Nine Weekend Today with Chris Uhlmann - 20/03/2022

20 March 2022

SUBJECTS: South Australian election result; death of Senator Kimberley Kitching; Australia’s relationship with China.

CHRIS UHLMANN, HOST: Penny Wong, welcome.
UHLMANN: A stunning win in South Australia for Labor last night. Does that bode anything for the federal election which must come in May?
WONG: Well, first, let me just say what an extraordinary result and credit goes to the party here in South Australia to Peter Malinauskas, the Premier-Elect and to my friend Susan Close, the Deputy Premier, really a stunning result. And what I would say is that this demonstrates that South Australians want a party that's focused on the future. I mean, Peter campaigned very clearly that his agenda, his objective, was not the next election but the next generation. I think Australians are looking for a leader who looks to the future, which is what Anthony Albanese is so clearly saying. But I do want to make a point about Scott Morrison, if I may. Scott Morrison was a drag on the Liberal vote here. I saw numbers that suggested that one in two South Australians, one in two, were less likely to vote for Steven Marshall, when they were reminded that he and Scott Morrison, were of the same party. Now there was a reason we had a lot of signage on the electoral booths with Scott Morrison on it.
UHLMANN: Well, if you look across the booths last night and look at the federal seats in that, so the seat of Boothby, which is on a margin of 1.4%, if you were to look at those booths across that seat, there was a swing of 7.3%, in the seat of Sturt there's 6.9% margin, a very big margin, a swing there of 7.2%. But in the seat of Grey, where a 13.3% margin would be needed to topple that, it's a 17.7% swing. So do you think anything similar could happen in South Australia?
WONG: Well, look, it's a positive result for us federally, for the reasons I outlined. I think Peter campaigned on policy, on education, on health, and a plan for the future. Very similar approach to the approach that we're taking - the centrality of the next generation - how can we build back stronger, and build back better. And as I said, Scott Morrison was absolutely a drag on the Liberal vote here. But it's positive, but we've got a long way to go when it comes to seats here in South Australia. We know it's going to be a really tough fight.
UHLMANN: The speech by Peter Malinauskas was extraordinary. And the thing that struck me about it, he didn't just go through the rote thank you for the guy that's going - Stephen Marshall - you did a great job.
WONG: He talked about democracy.
UHLMANN: He talked about democracy, but he said this, 'The Liberal Party are not our enemies. They are our adversaries'. Has politics in Australia become too bitter, too tribal?
WONG: I was struck by that speech as well. And I was struck by a number of aspects or parts of that speech. And I think, Peter, I will say this about him, I think he'll be an extraordinary Premier. I think he's a man of great qualities. And I've got to know him more and more since he's become leader and I've really been impressed by him. And obviously, the South Australian people have. And I remember watching that speech last night and thinking that that line, he's really, I think, reminding us that democracy is more than conflict. And since I've been in the parliament, I think it has got more tribal, more - actually it has got more difficult. You might remember I was reasonably close to Senator Cormann. And I think both of us understood that there are lines you don't cross in politics. And I think Peter reminded us of that last night.
UHLMANN: I wonder how many of those lines have been crossed in recent times though, because 10 days ago, one of your own, Kimberley Kitching died and since then her family and friends have made it very evident that she was under enormous stress, that she was being bullied and isolated and the people that they blame for that are the Senate leadership team and that's led by you. Did you bully and harass Kimberley Kitching?
WONG: No, I did not. And I want to, let me start by saying this; first I want to express on this, the day before Senator Kitching's funeral, my condolences again to Andrew and to the family. When you lose someone you love, it shatters your world. Your grief is immense. The loss is immeasurable. And I don't know Andrew Landeryou personally, but I have been thinking of him because I know the courage it takes to get through every day when you suffer a loss like that. Kimberley Kitching was an extraordinary politician. She was fiercely committed to the things in which she believed. She was relentless in pursuing them. And we're here today - because I agreed to this interview some time ago - on the day before she's laid to rest. And I do think, and I have thought, through this last week - and there's been a lot of things said, a lot of claims made, a lot of views shared - I do think there are times where politics should take a backseat, consistent with what we were talking about, there's politics, and there's family. And this is the time for family.
