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Tuesday, 13 May 2014
Page: 2449

Senator DI NATALE (Victoria) (16:59): Paul Keating once said that when you change the government, you change the country. On the eve of the first budget, those words have never been more relevant. The Abbott government has already—to use the Prime Minister's words—stamped its authority on nearly every aspect of Australian life, whether it be winding back action on climate change, demonising refugees, challenging the independence of the ABC or dismantling laws that protect Australians from racial vilification. In a few short months, this government has changed the very fabric of Australian society. In recent months there has been a lot of talk about debt and deficit, and about the ongoing budget emergency. No claim has been too outrageous. If you were to believe the rhetoric from the Treasurer, we are on track for a disaster to compare with the Great Depression or with modern-day Greece; we are a country that is on track to default with our debt; and we are an international pariah with a Third World economy.

Last year the Treasurer went as far as to say, 'The cupboard is bare; there is no money left in the till.' He effectively declared the Australian nation bankrupt. I understand that in politics perception is everything—I get that. In this piece of theatre, the nation's finances are effectively being used as a political bludgeon. While it might serve the government's purposes, it is a piece of political theatre that does not serve the country well. Federal budgets have an enormous impact on people's lives: whether you can go to the doctor, whether you can afford a decent education for your kids; what happens to someone if they become unemployed; and whether people are going to have enough for their retirement are all issues that are dealt with in the nation's budget. The government believes it is necessary to outsource those tasks to big business, that these are questions for the market, not the government, and that lower taxes and lower spending are the only pathway to prosperity. Despite all the evidence to the contrary, these are articles of faith for the coalition.

We have a very different view. It is a bit more nuanced and it does not fit into a three-word slogan but it is a vision that says everybody, regardless of the size of their wallet, regardless of whether or not they were born with a genetic disease deserves access to decent health care. It is a vision that says every kid in this country should get a decent education. It is a vision that says we need to protect our natural environment and we need to get on with the challenge of tackling climate change.

We understand that sometimes markets work well and are the best way to achieve these tasks. We also understand that there is often a role for government. Far from being inherently evil, taxation is the price we pay for a civilised society. Taxes are health care, taxes are education, and taxes are trains and roads. How much we tax matters much less than the quality of our tax spend. The difficulty for the coalition is that when you get beyond these simple slogans and sound bites and you put these competing visions to the Australian community, what you discover is the current government's agenda is deeply unpopular. It is unpopular because it benefits those with wealth and privilege ahead of ordinary people who rely on those services. And that is why those opposite have had to tell this misleading story about the nation's economy. It is why they created the piece of political theatre that was the National Commission of Audit. To get the answers they wanted, they hand-picked the actors—effectively a Who's Who of corporate Australia—and they wrote the script. The script goes something like this: 'We've got a structural deficit. The only way we can fix it is by drastically cutting government expenditure. We've got huge debt. We've got to reduce it urgently and we've got to make deep cuts.' The best place to start, of course, is on those services that Australians rely on—health care, education, supports for people with disabilities.

The Greens established an inquiry into the Commission of Audit, because we would not buy the lie. We heard evidence through that inquiry from academics, from unions, from economists and from business groups across the country, and they told a very different story: that Australia's debt crisis is a fabrication; that Australia's level of public debt is amongst the lowest in the OECD; and that, far from being a crisis, we have an economy that is the envy of the world. Those experts challenged the falsehood of Australia's high taxation levels. Far from being an economy that is shackled with high taxes, our tax take as a percentage of GDP is low by world standards and well below the OECD average.

What we heard was a simple proposition: it is not how much you tax; it is what you do with those taxes that matters. That brings us to those public services that we deliver in the form of universal health care, in the form of education, in the form of supports for people who are down and out and in the form of supports for people who have disabilities. We have learnt that we deliver those services very efficiently. When it comes to health care, we have one of the most efficient healthcare systems in the world as a proportion of GDP. We spend about nine per cent of our GDP on health care. Compare that to the US, which spends double what we spend and gets much worse health outcomes. Yet, in this budget, on the back of the recommendations from the Commission of Audit, we have a prescription for a US style health system. If ever there was a triumph of ideology over evidence, this is it. When you look at our Public Service, what we see is that, following years of public sector cuts, there is no more low-hanging fruit. Cuts to the Public Service mean cuts to services, pure and simple.

That is not to say we do not have long-term challenges; we do. Over the next 50 years, we will have challenges that we need to start addressing. But the Senate Select Committee into the Abbott Government's Commission of Audit inquiry heard very clearly that if we do have a structural problem within the budget, the problem is on the revenue side of the equation, that we have had inadequate investment in infrastructure, in training and in education, which are the real long-term threats to our global competitiveness. If we simply cut services we are doing nothing about the underlying structural problems within the Australian economy. Just recently the Secretary of the Treasury, Martin Parkinson, expressed a similar view, that if we are going to meet our commitments to provide these critical services we cannot ignore the issue of government revenue. And what better place to start, if we are serious about the end of the 'age of entitlement', the end of corporate welfare, than by abolishing the huge handouts that go to rent-seeking industries in the economy? What about the cheap fuel that Gina Rinehart and the mining industry get in the form of the diesel fuel rebate? Rather than investing billions into the private health insurance sector, why not invest that directly into public health? Let us have a big debate about the issue of tax concessions in this country like the huge concessions that go to superannuation and other sectors of the economy. It might not appear on the annual budget figures, but we do know that these enormous tax expenditures cost us billions and strip money away from the services that Australians want. If we are serious about addressing these long-term challenges, we cannot afford to ignore the huge handouts that go to big business and other areas of the economy that do nothing except widen the huge gap in this country between the haves and the have-nots.

In the end the budget is about this simple proposition: what is the measure of a decent, caring society? What is it that defines the Australia that we want to live in? In the view of the Greens it is straightforward. We want a quality healthcare system that everyone can afford, not just those people on high incomes. We want every child in this country to be able to access a decent education and to further their prospects through universities. We do not want to see a huge gap between the rich and the poor and we want to see our natural environment protected. We do not subscribe to this dog-eat-dog agenda of this government. We do not want a world where it is everyone for themselves and where if you are lucky enough to be born into wealth and privilege, good luck to you, you deserve more of it and, if not, tough luck. That is why we will be here fighting every minute of every day to make sure that these changes in the budget that affect ordinary Australians do not see the light of day.