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Tuesday, 12 February 2013
Page: 1044


Mr ROBB (Goldstein) (16:36): I rise to speak on Appropriation Bill (No. 3) 2012-13 and Appropriation Bill (No. 4) 2012-13. The two additional estimates bills seek to appropriate funds from the Consolidated Revenue Fund for additional expenditure requirements which have arisen since the May budget was brought down. In effect, they give effect to the announcements in the Mid-Year Economic and Fiscal Outlook, which was brought down around October.

The irony is that these things are probably just another mere introduction to endless other blowouts since that time. Since October we have had the Treasurer walk away from a surplus, given up on a surplus. There are no financial accounts which would inform us and the rest of the community, the finance sector, the people trying to do business out there, anyone trying to assess the state of the nation's books, trying to make investment decisions with some confidence, trying to make multi-million or multibillion-dollar investments when no-one has the foggiest idea about what the state of the books is. The government has walked away from it. This appropriation bill is probably a foretaste, a forerunner of more that might be introduced into this place to overcome further reckless spending of this government to further fill black holes. We know of $120 billion in unfunded promises: what else is there? We have got a raft of things here, many of which just happen in the course of normal government, and I accept that, but they are a symbol, if you like, another $1.27 billion symbol of a government that really has become quite inept at in any way managing the books. So much so that here we stand today several months after the Treasurer has stepped away from a surplus with absolutely no idea what the state of the books is. Yet every day we hear in the main chamber in particular, and I presume here and in the other place, cries of 'Where are your costings?'

Of course the costings have been done. What no-one knows, including us, is how any of these things can be funded. What money is there to fund them? Are the government telling us how they are going to fund dental schemes, an NDIS or the Gonski recommendations in education? Are they telling us anything about the funding? Not on your nelly! That is not going to occur. Yet they want some anodyne discussion on the cost of things. We have put out the cost of things, if you had not noticed—so many things. What we are still waiting for, and what the community is waiting for—what everyone is waiting for—is what money is going to be there. What is in the piggy bank? What will be in there? The government do not know themselves. The Treasurer does not know.

Dr Leigh interjecting

Mr ROBB: There is embarrassment on the other side, and feigned smiles and all the rest. Well, you had better go away and sort out your Treasurer. Get him to release what the books are and what is in the books so that we can have a sensible discussion not only about appropriations but about the general finances of this nation.

This is serious business. No wonder no-one is investing out there. No wonder no-one is taking risks. No wonder there is an investment strike in the business community. No wonder people are not buying houses. It is because there is no confidence. How could there be when they look at a Treasurer who is growing whiter by the day, who stumbles through question time and who one day says on the basis of some shonky legal advice that he cannot tell us what revenue they are going to get from a certain tax and the next day releases it after pressure from the Greens and us?

It is government by mistake, day in, day out, and the community absorb it. They feel it, they see it and they are shaken by it—so much so that many of the problems in the retail sector are because no-one is spending. They are paying back the mortgage and paying back the plastic because they are fearful of spending money and of making any commitments. They are not buying houses as they normally would. The general run of business—the turnover of business—has just stopped in its tracks in many cases in many parts of the country. There is a crisis of confidence, and there need not be. There should not be if there were prudent, sensible management.

The thing is that they have seen the wanton waste in so much of what has been done. People understand that governments spend money. They vote a government in, and they will accept that government will make decisions about expenditure on their behalf. They might not understand it and they might not even like it, but in many cases they will accept that that is the responsibility of government. What they will not accept is wanton waste, and that is what they have seen now for five years. So much of the reckless spending by this government that has taken place has led to irresponsible, pathetic, wanton waste, with no attention to detail and no attempt to implement policies in a considered, rational and prudent fashion. People get fed up to the back teeth with it. They cannot understand it, they are angry about it, they are confused about it and they feel deeply let down by this process.