UHLMANN: Did you say to her "well, if you had children, you might understand why there is a climate emergency".
WONG: They're not precisely the words, I said, but - no, let me please - my motivation, in that exchange wasn't to personally attack her. My motivation was to express the distress that many children feel about climate change. But what I said was insensitive. I regret it. And I apologised, as I should, when I became aware how she felt about it.
UHLMANN: After it became public that you had said it.
WONG: Because she never raised it with me. It became public after she spoke to the ABC, but it wasn't ever raised with me.
UHLMANN: Had it not occurred to you before then that she could be upset?
WONG: That's a fair question. That's a fair question. We have a lot of robust exchanges, and I regret making the remark. And, as I said in my statement - and I was conscious of how people in my life, and beyond, would hear that - and I want to say again, publicly, I regret pain that has caused other people.
UHLMANN: Did you dump her from the Labor tactics committee because she forewarned Linda Reynolds that you were going to weaponise the Brittany Higgins rape allegation?
WONG: The difficulty here, Chris, is that because of the circumstances of when we agreed to have this interview, I'm now here the day before she's laid to rest and I'm really conscious of the importance of behaving, as I have tried to, and as Kristina Keneally and Katy Gallagher have tried to all week, no please, to behave with some dignity here. There have been many views shared and some claims made. We put out a statement, which made clear, and I again make clear today, we have chosen not to respond. We have chosen not to debate them. And we haven't done that because we're not able to, we've done it because we didn't think it was the right thing to do. That's why we have chosen not to.
UHLMANN: Can I say it's her family and friends who want these issues raised. I understand that there is a funeral tomorrow, but these are the things they want us to talk about. Can I mention also that when Linda Reynolds was trying to defend herself against allegations and they were against allegations that about the way that she had spoken about Brittany Higgins, no quarter was given by Labor to her.
WONG: Are you really suggesting that these two situations are...
UHLMANN: These are both very, very similar.
WONG: Chris, please, I don't think your viewers would think it's reasonable to say these situations are comparable. I mean, the situation involving Ms Brittany Higgins - and this is out of Ms Higgin's own mouth.
UHLMANN: An allegation of rape…
WONG: An allegation of...
UHLMANN: And the other one we have an allegation that a woman was under normal stress when she died because she was being bullied.
WONG: May I finish.
UHLMANN: Both are very serious.
WONG: If can finish the first part, then I'll come back to your question. An allegation of a sexual assault, in a Minister's office, that was allegedly covered up, and where the complainant was discouraged from going to the police, I just think they're very different situations. Because of the way in which we have sought to deal with this, it obviously means we don't want to debate some of these facts through the media. What I would say to you, is that some of the facts which - some of the claims I should say - that have been asserted are simply not true. And that can be verified from the parliamentary record. The approach we've taken, and I know some of the media haven't liked it, is to try and observe common decency. And I'd invite some in the media, I'd invite some of those sharing their views, and some of those making claims to reflect on whether or not they are expressing the common decency...
UHLMANN: Can you understand that it does appear to an outsider that when it's the Labor Party, there is always an excuse for this kind of behaviour, but it's never accepted if it's on the conservative side of politics, no matter what the circumstances are. No matter if there's a trial coming up.
WONG: What I was going to finish saying is, there is a common decency that I think we would all hope, that Australians would hope, your viewers would hope, that is demonstrated when someone has died. And I would invite some of those making claims and sharing views to consider and reflect on whether or not they have demonstrated that now. But you come to standards, we should be held to a common standard.
UHLMANN: The same standard?
