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Tuesday, 31 May 2011
Page: 5407

Mr LAMING (Bowman) (17:56): Rather than make my contribution tonight a lament about Labor, I extend the opportunity to the member for Hunter to respond by interjection to my recounting of the wonderful example he gave of a family whose power bills rise by $100 a month only for them to be compensated by $100, and who, if they work hard, can get their power bill down by $20 and somehow keep $20. I put to him: why would someone who did not experience the Gillard churn work hard to get their power bill down and save $20 on it? I wait here for the member for Hunter to interject.

The DEPUTY SPEAKER ( Mr S Georganas ): There will be no interjections, and I ask the member for Bowman to continue his speech.

Mr LAMING: I invite an interjection, but I am unable to get one. How is the person any better off—$20 better off—than someone who does not churn, yet is still also $20 better off?

The DEPUTY SPEAKER: Order! The member for Bowman will direct his speech through the chair.

Mr LAMING: It is a classic example of Gillard churn outlined for you by the government. Let Hansard record that I waited 15 seconds for that interjection but none came. The member for Hunter has also explained that he emphasises workforce participation; yet he has a colleague, the former Minister for Employment Participation, who, we understand, instructed his departmental officers through departmental communication not to pursue mutual obligation in remote Australia. As a result of that, we have seen deployment rates and program rates throughout Central Australia fall away and unemployment rates as high as they ever have been.

This is not about plumbing the depths of government incompetence; this is about recording for posterity what this administration will be remembered for. When they write the history of the Gillard administration, it will be very hard to hide the facts and record a successful outcome. As I meander through its series of policy failures, which surely this chamber must be fatigued listening to, I say that Australians out there are genuinely sick of the waste.

The notion of primum non nocere—first do no harm—is just as valid for governments as it should be for the medical profession. We can understand, member for Oxley, that there will always be a little bit of redistribution; however, the one thing that Australians would ask is, 'If you're going to take some money from me and give to someone else, just try to do it effectively.' They might even ask, 'Just do it efficiently, so we don't lose too much in the process.' But the last thing they would ever want would be for that to be done wastefully or in a way that causes damage, which is what we have seen over the last five years.

In this budget, which forgot that there was even a carbon tax occurring this year, we saw tricky arithmetic to try to create an on-paper future surplus without any answer to Australians about when the debt will be paid off. The reality is that this is yet another Labor administration quite content to run significant, medium-sized, structural government debt; this is a government utterly comfortable about doing it. Of course, they do not admit that prior to the election, but now that they are here we can see that, like the Keating government before them, they are quite happy with a 10 per cent of GDP debt running forever. That is fine if the government is prepared to do that, but they also have to be able to protect the citizenry when the time comes.

So what exactly did this government do when faced with the GFC? This was the get-out-of-jail-free card for the former Prime Minister to spend, spend and spend, and we are still paying the price. We can look at the school halls program and see the $16 billion of which this government blithely says, 'We have invested into schools!' But what could we have bought with that money? We can only begin to imagine.

The shadow education minister has been quite right; he said that $16 billion could have bought so much more than just one school hall. It could have built enormous libraries and education science facilities where there are none. There is not even a concrete slab there. We saw halls put next to halls and we saw dreadful outcomes that no government should be forgiven for achieving.

When we look at the NBN we again see some very tricky balance sheet reporting by using a 1997 CAC Act to call the NBN an investment, and therefore it does not appear on the bottom line. That is an extraordinary piece of Treasury trickery, to hide what is, in effect, a massive investment from the eyes and scrutiny of ordinary Australians. We know it is a massive investment, and Australians are right to say, 'What is going to be the return?' It is now obvious that the government does not really know, but having initially promised a $5 billion program and then having upped it to $50 billion they are utterly compelled to roll this thing out.

No-one is going to start bagging fibre and no-one from this side is going to criticise the idea that we all want faster broadband. But I think that Australians are asking—and on their behalf we as an opposition ask—simply to see the cost benefit. We are not interested in the private good for those who enjoy gaming or other activities using fast broadband, we would just like to see where the public good lies. It is utterly appropriate for a government to pay for what delivers a public good that otherwise the private sector could not provide. That is the job of government. So all we are asking of the Labor administration in 2011 is to show us the public good derived from the NBN.

The answer usually is, 'We cannot show you because we don't know what it is. Don't worry about it, it is all about to come.' So why do we not turn our attention to nations which have rolled out an NBN equivalent and just see whether South Korea has been transformed by fast broadband? The answer is: not overly. When you look in parts of Europe the sign up rates are remarkably low. As wireless surges through we do not speak ill of broadband by fibre; we simply say that as younger generations demand more mobility and smart handheld devices, wireless will become increasingly important. It will by no means be a substitutional good, but it will become more important and it will make it harder for the NBN to recoup the losses of an early and expensive rollout.

It is a simple question, and I think that government deserves to make that answer to its people. But it is an answer that we did not receive in the budget, and we will have to wait another year while this NBN is rolled out in political deployments in marginal seats around the country, and people do not sign up unless it is given to them for free. There is no better indication of just how much something is valued than if the only way you can get someone to take it is to give it away. That the NBN sign-up package is so cheap it does not reflect the cost of rolling it out is the first irrefutable evidence that the NBN rollout is occurring so early in many of these areas. The take-up rates are low, so of course you are not going to be able to get a return for decades.

