E&OE - PROOF ONLY
GILBERT: Minister, thanks very much for your time. Prime Minister Rudd will be meeting with the Business Council this morning – what’s the Government’s message? What are you offering them?
WONG: Good to be here again, Kieran. As the Prime Minister said, it’s very important for any Government to continue to have good dialogue with business, and this is a priority for him. And we will make sure we have a good preliminary discussion about the things which are important to the country’s future: productivity, how we deal with the change in the global economy and how we make sure we keep the economy growing.
GILBERT: Isn’t Mr Rudd’s rhetoric about rebuilding the relationship and working with business … doesn’t it concede that the approach under the Labor Government thus far has been flawed? And, with you as a key member of the economics team, isn’t he suggesting that the Government hasn’t worked as well as you should have with business?
WONG: Well, Kieran, I am not going to get into – in any context of questions to me – some criticism of what’s gone before. My focus is on the future. On a very important set of economic challenges and on a very important set of political challenges, which is to make sure we can return the Labor Government that will continue to deliver opportunity to Australians, rather than have a man – Mr Abbott – who I don’t believe is worthy to be Prime Minister.
GILBERT: Mr Rudd says he wants to work with business though, but what sort of olive branch is it if you don’t have something to offer them?
WONG: There are very substantial challenges we as a nation have to meet, and the Prime Minister has gone through some of the changes in the global economy and particularly what’s happening in the Chinese economy. And the truth is, we’re best placed to meet them if we can work closely with all sectors of our community, whether it be unions, business and the community more generally.
GILBERT: The Business Council of Australia has called for a floating price – a floating carbon price. Will you be indicating your willingness to pursue that?
WONG: Well, I’m on record from my time as Climate Change Minister for advocating a floating price, but as you recall, unfortunately we didn’t get that through the Parliament because Tony Abbott opposed it and so did the Greens. But, we’re in a different world now and, with this as with anything, we will carefully consider the issues and we will always look at any policy issue recognising the importance of running a sound budget. That’s good for interest rates and that’s good for the economy.
GILBERT: Well, that’s the point isn’t it? Because if you did move to a floating price, it would leave a multi-billion dollar black hole when you factor in all the compensation that’s been paid. And you apparently are “Doctor No”, according to Mr Rudd, as Finance Minister…
WONG: (laughs) I’m not sure he’s seen the Bond film that he was referring to unknowingly, but anyway, that’s another matter. Finance Minister’s are supposed to be “Doctor No” and I’d refer you to what the new Minister for Climate Change, Mark Butler, has said. He’s made very clear that some of the issues you raise are precisely the sorts of issues we have to work through, whether it’s in this area or any other area of policy.
And can I just remind you why we do that – it’s not because we accept the Tony Abbott view of the world about austerity. We do recognise as a Government, though, that running sound and sensible fiscal policy is an important component of being responsible economic managers. And that’s why we see interest rates at record lows.
GILBERT: Now, you’ve challenged – or the Prime Minister has challenged – Mr Abbott to an economic debate. Now, he’s said he’s happy to debate but if you want to, why not recall the Parliament and you’ll have a debate every day. Isn’t your call for an economic debate between Mr Abbott and Kevin Rudd a stunt?
WONG: No. And isn’t it hilarious: Tony, big tough Tony, ‘I’m so tough I want to run the country, I’m so tough banging on about debt and deficit all over the country’, but he won’t step up to a debate with this Prime Minister on…
GILBERT: He’s happy to.
WONG: … on an issue that he thinks he owns – on an issue that he’s been banging on about for months, and months, and months. Well, what we say is: ‘Okay, Tony, we’ll debate you on the issue you’ve been campaigning on; we’ll debate you on debt and deficit’. The reason he doesn’t want to debate…
GILBERT: But why not do it in a proper forum? Do it in the Parliament?
WONG: Kieran, the reason he doesn’t want a debate is because he knows the facts do not support his scare campaign.
