5 February 2020




PATRICIA KARVELAS: I’m joined now by the Shadow Foreign Affairs Minister, Penny Wong. Can I say Happy New Year? We’re in February now, I probably can’t. Welcome to the program.


KARVELAS: I like how you did that. Let’s go to this to start with because China is actually unhappy with how its students were treated by Border Force and Border Force says they have nothing to apologise for. Do you have concerns about what happened there?

WONG: I certainly have concerns about the reports. We have supported an approach which has put public safety first, which has taken a conservative and precautionary approach to public health and safety. However, how Border Force goes about its business – obviously it should do so sensitively and students in those sorts of circumstances are in a stressful environment; a very unusual, possibly quite frightening situation. So I would hope that those officers conducted themselves with the appropriate sensitivity at that time.

KARVELAS: This was a decision taken and implemented within hours. The Government says it acted quickly on the advice of experts to protect Australians. Are you satisfied by that?

WONG: As I said, Chris Bowen has been engaged regularly – I think on a daily basis –with the chief medical officer and certainly we have been briefed about the handling of the coronavirus.

We are supportive of an approach which is, as I said, precautionary and puts public health and safety first. I did see some reports, however, that the Chinese Government were somewhat blindsided by the announcement. I think that is a concern.

We do have an obligation in the national interest to handle our relationship with China sensitively and I think it is a concern that the Chinese Government was not advised prior to the Prime Minister making what was an important announcement.

KARVELAS: The international student market is worth billions of dollars a year and is already set to take a big hit from the coronavirus. Are you worried about damage to our reputation?

WONG: There are a whole range of consequences – economic consequences, consequences for the tourism sector, consequences for the education sector. We have a very strong bilateral economic relationship with China, but ultimately the Government does have to make decisions based on public safety and public health first, and take the advice of experts. As we understand it, that’s what they’re doing and we have sought to take a very constructive approach to that.

KARVELAS: Ultimately, there have also been concerns and questions around the way that the Chinese Government may have responded to the coronavirus outbreak. It’s infected more people than SARS and the number of fatalities is approaching the level of SARS. Are you concerned about the way that the Chinese Government has handled this?

WONG: The Chinese Government has obviously taken a lot of decisions. I don’t think we’re in a position on the basis of media reporting and commentary to make judgements at this point about those decisions. I think that the focus now has to be, firstly in Australia, but also the international community working together to prevent this continuing to escalate. I think that the Australian Government, and certainly the officials to whom we have spoken, that is their focus.

I would make one point though. I have seen some reports – both on social media and in the mainstream media – about some targeting of Asian-Australians; some ugly things being said. It’s very important that we continue to stand against those kinds of remarks; to stand with the Chinese community who are in Australia, who are obviously very concerned and are doing the work that the community wants to do to ensure people are informed. It is important that the sort of ugliness that you can see and have seen on social media and more broadly that politicians and leaders stand against that.

KARVELAS: During Question Time today, Anthony Albanese asked whether the Government would fund all the projects Sports Australia recommended and the projects of course that people missed out on. Is it Labor’s position those projects should be funded?

WONG: Anthony has made clear that the projects that weren’t funded because the process was rorted; projects that were recommended by Sports Australia should be funded. Why should mums and dads and communities who do their own work –volunteer their time to their club, to their community group – put in an application, get a good score; why should they lose out because Scott Morrison’s Government decides to play party politics with taxpayers’ money?

KARVELAS: Do you accept that Labor has in the past used programs like this to pork barrel seats as well?

WONG: I have read the Auditor-General’s report and I have not seen a report be so scathing of a government program. This is pork barrelling on an industrial scale and it was consistent and from the centre of government. It was a program that was funded well before the election – the year before. They worked on it, they continue to add money to it, do more rounds, all of the while focusing on which electorates and prioritising Liberal marginal seats and target seats. I think it’s an extraordinary rort.

I’m pleased to say today, just before I came up to the studio, that the Senate has voted to establish a Senate Select Committee into this sports rort.

KARVELAS: Peter Dutton made the point that you wouldn’t be surprised that Labor and the Greens voted in favour of this investigation.

WONG: Did he mention that One Nation, Centre Alliance and Jacqui Lambie also supported it? That’s a pretty broad group of senators supporting a select committee. We don’t have many votes like that in the Senate, let me tell you.

KARVELAS: So what do you want to achieve with this inquiry? What sort of questions will be asked? Who will be hauled before it? What are you trying to do here?

