15 May 2019




GEOFF HUTCHISON: Penny Wong, are you contemplating being Foreign Minister after Saturday, or contemplating the awfulness of not winning and being consigned to three more years on the opposition benches?

SENATOR PENNY WONG, LEADER OF THE OPPOSITION IN THE SENATE: I have spent the last three years contemplating being Foreign Minister. Not in the sense of kicking back and thinking about it, but focusing on what I think we would need to do should we win government.

The world has changed a lot. The playbook of the last decades is not going to work in terms of how we approach foreign policy and I’ve spent quite a lot of time over the last three years talking about this and thinking about this. Engaging with others on how we handle our relationship with China, obviously we are an alliance partner with the US, how we better engage with our region.

HUTCHISON: Are you worried that a US China trade war could have fairly significant consequences for Australia?

WONG: I think that a US China trade war has significant consequences for the world. There are, obviously, economic consequences, but there are also consequences more broadly to the stability of the global system.

Now we are a substantial power, we are also a trading nation – certainly I’m in a state that understands the importance of trade and exports – we need a multilateral trading system that works well. So if you have a situation where two major powers – our principal ally and our major trading partner are in conflict on issues of trade – that is not a good thing.

HUTCHISON: Are you sensing a real escalation here?

WONG: We are all concerned to ensure we continue to advocate for open, fair, transparent trading arrangements. That is in Australia’s interest. Now, obviously, whether it is the Coalition or Labor, you can’t determine that. But we have to continue to advocate for Australia’s national interest and our interest is in a multilateral system when it comes to trade.

HUTCHISON: Bill Shorten mentioned this today, but tell me how our engagement with Asia will change with you as Foreign Minister?

WONG: Most foreign policy is bipartisan. Not all of it, but if there are differences of nuance, if there are different traditions, different perspectives, different emphases as between the Coalition and Labor, I think Labor has had a stronger tradition of regionalism, a stronger tradition of looking to the region. Whether you look at Whitlam, Hawke and Keating, Rudd and Gillard or indeed Bill Shorten if we are elected, we do have a very strong focus on the region. We recognise there are challenges. There also opportunities.

One of the things we absolutely know is that stepping up our capabilities, our engagement with the region is critical. We have announced a FutureAsia policy which is essentially a whole of government series of policies, varying from education – so getting more Asian languages into schools – to encouraging more people with Asian business experience, to more, frankly, diplomatic infrastructure for the job I’d have, to make sure we up our engagement with the region. We are going to need it. Something I think West Australians understand.

HUTCHISON: Do you think you will have that job on Saturday night?

WONG: That depends on you and millions of other Australians Geoff. That’s the way it is.

HUTCHISON: You’re not going to offer a speculative answer?

WONG: I think we have put forward a much more positive vision. We have put forward stability and unity. I think Mr Morrison is putting forward more of the same, more division and chaos. I think his alliance with Clive Palmer is a guarantee that the chaos will worsen and on key issues, including climate change, the certainty that you need when it comes to energy policy, the reality is the Coalition, particularly with Clive Palmer, cannot and will not ever be able to do anything about climate change.

HUTCHISON: I want to look at a couple of strands of Labor policy that have been perceived as strengths for some and weaknesses for others. The first is your commitment to climate change policy, broadly believed to be more far-reaching than that of the Coalition, and yet there is a potential weakness here of promising change but being unwilling to put a cost on that change. Now that doesn’t matter to some, and it matters to others. Will Saturday night determine if you made the right call not to cost it?

WONG: We made the right call to put our policy out and I don’t think we should accept the frame that is Tony Abbott‘s frame and Barnaby Joyce’s frame from years ago where they tried to frighten Australians about the prospect of acting on climate change. We know that the cost of not acting is far greater to Australia.

I was Climate Minister and you and I spoke a number of years ago – I think it was after I had been Climate Minister – I was Climate Minister for a number of years and this argument where people try to frighten Australians? Talk to young people. They’re over it, because they get that this is happening and that we need to do something about it. It is one of the examples, I think, where we should look to the future. We should do what Labor has said. We will reduce emissions. We will turbocharge renewable energy. That is the way of the future, environmentally and economically, and we should get on with it. We have been paralysed as a country on climate because of the internal wars inside the Coalition.

