27 March 2019




LEON COMPTON: The Leader of Government Business in the Senate…


COMPTON: She’s the Leader of Opposition Business in the Senate – she aspires to the other – she is also the Shadow Foreign Affairs spokesperson, Penny Wong, good morning.

WONG: It’s great to be with you. Thank you very much for having me.

COMPTON: People have been shocked by the revelations of meetings between One Nation and the NRA. Steve Dixon from One Nation said at a press conference yesterday that every party does, effectively, this – get international donations – and if they don’t do it directly they do it through cut outs here in Australia. Is your party still taking donations from international organisations?

WONG: No we’re not. In fact we supported legislation through the Parliament, eventually, which bans foreign donations as part of the Foreign Interference laws.

Now I know that One Nation wants to throw a lot of mud and try to create lot of distractions – and they are certainly throwing a lot of it around – but the fundamental issue is this: they are a party which has gone overseas and sought $20 million to water down Australia’s gun laws. Certainly, in this state, I don’t think people need to be reminded why we need them and why they happened.

I really do think the issue here is Mr Morrison and how he responds. I don’t think you can be on the front page of the paper pleading with people not to vote for One Nation and failing to take the leadership position which is you should be putting them last.

COMPTON: On the other side Steve Dixon and James Ashby actually came out yesterday and alleged what this was, was a case of a foreign interference through an international media organisation in Australia’s democratic process. What’s your response to that?

WONG: One Nation likes to throw a lot of red herrings around to try to distract attention from their failings and the reality is they go over to the United States, they approach America’s gun lobby for up to $20 million to try to control the Senate so as to water down Australia’s gun laws.

COMPTON: Do you have any concerns about Al Jazeera as a state owned media entity and their involvement in this investigation?

WONG: No, and nothing that has been raised with me. I know that people might not like journalists doing their job. Sometimes I don’t like some of the ways in which journalists work. But what I think is really interesting is that neither Mr Dixon nor Pauline Hanson’s disgraced chief of staff Mr Ashby have denied it happened.

COMPTON: One Nation had a swing towards them at the New South Wales election on the weekend. Mark Latham, one of your former colleagues, heads to the New South Wales Upper House. Clearly Penny Wong what they’re saying is resonating.

WONG: And I think it is time that we came together and responded as political leaders should to them, effectively and strongly. This is a party whose leader espouses racial hatred and that is counter to, and I say damaging for, Australia’s democracy. Our democracy is founded on principles of equality, of justice and this is a person who preaches racial hatred.

So when I say Scott Morrison should show leadership, I don’t say it just because I’m a Labor person, I say it as an Australian. I think he should demonstrate to Australians, to all of us, to you, to all of your listeners, we are a nation that stands against discrimination and hatred, against prejudice, and because of that I’ll put the other party of government ahead of One Nation and other extremists like Mr Anning. That’s what Bill Shorten has done. He has said we will preference the Liberal and National parties ahead of One Nation.

COMPTON: You talk about this, and yet on the other hand there are other reasons why people are turning away from the major parties.

WONG: That’s true. I agree with that.

COMPTON: You come to a state in which your party, through its political machinations, is taking the woman that received double the vote of all of her other Labor Senate team combined, at the last Senate election, and put her in an unwinnable spot. You talk about the need to be taken seriously and to seriously engage with these issues, and when we look at what happens in Tasmania your party has put Lisa Singh – 20,000 primary votes, the person that was one on the ticket four plus – you are playing games at a time when people are looking at politicians to take them seriously.

WONG: There’s always preselection arguments internally for parties. I’m Leader in the Senate and I think you’ve got a very strong delegation, a very committed delegation from Tasmania. You’ve got a lot of women and that’s a good thing and that’s across the party. I understand these preselection issues occur in every state and territory. I’ve had them as well.

