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Wednesday, 13 May 2009
Page: 3660

Mr BILLSON (12:50 PM) —The opposition will not oppose the Nation-building Funds Amendment Bill 2009, but it will certainly open people’s eyes to what the bill is actually about. Those listening to the broadcast or reading Hansard could be forgiven for wondering just what the bill is supposed to be achieving. For the purposes of assisting the House, I remind people that this is not about many of the things that many people have talked about; this is actually a raid on the Education Investment Fund, taking money out of that fund and putting it into the clean energy initiative special account. That is essentially what this bill is about. The rest of the discussion and book-ending of that very simple proposition—using the flowery rhetoric and bold ambition and post-it note politics that we have come to recognise from the Labor Party—have not disguised the fact that that is what the bill is about.

The bill is about taking that money, which is money that, just a year ago, we were told in this parliament was going to achieve all of the things that now it obviously does not need to achieve because there is some other way of going about it. It is quite a remarkable transformation in the rhetoric of the Labor Party, and it underlines the fact that this is a government with a plan for its own political interests but no plan for the country, no strategy for our nation, its economic recovery and its future prosperity, only a strategy to save its grubby political soul. That is all we see, and this is another example of it.

Let me illustrate that point. This bill takes funds out of the education infrastructure fund. The $2.5 billion that was credited to that fund under the 2007-08 budget surplus—a surplus built on Howard government economic management, a surplus that has given scope for the Rudd government to do many things that they would never have been able to do had they been at the helm of our economy—and was to have been transferred by 30 June this year is now going not to the Education Investment Fund but to a new fund. The original decision and announcement that were made 12 months ago and then backed up by successive pronouncements by the Rudd government ministers were designed to recognise, and I quote from the Treasurer, ‘a strongly held conviction of the Rudd government that education is the engine room of a more productive, more modern economy’. There is example after example of Rudd government ministers and the Prime Minister himself going on about just how crucial, just how fundamental, just how conviction-driven they were about the Education Investment Fund being the engine room for a more productive, more modern economy.

What we are seeing in this bill is money coming out of the fund that was supposed to be the engine room for a more productive, more modern economy, the main vehicle for turning around the economic fortunes of the country, or so the Rudd government said less than a year ago. That money has now been pinched and it is going into something else. Why would that be? Could it be that, maybe, the rhetoric was a tad overblown, that the plan was not clear? The powerful words, ‘The Education Investment Fund would be the horsepower in the engine room for a more productive, more modern economy,’ are what we were told. The Treasurer said that in May last year, successive ministers went on about it throughout the last quarter of 2008, and you even saw some of those themes recurring over and over again in the political line of the Labor Party.

Obviously that is not the case anymore because the money is going, it is getting pinched and not going to that purpose. It is no longer the engine room of a more productive, more modern economy. That is not what the Education Investment Fund is about, as the money going to it actually presents a different picture. There is now another purpose. You have heard Labor members in this place talk about a whole range of other things that that money would be spent on to achieve that purpose.

What are we to take from that? Are we to take it that there is not great coherence in the Rudd government economic strategy? I think we can. How can something be so profoundly true, accurate and insightful—and shouted from the rooftops of this parliament and from any stump that Rudd government ministers could get on—a year ago and yet not be now? I think it highlights the fact that the Rudd government do not have a coherent economic strategy. Their tactics are to keep announcing new things so that there is never any analysis, never any reflection, never any assessment of just whether the words actually mean anything and whether the actions follow up this soaring rhetoric. This is further evidence that Labor can talk a good game but cannot manage the economy.

If we needed any more stark evidence of that, last night’s budget gives Australia a very, very open-eyed look at just what kind of government we have at the moment. Last night’s budget takes Australia from being alert and anxious about the Rudd government’s economic competence and their ability to manage our nation’s finances to being genuinely and justifiably alarmed—so frightened that the Treasurer tried on an old television ‘time to look away’ warning so that viewers who may have found some of the images disturbing or some of what is really going on in the budget profoundly distressing had time, a chance, an opportunity, to look the other way. Treasurer Swan’s ‘look away’ try-on was to not even mention the actual financial position and operating outcome for the nation’s budget in a budget speech. Isn’t that the point? Don’t you present budgets to inform stakeholders of the financial position and performance at the end of the year, of what the bottom line outcome is? Apparently, in every other effort or enterprise on the face of the planet you do that, but not in the Rudd Labor government—you talk about everything else around the financial position and operating outcome except the consequences of the Rudd government’s tax and spend binge.

