E&OE - PROOF ONLY
SENATOR PENNY WONG, LEADER OF THE OPPOSITION IN THE SENATE: Thank you very much for coming. I wanted to outline Labor’s initial response to Malcolm Turnbull’s announcement about how he wants to deal with the citizenship crisis that is currently engulfing his Government.
The first thing to say is this; Malcolm Turnbull has been dragged kicking and screaming to this. He has been dragged unwillingly, kicking and screaming into doing something about the citizenship crisis that is engulfing him and his Government. He has been forced into an embarrassing backdown and really, it does demonstrate, yet again, just how out of touch Malcolm is. He clearly doesn’t recognise the extent to which the Australian people are deeply concerned by this and want him to show leadership.
In terms of the process Mr Turnbull announced, can I just make these points. We don’t believe it is good enough. We have serious doubts about the process. We think it is insufficient in its current terms. We don’t think it provides the assurance that Australians are demanding of their Parliament. It is not clear that the process that Malcolm Turnbull has announced would have prevented Barnaby Joyce or indeed Stephen Parry from sitting in the Parliament whilst being ineligible for many years and certainly in Senator Parry’s case, having Cabinet Ministers cover up the fact that he was ineligible.
However, Labor will meet with Mr Turnbull. We are prepared to have a conversation in constructive terms about this. We think the process needs to be strengthened and we are prepared to constructively deal with the Government to try to resolve this matter.
I do want to go to some of the concerns that we have. Obviously we are taking advice and we will consider the process in more detail ahead of our meeting with Malcolm Turnbull, but I’d make two points about the announcement that Mr Turnbull has made.
The first is, he keeps saying it is a subjective test. He keeps saying, including on radio this morning, that people will have to declare to the Parliament to the best of their knowledge and belief. That isn’t the test. The High Court has made it clear that is not the test. So, Malcolm Turnbull may not like what the High Court decided. He might be so arrogant as to say ‘I’m not going to listen to what the High Court decided’, but it isn’t consistent with what the High Court decided. It is as if Mr Turnbull is yet again making the same mistake as he did when he declared on the floor of the Parliament to all of the Australian people “And the High Court will so hold”. Well, he was wrong, and he is repeating the mistake again.
The second issue of concern for us in the process that has been announced is the timeframe. Let us be very clear about what Malcolm Turnbull is proposing. He is proposing that the disclosure occur after Parliament has risen for the year. What he is proposing is to try and ensure that Australians don’t know the truth about the citizenship of Members of Parliament or the eligibility of his own MPs until next year. He is trying to skate through until after Christmas. We don’t think that’s good enough and we think that 21 day disclosure and try to get through until after Christmas just isn’t good enough.
Finally, John Alexander. Malcolm Turnbull stood up in front of the Australian people yesterday afternoon and he said ‘here’s my process’ and he also told people he’d been assured by the Liberal Party Director that there were no further Liberals who had citizenship concerns. Just a few hours later or even less, it is revealed that John Alexander has citizenship issues and appears to be in the same situation as Fiona Nash and former Senator Stephen Parry. So it is not a new set of facts. He seems to be in the same situation as Fiona Nash and Stephen Parry.
Mr Turnbull’s announcement yesterday can’t cover this up. It doesn’t deal with it. John Alexander needs to be referred to the High Court. Mr Turnbull must refer John Alexander to the High Court.
JOURNALIST: Is it wrong for politicians to collect salaries while their eligibility is in doubt, do you think?
WONG: If you are not eligible to sit, and you are found to be ineligible, you technically have a debt to the Commonwealth. All politicians who have been found to be ineligible have a debt to the Commonwealth. If the Government of the day chooses to waive part, or all of that, that’s a matter for the Government of the day.
JOURNALIST: Would you support those people being pursued?
WONG: Certainly, now that the High Court has made its decision clear, and really demonstrated what the law is, it becomes much more difficult for people to argue that they didn’t know.
JOURNALIST: How certain are you that Labor members won’t be caught up in this.
WONG: We have been through a very extensive vetting process prior to election. I can tell you, as someone who has been nominated a number of times, each time they demand my documents, and demand to see the renunciation documents for me and the same process is gone through for all our candidates. So, we don’t think we have anything to fear from the sort of disclosure process that is currently being discussed.
We think it is a good thing because, to my way of thinking, after the Stephen Parry revelations, particularly given that at least one Cabinet Minister knew, I think Australians rightly said ‘well, if you are covering it up, we need some other assurance that people are eligible to sit in the Parliament’.
JOURNALIST: Your argument is that the citizenship register is not rigorous enough. How can you have a rigorous process before Parliament rises? There are two contradictory things there that you are arguing?
WONG: Our argument is that we don’t think what the Prime Minister announced is good enough. What we have said is that we are willing to constructively have a discussion with the Government about how we improve it, and to provide greater assurances to the Australian people.
But there is a second point. Mr Turnbull is proposing a process that ensures that disclosure for his MPs, all MPs, is not required until Parliament rises. It is a blatant attempt to skate through this difficult period to next year.
JOURNALIST: So is that a non-negotiable for you? Whatever process there is it has to be done before Parliament rises?
