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Thursday, 12 May 2011
Page: 3905


Mr ABBOTT (WarringahLeader of the Opposition) (17:04): The fundamental test of a budget is how it improves the wellbeing of the Australian people. My three children are still in the education system, and Margie, my wife, works in community based child care, so my family knows something of the financial pressures on nearly every Australian household.

Since December 2007, the price of electricity is up 51 per cent, gas is up 30 per cent and water is up 46 per cent. Education costs have risen 24 per cent, health 20 per cent and rent 21 per cent. Grocery prices are up 14 per cent. Since the middle of 2009, interest rate rises have added $500 a month to mortgage repayments, while wages have risen just seven per cent. Families already know what it is like to tighten their belts; they do not need government to do it for them. Yet the only certainty from this budget is further upward pressure on interest rates, because this government is still borrowing $135 million every single day. The government boasts that inflation is under control because the price of flat screen TVs has fallen. It does not understand what every Australian family instinctively knows: the things we want might be more affordable but the things we need are much more expensive.

Tonight I want to reach out to Australian families: to small business people, police, nurses, firefighters, teachers, shop assistants and workers in our steel mills and mines—the people who are the backbone of our society and our economy. I do not think you are rich. I know you are struggling under a rising cost of living. And I know you are sick of a government that does not get value from your taxes.

So my commitment to the forgotten families of Australia is to ease your cost-of-living pressure. Stopping wasteful and unnecessary spending will keep your interest rates down, and stopping or removing unnecessary new taxes will make it easier for you to pay your bills. My task tonight is to offer people a new direction which restores their hope in the future. It is not to detail an alternative budget but to set out an alternative vision so that the Australian people can be confident that their government need not always be as weak and directionless as it is right now.

I understand that government should live within its means, value the money it holds in trust from you, the taxpayer and, above all else, observe the first maxim of good government; namely, do no avoidable harm. Instead, the current government has turned a $20 billion surplus into a $50 billion deficit and $70 billion in net assets into $107 billion of net debt. Then there is the carbon tax that the Prime Minister said would never happen but will just make cost-of-living pressures so much worse.

A $26 a tonne carbon tax would add 25 per cent more to electricity bills and 6½ cents a litre more to fuel bills that are already skyrocketing—and that is before it starts automatically increasing by at least four per cent every single year. A $26 a tonne carbon tax means 16 coalmines closed, 23,000 mining jobs lost and 45,000 jobs lost in industries like steel, aluminium, glass, chemicals and motor cars. The Prime Minister talks about compensation, but there is no compensation for people who have lost their jobs.

So let me make this crystal clear: the coalition will oppose the carbon tax in opposition and repeal it in government. The coalition will oppose the mining tax in opposition and repeal it in government. My colleagues and I will never make things harder for the forgotten families of Australia, and people can have confidence in the coalition because they can judge us on our record, not just on our promises.

The government I served in turned a $10 billion budget black hole into consistent surpluses exceeding one per cent of GDP. We turned $96 billion in inherited Labor debt into $70 billion in net assets. We made the most of the China boom; we did not complain about it. We ended the waste, repaid the debt and stopped the boats. That was not a slogan; it was a fact.

As a minister, I was personally responsible for thousands of young people doing environmental work in the Green Corps, the stabilisation of the Job Network, the expansion of Work for the Dole, the establishment of a royal commission into the construction industry, ending the medical indemnity crisis and bringing allied health professionals like dentists into the Medicare system. Sixteen members of my shadow cabinet have been ministers in a successful government. They would not have to learn on the job, should there be a change of government, because they have done the job. The challenge of producing lower taxes, fairer welfare, better services and stronger borders would not be beyond us because we have risen to it before.

Now, even from opposition, the coalition is dominating national debate, as the Prime Minister has already admitted to caucus. We are driving a positive agenda too.

My private member's bill to allow economic development on Aboriginal land in Cape York comes from a decade working with Noel Pearson on what he calls Aboriginal people’s 'right to take responsibility'. That bill is before the parliament and I call on the government to stop putting the hunt for Green preferences ahead of a fair go for Aboriginal people on their own land.

