2 August 2017




EMMA ALBERICI: Penny Wong is the Leader of the Opposition in the Senate. She joined me earlier from Adelaide.

Penny Wong, welcome back to Lateline.


ALBERICI: There are now at least four Liberal MPs who are agitating for the Government to bring on a Parliamentary vote on same-sex marriage.

Are you confident after all this time that this issue may well be resolved in the next couple of weeks?

WONG: I hope it can be and I hope that we can have this vote and move on because I think that’s where most Australians would like us to be.

I know this is a deeply divisive issue inside the Coalition, and has been for a very long time, but at some point the delaying tactics have to stop.

I do applaud the courage of Dean Smith and Trevor Evans and others who are standing up for what they believe, but also for the principle that they should be able to have a vote on this in Parliament, and ultimately Malcolm Turnbull can’t simply avoid having a vote on this forever.

That’s not a political strategy and it’s not a decent strategy.

ALBERICI: Dean Smith has confirmed he’s drafting a private member’s bill on this. He’s in the Senate where presumably there wouldn’t be too much opposition to that debate.

Procedurally though, how could he get a piece of legislation on same-sex marriage up in the house given Malcolm Turnbull is sticking steadfastly to the Government’s plebiscite policy?

WONG: I think if you look at the number of Liberal MPs who’ve talked about this, it’s clear that there is a possibility this matter could be dealt with in the house.

I think that would be a good thing.

I think that rather than tear itself apart, it would be best if the Coalition could face reality, which is that the country’s moved on.

They’re having this internal debate where really the hard right of their party and the National Party appear to be calling the shots, but the country’s moved on.

The country wants Parliament to deal with this, and I think most of us are really a little tired of having this debate.

I know there are people who are never going to agree but ultimately this is an issue of principle, it’s an issue of equality and it’s an issue of ensuring that the institution of civil marriage, as opposed to religious marriage, is open to all Australians.

ALBERICI: Procedurally though, is a move afoot for Labor in the lower house? We know you’re the leader in the Senate, but in the lower house to move a procedural motion to allow a vote on same-sex marriage in the hope that at least three Coalition MPs cross the floor?

WONG: If there is, it’s not something I’m necessarily going to discuss with you on Lateline, Emma.

But leaving aside any procedural tactics, there is one way for this to be dealt with without the need for parliamentary tactics and that is Malcolm Turnbull can just accept that sufficient of his party room want to vote on this, and allow a vote.

That would be a much better way of dealing with this than having, frankly, a political fight on an issue which has become pretty bitter and divided inside the Coalition.

I’d rather just see the issue dealt with rather than a tactical victory for one side or the other.

ALBERICI: Do you think this could be just a ruse, these four or so Liberal MPs to force their party room into committing to a postal plebiscite?

WONG: Well, you’re asking a Labor person to sort of delve into the psychology of the Liberal Party, but first on a postal plebiscite, I think that’s a very bad outcome; it is yet another delaying tactic.

We opposed a ‘plebiscite proper’ – I suppose you’d call it – for principle reasons and those reasons are even stronger in respect to the postal plebiscite.

I think the people concerned inside the Liberal Party are standing up for what they believe in.

I have no doubt they’re under a lot of pressure. I have no doubt that this is a difficult thing for them to do but ultimately they’ve been trying to manage this for some time and I guess for many of them it’s become untenable and Malcolm should respect that.

People ought not be put in a position where they are required to vote to not have a vote on something they believe in and that is the current position of the Coalition and it is simply unsustainable.

ALBERICI: Today you’ve called for a judicial inquiry into the matters that were raised by the Four Corners program last week pertaining to water allocations throughout the country and allegations of water theft and corruption.

Is your call an indication that you don’t have faith in the Murray-Darling Basin Authority to do that job?

WONG: I certainly don’t have faith in Barnaby Joyce to make sure the Murray-Darling Basin reform is delivered. Today I have put out the motion I’m going to be moving in the Senate, and that’s going to be supported by South Australian Senators from across the board – Sarah Hanson-Young, Cory Bernardi, Nick Xenophon – and I invite the South Australian Liberals as well.

It’s a motion that calls for a judicial inquiry into the dreadful allegations of theft, water theft – water that taxpayers have paid for being stolen by irrigators – corruption and mismanagement in the Murray-Darling Basin.