COMPTON: But that’s one of the reasons. It’s a pox on both your houses isn’t it? Because they will play a factional power game when in fact the person people want to vote for has now effectively been given an unwinnable spot and who is going to leave Canberra, on any assessment, at the next election.

WONG: There are issues we do have to look at, as a party, very closely, at some of the reasons for the disaffection with major parties. You have put a view about them. I think other reasons include a sense that people don’t feel that parties’ policies respond to their experience.

Tasmania is one of the places in Australia where you can really see the way in which inequality has been augmented, has expanded and it is not surprising that so many Tasmanians feel, quite rightly, that everything is going up but their wages. They feel concerned about health, they feel concerned about education. So, you can be critical about various preselection decisions, but if you look at the platform, the political agenda that Bill Shorten has put forward and Labor has put forward, it is about tackling those issues of inequality which go in part, not entirely, but they go in part to dealing with that sort of disaffection.

And yes, we have to do better in how we behave, in how we articulate what we believe and how we engage. I accept that.

COMPTON: On Mornings here in Tasmania this is Senator Richard Di Natale talking with us a little earlier this morning. This is his health policy.

RICHARD DI NATALE: What we are basically planning to do is to bring dental into Medicare and just linking to the previous conversation, it’s a good example of just making life better for people who find that going to the dentist is just too expensive.

COMPTON: That’s Richard Di Natale, a medical doctor in his own right. Penny Wong will you support The Greens policy of including dental care in Medicare?

WONG: It must be nice to be a party that doesn’t ever have to implement or fund anything that you announce. It’s very nice that he comes in here and has a chat with you and announces a policy but everybody knows it’s not a policy he has had to cost.

COMPTON: He’s costed it through the Treasury office. It comes in at $5.8 billion.

WONG: And he hasn’t had to fund it and he won’t have to because he is not a party of government so he can come in here and have a little chat.

On dental, can I say first on Medicare, Medicare was something a Labor Government built, and you probably know the history. Originally the first round of Medicare was built by Whitlam, torn down by the Coalition and then rebuilt by the Hawke and Keating Labor Governments. This Government came to office in 2013, Tony Abbott promised Tasmanians, promised Australians, no cuts to health, no cuts to education and promptly cut billions of dollars.

COMPTON: We remember fondly the cuts to the ABC. You talk about equity. You only need to travel around Tasmania briefly to understand the challenges of people’s dental health and the consequences for life with bad teeth and no money to be able to fix them. Given that good health and dental is a medical issue why not consider dental in Medicare?

WONG: We will have more to say about health in the coming election and I can tell you when I was Finance Minister in the Labor Government if we could have funded fully dental we would have. But, at that stage, what we could do was make a contribution through the child dental scheme, our child dental benefit which you probably know about, which was a contribution. We have prevented this Coalition Government from cutting that scheme, preventing those cuts, in the Senate.

As you know we have already indicated we would restore the nearly $3 billion that the Liberals have cut from hospitals nationally, including from the Royal Hobart Hospital. We’ve also, in addition, committed to $30 million to deal with the elective surgery backlog you have here.

COMPTON: Now what about bulk billing? In Tasmania, the poorest community in Australia, the bulk billing rate here, it’s much easier to get bulk billing in Bennelong than anywhere in Tasmania. What specifically will you do?

WONG: Well we actually announced earlier this week that in the first 50 days we would end the current freeze on Medicare rebates for GPs that the Government, the Coalition, has in place, which goes directly to your point. You need to increase the rebates in order to increase the attractiveness or the incentive for bulk billing.

We announced – I think it was Monday – Catherine King and Bill announced that we would end that freeze within the first 50 days of a Labor Government, which would mean from the first of July this year, if we’re elected, those rebates would start rising. What we hope is, as a consequence of this, we would see an increase in bulk billing.

COMPTON: Do you regret introducing that freeze in the first place?

WONG: I know that is the Liberals’ line. It is actually not true.

COMPTON: An ABC report I was reading this morning said it began in 2013.

