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Transcript of interview with Laura Jayes: Sky News To the Point: 27 August 2015: China-Australia Free Trade Agreement; Gayby Baby; marriage equality; Tony Abbott's royal commission

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SUBJECT/S: China-Australia Free Trade Agreement, Gayby Baby; marriage equality; Tony Abbott’s Royal Commission.

LAURA JAYES: The Shadow Trade Minister, Penny Wong, joins us now from Canberra. Senator, thanks so much for your time this afternoon.


JAYES: I want to ask you about this free trade agreement. You have a number of key concerns about protections for Australian workers, but what you are talking about, can’t it be addressed through the Migration Act, rather than rewriting the China Free Trade Agreement?

WONG: We certainly have raised concerns, we’ve also said a number of things, the first thing we have said is we are up for an agreement with China, we recognise how important China is to Australia’s economic prosperity today and in the decades ahead. You might recall in Government that was a consistent position that Labor put, but we have also said this agreement has raised a number of key concerns. We are up for an agreement with China, but it has to be one which maximises Australian jobs.

Now we’re open to discussions with the Government about finding a way through, but there are concerns which have been raised, which the Government as yet has not really adequately responded to.

JAYES: Ok, let’s look at the sections of this China Free Trade Agreement that you are unhappy about, Section 10 relating to the movement of natural persons and the

second is the Memorandum of Understanding. But whatever the wording in that Free Trade Agreement, isn’t this all covered by the 457 visa legislation?

WONG: No, in fact that is a bit of a furphy, if I may. In relation to Chapter 10 of the Free Trade Agreement, you will see in that labour market testing is actually specifically removed. So the Government has, in effect, given away any capacity to test whether there is someone in Australia, an Australian who could do that job before-

JAYES: - Sorry to interrupt, but wasn’t that the same provision under the Chile Free Trade Agreement that Labor struck and also the ASEAN Free Trade Agreement? And this was actually legislation that Kevin Rudd put in place.

WONG: Hang on, three different propositions there. First, in relation to Malaysia and I think also in ASEAN, the Labor Government, from memory, reserved what we call policy space for labour market testing. My recollection in relation to Chile is that the skill levels at which the proposition you put is applicable are a higher skill level. One of our concerns is the China Free Trade Agreement deals specifically with people in the trade and technical skills area, so it’s a much broader set of propositions.

But can I make this point, I have said very clearly, including today, we are up for a trade agreement with China. We are willing to find a way through to address the issues that we have concerns about and which the community have concerns about. We are prepared to look at ways we can build safeguards around this agreement, because the fundamental proposition is this: I think Australians are up for a more open economy, they’re up for trade liberalisation, because it is about more jobs and better jobs for Australians.

JAYES: But Senator, we haven’t seen you put forward those propositions. All we’ve seen is really a scare campaign from the unions, to be fair.

WONG: With respect Laura, you didn’t see an agreement from Andrew Robb for seven months. And I suspect I’ve been raising concerns about this for a shorter period than he sat on the agreement, between signing and actually putting the agreement out. We also haven’t seen the enabling legislation. We’ve got two Parliamentary inquiries, which will look at this issue, so obviously the Parliament won’t deal with this for some time.

What this will require though, if the Government wants to find a way through, is for Tony Abbott to do what John Howard did, which is to work with the Opposition to deal with some key concerns.

PETER VAN ONSELEN: But Senator, how does that happen, when on the one hand you’ve got the Opposition, through the union movement, we only have to go with what the ACTU QC or SC had to say at the Royal Commission, they are hand in glove, the union movement and the Labor Party. Their attack ads are pretty brutal and equally the Prime Minister, and equally though, I’m saying equally-

WONG: But hang on, is that your proposition?

VAN ONSELEN: What do you mean?

WONG: Is that your proposition, that a trade union and the Labor Opposition are the same entity?

VAN ONSELEN: No, the proposition is the one that was put in trying to argue why there was apprehended bias by Dyson Heydon, by the SC representing the ACTU. That in effect, they’re hand in glove.

WONG: Well, can I just say the apprehended bias, I’ll leave it for other lawyers, I’ve forgotten most of what I might have known at one point about the law, but I think the reasonable observer is the key test when it comes to apprehended bias and I think many Australians probably don’t accept, or don’t find plausible, some of the explanations that the Commissioner has given, but ultimately that’s a matter for him. I understand he is considering the matter and we’ll await his conclusions.

