SENATOR THE HON PENNY WONG

LEADER OF THE OPPOSITION IN THE SENATE

SHADOW MINISTER FOR FOREIGN AFFAIRS

LABOR SENATOR FOR SOUTH AUSTRALIA

TRANSCRIPT

26 September 2018

ABC RADIO ADELAIDE ‘SUPER WEDNESDAY’

TOPICS: DONALD TRUMP, POLITICAL INTERFERENCE IN THE ABC, TRADE, UN GENERAL ASSEMBLY, WENTWORTH BY-ELECTION

E&OE - PROOF ONLY

DAVID BEVAN: A big Super Wednesday welcome to Simon Birmingham, Minister for Trade, Tourism and Investment. Good morning to you.

SENATOR SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Good morning David.

BEVAN: Rebekha Sharkie, Centre Alliance Member for Mayo, good morning to you.

REBEKHA SHARKIE: Good morning.

BEVAN: And Penny Wong, Labor Senator for South Australia and Shadow Minister for Foreign Affairs, good morning to you.

PENNY WONG, LEADER OF THE OPPOSITION IN THE SENATE: Good morning.

BEVAN: Let’s start with Michelle Guthrie, and please, first one to the buzzer gets to answer this, does anybody know why Michelle Guthrie got the sack?

WONG: That’s a question for the Board and for the Government, isn’t it?

But look the reports today David are more concerning than simply the sacking of Michelle Guthrie. There is an allegation on the front page of the Fairfax papers that the Government pressured the ABC to sack Emma Alberici because of her reporting. I would just like to say this is a matter of principle. If this is true, if the Government is pressuring the ABC to sack a journalist because of their reporting, really that is the stuff of tin pot democracies. It is not reflective of the Australian democracy. This is a public broadcaster, it serves the public. It is not serving the government of the day as an organ of the government.

BEVAN: This is an extraordinary story. It’s in The Age. The headline is “‘They hate her’: emails show ABC chairman told Michelle Guthrie to fire Emma Alberici”.

Okay, so for people who are new to the program, Michelle Guthrie, Managing Director of the ABC, just got the sack. Emma Alberici is the ABC’s Chief Economics Correspondent. According to this story, the Chairman of the ABC, that is Justin Milne, this is the guy who has just announced that Guthrie has got sacked, he, back earlier this year, was saying to Guthrie “They [the government] hate her. We are tarred with her brush. I think it’s simple. Get rid of her. We need to save the ABC – not Emma. There is no guarantee they [the Coalition] will lose the next election.”

Simon Birmingham, this is extraordinary stuff?

BIRMINGHAM: Well, David, I think it is important to make sure that listeners understand that the ABC Board hires and fires ABC managing directors. It is not a decision of Government as to whether or not managing directors come or go. ABC management hires and fires employees, journalists and others working at the ABC. Their hiring and firing are also not decisions of government.

The legislation that governs the ABC is very clear in terms of the autonomy of the ABC Board and of ABC management around all of those decisions.

WONG: I think there is a question for Simon. We know there are public complaints from both Minister Fifield and former Prime Minister Turnbull about Emma Alberici. Does he have any knowledge of the Coalition pressuring Mr Milne, who obviously has very close personal ties to the former Prime Minister, does he have any knowledge of any pressure being applied as to the sacking of a journalist?

BIRMINGHAM: Well it is well known that the Government absolutely complained publicly and officially about the fact that Emma Alberici got it horribly, terribly wrong when she did a story in relation to the amount of tax that Australian businesses pay. It was an embarrassing failure on her part, on the ABC’s part.

WONG: There’s a dispute over those facts, but that is not the question. I think Australians have a right to know whether or not this Government is treating the public broadcaster as a state broadcaster.

BIRMINGHAM: Certainly not Penny and the Government absolutely respects and honours the legislative principle that I outlined at the start. Managing directors hired and fired by the board. The management of the ABC hires and fires its staff and its journalists. But I make no apologies for complaining when an ABC journalist gets it dead wrong.

WONG: You certainly complain a lot. It shows you the extent of the sensitivity, the extent to which senior ministers and the Liberal Prime Minister of the day felt it was necessary for them to make multiple complaints to the ABC about journalism.

BIRMINGHAM: Penny I remember the story. It was a big story. It was a story that absolutely put businesses working in Australia in terms of reputational damage and it was dead wrong.