WONG: I think it is non-negotiable for the Australian people. Do you really think the Australian people are going to accept a situation where Mr Turnbull says “look I don’t actually want this resolved until next year” and tries to handle it down the track?
JOURNALIST: If Turnbull won’t refer John Alexander, will Labor refer John Alexander if Turnbull won’t?
WONG: Parliament should do the right thing. Barnaby Joyce referred himself because he knew he had to be referred. Mr Turnbull should not allow the House of Representatives to turn into a protection racket for John Alexander and anyone else simply because Mr Turnbull doesn’t want to risk his numbers on the floor of the House.
JOURNALIST: But Labor has the option of referring him, will you refer him?
WONG: The House has to refer. And what I’m saying is the Government has the numbers in the House, they should use them responsibly and not engage in a protection racket for MPs, if it’s demonstrable that MPs have an issue in terms of their citizenship.
JOURNALIST: Is an independent audit of all of your fellow MPs not the best way to resolve this?
WONG: The point that Labor has made is we recognise that the only auditing body ultimately is the High Court. What we do have to have though is a better system for finding out, disclosing if there are citizenship issues.
Now it would’ve been better if there had been proper disclosure and proper vetting previously, demonstrably, and I think the Stephen Parry case really demonstrated this. There have been failures not only in vetting but in disclosure, which is why we last week said we want a universal disclosure process.
The Prime Minister belatedly acted on that, we don’t think what he’s proposed is good enough and we want to make it stronger.
JOURNALIST: So how can this be sorted out by Christmas? You want this sorted out by Christmas, how will that happen?
WONG: I do not believe that the Australian people would find it acceptable that Parliamentarians do not have to disclose their eligibility until after the Parliament has risen for the year.
JOURNALIST: So how does that happen?
WONG: We will have this conversation with Mr Turnbull. He’s invited the Leader of the Opposition to have a discussion, and we will have that discussion, and be seeking to strengthen this process. But I am flagging that we think the 21 days – trying to push this down the track to beyond Christmas – is unacceptable.
JOURNALIST: Do you have another proposal?
WONG: Well we will be discussing that with Mr Turnbull but certainly I think Australians will want this matter dealt with prior to the Parliament rising this year.
JOURNALIST: So why not give us an indication now if Australians are so desirous of this then?
WONG: The Senate goes back next week, I think the House of Representatives returns on the 27th. This matter needs to be dealt with in this period of the Parliamentary sittings.
JOURNALIST: Do you think you’re going to have to fight a by-election in Bennelong and if so, how prepared is Labor to do that?
WONG: We’re happy to fight a by-election in Bennelong or any other seat where someone is found to be ineligible and we’re ready and prepared to fight such a campaign.
JOURNALIST: Should John Alexander himself have come clean earlier, and should he have…?
WONG: Well I haven’t spoken to him. I haven’t seen much of what he has said. It seems from what has been publically reported, that the facts of his case are substantially similar to those which have been well communicated and well discussed in the context of Senators Nash and Parry.
JOURNALIST: And so therefore should he refer himself to the High Court?
WONG: The House will need to refer and he should do so.
JOURNALIST: Can’t he do it himself?
WONG: It is a referral from the House but I think given the facts which are being disclosed, he must be referred.
JOURNALIST: On another issue, the Papua New Guinea Supreme Court is about to hand down its decision on whether food and electricity should be restored. What’s Labor’s stance on that? Should the detention centre be up and running again?
WONG: Can I say what is happening on Manus is a disgrace. And I read last night the correspondence to all Parliamentarians from Doctors For Refugees and the facts disclosed in it really demonstrate this government’s abrogation of its responsibilities.
Labor’s support for offshore processing was never meant to become indefinite detention and punishment and that is precisely what it has become under this Government. And this Government cannot walk away from what is occurring on Manus. The Government does have a responsibility to deal with this issue.
It is disappointing in particular that Mr Turnbull has chosen to rule out the proposal from New Zealand.
JOURNALIST: Can I ask you about the group called the Quad, which Australia was a member of, which was effectively disbanded but now looks to be meeting again in Manila. Do you think that’s a good idea?
WONG: We’ll consider any proposal for the Quadrilateral on its merits. I think a briefing is being arranged for us to understand precisely what is being proposed and what it would mean, but we’d obviously consider it on its merits.
JOURNALIST: Can you understand why China sees it as an act of containment?
WONG: Well I gave a speech recently at the AIIA on China and I made clear our view that no country should seek to contain China. What we want is China to be a constructive player in the region.
JOURNALIST: Is the Quad an act of containment though?
WONG: As I said, we’d consider it on its merits and we’d seek to understand what additional it may add to existing security cooperation arrangements.
JOURNALIST: Should it even be on the agenda?
WONG: No, I’m not going to get into what next, we’ll consider it on its merits, and we’ll get a briefing from the Government on it.
JOURNALIST: Can I double back just quickly and ask you another question about citizenship in terms of the process that you are proposing? Is self-declaration enough?
WONG: I think Australians do want greater assurance than they have had and I think the Parliament is an appropriate way on which you can provide appropriate disclosure. I do think we need to look at strengthening this. I’ve given you a couple of examples of the way in which we’d do that, but we will have further discussions with Mr Turnbull and his team in coming days.
Thanks very much.