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Wednesday, 13 May 2009
Page: 3639

Mr ROBB (11:11 AM) —I rise to speak on the Nation-building Funds Amendment Bill 2009. This bill is designed to strip $2½ billion out of the Education Investment Fund, a fund established with much fanfare last year. It is a bill designed to strip $2½ billion out of this education fund and direct those moneys to the funding of the new Clean Energy Initiative. The Education Investment Fund was explicitly created just 12 months ago for universities and for vocational education and training—two areas absolutely critical to our nation’s capacity to increase productivity so that we can rebound as quickly as possible in the future from this economic malaise and repay the massive home-grown government debt being incurred by this reckless and panicked government. As well, universities and vocational education and training are two areas we were told ad nauseam were absolutely fundamental to the government’s so-called education revolution.

The government would not see this bill as anything of great moment. In the face of a $200 billion debt created in 12 months by this government, the government would say this bill is neither here nor there. But as one of the first bills introduced after the budget was brought down last night it is an ironic and powerful piece of symbolism. It captures the very essence of the budget. It is a snapshot, if you like, of the government’s wider problems. This bill in a sense symbolises the loss of control of the nation’s finances by this Labor government, the sense that this budget lacks coherence and gravitas, lacks any sense of the real problem that they are charged with tackling. The bill demonstrates the impact of Labor’s reckless spending spree. The bill highlights one of the many ways our children will quickly start to pay the price of this massive debt with the lower priority given to education. The bill confirms Labor’s lack of any long-term coherent plan for infrastructure. There is no sense of priority from one year to the next. The bill says that Labor’s commitments cannot be trusted, even after being put into l-a-w law. The bill betrays a great measure of confusion and panic about this government. You get a sense of a government looking for a $2 coin under the lounge cushion, a government raiding the kid’s piggy bank. You get this sense of panic and confusion. This government has lost control of the nation’s finances.

This bill flies in the face of all the government has said about infrastructure funds over the last 12 months. We had the Prime Minister on 25 August saying:

… one of the main vehicles for turning productivity around in the Budget was the announcement of a Building Australia Fund and an Education Investment Fund.

Of course, these have been massively underspent compared with the handouts that have been provided over the last few months. So much for priority. And now they are raiding these very funds. On 21 May last year the Treasurer said:

The fund will … ensure our education and skills needs are met in the long term.

Of course, that was 12 months ago. The fund is now $4.5 billion smaller than provided for in the Treasurer’s last budget. So much for those commitments.

The Minister for Education on 13 May last year, in announcing this Education Investment Fund, said:

The Rudd Labor government will transform Australia’s higher education and vocational education and training … institutions over the next decade with a new $11 billion Education Investment Fund.

Of course, it never got to $11 billion—$2 billion was taken out of it in the early stages. And now another $2½ billion is being stripped out of this fund. The minister went on to say:

The Education Investment Fund is a major component of the Rudd Government’s Education Revolution.

It was a cornerstone of the education revolution. So much for these pious sentiments, these strong commitments. They have lived off this sort of rhetoric for 12 months, and then quietly, in a deep night, they run this bill into the House, 20 or 30 minutes after the budget has been released. The Minister for Education went on to say last year:

This means that substantial investment can be made in our educational institutions in the coming years, transforming the capacity of these sectors to educate and train Australians.

The bill totally undermines the minister’s comment. It also undermines future comments by this minister and by the government and their commitment to the educational revolution. Having made a monumental mess of the introduction of computers in schools, they are now stripping funds—generated by the previous government, I might add—to use for other purposes. The funds are being used to cover their excessive, wanton and reckless spending; the tens of billions of dollars of handouts. We are now seeing the price being paid by our kids, by future generations, because of the lack of commitment and spending for university and vocational education. The minister also said on 13 May last year:

Decisions about annual disbursements from the Education Investment Fund will occur through the annual appropriation process, which would ensure transparency and allow parliamentary scrutiny.

Some very high sounding sentiments—the sorts of sentiments we have heard ad nauseam from all those on the other side, from all the ministers, on and on, about how they will ensure transparency and allow parliamentary scrutiny. These commitments are meaningless. How can you trust this? At 8.30 last night, this bill was introduced, half an hour after the budget was brought down.

The bill runs counter to everything said for 12 months by this government about the priorities they are giving to education, about how they will manage the finances of this country, about the commitments that people can assume are going to be followed through and about how they can plan future investments and other commitments because of the existence of these funds, which are now being stripped away for other purposes. This was all said for 12 months by this government and now, 15 hours after the budget, this bill is being rammed through this parliament. It makes a mockery of the commitments made by this government. This is Labor-style transparency and parliamentary scrutiny.

The Minister for Education said on 13 May last year:

The Future Fund Board of Guardians will be responsible for managing the fund.