HUTCHISON: Many of Labor’s spending commitments are based on changes to taxation, promising to make higher earners pay more, multinationals to pay more, bringing to an end franking credit refunds. The counter argument here, Penny Wong, is that some of our listeners, some voters, mums and dads, have long and legally been the recipients of those benefits in retirement. They do cost the Budget billions of dollars every year. Some of those people are saying that Labor is targeting them. We are playing within the rule. We are doing nothing wrong and now we’re being punished for it. Are you winning that argument?

WONG: I understand that people are disappointed with the proposed changes, the people who are receiving those benefits. But can I start by making a few points? The first is that, if you do want to do what we want to do, which is to put more money into hospitals, including here in Western Australia – Royal Perth Kalamunda and many others, if you want to put more money into public transport – Metronet and infrastructure; if you want to put more money into cancer care, if you want to put more money into schools, you have to find that money.

The second point I’d make is, no you’re right, people weren’t doing anything wrong, they were doing what was legal. The question for the country is, is this the best use of this money? Is this the best use of taxpayers’ money? Because it is an effective tax concession isn’t it? It is saying we are not going to allow this tax concession to continue.

I just want to put it into perspective. We are the only country in the world that gives cash payments to people who don’t pay tax in this way. That is the first point. The second point I’d make is we are not taking anyone’s dividend payments away. We are not cutting anyone’s pensions. We are not taking away the right of people to use franking credits to lower their tax payments. What we are saying is we are not going to send you cash refunds.

That policy currently costs, I think it is around $6 billion a year. It will rise to $8 billion within a few years. That is what it costs the taxpayer in terms of tax forgone to send cheques to people in this situation. That is much as we spend on public schools. That is as much as we spend on childcare.

So I do say to people who will be affected, I understand that you made judgements on the basis of what was available. As a party of government we also have to look at balancing what is in the broadest interests of the economy and of the community. And our judgement is that there is more benefit in investing in the sorts of things I described – hospitals, schools, childcare – than in continuing to be the only country that sends tax refunds to people who haven’t paid tax.

HUTCHISON: Can I ask a couple of questions that are more about the election process than anything else? This election has appeared rather presidential in tone. I don’t know if this is accident, design or if this is the way the media chooses to reduce the complex to the simple. But most media coverage has begun with the sentence “the two leaders were in (insert name here) promising to hand out money”. Is this how it should be? Is this a response to small target campaigning from both sides?

WONG: I don’t think we’ve been at all a small target have we? We presented a very comprehensive policy offering to the Australian people.

HUTCHISON: But it’s presidential in town?

WONG: The media do tend to report what the leaders are doing. But I would say this I think Bill has been really clear about the team he is putting forward. And if you look at our launch, if you look at who is been standing up with him – I was out with him today Chris Bowen was with him today. Tanya has been out with him. We’ve had our team out with Bill and we can offer a team, a team that experienced and united and stable. Scott Morrison has to be out on his own because most of his ministers are in witness protection.

HUTCHISON: But it’s also interesting that a lot of people are maybe making determinations on who are you going for? Scott Morrison or Bill Shorten? Is that just a sign of the times?

WONG: It is a contest between who will be prime minister. It’s also a contest between two different visions of the country, what sort of country do you want on Sunday morning.

HUTCHISON: Can I ask this question then what does it say about the state of Australian politics that this week the question, “do gays go to Hell?” was actually asked, answered and analysed?

WONG: I made the point that I think Mr Morrison made this a story because it was asked of him, journalists asked him, and he wasn’t able, initially, to answer it. I think it is disappointing that we are having this discussion at all in Australia. People, obviously, are entitled to their views. But as politicians, as political leaders, as the Prime Minister, words land quite heavily in some people and how we use our words is important.

HUTCHISON: And yet, of course, it has become this political issue that Scott Morrison didn’t respond to the satisfaction of Bill Shorten. Bill Shorten expressed disappointment at it. Scott Morrison fired back and then it becomes just another ugly political point from a question that was probably last asked in this country about 30 years ago.

