E&OE - PROOF ONLY
SAMANTHA MAIDEN: Labor’s Foreign Affairs Spokeswoman Penny Wong is standing by, good morning Penny.
SENATOR PENNY WONG, LEADER OF THE OPPOSITION IN THE SENATE: Good morning. How are you Sam?
MAIDEN: Can I start by asking you about these reports that broke overnight that Australia is believed to have been involved in an incident of collateral damage in Iraq. We are told that two civilians were killed in an air strike in Mosul and two children were injured. What is your reaction to this and have you received a briefing from the Defence Department?
WONG: Yes, the Opposition has been briefed. Obviously any civilian death is a tragedy. What we would say is this; it appears from this investigation that the rules of engagement that the ADF have were complied with – appropriate procedures were complied with. Obviously we’re talking about a war zone –a complex difficult dangerous environment. A very regrettable incident, but one in which it appears clear that our personnel all followed all relevant procedures in relation to this matter.
MAIDEN: The week has also been dominated by this fallout in relation to Russia and Australia’s decision to expel two diplomats. Now Bill Shorten made it clear that the Labor Party supports that action. Do you have a view on the Foreign Minister Julie Bishop’s decision to invite the television cameras in for her meeting with the Russian Ambassador? There have been some that have criticised that decision, including Ed Husic here in Sky News this morning who said she was desperate for media coverage and this was not appropriate.
WONG: I’d just reiterate, as you said, the Opposition fully supports the Government’s actions on this. The whole international community must stand firm against what has occurred, against what appears to be a direct break of the Convention in relation to chemical weapons.
On the Foreign Minister’s decision to bring the cameras into the discussion with the Russian Ambassador, it was unusual to have that kind of interaction filmed. Obviously you often have footage of a meeting beginning with the pleasantries and so forth but not to have the interaction filmed in the way it was. I think it is for the Foreign Minister to explain publicly what the purpose of it was. Why she believed it was necessary and appropriate for that footage to be taken.
MAIDEN: Now the Russian Ambassador also had a fairly lengthy press conference this week – it went for about an hour – where he made a range of claims including suggestions that Russia is not involved in the poisoning of this former spy and his daughter, they’re not involved in the downing of MH17 and they’re not involved in having undeclared intelligence officers in Australia. Do you believe him?
WONG: On those matters, particularly the last one, the Opposition takes the advice of our security agencies and we trust the advice of our security agencies in relation to such matters.
On MH17 we know, obviously, it is an ongoing investigation but we know what the investigations to date have demonstrated. In relation to the attack in London I think the British Government has made clear what has been found to date and that has grounded the action, not only by the Australian Government, but by governments across the world. So I don’t accept the ambassador’s assertions in relation to those matters.
MAIDEN: We also saw this unannounced visit to China by the North Korean leader Kim Jong-un when he made some statements to the effect that the issue of denuclearisation can reach a resolution. Is there anything to believe that this is anything more than words from North Korea?
WONG: You always have to be pretty sceptical about anything Kim Jong-un says. North Korea has got a history hasn’t it of making commitments it hasn’t met. It has got a history of brinkmanship. It’s got a history of over-the-top rhetoric.
What I would say about the visit to China is this. China is North Korea’s closest ally. China’s involvement in the UN sanctions regime and in passing Security Council resolutions has been very important in strengthening the international community’s response to North Korea. We would urge China to continue to use its relationship to achieve what the United Nations and the international community wants which is North Korea to end its nuclear weapons program in accordance with the UN Security Council resolutions. That is, without condition
MAIDEN: There are front page reports today in Fairfax that the Government is considering another cut to the foreign aid budget, or at least that ideas for this are being drawn up by the Department. Now Finance Minister Mathias Cormann was fairly poker-faced about this suggestion today but my colleague Kieran Gilbert has been told that this is not the case, it’s not under consideration although it certainly has been a popular method of securing budget savings in the past year and there is already a two year freeze in place. What are you hearing from your colleagues in the Department about what is going on?
WONG: Well, a couple of things. We were told before the last election there wouldn’t be any cuts and then Julie Bishop and the Government proceeded to cut $11 billion from Australia’s aid program so let’s remember that.
There have been rumours obviously that have been made public about further cuts. This is a test for Julie Bishop. She is the Foreign Minister who has presided over the largest aid cut we have seen. We now have aid at the lowest level as a proportion of GNI, Gross National Income, since records began at 22 cents in every hundred dollars of national income goes to aid. She did make a clear commitment that you referenced in the question that this was it, and they froze it, which was a decision in the last Budget update.