Well, the guardians have had the rug pulled from underneath them. Nearly half the money has gone from the fund without any commitment of those funds for education and vocational education. What is more, we are told in the budget papers, in the most sanctimonious terms, that the $2½ billion of funds being transferred to the Clean Energy Initiative will only be used:

… subject to endorsement by the Education Investment Fund Advisory Board once suitable projects are identified.

It is not apparent to me, and I suspect to the advisory board members themselves, what particular expertise these education advisory board members have with regard to carbon capture and storage, solar energy generation and any other clean energy project that may be identified in the future. As it stands, only $400 million of the $2.5 billion being stripped out of the education fund is committed to particular projects. The remaining $2.1 billion is yet to be allocated. I can sense, at the very least, major confusion having members of the education board—people presumably highly skilled and experienced in education matters—now being required to endorse any transfer of funds ‘once suitable projects are identified’. What a nonsense. It does betray the confusion running through this government on all sorts of matters at every level. It is either confusion or a major snow job in the making.

All of this demonstrates the impact of Labor’s reckless spending spree. The $13.8 billion committed in last night’s budget to be spent in total from the three infrastructure funds—$3.2 billion from the Health and Hospitals Fund, $3 billion from the Education Investment Fund and $7.6 billion from the Building Australia Fund—is less than two-thirds of the $22 billion spent in recent months on Labor’s cash splash, less than two-thirds of the $22 billion spent on handouts.

The handouts have forced Labor to raid these funds for other initiatives. How short-sighted to run out there with the handouts—the cheques are still going out—and then be forced, in a matter of not even months later, to raid funds that were put in place 12 months ago which have been, in a rhetorical sense, committed to ever since. They are giving with one hand and taking away with the other. It makes a mockery of all that the minister has said about the education revolution program. The handouts have forced Labor to raid these funds for other initiatives.

It demonstrates again the impact of Labor’s reckless spending spree—what it has done to long-term planning, what it has done to sensible management of finances and government. Labor cannot even manage moneys given to them. Every dollar in those funds—every dollar of that $13.8 billion—was generated and gifted by the Howard government to this government. They cannot even manage moneys given to them, much less generate moneys themselves.

No fund or funding commitment anywhere across this government can now be trusted. Moneys could end up anywhere. Commitments, even commitments that have been legislated for, as we have seen with the education fund, are meaningless. Given that much of the foreshadowed investment takes place over the next seven, eight, 10 years, a lot of those commitments last night are many years away. With this money promised, committed, for long-term projects, what confidence can the community have that these projects will not be dropped or modified or dealt with in all sorts of ways in the years ahead in the wake of incompetent financial management?

This bill also highlights how our children will start to pay the price, as they will for decades, for this massive debt. This is just one example—unanticipated, but one of many. Not only will the $9,000 debt hanging over every man, woman and child need to be paid off in the decades ahead but diminished investments and services will also eat into the opportunities and quality of life of our children and their children, as signalled by this raid on the education funds.

This bill also confirms Labor’s lack of any long-term, coherent plan for infrastructure. Labor told us endlessly before the last election that they had a coherent, well-developed plan for Australia’s major infrastructure. We heard it time and again, as it was one of their four planks on which they sought to win government. It was one of their major commitments—along with the education revolution, which is in tatters after last night’s announcements. Here we are, 18 months later, seeing the first decisions about any major infrastructure—18 months after they said they had a plan. They said that they had worked out a plan, a comprehensive, well-developed plan for Australia’s major infrastructure. We have lost 18 months during which major infrastructure projects could have been committed to and major infrastructure spending could have been well on the way.

Last night’s budget represents the first decisions about any major infrastructure project since this government took office, and most of the projects announced last night as being under consideration were advanced by the former government. The only money being spent is money generated and gifted by the former government. And the total spending on major infrastructure announced last night is dwarfed by the total moneys sent out in cheques as handouts.

Where do the government’s priorities lie? What is their focus? How can you have any confidence that this government understands the significance of spending every dollar as wisely as possible, during the worst financial crisis in 80 years, if we are to see maximum impact on productivity to help us to come out of this crisis—whenever the end occurs—and enable us to rebound quickly, ahead of the rest of the world? Now the funds that were to go towards advancing the productivity and the human capital of our young people are being raided, despite the comments of the Minister for Education after last year’s budget:

One measure in last week’s budget—establishing the $11 billion Education Investment Fund—is an indication of the long term perspective we are adopting.

Labor has no coherent plan for infrastructure and no long-term perspective that anyone can have any confidence in. The approach of the government, as characterised by this bill, is no way to run our country.

While the coalition will not stand in the way of this bill, we do express great consternation about what it represents. It represents the government’s lack of any plan for recovery. It represents the government’s lack of priority and its flip-flopping under pressure. The content of this bill demonstrates the impact of Labor’s reckless spending spree. The bill represents the confusion and panic that appear to be gripping this government. The government’s loss of control of the nation’s finances is symbolised by this bill.