WONG: We deferred it, I think, for seven months, and changed the timing of the payment. This is a freeze which has been in place for years and, as a consequence, reduced the incentive to bulk bill, and I’m sure Tasmanians understand that.

COMPTON: Senator, this is Scott Morrison talking at a press conference yesterday about social media and the way that it operates in Australia and the possibilities of regulating of the largest companies in the world.

MORRISON: “If you build a car and you sell it in Australia, it has to meet with our standards of safety and the same thing is true when it comes for those who want to provide social media services here in Australia. If they build it, if they make it, then they have to build it and make it safe.”

COMPTON: Should Facebook and other organisations be responsible for what they effectively broadcast?

WONG: They should behave more responsibly than they have been. I think so. The
horrific events of Christchurch and what occurred – the right wing extremist violent attack which led to so many people’s loss of life and injury for so many – the role social media had and the video of that really demonstrated yet again to Australians, to New Zealanders, to the world, that the way in which these platforms operate, I don’t think at times are in accordance with the expectations of the public.

So we will certainly look constructively at what Mr Morrison has put forward. I know this is a controversial topic for people – digital democracy – I get that. But there are also fracture lines in our community which are being augmented in the way in which these platforms operate.

COMPTON: Do you think it is possible to take on these huge companies – Facebook for example – and hold them in the same way that every commercial and public broadcaster in the country is responsible for what goes out on the transmitters and what they print. Should they be held to the same standard? Is it time to have that conversation?

WONG: I think it is time to have that conversation. And you are right to point to the difficulties with that, the logistical, technical, practical, difficulties. And they are also right to talk about, as I said, digital democracy and people’s right to platforms which enable citizens to express their views. But I think we also need to be aware that there are real fracture lines which are being augmented by social media. Hate speech is antithetical to democracy and to social cohesion and history shows us where hate speech leaves us.

COMPTON: Penny Wong did Federal Labor push the Tasmanian Labor Party to dump its policy on getting rid of poker machines out of pubs and clubs to give you smoother sailing in the lead up to this Federal Election?

WONG: I can tell you I’ve not had a discussion with Tasmanian Labor about this issue. These are issues for the Tasmanian branch of the party. They make their decisions about their policy position.

COMPTON: Do you know if Bill Shorten put pressure on the State Labor Party to dump the poker machine policy?

WONG: I have no knowledge of any such conversations Leon.

COMPTON: Will it make it an easier run for Labor in this state now that Tasmanian Labor has said…

WONG: I’ve been here for few days and I’ve been here previously and this is not an issue that has come up.

What has come up for me has been people’s concerns about health, people’s concerns about their wages, about the fact that 40,000 Tasmanian retail and hospitality workers are losing their penalty rates as a consequence of the Liberal Government. These are the sorts of issues people raise with me. To try to ensure vocational education get some investment, given the number of apprentices you’ve lost, and wanting to ensure people’s schools are good. That’s what gets raised with me, not these sorts of internal issues.

COMPTON: There is going to be, it seems, a contest of ideas for this election. The Liberals will argue that tax cuts for low and middle income earners are a better plan for lifting wages than your policy of introducing a Living Wage. Why would a Living Wage policy be better than tax cuts for low and middle income earners?

WONG: First, I would make the point that actually the tax cuts Bill Shorten announced in his Budget reply last year do more for low and middle income earners than the Government’s tax cuts to date.

But I think your point is there is a contest of ideas and it’s an important one. We’ve announced that we would ask the Fair Work Commission, legislate to ensure the Fair Work Commission set a Living Wage and consider the timetable for its introduction. And the reason is that we have people in this country who work full time who are not able to live on what they earn and I think as a decent country we need to deal with that.

So, we don’t take the view that Mr Morrison does, that the way to ensure economic growth, the way to ensure prosperity is increased and shared, is to cut penalty rates and to keep wages low.

