1 December 2019




FRAN KELLY, HOST: Penny Wong, welcome to Insiders.


KELLY: Is that what Labor is doing in that vote, voting to protect union thugs?

WONG: I think that the Government should have a think about this point – it’s pretty hard to get a bill called Ensuring Integrity through the Parliament, when you don’t demonstrate any. And the facts are these: this is a bill which was all about cleaning out the trade union movement, taking out the trade union movement, so that the Government had a clear run for WorkChoices 2.

And the political agenda was exposed by the Government’s double standards. They were demanding standards of working people and their representatives that they weren’t prepared to impose upon the Westpac management, and that they weren’t prepared to live up to themselves, as demonstrated by Angus Taylor and the Prime Minister’s lack of transparency on this issue.

KELLY: Sure, but on the unions, isn’t there some logic for Labor. John Setka, remains the head of one of the most powerful arms of the union movement. Isn’t it time there were laws in place to allow the courts to do what Labor did, which is to get rid of him?

WONG: And Labor did succeed in ensuring John Setka is no longer a member of the party.

KELLY: But he’s still a very powerful unionist in this country.

WONG: There are laws to deal with misbehaviour of unions.

KELLY: And yet, he’s still there.

WONG: And laws to deal with people who behave in ways, and for example, if there is criminal behaviour, or way that is are not appropriate for leadership of trade unions. But let’s be clear, the Government wants to make it about John Setka. They don’t want to make it about nurses and midwives. They don’t want to make it about police officers. They don’t want to make it about teachers. They don’t want to make it about firefighters. But these are the people who are represented by trade unions, and this was always legislation that was about ensuring that there was a pathway to further attacks on wages and conditions.

And can I just remind you of one thing that occurred in the Senate this week, which I thought was very significant. Twice, Marise Payne was asked, as the Minister representing Christian Porter, whether she would rule out any watering down of unfair dismissal laws, any watering down of industrial laws, including the Better Off Overall Test, and she refused to do so. I think that that makes it very clear what the agenda was in this legislation. It should have been defeated, and I think that it is a good thing for the country that it was.

KELLY: And when did you know it was? A lot of people were saying, you should have seen Penny Wong wandering around the chamber with a big smile on her face through all of this. When did you know that Pauline Hanson was going to dud the Government?

WONG: I was pretty stressed. I think that it would be odd if I was smiling. I had listened, unlike, apparently, Christian Porter, to what Pauline Hanson and One Nation had said publicly. I listened to their second reading speeches, and they had made clear that they had not yet decided to vote for the legislation. So I thought that there was a chance that they would not, and I’m pleased that they didn’t, because I think that it is much better for the country.

KELLY: Meanwhile, on another issue, police are investigating the origins of the documents used by Energy Minister Angus Taylor to make criticism of Sydney City Mayor Clover Moore. The Government says Angus Taylor has done nothing wrong. If the police investigation finds no criminality, will Labor accept that Angus Taylor is in the clear?

WONG: What is the standard that we expect of Cabinet ministers these days? I mean, this is a bloke who’s used doctored documents, false information – and he’s admitted that they were false – on ministerial correspondence, to attack the Lord Mayor of Sydney. He’s doing that instead of doing his job, which is actually tackling climate change and reducing energy prices – neither of which he’s done. And then he’s misled the Parliament about it. If that’s the standard that this Prime Minister, that Mr Morrison thinks is acceptable, it’s unsurprising that people don’t regard his Government as having any integrity.

KELLY: If there’s a police investigation and it finds no criminality, once that’s wound up, is that the end of it?

WONG: If, if, if, let’s allow the criminal investigation to proceed. But I make a broader point which is about the standards of behaviour expected of a Cabinet Minister. I find it inconceivable, and I think that most of the public do too, that a bloke who is supposed to be making sure that their energy prices are down, is spending his time using false information to attack a political opponent using his ministerial office to do that. Is that really what we want Cabinet Ministers to be doing?

KELLY: Labor was critical this week because the Prime Minister picked up the phone to the New South Wales Police Commissioner to find out what this investigation was about. He hadn’t heard of it. The Commissioner, himself, says that the PM didn’t ask anything inappropriate. Is Labor just beating this up?

WONG: Well, justice not only has to be done, it has to be seen to be done. And that phone call has been criticised, not just by Labor, but by the former Independent Commissioner against Corruption. It’s been criticised by counsel assisting. It’s been criticised by Malcolm Turnbull. And I thought the question is why did he do that? If there was no information other than what was on the public record, then what is the purpose of him ringing the Police Commissioner? And this is access that members of the public don’t get. You don’t get to call the Police Commissioner about an investigation that might affect you. And I think that the Prime Minister’s judgement, and frankly integrity, were put into question by not only that he did that, but that he then misled the Parliament four times subsequently, as he fought, aggressively and defensively, to explain his behaviour.

KELLY: You were also Shadow Foreign Minister, Foreign Affairs Minister. I want to ask you about China and there’s a lot of issues around the whole China relationship. But in the latest Quarterly Essay, Peter Hartcher records a meeting you had two years ago with Bill Shorten and Richard Marles and a senior member of the Chinese Politburo, Meng Jianzhu, where he asked Labor to drop its opposition to an extradition treaty with China, and threatened according to this report to mobilise 1.2 million Chinese Australians to vote against Labor if you didn’t do that. Can you confirm that threat was made?

