8 February 2012




JOURNALIST: Senator Penny Wong, good morning.

WONG: Good morning.

JOURNALIST: And Christopher Pyne, good morning .


JOURNALIST: And to you. And thank you both for agreeing to come on. It’s pretty important to get you together because you both are the senior players for your parties in South Australia, so both of you influence federal policy. Senator Penny Wong, to you first, Minister for Finance in the Gillard Government. Is the Government preparing to jettison another commitment that helped it form Government? That is, the dental scheme, effectively a dental Medicare.

WONG: What we’re not going to do is what Tony Abbott’s done, which is to promise a policy without finding the money to do it. We are going to be disciplined about this. Dental is important. But we’ve got to work through how we fund it. We want to close one of the schemes that’s currently – we don’t think -  getting value for money for taxpayers. And we want to make sure we look at how we might redirect different funding to improve what the Commonwealth does on dental. But that does have to be affordable, and that’s the responsible approach.

JOURNALIST: But you promised the Greens that you would put an expanded Medicare into dental –

WONG: No, I think if you look at what we said we would… we would do something on dental but the detail of how we do that we obviously have to work through. And we’ve always said we’re going to do things –


WONG: No, we are going to do things sensibly and responsibly, because we’re not going to make promises that are not funded, which is what Tony Abbott and Christopher want to do.

JOURNALIST: Well, the Greens say nothing short of an extra billion dollars for dental care, that your Government made to them.

WONG: That’s what they say. As the Finance Minister I’ve got to make sure that the budget adds up. And, unlike Christopher, who has said very clearly that a Liberal Government couldn’t say whether or not they’d even come back into surplus if they were elected, we’ve got a very clear budget commitment laid out.

JOURNALIST: Christopher Pyne?

PYNE: Nice try, nice try Penny, but we’re talking about dental. And I think the point is that the Government did make promises to a lot of people in order to cling to power in 2010. The Greens were just one of them. Andrew Wilkie was another, and we saw what happened to that contract with him over pokies reforms. And the Greens quite rightly said, well the Labor Party promised them a dental scheme and have reneged. What the Government did on dental was dismantle a very good scheme which treated dental health as a chronic illness, which meant that it did come under some Commonwealth funding when Tony Abbott was Health Minister, and replaced it with check ups for teenagers. Now check ups are great, but if you don’t have the money to then follow through and do something about the check up, then the check up is not really very useful.

JOURNALIST: Penny Wong makes the point, though, that the signals coming out from Tony Abbott’s, what was described as a framework economic speech, was that the Government should be stepping back from this sort of stuff, that people should be paying for their own things as much as possible, including dental care I’d assume?

PYNE: No, what he said was that, and it’s interesting that Penny would say that she wouldn’t make promises that she couldn’t fund when they’ve said that they will have a scoping study into the national disability insurance scheme but haven’t actually promised to fund it, which has built up the expectations of people with disability only to crash them down, what Tony Abbott said is that when the Coalition is back in power and delivering surpluses, which we did of course for ten out of the eleven years that we were in government, we would then have the aspiration of having dental under Medicare, the national disability insurance scheme, and a second round of income tax cuts. But I agree with Penny in one respect – you shouldn’t promise something that you have no intention of delivering, and that’s what – the Government should start doing that.

JOURNALIST: Do you agree with your federal colleague Jamie Briggs, Federal Member for Mayo, writing in the Modest Member column in the Financial Review yesterday, a very influential newspaper. His central argument is that the dead hand of government, with its Centrelink cheque book encourages many Australians to believe that there is no other way of life than putting your hand out. He even uses the term that many would find quite offensive, and that is that there are too many people on the government teat.

PYNE: Well I think everybody in Australia would prefer people to have a full time job, living in a house which they’re either renting or owning, and –

JOURNALIST: And have perfect teeth, but we don’t live in a perfect world, do we Christopher Pyne?

PYNE: Of course not, that’s why we must have, always have, a safety net, which both sides of politics have always supported. And I think Jamie Briggs is saying people need more self reliance. And I think most Australians would agree with that as well. And I would also say that what we don’t need is a government interfering in every aspect of our lives, and telling us how to do everything from the moment we wake up until the moment we go to bed.

JOURNALIST: Senator Penny Wong, if we can return to you. The issue of the leadership, it will not go away. We have Lenore Taylor, a very respected columnist and reporter in the Sydney Morning Herald, saying there is no doubt that this issue is very real. When will your Party sort out the leadership?

WONG: Can I say, I’ve answered many questions on this over the last few days, and I’ve made clear what my focus is. We want to focus on the economy. The Prime Minister has the confidence of caucus. There’s a lot of commentary, a lot of speculation in the papers. There’s a lot of commentary on commentary. But we’re doing important things, delivering the sorts of supports that Jamie Briggs and the Liberals appear to oppose. Things like improvements to the Family Tax Benefit, improvements to the age pension, a reduction in income tax for all taxpayers with incomes up to $80,000. These are the sorts of things I’m going to keep being focused on.

JOURNALIST: But are you saying every commentator of the entire Canberra parliamentary Press Gallery is wrong?

WONG: No, what I’m saying is that there’s a lot of hot air and a lot of fevered discussion in the newspapers –

JOURNALIST: Nothing in it? Nothing in it?

