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Wednesday, 10 October 1984
Page: 1558

Senator ROBERT RAY(3.32) —I hope that rather dreary dirge from Senator Chaney is not a preliminary policy speech because if it is we are in for one of the dullest campaigns in history. It is interesting that this matter of public importance of such an unspecific nature has come up because it is rather typical of the shotgun approach of members of the Liberal Party of Australia. At the moment they are struggling to actually come in on any particular issue and therefore try to hit 10 or 12. They always say: 'Unfortunately time prevents us from exploring these particular matters'. This matter of public importance is about the wrong direction Labor is taking Australia. I think any rational debate on this particular subject would require us to have a look at the direction in which we are going.

In spite of Senator Chaney's obvious reluctance to discuss the economy, I would like to mention some of the facts that have gone on in the last 20 months. First of all, I draw the Senate's attention to what members of the Australian public at least think about it. In the most recent Age poll they were asked the question: 'Which party is better able to manage the economy'? They did not reply 'The one that is lucky' as Senator Chaney would say. He would say: 'It is all luck'. The result was: A total of 54 per cent believe that the Australian Labor Party is the best economic manager and only 25 per cent believe that the Liberal Party is the best economic manager. One might ask why.

Let us look at some of the highlights of employment over the last 20 months. In the last 20 months 250,000 new jobs have been created. I do not say that the Government always takes the credit for every job that is created, but 150,000 fewer are unemployed now than in early 1983 and we have a 4 per cent positive annual growth rate in employment compared with a negative rate under the Liberal Party. When we move to the second great economic indicator of inflation, we have halved inflation in this country while we have been in office, that is even if we leave apart the adjustments made for the introduction of Medicare. We are in a position whereby by halving inflation our international competitiveness has improved and all sections of the community have benefited. At the moment we happen to have the fastest rate of economic growth in the Western world, at over 6 per cent. That again is of benefit to the Australian community.

On the vexed question of interest rates, we have managed to reduce interest rates to about 11 per cent. They got up to almost 17 per cent under the previous Government. By reducing interest rates this, in turn, has increased private investment. There have been increases in the building area and increased retail sales. As well as that, we have managed-when this chamber has permitted in its limited way-to attack tax evasion and tax avoidance. At the moment consumer and business confidence is high. All that is not a matter of regret for members of the Opposition. They were in an awkward position. They are really barracking for two sides. I am sure in their heart of hearts they would like the economy to improve because they have the best interests of Australia at heart. On the other hand, their own political fortunes are directly related to the economy. If the economy turns sour, they do well. If the economy does well, they tend to do badly. So they are caught betwixt and between.

This Government took the plunge and inflated the Australian dollar and no one on the opposite side is critical about that any more. It has taken all the speculation out and the country is far better off for it. Where necessary, we have deregulated parts of the banking industry and that, again, has proved very successful. We have been able to bring about substantial tax cuts for the lower and middle income earners and we restructured the tax scales. This year we have even managed to reduce the deficit which was brought about last year predominantly by the previous Liberal government. So in the area of the economy this Government has performed well. Senator Chaney says: 'It is luck. That is all it is'. It is more than that. We have managed to bring about those gains and retain them. One of the reasons we have been able to retain those sorts of economic aims is because of our industrial relations policy. I would just like to correct something. Senator Chaney comes in here and says that the Labor Party 's industrial relations policy is in fact drawn up and foisted on us by the Amalgamated Metals, Foundry and Shipwrights Union which, in turn, proves we are really going to become Peronists. The fact is that I happen to be the national convenor of the policy committee that wrote our industrial policy.

Senator Chaney —No, industry policy.

Senator ROBERT RAY —The honourable senator said 'industrial policy'. Unfortunately there are no members of the metal workers union on that committee. If one wants to go to the industry committee-that is the committee which drew up the policy-there are no members of the metal workers union on that particular committee either. So much for the honourable senator's assertions there. On the question of industrial relations, there is no doubt that the prices and incomes accord has been successful. There is no point in achieving indexed wages and reduced inflation if, in turn, all those gains will be dissipated by industrial lawlessness. It is a fact that, once averaged out, we have had the lowest rate of industrial disputation for something like 15 years. Senator Chaney said that July was a bad month. I accept that, but that is one month out of 12 months and we do not really know where the trend is going, but the previous month, June, was one of the lowest we have ever had. So the rate of industrial disputation has been heading down and the country has benefited by it.