For those people who listened to the budget speech last night from Treasurer Swan and were wondering what the net outcome was, let me provide some insights. The budget reveals the high price, as our shadow Treasurer said, that all Australians will pay for the reckless spending by the Rudd Labor government over the past 18 months—those fundamental economic indicators of performance, the statement of our financial position, the consequences of our actions as a nation, overseen by the Rudd government. We will see one million unemployed by 2010-11, a record $58 billion deficit and a record net debt of at least $188 billion by 2012-13. They are the key metrics about economic management and budget performance, but you would not have heard them last night as Treasurer Swan did his ‘look away’ routine.

Part of that ‘look away’ routine is what this bill aims to do here, with the government shifting money around after having earned and pursued the political benefits of the education innovation fund, after having made all the rhetorical statements and put the post-it notes up saying: ‘Isn’t the Rudd government clever? We are going to invest in education infrastructure because’—as they said over and over again—‘that’s the engine room of a more productive, more modern economy.’ They made that claim, they created that impression with the public and then they went and shifted the money.

This is not like your pea-and-cup routine where the trickster tries to make it seem like there is no pea under any cup. This is the Rudd government’s pea-and-cup routine where the trickster, the Treasurer, makes it seem like there is a pea under every cup when really there is not. This is what we are seeing through this budget and this is what we are seeing through this bill, shifting money out of something supposedly aimed at achieving a ‘more productive, more modern economy’—and that is a quote from the Treasurer—and into something else that now is obviously more fashionable, more funky, more spunky. That is what we are seeing from this government.

There are funds going into the newly created special account for the Clean Energy Initiative, although it is not clear at this stage how that will work out. There is so little information available and the information that is available, as the shadow minister pointed out, suggests a rather interesting governance arrangement, where education experts will have some oversight role on the Clean Energy Initiative. I trust that that was an error in the budget papers and that it will be remedied at some point.

The opposition is not opposing this bill but opening everybody’s eyes to what is going on, to the need to recognise that we are in a difficult situation, largely created by the Rudd government, that will be with us for some time to come. I tried to alert people to this in early February. Remember that debate we had all night, when we were looking at spending $42 billion and we had 48 hours to discuss it—an amount of money that was greater than the entire budget of the state of Victoria? I was fortunate to speak a little after 1 am. I tried to caution people about the risks of sleepwalking into a poorly designed, irresponsible and unsustainable package dreamt up by a panicked government, where the only certain outcome of those actions was waking up to the nightmare of decades of excessive debt and deficit. Sadly, this is what we are facing. At a time when we should be working to ensure our nation is making wise choices, the right choices, in the face of the current global economic challenges, we are getting this post-it-note politics from the ALP, where they talk about initiatives and plans and get press statements out there but do not have the sound public policy to see the implementation completed and the outcomes that they talk about delivered for the country.

What we are seeing is the Howard government legacy of surpluses and savings being grabbed in both hands by the Labor Party. Despite their opposition to every budget restoration and fiscal strengthening action that was pursued by the coalition, the Rudd Labor government are grabbing the fruits of sound economic management, delivered by the Howard government, with both hands and swallowing them whole as part of Labor’s reckless spending spree. What we are seeing is the Howard government gift of surplus and savings transformed into the same old story: a Labor legacy of debt and deficit. That is what we are seeing here.

To a great extent, it was highlighted in some very insightful writings today by Lenore Taylor. She was quite perceptive in identifying that the so-called centrepiece of the Rudd budget—a big-ticket spend on infrastructure—is actually funding squirrelled away from the budget surplus created by the Howard government policy settings and repackaged. As she described it, it has had a makeover—it is like last year’s dress with new buttons and bows on it. She described how some of this nation-building infrastructure spending is not the amount that has been talked about by Labor members of parliament and Rudd government ministers, because some of it goes well beyond the four years of forward estimates. I highlighted in my earlier remarks how the assertion, the conviction, that the education innovation fund would be the engine room of a more productive and modern economy did not last 12 months because that fund is being raided.

You wonder how deep these convictions are when we are talking about budget measures that are way outside the forward estimates of the budget. Some of them will not be brought to bear for some elections to come. You wonder how many of these things will actually be delivered when a key hallmark of the Rudd government’s in its first budget was that it did not implement what was in the budget. The government will not actually be held accountable because it does not do those things; it quickly moves on to announce something new. As the media falls over itself to stay current and relevant and report the news of the day, there is no analysis of the announcements of yesterday or, if you aggregate all these media stunts and post-it-note-politicking ideas, an assessment of whether they actually amount to anything. We are still not sure.

