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Tuesday, 28 May 2013
Page: 4132


Mr FITZGIBBON (Hunter) (13:23): The contribution from the member for Forrest is a reminder that the economic debate in this country has become so forced and fake. We get unmerciful spin from the Leader of the Opposition and, indeed, at the member for North Sydney, the shadow minister, rather than a serious contribution to economic debate in this country.

Of course, unfortunately, that unmerciful spin from the opposition drives the government I think by necessity, to enter into the spin game. The general public out there must be wondering what in the hell is going on in the Australian economy and what is going on in terms of fiscal management.

Never these days do we hear the opposition leader take up the fight in some ideological sense; a debate about where we want our country to be in 10 or 20 years time both in economic terms and in terms of our social fabric—what will be the key drivers of increases in economic wealth and how we can best evenly distribute that wealth throughout our community. The Leader of the Opposition does not want to have that debate. It is called a small-target strategy. That is what the opposition leader has embraced. He wants to roll himself up in a small ball, say nothing controversial and ride the wave into government. Well, we have other plans for him.

He does, of course, go down the path of ideology on the rare occasion. The most obvious standouts come to the surface when he is talking about the carbon price and the mining tax. Why? Because these are articles of faith for the opposition leader. These are policies which from our perspective are responsible and make absolute sense in public policy terms but from his perspective are just another weight on some of the largest companies in this country. It is his ideological position to always oppose any additional responsibility on those big companies.

But, other than paid parental leave, the baby bonus and superannuation, we are not really having a serious economic debate in this country. We are not, because of the small-target strategy adopted by the Leader of the Opposition in not having a serious debate about where we want this country to go. All the opposition leader can do is attack the Treasury on the forecasts it delivers to the government—forecasts which the government relies upon when framing and shaping its budget—and then time after time after time again talk about the level of government debt, which of course by international standards is very low and is a direct consequence of the stimulus initiatives this government put in place post the global financial crisis to successfully keep this country out of recession.

We have a plan to retire that debt. We have a solid plan to return the budget to surplus and to retire that debt. This has been a responsible budget. That plan is a slow and steady plan, one which puts us back on the path to surplus without taking a sledgehammer to the Australian economy, not acting on a way which is going to be a brake on further growth, which would impact negatively on the economy and therefore affect jobs in the economy.

I have said in this place many, many times that, when I was first elected here, 17 years ago, I coined the famous Neville Wran—the former New South Wales Premier—phrase: 'There are only three issues in politics. They are jobs, jobs and jobs.' I have been very proud of the fact that since I have been representing the Hunter electorate we have gone from an unemployment rate of about 13 per cent to something like 3½ per cent. Maybe I should repeat that, because it is pretty hard to believe: from 13 per cent to 3½ per cent. At the moment it is rising, and these are challenges for us. It is mainly rising because the heat has come out of the mining boom, so we are going from 3½ probably back up to what might be described as our natural rate of unemployment—I would like to think so, because that is very low still, but we are going back to a higher rate of unemployment.

This is what makes it so important that at this point in the economic cycle we do not take that sledgehammer to the Australian economy. The Leader of the Opposition says he would have us return to surplus more quickly, yet he is going to abolish all the revenue which flows from the carbon price. He is going to abolish the mining tax. And let us not forget that, while the mining tax is not raising what Treasury had originally predicted it would raise, it is still raising a significant amount of money. Some of that money, I am very happy to say, is being returned to my electorate in the form of infrastructure expenditure. There is no magic pudding here. You cannot say you are going to spend more and take less in revenue and say you are going to go back to surplus more quickly. If he is going to go down that path, he is going to put a big brake on the Australian economy. That would be bad news for my constituents at a time when unemployment is creeping back up to around five per cent.

I should be very happy that the election of Tony Abbott is not a fait accompli. I do not believe it is a fait accompli. I believe that, as we approach the election, people will have a look at what this Labor government has achieved and give us some credit for it. Let me talk about the Hunter electorate. The $1.7 billion Hunter Expressway is something that I have been fighting for since the early 1990s, a project which was on track when we lost government in 1996 and which stagnated for 12 years under the leadership of John Howard and his government. Having had a Labor government plan it, it took a Labor government to fund it and build it, which it did, thankfully, in 2008.

By Christmas this year, Hunter residents and others will be driving their vehicles along that Hunter expressway. In the most recent budget, we got $45 million to address a very serious problem in Scone in my electorate, a significant town with a major highway through it—ridiculously cut off by a level railway crossing for up to eight minutes these days because of the length of coal trains—a very welcome investment in my local electorate.