Through all of this, all we hear as a reason for it—and, again, this is an insult for people; it is adding to that crisis of confidence and it is designed, almost, to undermine people's confidence in the government—is endless crying wolf. 'It was somebody else's fault.' 'The dog ate my homework.' Month after month, parading in through this chamber, the main chamber and other chambers, the Treasurer and his colleagues on that side of the House are saying that it is somebody else's fault. As the Treasurer said, we have here a huge revenue whack, if you like, out of the blue, which has made it very hard to get to a surplus in 2012-13. Instead of crying wolf endlessly, why not take responsibility for their own mistakes? Why not take responsibility for the problems that this government has created?

Of course, the truth is that over the first four months of this financial year revenues were 9.2 per cent higher than in the previous year. This is at the same time that the Treasurer was on his feet saying, 'We've taken a whack out of the blue.' There had been a nine per cent increase in revenue since the budget.

There are a lot of families who would do quite well and be quite satisfied with a 9.2 per cent increase in revenue. But what did we see accompanying that revenue increase? A further four per cent increase in spending—in four months. The record level of spending of this government just continues to go on, year in, year out, despite the sort of spin that we hear. People understand that. They see the waste. They know that four per cent is on top of what was already bloated and unnecessary spending of a massive order, so much so that the government have spent $172 billion, would you believe, more than they have received in revenue.

It does not stop. No bells are ringing. No-one in the government is saying: 'Hang on. We'd better pull our heads in here.' Even if you just stopped new programs, over time it would reduce the proportion of government spending in the budget and take the pressure off, but, no, there are no programs of any order being cut. It is all new program after new program. They say, 'Don't worry about gross debt.' Well, that is what we pay interest on. We are paying $7 billion-plus a year of interest that was not being paid five years ago. We were not paying one cent five years ago. Now it is $7 billion a year. That could pay for seven first-class, world-centre-of-excellence hospitals, if you wanted them, but in one year it is just being given away in interest payments. It is money that could go to fund the NDIS. We would not have all the double backflips and machinations and—I can see it coming down the track—tricky accounting to try and get through how the government are going to fund the NDIS. Future governments will have to fund it, not this government. That is for certain.

So we have got revenue steadily growing, but the government cannot catch up with their spending increases. Why not? What happens—and you can see it over every budget of this Treasurer—is that they deliberately assume unachievable levels of future revenue. I have seen it in business. I have seen CEOs with start-up businesses tell their boards they are going to make millions of dollars in revenue, and they get the boards and investors to commit to a lot of funding. They go and spend it, and then the revenue does not turn up. They do not get the contracts. They make it up. They deliberately assume unachievable levels of revenue.

I look across the chamber each day and see the Treasurer, and I am looking at things I have seen before in another world, in the business world. This Treasurer is no different to some of these CEOs who make it up for their boards and their investors, get commitments of large lumps of money, either borrowed or invested, and then the revenue does not arrive. That is exactly what has happened here. In the budget, the Treasurer makes these politically inspired, deliberately unachievable assumptions of future revenue, and spends the money. Then, when the revenue does not come in, and there is a more realistic revenue stream—which is still increasing; revenue has increased every year—he cries wolf. 'Woe is me,' we hear all the time. Well, take some responsibility for the wanton and gross miscalculation on revenue forecast, the unachievable assumptions that have been made.

We have been saying this for years, at every budget: 'These revenue forecasts are not achievable.' Lo and behold, that is what happens, and yet we hear: 'Woe is me. We've got some write-downs.' They are writing down their own forecasts. It is a joke, but it is just part of the usual spin and management that we see from this government—the media management rather than the housekeeping management, which is really what they were charged to do when they were voted in, or when they assumed a minority government with others, Independents and Greens.

We have a situation which has been created by the government unnecessarily, and they say: 'The world is a difficult place. We've had a global financial crisis.' I accept that.

