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Thursday, 13 February 2014
Page: 357

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Mr CONROY (Charlton) (11:19): I will return to the substance of my speech and to the point I was making which was Dr Henry's testimony at Senate estimates. I will repeat the key quote which was:

In the first six months of 2009, in the immediate aftermath of the shock waves occasioned by the collapse of Lehman Brothers, the Australian mining industry shed 15.2 per cent of its employees. Had every industry in Australia behaved in the same way, our unemployment rate would have increased from 4.6 per cent to 19 per cent in six months. Mining investment collapsed; mining output collapsed. So the Australian mining industry had quite a deep recession while the Australian economy did not have a recession. Suggestions that the Australian mining industry saved the Australian economy from recession are curious, to say the least.

That was the testimony of Dr Henry in 2010. It provides a direct rebuttal to any claim that the mining industry or the Chinese stimulus package saved Australia during the GFC. It was the combined efforts of the Reserve Bank's monetary easing and very direct action from the last Labor government in terms of its stimulus package. This stimulus package covered both payments to low- and middle-income Australians to provide immediate stimulus and over $28 billion in direct government investment in schools, housing, energy efficiency, community infrastructure and roads, and support to small business. This was vital because it provided a two-stage stimulation process. It ensured that we avoided the recession and it was incredibly important. This vital investment meant that we saved 200,000 jobs during the GFC.

I will turn to some of the very worthy initiatives in the global financial crisis stimulus package. One I want to particularly draw attention to is the $5.6 billion social housing initiative. This was the largest commitment by any government in Australia to social housing and was a key component of the stimulus package. More than 19,000 new social housing dwellings are to be built under this initiative and around 80,000 dwellings have already benefited from repairs and maintenance.

This is incredibly important because social housing is an often neglected part of infrastructure in this country. Social housing should not just be for the most marginalised in this country. It should be for low-income workers who need access to cheaper and more affordable housing, as the private housing rental market can be quite expensive and, even at low interest rates, homeownership is often out of reach for many people. We cannot underestimate the importance of social housing. This was a vital part of Labor's economic stimulus package that saved Australia during the GFC and, most importantly, avoided the scourge of mass unemployment. I listened to the comments of the member for Hotham who talked about the cancer of youth unemployment and said it is a scourge in Europe. It is important to note that we avoided this in Australia and I am proud of Labor's contribution.

I turn to the effect of the stimulus package on my electorate of Charlton. Under the nation-building economic stimulus plan, over $450 million was invested in education in the Hunter region, including over $100 million in schools in the electorate of Charlton. Some of these schools had not seen infrastructure investment in decades, some for 50 years. I am proud of this investment. I have visited these school—government schools, Catholic schools and independent schools—and they are all grateful for this infrastructure. When I talk with principals, teachers and parents, they cannot speak too highly of this infrastructure and say that through this stimulus package they got magnificent new facilities such as state-of-the-art classrooms, libraries and halls.

This was a bonus of the expenditure. The key purpose of the expenditure was to keep the Australian construction industry in work when there was a massive decline in private residential investment. The statistics show very clearly that in 2009 and early 2010, as private sector investment in the construction industry tanked, that gap was filled by government investment in the Building the Education Revolution program. I have personal experience of it. My brother is a concreter and his job was saved by work on this program during this period.

Coalition MPs have been happy to mock and attack this investment, but they have been equally happy to attend openings of school halls and other infrastructure and to have their photos taken. This investment shows a clear difference between Labor's priorities and values and the coalition's priorities and values. Labor is proud to have initiated the biggest investment in education in Australia's history, while the coalition voted against it and continues to denigrate this historic investment.

I talked about social housing at the national level. In Charlton, $45.7 million was spent on social housing, with more than 485 public houses being upgraded or undergoing repairs and more than 160 new social housing dwellings being built.

I turn to the efforts of those opposite to draw the $900 stimulus cheques into their theme of the age of entitlement. They maintain these cheques were part of the age of entitlement, the cancer eating Australia. There are two facts in this debate: first, $900 stimulus cheques were a vital part of getting Australia through the GFC. Without that immediate cash injection, there would have been rising unemployment and a much weakened economy which would likely have gone into recession. Second, I cannot suffer the hypocrisy of those opposite condemning the age of entitlement when their official policy is a $5½ billion paid parental leave scheme, a ridiculous scheme. It is a scheme of not middle-class entitlement but of upper-class entitlement.

The notion that a businesswoman on $150,00 a year should be paid $75,000 to have six months off work to have a baby, while a checkout operator in a shopping complex in Charlton, an aged-care nurse or childcare worker on $30,000 a year would only receive $15,000 is offensive. It is a joke and it is inequitable. All Australian women having children should be entitled to the same level of assistance from taxpayers. To say high-income earners should receive $75,000 while low-income workers, the bedrock of our community—our aged-care nurses, our childcare workers, our retail workers—should receive as little as $10,000 is offensive to Australian people.

This is symptomatic of the debate in which this government do not support low-income workers. We have seen their attacks on penalty rates and award conditions and trying to blame workers for the massive job losses under Prime Minister Abbott. Up to 250,000 jobs will go in the automotive industry and other industries that depend on the automotive industry. Their response is to attack workers and say workers should not be paid as much as they are being paid, yet the coalition plan to pay business executives $75,000 to have children.

This is part of the debate about which priorities should be set for the economy. Is the economy's first priority to serve the great mass of Australian people? The Labor government's response during the GFC was a great example of timely, temporary and targeted action to save the country. This response was held up as a model for the rest of the world by every serious economic commentator, including John Quiggin in Australia and Joseph Stiglitz in the United States. This response was seconded by the IMF and applauded by the OECD as a great model for the rest of the world. The naysayers on the other side confessed to sleeping through the votes after consuming a couple of bottles of wine with friends. These are the facts of the debate and I am proud to be part of the Labor Party. We stood up for Australian workers through the GFC and rejected mass unemployment, supported workers and fought unemployment every step of the way as we had seen what unemployment does to society. That is why I am proud of the Labor government's stimulus package and am grateful for the opportunity to make a contribution to this debate.