23 June 2015




SENATOR PENNY WONG, LEADER OF THE OPPOSITION IN THE SENATE: Can I first make some comments about the China Free Trade Agreement, which of course was finally tabled last week, after the Government had announced it some seven months previously.

Labor is working through that agreement. We’re assessing it against the public benchmarks we laid down and there is of course a Parliamentary process of consideration before two Parliamentary Committees, a Joint Committee and a Senate Committee.

I would make this point though; concerns have been raised about the temporary migration provisions in the legislation. Now, I think all Australians understand that temporary migration to fill skill shortages is good policy, is sensible policy. The Government does need to explain how the temporary migration provisions in the China Free Trade Agreement are consistent with that policy.

They need to explain the safeguards that they say they have put in there and they need to explain to Australians how they will work. They need to explain to Australians how this agreement will enhance, rather than constrain, local job opportunities. And rather than the Government dismissing these concerns arrogantly, I say to them: it is in the national interest for you to explain these safeguards and more broadly the benefit of this agreement. That is a conversation with the Australian people that the Government should be having.

Happy to take questions.

JOURNALIST: Senator, the Coalition says that it was important to strike a balance between business confidence and more stringent local worker rules. Do you think this free trade agreement strikes that balance?

WONG: I haven’t heard that particular argument from the Government and what I’m saying is this: Australians agree that temporary migration has an important part to play in our economy, to fill skill shortages. The Government needs to explain to Australians how this agreement is consistent with that policy.

It needs to explain to Australians what safeguards it has put in place and if a balance has been struck it needs to explain to Australians what that balance is. These concerns ought not be arrogantly dismissed by the Government.

This is our largest trading partner, it’s an important agreement for Australia and the Government should be very clear with Australians about how it will operate.

JOURNALIST: They say that one of the safeguards is that these laws would only apply for developments over $150 million. Do you think that’s an adequate safeguard?

WONG: I think Australians are entitled to understand how the temporary migration provisions are consistent with the policy objective I’ve outlined.

JOURNALIST: On reports of Khaled Sharrouf and Mohamed Elomar’s death, do you think that these reports indicate, give example to, the need to fight terror at home with foreign fighter laws?

WONG: We all have to do what is needed to keep Australians safe and we have made clear we will approach these times in the way we’ve always approached, as the Labor Party, the issue of national security, and that is our first priority is to keep Australians safe and we need to think very carefully about how we do that. When it comes to those reports, obviously we haven’t been briefed and I am not sure if the Government has yet verified them so I don’t propose to comment on those reports.

JOURNALIST: On Federal-State financial relations, how do you think we are supposed to have a proper debate about the federation and the state of who is responsible for what in Australia if everyone just jumps on the more extreme end of ideas that are suggested and just rules things straight out.

WONG: Well let’s understand what we know from the Government’s leaked green papers on health and education. What we know is this Government wants to damage, indeed possibly destroy, public education and public health in this country and the only difference between the options which have been leaked is how fast that happens. The one thing you can take from the approach to the federation discussion that Tony Abbott is having is that this man is no defender of the public access to education and health which I think Australians support overwhelmingly. He is hell-bent on damaging our public education and our public health systems. That is absolutely clear from the approach that he is taking.

JOURNALIST: Back on terror again if I may. If the citizenship laws that are going to the party room today are just an updating of section 35 to automatically revoke citizenship for fighters that fight with Daesh or ISIL as currently stands for people who fight for other countries, is that something you could in principle support?

WONG: I think that is asking me to comment on legislation we haven’t seen, but obviously we will consider the legislation when we see it. I’ve previously said, and Bill and Tanya have previously said, we recognise the need for our laws to reflect not only those who are combatants against Australia with states but also non-state actors. We have consistently identified that that is the issue that needs to be addressed. In that spirit we will consider the law when we see it.

JOURNALIST: Dennis Jensen yesterday said marriage is not just about love, if it was about love we could marry our siblings or our parents. What’s your reaction to this, you’ve been a campaigner for same-sex marriage for a long time?

WONG: Well there are many things I could say about Mr Jensen’s comments, but I will say this. I think they are insulting and I think they are offensive. And really I think Australians are tiring of the level of debate from some of those who oppose equality. If they want to have a discussion about equality, I am happy to have that discussion but maybe they should refrain in their contributions from making these sorts of insulting analogies. I have a very clear view: equality is equality.

JOURNALIST: Will you still be fighting for a binding vote at national conference?

WONG: I’m on the record as indicating my view about that, I think some four or five years ago I made my position on that clear, but the most important thing now is to try and ensure that this legislation passes in this Parliament, that is certainly what my focus will be. Thank you.