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Transcript of interview with Leigh Sales: ABC 7:30: 8 September 2015: China-Australia Free Trade Agreement; Tony Abbott's Royal Commission; Syrian refugee crisis.

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SUBJECT/S: China-Australia Free Trade Agreement; Tony Abbott’s Royal Commission; Syrian refugee crisis.

LEIGH SALES: The Abbott Government is attempting to escalate the pressure on Labor over a huge free trade agreement with China. Today the Prime Minister introduced a Parliamentary motion backing the FTA and called on Labor to support it. But the Opposition Leader Bill Shorten has concerns about labour market rules in the deal, even though numerous State Labor premiers and leading Labor luminaries believe there are sufficient safeguards. Joining me now is Senator Penny Wong, the Shadow Minister for Trade and the Leader of the Opposition in the Senate.

Senator, the Prime Minister's made it clear that the free trade agreement that's on the table is the one that's going to eventually be put to a vote. Will Labor back it or not?

SENATOR PENNY WONG, LEADER OF THE OPPOSITION IN THE SENATE: First good to be with you, Leigh. Let’s start at the very beginning. We are supporters of trade liberalisation. We have been for decades and we particularly understand the importance of China and the China Free Trade Agreement. Regrettably, the agreement that Tony Abbott has brought home lacks what we regard as critical safeguards when it comes to Australian jobs.

Now what we've said is we want to work with the Government to build safeguards around that agreement to ensure it can get bipartisan support. But instead of the Prime Minister being prepared to do what John Howard did, which was to sit down with the Opposition, in the free trade agreement with the United States, which is what John Howard did, we’ve got the Prime Minister playing stunts in the House of Representatives, as you outlined in your opening.

SALES: But given what he has said, which is that he's not going to negotiate on it as you point out, then how far are you prepared to push your opposition. Are you going to push it to the point where you won't vote for the entire deal?

WONG: The only person who is putting at risk the effective implementation of the China Free Trade Agreement is Tony Abbott. We have said we are willing to sit down with you and find a way through this.

SALES: But he said that he's not interested in doing that, so I'm asking pragmatically what's your next step?

WONG: We will continue to press for this Prime Minister to stop behaving like a partisan brawler and behave more like a Prime Minister. There have been legitimate concerns raised, Leigh. I know that people want to gloss over this and the Government doesn't want to answer key questions about the agreements, key concerns about the agreement. There have been legitimate concerns raised.

Instead of answering these in an adult way, we've got a Prime Minister who yells at everybody, demands that people just fall into line and refuses, as I said, to do what John Howard did, which is to sit down with the Opposition, to do what is in the national interest, which is to find a bipartisan way through on this.

SALES: In terms of those concerns, the Labor premiers of Victoria, South Australia and Queensland are in favour of this FTA. It also has the backing of the former Labor Prime Minister Bob Hawke, the former Labor Foreign Minister Bob Carr and the former Trade Minister Simon Crean. Why should viewers believe all of those people are wrong and Bill Shorten's right?

WONG: First, I think what you have outlined demonstrates Labor's long commitment to trade liberalisation and a very deep understanding of the importance of China and this trade agreement to Australian jobs. But we are standing up for Australian jobs when it comes to this agreement-

SALES: -Sorry to get back to my central point, why are all those people wrong and you guys right?

WONG: What I'd say to you is, why don't we look at the text of the agreement. It makes very clear, makes very clear, that labour market testing is not required in a range of circumstances. We think we can build safeguards around that.

SALES: Sorry, if I can pick you up, Bob Carr says our analysis of the FTA is that an incoming Labor Government would have all the mechanisms it needs to protect Australian workers?

WONG: And Bob Carr is right, there are things governments can do to protect Australian workers in ways that are consistent with the Free Trade Agreement and that's the basis on which we're prepared to negotiate with Tony Abbott.

I say this again, we understand the importance of the China Free Trade Agreement, but we will continue to stand up for maximising Australian jobs and minimising the exploitation of workers who come into this country. It is Tony Abbott who is standing in the way of a successful implementation of the China Free Trade Agreement because he stubbornly refuses to come to the negotiating table.

SALES: On another matter, Labor's Senate motion urging the Governor-General to sack the Trade Unions Royal Commissioner Dyson Heydon has been lost. Are you now then at the end of the road on your efforts to have him stand down?

WONG: Well, let's be clear what happened with that motion. It was actually tied. The Senate is evenly divided on this and the -

SALES: But that means it's a loss though according to the rules.

WONG: Correct. We require a majority, it was tied. The Senate is evenly divided on this on, just in the way Tony Abbott's Royal Commission is dividing many people and the way Tony Abbott divides the country.

SALES: So are you at the end of the road then?

WONG: I would say this to you, I think it is very clear that not only this vote today but the continued coverage of this issue, that many Australians are deeply uncomfortable with this politicised Royal Commission.

SALES: What avenues are open to you though?

WONG: Let's remember the genesis of the Royal Commission was discredited and false allegations against Labor Prime Minister Julia Gillard. So, we have a situation where you've got a politically motivated Commission, Mr Heydon hand-picked by the Prime Minister. Who then sees fit, he then sees fit, to headline a Liberal Party function and then tells the Australian people that doesn't demonstrate political bias because it wasn't actually a Liberal Party event.

SALES: Judges have to sit cases all the time-

WONG: He's not a judge. He's a Royal Commissioner.

SALES: Royal commissioners, judges, sit and listen to matters about which I'm sure they have personal opinions all the time, part of the job is putting aside your personal opinions. Why do you think that Dyson Heydon, a former Justice of the High Court of Australia is incapable of that?

WONG: Two things: first, he's not sitting as a judge, he's sitting as a Royal Commissioner which is hand-picked by Tony Abbott, so it's creature of the Executive, it's not a separate body, it's not an independent judicial body.

The second point I'd make is, I think Mr Heydon himself has demonstrated by his actions, a judgment which most Australians don't agree with. I don't think it is a logical position to say “I might have accepted an invitation to speak at a Liberal Party fundraiser, the invitation has Liberal logo on it and all the donation details are there, but part of the reason I think there's no appearance of bias is it wasn't really a Liberal Party event.” I just don't think that passes any sort of logical test.

SALES: Just finally, before you go, on the issue of refugees, Labor wants an additional intake of 10,000 people. How did you settle on that number?

WONG: First, can I say this, I don't think any Australian, except some of those who are perhaps - Mr Bernardi and others - but I don't think Australians looking at the crisis that has unfolded in Syria, is anything other than moved and appalled. Obviously Australians have responded with great compassion. I think that's given many people great heart over the last few days.

Labor has said we want an immediate increase of 10,000. Obviously we're prepared to work with the Government. If they think there should be additional intake on top of that that's certainly something we're prepared to work with them over.

SALES: Why did you think about 10,000 was about right?

WONG: I think these are judgments you make about what the Australian intake should be in the immediate term but as I said, and I think as Bill Shorten and Tanya Plibersek have said, there's obviously many millions of people displaced.

Australians, I think, are willing to make a contribution to dealing with this extraordinary humanitarian crisis and we're willing to work with the Government.

SALES: Senator Wong, thank you very much for your time.

WONG: Good to speak with you.