WONG: We should be held to a common standard around behaviour. And there have been a lot of changes which have been made. I don't think any party is perfect. But we have made many changes, both in terms of getting more women into Parliament, and ensuring we have much better processes in place, than were in place when I first went into Parliament. We've got a bullying code of conduct. We have complaints mechanisms that people can engage in, and they are well known.
UHLMANN: But sure, has anything really changed though, in essence, because one of the reasons I raised Linda Reynolds - who I know really quite well - she was essentially begging for mercy at one stage, before a parliamentary committee, saying your questioning put me in hospital. And one of the responses from you was, 'so you're the victim, now'. Can't both be true? Couldn't she have also been under enormous pressure because of the way she was being treated? She was trying to defend herself.
WONG: Politics is really hard. People are under enormous pressure. And I think, as we said in the statement we put out, sometimes in politics, politics is challenging. It's pretty willing at times. I have no doubt at times we say and do things - all of us, every participant - without thinking about the impact on others. And, we should reflect on that.
UHLMANN: I'll give you a third woman, Nicolle Flint, in the seat of Boothby. She's leaving politics because she believes that she was bullied out of it. You are the senior Labor figure in South Australia. Did you ever speak up on her behalf?
WONG: Look, I've sat down privately with Nicolle, since...
UHLMANN: Not said something publicly to stop the harassment, the bullying some of which was coming from the Labor party?
WONG: I don't accept that part. And I understand, people want me to comment on many things. What I'd say about Nicolle Flint is what happened to her and how she felt wasn't acceptable. I sat down with her after she said some things in the Parliament. I understood, we talked through it. I don't think bullying and harassment do belong anywhere in politics. And I think people who have seen me over 20 years in public life would know that.
UHLMANN: You would be aware, of course, that the Sex Discrimination Commissioner Kate Jenkins, in her report 'Setting the Standard' mentioned bullying around about 700 times. And she said this, 'while men were more likely to perpetrate sexual harassment, women were more likely to bully'. So has the Senate leadership, which you run, really set the standard in Parliament House for the way that politics should be conducted. And let's go back to that speech of Peter Malinauskas, are you treating people more like enemies, than adversaries?
WONG: Katy, Kristina and I work every day to try and further the interests of the Labor Party, and the country. That's always our motivation. And all of us have spent years in public life, amongst other things, seeking to support and promote women. And I think if you look at my 20 years in politics, you can see that. As we said, in our statement, there are views that have been shared and claims that have been made, which are not true. I don't want to get into the debate on the public record but what I would say to you, is we also said in that statement, of course, as leaders and as people - as individuals - we reflect on what we've learned, as I reflected when I made a mistake about what I said to Kimberley.
UHLMANN: And look, Kimberley Kitching, I knew well. She was a robust person. She played politics very, very hard.
WONG: I think as Bill Shorten said, Bill Shorten, I think, described her as a political warrior.
UHLMANN: She was a warrior, and she played politics hard too. But one of the things she was concerned about in the Labor Party, and she raised with me, is that you and Kristina Keneally would be weak on China. Now, you might be Foreign Minister in a couple of months. What is your attitude to the rise of China? And how will you deal with it?
WONG: I'd invite people to look at what I've said and done in relation to China over years now. I was very clear about the importance of opposing the China extradition treaty when Malcolm Turnbull was Prime Minister and Julie Bishop was Foreign Minister - that was well ahead of many people in the Liberal Party, looking at how that might be problematic. What I would say is this, China has changed. China has become much more assertive, much more aggressive, at times. And we as a nation, that lives in a region where China has substantial economic and strategic power, this is difficult. Whoever wins government will have to manage enduring differences between us and China. And we should always approach the relationship with China, putting our interests, Australia's interests and Australian values first and never take a step back. And I can say to you, that I am absolutely clear that that is how we would do it.
UHLMANN: Penny Wong, as you know, we did arrange this interview long before these horrific circumstances, and I know that they've been extremely difficult, and you could have chosen not to show up today - you did turn up. So, I thank you for that.

Authorised by Paul Erickson, ALP, Canberra.