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Tuesday, 14 February 2012
Page: 1256


Mr STEPHEN JONES (Throsby) (17:31): It is always a great pleasure to enter a debate after the member for Bradfield, who in some parts of his speech today gives new meaning to the expression 'talking under wet cement'. We have heard a description that these guys are the 'star tracks' of political and economic policy, sailing through the political universe in search of black holes, without a clue in the world about how to fill them.

We are here to debate Appropriation Bill (No. 3) 2011-2012 and Appropriation Bill (No. 4) 2011-2012. It is worthwhile as we engage in this debate around these important bills, an instrument of economic management, that we reflect on where we have come from, where we are and where we are going in terms of our economic management. There is one thing to be certain of: we did not land in this position that we are in through pure accident. The position I am talking about is having the lowest debt-to-GDP ratio of any country in the Western world and the lowest unemployment of any comparable country in the world. We have unemployment which has been consistently around five per cent for the last 18 months, contrasted with unemployment in Europe and the US which hovers around the low double figures.

We have heard a lot from the other side about interest rates, but what they do not say is that interest rates are lower now than at any time since they were in office. In fact, interest rates would have to go up 10 times before they reach the levels they were at when we took office in 2007. For all the hue and cry that we hear from the member for Bradfield, what you will not hear him say is that interest rates not only are lower now than they were when the Liberal-National Party left office in 2007 but would have to go up 10 times before they reached those levels. That makes an enormous difference not only to households in electorates like mine and yours, Mr Deputy Speaker Murphy, but also to the small business sector, which relies on a line of credit to meet the bills and pay for the capital that keeps its doors open and its businesses running.

It was not all easy when we took office. There were enormous challenges that we had to meet. There was a long-running deficit in infrastructure spending that we had to fill. You talk about black holes. The mob on the other side like to talk about black holes.

Ms Rishworth interjecting

Mr STEPHEN JONES: That is right—$100 million—

Ms Rishworth: Billion.

Mr STEPHEN JONES: $100 billion in deficit in infrastructure spending around this country. We are doing our darnedest to ensure that over the next few years we backfill that deficit through road projects and rail projects. We have rebuilt well over half the national rail network. We have spent more money on urban rail than any other government since Federation. We continue our commitment to rebuild and renew our national road network. And that is before we start to talk about the investment we have put into ports and, of course, the National Broadband Network, which is popular everywhere except on the other side of the House—that is, when they are here in Canberra. When they go back to their electorates they are sending letters to the minister saying: 'Please, Minister Conroy, how soon can we get the NBN into our backyard? We think it is the best thing since sliced cheese.'

Some of the measures contained within the bills before us, which are a part of our forward-looking economic plan for the next 12 months, relate to the government's clean energy package, including transitional assistance to highly emissions-intensive coal fired power stations in the form of cash assistance in the financial year 2011-12 and a limited allocation of free permits thereafter until 2016-17. This is important because this is going to help those regions, and particularly those power facilities, to make the transition that is sorely needed in this country and by the rest of the globe. We also provide loans to emissions-intensive coal fired power stations to provide additional working capital for the purchase of future vintage carbon permits at advance auctions. On the advice of the energy security councils, loans will be made to emissions-intensive coal fired power stations for the refinancing of existing debt where finance is unable to be obtained from the market on reasonable terms. The bills also provide for the governance arrangements around the establishment of the Clean Energy Regulator.

Importantly for jobs in our mining sector, the bill will also enable the government to provide funds over six years to assist the most emissions intensive coalmines to transition to the carbon pricing. I need to say a little about this particular measure. Since the introduction of the Clean Energy Future package of bills, which I know you are a very big advocate of, Mr Deputy Speaker Murphy, we have heard all sorts of outlandish claims made by those opposite about how it was going to affect mining and in particular coalmining, and in particular coalmining in regions like mine, in the Illawarra on the South Coast of New South Wales. We saw the Leader of the Opposition don a hard hat and make a dash down a mine in the neighbouring electorate held by the member for Cunningham for a photo shoot where he could utter the words, 'This mine is going to be closed down if the clean energy future legislation is passed.' Not only do the measures within this bill support jobs and investments in the coal industry in the Illawarra, not only do they facilitate the purchase of permits, they also facilitate investment in coalmining abatement technology through the Coalmining Abatement Technology Support Package to support research, development and deployment of abatement technologies in the coal industry.