This Government has taken this country in the direction of a whole range of things. We have had industrial reconstruction, there has been close attention to the steel industry and a car reconstruction plan. In our 20 months in office we have managed to bring about the most substantial electoral reform since the early 1900s. We have been able to set new areas and new gains in the social welfare area and we have been able to introduce equal opportunity and sex discrimination legislation. We have been able to bring about all those reforms in just 20 months. That is the direction we have taken this country. We have to ask: What direction will the Liberals take us? We remember the years of misery, despair and economic malaise that existed from 1975 to 1983. We really have to remind the electorate of the misery of those particular years when unemployment sky-rocketed, interest rates went through the roof and we continually had double digit inflation. Australia should not return to those sorts of years.

I think I have a rough idea of the sort of direction that Senator Chaney and the Liberal Party would like to take us down. What they yearn for is the return to conservative hegemony in Government in this country. No longer do we have the patronage of conservative governments, no longer do we tolerate the born to rule mentality. Senator Chaney comes in here and infers that we are going down the Peronist path. I would hate to imagine the path that Malcolm Fraser would have eventually taken us down if he had survived in 1983. In the last year in office in 1983 the previous Government had a 3 per cent decline in employment. Is that the road, is that the direction Opposition senators want the Government to go down? The previous Government had almost 11 per cent unemployment at the start of 1983. Is that where we have gone wrong? Is that the direction we should be taking, the direction of the last Fraser Government? In the financial year 1981- 82 we had an inflation rate of 10.4 per cent. Did we take the wrong direction when we started reducing that inflation rate? In 1982-83 we had an 11.5 per cent inflation rate. Did we go wrong? Did we take Australia in the wrong direction by reducing that by half? Of course we did not.

Senator Chaney and the Liberal Party come in here today and say that the Labor Party, for all sorts of ephemeral reasons, is taking this country in the wrong direction. In what direction would the Liberals take us? Apart from talking about a return to traditional standards, standards that one can never define usually, apart from that sort of waffle, in what direction would members of the Liberal Party take us? They cannot tell us because they basically do not have any policies. The reason why members of the Liberal Party have not any policies is that they are not used to opposition. I am not very sympathetic to that point of view. Honourable senators opposite are not used to being in opposition and they are not used to working out how to come back into government. They are used to winning and they are used to governing in this country. They have not applied themselves in the last 20 months towards developing policies that they can put to the electorate to try to convince the electorate that they deserve a second chance, even given the failure of the previous seven years of Liberal government .

Their problems do not stop only at policy; their problems stop at leadership. They have difficulty at the moment in wondering what their future direction is, whether they have been taken in the right direction. In recent weeks they have tried to whip up all sorts of issues and they all seem to have died. The popularity of the leader of the Liberal Party is down to 22 per cent. When a leader's popularity drops below 40 per cent we always regard that as going into the basement. I would hate to think what 22 per cent means. I cannot think up a term for it. But that is a fairly serious thing for honourable senators opposite . What they are really facing, going into this next election, is that the person who is making policy on the run will have a popularity rating in the order of 22 per cent.

I wish to go to some of the more specific points raised by Senator Chaney. His first complaint was that the Australian Labor Party is going to an early election. He very conveniently ignored the fact that seven prior early elections were called, for which the Liberal Party of Australia was responsible. Let me quickly take honourable senators through those elections. He complained that this Government was going to an early election. In 1951 the then Liberal Prime Minister, Sir Robert Menzies, had no hesitation at all in taking this country to an early election. Honourable senators might ask: 'Why did we go to an early election?' Primarily because Sir Robert Menzies then wanted to get control of the Senate, so we had a double dissolution for that purpose. The next early election was in 1955, again called by Sir Robert Menzies. The intention there was to maximise the political position of the conservative parties, having narrowly avoided defeat in 1954, and capitalise on a Labor Party split that occurred in 1955.

