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Transcript of press conference: Canberra, ACT: 24 May 2016: Nova Peris, Liberal Party lies and scare campaigns; Free Enterprise Foundation; electoral donations; anti-discrimination exemptions

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SUBJECT/S: Nova Peris; Liberal Party lies and scare campaigns; Free Enterprise Foundation; electoral donations; anti-discrimination exemptions.

SENATOR PENNY WONG, LEADER OF THE OPPOSITION IN THE SENATE: A few comments this afternoon, first in relation to Senator Nova Peris. Senator Peris has made a difficult personal decision in consultation with her family which she has made public and I refer you to her statement. She has indicated that she is choosing not to recontest her Senate seat in the upcoming Federal election.

I want to add my comments to those that Bill Shorten has already made, to say this about Senator Nova Peris: She has been a trailblazer. She has been a champion of change. She has been a champion in her chosen sports. She has been an Australian champion and she has been particularly a champion for her people. She's made an important contribution and we wish her all the very best in whatever endeavours she chooses to undertake in her future.

I do want to thank her, as the Senate Leader, for her service to the people of the Northern Territory and to the Labor Party. I have no doubt that she will continue to be that champion of change that she has always been throughout her working career.

Next I want to talk about the press conference that we've just witnessed by Senator Cormann and the Treasurer and I think really only a few things need to be said. First, what a debacle. That was a debacle of a press conference. We had the Treasurer and the Finance Minister unable to maintain the same numbers from the beginning of the press conference to the end, unable to maintain the position that they started with throughout the press conference.

Quite an extraordinary press conference by them and we learnt a few things out of it I think. We learnt that they are happy to make things up. We learnt that they are happy to have the same aspirational target for foreign aid spending but attribute a different number depending on whether they're looking at the Liberal and National Parties or the Labor Party and they're happy to ignore what Labor has said about its costings.

Now, Tony Burke, my colleague the Shadow Minister for Finance will be standing up shortly in about an hour and a bit to respond in more detail, but what I would say again - that was a complete debacle from the Treasurer and the Finance Minister.

The final point is this: we saw some extraordinary revelations on the ABC last night about the Free Enterprise Foundation and the use of that body to channel donations which were prohibited under state law. Mr Yabsley, Michael Yabsley, who was the Treasurer of the Liberal Party, conceded publicly that he did know about these events and I'd refer you to what he said in Four Corners last night. Mr Yabsley was Party Treasury between 2008 and 2011. Senator Arthur Sinodinos was Honourary Treasurer from July 2009 to 16 August 2011 and then State President from 25 July 2011 to 15 December 2012. He claims he didn't know what was happening. Well, it simply beggars belief that Michael Yabsley knew about it but Arthur Sinodinos didn't.

Mr Turnbull should answer the question about Senator Sinodinos’ knowledge. He should require that Senator Sinodinos be full and frank in his explanation about his knowledge at all times. I'm happy to take questions.

JOURNALIST: When did you first find out that Senator Peris was not contesting the election?

WONG: I had a conversation, I've had a number of conversations with Senator Peris. I had a conversation with her this morning.

JOURNALIST: Senator Wong, you were announcing on the weekend Labor’s policy for an LGBTI Commissioner. There are still exemptions in replace for religious organisations, allowing religious schools not to hire gay teachers. Would you support a review of those exemptions?

WONG: I'd refer you to the answer that Mr Shorten gave and also the Shadow Attorney-General gave, I think on the Saturday about these issues. I would note that a number of the exemptions to which you refer are actually state law exemptions, but in relation to federal law the position has been made clear by the leader.

JOURNALIST: You described Senator Peris' decision as a difficult personal one. Did she elaborate in her conversations with you?

WONG: I don't propose and nor would you expect me to, although I understand why you ask me the question, I don’t propose to disclose personal conversations with Senator Peris. But of course it is always a difficult decision to make a decision about not recontesting. I don't think that it would be unsurprising, but she has made a decision, as she said, after careful deliberation with her family and we wish her all the very best.

