in utter chaos. This is a Government where the Deputy Prime Minister of Australia has been found to be ineligible to run for Parliament; where two of the most senior National Party members of cabinet are ineligible to run for Parliament. We have a cloud over decisions those ministers made because they did not step down – another poor judgment by Malcolm Turnbull.

And now we have a fight in the Government over who is going to be the Acting Prime Minister, which is preventing the Prime Minister from leaving the country. This is extraordinary that they can’t even sort out who is going to be the Acting Prime Minister while the Prime Minister is away and he’s had to delay his trip to sort out this unseemly fight.

This is utter chaos and all of it comes down to Malcolm Turnbull’s lack of judgment and the quote you played from parliament (“The Leader of the National Party, the Deputy Prime Minister, is qualified to sit in this House, and the High Court will so hold.”) demonstrates that most starkly.

GRIMM: Okay well let’s go back to Barnaby Joyce’s words yesterday and this notion of the de facto officer’s authority. To be fair, Barnaby Joyce doesn’t pretend to be a constitutional expert. The Government insists it was relying on the best advice of the Solicitor-General. Shouldn’t Mr Joyce be forgiven for fearing the worst with the fate of his job hanging in the balance?

WONG: This is the problem when collectively people do the wrong thing. If Mr Joyce believed “in his guts”, to use his phrase, that he was likely to lose, why did he and the Prime Minister tell Parliament otherwise?

It’s the same with Senator Cash, isn’t it, who misled the Parliament five times this week in relation to the raid on the AWU offices. You are required as a minister to be accountable to the Parliament and I think the question that really needs to be asked is that if Barnaby felt this “in his guts” why didn’t he tell the Parliament that? Why did he sit there and allow his Prime Minister to give the guarantees – and they were guarantees that were made to the Parliament and to the Australian people – and did he share those doubts with Malcolm Turnbull?

GRIMM: How does this play out from here? You’re in the Senate obviously, but you’re a senior member of the Labor team. Will the Opposition move to exploit the Government’s loss of a seat in the Lower House and push for new votes on finely balanced issues like the Banking Royal Commission and the protection of penalty rates?

WONG: Those two issues are good examples, aren’t they, because the protection of penalty rates and the establishment of a Royal Commission into the banking sector were lost by one vote. I’ve no doubt my colleagues in the House of Representatives will continue to hold the Government to account or continue to press for legislation.

If I can pick up the point that you made as part of that question, and earlier – this is in relation to whether or not decisions made by Barnaby Joyce could be challenged – I think there is now a significant risk of that. What he has told the Australian people is that he wasn’t sure he was actually eligible. He continued to sit as a Cabinet Minister making decisions. In fact he continued to sit as the second most powerful person in the Government. If he did so, and made decisions which undoubtedly he did, whilst believing he may not be eligible to sit in the Parliament, that has now created enormous risk and potential for chaos for this Government and for the country.

GRIMM: What about same sex marriage Penny Wong? Is there an opportunity for the Opposition to bring that issue to a vote whilst the Government in a state of disarray or would that be the sort of mischief your Acting Leader Tanya Plibersek promises you won’t engage in?

WONG: We certainly won’t be playing any mischief on Marriage Equality. We’ve gone through this process of a postal survey which Labor didn’t want and the community didn’t want and which has cost many millions of dollars. What should occur, after the vote has been returned, is the Parliament should deal with the outcome of that survey responsibly, separate to any issues associated with Mr Joyce.

I notice there was some discussion about whether or not the Government would be shifting the sittings of the parliament to try to suit itself to ensure there would be no sittings prior to the by-election in New England – that is, proroguing the Parliament. What I would say is this – you can’t use the Parliament as a plaything. Marriage Equality will be dealt with, subject to the Survey, in the next sessions of the Parliament and once the Survey comes in the Parliament should deal with that responsibly and that doesn’t include Mr Turnbull moving Parliament around to suit himself.

GRIMM: As you say, Parliament shouldn’t be a plaything and it’s fair to say most voters are heartily sick of politics as usual. Should the Opposition pair Barnaby Joyce’s vote in Parliament for the sake of stable Government and the better good of the nation?

WONG: I think Tony Burke has dealt with this. The reality is we didn’t create the circumstances whereby Barnaby Joyce, and frankly Fiona Nash, were so sloppy as to not check whether or not the fact their parents were citizens of other countries affected them. That is a matter the National Party takes responsibility for. They were sloppy with their vetting, that has been demonstrably the case and now the voters of Australia and the voters of New England will pay the price – both in terms of cost, but also, as we’ve discussed, the potential invalidity of decisions that both of those ministers have made

GRIMM: Just quickly Penny Wong, the Prime Minister has put off his overseas trip whilst this matter unfolds. With the benefit of hindsight was it a tactical error for your leader Bill Shorten to leave the country while the High Court decision was still to play out?

WONG: Not at all. The error here is that Malcolm Turnbull has delayed, not out of the interests of the nation, but because there is an unseemly fight between the National Party and the Liberal Party over who will be the Acting Prime Minister

All, may I say, on the basis of a secret agreement, the Coalition Agreement, that they have refused to disclose to the ABC and other journalists, a secret agreement which is now holding up who will be the Acting Prime Minister of Australia. Another reason why Malcolm Turnbull should be stop making that document secret and should release it to the public.

GRIMM: Okay Senator Penny Wong we’ll leave it there. Thanks very much.

WONG: Good to speak with you.