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Tuesday, 17 March 1987
Page: 787

Senator RICHARDSON(5.08) —We have heard another long debate on housing loan interest rates today. We heard a similar debate on 26 February. I acknowledge the importance of the issue and I cannot complain about its being debated. Asked whether it should be the subject for another matter of public importance, one would have to say: `Why not?'. It is an important issue. But that does not answer the question why it should be referred to the Standing Committee on Finance and Government Operations. I have not come across a more stupid reference in a long time, and there have been some pretty stupid ones of late. If one examines the wording of this motion one will notice the little sting in the tail in paragraph (2), which states:

That the Committee report to the Senate on or before 1 April 1987.

That certainly suggests to me that this motion is no more than a joke. No one in the Opposition, or in the Australian Democrats, can expect the Committee to complete the reference by that date or even to have attempted to look at it by that date. It simply is not on. I served on that Committee in the first term of the Hawke Government. It is obviously an interesting Committee but it is one that has a very heavy work load. When I was on it I recall that we looked at statutory authorities, the Superannuation Fund Investment Trust and its performance, we looked at the financial arrangements between the Northern Territory Government and the Federal Government-all important facets of government operations. But never before have we attempted to make the Standing Committee on Finance and Government Operations a macroeconomic committee. Never before have we said to it: `Here is a reference on the future of the country, the direction of the economy. Here are the problems, you solve them'. If one listens to Senator Archer the reference would be the direction of the world economy. This Committee obviously is not set up to do that. With the work load it has with the things it is already examining how does anyone seriously expect the Committee in two weeks, by 1 April 1987, even with Senator Coates's ability and capacity as Chairman, to get through its work load? It is obviously a stunt. It can be nothing else. In listening to the speeches that is confirmed for us.

We just had Senator Archer read a long speech on housing loan interest rates. He asked us lots of questions. It was all very interesting but it had nothing to do with a reference to this Committee. He was just taking another opportunity to debate the issue. Sooner or later the Senate has to take a serious look at these committees, because if we continue to make stupid references of this kind we will tie up too many senators in useless and extravagant exercises. This Committee is not equipped to do it, it does not have the staff to do it, and it cannot do it. Sooner or later we have to work out just how much taxpayers' money we want to waste on these sorts of stunts before we realise that we cannot get results from the kinds of inquiries that are being proposed. There are great and important issues that can be referred to Senate committees but this issue is totally inappropriate and stupid.

If one looks at the debate today, one has to acknowledge that no one spoke about the capacity of the Committee to examine anything. Let us look at the document from Dr Hawkins that we are referring to. It does not represent Government policy, but honourable senators opposite want to find out all about the document and about the Government's attitude to it. I can save them the time and expense of having an inquiry; the Government rejects Dr Hawkins's opinion for all the reasons it has given. Honourable senators opposite do not need to have Senator Coates and his colleagues inquire at length into it. I can give them the answer now. Of course, the answer was given on 26 February and no doubt we will be forced to give it again and again over the next few weeks as the issue is continually raised.

As for Dr Hawkins, I have not attacked him, nor would I seek to. I would have thought that it was simply a matter of looking at what information was in his possession at the time. On 13 February when he prepared the document he could not possibly have known that the Government was about to introduce a May economic statement. I did not know that and, Mr Deputy President, presumably at the time you did not know that. I do not think anyone knew that; so Dr Hawkins could not have known that. Slashing government spending, and the Government's acknowledgment that more government expenditure has to be cut, I think has had a tremendous effect on the dollar, which in turn will have a tremendous effect on interest rates. One wonders how Dr Hawkins could have been in possession of that knowledge. He could not have foreseen that with that announcement there would be such a dramatic recovery in such a short time for the Australian dollar. As I left the office to come down to the chamber the value of the dollar had almost hit US69c. It has been going up a great deal today and again that will have an effect on housing loan interest rates. These are things that Dr Hawkins, with whatever qualifications he has got, with all the best will in the world and with all the ability and capacity he may have, could not possibly have known.

