20 February 2020




PATRICIA KARVELAS, HOST: Penny Wong, welcome.


KARVELAS: The Prime Minister has announced the terms of reference for the bushfire royal commission. One of the commissioners is an environmental lawyer. Are you satisfied with the Government’s approach on this?

WONG: Well I think there’s been a lot of dissatisfaction in the community about the Government’s response to the bushfires and Mr Morrison’s personal response to the bushfires. I hope this royal commission does what it should and that is to look at all of the drivers and failings which led to the tragic summer we’ve just had, so that we can ensure Australians are less at risk into the future.

KARVELAS: Do you feel like the terms of reference as stipulated by the Prime Minister will adequately do that?

WONG: Well you always might want different terms of reference or more expansive. I just hope that we don’t have the ideological argument inside the Coalition, which seeks to pretend that climate change isn’t real and has nothing to do with the sort of tragedies that we’ve seen over the summer; and actually fronts up to the problem, which is climate change is putting more Australians at risk and we have to do something about it.

KARVELAS: Well let’s go to doing something about it because it’s been reported that tomorrow Labor will announce a commitment to zero net emissions by 2050. Is that something that there is unanimous support for in the party?

WONG: Well first, in terms of the report, Anthony Albanese is giving a speech tomorrow; I’ll leave any announcement to him. But I would say in relation to the net zero emissions target – this is the target the world has signed up to. This is the target Australia has signed up to, and most importantly, we know that the cost of not acting to meet this target is far greater for Australia than the cost of acting – some 20 times higher than it would be if we act. So we have a very big self-interest in making sure we take action on climate change as a nation towards a net zero emissions target that Australia and the world have signed up to.

KARVELAS: The Prime Minister has signalled he won’t sign up to a net zero target before he can quantify the costs of action. Given the problems Labor got itself into from not detailing the costs of your policy at the last election, will Labor quantify the costs of this ambition?

WONG: Well the problem with Scott Morrison’s assertion is that he won’t front up to the cost of his path. And the path that he’s on – the track that he wants the country to be on – is a path that will impose and is imposing greater costs on Australians than the path of taking action. And look, we know about these costs, Patricia. We saw them over these recent months. We’ve seen them in the tragedies we’ve seen. We’ve seen them in the costs of drought, bushfires and natural disasters. But there’s more than the human cost, there is an economic cost.

What we know from what many people have told us is that it will cost us far more not to act than to act – some 20 times more according to a recent study. We know that the CSIRO has said if we act on climate change, if we act towards a net zero emissions target, the economy will be bigger, wages will be higher and power prices lower.

So next time Scott Morrison says he won’t do anything unless he can quantify the cost, I reckon he should be asked what are the costs of the path you’re on, Scott Morrison? What is the cost to Australians of the path you are on? He’s never come up with that.

KARVELAS: I think that’s a reasonable question to ask but it’s also a reasonable question to ask how much will the cost of zero net emissions be to the economy and industry? I know you can’t detail it right now but is that the pathway Labor will go down to quantify those costs?

WONG: We will have to go to the next election with a very clear plan as to our policies, including our policy on climate change. This isn’t something anyone can ignore. The only reason the Coalition is ignoring it, as you know, is because they’re so deeply divided, so ridden with division when it comes to climate change, they won’t look at the truth. And the truth is the path we’re on is a higher-cost path.

KARVELAS: Okay, but do you accept that you need to detail that cost and that’s going to be part of the way that it’s delivered to the public moving towards the next election?

WONG: I accept that if we are to win the next election, which is the only way this country will act on climate change, the only way we will see action in terms of wages, the economy more generally, Labor will have to present very clear policies, a very clear platform to the Australian people.

KARVELAS: Labor must also establish medium-term emissions reduction targets. What’s your view on the pace and the role of coal-fired power? 2050 obviously is the ambition that you’re moving towards but there are many years until then. You need medium-term goals. What’s the role of coal on the way there?

