6 September 2018




DAVID SPEERS: Penny Wong thanks very much for your time this afternoon. So this was Scott Morrison’s first major speech as Prime Minister, laying out his beliefs, his values. He said, “I don’t think you need to be taxed more for you to be taxed less.” “I don’t believe for someone to get ahead in life we have to pull others down.” He referred to Labor’s policy approach in particular. It is true, isn’t it, that Labor does want to tax high income earners more so that low income earners can be taxed less?

SENATOR PENNY WONG, LEADER OF THE OPPOSITION IN THE SENATE: You know what is true? Scott Morrison wants to tax banks less, wants to tax the big end of town less, while he’s cutting health and education, while he’s cutting hospitals and schools. That’s on the record.

SPEERS: They’ve dropped that policy for the big business company tax cuts.

WONG: Does anyone really trust him on that? This is a bloke that made this the centrepiece of his economic policy when he was Treasurer, the centrepiece of his budgets. He now wants us all to trust him and believe we shouldn’t be cutting tax for the big end of town? This is a bloke who voted against the Banking Royal Commission 26 times. I think he’s made his values pretty clear.

SPEERS: He also talks about the need to love every Australian, to bring the country together. Has that been your experience of Scott Morrison?

WONG: It hasn’t, and I think his position in how he dealt with things like marriage equality and other matters, it hasn’t been the case. And I don’t think you can talk about bringing people together if you’re cutting services in hospitals and schools that so many Australian rely on. That doesn’t bring people together, that just entrenches disadvantage and entrenches inequality.

SPEERS: But surely the sentiments we heard today from the Prime Minister are broadly ones you’d agree with aren’t they? Mateship, the need, as I say, to love each other, a fair go for people who have a go. It’s hard to disagree with some of these sentiments?

WONG: I judge Scott Morrison, and the Coalition Government, not by what speech he gives after he’s been put into the prime ministership after an extraordinary period of division which is still continuing, I judge him by what he has done. And what he has done is, as Treasurer, he wanted to cut company tax, he voted against a royal commission for the banks some 26 times, and he cut funding to schools and hospitals. I think that speaks to your values.

SPEERS: Before I come to your portfolio areas, can I just ask too about Peter Dutton? The former Border Force Commissioner, Roman Quaedvlieg says, he’s put a letter now to the Senate inquiry, suggesting that Peter Dutton’s office called, to request help to release an Italian au pair who had been detained at Brisbane Airport because the case involved “a friend of the minister”. Now, that’s despite Peter Dutton telling Parliament there was no personal connection with this case.

Now, Peter Dutton argues, he clearly believes Roman Quaedvlieg is out to damage him, and he’s working with Labor. What’s your response to that?

WONG: Mr Quaedvlieg has contradicted the minister’s assurance to the Parliament. That’s a very serious matter. You can’t mislead the Parliament. We are all expected, when we are ministers of the Crown, to be truthful in our answers to the Parliament and the answer Peter Dutton gave was that there was absolutely no personal connection. He categorically ruled that out. That is directly contradicted by the former ABF Commissioner’s evidence. So I think Mr Dutton has some explaining to do.

SPEERS: Is it a version of who do you believe here? Is there any evidence produced to suggest he was acting for a friend here, the minister?

WONG: It does seem from the evidence given to the inquiry that some access was given to people who were known to Mr Dutton or to his office when it comes to ministerial interventions. It was pretty clear that the Senate inquiry demonstrated there was a different standard or a different procedure in place.

The fundamental problem is this: under our system of government ministers have to tell the truth to the Parliament. They are accountable to the Australian people by virtue of their accountability to the Parliament. That is a fundamental feature of our democratic system.

The answer that Peter Dutton gave to the Parliament is contradicted by the answers that Mr Quaedvlieg has given. Mr Dutton has to explain that.

SPEERS: Let me turn to some foreign policy matters. The Pacific Islands Forum has wrapped up with a final communique and a Boe declaration which says “We reaffirm that climate change remains the single greatest threat to the livelihoods, security and wellbeing of the peoples of the Pacific and our commitment to progress the implementation of the Paris Agreement”.

Australia has signed up to this, the Australian Government. You’ve also supported this declaration and argued Scott Morrison should commit to genuine action on climate change. What action will Labor actually take? Is that clear yet?

WONG: I’d like to say first, and make a point that is very important, and that is, you can’t simply say you understand the Pacific’s concern policy about climate change, and then do nothing about it. Now Labor understands that.

The Morrison Government appears to be paralysed when it comes to action on climate change. They are so divided it has essentially led to another change in leadership inside the Coalition.

Pacific island nations have been consistent for many years that climate change is the single biggest threat, the single biggest security threat, the single biggest threat to their people’s wellbeing. It is a very important policy area for us to act upon and we know before the next election we will have to demonstrate to the Australian people what our policy plan is in circumstances where we have a situation where the Government has none. That is the sadness of all of this.

