15 March 2018




DAVID SPEERS: What does the Opposition think about this? The Shadow Foreign Minister Senator Penny Wong joins me now. Senator thanks very much for your time this afternoon.


SPEERS: Was the firing of Rex Tillerson a surprise to you?

WONG: Look, whoever is the Secretary of State, just as whoever is the Foreign Minister here in Australia, is a matter for, on the one hand for the United States, and on the other hand Australia.

I would say though I obviously met Secretary Tillerson. I wanted to thank him for his support for the Australia-US relationship. He was a good friend of Australia’s.

But as I’ve previously made the point, our relationship with the United States is a long-standing one. It goes beyond individuals. It goes beyond whoever occupies any particular post. It is a long-standing institutional relationship and we look forward, as an Opposition, to working with Mr Pompeo.

SPEERS: And you’re right, it is up to the Americans to choose who they want as Secretary of State, but who occupies that office matters, and this is a shift, is it not, in terms of world outlook from Rex Tillerson to Mike Pompeo?

WONG: Of course, whoever occupies the position does matter to us. I do make the point though that the individuals matter less to the relationship than the long-standing institutional relationship that has been in place for decades.

Obviously, Australia has a long-standing relationship with the United States. They are our principal strategic security partner and we will continue to work with them on a bipartisan basis for the peace and stability of the Indo-Pacific Region.

SPEERS: Does it frustrate, do you think though, countries like Australia? We invest a lot in building relationships with someone like Rex Tillerson, or indeed Gary Cohn who last week left the White House. Just the churn through these senior figures makes it pretty hard to spend as much time as we do building these relationships, selling our message to them and so on and suddenly they’re gone?

WONG: I’m sure that criticism at times might have been made of Australia, David, so, far be it from me to point the finger.

You deal with each Administration, both in the US, but also anywhere else in the world, as you find it. Remember always that ultimately these are relationships between nations. They are not about personalities.

SPEERS: Can I turn to Russia, Penny Wong, the nerve agent attack on the former double agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter. Theresa May in the UK is pretty keen to see some action taken against Russia. What do you think? Should Australia join in any such action?

WONG: First let’s say this was a horrific attack, a reckless attack, an attack which has endangered the lives of many others. We join with the Foreign Minister and obviously Prime Minister May in her condemnation of this.

I understand that the chemical used does suggest a foreign connection. I also understand from what Ms Bishop says that she is being briefed by British authorities and we obviously look forward to understanding what the position is.

SPEERS: Okay, but you would be inclined to cooperate with the Government should it decide that we should join tougher sanctions?

WONG: Absolutely. We have to stand firm on this principle, that we condemn the use of chemical weapons. I agree with Ms Bishop’s comments about this and we should make sure we stand with Britain against these sorts of activities.

SPEERS: Let’s turn to the South Australian election campaign. I’m sure you have been following it very closely, and have been out door-knocking as well for Labor. A lot of focus, understandably on power prices, power reliability as well, after what happened less than two years ago with the state-wide blackout.

Today, however, the Liberals have been told to apologise by the Electoral Commission for an advertisement they have been running for how much they have claimed their policy would save households. Nonetheless do you think either side really has a plan that is going to bring power prices down?

WONG: Before I come to that can I respond to your point today which was happened in the Electoral Commission’s demand of Mr Steven Marshall that he retract and correct his inaccurate claim. There has been no more contentious issue here in South Australia than power prices. It is an issue of direct contention between the parties. You have a man who wants to be the premier, Steven Marshall, making claims he knows to be inaccurate, he knows to be misleading, they’ve been found to be so, and now he’s refusing to correct and retract as he has been demanded to do by the independent umpire.

This does go to this man’s fitness to govern. He ought to explain to people why he thinks he’s above the integrity body, why he’s above the Electoral Commission and doesn’t have to do what they say. I do find it extraordinary as a South Australian.

SPEERS: Whether his policy would bring prices down $50 or $300, the reason they are where they are after 16 years of Labor administration here in South Australia is clearly something that sits at Labor’s feet. So, with Jay Weatherill now promising in this campaign to go to a 75 per cent Renewable Energy Target do you think that is a good idea?