COMPTON: But back to this contest of ideas, you could reduce tax rates paid by those low and middle income earners. That would see an increase in their take home pay.

WONG: And we have done that already. But the point is we know wages are growing at a fraction of company profits. In the last year company profits have grown at five times the wage share. We also know that productivity over the last couple of years has increased at a pace faster than real wages.

Now, what that means in real terms, as opposed to the economic gobbledegook, Australians are working harder, and better, and not getting paid for it. Now, you can’t deal with all of that inequity and unfairness via tax cuts, you have to do it by wages as well.

COMPTON: So what are we talking about here when you talk about a Living Wage? Bill Shorten, I don’t think has put a number on it yet. What sort of quantum are we talking about? If the minimum wage is $719 a week at the moment, what are you talking about lifting that to as a Living Wage?

WONG: That would be a matter for the Fair Work Commission. What we’re proposing is to legislate to give them that power and to give them a policy objective. The quantum, that is, how much. The timing, that is how you get there and what sort of phase in you’d require, that’s a matter for them.

And remember that the minimum wage, which is what we currently have – which is not a Living Wage, it’s a safety net as it were – is different to people’s award wages. Obviously many awards are already significantly more, and substantially above, the minimum wage.

COMPTON: What is it about Jacinda Ardern’s leadership that resonates with people in a climate where there is shrill and deeply oppositional politics in Australia?

WONG: Thank you for that question because I actually think this is a really important discussion to have in Australia after Christchurch.

People, I’m sure, have their own views, but what I have heard and what I have observed in people’s responses to her is that people feel that, as you said, she is the antithesis of a hyper partisan, angry politician. She’s a leader who is seeking to bring New Zealanders together. She’s a leader who is seeking to bring her community together and she’s articulating a set of values to which people can respond – values of inclusion and acceptance and respect.

I hope Christchurch, and the fact, the shocking fact, that the perpetrator of this was a right wing extremist Australian, the perpetrator of this terrorist act was a right wing, violent extremist who is an Australian, has caused the country to pause. I think it is a moment, and I hope it is a moment we use constructively. It saddens me that I don’t think Mr Morrison has had the sort of response Jacinda did.

Fundamentally this comes down to values doesn’t it? We can choose, as a community, we can choose division or unity. We can choose fear or hope. We can choose respect or prejudice. And we can choose love over hate. And we should choose the better values, we should choose the values which make us stronger. Regardless of our political views, regardless of how much you wish I’d answered your questions differently or how much you want to have a go at me about various things, we can have that debate, but there are fundamental values that we have to defend together and I think Jacinda Ardern’s response has done so.

COMPTON: Graham’s in Beauty Point. Graham good morning to you.

GRAHAM: Good morning, Senator Wong. You talk about a Living Wage for those working. What about the unemployment benefit for those like myself on a pension? You want us to go online. Please tell us how we’re supposed to fund the NBN connection and a simple computer on $470 a week?

COMPTON: Graham, good question. What about the idea that people on unemployment benefits are similarly affected by some of those cost increases over the past decade or two that Bill Shorten is talking about when it comes to workers?

WONG: Newstart is too low, we know that. I think even the Business Council of Australia has said that.

We’ve said we will go through a review process to look at what can be done. It is obviously a pretty big fiscal task but I don’t think any reasonable-minded observer can look at the Newstart rate and think that’s something that can be defended.

COMPTON: Can you go to the election with a policy on raising the Newstart rate?

WONG: No. What we have said is that we would review it and that we recognise it’s too low and we’re not in a position to make a quantum commitment such as the one you’re seeking and that’s the Budget reality.

Obviously Labor Governments have a history in recognising this. When we were in government last time we did raise the pension and we did that, it was the largest single increase in the age pension ever. We funded that because it was the right thing to do.

COMPTON: Penny Wong, I appreciate you coming into the studio this morning.

WONG: It was really good to speak with you.

Authorised by Noah Carroll, ALP, Canberra.