So, this is a test for her and I hope she is fighting them and I hope she wins because she knows that this undermines Australia’s standing and influence in our region at a time when that standing and influence is important for our national interest.
MAIDEN: Finally, Tim Storer surprised some who thought that his vote was in the bag for those company tax cuts. I don’t know how much you have had to do with Tim Storer over the years in Adelaide, but we now learn that he was a member of the Labor Party, including, I was told, having some involvement running the campaign against Christopher Pyne in Sturt a few years back. Did you ever bump into Tim Storer at any Labor Party functions and if you did, were you surprised he voted the way he did on the company tax cuts?
WONG: Just in relation to the last issue – and I know that you were one that predicted that correctly I think Sam – but the point I’d make is he had a lot of pressure on him. And he was – what did you describe him as? A rookie Senator, someone new to the parliament. There’s a lot of public national media pressure on him, a lot of lobby groups, the Business Council and the Government pressuring him. So, full credit to him that he didn’t just respond to that 24-hour media cycle and political pressure and actually looked at the issues.
In terms of Tim, I don’t recall ever bumping into him in the context of the Labor Party. But you’re from Adelaide. You know everybody knows everybody. So the Storer family is obviously a family that I’ve known in various contexts over the years
MAIDEN: So what is your take on Tim Storer there? Because he was a pretty cool customer in that instance and given that you are a friend of the Storer family..
WONG: I don’t know that I’d say friend. There’s a few of them and you bump into them.
MAIDEN: There’s six. He’s got six brothers and sisters.
WONG: That’s right. There’s five or six and you’re from Adelaide and you know most of us know each other don’t we?
I was struck by the fact that he responded as calmly to the pressure, at least from what I could see, as he did. We’ve all seen over the years crossbench senators, or rebel senators from a major party who are the key swing vote or one of two or three key swing votes and the pressure gets to people. And on this occasion Tim looked pretty relaxed actually for someone who had been the focus of a lot of media attention and no doubt a lot of lobbying efforts.
I think that’s a good sign. He won’t always agree with us but if he is prepared to consider carefully legislation for the Senate, that’s a good thing
MAIDEN: So, the scene is set? You’re happy to go to the next election arguing for higher taxes for big business?
WONG: I think that this is the landscape of the election campaign. It is really clear that the key divide between the parties of government, between the Labor Party and the Coalition is whether or not you spend $65 billion on a company tax giveaway which we know from this week’s evidence even big business itself is not prepared to commit to more jobs, higher wages or even paying their tax.
That is an extraordinary revelation this week. It really demonstrates the lie at the heart of the Government’s case. They want to do this to the Budget. They want to put taxes up on middle income Australians. They want to give $65 billion on a company tax cut and even the people who will benefit from it are not prepared to commit to either paying their tax, creating more jobs or increasing employee wages.
The Government is going to the election with that as their policy position, the Prime Minister made that clear in Question Time. We’re happy to have that fight and to talk about how we can grow our economy and wages without handing that kind of tax cut to big business,
MAIDEN: Okay, but your policy is to really only offer tax relief for really quite small business, with a turnover of $2 million or less. The expectation is you will go to $10 million. Has that already gone through Shadow Cabinet? You’re keeping that increase up to $10 million turnover under wraps? What happens to the businesses between $10 million and $50 million, those ones that have already got the tax cuts passed the Senate?
WONG: I’m reminded of what it used to be like when I was a minister getting a telephone call from you Sam, and you’d just fire about seven questions at me in a row.
First, remember, we’ve been clear about a range of tax measures. One of them is that we won’t be matching the Government on the imposition of a higher income tax via the Medicare Levy for middle income Australians. That’s another difference. We will go to the election as a party that is not promising to hike taxes on middle Australia – the government is promising to hike taxes on middle Australia.
We’ve also said, as you have said, we would repeal this round of company tax cuts if the Government got it through and Bill said, I think in his press conference this week, we will be clear about which threshold will be Labor policy well prior to the next election.
MAIDEN: Penny Wong, thank you so much for your time today. Big week in Canberra and if you’re lucky you might even get to school pick up in Adelaide. What do you think?
WONG: Yes, I hope so. I did manage to do school drop off after the plane landed this morning so let’s see if I can make it two out of two.
MAIDEN: Thank you very much Penny Wong there in Adelaide.
Authorised by Noah Carroll ALP Canberra.