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Wednesday, 26 May 2010
Page: 4338

Mr BILLSON (6:01 PM) —It takes a lot to listen to some of these speeches. You feel like you are being drowned in saccharin-sweet but very selective accounts of what is in the budget. This is something that really is a troubling development from the Rudd Labor government. The Australian public is so tired of the spin, so tired of the talk and the backflips. They are not really sure what they are going to get. They hear the words and will no doubt be reassured by the focus-group-tested pre-chewed language and catchy phrases but they wonder what is really going to materialise at the end of the day.

This budget is a case study in all that is wrong with the Rudd government in the way it goes about administering our Commonwealth’s finances and in its inability to think through and plan for the future as it goes through policy development and what seems to be a very amateurish way of governing Australia. The Rudd government seems to have a strategy to manage the media each day and the issues of the day but has no plan for Australia. You see this in a budget that is largely incoherent. There are no central themes that guide it. There is no clear conviction that shapes priorities and where resources are allocated. This budget is just cobbled together to try and present something it hopes is saleable to the electorate.

This is why you hear so little discussion about what is actually in the budget. It is one of the most remarkable things I have seen in the 14- or 15-odd budgets for which I have been privileged to represent the Dunkley community in the House of Representatives. The budget speech by the Treasurer was quite remarkable in that it said so little about the budget. It was all about what might happen three years down the track. You could almost call it the ‘gonna budget’: ‘We’re gonna do this, we’re gonna do that.’ But what it did not do was take aim at the things that really needed to be addressed, and that is the unsustainable budgetary position, the fiscal trajectory we are on and the spiralling debt that is going to be left with us long after people have forgotten who K Rudd was and have forgotten the period of underachievement and overstatement that will be what the Rudd government will be characterised by for years to come.

This budget is a big-spending budget. It is old-fashioned Labor. It is big spending, it is big taxing and it is big talk, but it is poor on content. When you actually look at what is in the budget you wonder why it is that we should take on its face the word of the Rudd Labor government that something may happen in three years about getting the budget miraculously back into surplus. What a joke. There is barely a program that the Commonwealth administers under the Rudd Labor government that does not run over in terms of cost. The capacity to bring into operation—to implement—big policy promises is best captured by the catalogue of expenditure overruns. Take the Home Insulation Program: what is a billion dollars here or there? We use the term ‘billion-dollar’ as though it just does not matter, but that is $1,000 million. We have got an overrun and a patched job on fluff and foil in people’s roofs that is going to cost $1,000 million. That is a big ouch. That is a big mistake.

Then there is the tragedy of the lives lost, and our thoughts are with those families. Also there are the businesses lost as part of the harm and the hardship of the complete bungling of this program. In my own community I am in constant contact with somebody whose name I will not mention out of respect, who is now in the wilderness, having left a successful career to go and get involved in an insulation enterprise. They now find there is no work, no program and no opportunity to recover moneys lost. Their warehouse is full of fluff and foil they cannot do anything with.

Another provider is Balmoral Heating and Cooling, and Matt Gaylard. I have great respect for Matt. His perpetual optimism is a great lesson to everybody but testament to what is needed in the small business community. He has ridden the punches, ridden the bumps and absorbed a lot with this program. But still, as a local community member, he was concerned about whether an elderly woman’s house was a safety or fire risk. Matt said, ‘Hey, Bruce, I’m prepared to go and have a look, to provide comfort for that citizen.’ She was not one of his clients. He was just a guy trying to do the right thing. He has a factory and he is still paying the lease on that. He has other expenses that do not go away.

These small businesses that were insulation installers collapsed through no fault of their own. They believed the Rudd government when they said: ‘Here’s this program. Here’s the way it’s designed. Oops! We haven’t thought this through. We haven’t worked out how to implement this program. Let’s change the rules.’ The small business operators said, ‘Okay.’ Then disaster after disaster appeared. We had two house fires in Dunkley electorate and then all of a sudden we heard, ‘We need to look at fixing this program.’ Then before we knew it there was no program at all, and viable, credible, respected, experienced businesses had no customers. They have costs—leasing factories, leasing cars and trucks, in some cases hundreds of thousands of dollars of fluff, a sense of profound responsibility to their staff, financing costs. What does the Rudd government do for them? Nothing.

At the moment some are being offered 15 per cent for the floor value of the fluff they have. It is not difficult to work out: ‘Well, that’s 15 per cent at wholesale. If someone’s actually able to sell the fluff and get it into people’s roofs, the GST that it would generate from that is more than the 15 per cent.’ They want to be in business. That is what they are there for. But there is no thought to the harm and the hardship that the Rudd Labor government imposes on small business time after time. Home insulation is a complete blind spot of harm and hardship for businesses and families right across the country, with a $1,000 million patch job to fix it.