WONG: Yes I do because the cheapest new generation capacity is renewables.

It’s an interesting question you out, that this lies at Jay Weatherill’s feet. There is a problem in the National Electricity Market and we know that because people are nit investing in new generating capacity. That is a national problem, it is a problem of a lack of certainty.

SPEERS: There has been a lot of investment in wind and solar here.

WONG: In renewables.

SPEERS: Correct.

WONG: That’s right, because there is a market signal on that. But what investment have we had in new coal-fired capacity, if that is what the Turnbull Government is wanting to support?

SPEERS: We’ve got all this investment in renewables here in South Australia.

WONG: My point is this – you’ve got two-thirds of the existing generation capacity beyond its design life. You have a lack of a lack of certainty in the Federal Government, giving a signal for that investment. The question is, who has the best plan to fix this?

Now, I think Jay has laid out a very clear plan. We’ve seen some of the results of that. We know over the Summer just gone in fact South Australian power was more reliable than Victoria and New South Wales where we saw coal-fired power stations at Loy Yang and Liddell both trip. We know that the cheapest new generating capacity is renewables and what we have is Steven Marshall misleading people about a plan he doesn’t really have.

So, I think it is pretty clear there is only one party here that has a plan when it comes to energy, and that’s the Labor Party.

SPEERS: Penny Wong, if it is so good, and 75 per cent is a good target, why not have that federally? Why doesn’t Labor say that is what we should have as a national Renewable Energy Target.

WONG: Because South Australia is further down the track. The reality is that South Australia has been further down the track when it comes to this, partly because of the nature of the market we have.

I think what we should have nationally is a much clearer signal for investors. I’m waiting to see whether Malcolm actually gets anything done on, what did he call it? His National Electricity Guarantee?

SPEERS: National Energy Guarantee.

Let me turn finally to Labor’s big policy on abolishing the cash refunds for franking credits for those who pay little or no tax. The Government say this is going to affect quite a lot of pensioners, part-pensioners and indeed some 14,000 full pensioners. Why should they lose – for the full pensioners it is not a king’s ransom we’re talking about here – why should they be hit by Labor on this front?

WONG: I want to make a few points about this, the first point I’d make is that it is interesting to see the Liberal Party all of a sudden concerned about pensioners. They weren’t when they reduced the pension to 370,000 part-pensioners as a result of their changes to the pension assets test. And they have a new found interest in pensioners after trying to cut the pension in the 2014 Budget.

The first point is the Labor policy is not taking away dividend payments and there has been a lot of scare campaigning around that – that is not what the Labor policy is taking away. The second is we’re not taking away anybody’s pension. The third point is we’re not removing the capacity to reduce your taxable income through franking credits. What we are doing is saying where you have excess franking credits you don’t get a cheque from the ATO.

Now, Budgets are ultimately about choices and our judgment is a policy which disproportionately benefits those who are able to arrange their affairs in a way that minimises their taxable income and maximises their likelihood of a cash refund.

SPEERS: And I can understand that, but why not exempt those who are on a full pension? Just getting back to them – it may not be the bulk of the people here but it’s 14,000 full Age Pensioners. Why should they be affected by this?

WONG: It is a very small proportion and the vast majority of the people who are affected are the people who are not in those circumstances.

SPEERS: But you couldn’t give an exemption? If you’re on the full Age Pension getting a few extra bucks every week or so through this scheme, why not just give them an exemption?

WONG: We’re not stopping them getting dividend payments, what we’re saying is excess franking credits won’t be paid as a cash payment.

I would make this point, there have been a number of changes to the pension that the Government has either implemented or is seeking to implement. We’re giving notice of this. We’re saying this won’t take place until July 2019. That does give people the chance to organise their affairs so as to ensure they minimise any effect and people in the circumstances you’ve outlined to minimise any effect on their income.

But, as you know the vast majority of people who benefit from this are people on higher incomes.

SPEERS: Penny Wong, Shadow Foreign Minister, thanks for joining us this afternoon.

WONG: Good to speak with you.

Authorised by Noah Carroll ALP Canberra