13 December 2017




ANDREW PROBYN: The PM is calling on Sam Dastyari to lose his Senate wage immediately, given what he calls his disloyal conduct. Why should he still be on the taxpayer tab?

SENATOR PENNY WONG, LEADER OF THE OPPOSITION IN THE SENATE: We are in danger of flogging a dead horse here. Sam has made clear his political career is over. He won’t be returning in February. He also made clear in his press conference that he would be resigning at a time that would enable the New South Wales party to choose his successor.

If Malcolm Turnbull is so worried about Bennelong – and he appears to be given the desperation of some of his comments today – maybe he should start talking to the people of Bennelong about things that matter to them and to their families.

PROBYN: But when does Sam Dastyari’s resignation take effect?

WONG: When he writes to the President (of the Senate).

PROBYN: Is it going to be as long as other resignations? We’ve had as much as 118 days with Kate Lundy?

WONG: There are people from both sides of politics who have had very length periods. But the point is he has made clear he won’t be coming back in February.

Now, frankly, I understand there has been a lot of focus on this. Sam did the wrong thing. He’s paid a very heavy price and that is the end of his political career. And I think it is time the Prime Minister moved on, Mr Turnbull moved on to other issues and he might do well to think about the tone he is setting for the discussion about our relationship with China.

Our relationship with China is of great significance and the Prime Minister, whoever it may be, does have a responsibility to make sure the tone of that discussion is appropriate.

PROBYN: What should parliamentarians and political parties learn from the Sam Dastyari tale?

WONG: I think that is self-evident isn’t it?

PROBYN: You tell me.

WONG: You make your judgments about policy on the basis of what the best policy is. Obviously in these circumstances Sam made some unwise choices about comments he made and he’s paid a heavy price for them.

PROBYN: It’s more than that though isn’t it?

WONG: The whole issues of donations I think should be dealt with, foreign donations and frankly donations generally. I would make the point that the same Liberal leader, Malcolm Turnbull, leads a party which has consistently voted against donations reform. The increasing intransparency, the lowering of the disclosure threshold, the speed of disclosure generally, which Labor has previously put forward. And, of course, foreign donations. We have had a bill in the Parliament for over a year now which hasn’t been proceeded with.

So, I do think the regulatory approach is important, but let’s take with a grain of salt Malcolm Turnbull’s new found focus on this, given that, whilst Prime Minister, and whilst Liberal leader, the Liberals have dragged their feet on donations reform.

PROBYN: But Sam Dastyari’s conduct, was it misconduct?

WONG: Sam did the wrong thing, but he’s paid a price. His career is over. So, I think a broader issue is making sure we get the regulatory regime correct.

PROBYN: Let’s talk about that relationship with China. Has that relationship, Australia’s relationship with China, been damaged?

WONG: I think you just have to look at the very blunt assessment from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs who were deeply concerned – and said so publicly – about Malcolm Turnbull’s statements and made some very strident comments. I think they said that they were groundless and unfounded remarks which could sabotage the relationship. They are very strong words, and unusually strong.

PROBYN: A bit threatening too though?

WONG: My view is we should always stand up for our interests and we should always safeguard Australian sovereignty. But we don’t need to do that in a way that is needlessly inflammatory. And some of how this discussion has been conducted, I think because of Malcolm Turnbull’s desperation for a political win, I think has not been helpful.

PROBYN: Will there be retaliation, do you expect, from the Chinese?

WONG: I hope not. I’m making these points to you because I don’t want to see any harm to Australia’s national interests. We do know we are very economically integrated with the Chinese economy.

PROBYN: Well, it’s actually more than integrated, it’s an unequal relationship.

WONG: Sure, they are a much bigger economy. We have a trade surplus with China. They are obviously a much bigger market. There are a lot of areas across our economy where we gain a lot from the relationship. Now, that never means that we don’t stand up for our interests or our sovereignty but that has to be handled responsibly and I think Malcolm Turnbull has been very focussed on political wins.

PROBYN: Well how do you devise a relationship with a nation such as China? And it is economically unequal, that relationship in terms of the trade surplus, when our political and cultural differences are actually quite stark on some fronts?

WONG: They are. China is not a democracy. China is a one party system and it has very different ways of dealing with its political organisation and that has always been and will always be.

So, to my way of thinking you have to be very clear about what your national interests are and you have to be very strategic about how you prosecute those and how you advocate for those. You have to recognise there are times when our interests differ and there are times when they converge, and we shouldn’t approach China with fear. We should approach them with respect and understanding of our respective national interest. There are times where we will disagree

PROBYN: I want to go to one of those moments because earlier this year there was talk of the extradition treaty being revisited by our parliament, something that has been on the books for about a decade. What happened behind the scenes there? The government tried to bring it on.

WONG: I don’t talk about what happened behind the scenes but I will tell you what Labor’s position is and that was that we weren’t prepared to proceed with ratifying that treaty – which was the government’s position – until the broader legislative framework around extraditions had been properly reviewed. Now, I understand that was a sensitive decision. We sought to handle that responsibly.

PROBYN: And so, will that proceed, do you think?

WONG: We’ve made our position clear, and frankly it was on the public record for some time. We won’t be proceeding with any extradition treaty until that legislative review has occurred. That’s what we would have to do in government.

PROBYN: Let me ask you about the One Belt Road – the global infrastructure initiative that Beijing has introduced to the world. If you become Foreign Minister what approach would you bring to that, given the Americans are concerned it is a way of economically marginalising Washington?

WONG: I’ve given a couple of speeches where I have referenced the Belt and Road Initiative. I think it is important to remember a few things. One, there is a broader economic benefit to all for there to be investment in the infrastructure deficit that we do have globally. That benefits everybody.

Second, I’ve said obviously there are both strategic and economic elements to the Belt and Road Initiative and the way Labor would approach it is to assess projects on a case by case basis and make a decision about participation on the basis of our national interest. So that’s not a blanket rule in.

PROBYN: That’s pretty similar to the Government?

WONG: I think you’re right. I think that’s actually where the Government is heading. Their rhetoric is different depending whether it is Steve Ciobo or other ministers speaking. But, I think that is the sensible approach

PROBYN: Lastly, on North Korea, there has been a development so far as the US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is now saying they will have meetings with Pyongyang without preconditions. The position before that is that they wanted North Korea to abandon its weapons. Do you welcome this development?

WONG: Diplomatic engagement is the right thing to do. It doesn’t mean you disengage from the diplomatic and economic pressure which the sanctions are imposing – those need to be resolutely adhered to – but I think engaging in order to try to deescalate is in the interests of peace and security.

PROBYN: Penny Wong, thanks very much.

WONG: Good to be with you.