19 September 2012




BENSON: Penny Wong, good morning.

WONG: Good morning, Marius.

BENSON: Can I begin by asking you about a specific demand on government revenue which is being reported in The Australian today – maybe $1.4 billion for wages to top up private childcare workers’ salaries. Is the Government going to provide that or part of that?

WONG: I think if you read the story, you can see it’s entirely speculative. And I don’t think you should believe everything you read in the paper is a Government announcement –

BENSON: No, no, I’m trying to resolve the speculation. Can you resolve it one way or the other?

WONG: The Government is already making very substantial investments in childcare. We’re investing about triple the investment made during the last four years of the Howard Government. I do understand the union is pursuing pay equity for workers in that industry, and the Government has created a workplace relations system where people can do that. But I wouldn’t be holding your breath for that speculation turning into an announcement today. As I said, it’s entirely speculation in the paper.

BENSON: Well, that sounds like a ‘no’ – no government funds in that regard.

WONG: As I said, we already put very substantial amounts of Government funding into childcare – $22 billion over the next four years will be invested by this Government into early childhood education and childcare. That’s more than, as I said, three times what was put in by the Howard Government in their last four years.

BENSON: Can I ask you about another story in The Oz again, this one from David Crowe, suggesting that the boom is fading; that the boom is off the price peak – that’s a given – suggestions that it really hasn’t been that well-handled, both by industry and by unions. Do you think maybe we haven’t made the most of the good times while they were rolling at their fastest?

WONG: I think the better way to think about it is, how do you manage the boom going forward, and how do you make sure you plan for after the boom? And that’s why the Government is investing in the drivers of productivity – investing in education, investing in the NBN.

In terms of the boom, what we know is prices have come off. And the Government anticipated that, as you know. But you would continue, or you’re likely to continue to see high levels of volumes. And in the most recent Bureau of Resources and Energy Economics report out yesterday, the anticipation is strong growth in volumes in the resource and energy exports sector of just over 9 per cent for this year. So, we’ve still got a way to go in terms of volumes, even if prices have come off.

BENSON: And what do you think of the view that some economists hold – that many economists hold, I think – that coming off the very peak of the boom isn’t such a bad idea in terms of the economy. You get a more balanced economy, maybe interest rates come down, there’s less pressure for labour in the resources sector. It’s good for a better, balanced economy to not be peaking.

WONG: There are different challenges at different times in the economic cycle, aren’t there. The point is always to try and look through the shorter-term cycles to where you want to be; make sure not only jobs today, but that you’re doing what you need to create the circumstances where we’ll see strong jobs growth, and a prosperous economy in the future. That’s the approach the Government’s taking.

BENSON: The bad news for the resources boom coming off its price peak is that you’re going to lose maybe $20 billion. The budget overall deals with, what, $350 billion-plus. $20 billion is significant, and you have all these spending promises – dental, health, the Gonski Report on education, you’re promising a surplus. Are any of those promises in jeopardy?

WONG: We’ll always take the approach, as we always have, that we’ll take a fiscally responsible approach to funding our priorities and the priorities which are important to the Australian community. And that’s why you’ll see overnight S & P, the global ratings agency, has again reaffirmed Australia’s AAA credit rating. It means all three global ratings agencies have Australia at a AAA credit rating.

That really shows our public finances are in very good shape. And the reason they are is that the Government has made the decisions it needed to prioritise spending, to find efficiencies, to make some difficult savings, and to make sure we can find room to fund important things, particularly in terms of education and health.

BENSON: Senator, on another issue, the Senate is debating today the same sex marriage Bill. It’s generally conceded that it’s not going to get up in Parliament. If it fails this time, is that it for this Parliament?

WONG: Social change in this country often isn’t won the first time round, sometimes not even the second time round. That’s the history of a lot of social progress. But I think the aspiration for equality and what same sex couples in this country are saying – which is that we want to be treated equally – is a very persistent campaign, a very important campaign, and not one that will end with this vote.

BENSON: But with just a year to go, is that it for this Parliament?

WONG: I don’t try and make those sorts of predictions, because a lot can change in politics. It’s certainly the case that as long as Tony Abbott denies a free vote to the Liberal Party it will make it difficult for this reform to pass. But I don’t think, in the long term, it is going to be logical for the Parliament to stand in the way of equality. I think that in the Australian community people say ‘well, why can’t there be equal rights when it comes to marriage?’

BENSON: Penny Wong, thank you very much.

WONG: Good to speak with you.