8 February 2017




FRAN KELLY: Penny Wong is the Shadow Foreign Minister and Opposition Leader in the Senate and she joins me in the Parliament House studio. Senator Wong welcome back to breakfast.


KELLY: We’ll get to Cory Bernardi in a moment but first to this major omnibus bill which is what the Government will be putting in now with all these welfare changes and childcare changes. On Paid Parental Leave the Government has amended its policy and essentially it will be offering now two extra weeks leave for parents who are in employer schemes that cover less than the Government’s scheme.

Do you accept the Government’s assurances that these changes mean there will be more winners than losers?

WONG: No I don’t. Now, obviously we haven’t seen the detail of the legislation but one thing is clear, there are still families in this country who will be worse off as a result of the Government’s policies. They are still going to cut Paid Parental Leave, they are still going to cut the Family Tax Benefit, they are still going to abolish the Energy Supplement. All of these things mean that there will be families in this country who are worse off.

They may not be as badly hit as they were under the Government’s previous policy, so they’ve come back a bit from what I can discern from the papers.

KELLY: Well a fair bit, nearly $3 billion?
WONG: It’s still a saving to the Budget and you don’t get a saving to the Budget for spending in another program unless you take money off people.

KELLY: But it’s also not a Magic Pudding, and politics is the art of the possible and negotiation and that’s what occurs, and is meant to occur, in both the Lower and the Upper House.

WONG: Well, on the Magic Pudding, if the Government would do the right thing, and back away from the company tax cuts, which are the biggest hit to the Budget that is being proposed, that would be a far more sensible approach than making one in three families worse off.

KELLY: Wouldn’t a lot count for a changed child care which, as the minister has assured this morning, would mean that many families, they will only be paying just $15 a day. That’s a huge improvement to the lives of a lot of families. Isn’t that worth a bit of compromise?

WONG: I’d like to see what the detail of that is and what’s being cut in order to pay for that. I think the concerns that we have previously raised are the hit to lower income families. I don’t know the extent to which that has been changed in this package but I do know this. This Government has put forward a range of propositions for some time which will make families worse off. All they have done is made it a little less bad.

KELLY: Okay, let’s go to Senator Cory Bernardi’s defection from the Liberal Party. Can Labor believe the luck it is having at the moment? Has it ever been an easier time to be in Opposition?

WONG: I certainly think that Cory Bernardi’s resignation is the symptom of a deeper problem inside the Liberal Party and that is, it is a party coming apart at the seams. It is a party that doesn’t know what it stands for, led by a man who is only able to stay in the leadership because he parrots beliefs which he doesn’t hold. I said yesterday he’s trying to be Tony Abbott and the problem is he is not very good at it.

KELLY: Cory Bernardi’s defection, he argues, signals not just a problem within the Liberal Party, but a problem within both major parties. He says he is doing it because the major parties and the politicians in this place are out of touch and self-interested. And if you look at the polls, it does seem as though disaffection is pretty evenly spread. The Coalition primary vote might be down to 35 per cent but Labor is stuck on 36 per cent, so, it’s a pox on both your houses.

WONG: Cory Bernardi left the Liberal Party. Cory Bernardi is a conservative who left the Liberal Party. I don’t need Cory Bernardi to talk to me about the sorts of things Labor needs to focus on. He’s got his own issues with the Coalition. We’re seeing a fracturing of the vote on the conservative side. That’s what is happening, conservative politics in Australia is fracturing.

But there is a separate question, which is a legitimate one, which is what does Labor have to do? We do always have to do better. We do have to ensure we are focussed on the things that matter to Australians – on jobs, on health, on education – and we are making sensible decisions about how to deliver the policies that will ensure the next generation of Australians have better opportunities, or at least as good as we’ve had.

Housing affordability, that is an area where – you’re from Sydney, and every time I go to Sydney or Melbourne that is something that is always raised with me. That people’s children – they worry that their kids aren’t going to get an opportunity for home ownership. Now, we’ve got a Government led by a man, Malcolm Turnbull, who knows that we need to change the tax arrangements to reflect those issues and he’s not able to talk about it. Malcolm Turnbull is not even able to talk about negative gearing.

KELLY: So, how is Labor responding to this? Because on Monday Bill Shorten told Caucus people are not happy with politics as usual. So it’s what Labor is doing that is interesting to talk about I think. We are seeing Donald Trump and Pauline Hanson reshaping politics here. Labor last year adopted an aggressive Australia First policy – Build Australia First, Buy Australia First, Employ Australia First. Are you just lurching to the right, is this very much just reacting to the Trump effect?