WONG: Look Fran, you wouldn’t – you would expect that someone in my position would say to you it’s not appropriate for me to discuss the details of what occurs in conversations with foreign governments.

KELLY: Well someone at that meeting has told Peter Hartcher.

WONG: Well, I have a job, but I will say this, and this is important. Labor was under a lot of pressure to ratify that China extradition treaty, and it was pressure from a range of places. It was pressure that included not only the Prime Minister, Mr Turnbull, and Julie Bishop, but the Coalition Cabinet, including Peter Dutton and Scott Morrison, were demanding that we ratify that treaty. I refused and Labor refused. And my view after that meeting was that we should continue to do so, and we did. But for Labor, we would have an extradition treaty with China. I would also say this: that meeting and subsequent events have confirmed my view that it’s very important that we are resilient, as a democracy, in the face of the potential for foreign interference. That resilience goes to how political parties operate. That resilience goes to the banning of foreign donations, which Labor pressed the Government to do. The Liberals dragged their feet on that until just before the last election, and it also goes, frankly, to the way in which this Government is handling the allegations in relation to the member of Chisholm.

KELLY: In terms of other allegations, last week, we learnt that a Chinese man, Wang Liqiang, had sought asylum in Australia, telling ASIO he was a Chinese spy, revealing details of political interference by China in Hong Kong, Taiwan and in Australia. It now seems, apparently ASIO doesn’t regard this man as the key operative that he might have painted himself as. Should he be offered asylum?

WONG: I’m not going to, obviously, the Labor Party, as Senator Keneally indicated yesterday, we have been briefed in relation to these matters, as is appropriate. As the Director-General of ASIO has indicated publicly, these matters will be investigated as they should be. I am concerned that we appear to have national security advice being provided to particular journalists. I don’t think that that is the appropriate way in which these matters should be dealt with.

KELLY: If this is a tactic to gain asylum, it poses a challenge for Australia, doesn’t it? Because there’s the threat of copycat asylum seekers. There must be thousands of people around the world who might have some level of connection with Chinese operations who could claim?

WONG: Which is why these matters should be soberly and carefully assessed, and considered by intelligence agencies and governments should make decisions. But this goes to a broader point. We have a challenging relationship at this point with China. We have a continuing need to engage. They’re a very important trading partner. But we will have continuing areas of divergence, because we’re a democracy and we will always ensure that we safeguard our sovereignty and our democratic values. We need to assert our interests and reflect our values. In doing so, I think it’s really important that we equip parliamentarians to better understand the relationship and to safeguard against foreign interference. We also need to ensure that the Government leads the discussion, and it is regrettable that the Government at the moment is not leading the discussion. And too much of the discussion, with all due respect to my friends in the media, has been led by journalists or by backbenchers like Andrew Hastie.

KELLY: Just on that case, Andrew Hastie is championing this man’s cause publicly. Does it concern you that he’s so public in his intervention to this? I note that Peter Jennings from the Australian Strategic Policy Institute has welcomed Andrew Hastie talking quote ‘openly and honestly.’

WONG: Mr Jennings is very close to the Coalition Government, so that’s unsurprising. But it’s up to Andrew Hastie how he behaves. The point that I’ve made before and that I’ve made before on this show, is that the reason that we sought that Parliament be better briefed about the relationship is that judgements have to be made by politicians, by Members of Parliament and Senators about what is–

KELLY: Just to interrupt you, if more Parliamentarians are better briefed, isn’t it more of a chance that more parliamentarians are going to start talking about these things in the media?

WONG: Or maybe they can make sensible judgements about how things should be handled and what should be handled publicly and what should be handled in different ways. And maybe people can make sensible judgements about whether getting a headline or a story is actually in the national interest. Whether the national interest is better served by handling things in a different way.

KELLY: Senator Wong, could I just ask you finally, tomorrow, it’s ten years since the Rudd Government lost the code on the CPRS by one vote. I’m sure you’ll never forget that, you were the Climate Change Minister at the time. Australia has failed to come up with an enduring emissions reduction policy since then. Do you think back and think was there more that you could have done, should have done, to get that vote passed?

WONG: That vote and what’s occurred subsequently, has reinforced my view that we have to find common ground if we are going to act on climate change. If we are going to ensure that we are going to create clean energy jobs, reduce emissions and create more renewable energy. The thing that is quite clear is that neither the Coalition nor the Greens political party have learnt the lessons of the last decade. The Coalition is still in denial, and division. And the Greens political party have to decide – are they actually prepared to look for change, to look for common ground, to act for change? Or are they really going to make it their political objective to take votes off the Labor Party and have a political fight with the Labor Party? Because, I think what we’ve seen in the recent election, even in the bushfires – they haven’t learned that we have to persuade people. They haven’t learned that we have to find common ground. They just want to shout at people. And I don’t think that that is going to lead to action on climate change for the whole country.

KELLY: Senator Wong, thank you very much for speaking to us on Insiders.

Authorised by Paul Erickson, ALP, Canberra.