10 March 2016




PETER VAN ONSELEN: We’re going to go straight to our guest, we’re expecting to hear from Malcolm Turnbull in the second half of the program, he’s due to give a media conference then, so as not to infringe on our time discussing all things political with the Labor Leader of the Senate and also the Shadow Trade spokeswoman, Penny Wong. We’re going to go to her now, she joins us live from Adelaide. Thanks very much for your company Senator.


VAN ONSELEN: Tony Windsor, he’s in the race, up against Barnaby Joyce. I for one think that he’s a damn good chance of winning that one. Is it a case of three years on, now that we’ve seen just how well Tony Abbott governed, he doesn’t look so bad in hindsight having backed Julia Gillard, rather than Tony Abbott, going back to 2010.

WONG: Obviously that would be my view, but I’d say this about Tony, I think this is what most people would say about him: he’s a very decent man. He is very decent man and he was a very good representative, somebody really plugged into his local community. When I dealt with him as a minister in the Rudd and Gillard Governments he was decent, we didn’t always agree, but he always behaved really professionally and respectfully and a really good bloke to deal with. I thought it was pretty interesting the extent to which the Government obviously are worried about it, they came out of the blocks pretty quickly, didn’t they? They play the man and have a go at him personally. I think that really says something about their concern about this match up.

KRISTINA KENEALLY: One issue, and he spoke about many issues, Penny Wong, in a nearly hour long press conference, but one issue he spoke to was same-sex marriage. He actually backed in a plebiscite, said he thought the people should have a chance to have a say on this. Obviously the Labor Party has a very different view. Do you think he should do more than just say I’m going to poll my electorate on this issue? Should he come out now that he’s running in a different context and have a position?

WONG: Well, it’s up to him to work through his position. You know what my position is and he would know what my position is and I’m always happy to have a discussion with him or any other Member of Parliament. I think it has been interesting in these last weeks though who has come out a plebiscite. We saw Nick Greiner come out against a plebiscite. We’ve seen Alan Jones, not known for his sort of left wing views, also come out against it. And I think that the problem that Malcolm Turnbull faces is that he is on the record both publicly and privately as opposing a plebiscite, as saying it’s not the way to go and everybody knows he’s been pushed there by the right wing of the Liberal Party. I can tell you there are people across Australia in the gay and lesbian community and our friends and families who are very worried about the sort of divisive and hateful language that may be unleashed in the context of a plebiscite. We’ve seen it too many times.

VAN ONSELEN: Penny Wong, you know I’ve spoken about that before and I’d rather just see this done by Parliament, rather than done by a plebiscite. That said though, can you just clarify for us, if the Government gets its way, and we’re really talking about therefore if they win the election, there’s a few ifs in it, but if they get their way and there is a plebiscite, is Labor going to ultimately just go along with it then, even though you obviously disagree with it? I guess my question is, there’s no chance is there that Labor’s going to threaten to block legislation in the Parliament that would sort of be mixed in with having a plebiscite, it’s just a case of you’d rather get on with it now via the Parliamentary process. Is that right?

WONG: What I’ll be doing and what Labor will be doing, we’ll be campaigning for a Labor Government, which will ensure that we can deal with this in the way it ought be dealt with, which is a bill through the Parliament within the first 100 days. That’s what I’m going to be focused on-

VAN ONSELEN: -But if you don’t get your way on that, it’s a fair question. If you don’t get your way on that you’re not going to do anything to block having the plebiscite, which would therefor presumably delay getting a same-sex marriage vote going, even though, as I keep saying, I know that your preferred option is the same that is mine, which is to see the Parliament decide.

WONG: Sure, it’s a fair question for you to ask and it’s a fair answer for me to say I’m not focused on a Plan B. The Plan A is to elect a Labor Government and to deal with it in the appropriate way. And you’re also asking me – apart from the obvious hypothetical – the Government can’t decide what it’s position is, other than the sort of proposition in general that they want a plebiscite. We saw, I think, on your program on the weekend, George Brandis assert one set of propositions, the timing of a plebiscite and a bill which was then knocked down by Malcolm Turnbull, I think within hours. So the government is all over the place on this issue as well. We are very clear about our position and we will continue to prosecute it and advocate for it all the way to election day.

