720 ABC Sydney Mornings with Deborah Cameron - 07/10/2010

07 October 2010

JOURNALIST: Now the Finance Minister is really minister in charge of managing the deficit and headline writers have absolutely loved her elevation, dubbing her Ms Money Penny after Ms personal secretary in the James Bond series.
Shes in Sydney today and Penny Wong joins me now. Good morning Minister.
WONG: Good morning there is no James Bond in this equation...
JOURNALIST: How do you feel about being dubbed Ms Money Penny?
WONG: Well actually Joseph Ludwig, the Minister for Agriculture, was the first person to make the joke. I called him Farmer Joe and he called me Ms Money Penny. I actually said its Ms No Money Penny. Headline writers like various ways of talking about your name and what you do, so this is the way some have chosen. JOURNALIST: I like the way you actually combined another James Bond character in the response to that because Dr No was another James Bond character.
WONG: (laughs) Thats true!
JOURNALIST: So in your role as Finance Minister, do you expect to have to have a sort of lethal intent when you approach matters of the budget?
WONG: There has to be a single-minded intent and that is to do what we said we would do. And that is to bring the budget back to surplus three years early and three years ahead of schedule, and well ahead of most of the other advanced economies in the world.
JOURNALIST: I wonder though whether thats a sort of unrealistic thing to do. I mean youve got this situation where theres a hugely almost exaggerated concentration on this issue of reining in the deficit when the Australian economy is the envy of the world and our deficit by international standards is low.
The Reserve Bank said a couple of days ago that it wasnt ready to lower interest rates. Youve got employment figures out today who knows what theyll say; business confidence wavers. It would appear that you have still got a lot of concern about a two-speed economy and small business in particular worried about the withdrawal of any support including government stimulus. So in a way a deficit is an ongoing government stimulus. Is it smart to be thinking about concentrating only on reducing the deficit?
WONG: Making sure we get back to surplus is the first priority. Were absolutely committed to that and we will work with the Parliament to deliver that. But of course there are a range of other economic plans youve got to put in place. Youve got to make sure you build up the capacity of the economy. You invest in infrastructure, you invest in skills, you invest in the NBN. There are a range of economic plans and economic priorities that you have to put in place.
Bringing the budget back to surplus is the first priority, an absolute priority. But you have to do more to build the capacity of the economy. If we think about it this way: the priority of the last term was to avert recession and support Australian jobs. What is the priority of this term? It is to manage growth for the long term. The first part of that is to bring the budget back into surplus but in addition we have to increase the economys capacity. That means investing in Australian skills, investing in infrastructure, investing in the National Broadband Network.
JOURNALIST: Now the interesting thing though that youre now confronted with is this reality of a Parliament which is on a knife edge and youve got a minority of interests there really dictating where that spending priority should be. Basically the Greens and the independents have a lot of money that they would like to see spent and youre going to have to resist some of their ideas.
But you need them. So, how do you re-order Government priorities so that youre still doing what you see as the main thing at the same time as you deliver to them the things that will keep them on your team?
WONG: As I have said and as the Prime Minister has made clear, we can negotiate on many things in this Parliament and we will. We understand we are going to have to bring the Parliament with us in the national interest on a range of reforms. One thing we are not able to negotiate on because it would not be in the national interest to do so, is the return to surplus. And weve made that very clear.
Now I think the independents, in looking at which of the major parties they would support to form government, showed a great deal of economic responsibility. The fact that Mr Abbott had an $11 billion black hole in his costings was obviously a factor in their considerations. We certainly would, I think, have them to thank for bringing that very much into the public gaze and holding the Opposition accountable for that. But I have no doubt we have to work very closely with the Parliament. I think its very important that we do try and all look to the national interest. Sometimes peoples views about that may vary. But there is a very clear case for running a very responsible economic program, and thats the one we will be pressing with the Australian Parliament.
JOURNALIST: But you still have to deal with the political reality of what western Sydney needs, for example, compared with what the regions say they need. Now that you have acertain amount of money that can be allocated. Will you have to sort of spend a lot more money in the regions and forego spending lets say on rail links in Sydney that were promisedin the federal campaign?
WONG: Our intention is to deliver our election commitments. We understand we have to work with the Parliament to deliver those and weve already approached the sort of issue youve outlined in a very responsible way. If you look at what weve set down as our commitments to regional Australia in our agreements with Mr Oakeshott and Mr Windsor, weve made clear that there is a regional priority given in terms of the next round of the Health and Hospitals Fund.
