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Tuesday, 26 June 2012
Page: 8016

Mr FITZGIBBON (HunterChief Government Whip) (16:34): What a strange political environment we find ourselves in. We all, for example, agree that we need to do something about paid parental leave in this country. We all agree that we need to do something about managing the resources boom so we slow down the fast lane and speed up the slow lane. We all agree that we need to do something about the tragedy that we see unfolding before us with respect to boat people. We all agree that we need to do something about climate change. I really want to underscore that last point because everyone knows that Tony Abbott is committed to the same greenhouse gas reductions as we are on this side.

The strange thing is that we cannot agree on how we do all of these things. Of course, I could have cited many more examples. We cannot agree on paid parental leave. We cannot agree on the resources boom. We cannot agree, sadly, on refugees and we certainly cannot agree on climate change. But it is even worse than that because, in my view, the Leader of the Opposition does not want to agree. He identifies a problem, he says he is on board to fix it but, by virtue of his opportunism, he does not want to fix it. He does not want it to go away. Every time there is a boat and every time there is an opportunity to blame an industry downturn, for example, on carbon, he takes that opportunity. He sees opportunism in the plight of others and that is a real tragedy.

Take the aluminium industry, an industry in Australia being dramatically adversely affected by two things in particular: the high value of the Australian dollar and a plummeting of aluminium prices on world markets. I think the price has plummeted by 60 per cent since 2008. You do not have to be a genius to work out, when you add the appreciation of the dollar, that it is a pretty hefty blow on the aluminium industry. To make it worse, when the aluminium industry is affected by these things he seeks to capitalise on the demise of the industry and, of course, the job losses. And there was no greater example than with Norsk Hydro's plant at Kurri Kurri in my electorate. The bad news for the Leader of the Opposition is that my electorate understand that Norsk Hydro has been struggling for a long, long time and losing money for a long, long time—and we have not had a carbon price, if the opposition have not noticed. Hydro would be closing whether we were having a carbon price or we were not having a carbon price. This is the crime of the Leader of the Opposition: he wants to mislead and then capitalise. He is doing it again this week with Alcoa.

Alcoa have indicated to the government that with some assistance they might survive the onslaught of the Australian dollar and low aluminium prices. What is making the Alcoa deal critical is the willingness of the Victorian government to talk turkey on electricity contract prices. We can help Alcoa, having been asked, if the Victorian government joins with us on power prices. Hydro is a completely different situation. Both the Minister for Industry and Innovation, who is also Minister for Climate Change and Energy Efficiency, and I have been to Hydro management on a number of occasions and, very early in the piece, we said, 'What can we do as a government to help?' In my case I said, 'Do you want me to take your plight to ministers to see what assistance might be available—co-investment, for example?' I was very quickly and plainly told: 'Thank you very much'—they are very courteous people, the Norwegians—'you could throw hundreds of millions of dollars at us tomorrow, it's not going to change our business model. It's not going to suddenly reduce the value of the Australian dollar. It's not going to suddenly increase global aluminium prices.'

They said, and these are my words, not theirs: 'You're not going to make our plant bigger and therefore give it bigger scale'—as we know, around the world there are huge plants opening and economies of scale are important—'and you're not going to overnight modernise our plant. We've been here a long time, it's relatively old technology, even though the company has invested significantly in recent years to try to remain competitive.' I repeat, those last sentences were my words, not theirs, but they made it very clear both to the industry minister and to me that there was nothing we could do to help. Yet the opposition leader comes in here this week and rails against the government for having the audacity to help Alcoa but not help Norsk Hydro. I am sure, because they are a courteous lot, that Hydro will not be coming out and criticising the opposition leader—but, gee, I bet they feel like it.

People like the member for Paterson have been running around the Hunter saying it is all about politics and the marginality of seats. My political margin in Hunter is 12½ per cent or thereabouts. The Alcoa plant is located in the electorate of Corio, the electorate of the Parliamentary Secretary for Foreign Affairs, Richard Marles. The last time I checked, his margin was 13 per cent. How dare the opposition leader and his follower suggest that this is a political decision, that we would determine the fate of hundreds of people and an industry in our country based on the marginality of seats. It would be offensive if I was on 12 and Richard Marles was on two, but it is even more offensive when it is not even factually correct in terms of our political margins. How dare they! The opposition leader, who has been making a fool of himself running around the country with his scare campaign, would be much better served by, for example, getting behind our jobs market on 18 July in the Hunter, where we will match employers with prospective employees, most of whom will be coming from the now mothballed Hydro plant. They are the sorts of positive things the opposition leader could be doing, rather than carping on and on about the carbon price and, in doing so, talking the economy down, not up.

We have an unemployment rate in the Hunter of about 3.9 per cent. HunterNet, the networking organisation that represents manufacturers, has informed us that right now there are about 1,000 manufacturing jobs in the Hunter waiting to be filled. We have a more diverse economy than ever before, a very low unemployment rate and huge investment prospects, with money flowing into the mining industry in particular, so we are well placed to absorb those jobs. It is very disappointing that Norsk Hydro found it necessary to take this decision; indeed, it is disappointing that in their view there was nothing the government could do to assist, but we certainly offered. As a community we will get on with it. I will be talking up my local economy and the prospects for those who have lost their jobs, not talking it down, like the member for Paterson is inclined to do, following the lead of his parliamentary leader, of course. I will be out there helping people make a transition into another job, not doing what the member for Paterson in particular is trying to do: to scare them into believing that their working life is over, as an opportunity to blame the current Labor government.

I should say something about the specifics of this matter of public importance. I have said in this place many times before that there are three important things a government should do as a priority for small business. The first is to grow the economy, which we are doing, unlike the rest of the modern world. The second is to keep the price of money or interest rates low, and we are doing that better than anyone else in the world. The third thing is to get out of the way. Red tape is the biggest fear for small business and this government is working hard to keep small business red tape to a minimum.

I have been here 16 years and I remember doing something—not unlike those on the other side are doing—with respect to the GST, saying it was going to 'kill' this person and 'kill' that person. I have matured and learnt from my mistakes. We all know now that a consumption tax in this country was necessary, but that does not mean that at the time I did not have some real fears about how the GST would impact on small business. And guess what? Small business still tell me on a daily basis that the GST is killing them because they remain unpaid tax collectors. They will remain unpaid tax collectors, and they are making a fantastic contribution to the Australian economy in doing so. But let us not kid ourselves that, as necessary as a consumption tax was in this country, there is not some pain for small business.

With respect to the carbon price, we are putting in place offsets, of course—in particular, tax breaks for the small business community. Hypocrisy is alive and well on the other side of the House. (Time expired)

The DEPUTY SPEAKER ( Ms Rishworth ): Order! This discussion has now concluded.