17 October 2011




GILBERT: We’re joined now by the Finance Minister, Senator Penny Wong. Good morning Minister.

WONG: Good morning. Good to be with you.

GILBERT: The Prime Minister is expected to read the riot act to your colleagues. Are you expecting that over those asylum seeker leaks last week?

WONG: Clearly, Cabinet discussions are confidential, that’s what they should remain. And the Prime Minister is a very strong leader, a very determined leader, determined to do what’s right for the country and I’m sure that’s the approach she’ll take to all matters.

GILBERT: It seems so counter-productive, so damaging for a Government that’s already struggling.

WONG:  I think everybody knows Cabinet discussions are confidential and certainly that’s the view I take. But I would say in relation to last week, I think the most important thing for the country was of course the passage of the carbon price through the House of Representatives.  A very great achievement for Prime Minister Gillard and the Government. Minority government delivering something that was promised by John Howard over half a decade ago and now will be debated in the Senate to become the law of the land.

GILBERT: You worked obviously a lot in that area –

WONG: A bit, just a little.

GILBERT: Lost a fair bit of sleep over that?

WONG: (laughs) That’s right.

GILBERT: Do you have any regrets? Because certainly there are members of the Government who are still scratching their heads as to the timing of the debate, and the focus on asylum seekers the day after you have that legislative win. It seems this Government can’t take a trick.

WONG: Well remember, the date for the debate and the vote on the climate change legislation and the Clean Energy Future legislation had been set for some time. I think it was also very important after Mr Crook made his decision that the Prime Minister and the Minister for Immigration made clear to the nation what would happen as a result of Mr Abbott, Tony Abbott’s, refusal to support something he says he agrees with.

GILBERT: But you have control of the legislative agenda. You could have delayed that. It just seems to distract from the one big win that you have.

WONG: Hang on – we can have a tactical discussion but let’s think about the actual policy reform. We put in place through the House of Representatives; we have managed to get legislation for a carbon price. Something that John Howard promised that hasn’t been able to be achieved until now because of political discord. And minority government has managed to win a vote on the floor of the House of Representatives. And now we’ll debate the matter in the Senate. This is a good outcome.

GILBERT: What about the outcome of the asylum seeker issue? It’s not actually what the Government had hoped, or what the Prime Minister had hoped to be policy. Do you feel comfortable with the outcome, with onshore processing?

WONG: I don’t feel comfortable with Tony Abbott and the way he has approached this. The outcome we hoped for -

GILBERT: What about the Government policy?

WONG: Hang on, but Kieran the outcome we hoped for was that for once in his life Tony Abbott would think about the nation and the national interest. For once in his life. But instead what we are seeing, is a man who says I support offshore processing but I will not vote for it in the parliament. I will vote with Bob Brown in the parliament. That’s what Tony Abbott has been saying.

Confronted with that, obviously the Government doesn’t have the numbers to get this through the Parliament. And the Government has announced that we will leave the amendments on the table. If Mr Abbott ever decides to be responsible, we’ll pass them through the Parliament. But until then, he’s effectively prevented any offshore processing.

GILBERT: Do you feel comfortable with onshore processing? Is that what you would have preferred anyway?

WONG: My preference would have been for the Government’s position to have won out. And let’s remember what the Government’s position was. We put forward amendments to the legislation that would have enabled Tony Abbott to implement Nauru as well as Prime Minister Gillard to implement the Malaysia arrangements. So he voted against those. We didn’t ask him to endorse anything.
We said, this is the power that the Government of the day should have. I accept the advice, the same advice that is given to our Government, the same advice that was given also to Tony Abbott that Nauru does provide an effective deterrent. That the most effective deterrent on the table is the arrangement with Malaysia.

GILBERT: And you weren’t able to establish that as we know.

WONG: Correct.

GILBERT: Doesn’t that then look dysfunctional? That the Government can’t even implement a policy in an area of very big importance, that is border protection?

WONG: What is dysfunctional is this Leader of the Opposition. He is the most destructive political leader that Australia has seen, certainly that I can recall. He has deliberately trashed the national interest on this. That is what is dysfunctional.

GILBERT: I want to ask you about the economy and the G20 areas of your direct responsibility. I won’t focus much on the opinion polls, I’ll just get your thoughts on, it would be remiss of me not to, it’s a news channel, and we’ve got to talk about it.

WONG: (laughs) And there’s a new poll every few weeks, so you could always talk about it. I think I’ve done many interviews with you Kieran, over a number of years now, and you usually ask me about the polls, and I usually say to you that, really, I’m focused on delivering the outcomes and the policy, and on governing, not about the polls.

GILBERT: So what about this little nudge up in the polls, is that encouraging at all?

WONG: Our focus is on governing, and there’s some very difficult reforms. Carbon is a very difficult reform, it’s had a very chequered political history, hasn’t it, in terms of leaders –

GILBERT: Well, let’s move on, in respect of George Megalogenis and Annabel Crabb, and others, who have gone ‘poll turkey.’

WONG: There you go, you should try it. (laughs)

GILBERT: I’ll get some therapy. Let’s look at the G20 now. Wayne Swan has led the attack on European efforts to tackle the debt crisis. Even if the European leaders come up with a package next week that’s acceptable, it’s likely Greece is going to default anyway, isn’t it?

WONG: First, Europe has to act. And at the EU Summit, October 23rd, which is the focus of much of the discussion, there has to be decisive action there. I think the markets, and the world, need to see that the Europeans are acting to deal with this issue. It is a difficult issue, there’s a lot of painful adjustments involved for the EU.

But, it is critical that leaders act – I think that’s been the very clear message at the G20 Finance Minister’s discussion that the Treasurer’s been involved in.

GILBERT: But isn’t there a sense that it’s a loss, it’s going to be a loss anyway, that Greece will default? That no matter what they do, that economy is headed for default?

WONG: Certainly, there are a lot of sovereign debt issues in Greece, aren’t there. I mean, that is one of the significant issues that is undermining confidence in the markets, and that’s been the case for some time. But rather than getting into what might or might not happen, I think Australia’s taken a very responsible position. We are saying, look you have to have decisive action, Europe has to act, we’ve had a lot of kicking the can down the road. We need a very clear resolution, because this is not just a European matter, this is a global matter.

GILBERT: Even if Australia avoids recession, in a double-dip recession – if this does end up heading that way – is it going to be difficult, more difficult, to manage in terms of the labour market, given that we’re starting at a higher point: over 5 per cent this time around?

WONG: We’re an economy in the global economy. We’re not immune from what happens globally. And we see a lot of volatility, and yes it does make things more difficult. But we do have a lot of strength in the Australian economy, and we’ve got to remember our unemployment rate is very low, particularly when you compare it to where other countries are. I mean, 5.2 per cent – Europe’s around 10 per cent, America’s just over 9 per cent.

So, in terms of the labour market, the Australian labour market has done pretty well over the last few years. Which is a credit, not only to the Government’s stimulus package, but also to business, and to people in the workforce.

GILBERT: I want to ask you just one last question before you go. The global protests against corporate greed have arrived in Australia: Sydney, Melbourne, other capital cities saw them on the weekend. Do you empathise with the concerns of these protesters?

WONG: This is a democracy, people can protest, they can say what they want around particular issues. I think there is a sense that some people have about a lack of security, which is why it’s so important for the Government to do what it’s doing, which is run a very sensible fiscal strategy, making sure that we keep stable economic management.

GILBERT: Minister, appreciate your time today. Thanks.

WONG: Good to be with you.