11 May 2020




PATRICIA KARVELAS, HOST: I’m joined by the Shadow Minister for Foreign Affairs, Senator Penny Wong. Senator, welcome.


KARVELAS: Before we get to Anthony Albanese’s latest vision statement, the Government is contemplating changes to the JobKeeper scheme to better target it. What sort of changes would Labor be open to?

WONG: We’ve been saying for some time the Government should look to include the million casual workers who are excluded from JobKeeper. But I think the important point about the Prime Minister’s answers today is this: he gave that answer in response to a question generated by a press from various Liberal backbenchers to tighten up on JobKeeper, to snap back.

This really does demonstrate that when Scott Morrison and the Liberals talk about snapping back, they mean snap back to the old Liberal values, the old Liberal DNA, which is cutting services and cutting support. Anyone who has been out in the Australian community at this time knows how important this wage subsidy, which Labor fought for, and Labor argued for, is to so many Australian families.

KARVELAS: So is partisanship and big, old politics back then? When you say snap back to Liberal ideology, it sounds like the sort of ceasefire on politics is over?

WONG: I think there are very different sets of values on display in politics in Australia. It has been good to see the Coalition Government embracing economic stimulus. It shouldn’t have taken this, for them to do that. It is certainly been good to see the Prime Minister saying we should be in this together – but the reality is we all know when he says “snap back”, he means walking away from those things. That’s what he means. He means snapping back to Liberal values.

KARVELAS: Let’s be clear. He talks about snapping back to the economy as it was before the coronavirus. If that were to work – of course, it is hypothetical at this stage – what’s wrong with that? Because these were emergency measures to deal with people who’ve lost their jobs or need emergency help. If they don’t need that help, why should they get that help?

WONG: As Anthony Albanese pointed out today, we are at a very important moment in the nation’s history. We can make a choice about what sort of Australia comes out of this crisis and we can learn the lessons of this crisis. There are quite an important set of lessons for us to learn. One of them is, we’re all in this together. We’re a society not just an economy.

Another is that the insecurity of employment that many Australians face causes unacceptable levels of financial and personal hardship.

It is casual workers and people in the most insecure forms of employment who have borne the brunt of this crisis. These, and other lessons, are lessons we can learn.

We all want to recover – the question is; how do we recover? We in Labor think there should be a proper discussion, a proper conversation about what are the priorities for recovery, how do we recover stronger?

KARVELAS: Anthony Albanese has just said that it’s fair enough to change the JobKeeper payment so that, essentially, a worker would be paid less if they were earning less than JobKeeper so that the money gets redistributed to casuals who don’t have the money. Is that reasonable?

WONG: He pointed out in his speech one of the anomalies in the JobKeeper package, is that a single mum with three kids, who has been in the same job for 11 months gets less than somebody, doesn’t get JobKeeper whereas someone who’s been in a part time job for a lengthy period might in fact get more than their income.

Of course, we have been constructive all the way through this. We have looked for solutions, not arguments. And if the Government comes forward with sensible changes, we’ll look for good solutions.

My point is though, that the Prime Minister’s response today was generated by agitation again from his Liberal backbench around this program, a program which initially the Government resisted, and it really does demonstrate what the Liberals mean when they talk about snap back.

KARVELAS: Labor Leader Anthony Albanese says it shouldn’t have taken a pandemic for the Government to introduce free child care and also increase the unemployment benefit. Are these the two things – if I can read from that – that you’re going to campaign for to stay?

Do you want free childcare to stay and the doubling of the unemployment rate to stay?

WONG: He said many things. He said it shouldn’t have taken a pandemic for us to understand what the casualisation of the workforce meant. It shouldn’t have taken a pandemic to understand what the collapse in Australian manufacturing under this Government meant.

What Anthony laid out today, I think, is a vision which talks about what sort of country we are and what sort of country we can be as we recover.

He talked about what we’ve learnt during this pandemic and what should build on.

We’ve learned the value of looking after each other we’ve learned the value of Medicare and universality of Medicare. We’ve also learned the extent to which insecure work creates too much hardship for too many Australians. So we are engaging, as the Opposition, in a dialogue with the Australian community about what our priorities should be for the recovery, and that was the vision statement that Anthony laid out today.

KARVELAS: That’s the broader context, fair enough. But on those two specific issues do you think the unemployment rate should go up?

WONG: Patricia, on Newstart, I would say, very clearly, I think we all know that having an unemployment – what was Newstart, now JobSeeker rate that was below the poverty line is unviable. The Government knows that. They wouldn’t have changed it if they didn’t know that. So, of course, we hope that the Government recognises the lesson itself has learnt when it changed the rate of JobSeeker and retains it.

But what I would say to you is what Anthony laid out today was what we will be doing as a Labor caucus in the coming weeks and months. This is a once-in-a-generation opportunity to look at what sort of nation we should be, to reshape the nation for the better.

KARVELAS: China is threatening to impose tariffs totalling more than 80% on Australian barley. How damaging would that be given producers are already struggling?

WONG: It would be extremely damaging. And what we’d say to the Government is the Government should be managing this relationship in the best interests of the country. And it should be managing that relationship soberly and sensibly in the best interests of our exporters.

