3 November 2017




FRAN KELLY: Backbenchers from both sides of Parliament are now ramping up calls for an independent audit of all 226 Federal MPs and Senators. Penny Wong is Labor’s leader in the Senate. She’s the Shadow Minister for Foreign Affairs and she joins us from Canberra, soon to join a plane to Perth. Senator thank you very much for joining us.


KELLY: So backbenchers are calling for an independent audit of the Federal Parliament. Is Labor warming to this idea?

WONG: I can understand why the Australian people, in particular, are demanding this end and I can understand why some people are demanding an audit. I’d make a few points that I’ve made over the last few days. The first is that the only body under our Constitution which can determine whether or not somebody is a dual citizen, and therefore disentitled to sit in the Federal Parliament, is the High Court.


WONG: The problem with the suggestion about an audit – which, frankly, I don’t think Labor would have anything to fear from an audit given the vetting procedures we have internally – but we’re yet to be convinced that it’s the best way forward because the audit doesn’t resolve the fundamental issue which is that that the High Court is the only body which can determine if someone is invalid.

KELLY: No one is suggesting that you take that determination away from the Court. We can’t, as you say, under our Constitution, but what an audit would do is get everyone’s papers on the table and check everyone’s background and say ‘okay, who’s in doubt? Let’s refer this to the High Court and clear it up. Isn’t that the process?

WONG: That’s the process Labor has gone through with our people.

KELLY: But that’s behind closed doors. This would be open and transparent so we could rule out all of that ‘is it her, is it him?’, this kind of thing we are seeing now.

WONG: This issue is no one has put forward a proposition that actually deals with some of the concerns. Who would run it? Who would deal with it?

KELLY: You could get a retired judge to run it?

WONG: And the last result of that is the judge would say these are matters to be determined by the High Court.

Look, as I said, we don’t have anything to fear if this is the path the Government chooses because Labor believes we have gone through the appropriate processes. But ultimate what is required and what demonstrably wasn’t done in the case of Senator Parry, is for parties and for individuals in the Parliament to ensure their affairs are in order and that they consider what their position is. Whether there is any chance that they have inherited citizenship or, as is the case for a number of us, obviously we were born overseas so we had to deal with this issue.

What is extraordinary about the Stephen Parry case, as you said in your introduction, is that it appears not only that he sat on it, but that at least Mitch Fifield, and potentially others in the Government also sat on it. Now, I actually think that renders Senator Fifield’s position untenable and the question for the Prime Minister is who else knew?

KELLY: Well the Prime Minister has made it clear he didn’t know and he seemed genuinely surprised, annoyed, when he spoke about the issue. Do you believe him?

WONG: Apparently no one tells this Prime Minister anything. What we’re supposed to believe is he didn’t know anything about what Senator Cash was doing and her office was doing – the misleading of the Senate in relation to the contacting of the media about the police raid. And now apparently at least one Cabinet Minister knows that the Senate President has a citizenship issue and no one tells the Prime Minister anything.

KELLY: Well maybe they didn’t. Plausible deniability? But that doesn’t mean there is a cover up by the Prime Minister. Do you accept that?

WONG: I don’t know if he is telling the truth or not. If we accept him at his word then the question is why is this allowed to occur?

I do find it extraordinary that a Cabinet Minister was told that a Senate President had an issue with citizenship and nothing was done about it. I think it is incumbent on the Prime Minister, who has said that he doesn’t think an audit is the way to go, well he needs to demonstrate the standards of disclosure which are required and he needs to tell people who knew what and when? Did George Brandis know for example?

KELLY: The issue though, more broadly, apart from that – and yes, Malcolm Turnbull will be asking questions you would think, of his own side about this instance – but the Josh Frydenberg case indicates that even if parties have done internal checking – Josh Frydenberg said he has checked – it doesn’t stop these questions being raised, headlines being put out there, the whole thing going on, and that’s what an audit would stop. It would get everyone’s genealogy out on the table, it would be checked, and then all of the lists going around and all of the questions would stop wouldn’t they?

WONG: I just don’t think that is realistic.

KELLY: Well how do you stop it then?

WONG: I don’t think it is realistic to suggest that appointing some unnamed body to do a so-called audit is going to stop questions being asked.

KELLY: So how do we stop this?

WONG: How you deal with it is to make sure all of us comply with the Constitution. That’s how we deal with it.

But can I come back to Josh Frydenberg’s case. I actually think that is a good example of the problem. I accept his explanation. I don’t know anything about Hungarian citizenship law, but his position is not going to be resolved by an Australian lawyer. The reality is his position, as the High Court has made clear, is resolved first by a consideration of Australian citizenship law, and this is why it isn’t a simple solution to say we will find someone to do an audit of everybody and all of the Parliament’s parents.

The reality is that people do have to check these things for themselves because everybody has their own family circumstances, everybody has to consider what their arrangements are, and that’s precisely what Labor people are required to do. We’re required to do that as part of our nomination process and we’re all, every person in the Parliament, required to sign a declaration that we comply with the Constitution including this section of the Constitution when we nominate.

KELLY: Senator, can I ask you about another issue now? Ongoing tensions around the future of the Manus Island Detention Centre and the future of the 600 refugees and asylum seekers who are still there. Does Australia bear responsibility for these men and their safety?

WONG: Well certainly I want to start by saying this is a very distressing set of events. It’s very distressing to see what is occurring on Manus, and it is very distressing to see the way in which this Government has chosen to operate this facility.

This is a situation which has resulted from the way in which this Government has both run these facilities and Peter Dutton’s refusal to actively seek third-country resettlement options.

I want to make it really clear Fran – and I know that perhaps you and certainly others might have concerns about the policies that Labor put in place – I do want to make it clear this policy was never intended to provide for places of indefinite detention nor for continued punishment, and yet that appears to be have been how Peter Dutton has run these facilities. And I can absolutely understand why so many people in Australia are deeply concerned.

KELLY: Well what’s Labor’s position? Is Labor calling for some intervention from the Australian Government and after four years is the simple solution to end this humanitarian crisis – which is how UNHCR and others have described it – to bring these people to Australia, and if not why not?

WONG: Well the latter question goes directly to the position we have made clear that we believe that there is a base for deterrence, deterrence of people smuggling. But deterrence ought not mean indefinite detention and we are where we are because the Government has failed to seek resettlement options in third countries.

KELLY: And four years on with those options not clear, should these people be brought to Australia?

WONG: Labor’s position has been that we should be seeking third-country options and if we were in Government that is what we would’ve been doing. The situation we are in now is a direct consequence of the Government’s refusal to do that and I for one do not understand why the Government has chosen not to do so.

KELLY: In the short term without those third-country options immediately, what should the Government do now on Manus?

WONG: I’m not across all that’s occurring on Manus, I certainly am deeply concerned as Catherine King I think said earlier this week about the issues around access to medical care, but I think the thing the Government should’ve dealt with is not allow the situation to occur.

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

WONG: Good to speak with you Fran.