JAYES: Can we go back to the Free Trade Agreement for just one moment. Senator, when it comes down to it, we will see this legislation come before the Parliament in October, as I believe it to be. What will happen between now and then? Should the union ads cease while you negotiate this with the Government and ultimately are you going to vote against it?

WONG: First, the union campaign is a matter for the unions. If you want to ask them about that, obviously you’re welcome to do so. In terms of what the Labor Opposition is doing, we are scrutinising this agreement carefully through the two Parliamentary Committees I’ve referenced. We have also indicated publicly on a number of occasions what I’ve indicated here today, we’re up for an agreement with China, but it has to be an agreement which delivers jobs. We want to look at finding a way through, but that requires the Government to actually work with us to do that.

VAN ONSELEN: But my point though really was that you’re as bad as each other. You’ve got the union movement running their attack ads, you’ve got the Prime Minister-

WONG: -Sorry, who is as bad as whom?

VAN ONSELEN: The Government and Opposition. You’ve got the union movement running their attack ads, you’ve got the Government, through the Prime Minister in question time, you would obviously see it, even though you’re in the different chamber, describing the Opposition as effectively racist on this. The chances of getting together on this are just so slim, it kind of in a sense goes back to the wider issues that were raised and lamented yesterday at the national summit.

WONG: But is the position I’ve put to you today a position that is unwilling to have a discussion? I don’t think so. And so you can make the point about the public positions, I think the Prime Minister’s rhetoric was overblown and I think when it comes to trade that the Government would do far better to talk to the people who have concerns, to address the concerns soberly, rather than lashing out at anybody who raises concerns.

You’ve got Nick Xenophon and other members of the Senate crossbench also raising concerns. You have the Opposition raising concerns. You’ve got members of the community raising concerns. Now rather than lashing out at everybody, why not soberly go through some of the issues and stop telling journalists some of the things which they are saying, which are simply not true. The reality is there are parts of the agreement which do not really stack up when it comes to maximising Australian jobs.

JAYES: But, this is my last question on the China Free Trade Agreement Senator, but you’re saying that some of these provisions aren’t within the wording of the China Free Trade Agreement, but there’s a lot of things not in the wording. For example, it doesn’t say workers coming from China to Australia can’t drink drive, but it doesn’t mean when they get here they’re allowed to do that. See where I’m going with this? Not everything has to be in that agreement.

WONG: Sure, but the fundamental proposition is here, you’re right, the general law remains. We don’t include all of our general legal framework in a trade agreement, but this trade agreement removes an aspect of the existing law, it removes an aspect of existing regulation, that might be a better way of putting it, by removing labour market testing in key circumstances. So, that is what we are addressing, so that concern is not dealt with by simply saying Australian law will apply. No, because in this agreement you have specifically removed a key safeguard in terms of Australian jobs.

VAN ONSELEN: Can I ask you this, on a completely separate subject Penny Wong, I am sure you would have seen the furore from afar around this Gayby Baby documentary at Burwood Girls High in Sydney. The New South Wales Education Minister Adrian Piccoli has effectively banned all public schools in New South Wales from being able to show it during school hours. I’m going to talk to the director of that film actually a little bit later on Newsday. I just wonder what your reaction is to that.

WONG: I think it is very sad that some people are so keen to shut down voices in this debate. I met with some of the individuals involved in that film and one of the things that was said to me which has stayed with me is, certainly in the marriage equality debate, that ‘We are regarded as theoretical,’ she said. ‘You know we don’t exist.’ This is about giving those people a voice. But can I make in many ways as important a point. This was part of Wear it Purple Day, that’s what this screening was about. And Wear it Purple Day has its origins in a very tragic death of a young person in the US . It is designed to try and show LGBTI young people, who we know have higher rates of self-harm than the general population, it was trying to say to them, you know, we stand with you. And if you are getting a hard time at school, as unfortunately too many people do, remember we stand with you. Now I would have thought that there would be people who might care enough about the merits of trying to tackle this sort of bullying in schools rather than the sort of sensationalist controversy that we have seen.

JAYES: Senator Wong, I am sure it didn’t escape your attention that Julia Gillard is now a supporter of same-sex marriage. We have seen Kevin Rudd also respond to that today basically saying the reason it wasn’t on the agenda during Julia Gillard’s Prime Ministership was because essentially she was beholden to the right-wing unions. Is that true?