SPEERS: Yes, but my question is does Labor have a plan to actually achieve the targets you are talking about? The 45 per cent reduction in emissions? How can you do that?

WONG: You’re asking me to make sure that a week after the former prime minister of the country junked the National Energy Guarantee that we’ve got an alternative policy ready for me to have a long discussion with you. I think Mark Butler is doing a very good job in trying to pick up the pieces from what this Government has done, which is to smash energy policy and smash any way forward.

It is a real pity that we’ve seen this over the last 10 years – division inside the Liberal Party – holding back any sensible plan on climate change going forward. We’ve been open to bipartisanship, we’ve been open to being constructive and instead what we’ve seen is Tony Abbott, Eric Abetz, yet again spoiling any action on climate change.

SPEERS: I take your point that you were hoping, obviously, that the National Energy Guarantee would succeed.

WONG: I think the country was hoping for some sensible action on climate and energy. The country was hoping for that and instead what we got was Scott Morrison.

SPEERS: I’m just wondering where Labor goes now? Will you take to the election a detailed policy of how you do intend to achieve emissions reduction or is that something you would do in Government?

WONG: That’s a matter for Mark Butler and that’s a matter I have no doubt there’ll be more said on between now and the election. But we are serious about action on climate change. That’s not an unreasonable answer.

SPEERS: I’m not arguing that. Can I take you to another element of the Pacific declaration. Pacific leaders also want Australia, and everyone to contribute to a $2 billion climate resilience fund, to help island nations adapt to the impact of rising sea levels. It’s a little unclear how much Australia will contribute. Would a Labor Government be making a big contribution to that sort of fund?

WONG: Well, we’d certainly want to be doing a lot better than the Government when it comes to development assistance more broadly and to the Pacific. But we’ve seen $11 billion cut from the development budget under this government – $11 billion. We’re on track for our lowest level ever.

SPEERS: Not for the Pacific, we’re told, not for the Pacific?

WONG: Well, no, Julie Bishop to her credit, sought to protect it as much as she could. But you can’t completely protect a region when you’ve got $11 billion taken out of your development assistance budget, can you?

SPEERS: Okay, but would you put more money in?

WONG: Well hang on, let me finish. Not only we are we at the lowest level of development assistance as a proportion of national income ever, we’re on track to even lower amounts.

Now, we’ve said previously that we would put more into development than the current Government. The precise amount of that will be clear prior to the election. But I can tell you, looking at past action when I was Climate Minister, resilience, adaptation funding, recognising that people in the Pacific are already dealing with the frontline effects of climate change, was front and centre of our international policy. We worked very closely with Pacific island nations and worked on adaptation and resilience funding as well. So you would anticipate similar sorts of priorities from a Labor government were we to be elected.

SPEERS: But how will Australians feel, do you think, if there is a significant contribution under Labor to help the Pacific nations deal with climate mitigation? Some might say what about the farmers struggling with the drought here? Labor tells us that is also due to the impact of climate change. Shouldn’t we be looking after them as a priority?

WONG: We should look after our farmers as a priority, we’ve said that; certainly as a priority over the big banks and the big end of town, which is what Labor has been saying. But what I would say to Australians about development assistance is this: we have an interest in a neighbourhood that is secure, we have an interest in a neighbourhood that is increasingly prosperous. There are direct effects to Australia if the countries in our region are suffering the effects of climate change, are unable to adapt to them. So we have an interest, as well as an ethical interest, in ensuring that we can contribute to their development and to their resilience.

SPEERS: A final question Penny Wong. The Australian filmmaker James Ricketson, he’s been sentenced to six years in jail in Cambodia on espionage charges. His family has confirmed he won’t appeal. He will be seeking a pardon or clemency. I know you don’t want to politicise this issue and risk, in any way, his chances there, but are you satisfied with how the Australian Government has been handling this case?

WONG: First on Mr Ricketson, can I say we were deeply concerned by not only his conviction but the severity of his sentence. We are deeply concerned about his wellbeing and his health and we obviously share the concerns his family have expressed, and they’re obviously very distressed by these events.

The approach I’ve taken in this matter, as in all consular matters, is to focus on the wellbeing of the person concerned – in this case Mr Ricketson – and not to make any public comment that might lessen his chances, might worsen the outcomes for him. That’s the approach I would take.

Now I understand Marise Payne has indicated the Government will be supporting a plea for clemency, and can I be very clear that the Labor Opposition fully supports that. We would fully support any action the Australian Government takes to try and get a better outcome than the one Mr Ricketson currently has.

SPEERS: Shadow Foreign Minister Penny Wong. Appreciate your time. Thank you.

WONG: Thanks very much.

Authorised by Noah Carroll, ALP, Canberra.