1 September 2016




PATRICIA KARVELAS: Penny Wong is the Opposition Leader in the Senate and the Shadow Foreign Minister, she joins me now. Welcome.


KARVELAS: You promised a more constructive approach to Parliament, but I see chaos in the Lower House?

WONG: Let’s understand what is happening in the Lower House. As you said we did have a win in the Senate today and the Government had a loss where we got crossbench support for a motion that said the Government should have a Banking Royal Commission. And in that motion we said that should go to the House for their agreement.

So, what the Government is trying to do now – and they’ve lost three votes now, as I was walking up here, I was told, which is very unusual.

KARVELAS: In the Lower House.

WONG: The Government in the Lower House is trying to prevent debate on our motion. So, it’s a pretty big thing for the Government in their first week of the new Parliament after an election to lose a few votes on the floor of the House of Representatives. And the reason they are losing those votes is that obviously the House doesn’t agree with the Government’s position when it comes to the Banking Royal Commission.

KARVELAS: Well is that really why? I mean, waiting until Liberal MPs leave on a Thursday – we all know MPs are pretty keen to go home to their families.

WONG: I’m still here.

KARVELAS: I know you are. So am I.

WONG: The Senate keeps going.

KARVELAS: Fair enough, I know you’re here. There are a lot of MPs here too. Even Liberal MPs in the Lower House too. But some obviously were leaving. Is this kind of the tactics that Labor will be using more and more? Is this an indication of what we will see in the coming days?

WONG: We gave the Government pretty fair notice that we would press hard for a Royal Commission into the banks. We said that clearly during an election campaign. We’ve been clear about that in the lead up to the Parliament. So I don’t think the Government can complain about the fact that Labor in the Senate and in the House has been pressing the position that we agree with that we hold and that I think many Australians agree with.

KARVELAS: You’ve tested the numbers though in the Lower House, we’ve seen the first test of that. Is this the way that you can bring about a Same Sex Marriage conscience vote as well potentially? I know Peta Credlin on Sky News talked about a scenario where, I think, a couple of MPs could find themselves in the toilet for longer than they needed to be. Now we know they could be on planes. Is this the sort of thing that you are wargaming?

WONG: There’s no question that if there were a free vote in this Parliament, you’d have to say Marriage Equality would likely become law. If there were a free vote. And the numbers are very close in the House of Representatives and in the Senate. The only thing stopping Marriage Equality becoming law, pretty quickly, is Malcolm Turnbull, and that’s disappointing because Malcom actually believes in it. But he’s had to agree a process that is expensive, divisive and non-binding with the right wing of his party.

KARVELAS: Are you going to make a move on that tonight or are you just sticking to the Banking Royal Commission?

WONG: I think tonight the focus is on the Banking Royal Commission. I’m not sure where the House is up to on that. As I said I was walking up here and I heard they lost three votes. I haven’t had the breaking news.

KARVELAS: I’m sure we will find out. The ABC News is good for that, every hour they tell you what happened. Sam Dastyari, your colleague, he admits he’s done the wrong thing in asking a donor linked to the Chinese Government to foot that expenses bill after exceeding his Parliamentary Entitlements. Today it’s been reported that he backed China in the South China Sea dispute, contrary to official Labor Party policy. Should he resign?

WONG: Sam’s also responded to that. But let’s be clear the Labor Party, on foreign policy and other matters, makes its decisions through our proper process, our Shadow Cabinet process and through our Caucus process, and our position on the South China Sea hasn’t changed. We don’t have a position on the territorial disputes, we continue to support the international rules-based system and urge all parties to de-escalate tensions and to resolve these matters peacefully and in accordance with international rules.

KARVELAS: But the Senator is reported as saying, and I quote, the South China Sea is China’s own affair, calling on Australia to remain neutral and drop its opposition to China’s air defence zone in the region. Do you think that position is acceptable?

WONG: That’s not Labor’s position.

KARVELAS: So why is he saying it? He’s on the front bench.

WONG: As I understand it he’s also responded to that and asserted that he supports Labor’s position.

KARVELAS: So why did he say it then?

WONG: You’d have to speak to him about that.

KARVELAS: I did invite him on the show.

WONG: As to whether or not he in fact did, what he has said is he supports Labor’s position and he’s made a public statement to that effect.

KARVELAS: So he shouldn’t have said it though?

WONG: I can tell you as Shadow Foreign Minister what our position is. I can refer you to Sam’s public statement.

KARVELAS: Are there any consequences for a frontbencher to go out like that and defy the party’s policy over such a sensitive issue.

WONG: Well you are asserting he’s defied the party’s policy.


WONG: Well you should put that to him because his public statement today is not consistent with what you have just asserted.

KARVELAS: So you don’t think he’s defied the position?

WONG: His public statement today is not consistent with what you have asserted. His public statement today is consistent with Labor’s position.

KARVELAS: Should a donor ever influence your position or policy though?

WONG: No. And can I just say on foreign donations because this is a very relevant issue, our party’s position is that foreign donations should be banned. We took that to the last election, in fact we’ve had that as policy for some time. I would also say this to you Patricia, if the Greens had not voted with the Government in the last days of the last Parliament, foreign donations would have been banned. Because those amendments to the Senate voting changes would have succeeded and the Government would have had to proceed with that Bill with the amendments in them that included those bans. That is the legislative change that should occur and I’d encourage the Government to take it up.

