1 August 2012




NIELD: It is a pleasure to welcome Senator Penny Wong, Minister for Finance and Deregulation, who is coming to Ballarat today. Good morning, Senator.

WONG: Good morning, good to be with you.

NIELD: Now, we have turned on a lovely day for you. Ballarat does have a reputation for being a slightly cold and frosty place at this time of year. When was the last time you were in Ballarat?

WONG: That’s a good question, probably be a few years now. I came, I think, during the last term of Government. My strongest memory of Ballarat was rowing in a National Championships on Lake Wendouree many, many years ago and I think it was the coldest row I have ever had, perhaps except for the couple of times I went out with Kate Lundy in Canberra. But it was a windy and wild Victorian day, so that’s the memory that sticks with me.

NIELD: You’ll be happy to know that the lake ran dry but is now back to beautiful rowing capacity at the moment.

WONG: I remember it running dry. It must have been pretty hard for everybody, for lots of reasons, but particularly for the rowers.

NIELD: So, I might as well ask you… I have noticed on your Twitter feed that you are very passionately getting behind the Aussie athletes at the Olympics. So, do you have much time to watch the events?

WONG: No, not really. I tend to wake up early so I check out what’s in the headlines and also have a quick look at what’s on the telly at that time. So, I’ve watched a bit of it, not as much as I would have liked, but I’m sure everybody’s in the same boat.

NIELD: I have to say, Senator, that when I mentioned to people and tweeted and put some Facebook updates saying that I was going to be speaking with you, a lot of people still in their minds think of you as the Climate Change or the Water or the Energy Efficiency Minister. In the last few months, as the carbon tax has, well, I guess, had people in a state of hysteria that seems to be maybe dying down now, the fear about the Carbon Tax, do you sometimes just think, ‘I am so glad I changed portfolios’?

WONG: When Greg took over, I did say to him that I think it was one of the hardest jobs in the last term of Government for lots of reasons – it’s a difficult policy, it’s a controversial policy and possibly politically difficult. But I think it is the right thing for the future of the country and I am pleased it is in place. And, as you said, I think the hysteria that got whipped up by some people for political purposes has died down because people see it isn’t the end of the world.

NIELD: Well, we did actually have Joe Hockey in town a few weeks before the implementation of the Carbon Tax and –

WONG: Speaking of a bit of hysteria, right?

NIELD: – and Joe was here to speak to small business people. Surely, though, you must be confronted and, you know, when you are doing things like fundraising and meeting members of the public, you know, surely there must be people out there who are still very, very concerned about the impact of the carbon tax on their small business and their lifestyle.

WONG: I think there are people who are concerned because they’ve been told a lot of things which aren’t true by politicians. But I think that people are gradually coming to see how it works and that the impact is very minor; that the price is paid by a very small number of Australian companies. It’s true that translates through the supply chain to small business et cetera but the impact is very small – certainly less than the GST. So I think people are getting more of a sense of perspective.

But I am always happy to sit down with businesses, as I will be today with Catherine King, your local Member, to have a chat about this issue and some of the tax measures in the Budget that we put in place to help small business.

NIELD:  And of course in your role as Minister for Finance, I mean, there is a hell of a lot of money now that I am hoping… and I guess we’ve seen commitments from the Government already including the Clean Technology Innovation Program … there will be some information sessions in the Ballarat region. But, do you see the sort of hope and the potential that perhaps our new carbon future can have for places like Ballarat? There’s even research in the papers today suggesting we are well and truly getting our heads around sustainable energy and alternative forms of energy.

WONG: I have got a great deal of confidence and optimism about the resilience and innovation that we see in our regions and throughout Australia. And I think what we will see is people coming up with smart ways to reduce emissions. We’ll see people innovating around new technologies, we’ll see people reducing the pollution they put into the atmosphere and we’ll see a lot more investment in clean energy. And we’re already seeing all of those things.

So I’m very optimistic about the future. It is a change, but I think we’ll look back in five or ten years and we’ll see how this has actually made us a stronger and more competitive economy in a world where clean energy goods and services are things that people want.

NIELD: And in terms of now, you know, with the fundraising starting for our local member, Catherine King … you would have to say, by all of the polls that we are continually, sort of, earbashed with in the media, that it’s going to be a tough road for the Labor Party in the next year or so leading into the next federal election. How do you find the drive and the passion and the guts to just get out there and I guess being, well, perhaps, one down at the moment with people like Tony Abbott obviously looking a little better in the polls, how do you just keep going, and approach the next year or so?

WONG: I always think the best thing to do in politics is to focus on doing what you think is the right thing for the country. And that’s where your drive comes from and that’s where your motivation comes from. And I’ve never been somebody who thinks you should be motivated by what the polls say or don’t say. That’s not what people want and that’s not what we’re here for.

So, my view is we just keep focusing on governing, keeping the economy strong and keeping people in jobs. And we’ve done all of those things. And in terms of coming to Ballarat, I’m very happy to back in Catherine King. She’s a good friend and an outstanding Member of Parliament, and an outstanding representative for your region.

NIELD: Now I was going to say, $90 to actually have lunch with yourself and Catherine King – that’s pretty cheap by Canberra’s rates.

WONG: (laughs) I didn’t actually know what it was, so I’m pleased you think so.

NIELD: And look, of course the clichéd question that everyone seems to want you to comment on is of course your stance on marriage equality, which is very well-known and on the public record. But I have to say, Senator, I saw some interesting tweets by yourself in the last couple of weeks about perhaps the Government looking at ways of developing aged care models that could cater for gay and lesbian, and bisexual or transgender Australians as our population ages. To be honest I haven’t heard much press about that, it’s quite an interesting concept.

WONG: It’s important as the population ages that we recognise the diversity of the Australian population in how we provide aged care services. I mean, remember that the number of people over 85 will grow from about 400,000 to about 1.8 million by 2050. So there’s a lot more Australians who will be requiring aged care. And we need to make sure that how those services are provided recognises that there are going to be people from particular ethnic or cultural backgrounds who’ll need certain types of services.

And, in terms of the gay and lesbian community, this is something that that community has been arguing for some time. And I’m really pleased that Mark Butler has picked this up and is developing, in consultation with stakeholders, a strategy. And I look forward to it being finalised.

NIELD: And in terms of a commitment to aged care funding in general, I mean, we do hear horror stories about a crisis of care in the aged care sector …

WONG: We found $3.7 billion for an aged care package in the last Budget, and we made some hard decisions to find that money. And that’s all about trying to get aged care onto a more sustainable footing long-term. Because one of the big challenges for Australia is the ageing of the population and how we make sure we provide services to older Australians in the decades ahead.

NIELD: Well, thank you so much for your time, and enjoy your day in Ballarat. I am glad to see the sun is shining for you. And if you have a moment to head up to Lake Wendouree and perhaps reminisce on those rowing days you spent there, it’s a beautiful place to be. Perhaps you’ll have a chance to go and feed the swans.

WONG: I might try and do that, that sounds like a good idea. Good to speak with you.