WONG: We need to get to the bottom of this and we need to pursue the Prime Minister and his office’s involvement. No one believes that the Prime Minister isn’t up to his neck in this.

KARVELAS: Is there any evidence?

WONG: The reality is we have a program where taxpayers’ funds were distributed in a way that was clearly rorted in order to achieve the political purposes of the Liberal Party, of the Coalition. We then have a Prime Minister who commissioned his own former chief of staff to write a report that enables him to sack Senator McKenzie but not disclose his own involvement. That’s how people should understand the Gaetjens report. It gave the Prime Minister a mechanism to sack a minister without actually having to disclose his own office’s involvement.

The reality is he continues to refuse to answer questions about what his office’s involvement was. We saw that today in the House. We certainly saw that today in the Senate. This committee should pursue what engagement Scott Morrison and his office had in this program.

KARVELAS: Will the head of PM&C be invited to provide evidence to this inquiry?

WONG: I don’t want to pre-empt the decisions of the committee.

KARVELAS: But can we expect that kind of invite list?

WONG: You should expect that the committee will, I am sure, go down all the paths the Prime Minister doesn’t want us to go down. The thing the Prime Minister has never answered with any weight – he’s never really given an answer that I think Australians can believe or accept. Why is he keeping the report from Mr Gaetjens secret? Why is he?

KARVELAS: Should these sorts of grant funding decisions be taken out of the hands of politicians altogether?

WONG: Politicians should distribute the grants in accordance with the government guidelines. It’s not the government’s money, it’s taxpayers’ money. Elected representatives make decisions but they need to do so fairly. It’s not money that’s distributed just for political purposes. The problem with this program is it hasn’t been fair. It’s been rorted.

The overriding criteria, and the Auditor-General makes this clear, that there is a clear bias in the program whereby the minister’s office intervened to ensure that grants that were less worthy – from Liberal marginal seats, Coalition marginal seats and from target seats the Coalition was focusing on – were more likely to get grants than more meritorious projects; the more meritorious projects that the sports body had recommended. Now that’s political corruption.

KARVELAS: So, ultimately then, what are you trying to achieve with this inquiry? A minister has resigned over this, Penny Wong. Bridget McKenzie’s gone.

WONG: I don’t think it’s an answer to have one minister take the fall but the Government say nothing else to see and this is entirely legitimate. I was pretty astounded in Senate Question Time – I was obviously in the Senate so I couldn’t see the house – by the arrogance of this government in dismissing these concerns and dismissing the independent Auditor-General’s report. Anybody who reads that report would be astounded I think about the clinical way in which it goes through the system of making sure that politics was the overriding criteria for these grants.

KARVELAS: Just finally on the bushfire crisis over summer. This is the first time I’ve got to speak to you. I interviewed you on Insiders and you talked about coal and a repositioning of the coal industry after the election. After this bushfire season, what is your position on decarbonisation and the pace of decarbonisation needed in Australia? Do you think that there is a climate emergency that means that tougher action needs to be taken?

WONG: Patricia, I’ve spent how many years now? Fifteen years…


WONG: Yeah, a lot of years arguing for stronger action on climate change. I vehemently believe that this crisis is worsening. I vehemently believe that the advice of scientists should have been taken. I stood up in the Parliament in 2009 as then Climate Minister trying to persuade the Greens to vote with us and some Liberals to vote with us, which they did, on an emissions trading scheme because I believe we had to reduce Australia’s emissions. I said in that speech…

KARVELAS: Sure, but after the election you talked about coal.

WONG: Of course, because the reality is coal is part of our economy and we have to consider how we approach this issue. That doesn’t mean we don’t focus on what we can do about climate change. The reality is, under our government, we consistently reduced emissions, we consistently increased renewable energy. One of the things that I’m most proud of is I was the Minister that was responsible for expanding the Renewable Energy Target.

What we have instead of a government that was prepared to do that is a government that is tearing itself apart again on climate and refuses to do anything. It refuses to do anything.

We see again Peter Dutton on your program engaging in fake news, trying to blame arsonists, trying to blame – I can’t recall what else? What was he saying? It’s inconsistent with the advice from Victoria Police what he’s saying. It must be seen for what it is and that is an attempt to divert attention because they don’t actually want to do anything about climate change; something that the Labor Party has always fought for action on.

KARVELAS: Penny Wong, thanks so much for joining us. I hope to be joined by you again on this program very soon.

WONG: Good to speak to you.

Authorised by Paul Erickson, ALP, Canberra.