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Wednesday, 4 February 2009
Page: 408

Mrs MIRABELLA (3:12 AM) —Like so many before me, I rise to speak against the Appropriation (Nation Building and Jobs) Bill (No. 1) 2008-2009 and cognate bills. These are the bills comprising the so-called Nation Building and Jobs Plan—a very Orwellian phrase. This is the government’s fourth attempt in less than six months to stimulate the economy. No doubt the Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd, has received some dreadful news from the Treasury, and what has he done? He has panicked. But panic will not save the economy. Throwing the kitchen sink at the problem—a phrase that has been used by some commentators—will not save jobs. The problem is the Prime Minister does not understand the fundamentals of the Australian economy, and the Australian public, quite rightly, suspect that he is making a lot of it up as he goes along—just like the silly made-up words and phrases in his essay. But what a misnomer—the ‘jobs plan’. In all of this $42 billion package there is no plan for jobs. The Prime Minister has not even claimed that any of this unprecedented spending will create a single job, but now we have this terminology that it is supposed to ‘support’ up to 90,000 jobs in this and the next financial year. The government has dispensed with creating jobs and now we are merely ‘supporting’ them, whatever that means.

We do debate these bills in interesting times. This debate of historic proportions is undertaken against the backdrop of the Prime Minister having spent most of his summer break penning a pompous, rhetorical treatise on financial markets and the economy. The treatise is meaningless gibberish and is really just a fancy, convoluted justification for the political recasting of Kevin Rudd—the neo-Kevin.

He would have us believe that he is no longer an economic conservative because over the Christmas break he bathed in the pure waters of socialism and was reborn as a neo-social democrat. Whilst we may not really know who the real Kevin Rudd is, what we do know is that by the time his Prime Ministership has expired, he will have had more reincarnations than that very popular fictional character, Dr Who. It is usual for political leaders to wait until they have left office to write their version of history and the justification for the policies they have implemented. But our incumbent Prime Minister feels he has to do it as he goes along. If you look at it, it does smack somewhat of insecurity and uncertainty in the Prime Minister. This is not a good mix in a leader in times of crisis.

I bet on one thing: that the Prime Minister’s political memoirs definitely will not include details of discharging this government debt. And why? Because he will not—it will not be his government; it will be a coalition government that discharges this debt. At the heart of the Prime Minister’s doctrinal essay is a contradiction, one that has already been exposed by some commentators, but not too many. The Prime Minister rails against what he terms ‘neoliberalism’, which he states has brought us to our current position. All the blame is shifted back to the former government. This is from a Prime Minister who promised to end the blame game. It is just classic Orwellian doublespeak. He claims that his predecessor did little to regulate the financial system in Australia, yet, a week previously—as has already been commented on in the House—his Deputy Prime Minister was singing a different tune. In Davos, representing Australia at the World Economic Forum, she said that Australia has ‘open and competitive markets backed up by a world-class financial and prudential regulatory system’.

We have seen the tag team fail. Whilst the PM was at Kirribilli House over summer poring over his essay and resurrecting the blame game that he so deplored a year ago, the Deputy Prime Minister was on the other side of the world giving credit to the former government. Whilst the Prime Minister states that his so-called neoliberalism triumphed about 30 years ago, he claims that the political home of neoliberalism in Australia is of course the Liberal Party itself. He was not too ashamed, of course, before and during the last election to pretend to be just like John Howard. That was then though, and this is now. Now he has recast himself—but such is the shamelessness and ambition of this political cross-dresser who is our Prime Minister.

Not surprisingly, in this essay the Prime Minister does not actually say what the solution is in his thousands of words, apart from some possible names for his new world order: social capitalism devised by social democrat governments. Many of us, particularly those of the younger generation, remember the YouTube clips: ‘I’m Kevin and I’m an economic conservative.’ I think that today we do need to update those YouTube clips to: ‘I’m Kevin and I’m a social democrat who is going to leave a legacy of debt for you young people, your children and possibly your grandchildren.’

This brings us directly to the legislation we debate today in the House. As the House is well aware, the opposition will be voting against the bills in the House and in the Senate. We do believe in our heart of hearts that this is the wrong package and we believe it is irresponsible at this time of such an unprecedented crisis to have a knee-jerk reaction and, in doing so, to heavily mortgage our children’s future. As the opposition leader has said, ‘We know this decision won’t be popular, but it is the right decision.’

