4 June 2013




SPEERS: I’m joined now by Finance Minister, Senator Penny Wong. Thanks for your time.

WONG: Good to be with you.

SPEERS: Were you disappointed the Reserve Bank didn’t cut rates again today?

WONG: No, look, the Reserve judges monetary policy independently as it should. But let’s remember interest rates remain, as you said, at record lows and a family with a $300,000 mortgage is still $5,500 better off than they would have been, and really demonstrates that the Government has made the right calls when it comes to the Budget.

SPEERS: There are, however, a lot of people out there hurting; feeling the pressure of cost of living expenses. The Reserve Bank does leave room open there for another cut – are you going to encourage them to do so?

WONG: That’s a matter for them and their statement speaks for itself. But, look, you’re right. We’ve got an economy that’s resilient unlike most other economies around the world, but there are a lot of people who aren’t doing it easy. So what you’ve got to continue to make sure is you create jobs, you do what’s right for jobs and growth, because that is the best way to help people with cost of living.

SPEERS: A few weeks ago when the Budget was handed down the dollar was still above parity; it’s come off since then. What difference is that going to make and how long until we notice a difference?

WONG: Well, obviously, for exporters and firms which are competing with imports, a lower dollar, they would tell you, is a better thing. In terms of what effect it would have on the Budget that obviously depends on what else happens in the Budget. But, certainly, you’d have to say for our exporters have been asking for a lower dollar for a long time, so I’m sure many of them would prefer the dollar to be where it is now than where it was.

SPEERS: But one of the reasons the Reserve Bank has given over recent times for its actions has been trying to reign in that high dollar. Has that job been done?

WONG: Look, I think the way the Reserve expresses it, and I think they did so again today, is they say: ‘Look, the dollar looks higher thank it might otherwise be’ but, the way they look at it is: what is the effect of that on the economy when they come to adjusting interest rates, and that’s what they’ve done. They’ve chosen to hold rates, as I’ve said, at record lows. What the Reserve is looking at, and what we are looking at as a Government, are the serious economic transitions which Australia is confronting, and how do we assure our future and make sure we make the right decisions now to assure that future?

SPEERS: Just on the dollar, it’s still at around 97 US cents – that is still too high for many of those manufacturers, like those in the car industry trying to keep afloat. Would you like to see it come down and should the Reserve Bank be doing more about that?

WONG: Monetary policy is a matter for the Reserve Bank. In terms of the effect of the dollar, as one of the economic ministers in the Government I’m under no illusions about how hard the higher dollar has been for some firms, and a lot of Australian firms have had to make some really big decisions around changing their business models to deal with the higher dollar and they’ve done so very, very well.

SPEERS: Let’s move on: a number of polls out today – none of them good news for Labor. Do you really think Labor can still win this election?

WONG: We’re in a very tough fight. But I have to say the way you deal with a tough fight is to fight. And that’s what we’ve got to keep doing. And I think what’s important to remember is what we’re fighting for. You don’t just fight for yourself, you don’t just fight for your colleagues – all of that is important – but you’re actually fighting for a particular view, a vision of where you think the country needs to go. A choice about what sort of future Australia wants. Now, I’m a member of the Labor Party and I think we need a Government that will continue to put jobs first as opposed to the mindless austerity which the Liberals, quite frankly, are clearly going to put in place if they were to win government.

SPEERS: I accept that’s your motivation here, but is it helped by Labor’s own actions, on things as recently as last week, the Party funding debacle. Do you acknowledge that Labor’s not helping itself?

WONG: Well, we can go into that – there’s a lot of column inches on that particular topic, and as you know there was a lot of discussion with Mr Abbott and his representatives on that. But, I think, leaving that aside, elections are always a choice about the country. They’re always about a choice about the future. And our job as Labor people is to fight for the future we want. A future that is about every child having the opportunity they deserve instead of, as would happen under Mr Abbott, children in classrooms that aren’t as resourced as they should be. And it is about a Government that’s prepared to put jobs first and growth first…

SPEERS: But if all that’s true, how have you ended up in this situation?

WONG: Look, that’s a topic that I’m sure everybody will have a different set of views on…

SPEERS: What’s yours?

WONG: Well, this is a very tough game. And we have been up against a very tough fighter – a man who is very good at marshalling the negative. I guess the one question I would ask you is….

SPEERS: Labor’s been pretty negative…

WONG: Well, one of the things I would say to you is… ask people to consider and ask you to consider what sort of country Tony Abbott wants to bring about. Do you think it’s a country that is fairer or stronger or smarter? I don’t think so.

SPEERS: Well, you’ve been asking that and people seem to have made their judgement. Tony Abbott is now well clear of Julia Gillard as preferred Prime Minister.

