2 May 2016




FRAN KELLY: Penny Wong is the Shadow Trade Minister and Opposition Leader in the Senate. She says it’s an extraordinary intervention by the Treasurer, that will send all the wrong messages to global investors. Senator Wong is in our Parliament House studios. Penny Wong, welcome back to Breakfast.


KELLY: So, you heard Barnaby Joyce there, he says this doesn’t send the wrong signals at all and of course the Government has the right to say no to any investment. That’s true, isn’t it?

WONG: I did hear Barnaby Joyce and on a whole range of things, including Labor’s policy, he was about as accurate as he was when he told everybody that action on climate change would lead to $100 lamb roasts. But on to foreign investment, this is an incoherent decision and the reality is that the Government has sent mixed messages, it has sent inconsistent messages, to foreign investors. Now, let’s cut straight to the chase, I understand Barnaby wants to run a campaign that says people will come here and take our land. We are supportive of foreign investment because it creates Australian jobs. Labor is focussed on creating Australian jobs. Now that doesn’t mean all foreign investment should be agreed to, we support a proper and robust system for foreign investment review, a consistent system. But what we have is a Treasurer who said nine days ago ‘I need 90 days to consider this’, he then rushes out a decision ahead of the election. And we’ve got Barnaby Joyce out there defending it, not the Treasurer, not my counterpart Mr Ciobo, the Minister for Trade and Investment, who has been strangely silent on this, but Barnaby Joyce, whose views on Chinese investment are well known.

KELLY:  So is your concern with the timing of this announcement by the Treasurer, coming as it does just before the Government moves into caretaker mode, in other words sending this decision out into the electorate during an election? Is that your concern, rather than the decision itself? Do you have a problem with the decision?

WONG: My concern is first with the process which says to foreign investors ‘our process for deciding these things is politicised, is incoherent and is chaotic’.

KELLY: What is incoherent about it, because Barnaby Joyce made the point to me when I was talking to him, he asked me what other foreign investment in land have we blocked, and I couldn’t give him one.

WONG: We remember Joe Hockey, again because the National Party demanded it, blocking the Graincorp acquisition.

KELLY: That’s not a land sale.

WONG: But the point here is we have a Treasurer nine days ago saying ‘this’ll take me 90 days’ and then we have nine days later this decision, this preliminary decision. Can we just take a step back for a moment and remember why it is we need foreign investment in agriculture? We need foreign investment because we have not previously, nor will we be in the future, be able to fund all of our investment needs with domestic capital. We know that we can grow our agriculture and agricultural product sector by four fold by 2050, we need about a trillion dollars of investment to do that and it is inconceivable that we will be able to fund that entirely from domestic savings. So what we want is to make sure we have a clear and consistent position when it comes to foreign investment, so we can ensure we have the maximum number of Australian jobs funded by foreign investment.

KELLY: So I understand we need a clear and consistent position, but what should that position be? Because talking about consistency, just last week Labor Leader Bill Shorten said he was “uneasy” about the sale of Kidman to overseas buyers, he said he had a general reservation about putting such a vast land holding on the international market, which is basically where Scott Morrison’s come down, isn’t it?

WONG: Well, no, it isn’t where Scott Morrison’s come down. Scott Morrison has come down with a preliminary decision as Treasurer. There are always issues that you should look at in investments of this size, in terms of the totality of the national interest.

KELLY: Do you share Bill Shorten’s unease?

WONG: I don’t sit behind Scott Morrison’s desk to look at all the facts. What I can look at though is what has been said publicly and what has been said publicly is ‘I need 90 days’ and then nine days later ‘I’m going to make a preliminary decision’, after, let’s be honest,  there’s been a political campaign run against this. I think the message to investors – it might be a perfect process inside government, I doubt it, but let’s give them the benefit of the doubt – what is the message to investors? The message to investors is this is about politics. Now let’s remember, last year foreign investment in Australia actually fell, it fell by $30 billion, a drop of 44 per cent. Now if Barnaby Joyce and Scott Morrison think that is a good thing for Australian jobs, well they’re wrong.

