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Wednesday, 13 February 2002
Page: 133

Mr CREAN (Leader of the Opposition) (4:08 PM) —This is a government that is prepared to do anything to save its hide but nothing to help ordinary Australian families. If anyone had any doubts about the lack of a third term agenda, exhibit 1 was presented yesterday: the speech by the Governor-General, written by the Prime Minister's office, that contained only one initiative that will be introduced by this government over the course of its term. This is a parliament that has now been in recess almost five months. It is a government that was returned on 10 November and, three months later, that is the best it can come up with.

On the very first day that the parliament came back, we saw again the circumstances in which this government is prepared to do and say anything to save its hide and to protect itself. We have seen claims that the government used intercepted signals from DSD to help it win a close election. I appreciate the fact that this report has now convinced the government to offer me a briefing on this matter. I accept the offer, and I will look forward to that briefing to establish whether there is any further basis for pursuing this. But it is completely unAustralian and outrageous when a government uses information obtained from citizens secretly to advance its own political agenda. Nothing we have heard from the government today satisfies us that it has answered all of the questions. It is true that a statement was put out yesterday by the minister but that statement raised more questions than it answered. We still have not got the answers today. But it was not just that incident. Don't anyone believe that this is a problem associated only with the circumstances surrounding Tampa. Our concern is that if the government used information obtained during those circumstances to help it get re-elected, when will it stop using that information in the future at any stage?

We also know that there is legislation being brought forward by this government, the so-called whistleblowers legislation. We still have not seen it. But there is concern that this is legislation that is going to stop genuine information coming out to hold the government accountable. That very report that was in yesterday's paper could have been suppressed if the concerns we have about where the government is intending to go on this issue were realised. It is not just that incident because today we saw another circumstance where the Prime Minister tabled a report into the `children overboard' incident, which I understand—and I might be corrected on this—he has had since 21 January. This report clearly shows that then Minister Reith knew on 11 October—that is one month before the election—that the claim that he had been making that the children had been thrown overboard was incorrect. He had been making that claim as recently as the day before. On 10 October he repeated the claim. The Prime Minister and the Minister for Immigration and Multicultural and Indigenous Affairs made the claim on 7 and 8 October. But then Minister Reith repeated it again on 10 October, yet was told—this report tells us today—on 11 October that what he was saying was incorrect. Yet he did not seek to correct the public record.

What we ask the Prime Minister today is when he knew. We ask the minister for immigration when he knew. It beggars belief that the former Minister for Defence would learn that what he was saying was incorrect and not inform the Prime Minister or their staff, or the minister for immigration or their staff. We know that the former Minister for Defence was loose with the truth. He was loose with it on the waterfront dispute. We know he has been loose with it on this issue. But it beggars belief that he would not have told the Prime Minister. We know that he would not have told the Australian public, because he did not. But the Prime Minister expects us to believe that he had no knowledge of it before the election.

This government won the last election— we grant that. But people should not forget the basis upon which it won it. We should not have any rewriting of history in this place as to what the real issues were upon which this government won the election; it was a dirty victory. What we are seeing, with this report tabled today, is that dirt being revealed. What we want to know—and what the Prime Minister has avoided answering today—is when he knew, and we want to know when Minister Ruddock knew, because this has been information withheld from the Australian public. They want their political leaders to be honest with them, not deceive them. This looks very much like they were totally deceived on this dramatic issue which was used to stereotype the people they say they were trying to keep out of this country—putting everyone in the category of people who would do anything, including throwing their children overboard, when there was no evidence whatsoever for that claim. We know how dramatic was the claim, we know how people would react to it, and that is why the government was prepared to make it. But the government had an obligation to correct the record when it knew it had deceived the Australian public.

That is not the only area for deceit. There is the repayment of the family tax benefit and the child-care benefit. What we now know is that letters have been sneaked out in recent weeks demanding repayment of the family tax benefit and the child-care benefit—letters that the government held back until after the election.

On the question of public liability insurance, the government has disagreed over desperately needed reforms to public liability insurance that are causing deep distress in the community, yet it has known about this for more than a year. Everywhere we have visited around the country, local governments and not-for-profit organisations have been telling us about the difficulties that they confront. The government does not lift a finger. It said that it was prepared to look at it, but then when it was re-elected it cannot even agree on how it is going to proceed. I do not believe the government has any intention of proceeding down this path.

