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Wednesday, 17 November 2010
Page: 2904

Mr RIPOLL (4:40 PM) —It is always a pleasure to speak in the address-in-reply debate, because it gives members of parliament so much scope to talk about anything they want. It also provides us an opportunity to talk about some of the things that happen in our electorates, certainly to address some of the good things that this government has done, to review programs and to look at some of the positive things and not just be on about three-word slogans and everything negative. There are lots of good things, and we should talk about those as well.

It might be easy for some people to forget the good work that is being done by this Labor government, not only through its first term but coming into the second term. We came into office in very difficult times, when difficult decisions had to be made. This is a good government and I am very proud of it for the things that we have succeeded in doing—things that were very difficult and done in difficult times.

One of this government’s greatest achievements, and it is just one of them, was its economic stewardship of the stimulus package and the way that we helped guide Australia through what is accepted globally as one of the worst economic downturns in the last 70 years—a global financial crisis which had an enormous impact right across North America, South America, Europe and the developed world. Certainly we felt it here, but not to the same extent. That was due mainly to the efforts of this government to make sure that did not happen. In fact, we did such a good job of that that it is now quite common for some people to question whether a GFC actually occurred at all. I talk at a lot of different forums—economic forums and forums on financial services—and I often ask people, ‘Who actually believes that we even had a financial crisis?’ For some people, they just did not feel the pain that is associated with a recession or a global financial crisis. And that is a good thing. It is a good thing that in Australia we did not go through that same experience, that we did not feel that pain that was felt by so many other countries around the world.

In fact, we were very focused—not only in terms of the stimulus package itself but also in terms of what the stimulus package actually does in practice and has done. Our primary focus in this area was the saving of jobs, the preservation of jobs. According to reports done by the OECD, our stimulus package and the measures we took through the global financial crisis saved more than 200,000 jobs. In fact, Professor Joseph Stiglitz, a former World Bank chief economist, said that this government actually did a ‘fantastic job’ of saving the country from problems. Of course, he was referring to the problems of job losses, interest rate rises, people losing their homes and so many other things associated with the global financial crisis and an economic recession. Professor Stiglitz also said that the stimulus package, when compared with the US, was ‘better conceptually, in size and design.’ He also said that it was carefully thought out, the way we got the money out into the community, the staging of it, and all the concerns that went into the delivery were well done. Basically he gave this government a really big tick in terms of the way we handled the global financial crisis, our response to the crisis and the measures that we introduced. I think it is important to understand that, because many people did not feel the full harsh impact of that crisis.

Some people may say, that we went a little bit too far or we spent a little bit too much. It is always a fine line. It is always a close call when a government has to make that big decision about how far it goes. Do you go just a little bit short, still have the recession and waste the money that you put in there, or do you aim to get it spot on? Every report, every economist, everyone out there has said that we actually got it just right. So it is a great credit to the work that Treasurer Wayne Swan and the government did.

It is easy now for people to almost laugh it off as if it did not happen. But the reality is that it did happen and it was the worst in 70 years. The reason it did not happen for us is, in a sense, because of the work we did. So I am very proud of that work. How do people view our economy? The reality is that our economy is the envy of the developed world. Every other comparable economy would gladly trade their economy for ours any day of the week.

Australia’s unemployment rate, for example, is at around five and a bit per cent—5.2, 5.3, 5.4. That is what most people would consider close to full employment, which is a great number. Of course it is never low enough. I think that is the reality for all of us in this place. We would like to see unemployment as low as possible. Australia’s unemployment rate is about half the rate of comparable nations across the world. You only have to look at Europe, where they have more than 10 per cent unemployment across the board or the United States where they have about 10 per cent unemployment, to see that Australia is much better off. That does not mean for one moment that that unemployment rate is low enough—no rate is low enough—but having it in the low fives means that we are doing something right.

It is interesting to note that the MYEFO released earlier this month forecast that Australia’s economy will grow by about 3¼ per cent in 2010-11 and by another 3¾ per cent in 2011-12. By any measure, that is quite a healthy figure. It is certainly within the RBA range of where growth should be. I think it is important that we note that. There would be some—and dare I say some in the opposition if not most of the opposition—who would criticise that. It is never quite good enough for them. But it is a sound figure. It is a manageable figure and it is the right amount of growth for this nation.

