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Famed inquisitor Penny Wong morphs from the hunter to the hunted

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Through Labor’s nine long and often demoralising years in opposition the party’s true believers could count on one reliable source for comfort: Penny Wong’s appearances at Senate estimates hearings.

Wong became renowned for her forensic questioning of government ministers and public servants on topics ranging from the relatively light-hearted (who shattered a $600 marble table on the night Tony Abbott lost the prime ministership?) to the deeply serious (who knew what and when about the Brittany Higgins rape allegations?).

Labor’s election victory propelled Wong into her dream job of foreign minister, seemingly bringing to an end her days as the Senate’s interrogator par excellence. That metamorphosis became real on Thursday when Wong appeared for the first time at Senate estimates as foreign minister.

The hunter had become the hunted; the scrutineer, the scrutinised.

But as anyone who’s tried giving up cigarettes or cutting out sugar from their diet finds out, old habits die hard. It turns out asking questions at Senate estimates is an addiction Wong is not yet ready to kick.

In her opening statement Wong acknowledged being foreign minister was not just a “great privilege” but also at times “enormously challenging”.

That was certainly the case last month when she oversaw the messy overturning of the Morrison government’s recognition of West Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. Wong later conceded the timing of the announcement – on a holy Jewish holiday – was “deeply regrettable”.

Wong was equally contrite at Senate estimates, saying: “A mistake occurred and I have taken responsibility for it…I’m not going to be pointing the finger at anybody.”

However, Wong’s opposing number, opposition home affairs spokesman Simon Birmingham, wanted details of how the policy change came about. In particular: who authorised the scrubbing of a reference to West Jerusalem from the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) website before a cabinet decision had been made?

Wong declined to answer, saying the opposition’s focus on process was a distraction from the substance of the Israel-Palestine conflict. The claim riled Birmingham, a usually mild-mannered moderate who, like Wong, hails from Adelaide.

“I’m sorry Senator, operational matters by departments are examined right across estimates all the time,” he told Wong. “You have done so many times…You don’t get to sit there and say what the issue is. ”

he argy-bargy prompted an intervention from committee chair, Labor senator Raff Ciccone.


“Can we please be respectful to each other?” he pleaded to Birmingham and Wong. “It’s going to be a very long day today.”

The questioning resumed, but with Wong grilling the shadow minister.

“I trust you were this focussed on process when your prime minister changed position [on West Jerusalem] without going to cabinet,” she asked Birmingham, her eyebrow arched. “Were you?”

Determined to establish the new ground rules, Birmingham shot back: “I’m now in this seat getting to ask the questions. You’re the one at the table. It’s our chance to ask the questions and your opportunity, after all of these years, to get to answer them. Let’s try to answer them.”

Yet hours later no-one was any the wiser on how and why the reference to West Jerusalem was mysteriously removed from the DFAT website. Wong had proven just as adept at evading questions in government as she was at asking them in opposition.

Matthew Knott

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Article source: Brisbane Times
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2024-02-22 05:36:48.000000

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