You’ve got a senior journalist at the ABC who went out with this great big splash that was covered across all the different platforms of the ABC, on television, on radio and online and it was completely made up and fabricated.

WONG: I don’t think that is the case. But I reckon if politicians complain every time a story had factually incorrect details I tell you what, we would be doing nothing but complaining and we certainly wouldn’t be focussing on how we improve Australia’s schools, Australia’s hospitals or how we make our economy stronger.

BEVAN: Penny Wong, I understand why you would be questioning the Government, and they are fair questions, but what about the role of the Chairman here? Is ABC Chairman Justin Milne, if these emails are correct, is he doing his job properly by linking the sacking of an ABC journalist to future relations between the Coalition Government and the ABC? Because this is saying “We are tarred with her brush. I think it’s simple. Get rid of her. We need to save the ABC – not Emma. There is no guarantee they [the Coalition] will lose the next election.”

WONG: Mr Milne needs to come out and make a very clear statement responding directly to these accusations. Because if the story is correct, and if that email was in fact sent by him, it is inconsistent with his obligations as a Chairman of the ABC. It is inconsistent with the legislation. But it is, more importantly, inconsistent with what your listeners and the Australian public expect of the public broadcaster.

They expect independence. They do not expect someone who obviously had close personal links to Malcolm Turnbull, doing what appears to be the bidding of the Government of the day. He needs to respond.

ALI CLARKE: Rebekha Sharkie, Centre Alliance MP, you’ve been listening to all of this. What’s your take?

SHARKIE: It’s been pretty clear for some time since Tony Abbott came in, and let’s remember when he came in he said there would be no cuts to the ABC, we have seen budget cuts and we have seen pressure on editorial content through members of Government, and there have been many, complaining about the reporting of the ABC.

I think it is extraordinary that Justin Milne, if it is true, would pressure Michelle Guthrie with respect to her staff. It’s such an overreach from a board position, and to know that we have lost $338 million from the ABC since 2014, $84 million in the recent Budget, it just goes to show what pressure Michelle Guthrie was under.

When she came in a lot of people were very concerned about her role and how she would manage that role and I think what we saw most recently from Michelle Guthrie was that she actually stood up to Government and to the pressure that’s happened to the ABC around their independence. I think that Justin Milne needs to come out and explain to the Australian public why he is sacking Michelle Guthrie.

We need to have more opportunity for the ABC to be frank and fearless and independent in their reporting.

BEVAN: Simon Birmingham, does Justin Milne, the Chairman of the ABC, need to explain why they sacked her?

BIRMINGHAM: Justin Milne, as I understand it, has done numerous media interviews since the announcement earlier this week. It is for the ABC Board to justify the position that the ABC Board has taken.

BEVAN: He was very careful not to say why they sacked her, and that’s not good enough is it?

BIRMINGHAM: It is for him and the ABC Board to explain. They have the statutory right to hire and fire ABC managing directors.

BEVAN: Yes, I know it’s for him to explain, what I’m putting to you is – do you think it’s good enough that he hasn’t explained it?

BIRMINGHAM: David, I haven’t read the transcripts of his interviews, I don’t know what explanations he has or hasn’t given. I know that he has fronted the media, as he should, to answer questions in relation to these matters and that’s for him to continue to do.

BEVAN: The US President says he rejects “the ideology of globalism and we embrace the doctrine of patriotism”. Simon Birmingham, you’re the Trade Minister, what does that mean?

BIRMINGHAM: Well again, I’ll let Donald Trump explain what his statements mean.

BEVAN: Well, what do you think they mean?

BIRMINGHAM: Australia absolutely appreciates and recognises the fact that our engagement with the world over many years has helped to grow the Australian economy. Around one in five Australian jobs are dependent upon export activity. We urge all nations to continue to respect, abide by what are now long-established international rules in relation to the way trade occurs. We’re deeply disappointed by the fact that the US administration has applied, unilaterally, tariff measures that go against those established rules just as we are concerned by actions of other countries in terms of industrial subsidies that they might apply in different ways.

The big thing that we’ve achieved as a government to protect Australian farmers, businesses, exporters is to ensure that through the various trade agreements we’ve negotiated they have better market access to millions of potential customers around the world than they did years ago, and that that will continue to improve. That is a big protection for Australian farmers and businesses at a time when there’s clearly a lot of uncertainty around what players like the US and China are doing.

