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Wednesday, 31 August 2016
Page: 274

Senator WHISH-WILSON (Tasmania) (16:46): The word 'leadership' might suggest to many Australians something like reform—economic reform. It may suggest good economic management. But it might also suggest some courage and some vision—some economic vision. Now, Acting Deputy President Back, you and I have both sat through three Governor-General's speeches, where a new Prime Minister outlines their vision for this country, in four years. Interestingly, for the very first one, in 2013—because, for those listening, the House of Representatives has to squeeze into the Senate—I sat next to Mr Kevin Rudd, the recently deposed Prime Minister. Throughout Mr Tony Abbott's Governor-General's speech, he kept muttering to himself: 'This man has no vision. He has no vision.' I am not sure I totally agreed with Kevin Rudd at the time, because, to me, he had a very clear vision, and that was to rip up some of the biggest economic reforms we had seen in this nation in a decade, but I followed it very closely.

I actually snuck out to Mr Malcolm Turnbull's press conference the day he took over the economic leadership, and I listened to his comments as well. Firstly, he strongly implied that there would be no more three-word slogans. I think we can say that that has gone out the door. But he also said that the Abbott government essentially were poor economic managers, and that was what required a change in the prime ministership.

Looking at his Governor-General's speech, I still do not see any vision or any leadership for this country. We get a policy for $50 billion worth of tax cuts for big business. The Greens led on tax cuts for small business in the last parliament. We took that to the 2013 election. We were very proud that we got concessions for hardworking small business in Australia. Now we get $50 billion worth of tax cuts from the forward estimates for big business, many of which do not even pay their fair share of tax—and, believe me, I have sat on those committees and heard the evidence. There is the assumption that somehow trickle-down economics is going to stimulate economic activity.

What I think will stimulate economic activity—and this is a dangerous idea, Senator Paterson—is the government actually going out at record low interest rates, borrowing money and investing it in productive infrastructure in this country.

Senator Williams interjecting

Senator WHISH-WILSON: There is another article in the paper today by TD Securities talking about our AAA credit rating, and it is worth reading it word for word, Senator Williams—through you, Acting Deputy President. They make it very clear that our AAA credit rating is at risk because of our level of debt, but they also say it is debt not related to expenditure on productive infrastructure. You see, this is where your government is deceptive and misleading in all your spin and rhetoric about the debt problem in this country.

I agree that housing debt is too high in this country, and it is dangerous. I was the one who asked the previous head of the Treasury about the housing bubble and got a two-week reaction during the Mr Hockey period of Treasury. I am also concerned about personal consumption and high levels of household debt on consumption. But where is the debate on what I think is a massive moral challenge of our time, and that is avoiding underinvestment in future generations of this country?

I have collected this evidence in two long-ranging Senate inquiries, a select committee I chaired and the Rural and Regional Affairs and Transport References Committee inquiry into regional capitals. We went right around the country and heard evidence of the massive, trillion-dollar infrastructure gap in this country—projects waiting for funding. If we want to stimulate economic demand in this country and get GDP up—which, by the way, would make some of those metrics that Senator Paterson has quoted today not look so bad—if we actually had a policy for stimulating the economy and helping invest in future generations, I could list categories of infrastructure we looked at, from small to big.

The Productivity Commission said, 'Well, bundling lots of small productive infrastructure projects together is a good idea,' as are seeking different ways of financing them: monetising and securitising those infrastructure projects, issuing bonds against projects in regional areas to raise capital and making pools of finance available to local governments, like in Tasmania. We need $900 million to upgrade our water infrastructure in Tasmania. Fifteen communities in my state do not have clean drinking water. They have to boil their water. Why isn't that money available?

Do you know what? The federal government could show leadership on this issue by making capital available for productive and transformative infrastructure projects. It could borrow money at record-low interest rates and make that available to both local governments and state governments. Do you think the Greens are the only people who are calling for government to take an active role in the lives of Australians? Do you think it is the Greens? Well, you would be wrong, Senator Williams—through you, Chair. Dr John Hewson, one of the first people to appear at our inquiry, was the one who put this idea to the select committee. Saul Eslake and the recently departed Mr Glenn Stevens were all up there saying the same thing.

What is wrong with government that it cannot show leadership and invest in the future of this country? It is because of this 'D' word—dirty debt—and it starts here in this chamber with the heightened spin we hear from the conservatives in this parliament. Let's have an honest discussion about debt, about why it can be useful for us and about why it is probably the only alternative we have in the paradigm that we are entering, where monetary policy all around the world has lost its potency. Actually it is fiscal policy that is going to get us through a potential recession. It is fiscal policy that will help give us jobs in our communities all around this country and give us the investment in the infrastructure that we need for future generations. By infrastructure, I tell you, I mean a really broad category of infrastructure. We are not talking about concrete roads; we are talking about public transport, we are talking about telecommunications—

Senator Williams: Are you talking about dams?

Senator WHISH-WILSON: We are talking about dams actually, Senator Williams. Up in Townsville, I got some excellent proposals for infrastructure investment in dams that were not being financed. And our committee worked out why the private sector was not financing these infrastructure projects, why there is a clear market failure and why there is a role for government in our lives in this country—that is, economic leadership.

It is worth reading the latest Quarterly Essay. In it, George Megalogenis talks about our balancing act, about how we are going to get through what is ultimately going to be the doldrums for our country and our economy in the coming years. The conclusion he arrived at also is that we need infrastructure spending to invest in future generations and to stimulate the economy. But he also said we need a new structure around infrastructure financing, around how projects are selected and around how they are depoliticised. Because they are what the private sector is seeing as risk. They are the risk premiums the investors are building into their expectation on infrastructure financing and that is why they do not want to touch a lot of these infrastructure projects that are sitting there waiting to be funded. Government should bloody well fund them, in my opinion, because what we need in this country is economic leadership, not more spin—'leave it to the private sector, leave it to big business and everything will be fine'.

In terms of vision and leadership, it really does disappoint me that over those three Governor-General's speeches, we have gone from the age of entitlement to suddenly the same ideological attack on poor people in this country—the taxed and the taxed-nots—the same rhetoric. This stuff is not flying; people do not care about that. They actually want to see government step in and show leadership and play an active role in their lives. This kind of IPA Young Liberal party politics does not cut it with the people out on the street. Sorry, Senator Paterson—through you, Acting Deputy President—it just does not cut it. People want to see governments playing an active role in their lives.

It is an historic opportunity for us to nation build right now, to select projects we do want to see capital go into—projects that can be financed over time, projects that can be paid off, projects that can be monetised, projects that can create employment for Australians all around this country, projects that lead to a more prosperous country, projects that make us more sustainable, projects that give us a better quality of living, projects that make us happier. These are the things governments need to do. I am proud to say that if you do not think I have the evidence to support this then go and look at the Standing Committee on Infrastructure and Communications inquiry into Planning, Procurement and Funding for Australia's future Infrastructure that we completed a week before the double-dissolution. It was backed by both the Liberal and Labor parties. There was no dissenting report. Have a read of it. Six months of evidence has gone into that from experts including Standard and Poor's—by the way, Senator Paterson, through you, Acting Deputy President—and it deals with the issue of the triple-A credit rating, why this can be done and why $50 billion is not unreasonable for us to go out and borrow now and invest now. Fifty billion dollars; let's borrow it, let's invest it and let's cut the crap about debt.

The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT ( Senator Back ): Thank you, Senator Whish-Wilson. Before I call you, Senator Cameron, I advise that at the conclusion of your contribution we will suspend the matter of public importance for a first speech.