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Thursday, 29 May 2008
Page: 3747

Dr NELSON (Leader of the Opposition) (9:01 AM) —by leave—I move:

That this House censures the Prime Minister and his Government for deceiving Australians and letting them down over record high petrol prices by:

(1)   describing petrol prices at over $1.60 a litre as “a little problem” for Australian consumers and giving up on them with his own damning admission that he had “done as much as we physically can to provide additional help to the family budget”;

(2)   grossly misleading Parliament and the Australian people on the contents of an ACCC report that the Government has used to defend its flawed Fuelwatch scheme;

(3)   ignoring the Prime Minister’s own commitment to evidence-based policy making when he ignored the expert advice of the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet, the Department of Resources and Energy, the Department of Finance and Deregulation and the Department of Innovation, Industry, Science and Research;

(4)   ignoring the advice of the Minister for Resources and Energy that Fuelwatch is anti-competitive and would hurt small business;

(5)   refusing to immediately lower petrol prices by cutting the 38 per cent fuel excise on petrol;

(6)   going to absurd lengths to put spin ahead of substance—risking higher prices, just to “appear” to be doing “something”;

(7)   pathetically claiming high petrol prices are a result of traffic jams across cities; and

(8)   treating the Australian people and this Parliament with arrogant contempt by refusing to guarantee that his fuel policies won’t increase the cost of petrol as his own public servant experts fear.

This censure is against the Prime Minister and is against his government because, in the space of six months, the Australian people have been severely let down. A week ago today the Prime Minister in Adelaide declared, ‘There is nothing more that we can phy-si-cally do to provide additional support to the family budget.’ We then had the extraordinary statement in this House earlier this week when the Treasurer of Australia, that nervous man who is desperately trying to fill the very large shoes of the member for Higgins, declared that Australians are happy. We are now in the extraordinary situation also where one of the most senior and respected ministers of the government, the Minis-ter for Resources and Energy, in a letter to his own Prime Minister and his own cabinet colleagues, has argued that FuelWatch will most hurt the people for whom it is allegedly intended and that is low-income families, particularly in areas like the outer suburbs of Western Sydney. He further argued that it would increase regulation on business, that it would be anticompetitive and that it would also importantly undermine the so-called government’s reform credentials, whatever is left of them.

Not only did we learn last night from Channel 9 and the highly respected political journalist Mr Laurie Oakes that the Minister for Resources and Energy wrote to his own Prime Minister and his own relevant ministers, including the Minister for Finance and Deregulation, saying that FuelWatch was actually going to hurt vulnerable low-income Australian families but also, confirmed by the Treasurer and the Assistant Treasurer at an extraordinary nine-minute press conference held last night at 6.30, we now know the content of that material from the four key economic departments of the government is accurate. We are in a situation now where the Prime Minister of this country—having run around Australia last year as the Leader of the Opposition, picking up apples and bananas in fruit shops and supermarkets throughout the country, making Australians falsely believe that he would do something to bring grocery prices down, occasionally dropping into the family kitchen of an everyday Australian household and making them falsely believe he would be doing something about their cost of living pressures, he would help them with their rent and make sure their interest rates were going to be more affordable in some way, wandering past service stations and making the right kinds of noises on popular television, whether it was Sunrise or Today—made Australians believe that, if he became the Prime Minister of Australia, in some way petrol prices would come down.

What has happened here is a great parody—a great summary—of what this Prime Minister and this government is about because, having under a false pretext gotten himself elected as the Prime Minister of Australia, he then turned around to his spin merchants, who normally sit in here in the parliament, and said: ‘I have actually told Australians petrol is going to come down. What on earth am I going to do about it?’ So he has gone to the book and said, ‘What do I do?’ And what he has done is come up with this thing called FuelWatch.

FuelWatch is nothing more than a fraud being perpetrated upon the most vulnerable Australians. That is not only the view of the opposition; it is the view of one of the government’s most senior ministers, the Minister for Resources and Energy, but we also now know that it is the considered view of the four major economic departments in the government.