As mental health campaigners say, it was the coalition’s new deal for mental health patients that finally shamed the government into acting in the budget. As well, the government has actually adopted for itself my private member’s bill on assisting the victims of overseas terrorism, arising from the time I spent with the Newcastle victims of the second Bali bombing.

Since the start of the year, the coalition has committed to a new approach to water management, including new dams, and a much tougher anti-dumping regime to protect Australian industries from way-below-cost imports. We have offered to work with the government on welfare reform, on finding savings instead of increasing taxes, and on a new intervention into the developing social crisis in Alice Springs and the Northern Territory’s other larger towns.

What we will never do, though, is make weak compromises with a bad government. We respect taxpayers too much to spend their money on make-work schemes for extra public servants and on 'think big' projects which always end in tears.

The coalition supports better broadband services but we are not reckless enough to spend upwards of $50 billion on a National Broadband Network without a cost-benefit analysis. That $50 billion could fully fund the construction of the Brisbane rail loop, for instance, the duplication of the Pacific Highway, the Melbourne-to-Brisbane inland rail link, the extension of the M4 to Strathfield, and 20 major new teaching hospitals as well as the $6 billion that the coalition has proposed to spend on better broadband.

Speeds of up to 100 megabits are already potentially available to almost every major business and hospital, to most schools, and through high-speed cable already running past nearly a third of Australian households.

The smart way to improve broadband is not to junk the existing network but to make the most of it. It is to let a competitive market deliver the speeds that people need at an affordable price with government improving infrastructure in the areas where market competition will not deliver it.

The smart way to improve the environment is not to impose a new tax on the way every Australian lives and works but to reduce emissions via common sense environmental improvements that everyone can support: by planting more trees on otherwise marginal land, by boosting the carbon content of soil through better value organic fertilisers, and by turning power station carbon dioxide from a waste product into an input in the production of stockfeed and biodiesel.

The coalition wants to give the planet the benefit of the doubt with practical measures to improve the environment rather than futile gestures that just damage our economy. That is why we will have a standing Green Army, 15,000 strong, to supplement the land care work of local councils, farmers, and volunteers to eradicate feral animals and noxious weeds and to preserve wetlands.

A government’s job is not to live people’s lives for them but to help people to make the most of their opportunities and to ensure that public institutions are more responsive to the people they serve. Australia has great teachers, doctors, nurses and other professionals but our public schools and hospitals are being strangled by too much bureaucracy.

Principals often cannot hire the teachers they want but are stuck with the next person on the transfer list. So we will work with the states to ensure that school councils can appoint principals and that principals can run schools in partnership with school communities as nearly 100 'independent public schools' in Western Australia are now doing.

We will not forget the families who want to give their children the best possible start in life. There will never be an independent schools hit list under the coalition. We will increase the education tax rebate for all families to $500 a year for primary and $1,000 a year for secondary students and make it available for all expenses connected with education, including school and sports fees.

We understand that the parents and carers of children with disabilities have the toughest job in the country. That is why we will make $20,000 a year available to help the 6,000 school children with the most serious disabilities as an important first step towards a wider scheme to give all people with disabilities access to better services.

Public hospitals often cannot order significant new equipment without referring it to head office. So, again, we will work with the states to give hospitals more funding when they treat more people. Public hospitals will be run by local boards, not distant bureaucrats. And if a state was prepared to surrender some of its GST, the Commonwealth would fully fund its public hospitals, thus potentially achieving hospitals that are both nationally funded and locally run.

The coalition understands the need for strong private hospitals, too, that take some of the pressure off the public system. We will never make waiting lists worse by driving people out of private health insurance with counter-productive means tests. We will not turn the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme from a demand-driven to a budget-limited scheme by not listing drugs that have passed an expert cost-effectiveness test. Leaving young people on the dole and older people on welfare while so many businesses are short of staff is such a terrible waste. I am all in favour of training but first things first: the best training is on the job.

On Noel Pearson's advice, the coalition would pay a $6000 relocation allowance to young unemployed people who move to a regional area for a job and who agree not to return to welfare within six months. This would be a programme not a trial. We will pay $2500 as a commitment bonus to long-term unemployed young people who take a job and keep it for a year and a further $4000 if they stay for a second year.