Look at the home sustainability program. Experienced, highly qualified people in many cases with careers in engineering, architectural design, surveying and the like—people right across the country—took up the invitation of the Rudd Labor government to get involved in this Green Loans Program, a debacle program that I pursued budget discussion after budget discussion, broken promise after broken promise. I asked when it was going to start, which banks were going to be involved and what its benefits were. Nothing materialised and finally at a glacial pace it got up and going. Then the decision was, ‘We’re going to ditch that, too.’ So here are people, again, who left careers, who invested in setting up a business, who secured their accreditation through training and the cost of insurance, who thought they were doing the right thing. All of those guys had to cope with one major provider having some sweetheart deal with the government which is still yet, to this day, to be explained, while they had to sit around for four hours on the phone to book a job, then to have that program just stopped. They are waiting for money—waiting, waiting, waiting.

And the Rudd Labor government has the hide to stand up and say, ‘We pay small businesses in 30 days.’ Garbage. They pay some businesses in 30 days and then they go: ‘Hey, you haven’t got a real contract with us. You’re a service provider. You don’t count. The 30-day thing doesn’t apply to you.’ How does someone feel about that? The home sustainability assessors on the government’s website were called ‘contracted partners’, but when it came to paying the bills on time—a Rudd Labor commitment—no, they did not count.

Even in the Home Insulation Program, to this day there are people still waiting for tens of thousands they have been owed for months and months. Where is this penalty interest rate that is supposed to apply after 30 days? Who knows? It is about as credible as the one-in one-out regulatory promise that was made, where we had 9,997 new or amended regulations in the first two years and 52 repealed. So much for one-in one-out. This is the climate that the Australian public is working in.

On the Julia Gillard Memorial Halls: how difficult it is to get the minister, her government and the government officials involved to listen to school communities on the ground? I had to raise it here in parliament and invite the minister to actually hear firsthand from the school about the problems they were having after she said they were not having problems. To the minister’s credit, we have recovered that project at Langwarrin. Langwarrin Park still waits to see whether anyone is at home listening to what the local community’s needs are. And the poor folks at Frankston East, who signed on for a building project to replace a school building that was a kind I went to school in, and I am over 40 now. They thought, ‘We’ll do the right thing; we’ll park that new building, which isn’t quite what we wanted but, if we’re going to get strongarmed into taking it or leaving it, we’ll take that building.’ And they said, ‘We’ll put it on our basketball court; that will hurry things up. Then we’ll demolish the old one and put the basketball courts back there.’ What happens? ‘Oh, we’re over budget. We’ll kind of build you what we discussed and shook hands on, that is on the plan, but we’ll make some changes. So the only attractive thing that you’re really keen on, we’ll take off. We’ll still use your basketball courts. We’ll leave the old building standing’—they have a Stonehenge on the school grounds, serving no purpose whatsoever. They somehow have to maintain and secure that. It was supposed to be demolished, and there was supposed to be the basketball courts, for a key part of what binds that school community together—kids all play in a basketball comp there. So their basketball courts are now under a building that would not have been what they had wanted had they been asked. It is not what they agreed upon through the processes. It was supposed to replace classrooms that they already had. It could have been renovated—but, no, no-one wanted to hear that. That building is now standing; it is still there. If you look at it, it is like the Bermuda Triangle. They do not get any extra money to repair it, because it is over entitlement, as the jargon goes. That is what the school community is faced with. There is another $1,700 million blow-out on the program. And there are others. I will not go over them all, because there are just so many. That is the thing: there are just so many. But I remind people who are listening and who are interested in sound public finances that $1 billion—it just rolls off the tongue—is $1,000 million. And that is something worth keeping an eye on.

In the small business space, we have seen example after example of the blind spot that the Rudd government have for the small business community. They are just not interested. I have talked about the harm and the financial hardship on small businesses from these bungled programs. In the budget you find this little sweetheart deal relating to small businesses involved in anti money laundering reporting obligations. Like someone who has to report their tax return, they need to report certain categories of financial transactions over $10,000, because that is what law enforcement requires of them. But they have to pay for the privilege. They are all going to get slugged $500 to be able to report. They are being asked to do this, but they now have to pay for the privilege. It is like being charged to lodge your tax return. It affects newsagencies that offer Western Union funds transfers, it is not for big dollars—this is not a profitable exercise; it is often done because of the service it provides for their customers. I wonder how long that is going to last. You get accountants, real estate agents, people involved in the jewellery business—a whole range of people—who are now going to be caught up in this grab of $90 million over three years, just to pay for the privilege of doing what the law requires of them. It is just remarkable.

On another great budget announcement for the small business community: it takes a particular type of gall and front to go and rename and reannounce, as a new initiative, mediation services that were implemented by the Howard government a dozen years ago. That is incredible. That takes a particular front. And I am not surprised the theatrical and pantomime-esque minister for small business is the one who is trying to pull it off. This is extraordinary, the lack of understanding and the failure to make important decisions to support the small business community on the key issues that they identify. These have been pushed to one side so they can reannounce dispute resolution services that already exist, as one of the only two small business initiatives in the budget. This is quite remarkable. We have a budget deficit this coming year of nearly $41 billion and all we can do is rebadge and reannounce something that already exists. What a gift.

