13 October 2012




KENNY: Thanks for joining us, Minister.

WONG: Good to be with you again Chris, on a rather chilly Saturday morning.

KENNY: Indeed. Minister, why did the Prime Minister and the Government vote to keep Peter Slipper in the Speaker’s job?

WONG: Can I say first that the text messages that were made public were completely offensive. The motion before the Parliament as you know though wasn’t about those text messages. It was a political stunt from the Leader of the Opposition and the Government believed that you need to deal with the institution of the Speaker in a more appropriate way than through the sort of political stunt in Question Time that Tony Abbott wanted to play.

KENNY: Well the Speaker holds the job by dint of his or her confidence from the Parliament, it is the Parliament who appoints the Speaker, and they need to maintain the respect of the Parliament and the support of the Parliament. So why would the Government and the Prime Minister vote to support Peter Slipper when it was clear from these text messages that he could no longer uphold the authority and dignity of the Chair?

WONG: Can we recall that Mr Slipper has in fact resigned. And it was the appropriate thing to do for Mr Slipper to resign –

KENNY: Well if I could just interrupt you there, Minister, isn’t that exactly the point? The Prime Minister and the Government voted to keep him in his job, yet even some hours later the Speaker himself realised that he could no longer uphold the dignity and authority of the chair. So he actually saw that this was untenable himself, even though the Government and the Prime Minister were supporting him.

WONG: Chris, I refer you back to my first answer. It is about how you deal with the institution of the Speaker, which as you rightly point out, is an important office. If Tony Abbott really cared about the institution of Speaker, do you think he would have approached it in the way that he did? Or do you think perhaps he would have gone to the crossbenchers, had a discussion about the fact that he thought a no-confidence motion was appropriate, and so forth? That’s not how it was approached. You and I both know this was done by Tony Abbott as a political stunt at Question Time when the gallery was sitting there because he wanted to make a political point.

Now, don’t judge a government, don’t judge individuals, in terms of whether or not they support those sorts of text messages by whether or not they voted on that motion. No-one supports the sorts of attitudes which were on display in those text messages which are public. It’s a question of how you deal most appropriately with this.

KENNY: But Minister you and I both know that if Tony Abbott had not moved that motion, and brought the focus of the Parliament onto this issue, Peter Slipper would still be Speaker, with the support of the Prime Minister. In fact he’d be winging his way off to Canada and Argentina now, representing Australia.

WONG: I think that’s a hypothetical, and I don’t agree that you and I both know that. I think if you saw… when we all saw the Speaker resign, we saw what sort of emotional state he was in, and I think it is incumbent upon the Parliament to handle these matters appropriately.

KENNY: So you think it was the right thing for him to resign –

 WONG: Yes I do.

KENNY: – but somehow it was the right thing for the Prime Minister to support him and the Government to vote for him.

WONG: No, it was the right thing for the Government to refuse to support a political stunt from the Leader of the Opposition, Chris.

KENNY: On these so-called ‘gender wars’, and the claims of misogynism – you’ve been critical of Tony Abbott as well on this. When is this going to end? Is Tony Abbott to be labelled a misogynist from now until the election? Or, how do you think this issue can be resolved?

WONG: I’m the Minister for Finance, and I’m always happy to talk about matters of the economy and matters financial. But I also think the Prime Minister and others are entitled to call things as they see them. And whatever your views about Tony Abbott, he has a long record of making statements which I don’t think are respectful of women. And to point that out is not to be engaging in some sort of low campaign. It’s to point out what we regard, and what many men and women in Australia, as the truth. If people make statements like that, on the public record –

KENNY: Are these statements hateful towards women? Misogynist as the Prime Minister has claimed?

WONG: Let’s just track through some of them. I mean, Tony Abbott’s on the record while he was a Minister as saying it was a good thing that women had less power. He’s on the record as saying women are less appropriate to exercise authority and issue command. He’s been quite happy to stand up in front of signs which describe the Prime Minister of this country as a “witch” and a man’s “bitch”. And he’s hurled a lot of invective at her, including that she “should make an honest woman of herself”. Now Chris, you might want to call it something different but the label, I think, is not the issue; I know that you’ve written about this. The issue is the content, and what that says about your attitude to women.

KENNY: Well in 2002 in Parliament, Mark Latham said to the Parliament that Janet Albrechtson, a columnist at the Australian and a former board member of the ABC was a ‘skanky ho, who would die in a ditch to defend the Liberal Party’. He subsequently became the leader of the Labor Party, and you served under him on the frontbench. Did you ever raise that language with him?

WONG: No, but I’ve said subsequently that was offensive.