We will try to shake the cult of youth in hiring by giving employers up to $3250 for taking someone over 50 off welfare and back to work. As well, we will give mothers real choice to be economic as well as social contributors with a fair dinkum paid parental leave scheme that gives nearly all new mums six months with their babies at full pay.

To improve their job skills and work culture, the coalition will make work for the dole mandatory for long-term unemployed people under 50. By contrast, the government's 'tough love' rhetoric is hard to take seriously because since 2007 it has cut work for the dole numbers by more than 60 percent.

We will take the advice of Labor's former national president Warren Mundine and stop dole payments for people under 30 in places where unskilled work is readily available. We will extend the government's mandatory family income management to all long-term unemployed people, not just those in the Northern Territory, because there should not be one rule for some and a different rule for others.

We will couple more job search support for people with disabilities with a better designed welfare system that does not park middle-aged people on the disability pension when they could still be earning.

The coalition has a proven record of careful management of public finances. Just two of 12 Howard government budgets were in deficit. By contrast, the last nine Labor budgets between them have posted punitive deficits of almost $230 billion or almost a quarter of $1 trillion.

This government's badge of economic virtue, a wafer thin surplus by 2012-13, will not be achieved by tough-minded economic reform or serious spending cuts but by assumptions of very high economic growth on the back of the most favourable terms of trade in our history.

If it is achieved, it is a surplus made in China, not Australia. Let us not forget that this is not an actual surplus. It is a predicted one—from a government which has shown all the forecasting accuracy of Nostradamus.

As we did last year, the coalition will announce a position on individual budget items when they come before the parliament, not before, and we will announce a consolidated list of spending and savings measures in good time before the next election. When we did so last year the Prime Minister said they were too tough, but so far she has adopted $13 billion of coalition savings.

People can be confident that spending, debt and taxes will always be lower under a coalition government because we have the record to prove it. People can also be confident that economic growth will be higher and more sustainable under the coalition. We have the record to prove that too and we take the view that a successful business is serving its fellow Australians, not exploiting them.

A strong economy is the essential precondition for effective government so the coalition is always looking for ways to help small business that are suffering in a patchwork economy because that is where jobs are created and families get ahead.

For small businesspeople, less paperwork means higher profits, boosted sales and more time with the family. Even the current government paid lip-service to this when it promised a 'one in, one out' approach to regulation but so far Labor has introduced 220 new regulations for each one it has repealed. Under the coalition 'one in, one out' will be a reality not an aspiration.

As well, a coalition government would reduce the regulatory cost to business by at least $1 billion a year. We would require departments to calculate the costs to business of preparing and making available information, changing their processes and obtaining approvals. Departments and ministers would be accountable for meeting annual red tape reduction targets that the Productivity Commission would verify.

Labor cannot help treating small business with suspicion as potential tax cheats and havens for non-union workers but the coalition thinks that small business is more likely to treat workers like family and is the engine of higher employment and greater prosperity. That is why helping small business is such an important productivity reform.

If the ghost of Ben Chifley now hovers over this side of the parliament it is because the coalition is much closer to workers' real interests than a Labor Party that has sold its soul to Senator Bob Brown.

This government's character flaws have been abundantly illustrated in the budget. When the government is not robbing Peter to pay Paul it is transferring money from people's right pocket to their left and congratulating itself for cleverness. Little in this budget is quite what it seems. The $1.5 billion in new mental health money is offset by a $580 million cut in Medicare psychologist consultations. For all the focus on the forecast surplus, there has been virtually no net tightening of the fiscal position since the middle of last year. For all the talk of repaying debt, the actual budget bills increase the government's borrowing limit by another $50 billion.

The government has cut funding for defence and national security while massively increasing funding to manage illegal boat people. The disability pension participation changes mostly apply to people under 35 so largely miss the musculoskeletal problems that keep so many older people on welfare. Even the headline hogging efforts to get teenage mums into work and delinquent parents to send their kids to school are trials only. Tradies might get their new utes cheaper but running them will be much more expensive thanks to FBT increases. Government will spend $350 on each pensioner’s set top box when Gerry Harvey can supply and install them for just $168. Perhaps this program should be called ‘Building the Entertainment Revolution’. Pensioners and self-funded retirees deserve better than this.

