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Transcript of interview with Belinda Heggen: Radio FiveAA, Afternoons: 17 August 2012: YWCA conference; women on boards; marriage equality; Mike Rann; asylum seeker debate

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Parliament House, Canberra ACT 2600 Australia  Tel: (02) 6277 7400 Fax: (02) 6273 4110

PW 167/12 17 August 2012




HEGGEN: Our guest in the studio is Senator Penny Wong, our Federal Finance Minister. Hello Minister, thanks for your company today.

WONG: It’s good to be with you.

HEGGEN: Great to have you in the studio. Now, you’re just about to speak at a womens’ conference and you’ve been a keen advocate for getting more women onto our Government boards and private boards. Can you tell us a bit about that?

WONG: Sure. Well, firstly, the conference is run by the YWCA and it’s called ‘SHE Leads’. And it’s many young women from around the state talking about leadership and talking about how to be a leader - doing a bit of work on various aspects of that. And they’re also going to kick off a year long mentoring program. So that’s a really good initiative I think, and I’m very happy to have the opportunity to talk to a bunch of energetic women who are interested in doing things.

In terms of women on boards, it’s a very simple proposition really. We’ve got quite a few boards in Government, for different purposes and we’ve got a target of 40 per cent which we have to meet in a few years time. I think it’s a really good thing because what it means is you’re trying to tap into the talents across the population, not just the talents of half the population. And so I think it’s a sensible thing to do.

HEGGEN: Some may argue that it’s reverse discrimination: you should put people on boards because of their intelligence and their worth, rather than their gender.

WONG: Yes, you should put people on boards because of their ability, but I think if you say, well, you’ve got less than half, so say a third - and when we came to Government it was less than that - of positions filled by women, and we know women make up a bit over 50 per cent of the population, then I think it’s a pretty hard argument to say ‘well, actually we’re


not as good and that’s why there are always going to be more men’. I agree with decisions being made on merit. And I think what we need to do is to bring more women into the system, to give more women the opportunity and the skills, and we’ll get more people with ability. And, as I said, it really comes down to ‘if you want the best person for the job, you’ve got to deal with those things which are preventing some people from getting the job’.

HEGGEN: Now, page 5 of the Advertiser today: Lauren Novak’s written an article which saddened me but I guess didn’t quite surprise me: a call by the state’s new Equal Opportunity Commissioner, Anne Gale, who says that women are holding themselves back in the workplace to meet their families’ needs and we need workplaces to be more flexible. We’ve heard that call before, but to hear someone of her status saying that women are quite proactively holding themselves back from taking the promotions and what-have-you - what are your thoughts on that?

WONG: Yes, I saw that article as well, and I think what it reflects is what you identified, which is we still don’t have a system in our workplaces which recognises that there’s a family and there are family responsibilities and that those responsibilities are much more shared in this generation of workers than they were thirty or forty years ago. So we’ve got a lot of work to do, I think, to make sure our workplaces recognise that.

But also that we don’t have a set of incentives in place which means if you do take time out, if you do want to work part time, that you’re passed over for promotion, you’re not able to do a bigger job down the track. You know, there’s a bit of work to be done there and Treasury, the Federal Treasury, is working on this very closely.

HEGGEN: Now, you’ve become a parent in the last eight months. How is baby Alexandra going?

WONG: Oh, she’s gorgeous. But every parent says that, don’t they?

HEGGEN: They do, but I have seen photos of her back when you released them in December and she’s gorgeous.

WONG: We think she’s gorgeous but we’re biased, you know. Yeah, she’s great. She has even more hair, which is amazing.

HEGGEN: That’s great.

WONG: Yeah, born with a lot of hair -

HEGGEN: And is she sleeping? It’s the big million dollar question.

WONG: (laughs) Yeah, not so much. That’s a little bit difficult at times - more for my partner than I. But I’ve got to say there are times when they’ve been in Canberra and Question Time’s been a bit rugged because we’d had a hard night before.

HEGGEN: I can imagine. Was it hard to make that public for you? Because you knew there would be many questions and it’s such a private time but you’re a public person. Was it hard for you to make that decision?