There is no surer sign that the mining industry has got a very positive outlook on the future of mining in a particular district than what they are doing around investment and what they are doing around employment. On both of these measures coalmining in the Illawarra region is going gangbusters. We have seen a recent report published by the Illawarra Regional Information Service, which publishes an excellent quarterly report on labour market and economic indicators in the Illawarra, which has shown that coalmining employment, far from following the pessimistic curve of the leader of the 'noalition', has actually increased and is expected to increase further over future quarters. It is doing that because mine operators in the Illawarra are expanding their mines. The reason they are doing that is that we have some of the finest metallurgical coal to be found anywhere on the eastern seaboard. We have got overseas investors coming into the Illawarra setting up new mines and reopening old mines that had been decommissioned, because they see a real future in this area. High-quality coking coal is exported to the powerhouses of India and China to fuel the development that is going on in the urban sector of those two countries.

There are additional measures in this bill that I would like to address because I know they have been controversial in my electorate. I would like to talk a little bit about the issue of coal seam gas. The mining and extraction of coal seam gas is an issue of great concern and controversy to areas in the northern parts of the Illawarra and the Southern Highlands of New South Wales. This is particularly of concern when we see the sudden expansion or the potential expansion of coal seam gas mining around sensitive national park areas and high-quality rural lands and the potential for coal seam gas to interfere with important aquifer and water tables.

I welcome very much the fact that within this package of bills there have been funds set aside to ensure that the Commonwealth plays its role in what is essentially a state government matter for regulation. The Commonwealth is playing its role to ensure that we have expert scientific evidence and that we know more about the impact of coal seam gas extraction on water tables, on aquifers and on the environment in which these activities are being carried out. Only with this information at hand can the residents and the landholders in regions such as mine be confident that any expansion of the coal seam gas industry is not going to be at the expense of existing land use, existing land values and at the expense of our critical aquifers and water tables.

I am pleased that within the measures of these bills we have the establishment of the Independent Expert Scientific Committee to advise on research priorities, to commission and coordinate research and to engage with relevant stakeholders on coal seam gas and large coal mines. A national partnership agreement with the states and territories will improve regulations and standards relating to coal seam gas and large coal mines. It is absolutely critical and will be welcomed by those in my electorate who have a concern about this issue.

In the time I have left I would like to say a few things in response to some of the comments that have been made by speakers from the opposition parties and a few things about the trends in economic management that we would see if they were ever to occupy the treasury bench. I would like to make some observations about the concern about the budget and a fetish with surplus. The Labor government has committed to returning the budget to surplus by 2011-12 or 2012-13 and we will do this because it is the right thing to do. We will do this because, on current economic settings, it is the right economic thing to do and it does make sense.

If you were to listen to the speakers on the benches opposite you would think that there is some inherent beauty, some inherent wisdom, some inherent virtue in governments running a surplus irrespective of what the economic conditions provide. One can only conclude from this view that they see some inherent virtue in governments continually taxing the corporations and citizens of this country more than is actually needed to meet the revenue needs of the Commonwealth now and into the future. That is the absurdity of the position that they put: that there is some inherent virtue in Commonwealth governments always running surplus budgets irrespective of the economic conditions. We know, and everybody who has studied the most basic level of economics knows, that is complete bunkum. It is the obligation and responsibility of the government in an advanced economy to ensure that when the economy is in downturn or at risk of going through a downturn that we can, through strategic and targeted missions, put more money into the economy to stimulate demand and economic activity. The way the Gillard government has done that, and the Rudd government before, is to ensure that through targeted spending measures—particularly in the area of infrastructure, and particularly in the area of education infrastructure, but also in projects like the National Broadband Network and our ports, our rail and our road projects—we are not only stimulating demand in sectors that are going through difficult times but also leaving a lasting benefit behind. There would be none of that if we were to follow the economic prescription of those opposite.

But they want to do worse than that. They are seriously proposing to reverse the legislation that has been put through the House in relation to getting a better return from the mining boom for all Australians. They are seriously proposing, instead of providing tax cuts for small businesses and other businesses throughout the country, to jack those taxes up again. They would seriously claw back or refuse to give superannuation increases to ordinary Australian workers, and they would not be spending on the necessary infrastructure in the way we were. Not only would they do that, but they seriously propose to reverse the tax cuts we are giving to ordinary Australians. We are going to be effectively ensuring that nobody earning under $18,600 a year in this country pays any tax. They are going to reverse that. They are going to reverse the pension increases. And they are going to do all of this because they have some ideological obsession or some requirement to pay back their mates. They seriously want to give a tax cut to the big mining companies and make the pensioners, the superannuants, the ordinary working people and the small businesses of this country pay for this ideological obsession. I commend the legislation to the House. (Time expired)