We have got the circumstance of the 44,000 university places. We saw the minister's performance today, saying that the universities have never been better off. How is it that we still have 44,000 unmet places? This is what the minister will not answer, and he wants to get out there and put his spin on things about how it has never been any better in the universities. But he will not explain to us why we have 44,000 kids missing out.

And there is private health insurance and the great debut by the new Minister for Health and Ageing. I think she was more surprised than anyone when she got that portfolio, announced on the day. But there was the government before the election, promising people that the policies they put in place—the private health rebate that would get more and more people into private insurance—would force downward pressure on private health insurance premiums. Now they have leaked a report to say they are going up by 13 per cent, no doubt to cushion the impact when they only go up by six or seven per cent. But they said before the election they would go down, not up. What we need is accountability from the minister as to why it is they went to the election on private health insurance saying it would come down, and now they have every intention of whacking it up.

There is the unfair employment bill—and it is very interesting to see the minister at the table today, because he tried his best in question time to get his dorothy dix bill up. This is George Orwell at his best, personified in Tony Abbott. He calls it the `fair employment bill'. I ask the people in the gallery: how fair is it when an employer can dismiss someone and that person cannot have a remedy if that dismissal is harsh? This is defining fair as unfair. That is what your bill is about. People who have actually recovered damages through the commission, people who have worked in local newsagencies, people who have been able to get recovery because they had been unfairly dismissed, under this bill no longer will. What is fair about that, Minister? Your problem is that you think there are two sides to this debate and you have to barrack for one. Well, I am sorry; you have to barrack for both. You have to create an environment in which it is easier for small businesses to employ. I tell you how you can start making it easier: you can support Labor's proposition that we took to the past election.

The DEPUTY SPEAKER (Hon. IR Causley)—The Leader of the Opposition has already heard the Speaker on the word `you'.

Mr CREAN —The minister can support Labor's proposition that it took to the last election to simplify the GST collection. That will lift a mountain of red tape from small businesses and enable them to get on with doing what they are good at—running their businesses. If you want to do something constructive for small business, get behind our constructive proposal. We are prepared to talk to you about procedures that small businesses go through in terms of their relationship with their employees, but we will not support making it easier to unfairly sack people. Your bill does that. As usual, you have gone over the top again. The minister's problem is that he has no measure.

The DEPUTY SPEAKER —The Leader of the Opposition will please not use the word `you'. Will you please address the member properly?

Mr CREAN —I did. I corrected myself. He has no measure. He thinks that his task is to create a division in the community—setting one against the other. Good industrial relations is where you get partnerships in the workplace, where you get people cooperating. That is what I stand for, and I have all of my life. For all of the argument that you run about my association with the trade union movement, when I was leading the trade union movement I always advanced the agenda of partnership and cooperation in the workplace. I was the one that led the introduction of enterprise bargaining. I was the one that argued for better workplace relations. I was the one that took the trade union movement away from their `them and us' mentality to one of cooperation. It was called the Accord. Do you remember it? That was one of the best periods for continuous industrial relations outcomes in this country, measured by industrial disputes.

It was also the period that saw the biggest improvement in productivity in this country, and productivity is the ball this government has dropped now. We will not get our unemployment down unless we get productivity up. It is all very well for this government and this smirky Treasurer today to come in and tell us that three per cent is good because it is better than the rest of the world. Three per cent is not sufficient to get unemployment down. The only way you will get unemployment down is to try and grow faster, and you will not do that unless the efforts are being put in to lift productivity, and you will not get that unless you get cooperation in the workplace. We never got it from division in the past and we will not get it in the future.

My message to this government today is this: we know that you have no agenda, except to divide the community. Labor have an agenda: to develop a partnership with the community. We will be bringing forward constructive proposals over the course of our term in opposition. We will not be defined by what we oppose; we will be defined by the constructive proposals that we put forward. We want cooperation and partnership in this community. We want a strong economy and a just society, and only we are committed to the mix of policies that will achieve it. We have the agenda; you lack it. You have fallen back in because of your deceit. You will not be allowed to forget about it, but we will be the ones setting the agenda in this country over the next three years. (Time expired)