22 September 2015




GLEN BARTHOLOMEW: The Greens say they’re prepared to start working with the Government’s new Leader in the Senate, George Brandis, with a clean slate. The Government has, of course, faced stiff opposition from the Senate and crossbench on some proposals, including changes to higher education. Greens Senator Peter Whish-Wilson says the deposed Leader in the Senate Tasmanian Eric Abetz was pleasant to deal with, but not a good negotiator in the role. So what’s going to change, is Senator Brandis perhaps a better negotiator? Will the Government have more success in the Upper House? Let’s find out from Leader of the Opposition in the Senate, Penny Wong, who joins us now. Good morning.


BARTHOLOMEW: Senator Wong, your leader Bill Shorten, I think, famously said that what was supposed to be a charm offensive in the Senate to get the Government’s agenda through, that it was all offensive and no charm. What do you think is going to change now that Eric Abetz has been replaced by George Brandis?

WONG: Well, George certainly takes himself very, very seriously and there hasn’t been a lot of charming over the recent period. He’s probably had a ministerial career that’s been a difficult one, pretty compromised one, if you think about his advocacy for the rights of bigots, his misleading of the Senate in relation to the Man Monis letter, his famous metadata interview and obviously he’s also lost the Arts portfolio in this reshuffle.

But if George is able to, perhaps, not take himself quite as seriously as he has over recent years and to not be quite as personally nasty as we’ve seen he was towards Gillian Triggs, we always welcome and are open to talking to him and to talking to members of the Government about legislation. The problem primarily though, has not just been the personality, it has been the agenda.

BARTHOLOMEW: So it is both the product and the salesperson?

WONG: That’s right. I think that nothing is going to change Labor’s mind, nor I suspect the crossbenchers minds around $100,000 degrees. It doesn’t matter how charming people are, that’s still a dud policy, it’s still an inequitable policy. And if Mr Turnbull continues to press some of those policies through the Senate, I suspect he’ll get the same response. He certainly will from the Labor Party.

BARTHOLOMEW: Certainly it did frustrate Prime Minister Tony Abbott and his Treasurer Joe Hockey. How would you define their handling of the Senate and the Senate crossbench and what would you expect to see different from Malcolm Turnbull and Scott Morrison, who has managed to get a little bit of negotiating success in the Senate in the past?

WONG: That’s true. He made the effort to talk to people. Mr Turnbull has made the Senate one of the high bars of his prime ministership. He told his colleagues, he told the country, that the Government will now do better in the Senate. We’ll wait and see if that occurs. I would say about Eric Abetz, the one thing I would agree with Peter Whish-Wilson, is I find Eric personally professional and courteous to deal with. And obviously we’re about as far apart on the political spectrum as you can be, but he did deal with me professionally. I think the challenge for the Government has been that what they’re trying to get through the Senate has been broken promises and legislation which hurts Australians. So it’s not surprising that they didn’t get support from the Labor Party, or from the crossbench.

BARTHOLOMEW: There are now five women in the Cabinet, including your South Australian colleague Liberal Senator Marise Payne. Is that a move you welcome?

WONG: Marise isn’t a South Australian, but I do welcome there being more women in the Cabinet. I’ve said so publically already and I say so again: whatever our political differences I welcome the increase of women in the Cabinet and I hope over the years to come this will become something less remarkable and I welcome the bipartisanship now is shown on having more women in the Cabinet.

In terms of Defence, obviously that’s a very difficult portfolio and one, as a South Australian, I do have a keen interest in. We saw Tony Abbott break his promise to South Australians about building 12 submarines here in Adelaide. The famous remarks by the former Defence Minister Senator Johnston, who lost his portfolio after really dismissing the ability of the South Australian yards to do their jobs in the most offensive way.

I look forward to this Government holding to the promise it made to South Australians, which is to build the submarines here.

BARTHOLOMEW: Thanks. Minister Payne on her feet in Canberra at the moment, we’ll have a listen to what she’s got to say shortly. As a South Australian, Senator you’d be urging them, no doubt, to do as much as they can, as you say, for the shipbuilding industry. Should Japan be the successful tender for the new fleet of submarines?

WONG: I think a few things need to be recalled here – one is the Coalition went to the last election with a very clear promise that the submarines would be built here in South Australia. No ifs, no buts, that was the commitment that the Coalition made.

We’re waiting to see if Malcolm Turnbull and Marise Payne will hold to that commitment. In terms of the arrangement with the Japanese, that clearly was a political deal that Tony Abbott did in breach of his promise to South Australians and we’ll see whether or not Malcolm Turnbull is prepared to walk away from that and honour the commitment the Coalition made to the people of South Australia.

BARTHOLOMEW: You’ve had a bit to say about the representation, gender representation in Canberra at a session yesterday. What did you notice when you saw more females in the mix in the Labor Government, what changed?

WONG: I think Labor really has led the way, which is demonstrated by the number of women we have in the Parliament and the number of women we had in the Cabinet and I think that was a very important and positive step for our Party and I think it did change the way in which decisions were considered and led to and has meant a more  representative Labor Party.

We’ve still got a long way to go, I think. I made the comment yesterday at the conference that you’re referencing, George Brandis is quite prepared to call a female Senator a “creature” and describe me as being shrill and hysterical, these sorts of comments are still made.

But I think over time, as we see more women in positions of seniority those sorts of dismissive comments will become less. And, as I said, I really congratulate Marise and the other Coalition women who have entered the Cabinet, it’s a very great honour to serve the nation in that capacity and it’s great to see more women in positions of leadership.

BARTHOLOMEW: Finally, Wyatt Roy has become one of the youngest ever Federal frontbenchers, as Assistant Minister for Innovation, at just 25. You carry the Shadow portfolio for Trade and Investment, what’s your advice to the young MP, where should he start?

WONG: He certainly is very young and he’s very interested in innovation. I think what I’d say to him is certainly that the Liberal Government when it comes to science and innovation and technology has been very backward looking in recent years and they’ve got a lot of work to do to actually make science and innovation central.

We understand it’s central to Australia’s future prosperity, something Labor’s been very focussed on in opposition and we’ll continue to press for both innovation and science and increased investment in technology as being central to Australia’s future jobs.

BARTHOLOMEW: Look forward to that and look forward to exactly what does occur in the Upper House. Senator Penny Wong, thanks very much.

WONG: Good to be with you.