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Wednesday, 4 February 2009
Page: 288


Mr ANTHONY SMITH (6:00 PM) —I rise to speak on the Appropriation (Nation Building and Jobs) Bill (No. 1) 2008-2009 and cognate bills and in doing so fully support the position outlined from this side of the House, starting from the Leader of the Opposition earlier this morning. That is a position that the Leader of the Opposition outlined in great detail; a position which he conceded will inevitably not be popular in many quarters, but a position that is responsible. We have seen from this government throughout the months of this global financial crisis, panic and fumbling, an emphasis on announcement rather than substance and a determination to try to dominate the media cycle. If only that had been matched by an equal determination to get the policy details right, Australia would be in a greater position. We know that spending massive amounts of money is popular. Forty two billion dollars of spending will be popular; $84 billion would probably be twice as popular. But at the end of the day, you have to look at the quality of the measures and you have to answer the question of how that money will be repaid. You have to think of those who will repay it. That is something that those opposite have never done.

The Leader of the Opposition outlined with great clarity the fumbling and the failures that we have seen throughout the course of this year and the hypocrisy that the Prime Minister has brought to the most important economic debate of our lifetimes. We saw the fumbling and the failure of the bank guarantee, we saw the television footage from that famous weekend when the cameras had to go out because the Prime Minister needed to roll up his sleeves and then they got them back in again. We saw that, while there was a focus on all of that, the Reserve Bank Governor was never rung—and we saw the aftermath of that. We saw the Treasurer of this country, back in October or November of last year, announcing the mid-year forecasts being unable to say what his own inflation forecasts were because he had spent more time preparing his lines and ensuring that he got out the required quota of descriptive words such as ‘decisive’, while the press gallery sat there in stunned silence as he looked for more than a minute for his own inflation forecasts. That was something that, as I have said to this House before, summed up perfectly the lack of focus this government has on what matters and its obsession with the short-term popular policy hit.

On Saturday morning, Australians found out that over the course of the summer holidays the Prime Minister had spent his time writing an 8,000-word essay. What came to my mind was, if only he had spent as much time thinking and consulting on policy responses as he spent writing that essay. The other thing that came to mind was that I felt sorry for his family. Can you imagine having to endure the triumphant recitals of draft after draft over the summer holidays of his latest essay? We have seen this Prime Minister bring a juvenile aspect to the debate—a juvenile determination to try to blame previous governments. We saw that with his attack on 30 years of neoliberalism, forgetting, as has been pointed out, that for around half of that time Labor governments were in office. Until he wrote his essay, we were being reminded day by day by those opposite that in their view all the heavy lifting of reform, all the deregulation, had been done by the Hawke and Keating governments. It was Paul Keating, the former Prime Minister who as Treasurer floated the dollar, cut taxes and engaged in deregulation. This was part of the proud Labor story until the weekend, when we discovered that, actually, Paul Keating was just a nasty neoliberal after all.

What the Prime Minister forgot was that at the very same time that he was writing his essay and sending it to the newspapers, his own Deputy Prime Minister was telling the world at Davos what a great regulatory system Australia has. The Deputy Prime Minister said:

We have open and competitive markets backed up by a world class financial and prudential regulatory system—indeed given the flaws exposed by the global financial crisis in financial and prudential regulation I would say our system is even better than world class. Our system also has an independent Reserve Bank.

That is a Reserve Bank created by the previous government; an independent Reserve Bank that those opposite opposed; an independent Reserve Bank that those opposite tried to sue the then government for establishing.

Today we have the Minister for Small Business, Independent Contractors and the Service Economy saying much the same thing in the newspapers. In one breath you have the Prime Minister of the country able to say that Australia is in a better position than other countries and the Minister for Finance and Deregulation saying the same thing today but unable to acknowledge that some of the fundamental reasons why Australia is in a better position include the regulatory strength that was introduced by the previous government and the fact that we paid off all our debt and we had a strong budget position.