WONG: I don’t agree at all, and what I would say on Pauline Hanson, what I and others have consistently said is she has no answers. She has slogans, she helps promote division but she has no answers.

Labor has been standing up for Australian jobs for all of the period we have been a political party.

KELLY: But you did employ the slogan Australia First, which did echo America First.

WONG: It’s unsurprising that Labor would be saying we are going to be focussing on jobs. We know, from talking to people, what is happening in the labour market – not just the unemployment rate, but precarious employment, the lack of apprentices, the drop in apprenticeships under this Government – we know these are matters that people care about. They want pathways for their kids.

KELLY: Our guest is Penny Wong, the Opposition leader in the Senate. She’s also the Shadow Foreign Minister and is recently back from Washington. We were speaking earlier with the Foreign Minister, Julie Bishop. Do you share her confidence that we are starting to see the tensions in the South China Sea start to abate? There’s certainly a lowering down of the dial between the US and China?

WONG: The first principle is we want to see a stable, peaceful, constructive relationship between the US and China. That’s important for the globe, that’s important for our region, that’s important for Australia. We are pleased with some of the statements which have been more recently made. The Secretary of Defence, Mr Mattis, said very clearly that we don’t see any need for dramatic military moves at all in relation to the region. That is a good signal, I think.

There are territorial disputes in the South China Sea. Obviously Australia doesn’t take a position in respect of those. What we do say is those disputes ought to be resolved peacefully, by negotiation.

KELLY: And how did that position go when you spoke – I understand you too also met with the Chinese Foreign Secretary yesterday?

WONG: Yes, I had the pleasure of meeting him yesterday evening after his very lengthy discussions with not only his counterpart but others through the day. It was a very constructive meeting where I impressed on him our view, which is also the view the Government put, and the view the Foreign Minister put in the press conference, that stable relations, a peaceful, constructive relationship between the US and China is critical.

KELLY: And you were in Washington last week.

WONG: It was an interesting week.

KELLY: How would you describe the mood there, and do you see signs in recent days that perhaps there is a bit of equilibrium being restored or not?

WONG: There’s obviously a big change in the United States. Any Administration is a big change. As you know there’s a lot of replacement within Government departments and agencies when there is a change of Administration and this is a very different Administration in terms of some of its policy positions.

I think what is important to remember is that our relationship with the United States is multi-layered and the engagement needs to be not just at the ministerial level with Secretary Mattis and Secretary Tillerson, but also at the institutional levels.

KELLY: But do you agree with Bob Carr that the message coming from America is changed?. It’s America First and would that change the way a Labor Government would deal with the Alliance?

WONG: You always need to stand up for Australia’s interests and Australia’s values even if they don’t accord with the political line of whoever might be the incumbent at any one time in the White House. You always need to stand up for Australian interests.

And you’re right, our interest are in the International Rules Based Order, in a good multilateral system, in open markets, in constructive relationships between major powers. We need to continue to stand up for Australian interests and Australian values in the context of the Alliance.

KELLY: Just finally, and back home, the issue of Marriage Equality, there was a suggestion there would be a push in the Coalition party room for a free vote. We spoke to LNP Member George Christensen yesterday who said a free vote would breach the Coalition Agreement and could prompt him to also quit the Government. Malcolm Turnbull is never going to risk that. Is Labor ever going to be persuaded to support a plebiscite in the name of getting this done?

WONG: The plebiscite is gone. The Parliament has made that clear. And really, no one is credibly arguing any more for a plebiscite. So the question simply is when? When is there going to be a vote in the Parliament?

Now, Mr Christensen can continue to threaten the Prime Minister. I’d remind everybody that Tony Abbott himself said that the last term was the last time that Liberal Party members would be bound on this issue. I have to say I think Australians are mightily tired of this debate and would like us to resolve it and they certainly don’t believe that someone like Malcolm Turnbull should be held to ransom by George Christensen.

KELLY: Do you think it will get resolved in this term of Parliament or will it be an issue at the next election?

WONG: I hope so. I would prefer it to be resolved in this Parliament. But if it is an issue at the next election obviously, what I will be saying is return a Labor Government and we will deliver it. But my preference is for it to be resolved because I think that’s what Australians want and they want us to get over it.

KELLY: Thank you very much for joining us.

WONG: Good to be with you.