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Thursday, 5 December 2013
Page: 967

Senator WONG (South AustraliaLeader of the Opposition in the Senate) (13:27): If you ever wanted an example of this government not being the government they said they would be, have a look at the deal today. From a government that said in opposition that they were against debt, and from a government that said they were the party of no debt, we now have the government of no debt limit. No debt limit! The party of no debt becomes the party of no debt limit.

But even more extraordinary is the fact that they have done this with the support of the Australian Greens. You could not have written this in a sci-fi or fantasy novel a year ago if you had tried. You could not have written this in a fantasy novel if you had tried: that Joe Hockey would go into a room, negotiate with Senator Milne, the Leader of the Australian Greens, and come out with the no debt limit that he was going to get through the parliament with the support of the Australian Greens.

I do not think that we all need reminding of some of the things that those opposite have called the Greens. The Prime Minister has described them as 'economic fringe dwellers', but he is happy to do a deal on the economy with the economic fringe dwellers. The economic fringe dwellers are on the same side as the Liberal—

Senator Cormann: And you are now on the left of the economic fringe dwellers!

Senator WONG: And look! Senator Cormann is gesticulating. He could not help himself: he had to get up and have a go at the leader of the Greens. He cannot bear the fact that they have done a deal with them.

Senator Cormann: It's a good deal!

Senator WONG: You have done a deal with them to have no debt limit! It is quite an extraordinary proposition. From the party that described the Australian Greens as 'economic fringe dwellers', we have an economic partnership on how much Australia's debt should be. And guess what? Magically, they both agree: there is no limit. We have seen so much change since the last election and this government has come full circle.

I also remind the Senate of some of the other things that those opposite have called the Greens. I think they have been described as 'watermelons'—green on the outside, red on the inside—'economic vandals' and a whole range of things. These are the people with whom you have sat down, to determine Australia's debt position and the provisions which regulate that.

I think it would be useful for us to be reminded, in the context of this debate, of some of the things which were said by the coalition prior to the election. I make this point before I go into that fairly lengthy history of the things that were said. This government talks a lot about mandate. We get lectured about mandate, we get told to get out of the way and we get told we are not allowed to have scrutiny, inquiries or debate because it is all about mandate—all power to Mr Abbott.

I just wonder where, in the many things which were said before the election, anything was said around no debt limit. Was there any policy, any speech, any interview or any comment whatsoever that told the Australian people that, when you told them that you did not want to increase debt, what you were actually saying was, 'We want to have no limit on the debt'? It is the same thing as the statement made by the Prime Minister on the Andrew Bolt show or The Bolt Report—is that what it is called?—'It's the promise people thought they heard.' Everyone in Australia thought that they heard that this was a government that was going to reduce debt. That is what I think I heard. Over and over again, you were going to reduce debt: 'We will reduce debt; we will bring down the debt.' Was there a little footnote in any of the press releases or the transcripts of the interviews or in any of the statements that said: 'Except that we'll do a deal with the Australian Greens to provide no debt limit'? Did you see that? I did not see that anywhere. But that is what is happening today.

So when you come in here and have a go about mandate, maybe you should have a think about the extent to which you are moving away from the mandates you were given. Whether it is on debt or on the Better Schools Plan, the reality is that this is not the government that you said you would be and you are reneging on your promises to the Australian people.

No amount of debate, no amount of ex-post-facto footnoting and asterisks, and no amount of ex-post-facto conditionality can hide that fact. You are walking away from the commitments you gave Australians before the election and, worse, you are now lying about doing so. When it comes to the Better Schools Plan, one of the worst things that the Prime Minister did by saying, 'I'll keep the promise that I actually made, not the one you all heard,' was actually lie to people now. He is now telling people, 'Actually, I'm not breaking that promise,' when everyone knew he was, which is why we had the $1.2 billion backflip when it comes to the Better Schools Plan, money given away to the states without any conditions associated with it. That is quite an extraordinary act of irresponsibility to Australian students and parents, as well as being fiscally irresponsible. But I digress. Let us come back to what we were told before the election. Mr Hockey said:

… if debt is the problem more debt is not the answer.

Amazing, isn't it? Now, all of a sudden, more debt is the answer. In fact, unlimited debt is the answer. He went on:

From our perspective, there is no justification for increase in the credit card limit of the Commonwealth Government …

I love that quote. That is what Joe Hockey said to Australians before the election. He also said:

For the good of the country we need to stop increasing Government debt as quickly as possible.