WONG: To tell people?

HEGGEN: To release that information and the photographs. Because you knew that it would -

WONG: I suppose that I am a public figure, but I’m a pretty private person, and I don’t do a lot of media about my private life - we don’t do television and interviews with the family and those sorts of things. But we did know that there’d be a lot of interest, and so we thought it was better to just get a photo out and get a statement out and then it was out there and then we didn’t have to deal with any media requests and didn’t say ‘yes’ to any media requests after that. So really it was a way of, I suppose, accepting that the public wanted to know about it, but not wanting to make it too intrusive for us as a family.

HEGGEN: Now, you are an outspoken advocate for same-sex marriage. You wrote a very compelling piece in the latest edition of SALife -

WONG: I’m glad you thought it was compelling -

HEGGEN: - the debate with Nick Minchin.

WONG: - I think some people didn’t think it was (laughs)

HEGGEN: Really?

WONG: Well, people have very strong views on this issue.

HEGGEN: Yeah, and we will see Federal Parliament perhaps take a vote by the end of the year on whether we should change the Marriage Act 1961. Can you tell my listeners, in a nutshell, what’s your view on same-sex marriage, and why we should change the Act?

WONG: I think it is an issue of equality. And I understand that for some people it’s different and for some people it’s confronting, but I think if we take a step back and think - take a historical perspective - there was a time in Australia where we frowned on interracial marriage. There was a time in Australia where we frowned upon marriages between Catholics and Protestants. And we’ve moved on from that. And I think the same arguments, or some of the same arguments, would have been used at those times as are being used now.

I just don’t think there’s anything to fear from equality, and the fact that a same-sex couple marries is not going to make your marriage or any other marriage less secure. It is just recognising that there are different types of relationships out there. But they are no less committed, and there are many of those people who would like to demonstrate that commitment publicly, just as many heterosexual couples do.

HEGGEN: My guess is that it will be a non-issue in five years time. I think it will be done and dusted.

WONG: I think you’re right. I’ve been amazed. I got into Parliament ten years ago - which is kind of scary. But if you’d said to me when I came into Parliament -


HEGGEN: How many years ago?

WONG: Ten. Ten in July.

HEGGEN: (laughs)

WONG: I know, I’m feeling old.

HEGGEN: That’ll be the children that do that to you.

WONG: (laughs) That’s right. Maybe. I think I felt old before that.

But if you’d said to me ten years ago that in ten years time after this that this is where the debate would be, I wouldn’t have believed you. And I think there’s been a big generational shift. I mean, of course there are young people that have a different view, but most young people I speak to, it’s just not an issue. They don’t understand why it’s -

HEGGEN: It is generational, absolutely.

WONG: Yeah - ‘Why is this a problem, they want to do it, that’s fine’. They have a very different view on this. And I think that is just what you’re seeing. That’s what you’re seeing in the polling and that’s what you’re seeing in popular culture, and that’s what you’re seeing out there in the community.

HEGGEN: What do you make of -

WONG: Can I say, also, young people change minds. I thought it was really interesting: Stephen Smith, who’s a colleague of mine, who’s changed his position on this, so he now says he will vote for marriage equality. And one of the big reasons for that is his kids and the views they had and talking to him about them. So I think that the thing is young people also sometimes help to open the minds of those around them.

HEGGEN: Yes. And it’s been my view… I haven’t actually been to a same-sex commitment ceremony per se, but I’ve spoken to many people who have, and they’ve said it’s the most beautiful, loving ceremony because they’re doing it despite the fact that it’s not legally recognised.

WONG: I’ve been to same-sex ceremonies, I’ve been to weddings, and I think they’re all beautiful.

HEGGEN: Now, what do you make of the leather skirt so-called ‘scandal’. I just had to put it to you because, what does it say about the depths to which politics can go?