I can understand why the Opposition would want to call on this debate. It is quite sensible for it to do so because it has a lot to divert attention from. It is fascinating to see four National Party of Australia senators in the chamber. I saw Senator Boswell come in and give Senator Collard his instructions a few minutes ago, but what has happened to the Liberal Party of Australia senators? The Nationals are all in here hiding from the Press. They are not game to go outside into King's Hall because they will get ambushed by the journalists. The Liberals are all running around trying to work out who their next leader will be. That is why this debate has been called on today-simply to divert attention away from all of those problems. The Opposition has just so many problems. I can understand why the Nationals are hiding in here and particularly why Senator Collard is hiding in here-he had that embarrassment yesterday of having to back down. If I were Senator Collard I would be in here too.

There is now a Liberal member in the chamber. Senator Archer has come back to us; so I am glad to see one Liberal present. All the rest are out there counting heads. They are working out who their leader will be next week. In Senator Boswell's case he has to work out which party he will be in next week. Opposition senators have reasons to call on this debate, and I can understand those reasons. If Senator Collard follows me in this debate I hope he will explain what happened yesterday.

Going back to Dr Hawkins, one should look too at the information that he could not have had in mind. He could not have known that the trade figures which came out this morning would come in at $750m instead of the $1.3 billion of last month, that once again the market would have confidence and that once again that would be another impetus for interest rates to come down. All these developments I have mentioned must have a positive effect on interest rates, and on the collapse of the coalition. It looks more and more likely that the Hawke Government will be re-elected, the effect of which is to send the value of the dollar up and to send interest rates down. Quite obviously these are things that Dr Hawkins could not have known. I am not critical of him writing the opinion he wrote on 13 February; it is just pretty obvious that it could not happen now. I am sure that if Dr Hawkins wrote his opinion now he would have a different opinion.

Senator Robert Ray —Do you think his cold feet might have been warmed up?

Senator RICHARDSON —I have heard of that sort of thing happening lately, and it is possible. It is pretty clear that Dr Hawkins and others who had those views back in February will have to change them now because once again the Treasurer (Mr Keating) and the Prime Minister (Mr Hawke) have been proved right. Their policies have been proved right. Housing interest rates will take the right direction throughout the rest of this year, and it is as well that they should.

We will all find out who Senator Archer is going to vote for, but we want to know from Senator Chaney and Senator Archer just how they think they are going to get unanimity of Committee members on interest rates. If this Committee of Senator Coates can come up with a view any different from that of the chambers of parliament which have debated it for the last 90 years, I would have to say that I will be surprised. I suspect that the same sort of politicking will go on there as goes on everywhere else in the game that we play.

For all of those reasons I would have thought that we would all have to admit that all we have done today is give an extra excuse to have a debate on interest rates. If we are going to have a debate on interest rates, the first thing one has to acknowledge is that one cannot nominate a precise date on which interest rates will fall. I certainly cannot. In looking at the developments I have just outlined to the Senate, the Government is very confident that during the course of this year we will see some reduction in interest rates. Our policies and strategies are in place. On many occasions the Government, the Treasurer and the Prime Minister have stated that those strategies will work to bring about a recovery and that as we wait for them it is expected that interest rates will fall. The Prime Minister quoted a couple of months ago that he was cautiously optimistic about it.

I can provide to Senator Coates and to the Committee all of the statements of the Prime Minister and of the Treasurer. If I could find quotes from Senator Archer, I would even provide them. But the reality is that at the end of the day-at the end of the examination by the Committee-the Senate will be advanced nowhere, the Government will be advanced nowhere and the only thing that will have been achieved will be the halting of the Committee's deliberations and the stopping of it finishing the reports that Senator Coates and his colleagues have been working on for months. It is just not worth while. The Senate and its members, no matter what party they belong to, have to understand that if the committee system is to function properly numbers cannot be used in this chamber to bring about farcical situations such as I can unfortunately see happening today.