JOURNALIST: Trish Crossin is understandably very angry and finds it almost laughable that that has occurred. She says Senator Peris has left behind an underwhelming legacy

and this is what happens when political parties trash proper democratic processes. What do you say to her?

WONG: What I'd say about Senator Peris is what I said to start with. She has been a trailblazer, she has been a champion of change, she has been an Indigenous woman in this place and we need more of them. We need more diversity in this Parliament. She has been someone who has contributed to our national life over many years. I for one am very pleased that she had the opportunity to serve with us, but I do accept people have a right to make these personal decisions if they don't wish to continue in politics and she's made such a decision.

JOURNALIST: It would have been more desirable though, wouldn’t it, for her to have made that decision before the election campaign was underway?

WONG: I'll leave the commentary to you, but obviously Senator Peris has come to a decision after discussion with her family and that is a decision she's entitled to make.

JOURNALIST: In the press conference you're talking about just before now, a lot of the discussion was on foreign aid, they didn't seem to know what their figure was, they just said it was in the Budget, but they're not clear on what your policy is on foreign aid. They booked it as not going ahead with your policy with the Government's cuts and they booked that at just over $19 billion?

WONG: The first point is this : if you want to find out what Labor policies cost then it would be useful to talk to the Labor Party and not to Mathias Cormann. What I would also say is this, it is interesting how desperate this Government is to talk about us rather than them. I suppose if you're led by a man who used to believe in climate change and now is prepared to do whatever the climate sceptics want, you want to talk about anything other than what you really want to do. But how desperate are they to talk about us rather than them? I hope at some point Malcolm Turnbull will tell the Australian people what he wants to do and what he believes in rather than what he says Bill Shorten wants to do.

But in relation to foreign aid I think there were two things that were self-evident at that press conference. The first is their forward estimate figure was inconsistent with the figure that Tanya Plibersek's press release outlined, which I think one of you, one of the journalists in the press conference put to the Treasurer.

The seconds point is they've booked a $19 billion spend on the basis of the same long-term target, aspirational target or goal that both parties have signed up to, which is the 0.5 per cent of GNI. I don't think the Australian people, nor in front of me, nor those who watched the press conference, would accept that if the Liberal Party make the same commitments as the Labor Party that that somehow they have different financial consequences.

JOURNALIST: Still are you worried that this ‘just add it to the spendometer’ line is a potent one, is a damaging one, would it be better to not make jokes about these things?

WONG: I remember when Malcolm Turnbull first became leader and he told the Australian people that he would treat them with respect, he would treat them as if they were intelligent, he would end the scare campaign and slogans . Now he's becoming a Tony Abbott-lite. Malcolm Turnbull is a bloke who has not only picked up Tony Abbott's negative policies, he's picked up his negative campaign and whether it's what you're referring to or more generally, what we've seen from the Government is a focus on what Labor is doing in an attempt to construct a scare campaign about it. I think it is pretty desperate. These are people who want to continue to run the country, maybe they should tell Australians why they should run the country rather than simply trying to create a scare campaign. Gentleman at the back.

JOURNALIST: Senator Wong, just on the political donations policy Labor released today, I was wondering, it stops short of continuous disclosure and recommending a national ICAC. And you also have proposed some changes around the, I guess, the guidelines, possibly the legislation governing associated-

WONG: -Sorry.

JOURNALIST: The guidelines and possibly the legislation governing associated entities. How would this policy prevent the sorts of activities we have seen with the Free Enterprise Foundation?

WONG: I think in relation to the latter we did flag in that release that we would ask the Joint Standing Committee to consider whether or not the existing legislative arrangements appropriately reflected what we now know associated entities are engaged in and obviously the most egregious example of that is the Free Enterprise Foundation.