Lenore Taylor identified where that money had come from: more than half of it was a direct result of Howard government actions, many of which were opposed by Labor in opposition, and the rest of it came from a budget surplus on Howard government budget settings. Those Howard government budget settings are interesting. My colleague and neighbour, the member for Isaacs, sought to assure the parliament that the Rudd government is pursuing a coherent economic strategy, despite the complete lack of evidence to back that up. He is a very learned lawyer and I would never profess to have his sharp legal mind, but a simple assertion does not make it a proven point.

So coherent is that strategy that we have been hearing about how the investment in infrastructure to increase capacity is what this budget is about and yet, when we look into it, we see a different story. So coherent is the Rudd government’s economic strategy that we were told we needed to tackle the inflation genie and that it was running amok, and you saw the Prime Minister and the Treasurer shirt-front the Reserve Bank and tell them how they had to put up interest rates to mug our economy—so risky was the inflation genie escaping the bottle. Mug the economy they did, and now we are wearing the consequences of that reckless politically inspired action.

The Deputy PM sought to pat herself on the back in international fora about the strength of our economy and our banking system and how reforms put in place were delivering that. Those reforms were implemented by the Howard government, only to be confronted by a juvenile and shrill attack on neoliberalism as if this were an unregulated jungle, when everyone I talk to points out that there is quite a degree of regulation in Australia and the United States—those terrible neoliberal economies that have been overseen by governments of all political persuasions! So coherent is the strategy that the Treasurer recognised the strength of the financial position he had inherited from the Howard government and how that gave him a very strong foundation—in one of his more measured moments, he was ready to acknowledge that point—and now, apparently, all the woes that he faces are a consequence of those same policy settings that he endorsed just a few months earlier. We talked about the education innovation fund. I have talked about the lack of coherence and how conviction-driven the government was on it being the engine room of a more productive and more modern economy, yet we are now seeing that very fund raided to apply money in other areas.

The member for Throsby made, I suppose, a gutsy effort to defend the Rudd government’s infrastructure credentials. She talked about transport and rattled off a range of projects. I actually thought that she was talking about the next bill that will be debated, which was introduced just this morning, the Nation Building Program (National Land Transport) Amendment Bill 2009. Amongst a range of things that bill actually seeks to re-badge projects done under the previous government in order to give them a new tag so that the current government can claim them. You can understand that, to an extent, because AusLink has been downgraded. Those road and rail investments under the coalition would have been $31 billion over five years, but under Labor it will be $26 billion over six years. So you can see why there is a need for re-badging to try to maintain this fiction that, in transport, Labor is somehow doing something quite remarkable when in fact it is actually performing at a far lesser standard than the previous government.

We heard about communications and Labor’s credentials there. They put up a Mugabe-esque tender process that, understandably, ended in shambles and hardship. Where the telecommunications industries and organisations of the world cannot do it we will have Ruddcom. There is no proposition about how to finance that, and in fact the only direct financial contribution is less than the amount that was put aside by the Howard government to make sure that the digital divide did not punish rural and regional areas. That Communications Fund was raided as well. For a bold plan where you would have room left on an envelope even if you wrote the economic case in crayon, so detailed and rigorous is the analytical process that, if a private sector person went out and sold that to people to invest in, they would probably be locked up. That is what we have got as a communications vision.

I want to turn now to energy infrastructure. I am very interested and keen to learn more about what will happen with the Clean Energy Initiative. It sounds as though it has the right flavour, but, again, the execution will be everything. What really must have amazed people is how the discussion then shifted to Infrastructure Australia, to how this independent statutory authority pored over these 1,000, I think, proposals to spend money on infrastructure and how central and crucial their role is, yet in the communications infrastructure spend they are frozen out. They are not even allowed to participate. On energy infrastructure we have no oversight indicated in the material available from Infrastructure Australia, and even though it is ‘energy’ infrastructure we have some suggestion that people from the education sector will have an oversight. Then we have in the budget announcements, which are said to be ticked off, endorsed and advocated by Infrastructure Australia, no mention of the ones that Infrastructure Australia recommended; they did not appear. There is no clarity about that. There is no transparency. So much for a coherent strategy! All we know from this government is that this nation is on a pathway to debt and deficit that will cruel us and our prospects into the future for not only this generation but some generations to come. We need to be focused on getting a proper strategy in place. (Time expired)