3 December 2018




BARRIE CASSIDY: Senator, good morning and welcome.


CASSIDY: Do you accept that analysis that Donald Trump is not a protectionist, he just wants a better deal in the long-run?

WONG: I’ll leave people’s motivations to be described by them. But what we can say is this – our national interest is in open trading systems. We’re an economy of which 40% is dependent on trade. We’re also not a superpower so rules matter to us.

What we want is multilateralism to work. I think the communique issued is a good step. We don’t want the bilateral dispute that you’ve been discussing to have ongoing and destructive implications for the world trading system.

CASSIDY: But then Donald Trump’s approach is to introduce tariffs in the short-term to try to force freer trade. Is that reasonable? Or is that a bare knuckled approach?

WONG: He’s using his economic power in a way that neither Australian government, of both political persuasions, has supported, nor put in place.

I think it’s important to remember who is punished by tariffs? It’s not only the nation that you’re dealing with, but ultimately, it’s consumers.

What we want is to try to work with other nations towards protecting, supporting the global trading system. It does need changes. I mean, I think it is quite clear that there are disputes – not just between the US and China, but other countries who are looking to the WTO and saying this isn’t working in the way that we hope.

But the answer has to lie in countries coming together to ensure that we have open trading systems which are fair and transparent. That’s in Australia’s national interest, our economic interest and I would argue that it is also a better thing for global security.

CASSIDY: And we’ll know soon enough whether the Americans and the Chinese can work something out this morning, but you do see some encouragement, at least in the communique?

WONG: As I think you said in your introduction, Barrie, it’s better than not having one, which is where we were with APEC.

We have a situation where it’s very important from Australia’s perspective that these forums, including obviously the G20 – which is a very important forum, given Kevin Rudd’s involvement in elevating it to leader level and its role in the aftermath of the GFC – it’s very important that we use all of these forums to press for Australia’s interests and as I said, we have no interest in a trade war and nor does the global economy. We have an interest in fair trading arrangements and open trading arrangements.

CASSIDY: Alright, we’re about to go into the final week of the Parliament for the year. You’re making attempts to protect gay students at religious schools. Are you optimistic, do you expect that something can be done with just a week to go?

WONG: I hope so. This is a position that Scott Morrison supported during the Wentworth by-election. Most people across the majority of the Parliament said look, it’s not OK in today’s world that we have laws which enable the expulsion of, or the discrimination against students who are LBGTIQ. Those exemptions are not appropriate in contemporary Australia and I hope that the Parliament can swiftly move to deal with them.

We do also want to deal with the issue of staff. We’ve made that clear that that is Labor’s position, but we accept that there isn’t a majority for that at the moment and there are obviously some complexities and we hope that those can be worked through in the near future as well.

CASSIDY: As I understand it, though, to get this debate into the Parliament and suspend standing orders, you’d have to get all of the crossbenchers plus one. Can you do that?

WONG: The Senate numbers are slightly different to the House where obviously the numbers in the House and the standing orders make it even more difficult.

But can I say Scott Morrison supported this. So how about instead of getting into the arithmetic of what we need to suspend standing orders in the House or what we need in the Senate, why doesn’t he just ask his people to do what he said they would do which is to vote to remove these exemptions?

CASSIDY: There is some resistance coming from the schools of course. Their argument seems to be that if this was to happen they couldn’t any longer shape their own beliefs. That they would not be able to adhere to their own teaching mission. Do you understand what it is that they’re concerned about?

WONG: I understand what they’re saying and I don’t think it is borne out by the law. I mean, there are provisions in the Act which do enable those sorts of activities to continue to occur, and I think this is a little bit like what we saw in the Marriage Equality campaign. Remember? I think heterosexual marriages were going to become less secure and the unit of the family was going to be destroyed.

I’m happy to have a discussion about how we ensure that we preserve the capacity of religious schools to teach tenets of the faith, to ensure that students go to chapel, that ensure that kids get a religious instruction. And nothing in the bill that is being proposed by the Labor Party stops that. So perhaps we should stop saying it does and deal with the issues that are before the chamber, as well as some of the more complex issues, as I’ve described, in relation to staff.

CASSIDY: But that is one example that comes up all the time, that they’ll no longer be able to compel students to go to chapel. You say that you can get around that?

WONG: There are provisions in the Act which deal with indirect discrimination and there are reasonable exemptions associated with that. And I just don’t see from the evidence before the Senate committee, which looked at the issue, that the accusations which are being made by some schools are grounded in fact.

Let’s also remember a great many of religious schools have come out and said that they no longer wish for these exemptions to be in place. So I think this debate should proceed on the basis that there are a great many educators in religious schools who have said we don’t want these exemptions.

