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Monday, 1 June 1998
Page: 4376

Mr CAUSLEY (9:32 PM) —I rise with some pride to support the government's budget of 1998-99 and particularly the direction in which it is certainly intended to travel. I want to make some comments on the position that we see ourselves in. I have listened with some interest to the contributions by previous members in this debate. I note in particular, I dare say, the position that has been taken by Labor Party members, in particular the member for Gellibrand (Mr Willis), the former Treasurer, who made a contribution to this debate and went to some lengths to explain the Labor Party position on the budgetary situation.

I have to say that, while I respect the member for Gellibrand, I think he was really saying that the former government was heading towards a position where it would have got the budget into surplus. He said, `We would have taken it gradually. We do not believe that this government is going in the right direction. We think the government is going too quickly. We were heading in that direction but we were going to take it in a gradual form.'

Of course, Mr Deputy Speaker, if you look very closely at the deficit situation of the previous government over a period of time, it was in fact adding up to a serious situation as far as Australian government debt was concerned. It was escalating at a very fast rate. There is no doubt that the electorate said in the last election that they wanted something done about this. They believed that there needed to be a reduction in this debt that was being driven and that we had to draw it back into perspective.

In fact, I asked the Treasurer (Mr Costello) a question on notice some time ago about how Australian government debt had built up over a period of time. It was very interesting to hear the reply from the Treasurer because he made it very clear that before the Whitlam era Australia had a very low level of Commonwealth government debt. In fact, it was a very small percentage of GDP. It was during the Whitlam era that Australian debt started to escalate at quite a dramatic rate. It was during the Hawke-Keating era that it really took off to where we have today a government debt close to $100 billion.

I have been in business, I understand business and I know that all businesses carry some debt. But it depends on the amount of debt that you carry as to whether you can be a viable business. There is no doubt in my mind that when you start to pay something between $3 billion and $4 billion a year in interest you are no longer a viable business. That is the position the Australian government found itself in. There is no doubt in my mind that this government had a responsibility to start to rein in that debt and to put the Australian people in a position where they did not have to pay those exorbitant amounts of interest and where they could use the money that was saved from that for the services that were absolutely necessary to the Australian community.

I have heard with some interest over the last few months the debate that has raged in this parliament, in particular from members of the opposition who have criticised the government for the winding back of some programs that they believe to be absolutely essential in our community. I dare say that members on our side of parliament probably see from time to time that some of these programs are vital. But if you do not have the money to pay for them, then you have to look very closely at where you expend the money that you have available.

The real problem is that such a profligate government preceded us. We are in a situation where we have to now draw back and say to ourselves, `We must consolidate our position before we can continue to fund some of the services that all of us might see as being fairly important in our community.' So therefore I see this budget as a very important budget. We are back in the black. That is a term I suppose that has been used fairly generally in this particular debate, but it is a very important point because we are back in surplus. It is a long time since Australia has been in surplus and we have a lot of ground to make up to draw back the debt that we have at the present time to put ourselves in a viable position.

One of the points I noted in the Treasurer's speech related to his comments on the sale of Telstra. I have heard since then some of the comments that have accrued from both the Labor Party and others to the sale of Telstra. I find some of those comments hypocritical because, having only been two years in this parliament, I certainly did hear some of the comments about the sale of the Commonwealth Bank and the sale of Qantas. There are some hypocritical statements that we have heard in the past from the Labor Party about those particular sales.

One thing I want to make clear as a business person is that I have always believed that if you sell an asset then you have to reduce debt or you have to buy another asset. That is something that has never been very high in the Labor Party's priorities. In fact, in both those sales—the sale of the Commonwealth Bank and the sale of Qantas—the Labor Party used the assets in the recurrent budget and that is an absolute disgrace. It is like someone selling their own house and spending the assets, or the money accrued from those assets in one year. That is exactly what was done by the Labor Party, that is exactly what the Labor Party did in those particular sales, and that is an absolute disgrace.