The next early election came in 1963, again one year before it was necessary and again for politically expedient reasons. The Liberal Menzies Government was almost defeated in 1961. It saw an improving economic climate and it saw one or two foreign affairs issues that it could exploit, so we had another early election brought about by the Liberal Party-the same Liberal Party of which honourable senators opposite are the heirs. The next early election occurred, if I am right, in 1974, again caused by the Liberal Party blocking Supply in this chamber. So we had another early election. The next early election was in 1975, again as a result of the Liberal Party blocking Supply. Not one honourable senator opposite complained about those early elections. Can any honourable senator on that side say that he or she complained about any of those early elections that I have mentioned? I see Senator Chaney nod.

Senator Chaney —It is true; yes, I did.

Senator ROBERT RAY —Unfortunately I never noted that but I will accept the honourable senator's word. Maybe we do have one person opposite who complained about those early elections. In 1977 we had another early election. The main reason for that early election, apart from that of political expediency, was to bring the election of the two chambers into line; a very similar reason for this current election and very similar motives, I have no doubt, to those leading to the 1977 election. But, to my knowledge, no one on the other side of the chamber complained about an early election. Finally, in 1983, for the seventh time in just on 32 years, another early election was called. But this one, unlike all the others, proved to be the all-time disaster. We could not have had worse timing for that early election. The drought broke about a month later and, if anything, the international economic situation was on the improve. Allied with good government that brought about today's position.

It is no use Senator Chaney coming into this chamber and complaining about an early election at this time. I have said here once before that, having to put up with seven early elections being foisted on us by the Liberal Party, just once in history we are allowed the opportunity, in my view, to be lucky and to go to an election that may occur in a favourable environment. The real reason why the Liberals are so distraught at an early election is that the Labor Party will cream them at the upcoming polls. We will be returned, I think, with a similar or a better majority in the House of Representatives and a relative position will at least be maintained in this chamber. What that means for those opposite is another three years in opposition. That is something that they really are not looking forward to.

The second major point made by Senator Chaney related to how the economy was going. He said that he did not want a detailed debate on the economy. How many detailed debates on the economy have we had in this chamber in the last 20 months? Very few. We have had more debates on videos, flags, the assets test and all the basic irrelevancies than on the main issues that affect all Australians. We virtually do not have those sorts of debates in this place. I can understand why, when the opportunity presents itself to the Opposition to initiate those sorts of debates, it does not. It is not our responsibility to initiate economic debates; it is the responsibility of the Opposition.

Senator Chaney then went on to say that this Government was not encouraging thrift and savings. He did not really explore that so I must say that I am finding it rather difficult to grasp what he meant. He went on to say that this Government does not believe in personal responsibility. That is not true. What we do not believe in is personal irresponsibility. We do not believe in leaving the citizens of this country unprotected. He talked about the Labor Party as being in some way against individuals and for corporations. I think that is a fairly outrageous statement, given the history of previous Liberal governments in this country. They are always good at espousing the rights of individuals until they decide to introduce conscription and have them killed overseas. Then individualism means nothing. Anyone who protests against that sort of individualism can be gaoled. So much for the views of those opposite on individualism.

As I have said, this matter of public importance amounts to a dress rehearsal for a policy speech. If it is, from one point of view I welcome it. If that is the best the Opposition can do I will have a very relaxing election campaign in the next seven weeks. But it also worries me that, if that is the best the Opposition can do, this Government, when it is re-elected in December, cannot look forward to the Opposition it deserves. No matter what honourable senators opposite say, the worst thing for government in this country is to have a weak and inept Opposition. That is what I think we are tending to have at the moment and we have tended to have in the last 20 months. It looks as though we will have a rerun of that situation in the next three years. It is not good for the country. On occasions when the Labor Party has been depleted in ranks and ability it has also failed to make a proper contribution for the future of this country by providing an inept and incompetent Opposition. We have done it; I admit that. It has occurred historically. When it has the country has been worse off for it. This matter of public importance and the nature in which it has been approached today demonstrates to me that we are in a similar situation. I know it is very patronising for anyone on the Government side to tell the Opposition to lift its game. But if that has to be done in a patronising way so be it.