The government took funding decisions which I think were grossly excessive. If they had not wasted and billions and billions of it, it would have been somewhat better. The fact of the matter is that an inherited strong balance sheet, monetary policy, 3¼ per cent reduction in interest rates, the devaluation of the Australian dollar—it went to 60c in the first quarter of 2009; we had the highest trade result in our history the quarter after the global financial crisis and it brought billions of dollars into our economy and into the pockets of households. In addition to that, we have had the heavy lifting by China—demand. Those were the four things—an inherited economy in great shape, monetary policy, the automatic stabiliser of a devaluation, and China—that got Australia a 150-year high in our terms of trade. We have been so blessed compared with other parts of the world.

They were the things that got us through. The government then came along—six, eight or nine months later—with a massive injection of spending on school halls, which was wasted in many cases. They could have done most of that work for half the price. Lots of school in my area were saying that the buildings could have gone up for half or less than what they did. Then we had the pink batts debacle, cheques to dead people—for goodness sake! This is the sort of thing that leaves people just scratching their heads. It is why there is a crisis of confidence. There we are with a situation created, and yet they say to us: 'But it's such a difficult climate out there. How could we get to surplus with Europe going so badly? Europe has pulled us down into the mire. Europe is still hurting us.' Well let me tell you, there are seven other countries—including five in Europe—who are in surplus already. If European countries can be back in surplus, then there cannot be any excuse for Australia, which is at 150-year highs in their terms of trade.

We are still 20 per cent higher in terms of trade today than when the Howard government lost office. They keep telling us that the Howard government benefited from the 'rivers of gold'; well the terms of trade are still 20 per cent higher. They are coming back, but they are still 20 per cent higher! Yet the Treasurer is saying he has got a whack out of the blue. How could that be a whack out of the blue when we still have record levels of terms of trade compared with over the past few years? What is going to happen when the terms of trade come back to more normal levels? I will tell you what is going to happen: we are going to find ourselves in the out years—next year, the year after, the year after that—with growing and increasing structural deficits, all of which have been assumed away by unbelievable forecasts of revenue or are being funded by taxes that turn out not to return any income. Can you believe it? So we have either got unbelievable and unachievable assumptions about revenue, which never materialise, or we have got taxes that have been introduced—27 new or increased taxes—and we even get a tax that does not produce any money.

But not only does it not produce any money of any consequence and leaves a further black hole, which further undermines confidence and worries people deeply, but also people are waking up at 2.30 in the morning all over this country worried about whether they are going to keep their jobs. Why? Because they see a government in total disarray. They see a Treasurer who fumbles and mumbles through question time looking ashen and standing next to a Prime Minister who does no better, who keeps telling us things which you cannot trust, who signed a document and said, 'We won't change the mining tax,'—in black and white—and now, today, virtually admits that they are going to change the mining tax. How can business operate like this? How can people make decisions and feel comfortable that this country is in good hands when they keep seeing this charade of mistake, dissembling and incompetence. It is serious, people! Why is there anxiety at a time when we are so blessed with the resources we have got and the demand out there?

It should not be this way. It should not be this way, but it is, and it is because of the government's incompetence and inability to focus on the job that they have to do: to tell people as it is, to make truthful statements about what they think is going to happen with the books and to stop playing politics endlessly. Stop worrying about your own jobs and worry about other people's jobs out there. That is the responsibility of governments. It is just not acceptable that this would happen.

I should raise my voice! People are cross about it. I am cross about it. But it is not about us here; it is about the people out there. That is what it should be about, and yet here we are. We are going to go through this charade, I know, for months. There will be more dissembling. There will be more suggestions of other people's faults. There will be more misrepresentation of the accounts. There will be more clever accounting tricks, and there will be increases in taxes. We can see it coming.

Some way or other, the super is going to happen. Already there has been so much speculation that people are frightened to invest or spend, go to the movies or do whatever. They are putting the money aside. They are not sure whether they can afford it or not or what is going to happen. We have had another month of speculation. Clearly the government are going to do something on super. They are going to get money from somewhere. They are going to try and tax people who have worked their tail off for years to put money aside. Now they are going to see it taxed. Now they are going to see a threat, a doubt, over their security in their later years.