KENEALLY: Penny Wong can I take you to the timing of the election? Of course we are talking about this all week and we will probably talk about it to the very day that the Prime Minister announces it, but reports today that Liberal backbencher Russell Broadbent has told the Herald Sun that an eight week campaign would be the longest suicide note since the Roman Empire. It also strikes me though that an eight week campaign could also be enough time for the government to build up a head of steam on a scare campaign on negative gearing. What is Labor going to do to ensure that that scare campaign doesn’t build up that head of steam?

WONG: First on Russell’s comments. I think it is pretty interesting how all over the place the government appears to be on this. I have to say I had assumed when they went ahead with the Senate electoral law changes that they had a clear strategy about when they wanted the election. It appears that it is still up in the air and you’ve got government backbenchers raising real concerns. So I think that is a very interesting proposition. In terms of the election campaign and you raise the possibility or the likelihood of a scare campaign, I would say we expect a scare campaign because at the moment the government hasn’t got anything positive to say. We know that the only thing that they did advocate for consistently for a period of time was the GST. That was the Plan A. They don’t have a Plan B and the only Plan B appears to be an inaccurate scare campaign against a set of sensible propositions Labor has put forward. It really is I think demonstrative of how far Malcolm Turnbull has shifted. You think about what he said when he became Prime Minister when he said we have to have the economic leadership the nation needs, when he chided Labor for opposing the GST, saying we have to treat the Australian people as intelligent. Well anybody who has been watching him lately and his ministers would see he is really trying to revert to a kind of imitation of Tony Abbott when it comes to focusing on the negative.

VAN ONSELEN: Let me ask you about some people whose careers are going in the other direction. We’ve got the member for Barton for the Liberal party is not even going to bother to contest. Barnaby Joyce, I don’t know how he is going to be Deputy Prime Minister when he is going to have to work very hard internally to try and hold onto that seat. Teresa Gambaro in the seat of Brisbane has announced that she is departing politics as well. Are these rats deserting a sinking ship – probably can’t throw Barnaby Joyce in category – or is this just the kind of renewal that you would expect from any good government, because there has been significant renewal on the front bench, more I would argue than on the Labor Party side?

WONG: The person I would comment on is Teresa Gambaro. She has been an MP for some 18 years first for Petrie and now the seat of Brisbane. I would say she has been one of the few people on the Coalition side to come out reasonably early on marriage equality.

VAN ONSELEN: Madness that she is not on the front bench, frankly.

WONG: Obviously we don’t sit in the party room or caucus with people but I have to say I have often looked at her and wondered why she hasn’t been promoted, particularly given the calibre of some of the colleagues on the front bench on the other side. But I wish her well and I hope that we have got an opportunity now to win the seat of Brisbane with Pat, I think he is a great candidate.

KENEALLY: Can I take you, Penny Wong, to the fact that we did mark International Women’s Day this week and have had a number of speeches, notably one yesterday, Julie Bishop returning to a theme that we have discussed for the past year quite intensively in Australia and that is domestic violence. What do you make of reports that public servants in the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet are having their domestic violence leave cut?

WONG: I think one of the things a government can do when it comes to gender equity generally is to make sure it leads by example and make sure it treats its employees in the way that it is seeking to get the private sector to treat its employees. And I think it is really disappointing that this government fails to do that. An example is the cleaning guidelines that they have removed which have meant that cleaners for Parliament house and other departments won’t get the same sort of wage increases that they should, in fact they get a wage cut. In terms of domestic violence leave it is disappointing that the government’s enterprise bargaining policy doesn’t allow people to get that entitlement into their enterprise bargaining agreements. So people can’t put that on the table as a new condition they want. I think what Julie and others should be arguing for is really Labor’s position which is leave for people who are the victims of family and domestic violence should be a general standard and we should start with it in the public sector.

VAN ONSELEN: Penny Wong I have said that I am in favour of doing something about negative gearing, praising Labor’s scheme for at least getting the debate going. But it looks like this 12 page document has more holes in it than Swiss cheese. There are all sorts of questions that the Prime Minister was getting stuck into in question time in the lower house, he presumably will again next week when Parliament returns. Isn’t there a risk, and this isn’t necessarily a reason not to do it, don’t get me wrong, but isn’t there a political risk in the modern era that they are going to be able to scare the bejeesus out of anyone that owns a home that Labor is going to send property prices heading south. That after all is the purpose of the scheme, to make property more affordable for the rest of Australia.