The Labor Party vehemently opposes the sale of Telstra. I put to you that some of the arguments that they put forward stand some questioning. If you say on one hand that you still own two-thirds of Telstra and you are still entitled to two-thirds of the dividends from Telstra, I accept that. But I will put another point to you. Telstra at the present time is in a very competitive position. It is out there competing with Optus and with Vodafone and with probably some others who will come into this field. It is a very expensive and competitive area. Some of the technology that is available at the present time is very expensive and could cost hundreds of millions, if not billions, of dollars. So, while we might sit back and say, `Look, why do we need to sell Telstra because we are going to enjoy two-thirds of the benefits that will come from the dividends from Telstra?' I put to you, Mr Deputy Speaker, that, if they have to spend hundreds of millions of dollars or, in fact, a billion dollars, then we are up for two-thirds of that as well.

That is something that I think the taxpayers of Australia should start to think very carefully about. Unless we do, unless the shareholders of Telstra—of which the Australian taxpayers at this particular time comprise two-thirds—spend that sort of money, then Telstra will not survive; it will go under. That is the hypocrisy of the Labor Party: they sit there and talk about this and they do not take into consideration the realities of business which are really going to drive this particular agenda. It was an agenda started by the Labor Party and, quite frankly, the agenda is now being driven by business. That is something that we must take into very clear consideration.

The Labor Party sits there and says to people like me who come from the country, `But rural Australia is going to be disadvantaged by this.' I put to you that rural Australia is going to be advantaged by technology. At the present time we have a great debate about whether analog telephones or digital telephones are the best forms of communication in the country. I say to you that neither of them are. We do not get good service from either. It may be a little bit better from analog, but we certainly do not get good service from either form of telecommunications in the country. But satellite telephones will certainly give us that advantage. Because the system is digital it will give us more than just a telephone. We will be able to access all sorts of technology through that digital system.

That is the type of system that the rural areas of Australia need. They do not want to be bogged down in the past that the Labor Party wants to set them in by saying, `You must remain with Telstra.' They want to get into the future. They want to get into the future where there is some communication. We have no communication at the present time—absolutely none. That is where the Labor Party want to leave us—in that time warp. We want to go further than that; we want to get into communications, we want to get into technology, we want to go with this because that is where we are going to get some benefits as far as the rural areas are concerned.

I think this budget has addressed many areas. One of the areas that I believe is very important is the seniors card for superannuants in Australia. I have a great regard for those people because these are the people who have tried all throughout their lives to set aside something for the future, set aside something for their retirement. They have gone without. I have many people in my electorate who come to me and say, `Look, we have done without all this because we wanted to set ourselves up for our retirement.' But of course with the benefits of the low interest rates and the low inflation that we all think are great at the present time there is a double-edged sword. Those people who have set aside their income for investment are getting a very low return. Therefore, they need some benefit. The real disadvantaged people in this society at the present time are those who have tried to help themselves, who have saved and scrimped through their lives, who have set up some sort of asset and are now trying to live off that asset. I think this government has recognised that not only in this budget but in the previous budget. They have recognised that these people need to be supported because they are the real disadvantaged people in society at the present time.

I also want to mention the gold card for the returned servicemen from the Second World War. I think that there is no doubt that this government has done quite a number of things. I will say that the previous government did quite a few things for returned servicemen as well. These people have now been recognised; under this gold card they can get some benefits. It is for those who have returned—and I know there is great debate about whether you should receive it whether you were in Australia or outside of Australia; that has always been a criterion that has been debated within the Returned Services League. But this is certainly a benefit for those who have returned. It is a great step to help those people who have made a great sacrifice for this country. I am old enough to remember the Second World War. I remember the great threat that was occasioned to this country. Those people went out of their way: many of them were not asked whether they would serve; they were told that they would serve to support this country. This is the least that we can do to help them and to give them some support in their retiring years.