KENNY: But you were happy to advocate for him to be Prime Minister of the country.

WONG: Chris, he was responsible for that comment and he needed to be held to account for that comment. But can I say, let’s not get into this situation where you’re somehow suggesting to me that unless I or any other woman – women that you know – speak out every single time we hear something we think is inappropriate, that we’re somehow not feminists, or we don’t stand up for women’s rights. You and I both know, every day we have to make decisions about what we say, what we criticise, and what we don’t speak out on. I mean the Prime Minister has, I think on any objective analysis, had to hold her tongue for a couple of years in circumstances where she has been the subject of more gendered invective than I think I’ve ever seen. Now, she’s made a decision to speak out, and I think it’s the right one.

KENNY: I think you’re right in that we don’t want to personalise this about any individual and the like, but it’s a matter of standards here, and whether you’re holding everybody to the same standards you wish to hold Tony Abbott to. And we saw that unfold of course this week, when your own Prime Minister and Deputy Prime Minister and other frontbenchers were at that dinner in Canberra and there was a horrible, sexist slur against Tony Abbott’s chief of staff. Where do you draw the line on this?

WONG: I’d make a couple of comments. First, the function was attended by a number of people. The Prime Minister I understand had already left by the time the comedian made the joke. The joke was offensive; it should not have been made. It was not a joke – it was, as you say, a slur. But I think there is a difference between that and Tony Abbott actually saying things. I understand this issue about standards, and in all of our lives we try to maintain our standards around how we think people should be treated. And sometimes I think it is difficult for women, and men, about when do you speak out and when don’t you. Because you know what happens if you speak out too much, people do label you as a bit precious, or a bit of a whiner.

KENNY: So do you think this misogynist debate, I suppose, this ‘gender wars’ we’ve been having over the past week, will be put back in the cupboard now, do you think we’ll move on? Or do you think this is a serious attack that you want to keep going, a central part of the political debate through to the next election.

WONG: I think the next election will be about many things, including who’s best placed to manage the economy in a time when we see what’s happening in the global economy, which as you know, Chris, has weakened since the Budget more than was anticipated by anybody.  But I think –

KENNY: Well that is the cue for us to get back onto the economy.

WONG: Can I just make one point. I don’t want a war, I don’t think anybody wants a ‘gender war’, as you coin it. I want to focus on things which are important to Australians. I also think that one of those things is people being able to call things as they see them if people don’t behave appropriately.

KENNY: Now I agree with you, but I think it’s the Prime Minister who’s shifted the debate onto this topic this week. Look let’s try and finish up on the economy. We’re looking at a mini-budget soon, the MYEFO statement, and essentially a mini-budget for you to protect the surplus. Are you looking at revenue measures as you frame that mini-budget?

WONG: Chris, you and I both know that Ministers before the Budget, or budget updates, don’t get into rule-in, rule-out. We are putting together this mid-year review in circumstances where the global economy has weakened since the Budget, and we’ve seen that in terms of the outlook and the forecasts the International Monetary Fund recently released. We’re also seeing in our region, growth slower than was anticipated. Now obviously that’s having an impact on the global economy, it’s having an impact on commodity prices, and inevitably those things have an impact on our Budget. It is important to remember Australia does face these global circumstances in a better position than almost any other economy in the world, and the International Monetary Fund has confirmed that by talking about the fact that we’re the advanced economy that is projected to grow fastest.

KENNY: Yeah, we wouldn’t expect you to rule out or in any specifics. But given that spending –

WONG: (laughs) But you’re still going to try and get me to, right?

KENNY: No, I don’t want to talk specifics. We’ve seen government spending increase by $100 billion since you came to office. You’re talking about the need to cut your cloth and to deliver that surplus. I just want to know whether you think you can do that by focusing on savings measures, or whether revenue measures are in the mix.

WONG: You used one figure, I’ll use two others. We’ve had $150 billion taken off government revenue as a result of the global financial crisis. That’s the cumulative loss in revenue from what was forecast prior to the GFC over a five-year period. So I think it’s wrong to say that spending is the only thing that’s driven the budget position. In terms of restraint in spending, over the forward estimates our spending tracks, as a percentage of GDP, for a sustained period at under 24 per cent. Now, the last time any Government achieved that restraint in spending for that period of time was the 1980s. So I don’t think you should take on board some of the bluster from Joe Hockey around spending. We’re demonstrating more spending restraint than was demonstrated for a substantial period under the Howard Government.

KENNY: Alright, Penny Wong, thanks very much for your time today.

WONG: Good to speak with you again, Chris.