WONG: What I will say about this is I welcome Julia’s change of position. I think it does reflect a change of position that many people in the community have had over time. If you think about where we have come in this debate over the last five or 10 years, I agree with the discussion that you and Peter were having earlier that most people, except those inside the Liberal party room, most people have come to the view what is the fuss about? Let’s get on with it. I think it is a real pity we have got a Prime Minister and a sort of right-wing rump of the Liberal party who so want to stand in the way of change.

JAYES: It’s pretty cold comfort though, this change a few from Julia Gillard, for those who have supported same-sex marriage for years. It must be pretty frustrating to you that she didn’t have these views as Prime Minister when she could have done something about it.

WONG: Well, Julia and Kevin as Prime Minister did a lot for gay and lesbian Australians. Those governments removed more discrimination, removed more barriers to gay and lesbian Australians than any previous government and that should be acknowledged. I would also say something I think I have consistently said, Laura, which is we won’t get marriage equality unless we are able to get bipartisanship with sufficient numbers of Liberal moderates to ensure this reform not only is achieved but endures. That really is the most important thing.

VAN ONSELEN: I have to say Penny Wong, and you know I am a strong advocate for same-sex marriage, I’ve written a lot about it, spoken a lot about it, but it just strikes me as unreasonable of the former Prime Minister Julia Gillard to either suddenly change her mind or perhaps even during her Prime Ministership, because she is concerned about conservative voters, hold back what she really thinks. And now we have got a Prime Minister who is in power, when she wasn’t prepared to do things in power herself, who actually does believe his position and his stance against same-sex marriage and he is now in a sense being attacked for it.

WONG: Well, hang on, I don’t actually begrudge Tony Abbott his views. I disagree with them fundamentally. What I do begrudge is that he is saying he refuses to be pluralist about it. So he is saying I will divide my cabinet, divide my party rather than accept there are different views inside the Liberal party and that is what is holding back the reform.

VAN ONSELEN: But don’t you think the Labor Party strategically now will be better off itself moving to a plebiscite but saying we need to have the plebiscite quickly because of the damage that a long drawn out debate might have to the broader Australian psyche and the kind of nastiness that could get involved in that. That would be a position I think that would nullify their argument that you want parliament, they want the people to decide. But would nonetheless avoid all of the concerns that a lot of people in the gay and lesbian community have about a drawn out, slugged out debate.

WONG: Well, first, there will be a plebiscite on this, it will be the next election. There will be a people’s vote. If they change the government we will have marriage equality, first point. The second point I would make is I think the Gayby Baby debate

and the controversy yesterday and the really nasty things which were said by some public commentators yesterday remind us of the risks of a plebiscite. The third point is this Prime Minister will never agree to a plebiscite prior to the next election. So your argument is a theoretical one Peter because he will not agree. So we are either in the world of a plebiscite or referendum advocated by Abbott and Bernardi - need I say more - post the next election or we are in a world where this is an issue at the next election and if Bill Shorten becomes Prime Minister we will address it.

JAYES: Senator we have Dyson Heydon presiding over his own future of the union royal commission. He will make that decision tomorrow. Regardless of what happens tomorrow, do you think this commission should continue?

WONG: Ultimately that is a matter for the Government. That is really in their power. We have raised concerns about this commission. There are certain aspects of it which have been demonstrably political in nature. There is also quite demonstrably evidence of criminal conduct. If there is evidence of criminal conduct we think it should be dealt with by the appropriate authorities.

VAN ONSELEN: But the authorities are helped along by a royal commission exposing things.

JAYES: And it has led to two arrests of CFMEU officials in Canberra. So it hasn’t been fruitless.

WONG: I think the point here though - ultimately the government can decide, depending on what the commission says, what it wants to do. I wanted to make the point about the fact that criminal conduct is unacceptable no matter where it occurs. I do think there is a concern about how this commission has been run to date. I think it is demonstrably focused as much on the Opposition and on the labour movement as on any criminal conduct. I think that is problematic. But ultimately the commissioner has got to make his decision, we will consider that after he has done so.

JAYES: Shadow Trade Minister Penny Wong thank you for your time on To The Point.

WONG: Good to speak with you.