I’ve seen what the Trade Minister has to say about the process by which he’ll go through. That is what he should be doing. And you know, we’re supportive of that.

But more broadly, this is a relationship the Government really does need to manage more sensibly. We need the Foreign Minister to lead it and the Prime Minister.

Regrettably, too much of the China relationship is being led by backbenchers and that is a risky thing for our bilateral relationship.

KARVELAS: The Prime Minister isn’t drawing a link between China’s threats on Australian barley and their anger at our push as a nation – bipartisan push, can I say – for an investigation into the COVID-19 outbreak? But, you know, common sense and everything. Do you think it is retaliation?

WONG: I would say this; we need to manage the bilateral relationships sensibly. We have supported what we regard as an unremarkable position, which is the world wants to know how the virus began in order to ensure it doesn’t happen again and in order to ensure we can manage it better.

I don’t think the Government handled that announcement particularly well. It was an announcement made without locking in support from other nations.

I don’t think the Government has explained its position very well. I think since the Foreign Minister announced it, she’s actually only done one interview and that’s not exactly explaining these issues to Australians.

I think on the China relationship and foreign policy more generally, where we are in a very difficult and challenging phase, it is incumbent upon the Foreign Minister to lead the discussion with the Australian people; to explain Australia to the world and to explain the world to the Australian people and our place in it. Regrettably, that’s not happening.

And we’re seeing actions from people like George Christensen and other backbenchers, who are filling the space. And I think that is unhelpful to what is already at times, a challenging and complex relationship – that is our relationship with China.

KARVELAS: Australia is threatening to take China to the World Trade Organization, is there any reason to think Beijing would accept a WTO decision that went against them?

WONG: Well let’s, I’m not going to get into hypotheticals. We should continue to operate through the WTO. We are, you know, we have a strong history of support for that institution. We benefit as Australians as an exporting nation, from transparent, open and clear trading arrangements, and we should continue to utilise those mechanisms, in order to try and resolve this sensibly.

KARVELAS: A bipartisan group of US members of Congress have sent a letter to Australian Ambassador Arthur Sinodinos pledging to support Scott Morrison’s push for an independent inquiry into the origins of Coronavirus. Is that support welcome?

WONG: Look, we support an inquiry. And any criticisms we have of how this was announced before locking in support are because, you know, that that may detract from the ultimate success of our position.

And we should try and succeed in this because the world wants us to succeed. I mean, I think the world does want to know where, how this pandemic began, because as I said, we want to make sure it doesn’t happen again.

And I would add, I think it’s in all countries interests, including China’s for that to become clear.

KARVELAS: Coalition MP George Christensen is threatening to call the Chinese Ambassador to appear before a Parliamentary Inquiry. Under the terms of the Vienna convention, I don’t think he has, it doesn’t actually work that way. Was that unhelpful?

WONG: Well, this is what I was referencing before, Patricia. If you if you have the Foreign Minister absent from a debate, if you have the Foreign Minister not leading a discussion, what you do have is backbenchers filling the space and Mr Christensen is the latest in a series of Coalition backbenchers who’ve chosen to weigh in on the China relationship.

I think it is risky, having a backbencher do that. It would be much better if it was the Foreign Minister. I have to say I don’t understand the excuses that we’ve seen briefed to the papers from the Government, where Cabinet Ministers, presumably including the Foreign Minister, claim they didn’t know about the inquiry.

Will this inquiry has been on foot since February. This is not a new idea, the idea of this inquiry. One wonders why it is that Mr Christensen is not being spoken to by the Foreign Minister or other cabinet ministers about the wisdom of taking such an approach.

KARVELAS: He wants a parliamentary inquiry into China. So does Rex Patrick, Centre Alliance Senator. Is Labor going to change its view on an inquiry into China?

WONG: No I’ve taken – we’ve taken – what I think is a very responsible position about how to deal with the China relationship. We recognise it’s a complex relationship, we recognise it is a relationship that is challenging to navigate. But we also recognise it is a relationship which is important to Australia. I mean there is no area of endeavour in which, whether it’s economic or in multilateralism more broadly, where China is not relevant.

So engagement is important. We think it’s best that that engagement be driven or be led by the Government of the day, and the Foreign Minister of the day. And we continue to urge Senator Payne to do that.

I have said and she has declined, that it would be sensible for parliamentarians to be briefed in more detail and more fully about handling the China relationship. I fear at times, there is a little bit too much focus on domestic politics rather than the national interest when it comes to handling that and other issues.

KARVELAS: Do you feel like just that key relationship is being mismanaged right now?

WONG: Look, I don’t think it’s in a great place. And it would benefit from consistency and discipline and leadership from the Foreign Minister, and the Prime Minister. It would benefit from less domestic politics, and more, a longer term perspective. I mean, I’ve said previously, we need to think about the China relationship in 30 year terms, not in three year terms. And, unfortunately, there’s been a little too much from the Morrison Government of reflex to short term domestic politics on this relationship and more broadly. And we would urge them to take a long term position and a responsible position and as much as possible a bipartisan position when it comes to that relationship that’s in the national interest.

KARVELAS: Penny Wong, thank you so much for joining me this afternoon.

WONG: Good to speak with you.

Authorised by Paul Erickson, ALP, Canberra.