19 July 2012




PERRIN: Senator, welcome to the radio.

WONG: Good to be with you.

PERRIN: What brings you to Darwin?

WONG: Well, I’ve got the flu and I wanted some warmer weather (laughs) …

PERRIN: (laughs) That’ll fix it for you.

WONG: It is wonderful to be here. But, seriously, it’s a visit because particularly Trish Crossin has been saying to me ‘come up’ for some time, so I’ve had a good opportunity to talk to some local businesses, talk to the Palmerston City Council, have a chat last night at a function for some of our women candidates in the NT election. It’s been a great opportunity. It’s a lovely part of Australia.

PERRIN: Understandably you are a strong advocate for women in politics. You got involved, what, about eighteen?

WONG: Yeah, that’s right; involved in formal politics at about that age, that’s right.

PERRIN: What generated the passion in Labor?

WONG: I think I’ve always believed in principles of social justice but more so the importance of a strong economy, and Labor really exemplifies those values.

PERRIN: At the moment it seems as if Labor is struggling to get a bit of traction, or the Government more to the point. What do you think is the reason behind this?
WONG: I’m sure lots of political commentators will make a lot of judgements about that. Certainly we’ve got a program that’s got a number of fairly controversial big reforms. The price on carbon and the mining tax were pretty hard fought, but I think they’re the right thing for the country’s future. But they come at a political price because, as I said, they’re controversial.

PERRIN: Will you ride it through?

WONG: Yes, I think we will. People often say to politicians: ‘We don’t want you to be poll driven. We don’t want you to just do what people think is popular or what talk-back radio wants us to do. We want you to do what you think is right for the country’. And I think these are reforms which are right for the country; they’re about building a stronger economy in the future, they’re about making sure we share the benefits of the boom. Here in the Territory you’ve got a great new project, but I’m sure that it’s going to bring with it some challenges in terms of where do you find the labour force –

PERRIN: Accommodation, yeah –

WONG: – and those sorts of issues. So these are the sorts of things we need to do to make sure we strengthen the economy in the future.

PERRIN: I guess it’s a bit of a ‘catch-22’ really. I mean, you’ve got to have the position to be able to make the decisions and to initiate these policies and projects and changes, but then you’ve got to hold that position to be able to see them through to the very end.

WONG: Well Pete, I think you’ve very succinctly identified the dilemma of making changes that aren’t popular. You do have to stay the course and you’ve got to withstand a fear campaign which I think will be found to be untrue.

PERRIN: I get to a point where I get, not disillusioned, but I get confused at times about politics, because I keep going back to the absolute, you know, the beginnings of what it’s meant to represent. And I think sometimes because of the hype and all the ‘BS’ we do hear on radio and we read in the newspaper and all the rest of it, we actually forget what the genesis was for the political parties in the first place.

WONG: I think it’s good to keep perspective, isn’t it?

PERRIN: Yeah, I think you have to.

WONG: I always make this comment when young people talk to me about politics; I say you can make a decision to not be interested, but you actually can’t make a decision not to be affected. Because the decisions politicians make affect people lives and they affect the opportunities you have and the opportunities you don’t have.

And when I talk about Labor, I say to people: think about what this country would have been without Medicare, without that public health system, without equal pay, without the introduction of things like the Sex Discrimination Act or the Racial Discrimination Act, or a fair industrial relations system. These are all things which go to making the Australia we have today and they’re there because Labor governments existed and Labor people put them into reality.

So politics does affect people’s lives and it’s important to remember sometimes, in terms of the hand-to-hand combat and the day-to-day argy bargy, that the most important thing is the things we do that affect the communities who elect us.

PERRIN: I think it gets a bit frustrating too, though, because the general population to a large degree… I mean it’s lovely to look at these social achievements that we’ve made, but then we get back to do people really take that much notice unless it affects their hip-pocket or their heartstrings I guess?

WONG: Cost of living is important, and when you talk about hip-pocket I think that’s what people mean. And we’ve tried to do things in the last Budget such as the School Kids Bonus and the increase to Family Tax Benefit that recognise cost of living issues. But you’re right, also what politics is about is to say to people let’s not only talk about what’s happening today. Let’s think about what’s happening in the next five, or 10, or 20 years.

