26 February 2013




BENSON: Penny Wong; good morning.

WONG: Good morning, Marius, good to be with you.

BENSON: Now, I have to ask you about Newspoll shortly, but let me begin with questions of Government. In fact, yesterday in the Senate the Opposition was moving a censure motion on the mining tax which it held up as bad Government on the part of Labor. You defended Labor’s economic record, but a point being made in some of the coverage – in the Fin Review this morning in particular – is that you defended the Government’s record but you didn’t defend the mining tax; you didn’t have anything to say about the mining tax itself, which is read as being a concession by you that the mining tax is a bit of a mess.

WONG: Well, I’d invite you to listen to the whole of the debate, and I was responding to a rather incoherent and negative rant by Senator Abetz across all aspects of the Government’s management of the economy. The vast majority of it was completely incoherent and I was certainly determined to respond to the economic untruths which were being put on the public record. I don’t accept the analysis.

BENSON: But defending the mining tax without mentioning the mining tax seems like a vote of no confidence in the mining tax …

WONG: Well, I did mention the mining tax. The point was this was a debate where issues about the Government’s management of the economy were in play. I’d make this point: we’ve got an Opposition that likes to talk down the Australian economy. Now, that’s not good for Australian jobs, it’s not good for confidence and it’s not good for business. So, I think its incumbent upon me to talk about what the Government has achieved in a very volatile global environment: we’ve achieved an unemployment rate of 5.4 per cent, we’ve achieved growth substantially higher than we see in other advanced economies, contained inflation and low interest rates. These are the statistics that actually matter; the facts that matter to the opportunities Australians have.

BENSON: Senator, you have made the point – in fact, all the Government is making the point – that it continues to govern. But you are governing in the shadow of an electoral guillotine. Is it fairly academic whether you get through things like the Gonski plans that you have or the NDIS, given that what happens in Australia’s future is going to be determined by who is in power after September 14, and it’s not going to be you?

WONG: It’s never academic what happens to the services for people with a disability in this country. It’s never academic what policy you put in place to improve our schools, to lift all schools up to a higher standard. These are –

BENSON: But the point is you won’t be able to deliver because you won’t be in power. That’s the criticism of the current exercise.

WONG: Well, my view is that we have a once in a lifetime opportunity to make decisions on some very important issues. You and I have spoken previously about the enormous changes occurring in the global economy. This is a complex, big change; the rise of China, the Asian Century. Australia has to put in place the policies that enable us to not only compete but prosper in this century. These are –

BENSON: Can I ask you about those policies?

WONG: These issues, Marius, I know that, you know, journalists and certainly the Opposition at times want everything distilled to a three word ‘grab’, but these are big issues about the future of the country and the importance of making sure our children have the opportunities at least as good and better than the ones we have.

BENSON: Very expensive, things like Gonski and NDIS. Can you say in one or possibly three words, in the May Budget will you increase the overall tax burden?

WONG: Look, we are a lower taxing Government than the Howard Government and that’s a fact. What we have said – the Prime Minister said this at the Press Club – is when you have a new structural spend – that is spending which occurs over the years ahead and continues to occur, then you need structural savings to support it.

We’ve taken a range of structural savings in past Budgets and we’ll have more to say about this in the upcoming Budget. You know, I’ve been upfront, I think so has the Prime Minister and the Deputy Prime Minister, that if you want to invest in schools, if you want to invest in better services for people with a disability – all of which I think are very sound policy goals – you do have to make difficult decisions.

BENSON: Just quickly on Newspoll: are you surprised to see Tony Abbott becoming increasingly popular?

WONG: Oh, look, polls come and go. I’m focused on governing. I think that’s my job in terms of being the Minister for Finance and what your listeners and I suspect even you would expect of me, Marius, is to keep being focused on –

BENSON: Yeah, we’ve just focused on finance but the politics of politics is also very important. The polls are an important part of that. This poll is very bad for Labor.

WONG: Look, I don’t engage in discussion about polls. There’s certainly been a lot of negativity over this period of Parliament. We know that Tony Abbott’s a very effective negative politician. But you have to question what are his plans for the future?

It’s very interesting, I notice in the paper’s today Joe Hockey having to correct his position when it comes to compensation for business should they repeal the carbon price. It just demonstrates there is an economic incoherence to the Opposition.

BENSON: Why is Julia Gillard becoming less popular, more unpopular?

WONG: As I said, I’m not going to get into commentary on these issues. We’re doing some big things; some of them have not been popular, certainly in some parts of the Parliament and some parts of the community. I mean, carbon is a big reform, an important reform but a pretty tough reform. We’ve certainly seen a pretty aggressive time in Australian politics. But I don’t think it’s good for Australia for the Government to be diverted on that. We’ve got to keep pressing forward with these reforms.

BENSON: Are you doomed?

WONG: (laughs) You know, a week’s a long time in politics. I’ve been here in politics for ten years now and I know that and my job, as the Prime Minister has said, is to continue to keep governing for the country. That’s the important job.

BENSON: Penny Wong, thank you very much.

WONG: Good to speak with you.