29 August 2019




PATRICIA KARVELAS: I want to bring in my next guest who is the Shadow Foreign Minister, Penny Wong. Welcome.


KARVELAS: Let’s start on this because it’s the big story of today. LBGT organisations had expressed concern that a religious discrimination bill would open up avenues for people of faith to discriminate. The legislation has now been released. Are you satisfied the bill doesn’t do that?

WONG: I haven’t had the opportunity to read the bill today. But I think our Shadow Attorney-General Mark Dreyfus has recently held a press conference outlining our initial response, which includes concerns about the process. I do fear, as do many others, that this is all about the internal Coalition party room divisions and making sure that some people who have jumped up and down a lot will get what they want. But we’ll leave that for the government to explain.

Mr Dreyfus has said these laws should be a shield not a sword. What does that mean? It means that religious views should be protected but we shouldn’t have a situation where people are treated differently before the law or people can be harmed simply because of an attribute, whether it’s being an LGBTIQ Australian or other attribute.

KARVELAS: This bill specifically overrides a Tasmanian anti-discrimination law that was used to challenge an anti-same-sex marriage pamphlet produced by the Catholic Church. Equality Tasmania spokesman Rodney Croome says the Attorney-General is weakening protections for vulnerable people. Are you concerned about the overriding of state laws, which it effectively does in Tasmania?

WONG: As I said, I haven’t looked at the bill as yet, but I would make this point and it’s something we should inject into this debate. This is about real people. I think Rodney Croome is right when he talks about people being vulnerable. Certainly during the marriage equality debate there was some very hurtful things said. I saw firsthand in the campaign, in engaging with LGBTIQ Australians and their families, the hurt that that caused.

We do need to have a respectful debate, discussion. We need to have a discussion that recalls that for many people some of what is being proposed may well go to who they are in ways that are harmful or that are hurtful. I hope we can have a respectful discussion around how we get the appropriate balance.

KARVELAS: Just one other question on this, because under the legislation an employer can’t limit an employee’s right to express their religious views in private unless it causes their employer financial damage. Is that a good way of addressing the many issues raised around Israel Folau?

WONG: With respect, as I said I haven’t read the bill. It’s not my portfolio but I have said a lot on the public record about these issues. I have made some comments about Mr Folau and I would make them again. I think it is a pity that in that discussion there seemed to be insufficient regard from some people about the effect that those sorts of comments have on vulnerable Australians.

I wish there was more discussion that recognised where people’s words land. I’ve been part of a debate for many years in this country, firstly on marriage equality, but on discrimination more generally, where I think some of the people who are advocating for certain positions perhaps should think a little more about where their words land in young and vulnerable Australians.

KARVELAS: Let’s move on to another huge story today. The New South Wales Labor Party has suspended the state president Kaila Murnain after she admitted to her role in this $100,000 donation made to the party by a Chinese property developer who was banned under state donation laws. Was that the right course of action to suspend her?

WONG: That is a matter for the New South Wales leader and she’s made that decision based on her judgement about the evidence that’s been given. That is a decision for her.

KARVELAS: You are a senior person though, you are in the leadership team of the federal Labor Party, so what are your reflections on what you’re seeing in New South Wales because clearly it tarnishes the Labor Party?

WONG: Obviously it increases cynicism in politics generally, just as it did when the (Independent) Commission Against Corruption investigated the Liberal Party – the New South Wales Liberal Party – and Mr Sinodinos and others in relation to undisclosed donations and New South Wales electoral laws being got around by virtue of payments to other companies. Integrity in donations matters. I think there are a lot of issues which have arisen.

I’d make to points, one is this does remind us about the need for a federal integrity commission – something the Labor Party supports. The second point I’d make is there is room for greater transparency in terms of electoral donations. That is certainly something Labor has been arguing for federally for some time. The banning of foreign donations was something the government belatedly did at our urging. I think we should be lowering the threshold for disclosure. I think the public values transparency and disclosure and people should demonstrate that.

KARVELAS: Are we getting to the point where administrators should be called in to the New South Wales branch of the Labor Party, given this looked quite systemic?

WONG: The best thing to do is to wait for the findings from the Independent Commission. Obviously there’s some very serious and concerning allegations which have arisen in the evidence to date. But I think the best thing to do is to not make, certainly from my perspective, not make a commentary day by day but to await the findings of the independent commission.

KARVELAS: Just on to something which I think most Australians are concerned about. China has told the Australian government to stop interfering in the case of the Australian writer Yang Hengjun, who has been charged with espionage and held in China without access to lawyers for seven months. Are the public statements from the government reasonable in your view?

WONG: I support the public statements from the government. I support what Marise Payne has been saying and I have also reflected those statements. What have we sought? We have called for Dr Yang to be treated transparently and fairly. We have called for him to be treated in accordance with international conventions, including having access to a lawyer which as yet has not occurred. We have also said the reasons for his detention should be clarified and we have said that if he is being detained for political reasons he should be released.

Now that is Australia advocating on behalf of an Australian citizen, just as China would be able to advocate on behalf of a Chinese citizen. Yes it’s true China has its legal system; Australia has our legal system. But Governments are able to advocate, as they should, for the treatment of citizens within those legal processes.

KARVELAS: The Prime Minister and the Foreign Minister have been unusually blunt in their comments about this case. They say the allegations against him are false and they are deeply concerned about his treatment. Is this more direct approach a good thing and should it have happened perhaps earlier?