WONG: The first proposition, it is rare that you go a week or two without another study talking about housing affordability in this country and I think the very simple proposition is this. Do we really think that we should continue to ensure taxpayers give more assistance to somebody buying their fifth, sixth or seventh house than a first home buyer? I don’t think it is a sustainable position. We are happy to argue through the reasons why this is a good policy. The government’s scare campaign is unfounded. It isn’t what respected economists say, it isn’t what a whole range of economic studies say. What they are searching for is a scare campaign. What I would say to you and other members of the media is I think it is time the media also held the government to account. Malcolm Turnbull should be putting forward his policy. Instead what we are seeing is some ridiculous propositions. What did Peter Dutton say? That this will crash the economy? I mean, really, it is ridiculous.

KENEALLY: But yesterday Penny Wong we heard Bill Shorten saying the same thing you have just said, that Malcolm Turnbull should bring forward his economic plans, he should put them out there. But then in the next breath Bill was saying they shouldn’t go early to a budget. Is he trying to have it both ways there? Wouldn’t you welcome an early budget, wouldn’t you want to have the detail out there a bit earlier?

WONG: I am happy to talk about the budget. I was the finance minister and I have got to say having the federal budget date being bounced around because the government can’t work out which timing best suits its political agenda, because they are trying to work out when they want the election, that is not a responsible way in which to run government nor to run the budget. This is the single biggest set of economic decisions a government makes, hundreds of billions of dollars of expenditure, economic policy settings and they want to bounce the date around because they are not sure which we can they reckon might suit them. It really does say something about the chaos that appears to be at the heart of the government at the moment.

VAN ONSELEN: Speaking of politicisation which is what we were talking about in terms of bouncing around the budget, what about taxpayer funded advertising Penny Wong when it comes to things like the innovation scheme. Now there is taxpayer funded advertising and then there is taxpayer funded advertising. Both sides do it. I would argue that both sides do it too much, I would argue that both sides do it much more than voters would like. But surely there has to at least be some information included in it. For all the negatives of the taxpayer funded campaign on WorkChoices there were pages and pages of detail about WorkChoices – frankly I’m not sure that helped them in the end. But on this one we are talking about five-word slogans about innovation and not very innovative either on bus shelters and that kind of thing. We’ll Labor make a firm commitment to tone down or at least create some particular rules around these taxpayer funded advertisements, because I think it really gives voters you know what.

WONG: I would agree with that, I think that particular set of advertising, as you say, is political advertising rather than actually information based advertising. In my area of trade policy they wanted to advertise the China free trade agreement and I asked the Department who the target audience was and it just happened to be everybody over 18, i.e. everyone who voted. I pointed out that as much as it is good to talk about trade with China, most individuals are unlikely to actually utilise the trade agreement. You should be focusing on exporters and firms who could export whereas it was clear the target audience was voters.

VAN ONSELEN: Surely Labor will commit to doing something and enshrining this because I have heard it for literally about 10 or 15 years now from both sides of politics, we will fix it when we get there, no one ever does.

WONG: Well that is not true. In government we did put in place a more rigorous set of guidelines including the requirement of the provision of information as you have discussed. I’m sure before the election you will see more accountability announcements from the Labor Party.

KENEALLY: Penny Wong yesterday Malcolm Turnbull was in Whyalla – apparently it hasn’t been wiped out – what a relief and we escaped having Craig Emerson sing on To The Point yesterday, I thought that was remarkable. But back to my more serious question. The Prime Minister did make an announcement about ordering significant kilometres of rail track for the ARTC. You’re from South Australia, you’ve got to welcome this injection of government business into the steelworks there in South Australia.

WONG: Look I welcome any decision which helps South Australian jobs. It is a bit belated from the Liberal party. We have seen how they approached the auto sector, we’ve seen them walk away from their commitment, very clear commitment before the last election to build the submarines in Australia. We’ve seen them fudge their words when it comes to their shipbuilding promises. But of course anything which assists South Australian jobs given the economic transition my state is going through, we are not going to criticise that. I think really though the steel industry and Arrium in particular will need more than one announceable and one decision. Labor has said we should look at the port, the Whyalla Port as the state government has suggested. We are also saying there really needs to be a broader look at the Australian steel industry, at anti-dumping, because there are a whole range of strategic issues which should be addressed. But of course anything that helps jobs in my state we welcome even if it is a belated attention to jobs here in South Australia.

VAN ONSELEN: Penny Wong we appreciate you joining us on To The Point, thanks for your company.

WONG: Good to be with you.