WONG: What I’m saying is that the Prime Minister has the confidence of the caucus. We have a very strong economic platform that we are delivering, we are the only party that has laid out clearly a return to surplus, and made the hard decisions to do that –

PYNE: (laughs)

WONG: My counterpart Andrew Robb – and Chris might laugh –but my counterpart made it clear –

PYNE: Four years of deficits. The biggest deficits in Australia’s history.

WONG: You know, Christopher, I do love the way the Coalition just airbrushed the Global Financial Crisis out of history.

PYNE: (inaudible) billion dollars in deficits.

WONG: And what I’d say is –

PYNE: It’s not much of a record.

WONG: What I’d say is that our economy is among the strongest in the world. And you only have to look overseas to see that. An unemployment rate of 5.2% says something about the economic management we’ve put in place. Those are the things that are important to Australians, to jobs, and the sorts of packages and support we’re delivering.

JOURNALIST: Chris Pyne, Andrew Robb is not committing to return the budget to surplus in the first year of an Abbott Government. Is that correct?

PYNE: Well, just before I answer that, if Julia Gillard has the confidence of the caucus, I’d hate to see what it’s like when she hasn’t got the confidence of the caucus. I mean, Gary Gray, a Minister in this Government, even he admitted that the media were not to blame for the stories about Labor’s shambolic leadership, and he said of course there are tensions, and that Labor needs to manage them, so  –

JOURNALIST: But if we could return to the question.

PYNE: Sure.

JOURNALIST: Will you deliver a surplus in your first year?

PYNE: In the 2010 election, which was the most recent, we had a policy which showed that we would have a $6.2 billion surplus in 2012-13.

WONG: Come on, Chris. Come on Chris. Treasury and Finance found a big black hole in those costings.

PYNE: And you actually borrowed most of those savings we made –

WONG: Come on, Chris.

PYNE: And took them in your first budget. So let’s not talk out of our hats.

JOURNALIST: So is that a yes? You’re planning on a surplus in your first year? Or a no?

PYNE: No, we will deliver a surplus in 2012-13 if we are elected. The point is that the Labor Party can’t be –

WONG: (inaudible)

PYNE: Being lectured by the Labor party on surpluses is like being lectured on drug law reform by Cheech and Chong. The truth is they have never delivered a surplus in the time they have been in Government. They’ve delivered the four biggest deficits in Australia’s history –

JOURNALIST: Yeah, but there was a global financial crisis, Christopher.

PYNE: The last surplus they delivered, Dave, was in 1991. I mean, let’s not talk nonsense about the Labor Party and their record on surpluses. They haven’t got a record.

JOURNALIST: Christopher Pyne, before you leave us, you’re writing in a column today that state Labor people – you’ve focused on Premier Jay Weatherill – should get behind the Federal Government’s plan for the Murray River.

JOURNALIST: Extraordinary stuff. You actually think that they’ve got the Murray River right. Or right enough to endorse their plan.

PYNE: What I think is that we – the Labor and the Liberal Party are both moving towards an endorsement of a plan that will deliver a more national control over the Murray-Darling Basin, which is good for South Australia, which I’ve been arguing for since 2001. And Jay Weatherill is falling into the trap, laid for him by the other State Premiers, because he wants to overcome a weakness issue, but if he puts a knife in the side of the Murray-Darling Basin Plan, the biggest people cheering will be the Premiers of Queensland, New South Wales, and Victoria. And he shouldn’t put that at risk.

JOURNALIST: Senator Penny Wong, can you at least welcome Christopher Pyne backing your Government’s plan for the Murray?

WONG: Well, if he is, then he’d better have a chat to Tony Abbott. Because I think the most worrying thing for South Australians that is in the news today is the comment by Tony Abbott, where he said to his people ‘don’t get involved in battles such as whether you have a subsidy here, or a gigalitre there.’ Now, that is a very clear instruction from the Leader of the Opposition.

PYNE: Is Penny supporting Jay Weatherill or Tony Burke?

WONG: I did hear you out, and you said a lot of things I didn’t agree with, Chris.

JOURNALIST: Sorry, you’ll need to wrap up, we’ve got about a minute left.

WONG: Sure. What he’s saying there, to his troops, to the Opposition, is ‘don’t argue for more for the Murray’. Now, I have spent a lot of time and many years trying to ensure we get more water back into the river. And I think that what we know from the Opposition is that Barnaby Joyce, and clearly also Tony Abbott, put the interests of upstream users well ahead of the interests of the River Murray.

JOURNALIST: OK, and we do thank both of you, and we’ll catch up with you next Wednesday. We thank you Labor Senator Penny Wong, Minister for Finance with the Gillard team, thank you.

WONG: Good to be with you. And I think ‘Penny and Pyne’ is fine or ‘Pyne and Penny’.

JOURNALIST: OK, sure. We could rotate it. (laughs)

WONG: (laughs) I’m relaxed about it.

PYNE: I don’t think you want ‘Pyne’. ‘Pyne’ doesn’t sound great.

WONG: No, no, it’s the alliteration. And I don’t mind, he can be first if he’d like.

PYNE: I don’t mind either, Penny.

JOURNALIST: Oh, please, after you. (laughs)

PYNE: Ladies first.

JOURNALIST: This sounds like Chip and Dale, not Cheech and Chong.