E&OE - PROOF ONLY
PAUL CULLIVER: A short time ago I spoke to the Labor Senator for South Australia Penny Wong about the Budget.
Senator, I will start off by asking you same thing I asked Rowan Ramsey the morning after Josh Frydenberg‘s Budget was handed down. What in Bill Shorten’s Budget reply will be the best thing for South Australia?
SENATOR PENNY WONG, LEADER OF THE OPPOSITION IN THE SENATE: There are two things which matter to all South Australians, but particularly to low and middle income South Australians.
The first is that the tax cuts that Bill Shorten announced will ensure that we give more to hard-working Australians, people who are low and middle income Australians. So if you are earning up to $120,000 a year you will get the same or more under Labor and if you’re earning up to $48,000 a year you will get more. We think tax cuts shouldn’t be skewed to very high income earners. We think that people on low and middle incomes should get a good tax cut.
The second thing is the largest investment in Medicare since it was established by the Hawke Labor Government. The Medicare Cancer Plan, which makes sure that the government stands by the one in two Australians who will be diagnosed with cancer over the course of their lives.
CULLIVER: Let’s go to the cancer announcement by Bill Shorten last night. Pretty much no one in Australia doesn’t know someone that’s affected by cancer, many people living through the struggle right now. How quickly will those benefits flow to people that are currently seeking treatment?
WONG: Firstly we have to get elected and what we are saying is that if we are elected what we will do is contribute a very substantial investment to out-of-pocket costs, to eliminate out-of-pocket costs for many diagnostic imaging procedures, to make sure we give more free consultations with specialists. This is a plan that is laid out over the first term of a Shorten Labor Government if we are elected. A $2.3 billion investment that is about recognising that people are in the fight of their lives. That is what cancer is, they don’t want to have to be fighting to be able to afford treatment in a country like Australia.
CULLIVER: I suppose what I am getting is that, I guess, for many people facing that this can be a matter of urgency so if it’s going to be legislated towards the end of, say a three year term…
WONG: No no, we will be looking to do this, if we are elected, as soon as we are able. Some of this doesn’t require legislation through the Parliament. Some of this is something a government could do. And I would hope that if Bill Shorten is elected we can implement this, that even the Liberal Party wouldn’t be opposing the extension of these services and this support to Australians.
CULLIVER: The other issue to raise is the NDIS, since it became apparent that about $1.6 billion had been “saved” because the demand supposedly hadn’t been there. But if you listen to talkback radio across Australia you’ve heard story after story of people that just haven’t been able to get access to the funding when they needed it. That’s no less needed than in regional South Australia
WONG: That’s correct, absolutely.
CULLIVER: When you live with a disability it is so crucial. So how exactly is that going to get unbottled under Labor?
WONG: Let’s start with the facts first. What we’ve seen is, really regrettably, mismanagement of the NDIS under the Coalition Government. We have seen, although there is real unmet demand – as you know there is real need in the community – consistently, the Government hasn’t been able to get support and funds out the door.
We’ve had previously what we call underspends, that is less money spent on services than was budgeted and everybody knows that isn’t because of need, it’s because of the problems in the system. And of course their surplus next year is built, in part, on funding fewer services under the National Disability Insurance Scheme and that is a bad thing.
Now we recognise, if elected, this is a big task but we are absolutely committed to fixing this. This was a Labor reform. This was driven by the Labor Party – Jenny Macklin, Bill Shorten – and I know Linda Burney who is the shadow minister responsible has been working very hard with people with disability, advocates, and other groups to look to how we can improve this.
But fundamentally we do have to make the lives of people with disability in this country better. That is what this scheme is about and we have got to make it work.
CULLIVER: As well as more people just being available to help is it about simplifying the process as well? Just cutting that red tape out?
WONG: I was at a meeting the other day with a number of people in the seat of Boothby and that is precisely the point that was raised with me. They said we just can’t process what we need. Even though we are eligible, they have ticked off on it, it is taking a very long time for us to get what we need.
So there is a lot of work that needs to be done. It is a big scheme to roll out. It’s a big national plan but it can be done better than is occurring.
CULLIVER: Another thing that Bill Shorten has been talking about is the idea of a Living Wage, which is raising the minimum wage. So the idea is if you are working a full time job that you have the money to get by.
In South Australia there are a lot of struggling businesses. Particularly we are seeing more and more empty storefronts, retail businesses that just aren’t able to function and make a profit. So of course the flipside of raising wages is not being able to afford the costs of your employees. So what do you say to businesses that say we’ve already got high costs and we don’t want to shoulder this as well?
WONG: I’d say, generally, are we really a country where somebody who is working full time doesn’t earn a sufficient enough wage to live on? And the economic cost of that to businesses and the whole community is, obviously, if people aren’t consuming because they can’t consume, that has an economic cost to the whole economy including the businesses in it.
Now we recognise the importance of rolling this out in a responsible way. We have said we would give the Fair Work Commission the power to look, not only at the amount, but also how you time it.
I make the point that the minimum wage is below a number of award wages already. I would also make the point that we live in a country where a decent wage for a day’s work is a pretty bedrock principle and unfortunately for many Australians that has not been the case.
In terms of small business one of the things that people may not know is that we are actually going to an election with, not only the same company tax plan applying to small business, but an additional tax concession for investments. Our Australian Investment Guarantee will give a tax concession on eligible investments in which businesses invest because we do want to make sure we use the tax system to drive investment and economic growth
CULLIVER: As soon as we get off the phone you’ll be going straight back into Senate Estimates. If the Prime Minister does call an election as we are expecting, within hours or days, you’ll get about a week less of Senate Estimates. What do you think we going to miss out on? What questions are you wanting to ask that you don’t think you’re going to?
WONG: There’s always questions that you want answered and they don’t answer. I think one of those areas where pretty clearly the spin or the headline doesn’t match the money is infrastructure for South Australia. They trumpeted that they were spending $1.5 billion. The additional spend over the four years is only $95 million. That is a consistent theme with South Australia. The Coalition has had a lot of headlines about infrastructure but they haven’t been able to actually put that into roads and bridges in the way that they should have. So I think that is an obvious one.
But the election will have a lot of questions about everybody’s policies and I look forward to the opportunity to talk to South Australians and Australians across the country about our plan for a stronger and fairer Australia and our plan for a better tax system
CULLIVER: Do you care if it is May 11 on May 18?
WONG: No, I just want to get on with the job and I’m looking forward to it.
I would say this. There is a real contest of ideas. I know politics over the last 10 years has been a lot of personalities, many things happening that Australians, quite rightly, have felt pretty cynical about. But this is a real contest of ideas. This is about what sort of country you want and we have put forward last night in Bill’s Budget speech a very different vision of Australia to the one you saw on Tuesday night and that will be the choice for the Australian people.
CULLIVER: The Grey electorate, which we broadcast to, has been a Liberal electorate for many, many years now. Are we likely to see, perhaps, yourself, some other Labor colleagues, maybe even Bill Shorten come visit the region over the next six weeks?
WONG: I’m sure you will see people campaigning in Grey and all around the country.
CULLIVER: Will you pay us a visit?
WONG: If you’d like me to I will pay you a visit.
CULLIVER: Always appreciate it. Thanks very much for your time Senator.
WONG: Good to speak with you.
Authorised by Noah Carroll, ALP, Canberra.