20 October 2015




HOST: Joining us now is South Australian Senator Penny Wong. Penny thanks for your time. Was this whole thing a storm in a teacup or given that there is public money involved and obviously the taxpayers pay for the marble tables and indeed everything else inside the building do you think it was a right thing for the Opposition to pursue?

SENATOR PENNY WONG, LEADER OF THE OPPOSITION IN THE SENATE: Well, good morning Penbo. Look what we are talking about here is not only public money being used to purchase the table but ultimately really poor behaviour by people inside the cabinet suite in the nation’s Parliament House. I just think no Australian accepts it is appropriate to smash furniture at work, no matter who you are, and I certainly don’t think it is appropriate to smash a table in the cabinet suite notwithstanding that people might be pretty unhappy, were obviously pretty unhappy about the change of Prime Minister.

HOST: Is there also a point though where you guys gave us in 1983 a Prime Minister who was in the Guinness book of records for being the world’s fastest sculler of a yard glass of beer. Is there part of this where – I reckon you are right about a lot of people would think that, but I reckon a lot of other people would go maybe this is a bit of larrikinism.

WONG: Larrikinism is part of the Australian culture isn’t it, part of our character? But I think there is a difference between sculling a yard glass of beer – not that I could ever do that, I want to place that on the public record – and smashing an Italian marble table that was made specially for the Parliament back in the 80s. The evidence was having chunks of that souvenired and then found in ministers’ offices later and everyone trying to cover it up until it comes out Senate estimates a month later. That is just not good behaviour in any workplace. Imagine if something happened at your workplace Penbo, you decided to jump on the desk that you’re sitting behind, it broke off and then you took bits of that away-

HOST: -I won’t be making that mistake again.

HOST: Between you and I Senator it would be well covered up if it was David, don’t worry about that.

WONG: Do you reckon people would think that was just a fun, larrikin thing to do? I just don’t think it is.

HOST: The incident’s over now isn’t it, following Tony Abbott issuing a statement last night saying that he will pay for the damage that was incurred, that he will foot the bill, that’s the end of the story isn’t it?

WONG: I think that is appropriate. I think it shouldn’t have taken a month and Labor raising it in Senate estimates and the media running on it for people to behave appropriately. Someone should have fronted up and said this has happened. Instead what happened was, we found out yesterday, the cleaners and Department of Parliamentary Services were denied access to the cabinet room until the end of the week. So for three days they weren’t even allowed into have a look at the table. You know ultimately the thing I’m actually more concerned about is making sure there is no repercussions on the cleaners.

HOST: That is a totally fair point because it sounded yesterday like the Government Leader in the Senate was almost threatening the cleaners with some kind of retribution for the fact that they did find these chunks of marble sitting on ministers’ desks and almost said that they were meant to have taken some sort of vow of silence about finding smashed bits of furniture lying around and never mention it to anybody.

WONG: Correct. I think it says something about people’s priorities and the Government’s priorities that the President of the Senate when asked if he had investigated this, the only thing he preferred to talk about was what the cleaners had done wrong as opposed to the people who danced on the table, broke the table and then souvenired bits of the table. We’re going to go after low paid women who clean their offices – I thought was a pretty poor demonstration of priorities. Cleaners do have to preserve confidences, I don’t think that extends to having to be quiet when something so inappropriate has been done. It is actually technically a theft of Commonwealth property so I don’t see why the cleaners should be pinged. What Malcolm Turnbull should ensure is that there is no adverse consequences for the cleaners as a result of the poor behaviour of some of his colleagues.

HOST: Senator there was another somewhat amusing exchange in Senate estimates that you were involved with over the course of the last couple of days with regard to the blacking out of the brands of alcohol that the former Prime Minister had used to entertain guests and other dignitaries. The costs were there, the quantities were there, but the names were blackened out. And you have life and that sort of behaviour to an episode of Utopia. What is the public interest in the brands of the beverages in the Parliamentary suite?

WONG: This is a very odd decision and one really that did read like something out of Utopia if you have had a look at the FOI episode. We asked what is the Prime Minister, how much is being spent, what is the Prime Minister buying in terms of alcohol. It is a reasonably standard FOI request and it came back with a whole heap of black ink all through it. The justification was that the brands that the former Prime Minister Tony Abbott was purchasing was somehow personal information. Now personal information is an exemption in the FOI Act and it is usually to ensure things like personal details that aren’t in the public interest to be released are not released, things like your address and possibly details of family members. I don’t think it extends to what sort of wine you buy, particularly when Mr Abbott didn’t buy it himself, he had a staff member buy it. What I was more annoyed about was such a ridiculous use of an FOI exemption to black out most of what was given to me.

HOST: Penny we mentioned at the start the Chinese free trade agreement. Has there been a change in approach on your side of politics since Malcolm Turnbull became Prime Minister and do you think that you are now closer to coming up with some kind of agreement that satisfies the opposition’s concerns about foreign nationals being able to come in and work in Australia if it can’t be established that there is a labour market shortage in those industries?

WONG: That’s a good question and there has been a change of approach from the Government since Malcolm Turnbull became Prime Minister and we certainly welcome the change of position. We recognise how important this agreement is and the potential benefits, South Australian exporters getting benefits in terms of access into the Chinese market for South Australian produce. But there are parts of the agreement we have real concerns with. We wanted to introduce safeguards, we released those last week as a way to get the negotiations going. We are pleased the Government has responded and we’re looking forward to continuing our discussion with the Government.

HOST: I saw a paper that has been written by Jason Clare and Jim Chalmers the new MP from Queensland who used to work for Wayne Swan, two youngish guys regarded as up and comers, a very impassioned argument in favour of ChAFTA. Does that suggest that within the ALP that while the unions have been doing a lot of the talking over the last couple of months there is also a sense among some of the more robust, pro free trade people that you guys swung too far to the left on this issue?

WONG: If you look at what I have been saying I have been very consistent actually and I have always said that Labor has a long history of supporting more open trade because that has led to better jobs and better wages and conditions for Australians. But I have also said that there are parts of this agreement that we think need safeguards, we do think there need to be safeguards around this agreement. I thought Jim’s and – actually it was Clare O’Neill I think who wrote that article – it was a very good piece because it was talking about how governments can help make trade work better for people and if we are going to live in an open economy you have got to invest in the skills people need to get the jobs which will flow from those opportunities. But you are not going to get those opportunities without governments making sure we put better and smarter investment into our universities and our vocational education and also into our school system.

HOST: South Australian Labor Senator Penny Wong, thanks very much for joining us on 5AA Breakfast.

WONG: Good to be with you, cheers.