KARVELAS: But you are trying to have it both ways then, saying that foreign donations would be banned, but still accepting them? That’s disingenuous. You can make a statement of principle can’t you and stop accepting them?

WONG: The more important issue is what the regulatory arrangements are for all political parties, and I’ve told you what our position is. I think they should be banned.

KARVELAS: But in the meantime, couldn’t Labor make a strong statement, a national statement?

WONG: We have made a national statement, it was our policy at the last election.

KARVELAS: But don’t take the money.

WONG: But what I would say to you is that we would say to the Government bring it on, bring on a Bill that bans foreign donations and subject to it being consistent with our policy I would think you would see Labor supporting it. That’s what could be dealt with.

KARVELAS: What do you think of that ASIO warning to Labor, to the Coalition, that these Chinese Government links to major donors were a big issue for national security?

WONG: It really bolsters the argument that we should have reform of our electoral funding arrangements, including better disclosure, better transparency and the banning of anonymous donations and foreign donations. They are amongst the changes to our system we should have.

KARVELAS: But on this issue I asked, on this idea that you could make a statement to the public that we won’t accept these donations because we think they are wrong, we think they are grubby, we think that they are potentially … why not make that statement?

WONG: I’ve told you what I think we should do

KARVELAS: Is it because you would be missing out on the money?

WONG: We comply, and we should comply, with the law it is. We want the law to be stronger and we think that the Government should move to improve transparency, disclosure and the regulation of donations. We have a much lower threshold that we disclose, and the Government opposed those changes in the Parliament. I think what all of this discussion reminds us of is that our current system really needs to be looked at. Because ultimately, if we’re not going to ban all donations, we rely on a system of disclosure, and that’s fallen down in a number of areas. One of them has been the revelations in New South Wales where the Independent Commission Against Corruption has gone very hard after the Liberal Party, and Senator Sinodinos, about their failure to disclose donations from prohibited donors which were laundered, or channelled through, an entity that was set up for that purpose.

KARVELAS: If you are just tuning in to Senator Penny Wong, who is insisting I let her answer questions ..

WONG: And I’m sorry, I have got a bit of a cough, so I apologise.

KARVELAS: That’s alright, you’re allowed a cough, it’s the end of Winter, we’re actually in Spring now. She’s the Shadow Foreign Affairs Minister and she’s of course a very senior Labor figure and a Senator.

Earlier today a senior US Defence Director, speaking with RN Breakfast with Fran Kelly said Australia had to choose between its strategic alliance with the US and its economic engagement with China. He says at some point we have to make a choice of what is more of vital national interest for Australia. Does he have a point? Have we reached that point now?

WONG: I didn’t hear that interview so it is difficult for me to comment in the specific. But can I just say as a general principle: First, there is bipartisan commitment to the US Alliance. That is one of the pillars of Australia’s foreign policy. Second, we recognise the importance of, not only economic engagement with China, but, diplomatic, people to people engagement with China. China is an important nation in the global economy and will become increasingly important. And thirdly, we recognise that have to continue to engage deeply with the rest of our region and also with the multilateral systems.

So, I think you can progress Australia’s national interests by ensuring you continue to give strong bipartisan support to the US Alliance, but also working to deepen our regional relationships, and working always to improve the multilateral system which has been under a fair bit of pressure over these last years.

KARVELAS: Just a final question on the plebiscite, the Same Sex Marriage Plebiscite that’s been very high on the agenda this week. Greens Senator Sarah Hanson-Young has given an interview with Sky News today in which she raised the possibility of passing the plebiscite legislation if there is no alternative to legislate Gay Marriage. Now, that’s in contrast with the Greens policy. She’s obviously very concerned that Gay Marriage, or Marriage Equality as it’s called, won’t happen this term at all. Are you concerned about that too? Is that a real risk?

WONG: I want a vote for Marriage Equality. I want a vote in the Parliament and to do the job we have been sent here to do. And I want to be with the Greens, and the moderates in the Liberal Party as well as my colleagues in the Labor Party, to deliver Marriage Equality. I don’t think a plebiscite is the right way to deal with this, for the reasons I’ve articulated. I think it is divisive, it is expensive and people have to remember it is non-binding. So, Eric Abetz and those others who oppose Marriage Equality will continue to oppose it even if we were to go to a plebiscite and win it.

And remember also this, the plebiscite was first put up by people who oppose Marriage Equality. It was designed by the right of the Liberal Party and the Australian Christian Lobby as a way to frustrate progress.

KARVELAS: What do you say to Sarah Hanson-Young?

WONG: She probably should talk to her party room, is what I would say to her.

KARVELAS: But she obviously is very concerned, to give her some credit, she is obviously very passionate about this issue and concerned that it may be the only pathway.

WONG: I just think that basically says that Malcolm Turnbull is off the hook, basically says the Government really is off the hook. On this I think Malcolm Turnbull is sincere. But the only thing stopping a vote in the Parliament that could succeed is his courage. Now I don’t want us to let him and the other moderates off the hook on this I’m afraid. Justice Kirby has outlined very clearly the reasons why a plebiscite is problematic.

KARVELAS: Penny Wong, thanks for coming in

WONG: It’s good to be with you.