All members in this place, including the member for Barker, have had their schools refurbished. We have all been to the school openings—I have done more than 80 of them. These are facilities which cannot be described as wants of the communities; these are needs. I had classes sitting on the floor in school halls, and many in unacceptable demountable buildings, before we embarked on this investment program in our schools. I have a new TAFE college, new trades training centres, new science labs and new community colleges. The list goes on and on and on. We have had a huge investment in social housing.

These are projects which were on the books of the state governments but would never have been funded if it were not for the stimulus package put forward by this government. We are also investing in housing infrastructure, like roads in inner Maitland to allow the council to open new building blocks for affordable housing—something they were not able to do previously because as a developer they were not able to meet the infrastructure costs. We have more money for all of our local hospitals. We have more GPs than ever before. We have new GP clinics in Lochinvar, Greta and Denman, and we are about to have one in Kurri Kurri. The list goes on and on and on.

This is a government with a deep-seated commitment to economic and social infrastructure in this country. These are projects that people have been crying out for for many, many years, projects John Howard could have funded in 12 years of government because he had rivers of gold in that first phase of the mining boom but projects he did not address. In not doing so, he had a deep impact on productivity in this country. Whenever you hear Tony Abbott try to explain how his magic pudding is going to work, he goes to productivity, but he never explains how he is going to lift it—but we do get a hint of Work Choices in there. There is no doubt about that. He goes to the cutting of Public Service jobs and more efficient running of government. We have heard that before. John Howard did that in 1996. He took a knife to the Public Service, only to have Public Service employment restored to a higher level three years later. There is no magic solution in this budget, and I believe this budget got it absolutely right.

This is a message for both sides of the parliament and for the broader community. Beginning with John Howard, when we were in that first mining boom, we started to give people more and more of what they wanted. He did not do anything like the investment in infrastructure we have done, but there was money spent on infrastructure. I think there was an increase in infrastructure spending, particularly on the national highway network. We were awash with middle-class welfare. Since his days, we have had pension increases, healthy wage rises and significant increases in public expenditure. Most of that expenditure, of course, has been welfare.

On the other side of the equation, there is a growing expectation of smaller government and smaller taxes. So everyone wants more money spent on everything, including health and education, but they want the government to take less money, they want the government to tax them less. I am talking about individuals and companies.

At the same time, in response to community expectations, we have put a constraint on the economy in terms of the carbon price—an initiative begun by John Howard. If you recall, Mr Deputy Speaker, John Howard had a policy to put in place an emissions trading scheme, Malcolm Turnbull had one, Brendan Nelson had one. In fact. Tony Abbott has one now with the same commitment to a greenhouse gas reduction target as the government. So we have all got this commitment to a carbon constraint. Why? Because the community has been making it pretty clear that a carbon constraint is what it wants. But at the same time we want to compensate everyone for any consumer impacts of the carbon constraint; indeed, we are compensating industry as well and, in fact, we are subsidising the renewable industry to meet these community expectations. These are not initiatives that give us a net income stream; they give us a net outflow.

I do not see anything ahead which suggests a huge increase in our population. We have an ageing population, like most Western countries, so there is no great hope of any windfall in terms of population or demographics. We do not have any magic solution, despite what the Leader of the Opposition, Tony Abbott, might say on the productivity front, albeit we should always be working for greater productivity, and we do. But there is no magic solution ahead for us and so the community, while it calls for a more efficient government—as it should—is going to have to decide what it wants. Does it want more expenditure or does it want lower taxes? There is no magic pudding. It is no different from the family budget: only so much income is coming in and only so much expenditure can go out—unless, of course, you want to continue to rack up debt, and that is unsustainable in the long term. That is why the government has a plan to retire debt.

The community has to come with the political parties on this question. We have developed an expectation that we can have our cake and eat it too. The reality, in this global environment in particular, is that there are no easy solutions. We cannot expect growth to accelerate dramatically any time soon, particularly given the very long period it is going to take the Europeans to come out of recession, given the sluggishness of the US economy and given the relative sluggishness of many of the Asian communities, more particularly China.

This is all part of the reason we have to ensure that in communities like those I represent we take maximum benefit from the opportunities that serve us now. That means doing all we can to allow the mining companies to stay afloat through this difficult time and to take the new opportunities like the coal seam gas industry which I spoke about in the House yesterday, an industry which has the potential to bring great wealth to our communities with a minimal footprint. There will be some projects that might not be appropriate because of threats to watertables, for example, but there will be projects that can bring significant wealth to the Hunter and create many jobs in the Hunter with minimum, if any, environmental impact. We should not close our eyes to those opportunities. Some would have the coalmining industry and the CSG industry closed down in the Hunter. Well, what fools they are. Our unemployment rate would go through the roof overnight. It is important to our local economy and we all need to be standing behind it.