24 October 2013




CURTIS: Penny Wong, welcome to Capital Hill.

WONG: Good to be back.

CURTIS: Now, both the former Treasurers Wayne Swan and Chris Bowen say they never received a request from the Reserve Bank to substantially replenish its reserve fund as the Government did yesterday but you knew, didn’t you, because the because the Governor told you he wanted to replenish the reserve fund, he told Wayne Swan in a letter last year and told a parliamentary committee this year?

WONG: But the point here is this, this is a very large injection of funds into the Reserve Bank and of course the Reserve Bank is a very important independent economic institution for the nation and it should be above politics.

I think it is concerning in that context that you see Mr Hockey as Treasurer trying to play politics with this decision and trying to play politics on the basis of inaccurate facts with the Reserve Bank of Australia. Really, he’s the Treasurer of the Commonwealth now and should start behaving accordingly.

CURTIS: But both the statements say – Chris Bowen says the Labor Government was always open to receiving constructive approaches from the Governor, Wayne Swan says, “Had any requests been made to me as Treasurer, a request would have been agreed to,” but your Government wouldn’t even let the Reserve Bank keep the billion dollars it wanted to keep last year. You took half a billion dollars out of that with when the Governor said his preference was to keep the money to replenish the fund.

WONG: First I’d take the former Treasurers at their word. If we’d been approached for such an injection of course we would have very seriously considered it and had a proper dialogue with the Governor because that’s how we engaged with the Reserve Bank and I make the point the dividend to which you refer was a lower dividend I think than Mr Costello had taken, a lower dividend than any time since, from memory, 2003.

CURTIS: But you took it at a time when the Governor told the former Treasurer, told Wayne Swan his preference was to keep it all to replenish the fund and he told the parliamentary inquiry, “I believe the prudent and best course is to rebuild the reserve as quickly as we can.”

WONG: The former Treasurer has made clear had an approach been made to do that, as has now been made, obviously the former Government would have taken the responsible approach. Let’s not – don’t play Joe Hockey’s game here, Lyndal. He wants to play politics with this issue. The Treasurer of Australia wants to play politics around the Reserve Bank. It doesn’t – it’s not a good thing for him to be doing. It doesn’t befit a Treasurer of the Commonwealth of Australia.

CURTIS: But aren’t you playing politics as well, saying that had any requests been made by the Reserve Bank it would have been agreed to when the Reserve Bank Governor made it clear that he wanted to keep the money that the Reserve had in order to replenish the Reserve fund and his preference was to do that quickly?

WONG: Look, Lyndal, I think you can be critical of our Government, about some of the disunity on display. I don’t think you can suggest that we didn’t at all times try and put the national interest when it comes to the economy first.

That’s why we put in the stimulus we did and during the GFC which made sure Australia didn’t enter recession and we didn’t see the sort of unemployment levels we saw and are still seeing in far too many advanced economies. We put in place bank guarantees, a range of other things like the RMBS support, a range of other measures which are all about securing Australia’s financial system and Australia’s economy so I do think this is politics from Joe Hockey and let’s remember he wants us to talk about some of these issues rather than the fact that a man who suggested Australia was drowning in debt now wants a debt ceiling at half a trillion dollars. I mean if you really think debt’s such a problem, if you really think we’ve got a Budget emergency, how on earth as Treasurer could you come forward and say by the way, after opposing much smaller increases previously, I now want a blank cheque up to half a trillion dollars, it is a pretty extraordinary position for a Liberal Treasurer.

CURTIS: But you know don’t you that the debt ceiling doesn’t mean the Government will use up all that money does it?

WONG: I simply think Australians expect that Joe Hockey might be true to his word. He said before, before the election Australia was drowning in debt, we’ve got to deal with this, it’s a Budget emergency. Andrew Robb, the shadow Finance Minister previously, said if you had to raise the debt ceiling it was a mark of your own incompetence. Well, by their own words they’re incompetent and didn’t tell people the truth before the election.

CURTIS: But the debt ceiling was going to have to be raised, whoever won the election?

