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Monday, 25 May 2009
Page: 4120

Mr BRIGGS (6:40 PM) —I rise to speak in the debate that we are having on the Appropriation Bill (No. 1) 2009-2010 and cognate bills. As the member for Bass scurries out, I will firstly address one comment that she made which was part of Labor’s grubby attack on the Leader of the Opposition for being successful in his business. This is a great campaign the Labor Party like to mount. They do not like people who are successful; they prefer people just to be all stuck together. I am remembering, of course, the hypocrisy of that, with the richest Prime Minister in Australia’s history, whose wealth is all made from government contracts. So the Labor Party might want to go down this path of grubby attacks on the Leader of the Opposition, but I would urge them to be cautious, particularly members in seats like that of the member for Bass. I will not dwell on that issue.

I rise tonight to speak on the first budget that I am responding to as the member for Mayo. Of course, it is the Rudd government’s second budget, but it is my first since I was elected in September last year. In preparing for tonight’s speech, I thought I would go back and look at recent budgets delivered by the Australian government. If you look at the last 12 or 13 years, what you see is a record of governments at the Commonwealth level paying off debt, returning the budget to surplus, delivering services and returning money to the taxpayers of Australia through well-targeted tax cuts—returning what they have earned, as it should be. On the other hand, in the last two years we have seen fiscal responsibility and economic plans go out the window, with the Rudd government not able to get a grasp on how to manage the Australian economy.

It is very important that we remember that in November 2007, when the Rudd government were elected, they inherited a budget surplus of $20-odd billion. They inherited an economy that was growing, as it had been for a period of around 14 years. They inherited net savings. The Future Fund set up by the former government was allocated to pay off the future liabilities of the government in relation to superannuation. In addition to that, there were several other savings accounts allocated to pay for things like higher education infrastructure. It was a budget that had been placed in this position not by some fortunate stroke of luck but by hard decisions made over a period of 11 years—well-thought-through decisions managing the Australian budget in a way which left this new government a legacy that they should not have been able to turn around so quickly, in 18 months.

What we have seen in this budget is the biggest spending budget since World War II, spending more money than the government has—more money than comes into the Commonwealth Treasury. This government would have us believe—we have just heard it in the ramblings from the member for Bass—that the debt and deficit are all because of international events beyond, of course, this government’s control. This is simply part of the spin doctoring that goes on with this government. This government is the Shane Warne of Australian politics. Never has a spinner had so much effect on our country as today. Even Shane Warne’s outstanding record of service to our country pales into insignificance when you see the spin doctoring that goes on around this budget.

The truth is that the spending in this budget is the largest in Australia since the Second World War. The government’s reckless spending has led to a bigger budget deficit than Paul Keating’s and Gough Whitlam’s governments, and we remember what impacts they had on future generations. It took the coalition government 10 years to pay off the excesses of the Keating government. Since the Rudd government was elected, it has spent $10 million per hour on new initiatives. So much for the idea that this is all due to international events and international factors. The Labor spin does not add up.

This budget has seen the reality of the economic circumstances crash into the Hollowmen’s spin routine. We established that today in question time, with the Treasurer admitting that there will be $315 billion of borrowing, although very shortly after that the Prime Minister put some questions around whether or not that was the case when he said it would be $300 billion. There seems to be a $15 billion gap in the spin there. So you can forgive the member for Petrie for getting tripped up on what the figures were for the deficit and debt this morning at the doorstop—the great tradition in Parliament House of walking in through the media scrum—when she was sent out as one of the backbenchers from the other side to deliver the message on the day. You can understand her not understanding what the spin of the day was, because it seems to have been moving around very quickly—so much so that the Prime Minister and the Treasurer were not on message at all in question time. One said there would be $315 billion in borrowings—of course, that is the truthful figure—while the other, being the Prime Minister, said it would be $300 billion. But it was only a matter of $15 billion, and for the Labor Party that is nothing at all.

What this budget exposes is that the Labor government does not have a plan to manage the economy, nor does it have a plan to help Australia recover, to help small business—the engine room of the Australian economy—to recover. So much focus has been put by the Leader of the Opposition in recent times, rightfully, on how small business can help us grow out of this recession and out of these international events that are affecting Australia. We hear much from the other side of this chamber alleging that Australia is better placed than many other countries to face this global recession. That is true, and that is true because of the hard work put over 11 years into building budget surpluses, paying off debt and returning money to the Australian taxpayer—all things that this government is incapable of doing.