WONG: I just think it’s 2012, and that if we’ve got parts of a political party that are still thinking that that’s how we should talk about women politicians, well, I think we’re past that. And it’s disappointing that those sorts of comments are made. It’s also disappointing sometimes when people say, ‘it’s just a joke, it’s fine’. I mean, the point is, it’s demeaning if you’re always focusing on what women wear, and that’s the measure of how you talk about them publicly. I just think we should all move on from those sorts of ways of thinking. And


as I said, it’s 2012, and it’s a different world and women are in all sorts of positions. Let’s talk about what we do and what we say and not what we wear.

HEGGEN: Now it seems like our former Premier Mike Rann is moving on, moving to sunnier, or lack thereof, pastures, a bit more gloomier pastures, in London, to be named as our new High Commissioner…

WONG: I’m sorry Belinda, I’m not able to confirm or deny that.

HEGGEN: (laughs) I thought you might say that. Now people -

WONG: I saw it was on the front page of The Australian but there’s been no announcement about what’s happening with the British High Commission and I’ll leave it to the Foreign Minister to do that.

HEGGEN: But if he was to be announced in the next 24 hours, people are saying that it is a jobs for the boys…

WONG: You’re doing that thing where you ask a hypothetical -


WONG:… and you want me to talk about it.

HEGGEN: That’s exactly what I’m doing.

WONG: Look, whether or not he is asked to do this position, I think Mike has an enormous amount to offer Australians and South Australians. He’s got enormous experience across many areas of public life and I think he would do whatever job he was given very, very well.

HEGGEN: What are your thoughts on the national polling at the moment? There has been a slight bump for Labor but it’s still not looking that great ...

WONG: We’ve got a lot of work to do and we’ve come through a pretty difficult time. And obviously the carbon price regime has been pretty controversial and hard fought and very divisive which is a real pity that this is where this debate has ended up.

But my view about it is, you didn’t elect me as a Labor Senator for South Australia to just watch opinion polls and I’m certainly not the Minister for Finance to just watch opinion polls. So I just try to keep working on my job and doing what you and your listeners would expect me to do which is to make sure we keep the economy strong.

HEGGEN: The asylum seeker bill has passed both Houses of Parliament. The Malaysia Solution has been completely scrapped. In the meantime -

WONG: Not quite true Belinda.

HEGGEN: What’s your position? It doesn’t look good for the Government given that there’s been hundreds of lives lost in the time it’s taken.


WONG: I’m trying not to politicise this issue because I think Australians are entirely sick of this area been made political. We did seek to compromise. We put at least on two occasions legislation before the Parliament, made offers to the Opposition to get a compromise. We weren’t able to get that. We sought this expert panel’s report and now we’re acting on that review.

This is a really difficult issue and any politician who says they’ve got an easy answer to it is really not telling the truth. We’ve got millions of people moving countries worldwide, fleeing persecution, fleeing to seek a better life, fleeing for a range of reasons. And the level of movement of peoples is far greater than we’ve seen in previous times in history. It is a hard issue and it’s been a very difficult debate but you try to make the best judgements you can given some very difficult circumstances.

HEGGEN: I understand you don’t want to politicise the issue and I respect that, but how do you think the public views the Government for now adopting the committee’s approach which is what the Opposition essentially had lobbied for?

WONG: Not quite, actually. The committee didn’t recommend a number of aspects of what the Opposition is seeking. They didn’t recommend Temporary Protection Visas and they didn’t recommend tow backs or turning back the boats because as they made the point that you can’t do that unless it’s safe to do so and it’s not safe to do so. But I’d acknowledge this is an issue where there have been a range of different views put, it’s been a very controversial issue for the country.

You asked me how people perceive the Government ... I think this is an area where politicians generally have not been perceived as doing well. So we have genuinely tried through this last week to say, look this is what the panel recommended. Some of it is very difficult for members of the Labor Party but we are going to implement it because in good faith we want to try and stop the sort of tragedy we have seen, which is people drowning.

HEGGEN: Senator Penny Wong, thanks for your time this afternoon. It’s been great to have you in the studio.

WONG: It’s been good to speak to you.

HEGGEN: And I hope that baby Alexandra sleeps a little bit better.

WONG: Thank you very much.

HEGGEN: It does get better.

WONG: Thank you, we’re hoping.