But weve also said that funding will have to be offset and that funding will have to be for projectsthat are meritorious and ticked off by the relevant boards. Well have to navigate the daily politics. We know that. But we should do that also seeking to chart the course for the long-term. And thats the challenge of this Government, and thats the way in which well be approaching it.
JOURNALIST: Fiscal rectitude is really on your watch. Thats the thing you have to be worried about. Youve mentioned the NBN rollout as a priority and a strength of your arm as the Government. ButMr Turnbull has said that that shouldnt proceed unless there is a kind of cost-benefit analysis, a business case for rolling out the NBN. If fiscal rectitude matters, is he right?
WONG: I also see that Mr Turnbull has indicated that even if the cost-benefit analysis showed that the NBN should be supported, that he would be unlikely to change the position that Mr Abbott has which is to not support it.
So you have to ask its all very well to say we want a cost-benefit analysis but if Tony Abbott and Malcolm Turnbull are essentially saying regardless of whatever that says, we would still oppose the rollout of the National Broadband Network you have to question why theyre seeking this analysis. I have to say, not only during the election campaign but since, many Australians I talk to are extremely excited and extremely supportive of this new infrastructure, the infrastructure for this century that will be a platform for the delivery of a range of services to homes and a whole range of new technologies. So this is very important technology for Australias future.
JOURNALIST: But as the Finance Minister, youre seeing an enormous allocation of Government effort and resources going into this one goal. Do you have to, in a way, make the case for no and make everybody work twice as hard to get their hands on Government support for this project? Because of the problems of the possibility that money will be misspent, misallocated, mismanaged.
WONG: Its all of our responsibility, but of course including mine, to make sure whether its this project or any other Government program that its delivered well. That financial and operational risk are properly managed. Were no different to any other business except that this is the business of national government. You have to ensure that you correctly assess the risks, you test them and you have in place a robust framework to manage them. Thats the way well be approaching the National Broadband Network.
I think Australians do expect us to do that. But I think Australians also want and understand that having this sort of infrastructure that enables high speed internet access, high speed data being able to be transmitted which enables the delivery of services that we havent seen before. This is a good thing for our country, particularly a country of our size.
JOURNALIST: My guest this morning is Senator Penny Wong, who is the Federal Finance Minister.
I would like to slightly change tact because you replaced Lindsay Tanner in this job. He left because he said that he had family responsibilities little girls who needed to see him. Now women in senior levels of government and boards are pretty scarce and the big companies are saying that well reach 10 per cent, havent we done well. Now of course youve got a woman Prime Minister and weve got someone like you. But I look at the two of you and see very unique women in a way able to be workaholics if thats whats required. When you look at the Australian landscape and go around meeting boards as you do, what do you think about that issue?
WONG: Well first on Lindsay, he was a great finance minister and I have very big shoes to fill. I certainly approach this job with that very clearly front of mind. In terms of women, whether its in this job or in any other, I suppose I take this view. And its the view I had when I was one of the people advocating very strongly for affirmative action targets inside the Labor Party. And I said at the time, and this was in the mid-90s, I think we had less than 20 per cent something like 15 per cent of women at that point in pre-selected safe seats or in pre-selected positions. And I said, look, if were 50 per cent or 51 per cent of the country and about 49 per cent of the Party, and were less than 20 per cent in the Parliament, there are really only two explanations. Either were not smart enough or theres something else stopping women getting there.
I think its a great shame when any organisation deals itself out of the abilities and talents of half the population. So Id encourage the boards of Australia and the companies of Australia to look to increasing the number of women that they bring up through the ranks. I think there has been some improvement which we welcome but obviously there is some way to go.
JOURNALIST: And I wanted to take you back, if I can, to just not that far off 12 months ago. If I could return you again to Copenhagen where you were then. And you were there and very close to Mr Rudd, working at that time. Now did you feel at that time that the fate of the Prime Minister and possibly the Government was on the line there in Copenhagen?
WONG: I think what I probably felt most was that the weight of the expectations of not just this generation, but future generations, was on us. And it was a very difficult period because we worked and Kevin worked enormously hard and I worked very hard. And the fact that we got an agreement at all was in significant part due to Australias efforts and also Kevins efforts personally. But I certainly felt at the time that this was an issue, a problem, a challenge so great that the leaders of all our nations had to step up. And if we did not that we would be judged harshly by future generations. So I think it was a very difficult time. We made some important steps but theres no doubt theres more to be done.
JOURNALIST: Thank you very much for coming in this morning Senator Senator, yes, Minister as well thank you very much.
WONG: Penny is fine! Nice to see you again Deb.
JOURNALIST: Ms Money Penny as the headline writers call her, Senator Penny Wong whos the Federal Finance Minister.