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Wednesday, 15 June 2005
Page: 165

Mr ADAMS (11:21 AM) —I look at the federal budget and wonder where the government is living. I do not believe it is really living in reality. When a government so cynically offers a measly $6 tax break to those on low incomes while pocketing a tax break of around $65 per government member, it seems to me to be a poor result for most Australians. There are many other issues in these appropriation bills that make me want to squirm, but the inadequate tax cut is just a nonsense. From my point of view as the member for Lyons, where we have a lot of elderly people who have retired, many young people who are still searching for their first job and many who are single parents, this budget gives absolutely nothing. You cannot get a tax cut if you do not earn anything, so I am not impressed by the so-called windfall for most Australians. It is no more than five litres of petrol anyway and people will need that to struggle off to work. As Centrelink is cutting any help to enable someone to go for a job interview, those that are looking for work will certainly need that to get to an interview.

This debate also gives me an opportunity to ask a number of reciprocal questions about the sorts of programs that are being funded: who those funds are going to, what the government are trying to achieve and what sort of effect these programs are having on ordinary people. The newsletter of the new member for Bass appeared as part of the Examiner newspaper in Tasmania recently, although it did not appear under an ‘Advertisement’ headline, so I presume that it is now acceptable, as part of Rural Press policy, for members of parliament to be allowed to use its newspaper as a wrap-around for Liberal propaganda. But then money always talks the loudest and the cost of this would be a mere drop in the ocean compared to the amount of government advertising that went on during the election campaign. The main theme throughout this newsletter is how much money the member for Bass is giving away or, rather, how much the government has handed to him and is continuing to hand to him while he is the new blue-eyed boy. There is nothing on how a particular program is helping to develop a better life for Tasmanians as a whole and nothing on how he is going to assist in providing a decent Medicare system that allows pensioners to get off waiting lists. He does not talk about how we can develop training programs to go with the Work for the Dole scheme that will give people real jobs at the end of their training; nor does he mention the ridiculous shortage of skilled labour and how it has taken nine years to realise that we might have a problem.

Perhaps the main issue that needs to be addressed is that of the program that is going to be set in place after 1 July, when the Senate is going to be on the government’s side. We have already had hints about what the government and John Howard have in mind for industrial relations, and it grieves me that there is so little understanding in government circles about why having a healthy trade union sector is so important to the stability of a country. Do we really want to go back to the times when employers and employees were perpetually at loggerheads, when trust and enthusiasm had gone out the window, when the system was adversarial rather than based on consensus and when there was no bottom line? It will lead to massive problems, especially in the lower end of the wage scale. The main plank of the Liberal’s policy is to introduce Australian workplace agreements, the so-called AWAs. The other contentious development will be the removal of small business unfair dismissal laws.

I am going to tell a story now about a real person, but I will not mention the site or the industry. It is the sort of person who will be targeted. He is a man working in an industry covered by the Australian Workers Union, who usually cover lower paid blue-collar workers. He is a 37-year-old father of two and he and his workmates are among 250,000 Australian workers on AWAs. While covering only three per cent of the work force, these agreements have become a defining area of difference between Labor and Liberal in this country. I will call this man Peter, and this is his first experience of the AWA process. When he started his job three years ago his workmates were already covered by AWAs. When the agreements expired last year, management decided to offer new AWAs. Each one was not meant to last more than three years.

The first problem was that management delayed the introduction of the new agreement for months, during which time no-one received a pay rise. They just did not negotiate a new one, and therefore there was no opportunity to negotiate a pay rise or discuss any other issue that they wanted to raise. Although he and his mates made continual requests to do so, nothing was done until finally the staff were taken into a room—all the workers and the management together—and they sat down and went through the agreement with everyone in the room. Despite having tried to negotiate with the company, the individual had no success and was forced into signing an agreement that was patently no different from the last agreement. In fact, it was seeking to trade off other entitlements without any gains to the employees. The work was the same and the hours were the same, yet the cost of living had gone up. These workers were trying to do the right thing, trying to keep their employer’s business improving. Of course, we know that if there is a downturn in the economy in their particular industry these workers will be paid off and sacked.