The Premier of Victoria, of course, is lining up to say how good it all is. It simply saves his bacon after having presided over years of neglect and mismanagement, particularly in the area of education. For instance, Professor Brian Caldwell said in 2005, when speaking about schools in my state:

“I cannot name a developed country where the overall condition of school buildings is as bad as it is in Victoria.”

And does anyone really believe the Premier when he says he is ready to spend the money? I was interested to read his comments the other day, where he said of the Prime Minister’s cash splash:

“He wants to make sure that the funds they’re providing actually hit the ground, hit the ground running and that activity occurs quickly,” … “And I can guarantee him from Victoria’s point of view that there will be no unnecessary delays.”

This is from a Premier who cannot even get the trains to run on time in Victoria, where a day where train cancellations number fewer than 150 is a good day! This is from a Premier who presides over massive infrastructure neglect, and two local examples come to mind. Firstly, the Hume Highway upgrade in my electorate, which was solely funded by the former coalition government to the tune of over half a billion dollars, was delayed for years—escalating in cost, of course—because the Victorian government would not contribute even a measly $6 million to cover half the cost of a state link road to the Hume. Secondly, the Victorian government announced details of the Wodonga rail bypass in 2001, but it was only in 2008—again, after a huge cost blow-out—that work actually began. Why on earth would we believe the Victorian Premier when he says that Victoria is raring to go?

Similarly, in my own shadow ministry portfolio area, the government announced in 2008 that it would commence, at a cost of $114 million, the building of the first 38 of its promised 260 government childcare centres. To date it has confirmed funding agreements on three centres and has announced a process of seeking proposals for another two. It claims that these 38 centres will be operational by 2010—that is next year—yet only the first five are in their preliminary stages. How can the Australian people believe a government that cannot even get 38 childcare centres started, let alone 260? How can the Australian people believe the Rudd government’s promise on embarking on the single biggest infrastructure package when it cannot even deliver 38 childcare centres? And this is from a government that, when in opposition, said there was a childcare crisis. The Prime Minister cannot even guarantee that this stimulus package will work, and is it any wonder?

Since winning office, the Prime Minister and his leadership team have made outrageous claims. They have feigned outrage and, in their Orwellian arrogance, even refused to consider any contributions other than their own. Are there perhaps more effective ways to stimulate the economy? For example, could we not give people some of their own money that the government has taken in taxes, a proposal put forward by the coalition—bring forward this and next year’s scheduled taxes instead of one-off payments, making it a permanent and regular increase in disposable income? No, the Labor Party will not have any of that. The immature approach of, ‘You’re either with us or against us,’ is typical Labor tribal stuff. But they have admitted this is not a silver bullet. They have admitted unemployment will rise. They have said this is an unprecedented crisis, yet they are still going it alone. If they had succeeded with the measures they had already introduced, you could partially understand their stubborn refusal to consider some alternatives, but they failed. They failed and they are making matters worse.

Let us go back a few months. After assuming office in 2007, the government told us that the greatest threat to the economy was inflation. The inflation genie had been let out of the bag. We even had a war on inflation. Then there was the need to bolster the budget surplus at around two per cent against GDP. Against the background of the government erroneously talking up inflation, we saw interest rates go up.

We then saw the disastrous effect of the unlimited bank guarantee and the stream of self-funded retirees, whose money had been frozen, go to Centrelink. That was the Treasurer’s solution: go to Centrelink—no care, no responsibility. These were self-funded retirees, people who had made the sacrifices and planned for their retirement. The Treasurer, with no apology and no regrets, just pretended that the problem had not happened, saying in effect, ‘Let’s move on; let’s lurch on to the next disastrous knee-jerk reaction.’

The Prime Minister said that Labor’s first stimulus package would create 75,000 jobs. The $15.1 billion COAG package was supposed to create 133,000 jobs. These jobs have failed to materialise. None of the other stimulus proposals have actually delivered any results that the government can effectively point to. The member for Casey made a very interesting point. If it was so easy to solve the problem, he said, the opposition would have just doubled the stimulus package. We would have said that we could do better than that. We will provide an $84 billion-dollar package. But it is not that easy and the Australian public know that it is not that easy. Mr Rudd wants the opposition to ignore all these failures, all these bad calls, and hope that $118 million of additional debt, that will crush future generations, will ‘support’ 90,000 jobs—whatever the word ‘support’ means. Mr Rudd’s track record of jumping from one knee-jerk reaction to another without success has not given us or the Australian public a single reason to put our blind faith in him.