But, as usual, this government does not have an economic plan. It does not have a plan for recovery. It does not have a plan to stop the reckless spending that it is engaged in. It has a political plan. As I have touched on, one thing this government is very good at is politics and spin. It is the Shane Warne of Australian politics. The government is driven so much by spin doctors that it makes The Hollowmen look like a serious documentary. It is driven purely by spin doctors. We see that from government backbenchers in and out of this chamber. We saw the member for Bass in her ramblings just before, reading off scripts. They are very good readers, I will give them that. Some of them will move off the script sometimes, the member for Fowler being the obvious exception there, and occasionally talk about things which are related to their electorates and what they truly believe. But largely those on the other side are happy to follow what is drafted for them, and they are very good at it, I will give them that; they stick to their spin very well.

But the problem with a political script is that it is not a substitute for an economic policy. The government’s claims to have a plan to take Australia out of deficit and return the budget to surplus are part of this spin doctoring which we see from this government on a daily basis. There is no genuine plan to get out of deficit and repay the debt. We saw that again today in question time. When asked about the ‘temporary debt’, the Prime Minister put a figure on the debt level in 2020. We know that by 2020 this government does not even have a fake plan to get out of debt. So much for it being temporary. Instead, as the member for Casey recently said, it is like arguing that the Second World War was temporary. In fact, when it comes to debt, it is like arguing that the Hundred Years War was temporary.

So the government is playing out a political plan and does not have a strategy on how to deal with the economy. On their claims that they will return the budget to surplus, they make two justifications. The first is that they will impose budget rigour on themselves, which is very difficult to believe. As I said earlier in this speech, this government has delivered the highest spending budget since the Second World War. The increase in expenditure in this budget is 14 per cent. The government claims that, following 2011—interestingly, after the next election—it will reduce the real increase in spending to two per cent, which is a real cut in the history of government expenditure. Does anyone seriously believe that this Prime Minister and this government will be able to make no new spending announcements in the next six years? Does anyone seriously believe that they will get through a month without making a new spending announcement?

The claim that they will be able to stick to a two per cent real increase in spending is just unbelievable, so much so that Paul Kelly from the Australian newspaper, a very well known and very balanced commentator on economics, dedicated his column on Saturday to this spin-doctoring problem. He says:

This Government’s communications problem can be summarised in one question: does anybody believe that a Prime Minister and Treasurer too frightened to announce the deficit and debt numbers on television have the fortitude to wage a six-year-long campaign that keeps growth in government spending to below 2 per cent in real terms to achieve a budget surplus by 2015-16?

The answer is obvious. This is Kevin Rudd and Wayne Swan’s real problem. Keen to promote themselves as decisive leaders during an economic crisis, this week they looked scared, silly and subservient to political spin.

That sums up the issue that this government has. It is focused on the politics, not on the policy: ‘What’s the line that gets us through today? What’s the message that people want to hear which will make us popular leading into the next election?’ The government’s problem is that the economic reality is bashing up against the political spin doctoring. So the Shane Warnes of Australian politics are now finding the spin job all that much more difficult.

In question time today, the government asked us, ‘What would you cut if you were going to reduce the debt and deficit?’ They make the claim that for six years they will not increase government spending by more than two per cent, which in real terms means a decrease in government spending. So I put the question back to them: what will they cut? Which PBS items will go? We all know that the PBS is growing strongly, so which PBS item will not get on the list? Which health and medical research program will go? Which education program will go? Because something is going to have to go if they are going to meet this very ambitious target. In addition to claiming that they will meet that target for six years to bring them back to surplus, they are also claiming that, even though this has never happened before in Australia’s history, we are going to have an uninterrupted golden era of economic growth in this country with economic growth of 4½ per cent for the next six years. These are extraordinary claims. I would suggest that they have had some very positive thought processes in going through the preparation of the budget, because the claims are very difficult to match up with the reality. The deficit figures that we see in the budget papers are coming starkly into question. There is no plan to get us out of deficit; there is a political spin document. There is no plan to repay the debt that this government has introduced. It is a political spin document, and that is becoming more apparent by the day. Unfortunately for the government, their political spin is catching up with them.

