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Thursday, 12 February 2009
Page: 1285

Mr WINDSOR (11:03 PM) —The Leader of the National Party made an important point there a moment ago, and I think it underpins some of the debate on this particular issue. The globe has not been in these circumstances before. A lot of the debate that we have been having has been based on what we have considered as normal economic conditions in terms of the last 20 to 30 to 40 years. The Leader of the National Party made the point that nobody really knows what will happen. No-one knew a year ago that Lehman Brothers would do what they did. No-one knew that there would be a virtual total collapse of the American economy. No-one thought that the growth rate in China would halve. People such as captains of business, economists and people in this building—I myself indeed—assumed that the growth that was being experienced would be experienced into the future. That has not happened, and I think if we were to keep looking at this package in terms of what we would normally do in relation to building the economy, I would not support this package either. But I will be supporting this package. In the last few days we have seen the parliament come together in this building and actually agree on something. We have also seen probably the worst activity of the parliamentary process in these days as well, particularly in relation to establishing or destabilising the confidence of people in our economy.

What the people wanted out of this was a process where both sides of the parliament agreed that there was a problem—and they do. There is a global problem. The world is saying that and we are saying it. No-one disputes that. The Prime Minister does not. The Leader of the Opposition does not. But we have this argument over this package. There is basic agreement that the economy needs an injection of sugar. If the honourable member for Kennedy were here, he would probably take that literally! But the economy needs an injection. Both sides of the parliament agree. I do not know what size that injection should be, and I do not think anybody in the building does, but I think we are in a situation where we are forced to take advice from people who might have a clue—and some of our Treasury people, in my view, are worth listening to. That is the only thing we can do.

I would spend this money differently. I agree with the school funding—I think that is good. The Leader of the Opposition does not disagree with the target of the strategy—we need an injection in the short term so that we can smooth out some bumps in the economy. Whether that injection is too big or too small, we do not know, but if it is too small it will be a complete waste of time to do it, in some senses. The injection of funds into schools—the 9,500 primary schools or whatever it is—will deliver something in terms of infrastructure. But again we really do not know what that is going to do in terms of unemployment et cetera. I imagine that it would be a positive.

The injection of funds into the councils—and I applaud the government on a previous arrangement in relation to that—is an injection into the communities. They will spend that money quickly on infrastructure. Admittedly it is not the Great Northern Railway line, it is not things that will take 10 years to build, but it will be infrastructure—social infrastructure and important infrastructure—in those communities. I do not see the opposition disagreeing with that strategy. There is a slight variation on the Pink Batts agenda, as to whether we encourage energy efficiency through the Pink Batts arrangement the government has got or through a slightly different version of the same thing that the opposition would do.

Where the real difference seems to come in is in terms of the cash handouts, which I am led to believe are about 25 per cent of the total package. So, in a sense, we have agreement about most of it. There is a little bit of difference in scale and some issue with the cash handouts. I do not think the government has really done enough to explain why that has to happen. My understanding is that this is about trying to inject money into the economy quickly. There is this debate about tax cuts and whether they would work and whether an injection frightens people so that they save the money instead of spend it. If they listened to this debate, they would be frightened. I am frightened! The parliament has not engendered confidence in the people through the debate.

There are two agendas running here. I think there were two mistakes made quite early. One was made by the government, asking the parliament to debate and decide on something as big as this in a hurry and dividing the parliament in the wee hours of the morning. I understand the strategy, but I think it was a bad ploy in terms of gaining the confidence of the people. And it gave the opposition an area to move in terms of another reason to oppose it.

The other mistake, in my view, was made by the Leader of the Opposition, when he dealt himself out of the game. It was very important, in my view, that the opposition stayed within the game, because we have established that they agree with virtually three-quarters of the package—there is some wiggle room in terms of the application of it. But, if they had stayed in the debate and moved worthwhile amendments and tried to improve or modify the legislation, they might well have been able to establish a better policy than the one that is there.

But, there again, they would have to establish their credentials for why they think that particular package will work and the government’s will not, and they have not done that, in my view. Both sides of this parliament agree there should be a package. There is a problem; there is a wave coming towards us—a cyclone, as I think the Prime Minister said. There is something coming towards us, and we are worried about it. It has something to do with economic growth, something to do with our trading position and something to do with employment. I do not think anybody, Ken Henry or any of us in this room, knows the magnitude of it. But I will be supporting this package and, as I said—

Government members interjecting—

Mr WINDSOR —Don’t get too excited! I will be supporting this package. But what needs to happen now, and it has to happen on both sides of the parliament, is to redebate this, and if there is some room to move, if the Leader of the Opposition does have a good idea—and he probably does—I think the Prime Minister should look seriously at that argument. The opposition leader made a mistake when he dealt himself out of the game at the start by saying, ‘I oppose it.’ That was a massive mistake, but he is saying now that he will liaise with the government and talk about this agenda. Maybe there is some room, but if you bring it back to $20 billion what does that do? Does $30 billion achieve nearly the same number? I do not know, but Treasury officials would probably understand some of those issues, and I hope that is why they have gone for the higher number. That is something that has not been really addressed by the parliament.