BEVAN: Well, Penny Wong you’d like to be the Foreign Affairs Minister, what do you think Donald Trump means when he says “we reject the ideology of globalism and we embrace the doctrine of patriotism?”

WONG: The first thing I’d say is it isn’t unusual for a world leader, he’s not the first, to focus on a domestic audience rather than an international audience when speaking at the UN.

But the principle I think is important and that is Australia has a direct interest in a strong multilateral system. We’ve got a direct interest in sound, fair, open transparent trading arrangements. We’ve got an interest in the world working together to tackle those problems which no one country can solve – whether it’s climate change or nuclear proliferation. Fundamentally, we do better together as a world; when we work together we do better on the economic front and we create a safer world.

BEVAN: Look, you’re both being very diplomatic here.

WONG: So my point is, as Simon said, it’s up to President Trump to explain what he meant, but if the assertion is that multilateralism and working together are not good things, that is not the approach Australia – whether under a Coalition or a Labor government – has taken in the past and nor would it be if we see a Shorten Labor Government.

BEVAN: Are you worried Penny Wong by Donald Trump’s comments?

WONG: Oh look, they’re not new are they? This is the same kind of rhetoric we saw in the primaries, it’s the same kind of rhetoric we saw in the election campaign. I think the best way to read much of what Mr Trump says is probably to think about the way in which he’s speaking to an American audience.

BEVAN: But again, that’s not the answer to the question. The question was “are you worried?”, I didn’t ask you “have you heard this before?”. Are you worried?

WONG: I think we’re all worried about certain actions. I think we’re worried about the tension in the relationship between the US and China, in particular the trade retaliation and the trade conflict which has been generated currently. I think Australia stands to lose economically in the world as well as obviously increased competition and tension isn’t conducive to a more secure world.

BEVAN: Simon Birmingham, are you worried?

BIRMINGHAM: David, we are worried about the actions and policies of the US Administration in so far as they’re disruptive to the effective operation of the World Trade Organisation, that they are disruptive in terms of some of the dispute resolution mechanisms that Australia relies upon quite heavily and that obviously any semblance of trade disputation between the US and China – with competing tariffs and subsidies going backwards and forwards – has the potential to slow global economic growth. If it slows global economic growth then that’s bad for everybody; the consumers and businesses in the US and China but also elsewhere around the world and we convey those concerns very directly. I do when I meet with US trade representatives and other representatives of government as does Prime Minister Morrison and Foreign Minister Payne in their engagements.

CLARKE: Rebekha Sharkie, Centre Alliance MP for Mayo, do you love this government under Scott Morrison more or less than the government when it was under Malcolm Turnbull?

SHARKIE: Oh look, I don’t think it’s really a matter of my personal affection for government or whether it’s not there at all. I’m just there to work with government for good governance.

I might just say with respect to Donald Trump that he does appear to be doubling down in his isolationist policy, but on the other hand we’ve just had the TPP-11 or TPP number two agreement come through the House of Representatives and what we haven’t seen from that and what we were calling for was the Productivity Commission to make a good assessment of the agreement because we just don’t know what the impact will be on the labour market testing rules, which means that they don’t need to test anymore. What’s that going to do to affect Australia’s employment? We don’t know with respect to the ISDS provisions that are in there, which will give the opportunity for multinationals to sue our government if they don’t like our particular legislation. So I think that there’s a balance to be made between where we are marching ahead with TPP where Labor says that they’ll be able to make changes if they come into government and where Donald Trump sits.

BEVAN: But just to return to Ali’s question, and you’re going to have to make a decision after the Wentworth by-election. Are you more in love with Scott Morrison than you were with Malcolm Turnbull?

SHARKIE: I think the Australian community wants to see the Morrison Government continue to the end of their term. I have no intention of being a wrecker of government but I am hopeful that we will have a greater ability to work with government. I am obviously keen to see the crossbench expand.

CLARKE: Okay, thank you very much, Rebekha Sharkie, Centre Alliance MP for Mayo, Penny Wong, Labor Senator for South Australia and Simon Birmingham, Minister for Trade, Tourism and Investment.

Authorised by Noah Carroll, ALP, Canberra.