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Thursday, 25 August 1994
Page: 408

Senator TAMBLING (4.50 p.m.) —I move:

  That the Senate—

  (a)condemns the Government for its fiscal irresponsibilities and mismanagement resulting in the Reserve Bank of Australia's decision to raise official interest rates higher and sooner than would otherwise be necessary;

  (b)notes the Government's disregard of evidence that Australia's home finance market has continued its slowdown over recent months;

  (c)deplores the Government's approval of the Reserve Bank of Australia's decision to increase the risk weighting for home loans where equity is less than 20 per cent and its consequent affect on low income earners; and

  (d)expresses concern at the Government's lack of understanding and compassion for the housing needs of Australian families.

It is with regret that I move this motion. I focus on the key words in it. Firstly, it condemns irresponsible mismanagement; secondly, it notes the government's disregard of evidence; thirdly, it deplores the government's approval of changes in the basis on which home loans are to be granted and; lastly, it expresses concern at the government's lack of understanding and compassion.

  Unfortunately, we have seen a situation far too often, time and again in this parliament, where the government demonstrates its public brawling between factions over how to manipulate one minister or another or how to change things around. A perfect example, of course, has been that of the manoeuvring over the last few days of the Leader of the Government in the Senate, the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Senator Gareth Evans, who is widely tipped by many people as a future Labor leader in Australia, a future Prime Minister. The manipulation, which has been going on with regard to a Victorian lower house seat, has preoccupied and distracted the government from its central focus.

  This particular motion pays regard to what the government should be concentrating on and what the agenda items set by the Labor Party should be. They are fiscal management and responsibility and, from my portfolio interest areas in particular, the interest rates that affect families and young people looking for housing throughout Australia. We need to ask why there is such an obsession with this constant game of musical chairs that seems to be being played within the Labor Party and within the government. Whether or not the Labor Party is, in fact, grooming Senator Evans for leadership ought not to be the major concern and preoccupation.

  If honourable senators watched the manoeuvring of the Prime Minister, Mr Keating, with regard to this week's antics involving Senator Evans, they would really have to ask how long he contemplates staying in that top position of management. Here is a Prime Minister, who—prior to taking that position in the midnight horrors of several years ago from his predecessor, Mr Hawke—for a number of years before that had the controls of the finances of this nation as the Treasurer. He moved out as Treasurer for a short period because he could not live comfortably with someone else. He then did deals behind the back door and came in. It was interesting to watch the interplay this week between Mr Keating and Senator Evans. Honourable senators, therefore, have to ask questions about the motives of the Prime Minister himself. Is he getting ready, perhaps, to vacate the chair? These are areas in which questions should be asked.

  I go back to the relevance of this particular motion. The Reserve Bank's annual report was tabled in parliament yesterday. It warned the government that its deficit reduction target was not good enough, that its deficit was too high and that the government must curtail its spending. That report really does bear close scrutiny. The report and financial statements of 1994 for the Reserve Bank of Australia cover a whole range of issues and look very critically, both at the role of government and that of the community and looked at the issues that arise throughout this debate. I remind the Senate that that annual report called on the government to run a more sensible, responsible, fiscal policy and to lower the deficit in a meaningful way. What is the government doing? It is simply ignoring the warnings.

  The Minister for Finance, Mr Beazley, claimed that the Reserve Bank was satisfied with the government's deficit reduction strategy. So it would now appear that the government is in great disarray. The Minister for Finance is obviously off side with the Governor of the Reserve Bank, Mr Bernie Fraser. So, again, we have to come back and to look at what is preoccupying Mr Beazley. What are his distractions? We know that a month or so ago he was taking a public position with regard to the court actions of the former West Australian Premier, Mr Brian Burke, who had been disgraced. So we have the Minister for Finance with Labor Party internal distractions and areas of confusion.

  Another example of the confusions that are distracting many of these ministers from their core area of financial responsibility was the extensive debate we had in this chamber yesterday with regard to the three-mine uranium policy. The Australian Democrats came into this place with some sort of mystical solution of wanting to maintain a three-mine uranium policy that confused both the government and ourselves for debating purposes. We certainly could not understand their deviation from the principled position they had previously taken. I commend the Greens for sticking to their principles yesterday in that debate. The Democrats obviously caved in to this ALP distraction, this area of mood playing; they are just another faction of the Labor Party distracting the ministers of the crown. But that debate showed us the hypocrisy of the government in the way in which it then voted in this place.

  In the past few weeks we have seen the Minister for Defence, Senator Robert Ray, and the Minister for Primary Industries and Energy, Senator Collins, take very public positions on uranium mining. They have taken positions different from those they both took years ago, but obviously they see the need to change. They see the need to but they do not stick consistently with any decent argument.

  Let me take honourable senators back again to the motion and my focus, not only on finance but also on the housing area And what of the role of the Deputy Prime Minister, the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Community Services, Mr Brian Howe? During the debates of the last month, which have been so crucial with regard to rising interest rates, where has there been one word of mention by Mr Howe, wearing either the hat of the Deputy Prime Minister or the minister for housing? Where has his contribution been on behalf of the constituency that he is the minister for—housing?

