E&OE - PROOF ONLY
SENATOR PENNY WONG, LEADER OF THE OPPOSITION IN THE SENATE: This is a day of great sadness. A day of tragedy, but also a day of solidarity with the people of Spain, and all those who have been affected by this dreadful attack
We extend our deepest sympathies to the families and friends of the victims and to anyone injured, including any Australians. We stand in solidarity with the Spanish people and with all peoples who defend freedom and democracy. And we remain determined to stand against those who seek to divide us.
I want to reassure all Australians that your government and opposition stand together in our commitment to fight those who would inflict harm upon us and those who would divide us.
Obviously, we extend also our thanks to the people in the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade who I know will be working very hard with Australians who are affected by this. We thank them for their work.
JOURNALIST: Have you been briefed Senator by the Government or Foreign Minister on this in terms of Australians involved? What do you know about that?
WONG: Not to date. Obviously, the situation is unfolding, and I did see the Foreign Minister’s press conference some hours ago and also the Prime Minister’s. And they have outlined an Australian who appears to have been involved, but I’m going to leave to it the government to respond to details, because obviously they have information to hand as it comes in.
JOURNALIST: Why have Labor staffers been shopping documents about Nick Xenophon but won’t release documentations to show that none of your MPs are dual citizens?
WONG: Well, I have no knowledge of any such documents being shopped. And I would say this – I’m not going to play politics with this around Nick. I think Nick is doing the right thing. He is doing what the Senate said senators should do, which is to self-refer, if there is an issue. Obviously he has discovered an issue and I say to him you have done the right thing and this has been handled as is appropriate, which is a self-referral to the High Court.
JOURNALIST: You have no knowledge of any Labor staffer…
WONG: I have no knowledge of that, absolutely.
JOURNALIST: So no-one in your office has been requesting documents from the UK High Commission?
WONG: I didn’t know about this until I saw it in the media. We have obviously had a number of people who have had to be up-front with the Parliament around the issue of citizenship by descent, and that is – what do you call it – a current issue.
But what I would say is more importantly than Nick, who has obviously done the right thing, we had Senator Nash last night, coming into the Parliament at a minute prior to the adjournment, or a few minutes prior to the adjournment, to disclose what she had known since Monday, that she has a problem.
And we now have – in terms of the National Party – the partner of government, the leader, the deputy leader, and Senator Canavan – three Cabinet ministers, as well as Senator O’Sullivan, about whom separate questions have been raised, in public reports, all with questions about their eligibility. Three Cabinet ministers.
What I would say to Mr Turnbull is this – you need to act to restore legitimacy to your government. This is a government coming apart at the seams. The Prime Minister needs to act to restore legitimacy, to move away from this chaos, and the first step in that is to ensure that Mr Joyce and Senator Nash step aside from their Cabinet roles, as was required of Senator Canavan. This is the Prime Minister’s own standard – he should meet it.
JOURNALIST: If you are confident there are no Labor politicians mixed up in this, why not consent to an audit to prove that there are no dual citizens?
WONG: I would refer you to what was said in the Senate by Senator Brandis and I, and that is this – this shouldn’t be a partisan matter. This is a very serious question of eligibility, and we take these matters seriously. If there is evidence that people become aware of, or that is presented on the public record, as to their citizenship, then that needs to be acted upon. But in the absence of that, if people are clear that they have no issue, I don’t think it is legitimate for there to be a partisan debate about this.
I have lot of issues with Senator Hanson – a great many issues – but she did do the right thing in relation to Senator Roberts, which was – she referred him. It was not an issue of a partisan debate. That is the way Labor will approach this.
JOURNALIST: Wouldn’t it stop the drip feed of revelations coming out, one week after the next, after the next and put this matter behind us?
WONG: Well, the only body that can resolve this is the High Court. And what Parliamentarians should do is ensure that their matters are in order, their citizenship status is clear, and if they become aware, as Nick has, of some questions around that, they need to do the right thing and self-refer. To date, the Parliament has done that, and that is the appropriate way to handle the matters.
Obviously, going forward, I hope that this will mean that people’s vetting processes become a lot more stringent than they have been.
JOURNALIST: You deny anybody from your office has been shopping around…
WONG: I have done that twice already.
JOURNALIST: Can I ask about Barry O’Sullivan? I understand there’s been issues raised about contracts between family companies and Commonwealth contracts. What do you make of those allegations? And, also, I understand the Prime Minister this morning in responding to it suggested that it should be left up to the journalist who did the story to raise the matter with the High Court. Is that an appropriate way of addressing it?
WONG: Absolutely not. Look, the Government can’t cover this up. These are very serious allegations. We know this, because of what happened to former Senator Day. What has been made public is that Senator O’Sullivan appears to have a stake in a construction company that has a major infrastructure contract with the Commonwealth. Now, that is a very serious allegation, in terms of his eligibility, and he has serious questions to answer and the Prime Minister cannot simply arrogantly seek to dismiss this and cover this up. Australians are entitled to know what the answers are to the questions about Senator O’Sullivan’s eligibility.
JOURNALIST: Is it appropriate the Prime Minister seeks to fob it off on to a journalist who probably can’t do it rather than undertaking the appropriate course of action?
WONG: It looks dodgy, doesn’t it? The government’s behaviour on this looks dodgy. And when you have a government that is already losing legitimacy day by day, stumbling from one crisis to another, a government more interested in hiding things than doing things, it isn’t the right path for the Prime Minister to take.
JOURNALIST: Are you aware of any Labor MPs involved in citizenship drama at the moment?
WONG: We have very extensive vetting process inside the Labor Party. We are required to go through those vetting processes each and any time we nominate and that is prior to, obviously, making a declaration to the AEC that we have no eligibility issues. So, we are confident that our vetting processes have been robust.
JOURNALIST: Senator Hanson raised concerns about your citizenship. What do you say about that?
WONG: I would say this about Senator Hanson: Senator Hanson wants to use fear and division as a political tool. That is what yesterday’s political stunt in the Parliament was all about. She wants to use division and fear in order to gain votes. And that is not the way in which our politicians should behave.
I thought yesterday, as much as I have had a great deal of difference with George Brandis, he did the right thing and our Parliament did the right thing.
I do want to say this, if I may on Senator Hanson, who’s made some further comments, I think, this morning and last night: I understand there are Australians who may not feel comfortable with the burka. But let’s have a respectful conversation about that. Let’s not turn it into a tool of fear and division. Because fear and division is precisely what the terrorists want. Fear and division makes us less safe. That is the consistent advice from our security agencies, the extraordinary men and women who work to keep Australians safe. So by doing what she does, by fermenting fear and division and hatred, she is working to make Australians less safe. Let’s not go down that path.