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Tuesday, 26 May 2009
Page: 4296

Mr GIBBONS (4:53 PM) —Today’s MPI has to be one of the greatest examples of hypocrisy that I have witnessed in 11 years in this House. The opposition have already acknowledged that had they been in office they would have done almost exactly the same as the government has done. On 13 May, the Leader of the Opposition told ABC Radio’s Chris Uhlmann:

It is hard to imagine a circumstance in which the Budget this year would not be in deficit.

And, on the same day, the opposition’s Treasury spokesman said that the deficit would be only $25 billion less under a coalition government.

This government is borrowing for a legitimate purpose: it is borrowing to cushion this country from the worst effects of the global economic downturn; and it is borrowing to rejuvenate this country’s infrastructure—its roads, its railways, its ports, its schools, its broadband and its other community assets. These are investments that the Howard-Costello government should have financed out of budget surpluses from the commodities boom while it was in office. The Rudd government is borrowing to stimulate economic activity at a time when the private sector is either reluctant to invest itself or cannot raise finance because of the freezing up of global credit markets. The government’s borrowings will result in thousands of Australian businesses, large and small, getting government contracts to supply goods and services. This will keep thousands of Australians in jobs who would otherwise be on unemployment benefits and therefore unproductive.

As the government has acknowledged, there is no doubt that the remainder of 2009 and beyond is going to be tough. As with other advanced economies, the International Monetary Fund expects our economy to contract over 2009, but the IMF also believes that Australia will weather this global crisis better than virtually any other advanced economy. That is partly because of some of our strengths, like the stability of our financial system and the fact that our banks are amongst the safest in the world. But a big part of the reason we are much better placed than most other nations is—apart from the superb economic foundation built by the previous Hawke and Keating Labor governments—the decisive action taken by this government to stimulate growth, to support jobs and to mitigate the impact of the global recession on all Australians. That decisive action started last year with stimulus payments to give the economy a short-term boost, particularly in the vital retail sector, which employs over one million Australians. We saw the results of this in figures which showed that the value of retail sales increased by 2.2 per cent in the month of March. Monthly retail sales are now 4.5 per cent higher than they were in November last year before the government’s first economic stimulus payments started to flow to pensioners and families. By way of comparison, over the same period retail sales fell 2.5 per cent in the United States, 3.1 per cent in Japan, 2.2 per cent in Germany, 3.1 per cent in Canada and 1.7 per cent in New Zealand.

Following the rollout of the stimulus payments, the next stage of the government’s economic stimulus package is well underway. Two-thirds of that stimulus is infrastructure investment and these construction projects are starting now. In 12 months time there will be around 35,000 individual construction projects around the country, including the largest school modernisation program ever. All of these will be boosting thousands of local economies and small businesses right across Australia. They will be keeping contractors, tradies, truck drivers and small businesses working and employing Australians. As the minister for infrastructure informed the House yesterday, even members opposite are welcoming these investments in their own constituencies. They cannot get their hard hats and safety vests on fast enough for all the photo opportunities. But we hear nothing but criticism from them in this House and in this chamber about the enormous amount of economic activity that is just starting around the country, including in their own electorates, where they line up to try to claim some of the credit. They roar like lions here in Canberra and squeak like mice in their electorates.

Let me highlight some of those investment projects. The first sod was recently turned on the $164 million Midland Highway-Brighton bypass project in Southern Tasmania, six months ahead of schedule. This bypass and the associated transport hub are expected to create up to 380 jobs directly with additional flow-on benefits to local businesses. Work has started on installing flashing lights and advance warning systems at 13 high-risk rail level crossings in Tasmania. Builders have been selected for the new Mandurah Entrance Road in Western Australia. Work will begin in the coming months, a year ahead of schedule. Investment in other transport infrastructure projects continues, with 268 rail level crossing projects announced in Queensland, New South Wales, Western Australia, Victoria, South Australia and the Northern Territory. Contractors have been named for the Tarcutta and Woomargama bypasses on the Hume Highway in New South Wales. Black spot projects have been announced across Australia—160 in Victoria, almost 200 in New South Wales, 93 in Queensland, six in the Northern Territory, 27 in Tasmania and more than 50 in both South Australia and Western Australia.

Approval has been given for $250 million worth of projects by 564 local councils across Australia under the first round of the $800 million Community Infrastructure Program. Councils have now lodged applications under the second round for projects like sports grounds, community centres and town halls. Work has started on stage 1 of social housing construction all around Australia. Almost all of the 667 homes to be built in my home state of Victoria have planning approval and 503 projects are expected to start this financial year. The education sector has been a significant beneficiary of the government’s economic stimulus package. The National School Pride program, which represents 13,176 projects in 9,461 schools, has been approved and work has begun or is about to begin. Under this program each school will receive between $50,000 and $200,000 for things like building refurbishments, water tanks, sports grounds and specialised infrastructure support for students with disabilities or special needs.

I estimate that close to $142 million has been allocated to my electorate of Bendigo in central Victoria in some of the programs I have just mentioned. That, in just the first 18 months of the Rudd government, is more than the Howard government delivered in almost 12 years, if you exclude the Calder Highway funding—and remember that the Howard coalition government had to be dragged kicking and screaming for four long years before they finally allocated the promised funding for the Calder Highway.

These are just some of the projects being funded by the government’s borrowing program, which will create opportunities for businesses across the country to get involved and support thousands of jobs. The importance of economic stimulus measures such as these was emphasised recently by IMF Chief Economist Olivier Blanchard. He noted that ‘fiscal policies have made a gigantic difference’. The IMF estimates that, without these stimulus measures around the world, world growth in 2009 would be somewhere between 1.5 per cent and two per cent lower. Mr Blanchard went on to say: ‘Therefore, we would be in the middle of something very close to a depression. So I think we have to understand that the strong policies which have been taken have made a difference.’

The Reserve Bank of Australia, in its recent quarterly statement on monetary policy, cited the government’s ‘substantial fiscal initiatives’ as a key reason why Australia is outperforming other countries. It noted that Australia’s economic activity is slowing at a significantly more gradual pace than many other advanced economies. So the government’s response to the global economic crisis has been swift and decisive and is obviously working well.

But what has the opposition got to offer Australia in these difficult times? Not one speaker from the opposition in today’s debate has mentioned anything about what they would do or any policy initiatives. There has been plenty of carping and whingeing but no policy substance. There has been no leadership, no viable policies and no direction except scaremongering about the forecast levels of government borrowing. Depending on which spokesperson you listen to, either they would be doing almost exactly the same as the government or they would be fiddling around while the global economy collapsed about them, taking Australia and Australian jobs with them. The Leader of the Opposition will undoubtedly go down in history as the Andre Rieu of Australian politics. He does bear a striking resemblance in more ways than one, except for the hair, of course—they are both fiddlers. Come to think of it, fiddling around is probably the Leader of the Opposition’s true vocation in life. Of course, he is nowhere near as good at it as his international look-alike; Mr Rieu can at least boast of considerable talent. The opposition leader’s fiddling over economic management is woefully out of tune. He and the parties opposite are out of tune with the needs of the times. They are out of tune with the actions being taken by the governments of other developed countries around the world and they are out of tune with the wishes of the Australian people.

The DEPUTY SPEAKER (Hon. BC Scott)—I call the member for Swan.

Dr Emerson —I have your picture here.