WONG: In terms of coal-fired power, it is very clear that new coal-fired power is going to be or would be more expensive. I don’t see and Labor doesn’t see any merit in new coal-fired power stations – which are publicly subsidised because that is the only way they’d get up – to deliver power that’s more expensive to Australian consumers. That doesn’t make sense at all.

I will make a point about coal. Coal has become the battleground on which the climate wars are being fought. I don’t think it’s helpful because it becomes a discussion about are you for or against workers? Are you for or against climate change? We need to get beyond this. We need to get beyond this to ask the real questions, which are how do we reduce our emissions? How do we get to the targets that Australia has signed up to? How do we reduce the cost to Australians on the path that we’re on?

KARVELAS: Let’s move to another topic. The University of Western Sydney is offering Chinese students $1,500 payments to help fund travel to third countries as a way of beating this coronavirus travel ban. What do you make of that?

WONG: What I make of it is this – the Government really needs a plan. We have as an Opposition taken a very responsible and bipartisan approach. We’ve said we’ve got to put public safety first. There is no doubt the travel ban is having a very large impact on our university sector and on a very important market for us. So rather than having travel agents or a university engaged in a workaround to try and resolve that, the Government needs a plan about how it deals with both the public safety elements, which are key, but also the impact on universities and this sector and the market of overseas students from China, which is very important to our economy.

KARVELAS: Doesn’t this run the risk that infected people could spread the virus to other countries and create a genuine global pandemic?

WONG: Of course the Government’s plan needs to ensure that public safety and public health comes first. My point is that this is clearly a workaround which is trying to deal with an issue where the Government has no plan. The Government really needs to have a plan. We can’t have a situation where the public health outcomes are compromised because individuals or individual universities are trying to go their own way in ways that aren’t helpful. But it’s up to the Government to try and resolve this.

KARVELAS: What is wrong with the Government’s plan? It’s taken medical advice and made announcements?

WONG: Does it have a plan when it comes to the university sector?

KARVELAS: What sort of plan should it develop?

WONG: I haven’t seen one; well I’m not in government. One day I hope we are and you can ask me that question but we’re not in government, and at this stage, I think the point is we have clearly a very big impact on the market and the Government needs to work through how that can be best managed in a way that doesn’t compromise public safety, which is the risk of the report that you identified.

KARVELAS: The Chinese Government has branded Australia’s coronavirus travel ban as racist but we haven’t seen the same criticisms of other countries with bans, in fact, even more extreme bans. Why are we being singled out like that?

KARVELAS: I don’t accept that it’s racist. I think people are seeking to act on public health advice. That’s why we have been bipartisan in our support for those objectives. I do think there have been some unfortunate things said, some nasty things said on social media and in the community. All politicians – as I think I said to you last time we had a discussion about this – all political leaders need to make sure we stand against that. We need to continue to support our Chinese community here in Australia.

KARVELAS: Should Australia be a bit more robust in its defence of this measure given the outbreak in China only seems to be getting worse?

WONG: I think we are being robust. I think we’re being very clear that nationality or ethnicity is not the issue. The issue is public health and public safety and that’s the basis on which we are acting.

KARVELAS: Labor’s been critical of the Government’s decision to cut aid to Southeast Asian countries by 42 per cent. This money will help fund the Pacific Step-up. What are your concerns here?

WONG: I don’t think you have a Pacific Step-up at the expense of a Southeast Asian step-down. We need deep, close ties with our region. We particularly need it at a time where there’s strategic competition in our region. Cutting our engagement with Southeast Asia at a time where we need that engagement is the wrong way to go.

Yes, we should have the Pacific Step-up. We called for more engagement and more support with the Pacific and into the Pacific but doing that at the expense of our Southeast Asian neighbours demonstrates the Government’s lack of a coherent plan when it comes to foreign policy and regional engagement.

We welcomed the President of Indonesia. That was a very important visit. But at the same time we’re having an 80 per cent-plus reduction in funding for health assistance to Indonesia. That doesn’t help our relationship and it doesn’t help security in the region.

KARVELAS: Penny Wong, many thanks for your time.

WONG: Good to speak with you.

Authorised by Paul Erickson, ALP, Canberra.