17 June 2018




ANNABEL CRABB: Penny Wong, good morning and welcome to the program.


CRABB: What did you make of Minister Tudge’s speech this week?

WONG: Well, I thought it was interesting that his New South Wales colleague, Brad Hazzard, said it wasn’t a “fair dinkum” test. He said you don’t need English to come to this country you just need to be “fair dinkum” and this isn’t a “fair dinkum” test.

I think Minister Tudge has a way to go before he convinces his side of politics. At the highest level, of course we want people to learn English. The question is whether or not the sorts of ideas that Mr Tudge is floating – and he is only floating them – are sensible ones. Are they ones that work as unreasonable barriers – not “fair dinkum” test as Mr Hazzard says – or not? We will look at the detail of what he’s proposing when he actually proposes something.

CRABB: What are you suggesting, that he’s not actually proposing to do anything, that he just wants to ventilate this idea? Is it a bit of a dog whistle, do you think?

WONG: Well, I read his speech because obviously this was an issue that got a bit of media. He really is simply floating ideas. I don’t see a clear policy proposition that has the endorsement of the government being announced. We’ll obviously consider that if and when it happens.

CRABB: You were pretty firmly against the proposition when the government first brought it, when it was a higher level English literacy test. Would you be more comfortable with a primary school level conversational test?

WONG: We did oppose the government’s university level English test for citizenship which was floated previously; this was their earlier iteration. I made the wry point that maybe some of us in Parliament might not meet such a test anyway.

The conversational level test is the citizenship test currently. I think what is being floated is to bring it in earlier for permanent residency or the like. We’ll have a look at what he proposes. As I said, he’s floating ideas at the moment.

CRABB: So you are not opposed to a test per se?

WONG: We already have one. I think John Howard brought in the conversational level English as part of the citizenship test years ago.

CRABB: Only for the skilled migrant program, though?

WONG: Let’s see what the government proposes. I do think it is interesting. He hasn’t even got the support – from what I can see – from some of his New South Wales colleagues.

CRABB: Let’s move to the Trump-Kim summit; the major landmark of the week. I want to know five days on, do you think that the world is a safer place as a result of that summit?

WONG: Well, it’s always better for people to be talking than not. You would have to say not yet. Not until we see real action. In your introduction, Annabel, you rather pithily described it as a speed-date – we need it to be a lot more than a speed-date and we need it to be a lot more than a headline.

It was historic and it was important. But what happens next is what really matters. Will we see steps towards genuine denuclearisation? Will we see the complete irreversible and verified removal of the nuclear capability of North Korea? That is the question.

CRABB: How do you interpret President Trump’s remarks where he raised the prospect of a US military retreat from the Korean Peninsula?

WONG: I think he made the point that that’s something that is not being considered currently. My view about it is this: the whole purpose of the sanctions on North Korea, the whole purpose of the pressure the international community has collectively brought on North Korea, has been to ensure the safety of the region; peace and stability in the region and peace and stability in the world. And any steps that are taken in the context of these discussions would have to be in that context; that is regional stability.

We need peace and stability in the region. It is not simply a bilateral discussion between the US and North Korea, as important as that is. It is about the stability of the whole region and US engagement in the region is important.

CRABB: Would you view a US retreat from the Korean Peninsula as creating a vacuum in the region?

WONG: Well, the President himself has said that is not something on the table now. It’s a hypothetical. You wouldn’t want to make any moves until you saw concrete steps or the actual denuclearisation of North Korea; the removal of the capability that I have outlined.

CRABB: The Trump administration’s next step, this week – after the summit – was to slap a 25 per cent tariff on a whole range of Chinese imports triggering a tit for tat response from Beijing. How is this trade war going to affect us?

WONG: It’s a bad thing. This is a very negative development. It is a negative development because it strikes at the integrity of the world trading system which has served the world well, which has ensured disputes are managed and contained, which has ensured that we don’t get into escalating economic fights. I think it is a negative thing because conflict in the trading relationship risks some instability in the broader bilateral relationship; and we need a strong, stable bilateral relationship between the United States and China. Nobody wins from a trade war.

CRABB: So how do you calm it down from here?

WONG: This is ultimately a matter that the international community has to deal with. Obviously, the US administration has a different view to that of both parties of government here and many of its allies when it comes to how to deal with trade issues. That is a fact of life.

We have to continue to assert why the trading system matters and we have to continue to try and ensure that this doesn’t escalate. So, you are right, your panel described the fact that this is a problem for Australia because we have strong economic as well as other relationships with both parties here. But it’s a problem for the world.

CRABB: So the alliance between Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un was an unlikely one to emerge in the last fortnight. Another one was Julie Bishop and Penny Wong, you two made a joint trip to Palau, the Federated States of Micronesia and the Marshall Islands. I think we’re seeing some pictures here now of you apparently rescuing the Foreign Minister from what appears to be quite a deep puddle.

Now while she was there the Foreign Minister made it quite clear that Australia considers the Pacific to be our patch. That was in response to some criticisms made from China about our interference in the region. Are you two now a unity ticket on telling China to back off from the Pacific?

WONG: We have a unity ticket as have successive governments and oppositions of both political persuasions on the importance of the Pacific to Australia and on the importance of Australia playing a leadership role, of being the natural partner in the development of Pacific nations. We are a unity ticket on that. The purpose of the bipartisan trip – I like the reference to the puddle… (laughs)

CRABB: I notice she didn’t help you out of it.