Absolutely. That is an argument for increasing the debt cap. I suppose that is an argument for getting rid of it altogether in some bizarre universe. Mr Abbott went on and on:

… we do need to take a very, very seriously critical look at this question of the debt ceiling …

The government has to justify this …

But what we are getting instead of a government of the sort that those comments indicated is a government that wants to increase debt and does not want to justify it.

Let us recall what the Labor Party's position on this matter has been. We have said—and I moved in the Senate and it was carried at that time—that we were prepared, without seeing the budget update, to increase the debt cap. We said, 'We will give you an increase to $400 billion'—sight unseen! But, before we went to half a trillion dollars, we believed that it was appropriate that the government issue its budget update, its Mid-Year Economic and Fiscal Outlook. Given that the government were refusing to tell Australians what the budget position really was, what the new debt position really was and before the government sought to do something as significant and as serious as increasing the debt ceiling I think, at minimum, they should be required to provide that information.

But that was not enough for the Treasurer and it was not enough for the government. So, instead, they have come to an agreement with Senator Milne, in which they say, 'Instead of providing this justification, we're actually just going to abolish the debt ceiling.' You shake your head when you watch Mr Hockey. He is being pushed around, led by the Nationals when it comes to foreign investment decisions and led by Senator Christine Milne when it comes to Commonwealth debt decisions. What an extraordinary thing—Nationals on investment and the Greens on debt? And this guy calls himself a liberal Treasurer.

There are many things with which I disagree when it comes to Peter Costello, but this does say something about where this Treasurer and this government have moved. Senator Fifield's former boss, Peter Costello, was so public yesterday and the day before about the debt ceiling and he talked about the merits of a debt limit. He said:

A debt limit would also strengthen the hands of the economic Ministers inside the Cabinet … If there is a limit to borrowing, it will set a limit on the spending. A limit on the spending—that is fairly logical, isn't it? But Joe Hockey is not Peter Costello and the government are not the government they said they would be. The government campaigned on reducing debt and deficit. The government campaigned in part on the risk that the Australian Greens posed to the Australian economy. This is the position you, the government, put at the last election.

Now, less than 100 days since you were elected, we have a government that says: 'Actually, when we said we wanted less debt, what we actually meant was that we wanted no debt limit. When we said that the Greens were economic fringe dwellers, what we actually meant was that we will do a deal with them when it suits us. We're just criticising them now because that's what our constituency wants.' I do not think there has been a more substantive example of a U-turn, certainly in the short time this government has been in office, than this U-turn on debt. Probably vying for the privilege of first position in the list of U-turns and broken promises is the Better Schools Plan, but maybe they are equal first. You have a government that says one thing to people, gives them one impression and gives them a set of commitments and then does something that is completely antithetical, completely the opposite, after it has been elected.

I have some questions in this debate which I trust that the minister can answer. One thing that has been referred to in the press releases and press commentary since this deal was agreed is spending on infrastructure. In the course of this committee debate, given that the government has not released a mid-year budget update, it is incumbent upon the minister to tell the chamber what additional spending plans the government intends to fund through this abolition of the debt limit. What are they? Tell us about the infrastructure plans that the minister at the table, Senator Milne, Mr Briggs and others have talked about when they discussed increased infrastructure spending. If the government is essentially saying, 'We will increase the amount of debt taxpayers have to manage because we want to invest in more infrastructure,' after an election where you campaigned on reducing debt, I think the right thing to do is to tell Australians what those plans are. How much more debt are you planning to take on in order to make these investments? I do not believe that was discussed before the election. If you are suggesting that we want a higher or non-existent debt limit because we want to borrow more in order to fund more infrastructure, you should detail those plans.

I make this point finally. I thought it was really quite extraordinary, when looking at Mr Hockey's press release, the extent to which the Liberals have moved on the Australian Greens—after railing, as I said, that they were economic fringe dwellers. Our very own Senator Abetz is absent from the chamber. Obviously, it is not his legislation, but I suspect he feels extremely uncomfortable about the fact that the government has done a deal with the Australian Greens, whom he describes as watermelons and a risk to the Australian economy. Mr Hockey's press release was quite poignant. The first line was:

The Government has today agreed to the Australian Greens' proposal to repeal the statutory debt limit …

Isn't that wonderful! This is a Treasurer who, when it comes to debt, is being run by Senator Milne. That is the government you are running. It was a very interesting press release. In the first line we see congratulations from the coalition government of the Australian Greens' proposal to repeal the statutory debt limit.

I ask the Assistant Treasurer: given Senator Milne's public comments about increased financing—and do not get up and just say 'private sector financing', because it is in the context of the removal of the debt cap—and infrastructure, what are the government's plans to spend more money on infrastructure? How much additional debt is the government proposing to take on in order to fund infrastructure projects?