WONG: It has my full support. It has the Labor Party’s full support. We’re talking about the treatment of an Australian citizen. Obviously it’s a very sensitive matter. My view is the government is doing the right thing in making the public statements in relation to Dr Yang that it has. I do want to again reiterate that our thoughts are with the family and friends of Dr Yang. It’s obviously a very difficult time for them.

KARVELAS: Should we have heard this kind of language earlier? Because there was a softly, softly approach?

WONG: A matter as sensitive as this where we are dealing with a very serious situation involving an Australian citizen; I think the national interest and the interests of this citizen are best served by this not being the subject of political criticism and I don’t intend to engage in it.

KARVELAS: The government has downplayed suggestions this is hostage diplomacy from Beijing but there has been an increase in westerners being deported from China. Is this a risky time for Australians living there?

WONG: I’ll make a couple of points. The first is the point I’ve made previously, which is in the absence of clarification around the reasons for detention it is inevitable that the reasons for his detention are going to be the subject of public comment. That is to be expected. It is one of the reasons why clarification would be helpful.

The second point I’d make is about travel advice. Australia’s travel advice in relation to China was updated I think in April, certainly earlier this year. It did point to the potential or the issue of national security having a much broader definition than in Australia. People should look at the travel advice and make their decisions accordingly.

KARVELAS: Just on another story, former Victorian Premier Steve Bracks, who is now a special advisor to Timor-Leste, says China is trying to win the country over as a strategic ally and Australia needs to do more to counter that threat. Scott Morrison is in Timor today, what should he be doing?

WONG: I want to first make the point that in opposition Labor advocated very strongly for a fairer maritime boundary for Timor-Leste and we did that because we do care about Timor-Leste’s economic development, which this goes to.

The second point I’d make is rather than focusing on what China might or might not do in Timor-Leste or in the Pacific, we should focus on what we should do. We should be doing what we can to work with Timor-Leste to encourage and support its economic development. That’s in our interests.

Obviously it’s a matter for the government of the day to assess what Australia can do constructively towards that. I’m pleased that we have finally settled the maritime boundary, which goes directly to the issue of the development Mr Bracks was describing.

KARVELAS: Australia and East Timor are in negotiations over where the processing facility for gas from the jointly held Sunrise field should be located. Steve Bracks says Australia’s agreement to locate it in Timor would go a long way to increasing goodwill. Should Australia consider that?

WONG: I think the government of the day needs to assess what we can reasonably and constructively do to support Timor-Leste’s development. That thinking was behind Labor’s push to try and renegotiate the maritime boundary – something Julie Bishop criticised but then finally agreed to – because that goes directly to the issue of royalties, which goes to Timor-Leste’s economic development.

KARVELAS: Timor’s ambassador to Australia says his country will source the $16 billion it needs to build an onshore processing facility from whoever is willing to fund it, including of course China. Would that be against our national interest in your view? Would you be concerned about that?

WONG: I think the approach we should take is to look at what Australia can do in the region to be a partner of choice; what we can reasonably and constructively do, rather than focusing on issues of strategic competition. We have the region’s best interests in our hearts. We should be focusing on what we can do as a substantial power in the region to support development, whether it’s in Timor-Leste or the Pacific more generally.

KARVELAS: It’s been revealed that Home Affairs Secretary Mike Pezzullo congratulated AFP Deputy Commissioner Neil Gaughan on the raid on News Corp journalist Annika Smethurst’s home. This was in relation to a story she wrote about a proposal to expand domestic surveillance powers. Is that appropriate that he would call and say “good job”?

WONG: I reckon Mr Pezzullo is simply channelling his boss Peter Dutton. The reality is this government doesn’t care about media freedom. I think this demonstrates that, confirms that, as has frankly the government’s attitude on this matter to date.

KARVELAS: Does it concern you that the head of an agency like this would call the police? Does that seem inappropriate or is something that happens in Canberra?

WONG: Well… (laughs)

KARVELAS: You know, you’ve been a minister in a government, I don’t know.

WONG: The police should act independently, but I think it does speak to the attitude of the government, doesn’t it? We’ve seen Mr Dutton before – who is Mr Pezzullo’s minister – we’ve seen his disregard for issues on media freedom.

Freedom of the press, as much as some of you might get to us at times or get under our skin, it’s a very important part of our democracy and should be defended by this government.

KARVELAS: Penny Wong, I have never gotten under your skin, okay?

WONG: Oh, occasionally I reckon.

KARVELAS: I reckon occasionally too.

Just a final question on something that happened earlier this week, but I think it’s an important one to ask you about. John Setka – well he essentially lost one court case but there could be appeals. Has Anthony Albanese acted too rashly on this and not really covered the Labor Party in terms of expelling this man?

WONG: He’s acted with principle. We all stand up saying that we support action to prevent violence against women, we all stand up condemning violence. Certainly Labor’s position has been very clear. Mr Setka has breached a family violence order. He’s been convicted of many counts of harassment. These aren’t private matters. These are serious matters and they go to the reputation of the Australian Labor Party.

KARVELAS: We’ve heard from Jacqui Lambie has said in terms of his ongoing role as the head of the CFMEU and what she might do in terms of voting for the Ensuring Integrity Bill. Obviously Labor’s against this bill, you’re very against this bill. Is he putting that at risk by staying on?

WONG: I think Mr Setka talked about collectivism a lot. I hope he would take heed from people like Sally McManus and others in the trade union movement who made the point that the movement is bigger than the individual.

KARVELAS: Penny Wong, thank you so much for joining us.

WONG: Good to speak with you.

Authorised by Paul Erickson, ALP, Canberra.