We will see a change to the mining tax. The government will say: 'How clever are we? We have just raised some more revenue.' But, of course, what they have done at the same time is cause a major problem with sovereign risk. That is forgotten. Forget about business! Don't put yourself in the shoes of people looking to risk billions of dollars!

I went into Asia for a few days before Christmas to talk to business leaders, government leaders and others—investors. I wanted to see: what were the opportunities coming down the pipeline? What was our standing? What was going on? I sat in a meeting with the head of one of the region's major banks, an Asian bank. He said to me: 'Mr Robb, could you explain something to me? Over the last four years, we have backed investments to the tune of billions of dollars into Australia. What has happened since is that there have been lots of rule changes. There have been new taxes which have affected these investments.' And he said: 'The ROI, the return on investment, in nearly all these projects has now been deeply undermined. Could you explain what is going on? Australia historically has been associated with being able to invest with some certainty, in that a deal is a deal. Once things are signed, once contracts are done, once we have reached some accommodation and understanding with the government, Australia historically has stuck with it.' Here I was not being lectured to, but in a way I was, and it is so galling. He was really saying that Australia and sovereign risk are now in the one sentence. That has never been the case.

This is what is happening with this mining tax. This is what is happening when you change things. This is what happens when you change super rules having said you never will, you won't do it, of course you won't, not one dot, not one whatever—no, you will not do any of that!

Government members interjecting

The DEPUTY SPEAKER ( Ms K Livermore ): Order!

Mr ROBB: You are just undermining the ability and the confidence not only of investors in this country but of investors outside this country, people who have already put big money in here and are confused themselves. You are confusing the world with the way in which you are managing the shop.

Government members interjecting

Mr ROBB: You can try and shout me down.

The DEPUTY SPEAKER: Excuse me. No.

Mr ROBB: You can try and shout me down. You will have your turn. You get up and explain.

The DEPUTY SPEAKER: And the member for Goldstein will stop using the word 'you', please.

Mr ROBB: Okay. Those opposite will.

The DEPUTY SPEAKER: And they will cease interjecting. Let me deal with that. You will continue, in silence.

Mr ROBB: Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker. That would be nice, thank you. So here we are with a bill which has become almost a symbol of the uncertainty and lack of knowledge that anyone, including ourselves, has on what the state of the books really is. It is just another chapter of many chapters of overspending.

Sitting suspended from 16:59 to 17:12

Mr ROBB: I should bring my comments to a conclusion, given the list of speakers who are following and given that I have made the principal point, which is that, as normal practice, we will not oppose or seek to amend this Appropriation Bill, although it does again demonstrate—and it has become a symbol of—the overspending, unexplained spending and confusion. So much of it could be clarified if the government were to show some transparency. Tell us the numbers and tell us really what the circumstance is, and it is not just 'us' the opposition, but us the community. That is why in this important election year we have again chosen what has been the normal practice: not to rely on the Treasurer and on what have been inflated or misleading forecasts or numbers or dissembling and all of the rest. This budget this year will be the first budget in the history of the parliament which will fall in the middle of an election campaign. We could not trust the last four budgets over the last four years, and so what hope would anyone have to trust what will come out in May this year? In many ways it will be a fiction. That is my expectation. That is why we have to wait and do what the head of the new Parliamentary Budget Office suggested: wait for the real numbers. The real numbers will help us understand the ability we and others have to fund policies that we would like to introduce. Those numbers will best come when Treasury and Finance, independent of the government of the day, come down with their forecasts and state of the books within 10 days of the writs being issued.

When that happens, we will look at the capacity to fund on the real numbers, not on the fictional numbers, and we will put to the people a program which will return this country to prudent, stable, sensible, adult management. We will remove the waste. We will seek to restore the certainty and stability that people need to make decisions and get on with their lives. We will seek to remove the crisis of confidence which so envelops this country at the moment and which is not and should not be necessary given the blessings that this country has. What we need is good government, and the opportunity will present itself this year.