1 December 2013




CASSIDY: Leader of the Opposition in the Senate, Penny Wong, good morning.

WONG: Good morning, good to be with you.

CASSIDY: Let’s just start with GrainCorp. Do you accept the Government’s decision on this, the rejection of the foreign investment, is broadly popular and it certainly delighted those closest to the issue and that’ is the grain growers themselves?

WONG: Well it’s certainly delighted the National Party and Barnaby Joyce. I mean, I think this is the latest installment of the episodes in the Abbott Government demonstrating that they are not the Government they said they’d be. They said they’d be open for business. It is quite apparent from the decision that the footnote to the ‘We are open for business’ sign was ‘Only if Barnaby Joyce and the National Party agree’.

I think it’s a very problematic position for the Treasurer. I don’t know about you but I read his transcript, I listened to his press conference, it was a very confused signal to the country and to foreign investors and it is a decision which really flies in the face of the sorts of promises which were made prior to the election.

CASSIDY: But do governments have to accept every foreign investment proposal to be in some way pure?

WONG: No. What a government should do, is to consider very carefully and on the basis of the national interest, proposals that come across their desk. What governments shouldn’t do is have the Deputy Prime Minister of Australia come on Insiders, notwithstanding the fact it was a good interview for your program, and publicly demand that the Treasurer make a certain decision.

What governments shouldn’t do is have someone in government leaking to the press that the Prime Minister had made it clear to the Treasurer that this proposal shouldn’t get up, which is what happened a couple of weeks ago. I mean, that is not the way to give a sense of certainty, a sense of calm management to investors who Australia will always need now and into the future.

CASSIDY: What Tony Abbott and Joe Hockey have both pointed out, though, there have been 131 applications, this is the only one they’ve knocked back so far?

WONG: This is probably the only one Barnaby and the Nationals had a problem with, that’s the reality.

CASSIDY: But where is the problem anyway, when you get those who are close to the industry saying that the benefits are overstated and, in fact, they worry about the implications?

WONG: I go back to the stated reasons. As I understand the Treasurer, his stated reason for knocking this back was the industry is in transition and, basically, it was unpopular. Well, I don’t think they’re cogent reasons. If there are cogent reasons, he should put them out there, but he hasn’t. The reality is – and I think you know this – the cogent reasons are internal Coalition politics. We had Truss on this program, we had Barnaby publicly indicating his opposition and privately indicating his preparedness to resign. That is what has driven this decision: the Nationals’ interests. Nationals with a capital N, the political party, not the national interest.

CASSIDY: The next decision now is on Qantas. Is it important as Labor sees it to limit overseas ownership to less than 50 per cent?

WONG: I have to say, I thought it was interesting this week that the debate, the so-called debate on Qantas seemed to be triggered by Joe Hockey giving a few comments at a private luncheon on what is clearly a market sensitive matter. A pretty strange way for the Treasurer of the Commonwealth to behave.

We await what the Government says it will do on this and we will examine that carefully. And I think Australians are entitled to a more sensible way to have this discussion than the one Joe Hockey has decided to embark on, which was to float the idea at a private luncheon.

CASSIDY: But as a starting point, though, would Labor be opposed to the Government taking up any equity?

WONG: Look, I’m not going to get into what the Government might or might not propose. We will consider it if and when they do. The reality is, as you know, there has been a bipartisan position since the sale of Qantas I think in the early 1990s, 1992, which is reflected in the Act, it has been bipartisan. If the Government wishes to change that, in good faith we will sit down and consider what they’ve propose. I think that’s the sensible way to go about it.

CASSIDY: Just more broadly on trade and the position the Government has taken over the East China Sea, objecting to China expending the Air Defence Zone. Do you think there will be potentially trade implications and does that matter anyway, should that interfere with the broader principle?

WONG: Look, these are sensitive matters and I don’t propose to jump into those diplomatic matters. I think it is obviously a sensitive issue and the Chinese Government has made its position clear. I do think on trade, my concern when it comes to some of how the Government’s approaching the trade agreements, I think it’s problematic when a government says, flags to the other party a deadline or a timeline on a deal. I mean, if you are selling a house, you don’t want to tell prospective buyers ‘I want to sell by the end of the year’. That usually is a reduction in your negotiating position. I think – the approach that Andrew Robb is taking where he is flagging to, the Chinese and the Koreans and the Japanese he wants the free trade agreements signed off in a specified timeline isn’t probably ensuring the best negotiating position for the country.

CASSIDY: But what they are doing, though, is trying to fast track individual trade deals rather than lose time on the more complicated international deals.

WONG: You do need to do both. Bilateral agreements are important but they are important also to contribute to multilateral trade negotiations and opening up trade across the world. We saw during the global financial crisis a desire by some nations to put up the shutters. That isn’t the best way forward, certainly the previous Labor Government made it very clear through the G20 and through other forums it is not in the world’s interest to increase protectionism at a time where the global economy is volatile.

CASSIDY: On education reform, the Government is clearly determined to start again on this and there will be a new model beyond 2014.

WONG: Well, the Government is clearly determined to break their word, Barrie, that’s what’s happening. Not only is this the latest instalment of “This is not the government they said they’d be”. There is actually another element which is very important. This is a government obsessed with blaming the Labor Party rather than a government focused on governing the nation. And you saw that in the way Christopher Pyne has approached this issue. And you see that also in the economic debate, where you see Joe Hockey all of a sudden saying before the election debt was bad, now saying “well, actually we want to increase debt” but desperately trying to blame the Labor Party for it.

The game plan for this government is very clear. They aren’t the government they said they’d be before the election. And what they want to do, is they obsess about blaming the Labor Party for every decision and backflip and broken promise that they’ve made. I think Christopher Pyne this week has had a very bad week but, more importantly, I think kids around Australia, parents around Australia, parents around Australia, have had a very bad week from a Government that’s breaking their promise.

CASSIDY: You raise the debt issue, how do you feel about this proposal the Greens have put out there that they, together with the Government, they’ll just abandon the whole thing, get rid of the debt ceiling, take the politics out of it?

WONG: Well, look, you couldn’t walk anywhere before the last election without hearing Joe Hockey going on about how we were drowning in debt and how he was going to reduce debt if they won Government. After the election, one of the first things he does as Treasurer is say “I actually want to increase debt”.

Now that’s self-evidently not the sort of government he was promising before the election. He is desperate to try and blame the Labor Party – it’s really interesting. We’ve got the mid-year budget update, as you know, has to come out in the next few weeks, before Christmas.

I think that will be more like a Liberal Party campaign pamphlet than a budget update because this is a government desperate to find the budget emergency they couldn’t find, desperate to find it and that is what the mid-year budget update will be all about. It’ll be trying to find a way to blame the Labor Party for the cuts that Joe Hockey wants to make down the track next year after the Commission of Audit.

CASSIDY: What it might do is make it fairly clear that the debt is Labor’s debt.

WONG: Well, the true state of the books under Peter Costello’s Charter of Budget Honesty is disclosed in the pre-election Budget update which the Treasury, Secretary, and Department of Finance Secretary release. And that showed the true state of the books. The reality is it demonstrated no budget emergency and that’s why Joe Hockey is so desperate to find one. Because otherwise he has nothing to justify breaking his promises and nothing to justify the cuts he wants to make next year. It’s exactly the same game plan as we see from Christopher Pyne who is desperately trying to suggest to – tell Australians his broken promise actually isn’t his fault.

CASSIDY: Penny Wong, thanks for your time this morning.

WONG: Good to speak with you.