WONG: That’s right. My experience in the marriage equality campaign is that some of the nasty things that were said, which are still being said and have been said by people who are Liberal candidates. We’ve had people linking same-sex marriage to paedophilia. We have had Liberal candidates, who are still endorsed, who say that people like me shouldn’t have children, we should be banned from having children. And it is disappointing that Scott Morrison has continued to endorse them.

Let’s just take a step back. The country, despite the fact that the Coalition had so many people, including Mr Morrison, who opposed marriage quality, the country voted yes. And it was a really important act of acceptance and an expression of values and ordinary Australians did that. Not that people are ordinary, but I’m saying it wasn’t politicians, it probably wasn’t church leaders or community leaders, it was a lot of Australians just went “you know what? I just reckon this is okay”.

HUTCHISON: Now we learnt today that 3 million people have pre-polled. It’s probably 3.4 million at the end of the day and we’re trying to work out who they are, what their motivation is. Are thy rusted on voters who will never change their mind so “yes I’m voting early I know what I’m doing”? Or “I don’t really care. I’m disenchanted. I want to get this out of the way”?

WONG: Or I can’t get there.

HUTCHISON: That was the basis of it, but that’s not the truth of it now I don’t think.

WONG: It’s hard to tell. I’ve been on pre-poll a bit, not as much obviously as our candidates. It’s a good thing that people are pre-polling

HUTCHISON: After the election does that Parliamentary committee need to look at the merit of perhaps five million people – that’s the suggestion by Saturday – perhaps five million people will have voted before the day?

WONG: I’m not as concerned about that as other people seem to be. I think people vote early for a range of reasons. As you say, I think there are people – certainly on the pre-poll there are people who have mobility issues, or weren’t going to be around so they want to get it done.

HUTCHISON: I think that might be the minority now.

WONG: Sure, that’s hard to tell. After every election there is always an analysis of the election by the Parliamentary committee.

HUTCHISON: Does it mean that some of those people may have voted for now disendorsed candidates whose name stay there? It’s often argued that it’s pretty tough on independent candidates because they can’t find people to man the booths, unless you pay for them to man the booths, as one of the significant candidates has.

WONG: Mr Palmer.

HUTCHISON: Yes. My last question actually is about people like Clive Palmer, because the wild cards in this election – Clive Palmer…

WONG: Pauline Hanson.

HUTCHISON: Pauline Hanson, they will still draw the disaffected and do we have to accept that this actually is the face of modern politics and people will be drawn to the so called mavericks if their dislike of you in the mainstream is so strong?

WONG: You know the big take out of this election? You’re right, there will always be people who play to the disaffected. There will be people who play to those who like to divide our community. There will be people who play to those who hate. The difference in this election is we have a Liberal Party which has not been prepared to turn its back on One Nation and Clive Palmer and that has been prepared to do a deal with him.

That says something about Mr Morrison’s principles and it says something about his desperation that he is prepared to do a deal with Clive Palmer who he knows he can’t govern with. All you have to do is look at Mr Palmer’s history, Mr Palmer’s ads. He is not someone you can govern with. There will be more chaos but Mr Morrison has been prepared to do a deal with him.

HUTCHISON: So what would happen if Labor form government, because there is no guarantee that the Senate would want to work with the new government‘s agenda? And I know you and Bill Shorten both publicly have called on the Senate to work with the government. Are you preparing for the possibility that it could be another really, really tough go?

WONG: I would say to your listeners is if you want a stable government vote Labor, the team that’s had the same Leader, Deputy Leader, Shadow Treasurer and Senate Leader for six years. If you want a stable united team – not more of the same chaos – a stable united team, vote Labor in the House and the Senate.

We will continue to fight for our policy through the Senate and we will continue to fight for Labor people to be elected to the Senate. That is my answer to you.

HUTCHISON: I return to my first point – do you think you’ll be Foreign Minister after Saturday night?

WONG: Entirely a matter of the Australian people.

HUTCHISON: Thank you for coming in today.

WONG: It’s been really lovely. Thank you.

Authorised by Noah Carroll, ALP, Canberra.