TOPICS: CORY BERNARDI AND LIBERAL PARTY DIVISIONS, DONALD TRUMP PHONE CALL WITH MALCOLM TURNBULL, SOUTH CHINA SEA, US ALLIANCE, US REFUGEE RESETTLEMENT DEAL, VISIT TO AUSTRALIA BY CHINESE FOREIGN MINISTER, VISIT TO THE US WITH PARLIAMENTARY JOINT COMMITTEE ON INTELLIGENCE AND SECURITY
E&OE - PROOF ONLY
JEREMY FERNANDEZ: No doubt there are interesting times ahead for the conservative side of politics in Australia and while Labor politicians might be rubbing their hands with glee, the left isn’t immune from the challenges of an increasingly disaffected electorate. The Leader of the Opposition in the Senate spoke with us earlier on the eve of the first sitting day of the year.
Penny Wong, thank you for joining us. Cory Bernardi’s prospective breakaway from the Liberal Party taps into a seemingly growing taste for nationalism and conservatism and protectionism on the right side of politics in Western democracies. Where does that leave the left?
SENATOR PENNY WONG, LEADER OF THE OPPOSITION IN THE SENATE: Let’s understand what Cory Bernardi’s apparent decision demonstrates. It demonstrates a Government coming apart at the seams. It demonstrates a government that is riven with internal division. It demonstrates a government frankly which is much more focused on itself than on the issues that matter to most Australians.
FERNANDEZ: Part of that sentiment, though, is a revolt against the major parties. Are these the end of days for the 2-party system?
WONG: I don’t think Cory Bernardi leaving the Liberal Party gives rise to that kind of generalisation. What I would say is that he is a symptom, not a cause. He’s a symptom of the division inside the Liberal Party in part, as you said, in part about how to respond to the sort of populism and nationalism we are seeing around the globe. And what I’d say is the lesson that Labor has learned from that is you’ve got to focus very clearly on things that matter to Australians and I think the only party that’s been standing up on jobs, health and education is the Labor Party.
FERNANDEZ: If another Coalition MP defects the Government loses its parliamentary majority. If that becomes the case, Labor can either work with the Government or force it to bargain with this growing band of crossbench senators. Does Labor have a strategy around how to tackle that?
WONG: We have worked with the Government when it’s in the national interest to do so and there’s plenty of evidence of that over the period of this Parliament so far. We’ve agreed to Budget savings we thought were reasonable. We have agreed a lot of national security legislation but we’re not going to walk away from our values. We’re not going to stand-by for example and support Malcolm Turnbull cutting Medicare. So we will continue to operate in this Parliament consistent with our values and continue to advocate for the things we think matter to Australians which are right for Australia.
FERNANDEZ: Can I take you to the bilateral relationship with the US? Does Labor accept some responsibility for the stand-off with Donald Trump’s Administration on the refugee issue given that Labor reopened the avenue for offshore processing in the first place?
WONG: No, I don’t accept that. I do agree though that we do need a resolution to the people who are currently on Manus and Nauru. We do need third country resettlement options. We’ve been saying that for some time and we do support the arrangement that was entered in to with the Obama Administration.
Now you know we can have a discussion about how this was handled, we can have a discussion about the Prime Minister’s judgement and how he’s approached this, but ultimately we do support the arrangement and we hope that the Government is successful in implementing it.
FERNANDEZ: The Government’s approach has been somewhat dominated by a very volatile presidency. Could Labor really afford to do much different to what Malcolm Turnbull and Julie Bishop have been doing?
WONG: Well, what I’d say about Mr Turnbull is I do question his judgement about how he approached it. I have to say it was disappointing that he was treated in the way he was, if the reports about that conversation were correct. I don’t think it is reasonable to treat a friend and ally like that. But these are matters leaders have to deal with. And ultimately, as I said, we support the arrangement that was agreed and we hope the Government can implement it.
FERNANDEZ: You’ve just come back from a meeting with senior intelligence and national security officials in the US. What did they say about the phone call between Mr Turnbull and Mr Trump?
WONG: I don’t think you need me to talk to you about how the phone call was reported. It was obviously very big news in the US.
What was pleasing was a reminder of how multilayered the relationship is, where you saw people at so many levels, members of Congress, senators, or people at the military, at the Pentagon in and other organisations with whom we met who expressed a great deal of affection for Australia, a great deal of support for the relationship.
There’s obviously a multilayered relationship and I think in the weeks and months ahead the Government is going to have to really work hard at the relationship, at being constructive, engaging, standing up for Australia’s interests and Australian values, but making sure we do engage at all levels with this Administration.
FERNANDEZ: If it came down to it, would Labor order Defence to conduct freedom of navigation exercises in the South China Sea at America’s request?
WONG: Well, if you’re linking this to your previous questions about the refugee arrangement, what I would say is that no government should ever put Australians in harm’s way, should ever engage in military operations for anything other than the national interests. It should never be tied to a political deal. I’m pleased that the Prime Minister has ruled that out.
FERNANDEZ: The Chinese Foreign Minister arrives for scheduled talks tomorrow. It’s an opportune time for China to be firming up this relationship. Could it or should it be seen as a sign to the US?
WONG: China is our most important economic relationship. This is a dialogue that is welcome, under the auspices of a comprehensive partnership that of course Julia Gillard put in place.
What I would say is that we need to continue to work very closely with China. They’re obviously a very important economy for us but a very important global power. So the more leaders and ministers that can engage with China, I think the better because it’s a relationship we need to continue to strengthen, to increase areas of cooperation.
FERNANDEZ: Thank you for joining us.
WONG: Good to be with you.