E&OE - PROOF ONLY
SABRA LANE: Penny Wong, thanks for talking to 730.
SENATOR PENNY WONG, LEADER OF THE OPPOSITION IN THE SENATE: Good to be with you.
LANE: The details of the Trans Pacific Partnership are now out. I don’t presume you’ve had time to read all 6,000 pages, but is Labor inclined to support it?
WONG: Look, we will study the detail, we are very conscious of the benefits of trade liberalisation and certainly this is an agreement which covers a very large part of the global economy. But we’ll study the detail closely, we are as always, concerned by the inclusion of an Investor State Dispute Settlement clause. We think Andrew Robb should have done what John Howard did when it came to the US Free Trade Agreement, which was to refuse to include one. But we certainly will study the detail and come to a view about our position.
LANE: How long do you think Labor will need to examine this before giving an indication as to whether you will support it or not?
WONG: Well, look, there are certainly quite a lot of complex aspects to this agreement. One of them, of course, is the cost of and availability of medicines. Andrew Robb assures Australians he hasn’t done anything in this agreement which would impact upon the price of medicine, nor the accessibility of medicine. We will certainly be examining in detail that aspect of the agreement to make sure what he said is true.
LANE: It has been suggested that the Government’s independent economic adviser, the Productivity Commission, be given the job to look at this. It would take the Commission, I understand, four or five months. Is that something you would like to see happen, or do you trust Parliament’s committees on treaties to do the job here?
WONG: Look, I certainly think having a more rigorous assessment of the economic benefits of trade agreements would be helpful to the public discussion of it. Obviously it is a matter for the Government how it does that, but I think we’ve seen over recent months a bit of a tendency, particularly from the former Prime Minister, Mr Abbott, of having a go at anybody who raised concerns about trade agreements, and I think, as somebody who is very supportive of the benefits of trade for working people, for jobs in this country, I think it would be a good thing if instead of having a go at people who raised concerns, the Government could actually address their concerns carefully, and in terms of the economic benefits, I think it would be a good thing if the Government could put on the table the evidence about the benefits of the agreement they’ve negotiated.
LANE: Does Labor want this deal to succeed? Will you work with the Government to bring it about?
WONG: We want good trade agreements to succeed. We want trade liberalisation that works, as it should, to bring about benefits in terms of jobs and better wages and conditions, and better economic opportunities for Australians, that’s always been Labor’s position. That’s the position we’ve held for some 40 years.
LANE: The agreement includes clauses regarding Investor State Dispute Settlements, which basically allows companies to sue governments if public policies end up costing them money. Is Labor satisfied with the protections there for plain packaged cigarettes?
WONG: Well, I need to understand very clearly how those protections will operate and if they are water tight, and I think Australians will want to understand that. Let me make this point on these clauses: if we were in government, we would not include them. We think they are bad policy. There is no sensible reason, as the High Court Chief Justice has made clear, there is no sensible reason for including them in trade agreements in a way that seeks to override future domestic law.
LANE: You’ve revealed today that Labor will try to amend the Government’s bill on foreign investment review to scrap the new threshold that it wants in place to trigger FIRB scrutiny of agribusiness purchases. They want that to be $55 million, Labor disagrees. Why, given that farming communities were happy with that?
WONG: Well, Malcolm Turnbull talks a lot about the future, but what he has got is a back to the future, a backward-looking policy for Australia. At a time when we need massive investment in our agricultural industries, in our food processing industries, at a time when foreign investment would help create more jobs and greater economic opportunities here in Australia, he is putting forward legislation that makes it harder for very much needed foreign investment to flow both into our agribusiness sector and also into our agriculture more generally.
LANE: But why the opposition given that farming communities support this?
WONG: Well, let’s understand what Malcolm Turnbull’s backward investment policy would mean. It would mean that investment in agribusiness would be, for a foreign investor, would be harder than investment in defence or military industries.
Now, there is no public policy rationale for that. That is all about a bit of National Party politics for Barnaby Joyce. It doesn’t make economic sense.
LANE: Now, Penny Wong, there is a lot of talk about tax reform at the moment to help Federal and State Governments find more money to pay for policies. You were the Finance Minister in the Gillard Government that signed deals with state governments for Gonski, for example. It signed deals for a big increase in spending here without fully explaining where the money comes from. How responsible are you for the problem that governments face now?
WONG: Well, hang on, there is a fair bit of Liberal spin in that question, if I may say. We did lay out a funding plan for NDIS and for Gonski and we said-
LANE: -But Labor never explained where the money would come from.
WONG: Well, I don’t agree with that. We did set out a 10 year funding plan in the Budget. But having said that, we recognise, unlike the Liberals did when they were in opposition, we recognise the fiscal challenge the country faces, we recognised there are problems on the revenue side in particular, we recognise the need for a responsible approach to fiscal policy and to a responsible discussion about tax reform, and as Chris Bowen has indicated we are up for that.
LANE: Well, is Labor going to then support the funding for years five and six of Gonski and explain where all the money is going to come from?
WONG: Well, what we are not going to do is support a higher GST or a broader-based GST which as we have seen from reports released over the last couple of days, is a regressive tax which massively hits low income earners.
Now, on Gonski, I think there is a very important economic imperative here to improve the nation’s schools. We believe it is critical to the future prosperity of the nation, to ensure not only that every child has the opportunity to be the best of who they are, but so that we can continue to compete in an increasingly competitive global economy.
Now, we will have more to say about these and other policies ahead of the election, but let’s remember the reason why the Gonski reforms were important, is they were about making sure that children across this nation could be the best of who they are and they could get the education that they deserve.
LANE: Senator Penny Wong, thanks for talking to 730.
WONG: Good to speak with you.