The policy we've announced is one we’ve held for some time, which is a focus on transparency. Obviously after each election the Joint Standing Committee can look at more matters. Having more timely disclosure has been raised before and if that's feasible that's something that could be considered, but our focus very much in releasing that was to yet again reinforce the importance of some key transparency reforms.

A bit of sunlight in our donations regime would be a good thing and the key issues that we have to deal with there is first the reduction in the threshold for disclosure. I don't know why the Liberal Party - I do know why the Liberal Party, I think we can all work out why the Liberal Party - want it as high as they do but it doesn’t make any sense and it's not good for the democracy.

JOURNALIST: On the foreign aid obviously it's half a per cent of GNI, that’s the aim for both parties, does Labor have a date when it wants to reach that?

WONG: I think ours is as per the Government, that we have haven't identified a specific date.

JOURNALIST: As Senate Leader you would have seen Nova Peris' work closely in the Senate. What do you see as her key achievements during her time in Parliament?

WONG: I think she has been a champion for many of the issues that Territorians and Indigenous people are concerned about. Of course, we can go through to her committee work and we go through her speeches to Parliament, but of course she is the famously the Senator who put the question to George Brandis at which he answered by reminding us all that people ‘have a right to be bigots, you know’.

I think she has been a courageous person and demonstrated in this, as in many aspects of her career, the courage and strength to be a trailblazer. And I would say whatever opportunity she may find down the track we wish her well in that and wish her every success.

JOURNALIST: Not a wasted opportunity for a captain's pick from a former Prime Minister?

WONG: I don't agree with the premise of the question.

JOURNALIST: The Treasurer and the Finance Minister say they have identified $35 billion of what they say are measures Labor says the Government-

WONG: -Is this number they started with or the number they ended with?

JOURNALIST: The number they started with.

WONG: Okay, I’m not sure where they ended. Did they end at 35 plus 32 plus something else, or just at 32? You were there, maybe you could tell me.

JOURNALIST: Surely though Labor will - some of that, at least some of that figure will stand.

WONG: We will do better than the Coalition did at the last election in terms of making sure we announce our Budget position ahead of polling day. I think at the last election - was it a couple of days before - the Coalition finally announced the totality of their election policy funding and their costings and we will be doing better than that.

I would say this though: let's remember these same people are the ones who ran around the country telling everybody before the last election that there was a budget emergency. There was a debt and deficit disaster. Since that time the deficit has tripled and debt has gone up by over $100 billion. They also told everybody that they could fix the budget without cutting health and education, something we said they would have to do and of

course they did that too. So I would take a lot of what they say when it comes to these matters with a grain of salt.

JOURNALIST: Not expecting that budget position now, but will it be better than the Government’s?

WONG: We've got a reasonable amount of the campaign to go before the final budget position is outlined, so I'm sure you'll be very clear about that in the weeks to come.

JOURNALIST: Just on donations and general integrity, there's been many calls for a national ICAC. I’d like to know what Labor's position is and also the recent Senate inquiry, just before the end of the parliament, recommended expanding the remit of ACLEI to include the Department of Agriculture. We've seen recent reports in Fairfax about that specific issue and how it relates to corruption. What is Labor's position on these issues?

WONG: First on the ICAC as you might recall we did endorse or support the Senate inquiry to consider it. There have been a number of propositions around how you might strengthen your integrity framework in terms of Commonwealth legislation. We are certainly are open to consideration of those and that's one reason why we supported the inquiry. On the other matter I'd have to refer you to Mark Dreyfus.

JOURNALIST: Were you relieved to hear that Clive Palmer won't be contesting the Senate?

WONG: I don't think I had any particular reaction, other than "oh he won't be contesting the Senate". I think my stronger reaction was to the fact that Pauline Hanson is contesting and the commentary suggests that she might be in with a chance.

I've spent a lot of my adult life arguing against the views that she's promulgated. So we'll see how that turns out. Thank you.