13 November 2017




PATRICIA KARVELAS: Penny Wong, welcome to the program.


KARVELAS: Is bipartisanship on the citizenship saga dead and buried now?

WONG: We’ve certainly seen a dangerous new approach to the way in which this is dealt with from the Prime Minister. Mr Turnbull is really acting like a man desperate to hold on to power by proposing a partisan approach – actually, more than proposing, threatening to refer people. I think it just shows how desperate he has become to hang on to power.

KARVELAS: Christopher Pyne said the Parliament had to be certain Labor members like Justine Keay and Susan Lamb were sitting in Parliament legitimately. Now clearly Justine Keay was ineligible when elected. She even says she deliberately delayed renouncing her British citizenship. She’s admitted that on the record. Why not just send it to the High Court for it to be settled. Labor has been taking the high moral ground here. Why not send it to the High Court and get a final ruling on this area?

WONG: Let’s be very clear what’s happening here. Every single Labor Member and Senator who has been mentioned by the Government took steps to renounce their citizenship. Not a single Government member who has a dual citizenship cloud hanging over them took steps. What Mr Pyne and Mr Turnbull are arguing is one threshold for Labor people and another threshold for the Coalition.

Let’s remember Barnaby Joyce, Fiona Nash, Stephen Parry, apparently John Alexander, perhaps Nola Marino and a whole range of Coalition MPs and Senators have taken no steps to renounce, but they turn around to Labor people and say you took steps to renounce but they weren’t good enough. Let’s understand the sort of partisanship that is on display here.

KARVELAS: But some constitutional experts say the High Court’s most recent ruling really imposes a more demanding test on the steps that you have to go to to renounce. It’s possible the Court may now rule that these MPs were ineligible because they were still dual citizens when nominations closed last year. Because of what has happened because of that High Court ruling, don’t we need some clarity around it? And isn’t it logical that Labor would say yep, we’re not afraid of the High Court, we’ll send our MPs there?

WONG: What is occurring there currently is we have proposed greater disclosure. We’re in the process of seeking to negotiate that, and to ensure that both the House and the Senate have high levels of disclosure, more details required from MPs and Senators on this key issues of citizenship. Mr Turnbull was dragged kicking and screaming to this point.

But in terms of the tactic he’s employing can I just say this? I really hope he has sat down with Nola Marino, Alex Hawke, Ann Sudmalis, Julia Banks, Mr Pasin and many others to explain to them the approach he is taking, because it is a dangerous and partisan approach and it frankly relies on the crossbench in the House being prepared to be as partisan as he is in how he is approaching this and I doubt very much if they would be as partisan as he is.

Now, on the points you raise, can I just make this point. After there has been full disclosure, across both chambers of Parliament from all parties, people can make sensible decisions about what that disclosure then requires. But what Mr Turnbull is doing is to then try to obviate that process, step around that process he didn’t want initially, and engage in this sort of partisan thuggery. I just think it is an extraordinary set of behaviours from a man who is supposed to be Prime Minister.

KARVELAS: So, is that a threat from Labor? Because I have read quotes – unattributed of course – this evening, that Labor will go nuclear, will get pretty lethal, if the Government does try to refer those Labor MPs to the High Court. Is that what Labor is going to do if that happens?

WONG: What I am saying is, consistent with what George Brandis said when we were referring people by agreement in the Senate, that it is a dangerous precedent for the leader of the nation and the leader of the Liberal Party to be threatening partisan referrals in order to hold on to power.

I would not want to see Parliament being used in that way, but if Parliament is used in that way one would anticipate that questions will be asked of Coalition MPs such as those I have referenced. And I do wonder, has Malcolm Turnbull, before he pressed this particular button, made sure he spoke to his backbench about some of the potential consequences?

KARVELAS: So what will you do? If you are referred, well not you specifically, but what will you do?

WONG: We want to do what we have said, which is to have proper disclosure in the Parliament, with the Parliament being able to deal with that evidence before Parliament rises for this year.

KARVELAS: Will the Opposition continue to oppose the referral of these MPs to the High Court, after the new disclosure agreement for MPs is determined?

WONG: We think the MPs you have mentioned satisfy the legal test. That is our view and we have made that clear.

KARVELAS: But only the High Court can determine that. Labor can’t

WONG: Patricia, we can look at what the High Court has said. But whatever your views on that, can you please accept this proposition, because it is demonstrably true, that the threshold Malcolm Turnbull is putting, and you are now putting, for Labor people is a demonstrably higher threshold than the one his MPs and Senators have been asked to comply with.

So, he is saying to you, you should read the High Court decision this way, and just because some lawyer says X, instead of what the precedent says, you should make this your view about Labor MPs and Senators. Meanwhile, all of my MPs and Senators who have a cloud over their head when it comes to dual citizenship, they took no steps at all, but I am not going to refer them. That is the proposition he is trying to engage in. Really, one only needs to outline it to demonstrate how partisan it is.

KARVELAS: Okay, so given there was that meeting between the Prime Minister and the Opposition Leader, no deal yet on the date the referrals will close, all of this sort of stuff, will you still work out a deal? What’s the deadline on this? Because you have to forgive voters, they are looking at all of this and it just looks like a shambles. You can blame the Prime Minister, he will try to blame you at the end of the day, It is pox on both your houses if you can’t sort something out.

WONG: I agree with that. I’d prefer not to be in the blame game on that issue particularly. I think we should come to a sensible disclosure arrangement that applies in both the House and the Senate, and of course the Senate sits tomorrow.