The Prime Minister used to say that detaining boat people on Pacific Islands was 'costly, unsustainable' and wrong in principle. Yet last Friday she announced that the government would try to reopen Manus Island. She used to insist that boat people could not be sent to Nauru because Nauru was not a signatory to the UN convention on refugees. But last Saturday she announced that 800 boat people would be sent to Malaysia, which is not a signatory either, and that 4,000 of Malaysia’s arrivals would come here. The policy is no longer to stop the boats but to swap the boats at a budget cost of nearly $70,000 a person or more than 10 times the cost of a Sydney-Kuala Lumpur first class air ticket.

The Prime Minister should finally pick up the phone to the President of Nauru and reintroduce all the Howard policies that stopped the boats. If she wanted to value-add, with the coalition’s support, she would introduce mandatory 10-year minimum sentences for repeat people smugglers. But make no mistake, whatever she does, a coalition government will stop the boats.

Whether it is installing and removing roof batts that catch fire, building over-priced school halls, losing control of our borders and detention centres, needlessly digging up people’s front yards, threatening to kill the mining boom with an investment-destroying new tax, or imposing a carbon tax that will not clean up the environment but will clean out people’s wallets, this government always has the same basic failing. It tries to solve problems that it does not understand, refuses to listen to people with good advice and thinks that if it changes the subject people will not notice its mistakes. It makes announcements and moves on without the hard work that is needed to turn creating a headline into making a difference.

Typically, while the carbon tax is not in the budget, the carbon tax ad campaign most certainly is. The mining tax is in the budget too even though its details have yet to be finalised or enacted into law and it is supposed to start on the very same day as the carbon tax. The Prime Minister can leave the carbon tax out of the budget but she cannot hide the damage it will do to struggling families’ cost of living, the havoc it will wreak on jobs in manufacturing industry exposed to cutthroat competition, and the fact that it will make no real difference to the environment in the absence of comparable action overseas.

The Prime Minister cannot hide the truth: that this is a tax for which she has no mandate. In fact, she has a mandate not to introduce it. The declaration, 'there will be no carbon tax under the government I lead', will haunt this government every day until it faces up to this betrayal. Does anyone think that the Prime Minister would now be in the Lodge had she admitted, truthfully, six days out from last year’s election that, 'yes, there will be a carbon tax under a government I lead'? This is the cancer that is eroding the Prime Minister’s standing and sapping this government’s authority.

As things stand, we have a parliament that cannot make decisions people respect, a Prime Minister who looks like she is not up to the job and a minority government that is increasingly seen as an experiment that has failed. If Australia goes on like this for another 2½ years, what is currently a great country with a lousy government could slide into a complete morass of indecision and paralysis.

This government lacks legitimacy not because it lacks a majority but because it lacks integrity. This is what should gnaw at the consciences of MPs, even those who support the carbon tax. How can this parliament honourably decide to introduce a carbon tax when no fewer than 144 of the House of Representatives 150 members are in parties that were committed not to have one?

People are entitled to change their minds but national leaders cannot on something as important as a great big new tax on everything unless they first validate that change by seeking a new mandate at an election. On this subject, the Prime Minister has compared herself with John Howard and the GST. But there is one fundamental difference between them: the former Prime Minister changed his policy and put the new position to an election; the current Prime Minister had an election on one policy and promptly adopted the opposite one.

The Prime Minister should copy John Howard, not just quote him. She and Bob Brown should finalise the carbon tax details including its impact on jobs, industries and Australians’ cost of living and then she should seek the people’s verdict before trying to legislate it. Otherwise, the next election will not just be a referendum on the carbon tax, it will be a referendum on governments that betray the people.

That is what Australia needs: not a carbon tax but an election. Only an election could make an honest politician of this Prime Minister. Only an election can give Australia a government with authority to make the tough decisions needed to build a stronger country and to help Australians get ahead.

Debate adjourned.

House adjourned at 20:00