The Prime Minister could not even say it yesterday, and that just speaks volumes about him. I am prepared to say that the Hawke-Keating government engaged in some good reforms. Ministers on the other side have previously acknowledged that the Howard government engaged in some good reforms. That is what this public debate needs, not cheap, pathetic, juvenile approaches.

With this package we have seen more of the rushing and fumbling, where the Prime Minister has got together a package—it is comprehensive, it is produced, there is minimal time for this parliament to consider it, it is released—and his attitude is: ‘There it is. You haven’t even got time to read it. If you don’t agree with everything I’ve said, then you’re opposed to Australia’s interests.’ That is pathetic, particularly given the track record of failure and fumbling that we have seen throughout this year.

The coalition have outlined their position on these bills. We have said where we think the emphasis is wrong and we have said the scale of debt that is involved is too high. Out of the $96 billion debt left by Prime Minister Keating, $60 billion or more of that was racked up in just five or six years. From 1990 to 1996, net government debt increased from $30 billion to $96 billion. It took 10 years to pay off.

Former Prime Minister John Howard summed up the current situation rather well a few weeks ago by saying, ‘Going into deficit and debt is like riding down in an elevator; getting out of it is like climbing the stairs.’ It is very easy for the Prime Minister, with his focus on spin and announcements to not think about that, to not ensure that the spending is right, but Australians intuitively know this, and what he is proposing is something far bigger than that. This is not like going down in an elevator; it is like abseiling down a mountain and having to climb back up. It will not just affect, in particular, the taxpayers of today; it will affect the taxpayers of tomorrow. With some of the measures we have, again, seen the inkling and the evidence that they have not all been properly thought through. We have seen it with the cash payments, and that has been the subject of debate throughout the day and was the focus of question time. We have argued instead for tax cuts.

I would urge those opposite to look at some of today’s newspapers. I have the Australian here, where a reporter has interviewed a few people about exactly what they are going to do with this cash handout. One lady, Nicole Drumbrell, said:

‘It’s nice to get money for free,’ she said, adding that she planned to use the bonus to pay off her credit card …

That is exactly what the government do not want her to do. They want her to spend it. Another person interviewed was Anna Hurtig, aged 29, who earns about $50,000. The article went on:

But while she was happy about the bonus, Ms Hurtig said cash splashes were a risky, short-term … would entrench the pessimism in the economy.

‘People are already nervous,’ she said. ‘If the Government is willing to spend that much money on workers, then people might lose confidence even more.’

Tax cuts were a more pragmatic way of reviving the economy, she said.

The coalition’s approach has been to make some constructive suggestions and for those opposite to do what they have not done at all since the financial crisis began and that is to consider an alternative view and consider something calmly. We have had the announcement of a $42 billion package, followed by a couple of days of sitting. The Prime Minister and the Treasurer are asking the parliament to spend less time agreeing on the biggest fiscal package than they spent over the weekend putting it all together.

When you consider the small business announcement, what has been announced by the government will be welcomed by some small businesses. But the coalition say that, if you are trying to help small businesses, those small businesses struggling with big cash flow problems, those having trouble currently paying their wages bill, those retailers with three or four employees—this is out in main street of Australia; this would not fit into a 7,700-word essay, because it is too mainstream—who have to go to the bank with their tapped-out overdrafts and pay the wages bill, then a depreciation allowance will not help them. They have to spend money. There are smart people opposite; they know this. I know it does not fit with the control freak nature of the Prime Minister but, to get a benefit, they have to spend money—money they have not got and, hello, in a credit crisis, money that is difficult to get. So, in a constructive sense, we say, ‘Look at measures that will directly help reduce that employment cost now to preserve people’s jobs. Look at the superannuation guarantee, at those costs that are there.’ And, as the Leader of the Opposition said, ‘Look at it constructively.’

We have made other suggestions as well. If the government are serious, they will consider them. Unfortunately, we suspect they will not, because they have not to date, but the opposition will do and say, and vote according to, what is responsible. We will do so through the course of this week and into the future. The government should recognise their mistakes of the last year, and they should recognise that perhaps there are alternatives that might be better and that will help Australia. They should recognise and reflect on the size of the debt they are promising to handball to future generations.