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Tuesday, 17 February 1987
Page: 155

Mr HOWE (Minister for Social Security)(3.58) —The sad thing really is that we are seeing the Leader of the National Party of Australia, the right honourable member for New England (Mr Sinclair), going down without much of a fight. In all my time in the Parliament, I have found that whatever one has felt about him when he is under pressure he usually delivers. But what we have heard today is a speech in which there has been absolutely no content. That is the fundamental problem with the Opposition. It is quite unable to cope with the pressures of opposition. It is unable to do the kind of disciplined work which is needed to produce any sort of detailed alternative policy. The Leader of the National Party reflects that malaise; an inability to come to terms with the hard questions that this Government has had to face, and any government would have to face, when governing during periods of very difficult economic circumstances.

The first thing to be said about our period in government is that we have seen improvement in employment and growth, and that is the fundamental thrust of what we are about. We have seen results in the aggregate figures between 1982-83 and 1985-86. Real gross domestic product grew by 14.1 per cent. That meant a real increase in the after tax incomes of households, which grew by 12.4 per cent over the same period.

In terms of the capacity within the Australian community to support family living standards, we need to look no further than at a recent survey by the Reserve Bank of Australia which showed a 51 per cent increase in corporate profits in Australia between 1983-84 and 1985-86. That occurred at the same time as a recognition by the trade union movement in this country, and I believe by most sections of the Australian community, that there needed to be a considerable degree of restraint. That restraint has been delivered in terms of wages-not so that those profits would be dissipated, but so that investment could continue to occur, to rebuild the Australian economy, and so that it would be possible to achieve some direction of expenditure in relation to the average living standards of Australian people.

That theme of fairness, which we have seen throughout the life of this Government, is never reflected in the Opposition's policies. When Opposition members talk about incentive, they are talking about more incentive for people at the higher end of the spectrum who are already getting significant tax cuts. Opposition members do not talk about incentive for or assistance to people in the middle or low income groups. It would be extraordinary at this point in time if one were to advocate seriously policies to deliver the kinds of tax cuts that are being promised in the rhetoric of the Opposition's policy. Of course, all we have at present from the Opposition is ever more confusing rhetoric. We have failed to get from the Opposition at any point a real policy decision. We get words, and then the words are contradicted: Sometimes they are contradicted by the Liberal Party; sometimes by the wet side; sometimes by the dry side; sometimes by the National Party here, and sometimes by Joh in Queensland. There are always different voices, different messages and different themes; but it is all empty rhetoric. There is never anything of substance. Meanwhile, the think tanks are beavering away and producing ideas that are being knocked over in the Liberal Party room, in the National Party room, by Joh or by some combination of all three.

What are the Opposition's policies? What can we really expect from the Opposition? The Leader of the Opposition (Mr Howard) said today that the first thing on his agenda-what he is really about-is to achieve much greater cuts in expenditure than have been achieved by the present Government. He said that the deep knife has to go in. The shadow Leader of the Opposition, the honourable member for Kooyong (Mr Peacock), suggested that there have to be program cuts-deep cuts into some of the major programs of government. It is difficult to understand, as we do not get any indications or statements from it, what the Opposition is about. But let us look at what the think tanks are coming up with. We know from a report in the Australian Financial Review this morning that the Centre of Policy Studies has been given $1m to help to develop policies for the Liberal Party of Australia. Spending cuts of the order of $5 billion are proposed to finance tax cuts for people on the very highest of incomes. What are the proposed cuts? The Centre talks about the reintroduction of substantial tertiary fees and an amount of $1 billion; a reduction in superannuation tax expenditure saving $1 billion in terms of retirement income; income testing of family allowances saving $500m; greater application of social insurance principles to unemployment and cuts in terms of unemployment benefits of half a billion dollars.

Alternatively, we can look more towards another one of those think tanks, and no doubt a very influential one, given the influential role of John Hyde, which, in its publication entitled `Mandate to Govern: A handbook for the next Australian Government', made a number of other suggestions to the Opposition as to where it might achieve those deep program cuts. It suggested that we could end bulk billing and change the method of calculating Medicare rebates-in other words, to destroy Medicare; a 12.5 per cent cut in funding for universities and colleges, with the reintroduction of fees, and a new voucher system for secondary education; skipping one or more of the indexation adjustments of pensions and benefits; tapering family allowances; winding up the community employment program; terminating the Commonwealth-State Housing Agreement; winding up the first home owners scheme; removing all interest rate controls; and abolishing the Department of Housing and Construction.

One of the things about John Hyde is that there is a certain degree of honesty about him. We thought that was so about the Leader of the Opposition. It was thought that Honest John Howard was someone who would tell us where things were really at, where he was going and what he would do. But again today he called for deep cuts, significant cuts. The Liberal Party's ex-leader, its future leader, the honourable member for Kooyong, who left because he would not say what he was really about, also called for program cuts. But where do we get any concrete proposals? This morning the honourable member for Richmond (Mr Blunt) was involved in an interview with Julian Disney, the President of the Australian Council of Social Service Inc. The honourable member for Richmond was asked to state what the Opposition's policy is. But, of course, the honourable member for Richmond would not say what his policy is because he does not have a policy. He may have attitudes; he may have feelings; he may love the world. But he will not say one significant word about the Opposition's policy, except to make very clear and to defend the Opposition's very specific decision to repeal our taxes. The ACOSS news release states:

In the course of discussion with the Opposition we will continue to emphasise our total rejection of proposals to weaken or abolish the existing taxes on fringe benefits, capital gains and lump sum superannuation payments. These proposals would inevitably disadvantage hundreds of thousands of families with children, especially those on low and middle incomes.

It was very impressive to see Julian Disney, the President of ACOSS, look at both sides of the equation. Sure, he wants to see the Government do more in the area of expenditure on families. But he was prepared to look at the other side of the equation. He was prepared to come up with proposals which would contain some balance. We will never get that from the Opposition because it does not want such specific or concrete policies because, if its policies become specific or concrete, they become absurd. That is what the Premier of Queensland is; he is absurd. He has put up propositions which have no substance whatever. He runs around the country with his wild propositions and he is wreaking absolute havoc on the other side of the House. No one on the other side of the House, including the Leader of the Opposition, the honourable member for Richmond and the honourable member for Kooyong, is prepared to come in and say anything specific or concrete about positive policies because the Opposition does not have such policies. That is not what Opposition members are working on. Opposition members are working on the numbers game. They are involved in constant battles to remove each other. It is as though there is some significant difference between the various factions of the Liberal Party, which have run absolutely riot in the Parliament. We have had members from the Opposition side come to tell members on this side of the House how the numbers are going and how soon they think there will be a change. But we know very well that it does not matter whether there is a change because there is no substance within the Opposition; it is empty.

We on this side of the House share a belief in the basic intelligence of the Australian people. The Australian people recognise what the problems are that we have had to deal with and which have been outlined by the Treasurer (Mr Keating). They recognise that it is a time in which we have to make some hard decisions and in which some people have to give up what they have for the sake of overall fairness. People do recognise that and they are prepared to make that sacrifice.

Mr DEPUTY SPEAKER (Mr Keogh) —Order! The Minister's time has expired. The discussion is concluded.