One of the other claims that the government members have among their talking points to raise in this debate—we have heard the Treasurer and the Prime Minister raise it and the member for Bass, rambling, said the same—is that Australia’s debt, in comparison to that of other countries, is relatively low. Well, of course it is—because we paid off all the debt. The UK and the US went into this economic crisis in substantially more debt than Australia—because we had no debt. It is interesting that all of a sudden those on the other side want to hold the United States up as a virtuous country. For years we have heard them rant on about the dangers of the United States and so forth, but now the United States is the great benchmark for the government’s economic policy. But just because other countries have got themselves into a position of enormous debt and deficit does not mean that we should. I think this justification is a furphy and it is desperate attempt to be part of the political spin document that the Hollowmen have drafted for the Shane Warnes of Australian politics.

This government went on a reckless spending spree because they had no economic plan. They have handed out $900 to every Australian. In effect, it is a loan that Australians will have to pay back at some point in the future. At this stage the bill is $9,000 for every man, woman and child. At current interest rates, that is $500 per year, and it is only going to go up. That is a sad thing for our kids’ future. It is going to reduce the services that the Commonwealth government will be able to pay for. The interest payments will become one of the biggest items in the budget each year. That of course means that there will be less money available for spending on government services.

I now want to refer to a couple of issues which this budget has impacted on—or not impacted on—in my electorate. As Deputy Speaker Georganas would understand, water is the No. 1, No. 2 and No. 3 issue in my electorate. The Lower Lakes are in my electorate. They continues to suffer under this long drought. Although we have had some reasonable rainfall in the last month, that needs to continue for some time to bring the Lower Lakes back to a healthy condition. It saddens me greatly, as I am sure it saddens you, Mr Deputy Speaker, to see all this water up on the New South Wales North Coast and the Gold Coast when we are not able to get it over the divide and into the Murray-Darling catchment and down the river. So it was difficult to find that there is no focus on water in the budget. There is a lot of money allocated. I continue to say to the Minister for Climate Change and Water that there should be assistance for those people on the Lower Lakes. They are just being hung out to dry by the government at the moment. It is disappointing that there is no assistance to help them get through. Today we had the farce of the Rann government asking the community what they could do to help. After three years of this absolute crisis, today we saw the Rann government, 10 months out from an election, asking people how they could help. It is quite extraordinary. It is very disappointing to see no additional assistance and no focus on the biggest issue facing South Australia—that is, the crisis in the Murray-Darling Basin and, in particular, the Lower Lakes.

The other issue in this budget which particularly affects my electorate is the attack on private health insurance. Unfortunately those on the other side have never been enamoured of private health insurance. We have seen that in the budget. We have heard the claims that this will only affect the rich, but what it does is attack all those with private health insurance. It will also have an impact on those in the public system. The additional pressure on South Australian hospitals, which are in many places close to crisis point, will be that much higher. I think that is a big error by the government. We have said that we will oppose that measure in the budget. It is the only measure that we have indicated we will oppose. I support that decision by the Leader of the Opposition and the shadow cabinet. My electorate is an older electorate and, contrary to the common view, it is not a wealthy electorate. In my electorate, 62 per cent of people have private health insurance, so this is a very important issue and it is very disappointing that the government is taking this measure.

I want to put on the record for the Deputy Prime Minister and her department an issue which will be raised in a very serious manner at estimates next Wednesday and Thursday. The Kangaroo Island Area School, or the Kingscote Area School, has had a $9.5 million upgrade in the last 1½ years. On the surface of it, that sounds like a wonderful thing—and it is a wonderful thing. However, there are two distinct issues. The first issue is value for money. They got five buildings for $9.5 million—and half of that was federal government money. I am very concerned that the state education department has not used this money in the most efficient way. The cost of these buildings is extraordinarily high and the Commonwealth has got little value for its money.

We will be pursuing this issue in Senate estimates, and I put the Deputy Prime Minister and her department on notice tonight so they can prepare for it and ask questions of their South Australian colleagues. I think it is a very important issue, because it is lot of money, $9.5 million, and it should have built a new school. Instead, we got five new buildings.

The second aspect is that the workmanship appears to be—I visited it last week—of low quality. Whether that is due to the design or the actual workmanship, I do not know at this point. However, there seem to be significant issues with the building, and these are issues that need to be resolved.

The KI Islander’s editor, Shauna Black, has been following the story, and I congratulate her for doing so. She has come under attack from some in the company for raising this issue and I think that is disappointing. But I will not be put off by those kinds of attacks and we will pursue this issue with some vigour, because I think it is a serious issue—I am sure you would agree, Mr Deputy Speaker Georganas. We need to ensure that Commonwealth and state money is spent properly, and I hope that through the Senate estimates and other processes we can establish whether the money was spent properly, whether we got value for money out of this project and whether there needs to be further consideration of the matter.