ALBERICI: Pardon the interruption though but the Government hasn’t it already announced an independent inquiry?

WONG: No, no, the Government has announced an inquiry by the Murray-Darling Basin Authority under whom these events occurred. They can do their job but the reality is we need an independent inquiry with the powers to compel witnesses, with protection for whistle-blowers and we are very clear about this.

Can I say on this, we talked about marriage equality before, this is yet again Malcolm Turnbull doing what the National Party and Barnaby Joyce want, and not acting on something he used to be believe in.

He used to be an advocate for reform of the Murray-Darling Basin and now he’s given it to Barnaby Joyce, under whom we’ve seen – and out of his own mouth we’ve seen – an unwillingness to progress this reform as well as these allegations of water theft.

This is a serious issue that goes to many, many millions of dollars, billions of dollars in fact, of taxpayer’s money that’s been spent.

Malcolm should agree to the judicial inquiry that South Australian senators are supporting.

ALBERICI: Now Labor’s crackdown on discretionary trusts – what’s the policy basis for distinguishing between farmers and other types of small businesses?

WONG: Well you have to make a decision about the class of trusts that you want to include in this reform and we made a decision that this was a good reform.

It’s a reform which targets income-splitting and tax minimisation but we have excluded a range of trusts. It’s not only farm trusts, it’s also charitable trusts, deceased estates; a range of trusts where we think there is legitimate reason for the exclusion of them.

Having said that, I think this is a very important reform, a reform as you recognise targets income-splitting and targets tax minimisation.

ALBERICI: Sorry, there’s an obvious political imperative to separating out farmers in the overall category of small business. But what’s the justification for giving farmers this advantage over their other small business compatriots?

WONG: Well on small business, I’ve heard the Government hyperventilating about this and let’s be clear about this – there are over three million small businesses in Australia. We’re going to be taxing around 318,000 discretionary trusts, about two-thirds of which – a couple of hundred thousand – are industry related and a lot of those won’t be what you’d traditionally call ‘small business’.

So can we first deal with that scare campaign from the Government’s perspective.

ALBERICI: Can we deal with my question?

WONG: I’m happy to deal with your question, but you asked a question about small business and I think the premise of it is incorrect.

In terms of farmers, as Chris Bowen outlined, there are legitimate reasons; lumpy income, you have farms which do very well in one year and not very well in other years.

ALBERICI: That’s the same of all small businesses to be fair, isn’t it?

WONG: We made the decision to exclude them and I suspect if we’d made the decision to include them your question would be the other way around asking us why we did that.

We’ve made a judgement about what should be included. I think it’s a sensible reform. It’s a reform that reflects really the same trajectory as John Howard’s policy in the 1980s which targeted income being paid to minors.

This deals with people who are over 18 and I think it’s a sensible reform which makes the tax system fairer and will improve the budget position.

ALBERICI: Finally, I want to ask you about the events of the last couple of weeks in US politics. Bear with me.

Just an hour after Donald Trump tweeted, “No White House chaos!”, White House communications director Anthony Scaramucci was fired.

We’ve seen the ousting of the chief of staff, Reince Priebus, the resignation of the press secretary, Sean Spicer, the failure of Donald Trump’s signature campaign policy, the repeal of Obamacare.

That’s after the resignation of the national security advisor, the firing of the director of the FBI, the President bullying his own Attorney-General, and not to mention the ongoing Russia investigation.

Is there any precedent you can think of that comes anywhere close to this?

WONG: Well there’s certainly a lot of material for the late night shows, isn’t there Emma?

And it would be preferable if there was perhaps less turnover and perhaps a bit more stability.

But my job as Shadow Minister for Foreign Affairs is not to sort of comment on the gossip and movement in Washington.

ALBERICI: It’s a little more than gossip isn’t it?

WONG: Well I said there’s a lot of material, isn’t there? My job is to continue to look at and support, on a bipartisan basis, a relationship with the United States, which is longstanding and more importantly is multilayered.

It is a relationship that is institutionally based, it is a relationship which operates at many levels and it has never been a relationship which relies on personalities or individuals or who the White House communications director is.

ALBERICI: Penny Wong, appreciate your company tonight, thank you.

WONG: Good to be with you.