What happened then was that the Prime Minister said, ‘Well, I have come up with this stunt; I need to make Australians think that FuelWatch—watching petrol—is actually going to bring the price down.’ He said to his advisers, ‘Well, I need some evidence to support it.’ So he turned around to his own department, the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet—and the Prime Minister himself has said ‘all of the Public Service departments need to come to the centre of government decision making’—and his own department said: ‘Well, Prime Minister, with FuelWatch there is actually no evidence that it is going to work. In fact, it is possible that it will increase the price of fuel.’ So the Prime Minister’s own department actually said that the ACCC modelling indicates a small overall price increase cannot be ruled out. In other words, the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet said, ‘We cannot guarantee that this will not increase the price of petrol; in fact, we think it will.’

Then he went to the Department of Finance and Deregulation. That department said: ‘Well, in fact, it is likely to create a de facto floor price. It will increase the regulatory burden on business of over $20 million a year.’ So he went to the second pigeonhole to get a solution—the department of finance—and they said that it will actually create a de facto floor price. In plain language, that means that the current lowest price for petrol will be higher than it is. So the second department said it is going to increase the price of petrol.

He then went to Resources and Energy and, as we know from the Minister for Resources and Energy, that department said, ‘It is actually going to hurt the people who need the cheapest petrol.’ And that is those people who were lining up on Tuesday night down the eastern seaboard of the country. Prime Minister, the people who are going to be hurt according to your own minister and your own departments are the people who are most vulnerable—the people who are most sensitive to the price of petrol—and they are the people who are capitalising on the cheapest price in the cycle on a Tuesday night.

He then went to the industry department and that department, amongst other things, said: ‘It is actually going to be bad for small business. It is going to take independent retailers out of the sector. It would cost them an additional $4,000 a year.’ So here we are with major oil giants effectively controlling much of the petrol retailing in this country, aided and abetted by Woolworths and Coles, and then we have got a significant and very important part of the sector—the independent small business part of it—and the government’s own department is saying that it is going to increase the cost of business for them by $4,000 a year.

So what does the Prime Minister do? He then goes to the ACCC report and selectively pulls out bits that he thinks are consistent with the stunt that he has already confected and then tries to tell Australians that watching the price of fuel is going to bring it down.

The other very important thing is this: if the Prime Minister wants to listen to people, he should get out of his white car and go down on a Tuesday night to the queues of people lined up outside petrol stations trying to maximise the lowest price in the cycle and, firstly, he should ask them whether they think a cut in the excise of 5c a litre would actually help and, secondly, he should explain to them how FuelWatch is actually going to make prices cheaper—because it is not. The one thing that the Prime Minister would not guarantee was that the introduction of FuelWatch would not increase the price of petrol by a single cent.

The RACV, which represents motorists in the state of Victoria, has as its slogan: ‘We are here for you.’ They are there for you, but the Prime Minister of Australia is not. The RACV, in writing to me on 22 May this year, said:

The RACV does not support the FuelWatch system in its current format as we believe Melbourne motorists would be denied access to weekly discounted fuel.

It further said:

The most recent report by the ACCC into petrol prices states that in Melbourne 65 per cent of petrol was sold on the four days when prices were at their lowest, whereas in Perth, where FuelWatch operates, 60 per cent of petrol was sold on the four days where prices were above the average weekly price cycle.

The RACV, in quoting the ACCC report, further said that there is increased potential for anticompetitive effects in rural and regional areas due to the more concentrated nature of the market in these areas, the potential for reduction in the predictability of price cycles for consumers who have adapted to them, a significant dependence on the media if any of the proposed benefits are to be realised and the administration costs of such a scheme are likely to be large—all of which has now been confirmed by the four major economic departments that advise the government. It also said in conclusion that the RACV will continue to oppose the introduction of FuelWatch:

... as we consider Melbourne motorists will on average pay more for their fuel under this scheme.