WONG: And our job as the Labor Party, as I said, in a tough fight, is to fight for the things that we really believe in. Things like the education reforms. Things like job creation, where we have a very proud record – over 900, 000 jobs created since we came to Government. And I think that when people say: ‘Oh, look, these things don’t matter, politics doesn’t matter’, well, it matters to the 900,000 plus Australians who have jobs. DisabilityCare matters to Australians with a disability – it would never have been put on the agenda but for a Labor Government. Increases in the pension matters to pensioners. Politics does matter.

SPEERS: But can you win the election to bed all that down?

WONG: I think we can but there is no doubt it’s a very tough fight.

SPEERS: Alright. What did you make of Joel Fitzgibbon today making light of Labor talking points on polls.

WONG: Well, it doesn’t really accord with how I believe we should be fighting every day up until the next election…

SPEERS: It was unhelpful?

WONG: Well, I think Joel can explain to his electors how that was helpful to the Labor cause and to their interests.

SPEERS: What about Laurie Ferguson? He told Caucus today that Labor’s dead in Western Sydney unless you can do a better job explaining your position on border protection.

WONG: To be honest, I’m sorry to do this to you, but I actually wasn’t in Caucus today because I had a personal matter I had to deal with…

SPEERS: But on this issue of asylum seekers, is it really hurting in Western Sydney?

WONG: What I’d say on asylum seekers is we’ve seen over the last few days the Coalition’s policy to be a complete shambles and to be based on a lie. I mean, what Ms Bishop is saying was said by the Indonesians is clearly not true, and clearly the Indonesians have made clear they’re not into agreeing to have boats turning back. So the whole basis of the ‘stop the boats’ – which has now morphed into something like ‘reduce the boats’ or something else – that Tony Abbott’s putting forward, is untrue.

SPEERS: But what about the mess that’s happened on Labor’s watch?

WONG: And how much of that do you think of that is as a result of the Coalition wanting to ensure there is no passage through the Parliament of some key reforms. I mean….

SPEERS: I think a lot of it probably has to do with dismantling the Pacific Solution in the first place…

WONG: David, I think that this is a really complicated policy issue and I don’t think anybody in this debate – as much as the Coalition will come in here and tell you they’ve got the solution – anybody has the answer to the complexity and the scale of what’s occurring. What I can tell you is there’s one party that’s actually trying to work its way through these policy issues – that’s the Labor Party. And the Coalition is trying to play politics with it, as we have seen from Julie Bishop’s comments.

SPEERS: Final issue: the battle for Batman – Martin Fergusons’s seat that he’s leaving at the election. David Feeney is hoping to take the seat, moving from the Senate. He’s one of your Senate frontbench colleagues. You don’t think he should take the seat?

WONG: Look, I think that we’ve got two very good candidates and I think that ultimately this is a decision for the local branch members, as it should be. The point I’ve been making as someone who’s been arguing for affirmative action for a very long time in the Party is a matter of principle. We’ve still got a long way to go when it comes to a Parliament representing our community when it comes to the number of women in Parliament. Now, Labor’s doing a lot better than the Coalition, but I think it is always incumbent on someone like myself to continue to remind the Party about why we do this. And we do this because we want to reflect our community and we want to ensure women are in Parliament.   

SPEERS: Shouldn’t it go to the best candidate?

WONG: Yeah, I love this argument about merit. If you look at the whole Parliament there are less than 30 per cent women. That means there are almost twice as many men. So, you tell me, do you think men are two times better?

SPEERS: Not at all.

WONG: Well, then… yeah, you better say that (laughs)… No, my point is you either say ‘Well, men aren’t two times better than women, therefore something else is stopping them, therefore you need a system that tries to deal with that’, or you’re back in the world that says ‘Well, if it’s only on merit than the existing system clearly means women aren’t up to it’.

SPEERS: You’re absolutely right. Labor has had a rule in place that about 40 per cent of candidates should be women – in Victoria I think it’s only going to be 27 per cent…

WONG: Of held seats…

SPEERS: Of held seats. Are you surprised therefore that the Prime Minister is backing David Feeney?

WONG: Ultimately this is a matter for local branch members. I’ve urged them to consider a woman. And I felt it was appropriate for me to say, as someone whose been…

SPEERS: But what about the Prime Minister?

WONG: I’ve been a strong advocate inside the Party for a long time for affirmative action, and from time to time I think it’s appropriate that I say something and I think Jenny Macklin obviously…

SPEERS: She has too. But not the Prime Minister – she’s backing David Feeney.

WONG: I’m not going to get involved in commentary on what someone might or might not be saying. I am here to talk about what I think…

SPEERS: Is it disappointing? I mean, David Feeney says she is supporting him.

WONG: Well, there are two principles here I think are important. One is local rank-and-file pre-selection – that’s my approach. I said that they should consider supporting a woman. And the second principle which I will continue to advocate and have advocated for many years is that we should try and meet our affirmative action targets because they are a reflection of our democracy.

SPEERS: Penny Wong, we’ll have to leave it there. Thanks for joining us.

WONG: Good to speak with you.