GILBERT: But why not do it in the Parliament?
WONG: That’s why he doesn’t want a debate.
GILBERT: But he’s just saying do it in the proper forum…
WONG: Well, you know the Parliament has risen for the time being. The Prime Minister has said: ‘Okay, you’re running around the country telling everyone that Australia’s debt is out of control. Let’s have a debate on the issue you’re campaigning on’. What does it say about Mr Abbott’s character and his lack of courage that he refuses to do so?
GILBERT: You have … again in the context as Finance Minister, looking at the numbers, you’re going to have to say ‘No’ to a few people, I would guess, in the lead up to the election as well, because there’s suggestions that the Government might reverse welfare changes that adversely affected single mothers – that again would be an expensive initiative.
WONG: And I’d make the point on sole parents as well that one of the things we did do in the Budget which I’m very pleased we did was to increase the income free area – so increase how much people on that payment could earn before they start losing some of their payments. You increase the incentive, you increase the reward for effort.
But whether it’s on this or any policy area, my approach will always be the same, that the judgement is: what are the policy priorities, how do we find room for them, and what are the savings we have to make in order to find room for them? Because, ultimately, it is important that any government and this Government continue to run a sensible fiscal policy. That’s an important component of economic management.
GILBERT: But you’re open to it; that idea?
WONG: No, I’m not going to be drawn on it, Kieran. I’m not.
GILBERT: But there’s obviously some within the Cabinet that want to do that.
WONG: Well, and it is reasonable for people, particularly people who are new to their portfolios, to scope issues in their portfolios and have discussions with stakeholders. But I’m the Finance Minister, and I’m not going to be drawn on every article that raises an issue that may or may not be under consideration.
GILBERT: Mr Rudd’s meant to be a more consultative person in his second iteration. But he didn’t phone Kate Lundy to tell her she was going to be dumped from the sports portfolio…
WONG: Well, I’m not going to comment on that matter, or those internal matters. I want to make a broader comment about two things. First, my observation is that since Kevin’s taken over the prime ministership he has engaged in a very collegiate manner, and certainly including with me on things like the makeup of the Ministry and the Cabinet, and I think that’s been a good thing.
And the second point I’d make is: he’s a man who’s gone through a lot. And, as we all know, in our personal lives, if you go through a substantial change – and he obviously went through some pretty big changes over the last few years – of course that’s going to make you reflect and consider things.
GILBERT: What do you say to suggestions that appointment … for argument’s sake, if we just look at one appointment, Tony Burke – that he’s moving into immigration – that that is a payback? Retribution for being such a strong supporter of Julia Gillard?
WONG: I think it is a demonstration of the confidence the Prime Minister and others – including me – have in Tony. He’s an outstanding performer and we’re putting him in one of our most difficult portfolios in the lead up to an election. It should be seen, and I think it is being seen, as a mark of great confidence.
GILBERT: All of the polls have shown a bounce, an immediate bounce. The question is how long will it remain. But, at this stage, does that vindicate the change to Rudd?
WONG: Well, look, I’ll leave that for commentators. My focus is on working with Kevin Rudd and the Cabinet to ensure Labor contests this election with…
GILBERT: Have you noticed a mood shift though? Are people more optimistic?
WONG: … we contest this election with vigour and with passion. Because what we are fighting for are things that matter. What we are fighting for are values of fairness, of opportunity, and the recognition that we can do, in Government, good things for the Australian people.
GILBERT: Has there been a mood shift within Labor, though? Is there more optimism?
WONG: Well, I think certainly that people are more upbeat. Obviously it was a pretty testing and bruising week last week, but people have really said: ‘Look, we’re drawing a line under that. We’ve got a job to do’. And it’s a job that’s not about us. It’s about the people we represent and the values we represent. That’s what this election’s about.
GILBERT: Minister, appreciate your time.
WONG: Thank you very much.