Some people say, particularly those in the opposition, that our debt, our national sovereignty, is in jeopardy because of our sovereign debt. They could not be further from the truth. They just could not be more wrong on this very important matter. In fact, net debt is forecast to peak at around 6.4 per cent of GDP in 2011-12. That is quite a respectable, manageable and low figure. Some people might say: ‘What does 6.4 per cent represent? What does that mean in real terms?’ Let me make some comparisons. By comparison, net debt in major developed economies is expected to reach around 90 per cent of GDP by 2015. That is 14 times higher than Australia’s, which is expected to peak at a much lower rate.

If you compare developed nations right across the OECD, we are at the bottom end of the net debt scale. We are not just at the lower end by a little bit; we are at the lower end by a massive amount. The amount of national debt and sovereign risk in this country are not only within the expected range but more than well-managed and more than manageable into the future.

One of the best things that this government or any government can do is keep a strong economy and keep people in jobs. The greatest safety net any person has against any downturn is having a job. It should always be the focus of governments to keep the economy strong and keep people in work. Government should make sure that whatever else happens globally—access to funds, the ability to borrow, and every other matter which is so important to people in terms of their economic future—the economy is strong. And that is exactly what we have done. One of the ways we have done that is by making sure we do it in balance—a balance between job creation, keeping interest rates low, continuing to provide government services that are so vital to people and making sure that those government services look after older Australians. Older Australians have provided so much to this country.

Remember we experienced one of the greatest economic downturns in the country. So much for the rivers of gold that used to flow into Canberra in the heady days under the Howard government when the economy was exceptionally strong, globally and nationally. But those rivers of gold were not used to their optimal levels. At the same time that we experienced the global financial crisis here, the greatest contraction of the economy that we had seen in 70 years, this government managed to make one of the greatest pension reforms in 100 years. What we were able to do was deliver to pensioners a real increase for the first time in more than three decades of up to $115 per fortnight for single pensioners and $97 per fortnight for couples, thanks to our reforms of September 2009. But we did not stop there. We felt that it was important to get the balance right as well and to get the indexation right. So we also moved on indexation to make sure that they keep up with the cost of living through a system not based on one index or two indexes and CPI data but on three indexes, making sure that the highest of three indexes is the one that we refer to. Pensioners have made a long-term commitment to this country and so has this government to them. The Gillard government has made a long-term commitment to properly index and properly grow their retirement incomes, not to use some sham puny bonus scheme before an election, which was a cynical scheme under the previous administration.

There is a range of other things that this government did in its two terms, including the delivery of two historic apologies, the first one being to Australia’s Indigenous people and the stolen generation and the second being to the forgotten Australians, those child migrants who grew up in state care. That demonstrates to me the important balance of a government that is practical and logical and can deal with economic issues but has a heart and a soul and can also deal with the issues that have been a stain on Australia’s vast tapestry that needed to be rectified. By making those two apologies, we do not by any means fix all the problems that exist but we do begin the process to right some of the wrongs of the past and to bring some healing and some closure to people that not only deserve it but need it. So I am very proud of those things that we did.

Something that I am just as much proud of is something that is often criticised the most today: the Building the Education Revolution program. I cannot find a better cause or a better way to spend a stimulus funding package than to do it on schools. Firstly, you create local jobs. If anybody here of fair mind goes and talks to contractors and workers, the people who actually help build these new science labs and classrooms and halls and libraries and so forth, and asks just how important it is to them, they will often tell you that if it were not for that project they would be out of work—they would not have a job—and in turn might lose their home.

The importance of that program should never be underestimated. But it flowed much deeper and much further. It was more than just the mere construction of a brick building or a concrete building or a steel building. It was also about changing, for the first time in generations, the outlook of the students and the teachers in those schools, of the parents and of the communities. The sort of response I have had from my schools and from sitting down with students has overwhelmed me. I had the great privilege to sit down with the year 7 students at Durack State School in my electorate when we did something a bit unusual: after we had the hall ceremony we sat down and talked inside the new multipurpose hall, which gets used for unbelievably everything. This is a school that previously really did not have any facilities and its staff could have never dreamed of having the sorts of facilities that we have been able to provide.

I asked the students what this meant to them and, honestly, they responded that for the first time it meant they felt important, it meant they felt that other people cared about them, their school and their community. It meant that for the first time they could have classes which they could not have before. They could actually gather all the year 7s together for the first time. They could gather the year 7s and other years together and hold particular seminars. It meant that for the first time they could get all of the parents together, in one place at the same time, and discuss productivity and education within the school.

