9 September 2016




NEWSREADER: Penny Wong is in Indonesia and spoke with political reporter Julie Doyle.

SENATOR PENNY WONG, LEADER OF THE OPPOSITION IN THE SENATE: I think there is always a risk or a tendency at times in foreign policy for us to focus on the day-to-day transactions, and they are important, but I think with Indonesia, it is always important for us to think longer term.

We’re living through a great time of change within the region. Indonesia is very important in terms of how that change is managed. Very important in terms of regional stability and prosperity, and also will be very important in terms of the economic development of the region.

In terms of our economic relationship, it is still pretty thin, frankly. We could do a lot more. Australia invests more in New Zealand than we do in Indonesia, which, I think, is a useful fact to remind us that there is plenty more that can be done to broaden the relationship economically.

JULIE DOYLE:  You’ve mentioned Indonesia being a major regional power and exercising leadership and influence. Do you see Indonesia taking a role in disputes in the region such as the South China Sea?

WONG: Well, I think what’s important in relation to the South China Sea is for us to continue to articulate support for the International rules-based system for international norms for the law of the sea. This is what is important when it comes to the South China Sea.

ASEAN is an important body in terms of articulating those principles. I mean, Australia doesn’t take a particular position in relation to the range of territorial disputes. What we do say is; One, we support the international rules-based system; Two, we urge all parties to deescalate tensions, not to engage in unilateral action; And, thirdly, you know, we obviously continue to support freedom of navigation and over flight.

DOYLE: On that issue though, as far as Indonesia acting as a power in the region when it comes to global stability, how do you see that being acted upon?

WONG: I think that President Jokowi has spoken about Indonesia as “negara besar” – a big country or a great country. And a country of that ilk – and Indonesia will become increasingly important globally as its economy continues to grow – does have an influence in international affairs. It has an influence in articulating why the rules-based system is important. And also, an interest in working to ensure disputes, and there are disputes in the region, that those disputes are negotiated peacefully and without any unilateral action being taken to escalate them.

DOYLE: Looking more broadly at the foreign affairs and trade area we have some discussion this week about Australia starting work towards a trade deal with the UK after their exit from the European Union is completed. We have seen some concerns from EU politicians about that, saying that the focus should be on a deal with the EU. Do you see that both can be done, or one should be done first?

WONG: Well, Julie, it is a very good question because what it actually points to is not just the difficulty that the Trade Minister and the Government have got themselves into now, but it points to a government that over the last year appears to have been focused much more on press releases than a plan when it comes to trade.

 Let’s remember we were told about twelve months ago that India was the priority. Then we were told that the Indonesian trade agreement would be wound up pretty quickly. Then we were told the EU was the priority. Now, apparently, Britain, post-Brexit is the priority.

I think Mr Ciobo should be focusing a little more on what the actual plan is. You’ve identified correctly that, clearly, the chopping and changing, certainly in relation to EU and Britain, appears to have engendered some concerns. Certainly, what the Government should be clear about is that this idea of pursuing an agreement with the United Kingdom, or with Britain, is not going to divert resources and attention from the market access Australia could gain in terms of an agreement with the European Union.

DOYLE: So what do you think should be the priority?

WONG: Well, I’m not in government but I tell you what, if I were, I’d outline what my priorities are. They’d probably be closer to home. They’d probably be within our region. But the problem here, I think, is not which is the best per se, but it is that the Government over the past 12 months have told us four different things that are their priorities.

DOYLE: This morning, the former Prime Minister Tony Abbott, in a radio interview, has made some comments about the Royal Commission into youth justice in the Northern Territory. He said that, normally, governments should not respond in panic at TV programs. Do you think the Government rushed in to calling this Royal Commission?

WONG: I don’t think anybody responded in panic. I think people responded to the dreadful images that were shown in that program, and to the ethical response, which was this is not something that should happen in our country.

It is a pity Tony Abbott wants to play a bit of internal Liberal Party politics with an issue which really should be above politics. But I would say this – whether it is on this issue or on donations reform, Tony Abbott is off the leash. He is openly undermining and openly attacking his Prime Minister. He’s pretty clear about it. It’s regrettable that he’s used an issue, which I think would benefit from continued bipartisan support across the Government – that is a Royal Commission to look into these matters – but it is quite clear what his game plan is. He is out there attacking Turnbull. That’s what he is doing.

 DOYLE: He has likened it to the former Labor Government responding by banning the live cattle trade to Indonesia, because of a Four Corners program. What do you say to that kind of comparison?

WONG: First, I’d say to him, please don’t play politics with the treatment of young Australians in detention. I think any Australian, all of us who watched that were horrified. He has made comments about the live cattle issue before. We’ve responded to them before. That issue has been dealt with. Rather than looking into the past, what I’d say to him is, please don’t use this issue to progress the internals inside the Liberal Party. That’s an internal fight.

DOYLE: Let’s talk finally now about the big issue this week about foreign political donations. Labor wants to ban foreign donations. What about donations from companies and unions?

WONG: We went to the last election with a policy that had been in place for some time actually, which was, not only the banning of foreign donations for the reasons which I think have been well articulated, but banning anonymous donations, reducing the threshold for disclosure. Labor discloses voluntarily donations at a far lower level than the Liberal Party. We also said we wanted to look at how you might lessen the time for disclosure.

The key thing here is, I think, transparency. There are donations sources where you think there is a good policy argument to ban them. I think anonymous donations but also donations from foreign entities. I think, there are obvious policy arguments for that.

In terms of other matters, I think, really, the focus should be on greater disclosure. It’s a pity that The Liberal Party has so consistently avoided more disclosure on this issue. They’ve consistently voted against it, even as recently as just weeks before the election were called.

 DOYLE: Would it be more transparent if donations were limited to Australians who are on the electoral roll who can have a vote?

 WONG: Well, I mean, I think that entities donating should be able to donate, as long as they are open about it. I mean, no-one could suggest that disclosure and transparency aren’t good things. I think when it comes to foreign donations, there is a good case to be made as to why they ought not be permitted. But I think the Government is trying to have an argument about unions and, obviously for ideological and partisan reasons, to avoid a discussion about a very simple proposition – why are you so frightened of disclosing who donates to you.

 DOYLE: This issue has dragged on...

 WONG: Sunlight is a pretty good disinfectant, isn’t it, Julie? You can’t make a system which is – unless you ban everything, you are going to have donations in Australia’s system of democracy.

 DOYLE: We’re talking about this this week, Senator because the issue of Sam Dastyari came to light with the fact he got a company with Chinese links to pay a bill for him.

 WONG: Sure.

 DOYLE: So this did drag on all week. Was Bill Shorten too slow to act on this?

 WONG: Look, first the issue in relation to Sam is not an issue about disclosure. He did disclose. The issue was he made the wrong judgement about sending this bill to another entity to pay. I mean, he’s fronted up. He’s made his decision to resign from the frontbench. I think the matter has been dealt with. I think the more important issue now is for us to try to use these circumstances to improve Australia’s system of disclosure and transparency. That would really benefit the Australian democracy, I think.