16 April 2016




PATRICIA KARVELAS: Penny Wong is the Shadow Trade Minister and the Leader of the Opposition in the Senate. Senator, welcome back to RN Drive.




KARVELAS: Firstly to industrial relations and the Senate next week. The Government says the ABCC and the Registered Organisations bills are its priorities, but will you try to outmanoeuvre them and bring forward the vote on those bills in the Senate?


WONG: Look, we have a consistent position on these bills. We have been very clear about our opposition to the ABCC. I’d make just two points about that: it’s a bill which gives workers in the construction industry fewer rights than people who are accused of crimes such as drug dealing, and in terms of productivity the facts are that productivity the construction industry has actually improved since the abolition of the ABCC.


So we are consistent in our opposition to it. What I have made clear, and Labor has made clear, is that we won’t be delaying this bill, we’re happy for it to come to a vote. Our position is consistent. I know that the Prime Minister wants to create a big show and bring everyone back to Canberra so he can get the basis of a double dissolution trigger. Well, we’re not afraid of an election, so we’re happy to vote on the bill.


KARVELAS: If you manage to cut short the debate and force votes on these bills you’ll be handing Malcolm Turnbull his double dissolution triggers, as you just said, earlier than expected. What’s the payoff for Labor?

WONG: We’re not going to be stopping others from speaking, but we will be quite clear we’re not going to be delaying debate and if the Senate is able to come to a vote we’re quite willing to have a vote on these. We’re not going to run away from an election, we want to go to the election with our positive plans and they’ll be in stark contrast to a government that is all over the place on anything to do with the economy and certainly on health and education.


KARVELAS: Will you support Jacquie Lambie’s call to hold off the debate of the other bills and prioritise a vote on the Road Safety Remuneration Tribunal? The Government’s Deputy Leader in the Senate, Mathias Cormann, told me last night on this program the ABCC debate will not be paused.


WONG: Look, ultimately the Government lists the bills, that’s why they’ve brought everybody back to Canberra. I haven’t had an indication about any change in order of debate. Obviously, ultimately the Senate can determine it, but certainly in relation to the ABCC Bill we’re not in the business of delaying a vote on that or debating that endlessly. If Mr Turnbull wants an election Labor’s ready for an election and it’ll be about jobs, health and education.


KARVELAS: So if you force this bill on earlier, and a vote on the ABCC Bill on earlier, you’re effectively stopping any negotiating, aren’t you with Senators? Because clearly the Government needs to get six to get the ABCC Bill through, it needs to negotiate, it can’t go straight in and have a vote when none of that deal making has actually happened yet.

WONG: We seek to be as cooperative as we are able with the crossbench and indeed with the Government when that is appropriate and if people put a view to us about timing, we’ll obviously listen to that. The point I’m making is that we’re not going to see Labor lengthening the debate on this bill. If the Government wants to try and negotiate it should put to the Senate and the Opposition that it wants to take a bit of a break and try and negotiate. I have to say they’ve had a lot of weeks to do it though and they haven’t seemed to have made that a priority. The priority seems to have been the political positioning around a trigger for an early election, that’s the only focus that the Government seemed to have had over these past few weeks.


KARVELAS: So if you get to do this all quickly then and force on a vote, how soon do you think you could wrap it all up and get out of Canberra?


WONG: You keep saying “force on a vote” and I just want to make it clear again, we won’t be extending the debate. Ultimately it’s up to others in the Senate if they want to extend the debate, but we won’t be extending the debate, we’re happy to have a vote. In terms of how long will the Senate sit, that’s a very good question, because so far the Government has been very lacking in detail about what it wants debated. It’s brought forward the Budget, it’s required the Senate to sit by proroguing the Parliament and opening the Parliament again. It’s a pretty extraordinary set of procedures in order to get us all back. They certainly have a plan for a press conference and a plan for a stunt, I’m not sure if they’ve got a plan for a Parliamentary sitting.


KARVELAS: So what is your plan? You’re not being very clear on whether you want to bring on a vote or not.

WONG: We’re happy to have a vote.


KARVELAS: So you do want a vote?


WONG: We’re happy to have a vote. We’re not in the business of gagging people who want to make a contribution, and I assume that some of the crossbench will want to make a contribution, but we’re happy to have a vote. As I said we’re not afraid of a double dissolution election that Mr Turnbull says he wants.


KARVELAS: On RN Drive Penny Wong is my guest, she’s the Shadow Trade Minister and the Leader of the Opposition in the Senate. Our number here is 0418 226 576, if you’re not out to dinner yet, or if you’re not at the pub, or doing something really fun, text me because I’m here. The Government today announced it will activate the Fair Entitlements Guarantees Scheme to pay out some of the $74 million owed to sacked Queensland Nickel workers. The Government MP up in Townsville Ewan Jones shed some tears at the announcement; this was Labor’s Employment spokesman Brendan O’Connor’s response:


O’CONNOR: It was quite pathetic to see the Member for Herbert, Ewan Jones, cry crocodile tears today. Because Ewan Jones, along with Malcolm Turnbull and Senator Cash, voted to cut the Fair Entitlements Guarantee down to sixteen weeks.