I have heard criticism today, as I have heard it many times before, from the opposition, who are so disingenuous about this particular program and so wrong about this particular program. They say it does not deliver productivity. Well, they could not be more wrong on that. They only have to go and talk to school principals and teachers and parents and students and ask them about productivity and ask them what a new science lab or a new classroom means to them. It has not been a perfect program—I acknowledge that. When you deliver 26,000 different projects across thousands of schools across the country, you expect a few little problems here and there, but the massive vast bulk of people are so positive about them. What all of it has delivered for students is so good that it should never be underestimated.

I also want to briefly mention trade training centres—because you cannot talk about schools and not talk about trade training. Students need to have choices. We live in a complex world. It is a complex educational environment and a complex skills environment. Students ought to have options and flexibility in taking an academic path or a vocational path. You cannot just deliver that in the traditional way of either finishing year 10 or finishing year 12. Students need to stay in school until year 12 but they need pathways, they need to be able to work with industry directly. We have created that through trade training centres.

I want to mention three specific schools—Woodcrest College, Forest Lake State High School and Redbank State High School—which have partnered together in an incredible collaboration to share an expanded facility and provide their students with an endless list of opportunities, with industry directly creating high-skilled high-end jobs. For example, Volvo trucks will provide them with the latest high-tech gearboxes so that when the students finish they will already be skilled in using equipment that is being used out in industry. This sort of stuff you just cannot buy, this sort of stuff you almost cannot dream of, yet we have started to create it in schools. I cannot imagine that anybody could disagree with that; in fact, I know that nobody does. The opposition might talk tough in terms of politics but they could not look a student in the eye and tell them they do not deserve to have those sorts of opportunities.

I want to briefly mention the Ipswich Motorway. There has been a community road safety campaign for well over a decade and a desperate need for a 21st century motorway. To save lives but also provide economic growth in the western corridor of South-East Queensland is of the utmost importance. If it were not for the election of a Labor government in 2007, this motorway would never have happened. The reality is that the motorway is now almost completed—with incredible results. There have been no deaths on the motorway since work began and there have been incredible incremental improvements. I cannot think of a better way to spend $3.2 billion. It has been a fabulous project with incredible outcomes.

I also want to talk about housing as a sustainability issue for Australia and for our cities and how we achieve the living standard that we have today. Housing is one of the critical areas of need and it is related to transport, water, energy and many other issues. The National Housing Supply Council’s very important State of supply report 2010 has some incredible figures. There is a housing shortage of 178,400 homes in this country. If you conceptualise that in terms of families and individuals, it is a lot of people who really do not have a place to live; it is a lot of homelessness and it is a lot of disadvantage. The shortfall in Queensland is 56,100 homes, which is exceeded only by Sydney. Brisbane and Queensland need to do more work. The council also found that housing remains unaffordable for many households, whether they rent or buy, and that in 2007-08 there were already more than 300,000 lower-income homebuyers in housing stress—that is, paying more than 30 per cent of their gross income on mortgage repayments.

This report paints a picture of neglect over the previous decade or more. That neglect is very hard to deal with today but this government has taken it on by setting up a National Rental Affordability Scheme, whereby we are working with developers and the private sector to ensure that we can provide affordable housing—because people deserve an opportunity to have a decent place to live. We are also working on a range of other areas. We are providing public housing and more funding and working with the states and local government authorities—and they also need to step up to the block to make sure that they do their part. A great opportunity exists for a new cooperation between the three levels of government to look at those areas. It goes back to housing and sustainability. If we turn our attention to these matters we can solve them. If we continue to grow under the current models and growth patterns then we will have some serious issues in the future about how we provide for our own population, let alone how we fit into the global picture of population.

Listening to the simplistic arguments that you will hear from the other side about boats coming over, as if there is some sort of magic wand, and the simplistic arguments that they put forward on all of these issues, which are interlinked, you realise that during the more than 10 years that they were in government they did nothing about any of them. They might have focused on one or two populist, petty issues, but they did not do anything to fix the structural inefficiencies within this economy or to look at some of the really big issues. The evidence of that is that we have to pick all those up today. The reason we have some serious existing issues to deal with today is because nothing was done in those areas for well over a decade.

It is a great pleasure to talk to the address-in-reply because it gives us an opportunity to lay on the table some of the issues that we think are most important, not only for our electorates or our states, but which are also in the national interest.