Monday, May 09, 2011

A Penny for her thoughts. Wong on making Tuesday's budget.

Finance Minister Penny Wong says she has prepared a “Labor budget” and has at times had to stand up to the prime minister to do it.

Speaking to the Herald ahead of her first budget in the role Senator Wong said she had a dress rehearsal with the flood levy package in January which made $3 billion of savings by scrapping programs such as the poorly-conceived cash for clunkers scheme.

“It’s an arduous process, although very intellectually interesting. I have managed to get home to Adelaide only once in the past few weeks,” she said.

Sitting around the cabinet table at times until ten at night with expenditure review committee members including the treasurer and prime minister her role has been to sometimes say no and to always “argue for better decisions”.

“I have been trying to remind them of opportunity cost. When you think about a proposal you need to think about what other spending that proposal would cut off. The job is to bring minds back to core priorities.”

Those priorities are returning the budget to surplus and expanding employment opportunities...

“I disagree with those who claim this isn’t a Labor budget,” Ms Wong said.

“Labor values are about enabling opportunity. In this budget, at this time, with the economy growing we are able to do that.”

“And ensuring the budget is sustainable is a Labor value. We need ensure we can continue to afford a safety net. People who say they are progressive and care about the effect of climate change on future generations should also care about the financial legacy we leave future generations.”

Asked whether she has always won her fights in the committee she says she has tried to “win more than I lose”.

Has she had to argue against proposals put up by the prime minister?

“My job is to put my view on any proposal regardless of who puts it forward,” she replies.

Asked whether she won the day on those occasions she replies, “the prime minister is the prime minister, let’s just say that.”

Alongside the closing of tax loopholes and saying no to a raft of new spending proposals much of the saving in Tuesday’s budget will come from simply increasing the so-called efficiency dividend facing each department from 1.25 to 1.5 per cent.

Ms Wong rejects the suggestion that its an easy way out.

“Ministers such as myself shouldn’t be deciding which stationary departments buy,” she says. “The departments are in the best position to do that.”

She confesses to a slight fear they will make deliberately unpopular savings, something she refers to as the “Washington Monument syndrome” after an episode of the West Wing in bureaucrats cuts by the opening hours of the monument in order in order to garner public support.

“I think the professionalism of the public service will protect us against that,” she said, adding that it was “human not to be too pleased about being asked to save money.”

Published in today's SMH and Age

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