CASSIDY: You’ve now taken a position on the encryption laws. You’re going to oppose the bill..


CASSIDY: .. you’re leaving yourself wide open to attacks that you are being soft on terrorism?

WONG: I want to say three things about that and I want them to be very clear. The first is an observation about the politics. What is happening is that Scott Morrison is doing what he did when he sought to move the Australian Embassy to Jerusalem. He’s seeking to create a fight so as to distract attention from things like Julia Banks moving to the crossbench.

The second point I’d make is a point about the content of the bill. The bill, as it is currently drafted, will make Australia less safe. Let me read one very small part of a transcript from a company which is responsible for encryption, not only of some Australia’s defence agencies and the AFP, but the US military and the Knesset. And it says about this bill:

“It compromises the security of citizens, businesses and governments. It will be easier for cyber criminals, terrorists, to target systems, and to be able to break into those systems.”

So this is evidence from this company.

The third point I’d make is this – we have said we are willing to pass a bill by Thursday, which gives appropriate powers, these powers, to National Security Agencies with appropriate oversight to target criminals and people who are being investigated for child sex crimes. We are willing to pass that by Thursday.

Scott Morrison doesn’t want that. He wants a fight, and I think compromising Australia’s national security for those reasons is really beneath the Prime Minister.

CASSIDY: If we go back to the first point that you make – the politics around it – if it is a trap, you’re about to walk into it?

WONG: I don’t think that you just say – when a Prime Minister behaves like, frankly, a partisan player on national security – I don’t think that you just say “Sure, fine, we’ll dance as well.” We have to stand up for Australia’s national security. The bill as it is currently drafted makes Australians less safe.

I’ve been part of this committee for five years. We’ve dealt with 15 bills. We have passed all of them and approved all of them with bipartisan support. This is the first time we’ve been in this position. We do not take it lightly. We believe that the Prime Minister is compromising Australia’s national security and he should stop playing politics with national security to try to get around the fact that he’s got a problem in his party room.

CASSIDY: Is there room for compromise? Is there something that you can give and something that you want from them?

WONG: Absolutely. In fact, the committee were working to a compromise position. The committee were working to a compromise position along the terms that I’ve just outlined. Let’s give the powers to the National Security Agencies for the purposes of terrorist investigations and child sex crimes. And guess what happened? Scott Morrison and Peter Dutton blew the process up. That’s what happened. And I think that the Parliament and the country are served much less well by virtue of that politicking around national security.

CASSIDY: Just finally on Adani getting the getting the go-ahead – there was a report in the Financial Review this week that suggested that Federal MPs, Labor MPs, have been told not to talk about it. Not to talk about the issue for fear of driving a wedge between the left and the right? Is that true?

WONG: Not that I know of. And as far as I can see, you’re going to ask me about it now and people have been asked about it publicly, so if there was an instruction, it’s probably not going to work, is it? But nobody has made that suggestion to me.

CASSIDY: Alright, nevertheless, the situation now is rather than take 60 million tonnes, they’re down to somewhere between 10-15 million and it is all private money, will that significantly change the debate at the political level?

WONG: I think there’s two points that I’d make. The first point is that at a political level, I think this debate has become a proxy debate for climate change and whether or not you’re serious about acting on climate change and can I say – we are. And I think that the recent IPCC report demonstrates why Australia needs a mechanism to reduce emissions in Australia and also needs to participate globally.

This is a much smaller mine, as you pointed out. I think it’s one open cut mine when we were looking at some 11 operations in the megamine that was proposed. And as I understand it, there is no public money. Certainly, the position that Federal Labor has made very clear is that we don’t believe this project should get a cent of public funding in order for it to proceed.

CASSIDY: And if it does proceed, and it looks like it will now, before any prospect of an election, I think Tanya Plibersek and Bill Shorten have both made the point – once these things get started, it’s very hard to stop them?

WONG: Correct. And they’re right. And there is a thing called sovereign risk. And we don’t want to be a country which has any skerrick of a reputation that we’re prepared to engage in activity after the fact which could endanger any form of investment or project. So it’s very difficult and not sensible to stop things after they are proceeded with.

CASSIDY: So, I guess the message that you’re giving out to those who are opposed to Adani is – it may be smaller but it’s going to happen? There’s nothing that you can do about it?

WONG: I’m saying that that is a decision for the operator, for the investor. And you know, I think that there are real questions about the viability of the megamine, both in terms of the investment, domestically, but also the global markets. And I think our spokespeople have talked about that. Over time, we’ve seen renewables become much more relatively competitive than coal.

CASSIDY: Thank you for your time this morning..

WONG: Good to speak to you.

Authorised by Noah Carroll, ALP, Canberra.