This is how the government is going to increase productivity in this country. It is going to do it by forcing down people’s wages and conditions. It will increase productivity by the lowest common dominator that any country can ever use to try to achieve it—by forcing wages down and making people work for less. It is a pity that while Australia has a good surplus, mostly achieved by measures put into place before 1996—including some of the work that you did in your time, Mr Deputy Speaker McMullan—this budget has missed many opportunities to set up an economy for the next generation and to provide a basis for sustainable growth and shared prosperity.

Instead we have a situation where the majority of the population loses out. But there is an alternative: Labor is a clear alternative. We approach the budget process quite differently. We want to plan for higher productivity and participation, to provide fairness in our approach to all workers—whether they are low-, medium- or high-income earners—and we wish to change the direction of leadership to provide our nation with more skills and develop infrastructure for the future. I am inclined to agree with Evan Thornley’s article in last weekend’s Financial Review in which he stated:

Labor is the party of investment and the conservatives are the party of consumption. We create the wealth and they spend it.

When you look at this budget and the surplus that was there and the spending that went on during the last election, you have only got to think about it to see it is a true statement.

Take the difference between the economic picture at the time Keating left office and today. This government is spending money like it is going out of fashion. But what is being achieved with this shopping spree? Labor made all of the changes, as was pointed out by our shadow minister Mr Stephen Smith when he said that it was Labor who floated the dollar and opened Australia up to competition of the global economy by bringing down the tariff levels. We reformed the tax system by cutting high marginal tax rates and corporate tax while closing down loopholes and minimising unfairness and inefficiencies in the tax system. We deregulated communications, aviation and the financial services sector, encouraging competition in those areas. We transformed the Australian industrial relations system from the adversary, inflationary and strike-ridden system in place when the Prime Minister of this country was the Treasurer—that was what he passed on to the Labor government—to one based on enterprise and productivity based gains, cooperation and consultation. Further, Labor introduced an ambitious package of micro-economic reforms through the national competition policy.

Labor in the eighties and early nineties achieved far more than this government has done. Now it wants to spend the results of these hard-won and strategic changes to our economy. Instead, this budget should have seized an historical opportunity given to the government to invest in Australia’s future and confront the long-term threats to this economy. Australia’s economic commentators are urging this government to show national leadership on investment and infrastructure. As our leader has so rightly pointed out, that means investing in our economy’s growth capacity, building a highly skilled work force and an advanced competitive economy. Australia’s greatest asset is not in our mines, our stock markets or our buildings; it is in our people—hardworking Australians—and nothing gives us better prospects for long-term productivity and prosperity than investing in working Australians. We also need to keep the nation’s infrastructure in good repair. Our transport and communications networks must be set up and be up to scratch so that Australia’s businesses can seize opportunities for growth and investment.

I do not see any evidence of these goals being achieved. Funds are being spent at an alarming rate on the most futile of objectives. Those who have it get more and those who have not got it get bugger-all. Labor believes that a strong economy and a fair society reinforce each other. Our nation has grown on developing its fair society, built from a strong economy. This is what our leader was talking about when he spoke of investing in our people, which is our biggest asset.

Training and employment are the key to maintaining our lead in all sorts of different areas. If we are to continue to develop a fairer and inclusive society, we need to have strong jobs growth. This provides us with a good tax base. It can start with simple things, like providing training with the Work for the Dole payments, at least giving people a chance to participate in the work force in the first place. It is now vital to obtain skills before you even go to an interview. At the moment people spend hours doing meaningless tasks or never going beyond those tasks—never gaining the skills they need to sell to an employer.

If the government is serious about developing productivity gains rather than just cutting wages and conditions, which is all we see from its present line, the whole country has to be smarter. We need to ensure that all young people have the same chance to succeed. They must have equal access to education, training and skills development. If we are to build on our economic strengths with fairness, we need to invest in our nation’s infrastructure. We need to develop the skills of our work force and we need to encourage the nation’s research and development—something that was knocked off in 1996 by this government. The government is not doing these things. It is squandering our hard-earned taxes and letting go of the opportunities that have been created in this country.