But there seems to be another agenda built into this, and that is this latent hope that the policy fails. I do not hope it fails; I hope Ken Henry and the Prime Minister and others have got it right, because if they have not got it right they may be out of a job but a lot of other people will fail within our economy. I appreciate the debt situation, and that is what I would be focused on if we were talking about a normal global economic situation; but this is not normal. So we should not talk about Gough Whitlam and Labor debt and those sorts of things in this type of environment. This is different. We have got to try and design a strategy that actually smooths those bumps out. Forty-two billion dollars will not cure the ills but it might put us in a position where we can come out the other end quicker than if we did nothing or did not do enough. I think that is really what we have got to discuss in terms of this agenda and I urge the Prime Minister: talk to the Leader of the Opposition and try to work something through in relation to this, because the people will have much greater confidence if the parliament endorses something. If that is not achievable, voters will make their own arrangements and we will see what happens.

I would like to say another thing in relation to the Senate. I went to the Senate today and listened to the final debate. I have great sympathy for Senator Xenophon because he is in an extraordinary position. I was in a hung state parliament for four years. I can understand some of the pressures that he is under and I can understand that real frustration in terms of the issue that he has in relation to the Murray-Darling Basin. But what I would say to Senator Xenophon is: this is not the time to run that agenda. It is not the time. Maybe there is a compromise where some funds can be injected and can get into the economy. If you base the whole reason for doing this on the premise that we have got to inject some funds into the economy within a nine-month period, if there are ways that money can be brought forward for the Murray-Darling that will be injected in that particular time frame, let’s do it.

I live in the Murray-Darling. I cannot see how you can possibly inject that amount of money into that area of the Murray-Darling in the timescale that Senator Xenophon is asking for. It is an impossible thing to do. I do not deny that it is worth doing over a period of time but, with this package, it is not in my view the correct time to play this particular card. I have been as frustrated as anybody with the way in which governments generally have treated the Murray-Darling, but the previous government spent $8 million on natural resource and water policy, most of which went into the Murray-Darling, and what has it achieved? Just because you throw money at something does not necessarily mean that there has been an improvement. I think Senator Xenophon really has to take a look at that. The Howard government promised another $10 billion; this government is doing a similar thing. Really we have not seen much improvement in any shape or form from anybody. So an injection of massive amounts, billions of dollars, in a very short term does not necessarily have the desired effect and, particularly, will not have the desired effect on the reason for the strategy.

In conclusion, I would like to reiterate that if these were normal circumstances I would not be supportive of this, because I do believe that in normal times this would be too much money on the table. But this is not normal and we really do need to do something abnormal. I hope like hell that the government gets it right because, as I said earlier, if it does not, we suffer. I do not hope that it gets it wrong for political reasons, because then we all suffer. We will come and go and, as the Leader of the Opposition has said, we will not be here in 10 or 20 years time to take the blame for what we do.

I think we have to work on the assumption that some of the advice we are getting—and there are politics being played on both sides—about the economic scenario says that if we do nothing, we get hurt. That says to me, let’s do something. There are a number of areas out there; the schools obviously need money spent on them and this can be spent quickly. Money can be spent on local government quickly right across the nation. It is not tied into one big project, another Sydney Harbour Bridge, where all the money goes to that, so in that sense, I think the targeting is correct. But if we continually argue about the size of this particular package and forget what we are trying to achieve here, we will all suffer in the way in which our people look at the parliament. What I would urge the parliament to do, particularly the leaders—and I was wondering today whether we would have a different outcome if we had female leaders; come on women—

Government members interjecting—

Mr WINDSOR —They are playing to the crowd! I really believe that we have to back off here a little bit and forget who has the political margin to play with, who is in front, who has the biggest loan and who has not. Maybe it is time for the Prime Minister, the Leader of the Opposition, Nick Xenophon and others to put their hardware on the table, maybe subject themselves to circumcision and revisit this debate. There were mistakes made at the start. The government tried to rush it because it has the numbers, and there have been mistakes made by the opposition. So if it does take another week, why can’t the parliament come together and design a strategy that does work? Then everybody would go away feeling as though they had been part of it. That is what we have done this week about fires and floods. This is in my view as bad as any war and, if we do not attempt to address this as a parliament and forget about some of the nonsense that has been going on behind the scenes, we will be judged very poorly by our communities. Thank you.