16 August 2017




FRAN KELLY: Senator Wong joins us in our Parliament House studios. Penny Wong, welcome back to Breakfast.


KELLY: Your Chief of Staff sparked this incredible chain of events. Why did Marcus Ganley speak to a New Zealand MP, Chris Hipkins, about Section 44 of our constitution? Why was he talking about an Australian political matter with a New Zealand MP?

WONG: He did not spark this furore, let’s be very clear about that. I do want to get facts on the record about this matter.

The first point is the questions about the Deputy Prime Minister’s citizenship have been on the record for some time. His office denied that there was a problem last month. He himself denied it last month so this is a live public issue.

KELLY: He denied it so no-one thought it was live, really.

WONG: He has questions to answer, frankly, about how it is that his office told the media they had information from the New Zealand authorities that he didn’t have a problem. But that’s by the by.

KELLY: Let’s go back to the questions your office has to answer.

WONG: Second, the story became public as a result of questions asked by an Australian journalist. That is very clear. That’s what the New Zealand Minister has said. That’s what the journalist has said.

Now it is correct that my staff member has mates in New Zealand. He lived and worked in New Zealand for some time and he has had chats with people about the issue that’s consuming politics here and to some extent there, which is the citizenship issue, and amongst the people, the mates with whom he has had contact is Mr Hipkins.

KELLY: And one of the questions he asked Mr Hipkins was if you’ve got a father born in New Zealand, does that make you a New Zealand citizen?

WONG: The issue of citizenship was discussed. But I want to make this very, very clear: At no stage did my staff member request that questions be lodged in the New Zealand Parliament. Mr Hipkins has absolutely made that clear.

The second thing I want to make clear is this: neither I nor my staff member were even aware that questions had been lodged until after this story broke. So any suggestion that this is somehow – what did Julie Bishop say? – a conspiracy, frankly, is ridiculous.

What we do know is the questions were lodged after contact had been made by the Australian journalist. So the question, I understand from reports, was lodged on the Wednesday. The questions from Fairfax Media were asked of the New Zealand government on the Monday.

KELLY: When did your Chief of Staff have the conversation with the New Zealand MP Chris Hipkins?

WONG: I understand it was in the week of the 31st of July.

KELLY: So in the week leading up to the point where the journalist started asking questions?

WONG: We haven’t had a discussion with a journalist. That’s what’s clear. The government’s suggestion that this is somehow a conspiracy is, frankly, ridiculous hyperbole.

KELLY: If you look at it on the basis of the Chief of Staff of the Shadow Foreign Minister has an informal chat with political friends in New Zealand. A question is raised in the New Zealand Parliament about Section 44…

WONG: After the journalist contacts the Minister. What the government is asking you to believe is that the New Zealand minister is not telling the truth and that the New Zealand Labour MP is not telling the truth when they say two things. One, that the story broke as a result of contact by the Australian journalist on the Monday and, second, that somehow Mr Dunne is not telling the truth and Mr Hipkins is not telling the truth when he says that there was no request for questions to be lodged.

KELLY: Are you saying then it is a coincidence that your Chief of Staff was asking questions around the same time that a Fairfax journalist was asking questions?

WONG: Everybody was asking questions about this. This was already on the public record.

KELLY: Did you have questions in your own mind about Barnaby Joyce’s citizenship?

WONG: He’s been on the list of many MP’s for some time and he was asked, my recollection is at the end of July, and he denied, I think on television, that he had an issue.

Can I just go to this political point: what we’ve seen is the government making, frankly, hysterical and false accusations about this issue. We’ve seen an extraordinarily irresponsible attack by the Foreign Minister who has both suggested or stated she couldn’t work with one side of politics in New Zealand and attacked a minister in the current government. We should see this for what it is Fran, this is a desperate attempt by a desperate government to divert attention from their fundamental problem, which is that the second most senior politician in the nation is apparently elected to Parliament whilst a New Zealand citizen. That’s the issue.

KELLY: Just before I leave this issue about your office, did you know anything about the inquiries being made by your Chief of Staff?

