29 September 2015




SENATOR PENNY WONG, ACTING LEADER OF THE OPPOSITION: Today we saw former Prime Minister Tony Abbott on radio talking about the disunity and division inside the Liberal Party, the division that is on display for all to see.

But what was more interesting is this: it was the extent to which he said nothing’s changed. Nobody knows Tony Abbott’s policies more than Tony Abbott. So Tony says changing leaders has changed nothing, he’s right.

Nothing’s changed on climate change, nothing’s changed on marriage equality, nothing’s changed on cuts to health and education, nothing’s changed on looking at a higher GST. Nothing’s changed except the leader. And I think out of Tony Abbott’s own mouth, nothing changed when the Liberal Party changed leaders.

Happy to take questions.

JOURNALIST: Senator, Tony Abbott’s also said that he supports continuity of leaders, that the last thing Australia needs is a sixth Prime Minister in six years. Doesn’t that sort of blow your case out of the water a little?

WONG: Actually I thought what was more interesting in that context, is that he said Australians should vote for Malcolm Turnbull through gritted teeth. Gritted teeth, that’s hardly a resounding endorsement. I think Australians deserve better than someone they are asked to vote for through gritted teeth.

JOURNALIST: What was your reaction to the interview?

WONG: I thought it is quite telling that Tony thinks nothing has changed. And certainly he was pretty open about the division and disunity inside the Liberal Party. I know the Government wants to paper over all of this, but it was a very divisive time and I think we’ll see the reverberations of that continue. 

REPORTER: Was Abbott being, was he sniping and back stabbing?

WONG: I’ll leave others to comment on it. He’s certainly obviously not very happy about what his colleagues did to him.

JOURNALIST: But Senator, again looking at the leadership issue, how the rest of the world looks at Australia, certainly there is speculation that if there is a change of leader it might do us damage on a world stage, so doesn’t that put Bill Shorten’s case back by, how do you win an election if you do have a sixth Prime Minister in six years?

WONG: You know what I think? I think Australians at the next election will look to which party can manage the economy, has a commitment to creating more jobs, has a commitment to a healthcare system that’s accessible to everyone and has a commitment to their local schools, their local hospitals, and to their universities as well as their TAFE. I can say to you, we will be putting, and have been putting, those policies to the Australian people before the next election.

JOURNALIST: Does it do damage to the Government’s cause every time Tony Abbott just has one of these moments of either wanting to speak to newspapers or radio announcers . What does it do for the Liberal Party?

WONG: I think the damage to the Liberal Party’s cause has been the last couple of years of government. It has been the fact that they told people before an election there would be no cuts, then they implemented a budget full of cuts to health, to education. They said before the election there would be no changes to the GST. It’s clear that’s on the agenda.

So this division comes on top of two years of broken promises that have hurt hard-working Australians. That’s the damage to the Liberal Party and that simply continues today.

JOURNALIST: Doesn’t it prove that if things haven’t changed, according to Tony Abbott, the only thing that’s changed is the leadership, yet Malcolm Turnbull’s getting a surge in the polls, then the problem was Tony Abbott?

WONG: Well, look, are there’s no doubt Tony Abbott was pretty unpopular, but so were his policies, and the reality is Malcolm Turnbull, retains all of those policies, that’s what Tony Abbott’s made clear today.

I will say this, I know Malcolm, I obviously dealt with Malcolm Turnbull when he was previously leader and it is very disappointing to many Australians to see him selling out on things we know he believes in.

He sold out on climate change, he sold out on marriage equality, he’s had to sell out to the hard right of the Liberal Party and to the National Party. It’s very disappointing to see somebody who does hold these beliefs having to sell out in order to get to the top job.

Now, Malcolm has called a summit for this week. What I’d say is this: a summit on the economy and the future of the Australian economy, it’s not much chop if you’re not prepared to talk about climate change. Malcolm used to be prepared to talk about climate change, let’s see if he’s prepared to talk about it this week.

JOURNALIST: In regards to the China Free Trade Agreement, the Ambassador to urge Australians to seize that opportunity in a speech tonight. Would you be willing to welcome a compromise with the Prime Minister?

WONG: We have made clear for some time a number of things in relation to the China Free Trade Agreement. First, we understand the importance of the Chinese economy and the Chinese nation to Australia’s future. This is something Labor has been not only talking about, but acting upon for decades, ever since there was diplomatic recognition of the PRC by a Labor Government. I would say that first.

What we say about the trade agreement, it does have great potential to create jobs here in Australia. We want to make sure that Australians get the first opportunity for those jobs. We have made clear to the incoming Prime Minister, Mr Turnbull, we have made clear to him we want to find a way through here, but we need to see safeguards, complementary safeguards to the agreement around jobs, around Australian wages and conditions, avoiding the exploitation of migrant workers and of course maintaining Australian standards when it comes to our trades.

Now, we are willing to sit down with him and find a way through this and the failure of the Government to do that, I think, speaks volumes.

JOURNALIST: Have you met with the Chinese Ambassador personally to explain Labor’s position?

WONG: As you would anticipate, I will meet with the Chinese ambassador on a regular basis, given my portfolio responsibilities.

JOURNALIST:  Today’s interview, what do you believe Abbott’s real agenda was?

WONG: Well, you’d have to ask him. You’d have to ask Tony Abbott. As I said, I think it’s pretty clear from looking at the interview, a lot of disunity, a lot of division on display and frankly no change in policies.

JOURNALIST: Just in regards to Syria, Vladimir Putin’s presence at the UN seems to have changed the conversation about Syria. Could Labor see itself supporting a diplomatic solution that supports President Assad staying in power?

WONG: Look, these are difficult and sensitive issues and I don’t propose to comment. I haven’t been fully briefed on the current situation. I know that Tanya Plibersek has recently returned from the US, so I might leave it for her to comment on.

Anything further?  Thank you.