E&OE - PROOF ONLY
SABRA LANE: Only the Senate is sitting in Canberra this week and it will soon have a new member with Jim Molan returning to the chamber; winning the battle to replace Arthur Sinodinos who is now off to be Australia’s next ambassador to the United States.
Penny Wong is the Leader of Labor in the Senate and she’s also the Shadow Foreign Minister. Good morning and welcome to AM.
SENATOR PENNY WONG, LEADER OF THE AUSTRALIAN LABOR PARTY IN THE SENATE: Good morning, good to be with you Sabra.
LANE: First, the extreme fire conditions across Australia – you’re a former Climate Change Minister, is now the right or wrong time to be talking about what contribution that may have?
WONG: First, I want to say your reports in the lead up to this bulletin were pretty sobering weren’t they? Obviously we all offer our sympathies to people who’ve lost loved ones. We thank the extraordinary emergency services volunteers who are fighting these fires and we say to Australians who are in these areas at risk; please stay safe; please listen to the warnings and take the advice of authorities. Unfortunately as you said, it looks like tomorrow might be equally or worse, and more areas affected, so this is a very difficult time.
My view is we need to focus on the current crisis and we need to stand with those who are battling fires, and grieving and at risk. I understand why people are anxious about this. When we get through this, it is a responsible thing for us to focus on how we plan to keep Australians safe.
You’re right, I’m a former Climate Minister – warnings about a longer bushfire season and more intense fires have been on the table for a long time.
LANE: To Parliament, given Mr Molan’s military and security background, are you welcoming him back?
WONG: Well actually, I sat on the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security with Jim Molan, and it might surprise people but we actually got on quite well. We obviously have different views but I always found him good to deal with.
I hope that he could encourage perhaps the Foreign Minister to engage Members of Parliament and Senators more on our relationship with China. I think he’s certainly got a focus in that area and I certainly hope he will join me in encouraging Foreign Minister Payne to engage the Parliament a little more.
LANE: Three months ago you said that the government wasn’t providing you with the necessary briefings you needed from defence and security people to do your job. Has that changed?
WONG: I think my point was actually – and the government does respond to requests from myself and Richard Marles and obviously the Leader (of the Opposition). I made a broader point which is that the China relationship, particularly, is a very complex relationship, it’s also very consequential. There is no issue for Australia’s future that is of great input where China doesn’t matter when it comes to the region and the world.
I encourage the Foreign Minister and the government to engage with the Parliament more. As you might recall, there’s been a lot of public discussion and I think it would be a better discussion if we were better informed. I regret that Minister Payne has chosen not to do that.
DFAT provides briefings to the business community, they’re not made available to members of her own team or members of the Opposition. I think that’s regrettable. I think it would be a good thing if the Parliament had a better insight into both the opportunities and the challenges in the China relationship.
LANE: Why has the happened? Usually this area is a topic that enjoys bipartisan support.
WONG: Sure. Well, we try to make sure that we have what I describe as constructive bipartisanship. So we look at what the government’s doing and we look to Australia’s national interests; and the bipartisanship should always be in foreign policy and national security matters that you never use these issues for domestic partisan purposes. Regrettably at times, the current Prime Minister has failed that test.
On China, I think this is a relationship that is as I said, complex and consequential. We have very deep economic interests. We have interests because we live in the same region but we also have differences because we’re a different political system and we’re a democracy. Navigating that is challenging and it would be better if more of the Parliament could understand some of the complexities of that relationship.
LANE: This week it looks like the government will get the crossbench support it needs to get that union-busting bill through. How much blame does John Setka shoulder if this does pass?
WONG: First I’d say that, obviously, decisions about who’s a member or a leader of a union is a decision for the union, but the first principal of the trade union movement and the labour movement is solidarity and no one person is more important than any other.
This is a very bad bill. This is a bill that’s about destroying the right of trade unions to organise. It is about undermining the capacity of trade unions and their members to advocate for better wages and conditions and better safety. It is WorkChoices lite and I hope that the crossbenchers don’t support this legislation because I think it would be a bad thing for the country.
LANE: And John Setka?
WONG: As I said, I would hope Mr Setka and those supporting him would remember that no single person is bigger than our movement. That’s what solidarity is.
LANE: Onto the Labor Party review. Did you try and raise concerns with the Labor Party campaign during the election that things weren’t okay?
WONG: Sabra, you know me, I don’t talk about internal matters. What I want to say very clearly is that I think the review has got it right. I think we were right to ask Jay and Craig to do the review. I think they’ve done an excellent job. I agree with their assessment of matters. I think they go through in pretty searing detail the mistakes we made. I’ve previously said, obviously as a member of the leadership group, I do take responsibility for my part in those mistakes and the decisions that were made. The most important thing now is we learn from it. We have to earn, at the next election, people’s trust on the economy as well as keep faith with our values.
LANE: Can your party win back blue-collar support and also appeal to progressive urban elites or are those two things in conflict?
WONG: That is the same task that Whitlam, Hawke, Rudd and we have. This isn’t a new issue and we always have to earn people’s trust on the economy and we always have to hold faith with our values. We have to have the broadest Labor constituency. I don’t think it’s inherently oppositional as I know some parts of the right wing media and the Liberal Party want us to believe. That’s a position John Howard used to articulate. We’ve always got to do both.
LANE: Penny Wong, thank you very much for joining AM this morning.
WONG: Good to be with you.
Authorised by Paul Erickson, ALP, Canberra.