13 September 2011




UHLMANN: Penny Wong, welcome.

WONG: Good to be with you.

UHLMANN: Now first, no matter what the virtues of poker machine pre-commitment, it seems tailor-made to annoy Labor’s base in New South Wales and Queensland. Is it worth it?

WONG: There is no doubt there is a very coordinated campaign being run, but I do think it’s important to step back a minute and just think, what are the values at the core of this reform? We are a Labor Government. Labor governments look after people who are vulnerable, and people who are addicted to gambling are vulnerable and that’s what this reform is about.

UHLMANN: What Andrew Wilkie has said is he expects you to deliver this – and that means also delivering the votes of other Independents. Now that seems slim. Isn’t that an unreasonable demand?

WONG: We will continue to work through how this reform is delivered with Mr Wilkie and more broadly, but I think essentially it remains reform about making sure that those people in Australia – the very small minority of people who play poker machines or gamble who are addicted to this, for whom this is an enormous problem for and for their families – that we do something about protecting those people.

UHLMANN: We saw great figures on the National Accounts last week for the broader economy, but are households actually feeling that?

WONG: Interestingly, one of the many positive things out of the National Accounts is what’s happening in the household sector.
And I think on this program before we’ve spoken about consumers becoming more cautious. And what the accounts showed apart from the fact that the economy had grown – 1.2 per cent in the June quarter – what is also showed is that consumption had returned broadly to trend. So that’s a good thing. People aren’t spending on the same things but they are spending. And I think that is a reflection – notwithstanding the enormous carry on by the Opposition – it is a reflection of the strong fundamentals in the Australian economy.

UHLMANN: But when we look at those fundamentals we see, figures today, business confidence figures, are very bad indeed.

WONG: I think we need to realise where the global economy is. We’re seeing a lot of volatility on world markets; we’re seeing a lot of concerns – particularly around Europe and to some extent the United States. We’re not immune from that.

What that does remind us of, of course, is the importance of maintaining good economic management here in Australia, and part of that is a sound fiscal policy. One of the things that the Government is very clear about is the importance of a sound fiscal strategy, which is why, in this context particularly, Joe Hockey’s $70 billion black hole and his refusal to front up to election costings is so reckless and irresponsible. What they’re saying is even though things are volatile, even though we know fiscal policy is important, we’re not going to be transparent, we are not going to provide our costings.

UHLMANN: But if we were to see problems in Europe again and problems in the United States, and credit started drying up again, would the Government be in a position to do anything on the fiscal front?

WONG: We face this volatility with a lot of strength. Remember, we came through the global financial crisis in much better shape than most economies. We entered the global financial crisis with the same level of unemployment as the United States. We’ve come through it. Our unemployment rate at 5.3, theirs above nine per cent.

Our economy is growing, and we are five per cent above pre-GFC levels. Many other economies haven’t got there yet. A lot of investment coming, and a very strong financial sector. These are very good qualities to face this volatility.

UHLMANN: But don’t you find it extraordinary, with all this good news around on the economic front, business confidence is down, consumer confidence is down. Do you think there is a question over confidence in this Government?

WONG: I think this is about two things. I think there is a lot of volatility globally, but I think we have seen an Opposition which has been prepared to cross the line. They are talking down the Australian economy and they are doing so openly. And what it reminds us of is this is an Opposition that is prepared to trash any convention, prepared to be completely reckless and irresponsible if they think they can gain a political point out of it – even if it means talking down the economy.

UHLMANN: And in order to get your border protection policy up now you are relying on the Coalition, and that seems like a receding hope. It sounds like they are not going to support you on that, and where do you go to from here?

WONG: Well, this is a very interesting point from Mr Abbott. What the Prime Minister has said is that we will put legislation into the Parliament that will restore the right of executive government to determine how to implement offshore processing. This is something he supports. He is really in a position now of being clear with the Australian people. Whether he is prepared to accept that national interest point, or whether he really reveals himself as being absolutely nothing other than somebody who plays politics at every opportunity.

UHLMANN: But doesn’t he leave you with absolutely nowhere to go?

WONG: This is an issue for Mr Abbott now. We will put the legislation in, and we have said this is not about our policy, nor his. It’s legislation which would enable an executive government, of whatever political persuasion, to implement an offshore processing regime. And I think the issue is: Mr Abbott, are you up for the national interest, or are you only ever about short-term political games?

UHLMANN: You introduced the carbon tax bills today, and the Prime Minister did say some time ago that when the detail was known that the people would turn in favour of it. They haven’t turned yet. Do you think they ever will turn in favour of it?

WONG: I think people want action on climate change. We’ve seen over the years that various politicians have promised action, John Howard, Malcolm Turnbull and previously Tony Abbott – and now he is opposed to it.

This is a very important reform. It is a tough reform and I was very proud of the Prime Minister today when she introduced the bills. And I was very proud of what she said; because I think what she said was very wise: that we are all judged by history. I think history has judged the Senate that opposed the carbon price very poorly, and I think people will judge this Parliament accordingly.

UHLMANN: Finally, just briefly, how are you being judged? Because the Prime Minister said today that hard reforms meant hard days for the Government. But aren’t the hard days brought about by bad management?

WONG: I think hard days are brought about by tough reforms and needing to do something that is not about short-term political gain but about the long term interests of the nation in a face of an Opposition that is not interested in anything that’s about the long term. So, I guess at the moment what we’re looking at is: one side of politics, the Government that says: ‘Look, we have to do something for the long term, whether it’s on the budget, the economy, carbon pricing’. And we have an Opposition that says ‘Let’s just look to today’.

UHLMANN: Penny Wong, thank you

WONG: Good to be with you.