KELLY: Do you think there’s sort of a race element to this decision? Do you think the Government is sensitive to voter unease over Chinese investment, that if this consortium bidding for S Kidman was American or Canadian or British, the same decision would have been made?

WONG: Certainly the Government’s Members and Senators talk a lot more about Chinese investment than about any other type of investment. Barnaby himself has raised concerns about selling the farm, we’ve had comments about China from National Party Senators, you also see, frankly, a discriminatory policy in respect to our Asian free trade partners, who have much more onerous foreign investment scrutiny than do the United States. Now that demonstrably is discriminatory and different.

But my concern is this: I understand – and Barnaby was trying to do it on your program – I understand it’s pretty easy to whip up concern about foreign investment. I believe foreign investment should be in the national interest and I think the focus should be on Australian jobs, not on the nationality of the investor.

KELLY: Okay, so just one final question on this. Do you think, the company has I think until tomorrow to revise its bid, there is some speculation it’ll walk away. But if it comes back with another bid, are you calling on the Treasurer to hold off making a decision on that until after the election, because we are so close to caretaker mode now? Or what’s Labor’s position?

WONG: Let’s see what the company does, but I think what Scott Morrison should have done and should always do is make these decisions based on the national interest and not focussed on the politics, not influenced by the politics. And I think the fact that it has been influenced really was demonstrated by the interview you’ve just conducted with Mr Joyce.

KELLY: The Budget tomorrow night, Finance Minister Mathias Cormann has all but confirmed yesterday that the Budget will contain a tax cut starting 1 July for people earning more than $80,000. 1 July, of course, is the day before we expect to be going to the polls. I know Labor hasn’t seen the details yet, but it would be folly for Labor to block this tax cut, which would start the day before the election. You won’t do that, will you?

WONG: We haven’t seen the Budget, but what we have seen is three years of this Government making life more difficult for working people in this country. We have seen three years of a Government that promised before the last election not to cut health and education. We have seen $80 billion worth of cuts to people’s schools and hospitals. So, I think Australians will look at this Budget knowing very clearly that whatever they say in the lead up, in these last days before an election, this is a Liberal Party and a National Party that doesn’t put people first.

KELLY: But just my question, the Government will put in money for schools, it will put in money for hospitals, it will be there in the Budget, as will this tax cut. Will Labor support this tax cut, or block this tax cut on the basis that an election’s coming?

WONG: I did answer your question, because obviously we will wait to see the detail of the Budget and we’ll look at what is proposed. I’m not going to, as Chris Bowen made the point, we’re not going to respond to every thought bubble the Government puts out. We’ve seen increases to GST, changes to negative gearing, changes to superannuation, for and against a tobacco tax, these are just some of the ideas the Government has floated. We will look at what’s in the Budget, but I will pick up your point that this Budget will contain funding for schools. What this Budget will confirm is that of the $30 billion this Government took out of Australia’s schools, it will restore just over $1 billion of that. Now that really demonstrates what we’re talking about.

KELLY: Can I just ask you finally on offshore processing, the situation on Nauru seems to be getting worse by the day, there was the Iranian asylum seeker, Omid, who set himself alight and I think has tragically died as a result of that. The Saturday Paper’s reported another seven people attempted suicide or serious self-harm on Friday alone. Some in Labor’s left have spoken out against offshore processing, you so far haven’t, as I understand it anyway. Considering the events of the past few days, are you still comfortable with Labor’s unity ticket with the Government on offshore processing in Nauru and Manus.

WONG: I don’t think there’s anybody in this country, or around the world, who is comfortable about the position that we all face in relation to asylum seekers and people movement. We have 60 million displaced around the world, not just in our region, but around the world, both internally and obviously externally. Now that is an enormous humanitarian challenge and an enormous public policy challenge. We do support offshore processing, that does not mean we support the way in which this Government has run it. We have seen this system turn into a system of punitive and indefinite detention and that is going to lead to the sort of tragedies that you describe. The Government really does need to resolve some third country settlement options. It does need to resolve what has occurred in Manus. It does need to resolve with the PNG Government the future of that centre.

KELLY: Senator Wong, thank you very much for joining us on Breakfast.

WONG: Thank you.