As the opposition we have a job to do. It is an essential job and it is an integral part of our democratic system. We need to question, to analyse, to investigate. In essence, we need to hold the government accountable and to propose alternatives. That is what the Australian public deserve and that is what they expect. A vibrant opposition is a prerequisite for a thriving democracy, and in their heart of hearts most members on the other side know and understand that. We are told that unemployment is expected to rise to seven per cent. Gone are the days when unemployment in Australia had a figure three in front of it. Mr Rudd’s Christmas spending spree has obviously failed and now he is trying to have another crack.

The Prime Minister today rallied against what he termed ‘free market fundamentalism’ and pointed this ideological bone at the Liberal Party. Let me inform the Prime Minister that we on this side of the House are not fundamentalists but we do believe in fundamentals. The fundamental approach to our economic policies is to be prudent, consistent and responsible. This approach is the very antithesis of what the government is proposing: plunging the budget into severe deficit, into the red, for generations to come and for future generations to mop up. We will have gone from a surplus of $22 billion to a deficit of $22 billion and this will grow to $118 billion over four years. As has been noted already, of course, that is more than the debt Paul Keating left the Australian public—$96 billion. That took 10 years to pay off. How long will $118 billion take to pay off?

The frightening thing is that this is not the end of the spending. We have been asked as an opposition to tick off on a government credit card to the tune of $200 billion. Presumably, in a couple of months when the Prime Minister reacts again and gets concerned again about possibly getting into a technical recession in the months ahead, there may be another stimulus package. It could be $64 billion or $78 billion or $92 billion—we do not know—because they will want this carte blanche again. This short-term political expediency is more important to the Prime Minister, it seems, than long-term recovery and the long-term health of the Australian economy.

Some commentators have noted that the Prime Minister prefers to spend billions staggered out over a certain period to affect quarterly figures and avoid the technical definition of a recession, which is two successive terms of negative growth. If that is what the Prime Minister is doing, it is really too cute by half, because the impact of this crisis and the looming gloom is not lost on the Australian people. When they lose their jobs this cuteness by the Prime Minister will not mean a thing. Not having a job will be the single greatest disastrous impact on many individuals and families.

In this enormous package and amongst all these measures, what has the government forgotten? The government has forgotten to provide specific assistance for jobs. Small businesses, for example, who usually suffer, are not going to be beneficiaries of ‘Ruddbank’. They are not going to be the beneficiaries of the propping up of commercial property prices. Why doesn’t the government do something to positively affect the cash flow of small businesses, as the opposition has proposed? The opposition has proposed that the government pay a portion of the super guarantee levy on behalf of these small employers—but, no, the Prime Minister will not countenance that either. It will be the future generations who will have to bear the responsibility and the burden of the Prime Minister’s vanity and arrogance in not seeking a longer term solution and working together with the opposition on this.

History tells us that Labor governments and budget deficits do indeed go hand in hand. The coalition, Madam Deputy Speaker, as I am sure you are well aware, is committed to the creation of real jobs. That is facilitated when governments are responsible economic managers. You can have a crisis—you can have a recession—but what governments do can make the situation worse. We want to do our job as an opposition and ensure that government spending is of a high quality and that it reduces the burden on Australian taxpayers and their children, because that is what is in the long-term interests of the economic security of Australians and their children.

The Prime Minister is very fond of making words up, and it is really beholden upon him to stop the silly games and the bureaucratic gobbledygook and look at the seriousness of what is happening in towns and suburbs right across Australia. When people suffer, it is real. You cannot spin it; you cannot take cues from The Hollowmen; it is a real problem and this is a serious issue. It is time for the Prime Minister, who is being neoliberal with the truth, to reconsider his spending spree so as not to consign future generations to crushing debt. I was there. I saw what happened to young people during the recession that we had to have. People who had done well at university and in their trades could not get the jobs they were qualified for and had their lives put on hold, effectively, for many years. If this government is not careful, it will repeat past mistakes. (Time expired)