For anybody who is pleased about the $2.7 million that will go on ‘the introduction’—they are the words in Minister Emerson’s press release—‘of early intervention dispute resolution services for businesses operating under the Franchising Codes of Conduct and the Horticulture Code of Conduct,’ the minister disclosed that there are ‘mediation services that will continue’. So he has gone from saying they are being ‘introduced’ to being ‘existing’ services continuing around the franchising code, horticultural code, oil code and voluntary codes in the produce and grocery industries base. For those that are interested, I can provide the website addresses. All these services are there now, if people are not aware of them. If the minister is not aware of them I am happy to provide the website link to those services—an announcement of a program that already exists.

Elsewhere in the budget you will see announcements that are profoundly worrying for the small-business community. I will not go over the mining supertax, because I just did that in the other Chamber. I made the point that, while the Rudd Labor government deceives the Australian public into thinking this is only going to land on huge mining companies, and come at the expense of pinstripe-suited shareholders in faraway lands, it will actually land on the quarry maybe down the road from you, Mr Deputy Speaker, and on the sand extraction businesses in my electorate of Dunkley that go into making houses, building roads, fertilising our food and fuelling our energy systems. It has cost the land everywhere because the Rudd Labor government is so hungry for cash to fill the black hole in its budget. It did not pay enough attention to what Henry had recommended. He said, if I remember correctly, you should exempt about three dozen different minerals from this tax. Many of them are just touched on, even talc—and I mentioned talc on babies bums in the House today—not to mention granite and things that go into house tiles, bricks, electrical cabling and all these things. The proposition from Henry was to exempt those. Well the Rudd government has them in. I have spoken to small businesses from Warwick all the way down to the Mornington Peninsula, and have read accounts from others right across the country. They are saying, ‘We are going to get hit with this.’ So much for being a Rio-BHP attack. It is going to hit everybody that is involved in that kind of extractive activity, right down to the small quarry—the family-run extraction business.

There are other things too, like the idea that the small-business community is just busting to pay an extra three per cent on payroll to increase superannuation contributions. Some sectors of the economy are doing it really hard right now. Think of retail—retailers are doing it very tough right now. They have been impacted upon by the modern award system, which has affected the cost structure of their businesses. Margins are thin. The big guys are discounting heavily to keep their turnover going, and the small guys and gals are finding it pretty tough, and they are going to have to pay extra payroll tax. No one thought about the impact that was going to have on those businesses. There is no accord version agreement that would see that contribution offset by some change in the wages and salaries of the employees. There is nothing like that. It is just a straight three per cent payroll tax, effectively, that employers will pay. There was no thought about the impact in the longer term.

The small business minister and his kin try to say that the small-business community is busting for this. Think of all the tax benefits for small-business that have been announced under the cloak of somehow being related to the mining supertax. Absolute utter nonsense, those benefits to the small-business community—like the one in eight that may pay company tax, half the number the minister tried to suggest in the House earlier today, for those businesses that need to spend money to get some accelerated depreciation. There is some appeal to that but you need the cash to make that expenditure in the first place. And there is the area of bundled depreciation arrangements. They are interesting but, according to the minister, in the government’s own release, they are worth about $3½ to $3.9 billion over the outlook period; over four years. Yet on the $10 billion a year—10 thousands of millions of dollars—small business employers will pay additional superannuation contributions that will give the government $1.5 billion of extra tax. So they are making money out of that measure, and the small-business community is paying three dollars in extra tax through higher superannuation contributions for the chance to share in two dollars of potential benefits. How dare this government say that the mining tax is the key to this! How dare they try and link the two! It is completely untrue, unfair and not supported by any factual assessment.

I would like to make a couple of points in closing. The government makes much about the GP after-hours services and its new so-called GP superclinics, yet is decreasing the funding for the after-hours GP service that has been successfully operating at the Frankston Hospital for years. Here is an existing, collaborative arrangement with local GPs so that they are not all on call every night. It works well. And the support that is given to that is actually being decreased by this government, so committed are they to after-hours access to service!

I feel for my friend Mark Oswald and those who are concerned about Bill Shorten, the member for Maribyrnong, who is reported in the paper as being a wonderful advocate for the disability community. Well, they are wondering, if that is the case, how come there has been such a big cut in the continence program? The budget savings from the continence program are about $10 million, as I understand it. These cuts are going to inconvenience those people who are not able to access their own devices and supplies, due to disability or age—where is the humanity in that?

Finally, can I urge the government to think longer-term. The debt and deficit they are accumulating will be with this nation long after we are rid of the Rudd Labor government. They should think about the legacy they are leaving because, at the moment, it is debt and deficit for as far as the eye can see. (Time expired)