WONG: I don’t think I asked her to so it is okay. You’re distracting me Annabel (laughs).

CRABB: I’m sorry.

WONG: The importance of the trip was to demonstrate the bipartisan support for our relationships with and our involvement in the Pacific, and it was well received. It’s the second one we have done together and I think it is an important signal to the region that Australia is a natural partner for the region. It is unfortunate the government has cut $11 billion from our aid program since they were elected. I don’t think that is being helpful. It is very helpful that both parties of government are making it clear to the region our priority for Pacific Island nations.

CRABB: Earlier in the year when Concetta Fierravanti-Wells mounted an attack on Chinese interference on the Pacific region – building bridges to nowhere and so on – you described the government as clumsy in its handling of its relationship with China. Is that still your view?

WONG: It is possible to stand up for your national interests, to assert your national interests without being offensive, without hyperbole and without exaggeration. I think on more than one occasion we’ve had ill-discipline from some government ministers which hasn’t helped.

CRABB: So there’s been a lot of tiptoeing around this week on the question of Huawei – the telco company network – on security grounds. Can you spell out exactly what the security concerns about this telco are?

WONG: I’m not going to go into or discuss national security advice, nobody does that. I make a broader point: I think some of the discussion about Huawei, or any company in this space, misunderstands what we are talking about. China is a one-party state; it’s a Communist state. It doesn’t have the same separation between government and the economy, government and the community that we assume. So sometimes questions about company structure or indeed company financing – which is obviously a different way in which government is engaged – from Australian journalists misunderstand or make assumptions about structures and arrangements which really are about democracies and market economies like Australia. Those assumptions are not relevant when it comes to China.

CRABB: In recent years, Senator Wong, governments across Australia have taken an extraordinary range of attempts to curb Chinese influence. We have barred Chinese companies from resource and telco projects and stopped them from buying farms. We have slapped higher taxes and heavier restrictions on Chinese citizens buying real estate. What effect does all of this have on the 500,000 Chinese-born Australians?

WONG: That is a good question. I do think all political leaders need to be very careful about how we engage in this debate. We need to be responsible in how we engage in this debate and we need to ensure we don’t fan the obvious historical prejudices that Australia has engaged in. I don’t think Australia does so these days, but I do think how we talk about things in this debate does matter.

CRABB: It is going to get harder and harder from this point in.

WONG: I think being responsible, having some wisdom, having some judgement, having some tact in how you talk about some of these issues is important; and also being precise. For example, some of the debates around foreign investment more generally have been problematic. We should remember we are a country that has always required foreign capital to fuel our investment needs and we also should remember that Australia has benefited greatly from the rise of China. It’s fuelled much of our growth over the last decade.

What is important here is we have a very deep relationship with China. We have a strong economic relationship with China. It’s a relationship where there are differences, there are also areas where our interests converge and a sensible government does have to navigate those differences carefully and also needs to invest in the relationship.

CRABB: You’re due to visit China yourself, in a couple of months I think. Have you got your visa organised or are you in the deep freeze too?

WONG: I have already visited China this term as Shadow Foreign Minister. It is our intention, Richard Marles and I, to visit China again later this year. It is still in the early planning stages. It obviously depends on whether or not there is an election this side of Christmas.

CRABB: Let’s go quickly to the upcoming fortnight in the Senate. You are due tomorrow to greet a new colleague who is going to be replacing Katy Gallagher in the Senate. There’s been a bit of discussion over the weekend about whether he will be a permanent fixture in the Senate or might be replaced by Katy Gallagher after the election – what is your preference?

WONG: Obviously a big day tomorrow for David Smith; being sworn into the Senate. That is a big occasion for him and his family. In terms of preselection for the next election, Bill Shorten has made clear, I have made clear, as have other senior leaders and senior members of the Labor Party both at the territory level and federally, that we want Katy back in the Senate. She is a very important part of our Senate leadership team. As Senate leader, I want her back and I know Bill and others do as well. Obviously, there will be a preselection for the next election.

CRABB: Okay, sounds like Senator Smith needn’t get too comfortable. We have got tax cuts – both of the company and income variety – up in the next two weeks. I want to ask about the income tax cuts. Do you think, if push comes to shove, the Labor Party will prioritise its distaste for higher income cuts over its enthusiasm for income cuts for lower wage earners?

WONG: You know what we are going to do? We will give the Senate the opportunity to vote for a better tax package for low and middle-income Australians. Labor’s tax package means more tax cuts for people earning under $125,000 a year. We’ve made that clear. We’ve put that out, including the costings. We will give the Senate the opportunity to vote for better tax cuts.

CRABB: If you can’t split the bill, and have only the bits that you want, are you prepared to let those lower paid workers forgo their tax cut?

WONG: The only person standing in the way of tax cuts that are to start next month is actually Malcolm Turnbull. We have already indicated bipartisan support for that. He is trying to hold those hostage to tax cuts six or seven years down the track. So let’s be clear of the political tactic that’s being played here. We are prepared to support the tax cuts that start next month and we also will give the Senate the opportunity to vote for a better package, a package that delivers more for more Australians.

CRABB: And you under all circumstances will oppose that tax cut for higher income earners?

WONG: I’m focused on winning the two votes that I just described.

CRABB: Exactly what I expected you to say. Thank you for joining us Penny Wong.

WONG: Great to be with you.

Authorised by Noah Carroll ALP Canberra.