And I would make this point; we’ve been very upfront about what we were seeking. We want a more stringent disclosure, so people’s doubts about citizenship can be disclosed and assessed by the Parliament. We also said –and this is a very reasonable proposition – that people should disclose in time for the Parliament to deal with it this year. Mr Turnbull has never articulated the reason why he opposes that. Why does he want to delay? He has never answered that question.

KARVELAS: What do you do next then? If you can’t work out a deal do you try to do something in the Senate? As you say, the Senate is sitting this week. Would Labor try to work something out with the crossbench? Something alternative without the government?

WONG: Let’s try to get an agreement first.

KARVELAS: But is that an option?

WONG: I enjoy my conversations with you Patricia because you always do follow the rabbits down the burrows, but on this one I’m disinclined to follow you. I would say to you my view is it would still be best if the parties of Government could sensibly come to an agreement on something, which you rightly say, Australians are heartily sick of finger-pointing and want this matter dealt with.

KARVELAS: Without Mr Alexander, the Government is going to have 74 seats, with one of its MPs – Speaker Tony Smith – only exercising his vote in rare circumstances. This gives the Government 73 votes on the floor, we know that is not a majority. Will you seek to exploit this when Parliament comes back – I know the Senate is sitting this week, but when the broader Parliament comes back?

WONG: I am the Senate Leader I generally leave House tactics to them.

KARVELAS: Sure, but you are in the Leadership group.

WONG: Whatever the numbers are, Labor is going to stand up for the things we believe in. We are going to continue to advocate for things like the protection of penalty rates, for things like the royal commission into banks. That’s been our consistent position for a very long time so I wouldn’t regard any continued assertion of things like those policies to be a change in tactic just because the Government is in a position where they have lost their majority.

KARVELAS: On Wednesday, as you know, the postal vote on same sex marriage is delivered in the morning. If it does come back with a Yes, and won’t know until Wednesday, how will you proceed? We know that Dean Smith will introduce this bill, because he has said over the weekend he will do this on Thursday, and he says it should start right away. How quickly will this pass and what will Labor’s role be in trying to ensure the Dean Smith bill passes?

WONG: If there is a Yes, we want to get on with it. The bill that Dean has put forward is a bill that comes out of the Senate Select Committee which had two Labor Senators on it and it was agreed by a range of Senators. The Labor Caucus has already indicated that we are supportive of that bill as the bill that should be progressed in the Parliament. So, our view is that we should get on with it and we are willing to work with Dean and whoever else to do that.

I would make this point that Senator Bernardi and Senator Abetz and a range of other people who have been vehement No campaigners are now seeking to construct a new set of arguments which are clearly designed to frustrate the passage of any legislation. I just make the point I have previously made, if there is a Yes vote – and as you say we won’t know until Wednesday – but if there is a Yes vote, I think the attitude of the Australian people will be to the No case – get over it and get out of the way.

KARVELAS: And are you willing to entertain any amendments to the Dean Smith bill, or is that the end of it for you? Because clearly there will be amendments to the Dean Smith bill for religious freedoms, for other rights, a broadening out of those rights.

WONG: Some of the sorts of amendments that have been spoken about by opponents of equality are clearly nothing more than a delaying tactic. They are seeking to broaden, frankly, the licence to discriminate beyond the sort of religious objection category the Senate Select Committee looked at, to a range of much broader propositions. And really that should be seen by the Parliament for what it is. It should be seen as a tactic to try to frustrate passage of the bill.

These people – they say they wanted a vote in the community and if that vote is Yes, and I hope it is, they need to accept that.

KARVELAS: The Liberals will vote on the Senate President tomorrow morning. Have you got a preference? Who would you like to see in the job? Who do you think would do the best job there?

WONG: I’ve had a lot of clashes, as has pretty much everybody, and certainly a lot of women in the Senate, and Ms Triggs and others, with Senator Ian Macdonald, so our views about his behaviour are well known. But ultimately I hope the Government will choose somebody sensible. I’m not going to pick and choose amongst their people. I hope they will choose someone sensible and I hope that it is someone the whole chamber can work with. Remembering, of course, in the Senate, the Government of the day never has the majority of the floor, and so the President really does have to be someone that all parties feel that they can work with.

KARVELAS: Would Scott Ryan be someone who would be a good candidate for that?

WONG: I’m not going to get drawn into any further discussion of their candidate.

KARVELAS: Just on your actual portfolio- it’s a busy time with the dual citizenship time

WONG: It certainly is.

KARVELAS: Certainly sucks up a bit of time. On the Quadrilateral – the Prime Minister flies to the Philippines for the East Asia Summit. He will officially sit down with US President Donald Trump to revive a pact between America, Japan, India and Australia to help guarantee a rules-based order. What would Labor like to see come out of this meeting?

WONG: We would obviously like to see some further detail. We have been briefed by the Government recently on this and that was a useful briefing, but obviously we’d like to see further detail as a result of the Prime Minister’s announcement.

As a matter of principle I’d make this point – it is in Australia’s national interest, as I’ve previously articulated, to have a stable system in our region that is anchored in the rule of law. And so we would consider this, and any other mechanism, with that objective in mind. Does it contribute to a stable regional system, anchored in the rule of law? And we would look at it in those terms.

KARVELAS: Are you broadly supportive of the idea?

WONG: I think I have outlined the way in which we would look at it. I would make the point – and this is not a new point – there are obviously some different views in the region about this sort of approach. But we would consider it very carefully.

Our first priority, is, as I said, our national interest is served by stability in our region, and a system in our region that is anchored in the rule of law. Does this contribute to that? That is the basis on which we would consider it.

KARVELAS: Penny Wong, thanks for joining me tonight.

WONG: Good to speak with you.