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Thursday, 16 May 2002
Page: 2359

Mr NEVILLE (2:18 PM) —My question is addressed to the Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Transport and Regional Services. Is the minister aware of any attempts to undermine the government's economic strategy? What impacts will this have on Australia, particularly in rural and regional areas?

Mr ANDERSON (Minister for Transport and Regional Services) —I thank the honourable member for his question. Yes, I am aware of strategies to undermine the government's economic management. They can be seen as nothing other than a cynical attempt to undermine our economic strategy for short-term political gain, which, at a time like this for Australia, I would have thought was extremely unfortunate and not welcomed at all by the community. As the Treasurer has just said—the Prime Minister has just spoken about this as well—the rising costs of the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme and of disability support cannot be sustained into the long term. They have to be put on a sustainable basis. That process has to begin now or they will collapse and, just as a former Prime Minister—one of yours—observed a few years ago, the losers will be those in genuine need.

We face a situation where it is very easy for the opposition to be opportunistic. They will not tell us what their alternatives really are. We are entitled to probe a little and, if necessary, to speculate. You can do that on the basis of a considerable amount of history. What are their savings measures, if they have them? If they propose revenue measures, where might they be? Or is it just that we ought to assume there will be a return to the way they managed the place during the Hawke and Keating years, when we saw— and this ought never to be forgotten—continual tax increases and a raft of new taxes? We saw never ending asset sales, with the proceeds devoted to recurrent expenditure, while all the time we saw big deficits accumulating in a $96 billion public sector debt. Their budgetary form ought to be remembered.

We have not heard anything about their attitude towards fuel indexation. Perhaps we will hear a bit tonight. Perhaps they really are in favour of reintroducing automatic indexation twice a year. When they were in government they went well beyond that. Petrol excise increased from less than 7c a litre to more than 34c a litre. The fringe benefits tax was increased three times. The Medicare levy was increased. Company tax was increased. Sales tax on passenger cars went from 16 per cent to 21 per cent. Those are just a few reminders. But in that context of budgets not being disciplined and economic strategies not being thought out and pursued, one of the great and damaging effects was interest rates. Unemployment was over 11 per cent and home interest rates were hitting 17.5 per cent. Farmers well remember—I remember it well because it was at the time I came into this place, and shortly after that the Leader of the Opposition became the minister for agriculture, so he should have some sympathy with what those interest rates did out there—that some farmers were paying up to 25 per cent. I recall—somebody reminded me yesterday—that when we did the maths on what farmers who were forced to borrow from the pastoral houses were paying, the figure got as high as 27 per cent. So we ought to remember where we have come from.

This brings me to a very important point in relation to Australia's national interest. When the Leader of the Opposition rises in about four hours from now to deliver his budget speech in reply, he must meet the obligation that pertains to a man who would be Prime Minister. He must put before the Australian people honestly and fairly how Labor would pay for their plans, how they would go about building an economic strategy, and how they would fairly implement the programs that they say matter. He has four hours to do something that his predecessor could not do, which is to come up with a believable economic strategy. He owes it to Australia. Australia at this time needs to be strong and secure. The Leader of the Opposition quite frankly now has a task: he has to prove to the Australian people that he does not want us weak and vulnerable for short-term political gain.