WONG: And in the pre-election economic and fiscal outlook that was released by the departments, not by the former Government, you might recall there was a discussion about the debt ceiling needing to go to $370 billion.

They were the figures that were put out by departments not by the former Government. Now we’ve got the Treasurer lobbing a massive 66% increase to Australia’s debt ceiling without being prepared to be up front with Australians about the state of the books. I mean, this is a Government that really has a culture of secrecy, that is becoming very clear, very clear, when it comes to Scott Morrison refusing to tell Australians how many boats have arrived and who’s on them, whether it is even today the Treasurer and the Finance Minister refusing to – not holding a press conference and announcing a massive set of cuts in the legislation they’ve released without fronting up to the Australian people for a press conference. Pretty extraordinary.

CURTIS: The Government has released its draft legislation for the repeal of the mining tax and the spending measures that went with it including the retrospective repeal of the low income superannuation contribution, the repeal of the school kid’s bonus and some small business tax breaks. Will you vote against those in the Senate?

WONG: Let’s be clear what our principled approach is. We don’t support retrospective taxation and you have – I’ve correctly identified there’s a retrospective tax grab on one in three Australian workers in the Government’s position. We don’t think it is a sensible approach to have a tax hike for small business, a retrospective tax grab on millions of Australian workers, taking money off families who are doing the right thing, helping – taking away support for families, for education expenses. We don’t think that’s a sensible set of priorities to have those things removed in order to get a refund for the large international mining companies.

Let’s be clear what the Government’s priorities are is they’d rather have a refund to big mining companies than support small business, low income workers, one in three Australian workers and Australian families. We think they’re the wrong priorities.

CURTIS: Would you support the repeal of the mining tax if it wasn’t associated with cutting the spending measures?

WONG: That’s not the legislation I understand that’s been put forward and a principled approach is the one that I’ve laid out. We’ve only seen the reports of this, we’ll look very carefully at the details of the legislation and we’ll have a discussion within the shadow Cabinet and I’m sure what we will see as we look through the details is a set of priorities that are wrong. I don’t think Australians think it’s a good thing to give small business a tax hike, to have a retrospective tax on millions of Australian workers in order to fund a tax refund for large companies.

CURTIS: The Government has also begun the process to sell Medibank Private today, announcing a scoping study. It says it can use the legislation passed by the Howard Government to sell Medibank Private, that you did not repeal when you were in government. Does this mean they can sell Medibank Private without having to put it to the parliament?

WONG: Well didn’t – our Government’s position was that we weren’t going to sell Medibank Private. The Coalition has made it very clear that it will and I think the important point here for Australians is whether or not premiums will rise. I note that we saw the head of the Australian Medical Association raise concerns about any privatisation of Medibank Private causing premiums to rise. The Government needs to deal with that. It needs to tell Australians what the impact on their hip pocket would be in terms of private health insurance costs if they do sell Medibank Private.

CURTIS: If we can move on now to the ACT’s legislation to allow same-sex marriage, we understand the High Court hearing on that might begin tomorrow. In some senses is the ACT taking a punt that its legislation will stand up in the High Court?

WONG: Look, you know, there’s lot of argy bargy the Federal Government’s engaging in on this issue, which is disappointing, because I think that was a really wonderful step taken by the ACT and you know what my position is on this, Lyndal, I’m a supporter of marriage equality. I would prefer that it pass the Federal Parliament. Until that happens you’re going to see States and Territories wanting to deal with this issue because it’s an issue the Australian community want dealt with.

CURTIS: Would same-sex couples thinking of using the ACT’s legislation to get married in Canberra be wise to delay their plans until there’s a decision from the High Court?

WONG: Well, that’s a matter for them. We’ve certainly been waiting a long time. I suspect we might have to wait a bit longer ’til this is all sorted out.

CURTIS: You haven’t thought of using the legislation yourself?

WONG: I suspected you might ask me that question. I suspect my partner probably wouldn’t want that to discuss that with you on national television.

CURTIS: Penny Wong, thank you very much for your time. Good to speak with you.

WONG: Good to speak with you, Lyndal.