KARVELAS: And the Prime Minister in turn responded from China.


TURNBULL: He’s wept for a day, but he has worked for months and months and months for those workers and Brendan O’Connor’s comments are, they’re very unworthy and they show, frankly, he lacks the heart, he lacks the compassion that all of us should have.


KARVELAS:  Doesn’t Brendan O’Connor come out of this looking a bit like a bully boy?


WONG: Not at all, I think that what Brendan is pointing out is the hypocrisy. You can’t say on the one hand I feel your pain, but at the same time in the Parliament vote to reduce entitlements to workers in this situation. That’s what all of the Coalition MPs have done, that’s the point Brendan’s making.


KARVELAS: But do you think Ewan Jones was crying crocodile tears? He has worked hard on this issue.

WONG: I haven’t spoken to Mr Jones, I’m making the point that Brendan is making, that there’s no point in Coalition MPs telling people that they really care about what happens to them when companies go belly up, but at the same time walking into the Parliament and putting their hand up, or walking over to the side of the Parliament to vote for a bill that reduces the entitlements for workers in precisely this situation. That is a Tony Abbott position, that Malcolm Turnbull has retained and it is workers such as those at QNI who would lose money as a result of this policy. Now we have continued in the Senate to oppose it because we understand, just as those workers at QNI are suffering, so too many workers when companies do take a turn for the worse and that’s why we have this scheme to try and ensure people get the entitlements that they’re entitled to.


KARVELAS: And just on China, as we know the Prime Minister is in China for the first time in that capacity as Prime Minister. The state owned Chinese media have warned him of economic risks if he rocks the boat on the South China Sea. Is Malcolm Turnbull doing enough on this front to have your support?


WONG: Labor has a clear view, which I think is the same as the Prime Minister’s, that the South China Sea tensions should be resolved peacefully, they should be resolved in accordance with international law. We’ve got an important trading relationship with China, we’ve got an important diplomatic relationship with China. And Mr Turnbull I’m sure, like any Prime Minister, will articulate our interests in respect of both of those relationships.


KARVELAS: Realistically what can Mr Turnbull achieve in terms of the South China Sea on this visit?


WONG: We always have to, whether it’s a Labor or a Coalition Prime Minister, continue to articulate our views on these and other issues. China is a very important trading partner, China is a very important diplomatic relationship, China obviously continues to rise both economically and strategically. And we will continue to ensure, whether it’s Labor or Liberal in power that that relationship reflects Australia’s national interests.


KARVELAS: And Josh Frydenberg has told the ABC that Mr Turnbull did lobby the Chinese Premier about the global oversupply of steel. That’s what Bill Shorten was calling for, wasn’t it?

WONG: I’d make a couple of points about that, the first: it’s good that he raised it, but it took a fair bit of pressure, didn’t it? We were told by the Government a few days ago that this wasn’t a priority and of course there was the response from the Labor Party, we said you should be raising it, we’ve got workers losing their jobs now, workers facing the risk of losing their jobs, you should be raising it.


I’d make that point, and second: obviously it’s a good thing he’s finally raised it. I await, and I’m sure everybody awaits, evidence of how effective it was, because certainly many workers, particularly in South Australia, but also nationally, are facing real challenges in the steel sector. 


KARVELAS: And on a completely different topic, there have been reports this week that the Catholic Church pressured big corporations like Telstra and Qantas, SBS even, to drop their support for marriage equality. Although Telstra says it just wanted to give the plebiscite some clear air and didn’t want to get involved, is it fair enough for an organisation to lobby businesses like that? I mean these are big sophisticated people making business decisions, they can stand up for themselves can’t they?


WONG: Then they should, and I think the problem here is, and I’m obviously only going off what’s in the media and public statements, but what we appear to see is Telstra standing for the values it says it holds and if it holds certain values it should stand up for them. And I think this is a test of leadership for Telstra, but more broadly a test for corporate Australia, and if people in corporate Australia are not prepared to stand up for the values they believe in when they come under pressure it really does show us the risks of the plebiscite that Malcolm Turnbull wants to foist upon our community.


KARVELAS: I think it’s a really interesting subject about the role of corporations in all of this. Why do you think they have such an important role in all of this? Shouldn’t they just be running their businesses and keeping out of social issues?


WONG: I think it goes back to what do particular corporations say its values are, what does it say its values are. And Telstra says it stands for diversity, which I assume is a reflection of its customers, but also its workers, its employees. And I think what has been disappointing is that the public evidence is that they are not standing by the values they say they hold and I think corporate Australia really does need to reflect upon their leadership role. You know my position on marriage equality, but more importantly I think that respectful debate is not going to come where you see corporations tapping the mat when they come under a bit of pressure. 


KARVELAS: Penny Wong, thanks for joining me on Friday night. Have a good weekend.


WONG: You too.