We’re in a pretty unusual time in Australia’s history as we see China and Indonesia and Korea and Vietnam and all of the nations of Asia are increasingly becoming more affluent. We’ve got enormous opportunities and some challenges, and we have to work out how it is that we best take those opportunities, how we make sure our children have higher levels of prosperity than the ones we have, because that’s what we should be doing.

PERRIN: I spoke this morning to the head of the Northern Territory Cattlemen’s Association, Luke Bowen. We went through a tough time last year, when we stopped supplying cattle to Indonesia. We’re back doing it but apparently the demand or the allowed amount has been reduced. And there’s every possibility it’s going to reduce even further, but not necessarily because of those reasons. For reasons of what the Indonesian Government now seem to be concentrating on, and that is less reliance from outside their own borders.

WONG: It’s very important that we think through how it is that we have a long term and sustainable trade with Indonesia. They have a growing population and they obviously have an increasing market there. They also want to improve their own industry.

I know that when the President was here there were discussions about how it is we better integrate our industry and their industry and how it is we continue to supply into those markets. And I’m encouraged by the fact that that’s something that’s being discussed at the highest level. But it’s also something I hope the industry’s very closely engaged on at their level and I understand that they are.

PERRIN: Senator, do you think, as Luke was saying, this is going to require a reinvention of what we do with our cattle trade?

WONG: Luke is somebody who understands the industry first hand in a much more detailed way than I, but what he says holds true I’m sure for his industry but across the board. If you think about this as a subset of the growing middle class, not only in Indonesia but across Asia, as more and more people in this region have more disposable income, they’re going to want more of the goods and services and produce that people in Australia want.

Our challenge, I think as a nation, is how do we best supply to those markets and how do we position ourselves to supply to those markets. Whether it’s in terms of the live cattle or the meat industry or whether it’s other goods and services, I think that is the big challenge and opportunity for Australia over the next ten or 20 years.

PERRIN: Do you think the Government could have handled it better, in hindsight?

WONG: I don’t know that there is ever a time where you think everything you’ve done, you’ve done perfectly. Obviously we had a set of challenges then that we had to respond to, and which we’ve responded to. The Minister’s done a lot of work including with the Cattlemen’s Association and others to make sure that we have a sustainable industry in the years ahead and that’s the big objective: how do we make sure we continue this industry and trade in the decades ahead?

PERRIN: Now you met this morning, I believe, with the Chamber of Commerce.

WONG: I did.

PERRIN:  How was it?

WONG: It was good. It was pretty open and frank dialogue. I enjoy that sort of opportunity because often as Finance Minister, you’re obviously dealing with Budget numbers and big programs, it’s good sometimes to ‘get out on the hustings’, as it were, to talk directly to businesses, including small businesses, about how life is for them. So it was a really good opportunity. I appreciated their hospitality.

PERRIN: And, of course, you’re catching up or you have caught up with the Palmerston Council, the Mayor and CEO etc…

WONG: I caught up with them yesterday and they’re doing a lot of good work. It’s obviously a fast growing population, a pretty young population, and a number of new suburbs coming online, so they’ve got a great opportunity in terms of their planning and social infrastructure to really maximise the benefits for their community.

PERRIN: Senator, I’m going to let you go, but one question: I believe you could’ve been a doctor or a surgeon but you developed an aversion to blood.

WONG: I think I already had the aversion to blood, it just took me a while to realise it.

PERRIN: (laughs)

WONG: Yes, I was about 18. I took a year off after school. I decided that medicine wasn’t for me and I’d better do something else. So, this is where I’ve landed, as Minister for Finance.

PERRIN: Happy with your choice?

WONG: I am. I don’t think I would’ve been the world’s greatest doctor.

PERRIN: Senator Penny Wong, thanks for your time this morning. Hope you’ve had a good trip to Darwin and we will talk to you again in the near future I hope.

WONG: It was really good to speak with you.