WONG: No. Not until the story broke.

KELLY: The Prime Minister obviously is accusing Labor of trying to, quote “steal government by entering into a conspiracy with a foreign power”. Leaving New Zealand aside, it is pretty clear that Labor is doing all it can to exploit Barnaby Joyce’s citizenship troubles to bring down the government isn’t it?

WONG: The question is whether the government is legitimate, but can I just make this point, newsflash: I know the government likes to blame the Labor Party, but it’s not our fault Barnaby Joyce’s dad was born in New Zealand.

KELLY: Is it fair and good for Australian democracy and good governance for the opposition to try and exploit a slender majority in the Parliament? Labor’s been in this situation, the Gillard Government, the hung Parliament, you had experience of this; it doesn’t necessarily lead to good government, does it?

WONG: I think the lack of good government can be sheeted home to the Prime Minister and I thought yesterday’s display in question time and the strategy of sending out the Foreign Minister to damage bilateral relations with New Zealand really demonstrated both poor judgement and, frankly, a lack of clear thinking.

But what’s the counterfactual that the government’s actually asserting? Are they seriously asserting that the New Zealand Government, the New Zealand Labour Opposition and the Australian Labor Party should have conspired to keep Barnaby Joyce’s New Zealand citizenship a secret? Fran, if you want a real conspiracy that would’ve been the real conspiracy.

KELLY: Penny Wong, the broader issue here is what’s going on in our Parliament with this intersection with Section 44. If you look at the Barnaby Joyce example I think it’s fair to say that pretty much no-one in this country would think that Barnaby Joyce is not rooting entirely for Australia, basically. Is this the last straw and do you accept the Section 44 of our Constitution needs to either be changed or interpreted differently?

WONG: It is what it is. It’s a provision in the Constitution of which we are all aware of. I suppose those of us who’ve been overseas have a direct awareness because we knew we had to deal with the issue. And when you’re dealing with citizenship by descent, obviously that’s a more complex legal question, but it is patent in the Constitution that we all have to deal with this.

If you’re talking about Constitutional change, I think the reality is there are many other greater priorities for Constitutional change.

KELLY: Well are there if our Parliament is being stripped bare by this?

WONG: We have a process inside the Labor Party and I’ve obviously nominated for election many times and we have a very extensive vetting process. We also all have to sign a declaration before we’re elected that we’re not disentitled by virtue of any provision of the Constitution including the provision you reference. What this does demonstrate is political parties have to be much more careful about ensuring that these prohibitions are observed and that people appropriately renounce.

KELLY: Just on this and your particular situation. You were born in Malaysia, Christopher Pyne has said that not only is the government threatening, as we know, to refer four Labor MP’s to the High Court, that Christopher Pyne has said the government’s also having a close look at you, Tanya Plibersek and Anthony Albanese. Do you have documentation that proves you’re not a dual national? Will you show it publically?

WONG: Can I make a couple of points here? The Senate dealt with this matter in a very appropriate way and we’ve done so on a number of occasions – we’ve had to refer people previously including very recently. And the point that even George Brandis made is that we shouldn’t approach this firstly in a partisan way, and second, we don’t want to get into a reverse onus of proof. Where there are things on the public record which demonstrate what people say are incorrect, it’s reasonable for the Senate to ask them to demonstrate this.

There has never been anything on the public record that questions my renunciation and I want to make it very clear again as I have over many years: I renounced Malaysian citizenship or any right to citizenship prior to nominating for Parliament. I know that Christopher Pyne is throwing a lot of grenades at the moment because the government is under so much pressure, but I think everybody should take a deep breath. It’s not our fault that Barnaby Joyce didn’t attend to his paperwork, and he really should answer – and I say this again – how it is his office, his spokesperson told the media, as reported on Monday, that the New Zealand authorities had said he didn’t have problem. Now he should come clear with the Australian people about that.

KELLY: Penny Wong thank you very much for joining us.

WONG: Good to be with you Fran.