So I put it to this government: roll it out when people want it. Do not roll it out when the press release demands it. That is what the NBN was: it was dreamt up on a a flight between two capital cities. It was dreamt up, they came up with a figure and, by gosh, they are not going to stop until it is rolled out or someone stops them. Of course, there are these highly paid executives on obscene salaries, which really does spit in the eye of anyone from Labor politics who thinks that executives should not be paid obscene salaries. But it has been done, and it has been with a nod of assent and a nod of approval provided to these NBN executives. Make no mistake—it is not hard to find someone who is going to head up the NBN. It is quite easy simply to turn to ex-Labor staffers, nominate someone and give them this obscene six-figure salary, just as it was when the time came to privatise New South Wales power and three potential Labor supporters needed top ups for their superannuation; $1.4 million later for six months work we had privatised New South Wales power. It is a recurring habit in both Labor jurisdictions. So from the NBN, to the carbon tax, to school halls—and, as I said, this is not intended in any way to be a Labor lament—I am effectively an opposition member searching for something good, just a morsel of goodness that has come out of this administration, to take home to my own constituents and say: 'They're not all bad. I know the cost of living has gone up 63 per cent in five years, but they're not all bad over there.' I would love to go back to my electorate newsletter and write that there was a little bit of good on both sides of politics, that there are good ideas on both sides—as Killen said, there's good cricket players on both teams. But just give me something that I can take back to my people, who are paying more for food, more for power, more for fuel, to show that this government is heading in the right direction.

Let us take the carbon tax as case par excellence. It is not a debate about whether we care about the environment, nor even about whether we want to reduce emissions; this is an argument of timing. It is an argument of whether it is in Australia's national interest to move now compared with the global interest; or whether, by waiting, and potentially having to have a larger program, we move with the rest of the world and do it more effectively. It is a debate about the national interest. It is why we fly to Canberra: to debate the national interest. One side of politics does not have a greater love of carbon emissions, for goodness sake; we just want to do it at the right time, when it works best.

So I put a challenge to the government over there: name me one major ore-exporting, commodity-exporting economy that has signed up to a carbon tax—just give me one. Again I invite, but I hear nothing but silence, because the closest you might come up with is New Zealand—with all that energy-intensive milk production and growing apples, you can see why a carbon tax would devastate their economy! But, of course, they exempted all of their own sectors, didn't they? So what we see in a few selected economies outside the EU is a Swiss-cheese carbon tax that exempts anything that is of any value, and that is why they will sign up to a carbon tax. But the reality is, when you look across the OECD, looking at our commodity-exporting wealthy competitors, who will take our jobs without a blink, you will see that none of them are moving toward a carbon tax. There will potentially be a time when they do, and let us then have a debate about how we do it together. It is not a matter about us being a small economy and accounting for less than two per cent of emissions—no, it is about the carbon leakage; it is about what you do to the price of an Australian made car compared with a Chinese imported car. Did we get an answer from the Prime Minister on that? No, we did not. Was it mentioned in the budget? 'No.' Was there a massive big smoke screen around the carbon tax? 'Yes.'

The government are completely unwilling to talk about the challenges to working Australians, who have become the forgotten Australians. Instead we have these Garnaut reports that are foisted upon the media gallery, because these are issues that no-one believes the government has credibility to talk about. I have some considerable sympathy for Professor Garnaut, a hardworking economist who is driven by a passion; but I would like to see one more report from Professor Garnaut—don't retire yet! Give me one more report, Professor Garnaut, about how you will personally pay for the disadvantaged working Australians who are left out of pocket when they are not compensated adequately. The bottom line is that no-one knows how working Australians will be compensated because our Prime Minister cannot and will not tell us. We get these vague promises about all of the receipts from the carbon tax reimbursing vulnerable Australians, but there is no detail. How can we possibly have a debate in this chamber when we do not know how ordinary working families will be affected?

I see another government member has entered the room. Again, I put a basic question. There are two working families, both with a single income from working at a cannery. One worker lives next door to the cannery and walks to work; one commutes 40 kilometres to get to the cannery. How do you compensate the fuel-stressed low-income Australian differently from the one who walks to work? Again, I invite a response. How do you compensate a fuel-stressed working Australian differently from one who lives next door to the cannery, when that is the only job they can do? Tell me how you moderate that and calculate compensation for every Australian. I would not trust any government department to be able to do that precisely. I would fear that I would not be able to build a bureaucracy large enough to do it fairly. The only alternative is: leave the vulnerable out of a scheme and find a way that targets the sectors where improvements are most likely to be made—and that is called 'direct action'. It is pretty simple. It is a market based mechanism. You go to the sector, you can see the emissions, you can see where world technology is going and you say, 'I want to purchase abatement from that sector'—and that is an incentive to do something, which does not spill over and does not churn. I am genuinely frightened about where this carbon tax is going. There is no doubt that this government can potentially delay another year, as Mr Rudd did, and simply say that we are not ready. But why not just be open and honest about how Australian families will be affected?

My greatest disappointment is not with this government, it is with the Australian trade union movement. I have got a lot of respect for people in the trade union movement but not for their leaders, who blindly follow and try and resuscitate our current Prime Minister by helping her through this carbon tax debacle by intimating that paid-up union members would support a carbon tax. There are glib claims that we will transform the economy and move ourselves into a post-carbon generation and if we do not do it now, if we do not move right now, we are somehow disadvantaged. But it just stops there and we get no more detail than that, just these glib promises of a beautiful future pulled down on a chain by Cate Blanchett.

I am quite happy to have Cate Blanchett say whatever she wants to say, but when she steps from being a universally adored actress to a commentator in a party political divide, she can expect a little bit of pushback. When I see a pensioner paid to get into an ad on TV by GetUp!, which is union funded, to hide behind a one metre round dollar coin and say, 'Help for paying the bills, that's why I want a carbon tax,' when I hear such an incredible statement that lacks all credibility, I can understand why the beliefs of ordinary Australians sceptical about this government move to cynicism. And this government is very close to that tipping point. The budget did not help this government one iota and I urge them to do three things: explain the NBN, talk about the business plan, and talk about the carbon tax honestly and the way it affects working families.