Similarly, the RAA, which represents motorists in South Australia, wrote to me several days ago. The letter states, in part:

The RAA has long opposed the introduction of FuelWatch and continues to remain opposed, because we consider South Australian motorists will be no better off under the scheme and indeed may be distinctly disadvantaged.

The letter then states:

Please note the RAA has indicated that it is willing to change its position if the federal government or the ACCC can furnish the data that is said to demonstrate that their concerns are unfounded.

Pointedly, it concludes:

However, no data has been provided.

I suspect the data provided by the four key economic departments advising the government is quite to the contrary. But as to the bigger issue, even though the government describes $1.64 a litre for petrol as ‘a little problem’, there is an even  bigger problem now for Australians.

This country deserves better than it is getting from this government. Australians have been let down. Australians have been deceived by the man who is now the Prime Minister of this country and the government that he leads. Every Australian should see the front page of today’s Melbourne Age, which has the headline ‘Cabinet leak leaves Rudd petrol strategy in tatters’. It is not only the Rudd government’s petrol strategy that is in tatters; it is the government itself. There are millions of Australians for whom this is not a game, for whom the government of this country is not about factional people fighting one another, for whom it is not about people getting into positions by virtue of fraudulent, misleading hopes held out to Australians. For millions of people in this country, it is about survival. It is about paying your mortgage. It is about trying to find the money for your rent. It is about deciding what food you can afford to buy this week. It is about meeting your credit card payments. It is about clothing your children. It is about being able to go about your business—to run a small family business, to survive on a farm. That is what it is about.

I ask the Prime Minister: Prime Minister, how can Australians have trust in your government if your key ministers cannot trust one another, let alone their own departments? How can they further trust a government in which now the Prime Minister of that government himself cannot trust his own ministers and wilfully ignores the considered advice of his four key economic departments? These four departments—the Department of Finance and Deregulation, the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet, the Department of Resources, Energy and Tourism and the Department of Innovation, Industry, Science and Research—all had the opportunity to read the ACCC report. These are departments headed and populated not by fools. These are departments which are headed and populated by people who really understand economic argument.

I say to the Prime Minister that there may not be a silver bullet in relation to petrol, but Australians deserve much better than a government that is firing blanks. We need a government in this country that is orderly, where ministers have confidence in one another, where they can have confidence in their Prime Minister and where they can have confidence in the advice that is given to them by their key government departments. We are now in a situation in Australia where the Prime Minister of the country—who is more concerned for his own image, his own popularity and currying favour with cheap headlines than actually making decisive decisions to deliver cheaper petrol—has chosen a stunt and then desperately distorted the advice from the ACCC to find the advice which actually suits the stunt of the day, as evidenced by the Australian newspaper, and ignored the advice of the four key economic departments.

This is the Prime Minister who goes to one audience and says one thing and then goes to another and says something else. This is the same Prime Minister who said he would be evidence based. This is the same Prime Minister who said that he would bring the government departments to the centre of the policy-setting agenda. On 29 November last year he said:

The driving agenda for Commonwealth-State relations is located within both the Prime Minister’s portfolio and the Treasury portfolio—

and that government departments would be brought to the centre of government decision making.

Opposition members interjecting—

Dr NELSON —In one sense, it is a joke, but I say to Australians—to those of us who have mortgages, who have car loans, who have petrol that we have to buy to put in them, who have groceries that have to be bought, who have kids that need clothes, who are trying to put a roof over their heads—as busy as they are: have a look at the pathetic nine-minute press conference from the Treasurer last night. Australians have to trust and have faith in their government and their ministers. We are in a situation where we have a stunt driven Prime Minister who ignores the advice of the key government departments, a nervous Treasurer who is simply not across his brief, and ministers who will not trust one another—let alone their own departments. We are in a situation where this country deserves better. With petrol at $1.60 a litre and rising, Prime Minister: cut the excise; pull no more stunts—we need real leadership, we need decisive action. We will not allow everyday Australians in particular to be punished by this stunt driven government, and we will oppose FuelWatch.

The SPEAKER —Is the motion seconded?

Mr Turnbull —I second the motion and reserve my right to speak.