  There was not one word; there was not one press release. There was no participation whatsoever. Here is the second most senior Labor minister in this parliament with the constituency specifically responsible for housing not having the courage to stand up. Why? Very obviously, Mr Howe has been stranded, not only by his own faction, the socialist left wing of the Labor Party, but his opposition—if there has been any—to the official interest rate rise has fallen on deaf ears.

  I remind the government senators in this place what the statement of Labor Party policy, its last election policy, had to say on this issue. It said:

Labor affirms the basic importance of home ownership and will keep inflation and interest rates under control.

In order to enable more Australians to gain access to home ownership, Labor will allow all home buyers to fund up to 49% of the deposit for a home from their accumulated superannuation savings.

Ha, ha! That was a deliberately broken promise not long ago. It continues:

Labor is committed to keeping home purchase within the reach of those who want to buy their own home and to keeping mortgage repayments at affordable levels.

Labor is particularly committed to enable low income households who are in a position to buy their own home to do so.

What absolute hypocrisy! That statement is one which this government went to the election on; it is one that the Minister for Housing and Regional Development and Deputy Prime Minister (Mr Howe) does not now even stand behind in any debate when we focus on this important area of interest rates.

  Increases in mortgage rates will mean that all Australians who are buying or renting their homes will be hard hit. It is a very regressive move. It will adversely affect first home buyers and impact on the similarly important area of mortgage insurance costs. The changes will impact on low income households with limited finances and those who have difficulty in finding a deposit. Those households will become less attractive to the bank. I would have thought that Labor would have adopted this particular area of housing constituency as a natural constituency. But it is very obviously being ignored and overridden for crass reasons of personal power games between ministers.

  Labor's lack of action will now force low to middle income first home buyers to gain access to housing primarily through the operation of state housing authority home finance programs. What does that do? If we move people in middle income groups into the public housing arena and constituency, this then impacts on those in most need that the public housing authorities ought to be serving, by just blowing out the waiting lists. I asked a question at last year's estimates which showed that around Australia there were well over a quarter of a million Australians on public housing waiting lists. I will recheck that figure in a couple of months time; I will revisit it. I will be very keen to see what has consequently happened in these particular areas. This process that the government is going through will certainly affect building contractors, their subbies and the jobs of thousands of people employed in the construction industry.

  Just look for a moment at the key figures on housing. If we go to the seasonally adjusted May key figures, we see that the number of dwellings financed declined by 4.6 per cent; construction of dwellings declined by 8.6 per cent; the purchase of established dwellings declined by 3.9 per cent. Then a month later we have the June key figures of housing finance seasonally adjusted: the number of dwellings financed declined by 6.6 per cent; construction of dwellings declined by 4.2 per cent; the purchase of established dwellings declined by 6.9 per cent; the purchase of new dwellings declined by 10.7 per cent. These figures confirm that there was no urgency in the dampening of housing finance. The figures suggest that growth in home lending has plateaued and that a slowdown is emerging, and confirm that housing finance has already peaked. The home lending boom was only partly due to the upturn in the housing market.

  I would like to go to the declarations of interest of all the ministers of this Labor government. I would challenge a couple of journalists to do a bit of homework in this area and go through and read those declarations of interest with regard to the established homes of ministers and the established mortgages of particular interests to see how many of them will be hard hit by these particular interest rates. From my recollection, the last time I looked through those declarations of interest most of these ministers already had their homes substantially paid off, or did not have mortgages in that particular area, or had reached other financial accords. Therefore, it is an example again of the real hypocrisy of how this affects so many people.

  The growing incidence of refinancing old home loans in order to benefit from low interest rates has influenced figures since the rates started falling in 1991. The Australian Bureau of Statistics estimates that up to 15 per cent of home lending represents refinancing of existing loans—but maybe it is higher. The market is not overheating. A lot of this funding is a consolidation of home loans to incorporate personal loans: cars, boats and, probably very specifically because of the economy in Australia at the moment, the dire plight of so many families that need additional finance.

  Another source of housing loan finance, of course, is the area of small business, which must also look at this particular issue. It is so very obvious that confusion reigns in the economic markets because of the ALP's total lack of concern with regard to the economy.

  Let us again just focus on the ministers and what has been preoccupying them away from concentrating on the important issues that have been highlighted by this particular motion and that challenge them to look at their responsibilities with regard to financing and the impact on housing. Mr Keating has a nice government-provided home just up the hill, called the Lodge. Everything is provided in that regard. However, as honourable senators would recall from recent media attention, he cannot even manage the petty cash tin at the Lodge with regard to the provision for staff of the Lodge. What sort of management expertise does he build in this area?

  Of course, Mr Keating has shown in recent days that he has no sympathy whatsoever for the rural sector and the people who have been caught up in drought. But months ago we saw plenty of sympathy when it was matters which impacted upon horticulture and had a direct relation to piggery interests—very much did that come out. His dealings last week at the COAG conference in Darwin certainly did not in any way go down the path of helping families throughout Australia. Similarly, all of his dealing in land with regard to native title and Mabo is very pious and obviously designed to make him look like some sort of a charismatic leader opening up new areas. But it is not delivering homes for average Australians throughout the country.

  For the past couple of years my Senate colleague from the Northern Territory, Senator Collins, has been constantly torpedoed in all areas of the waterfront, shipping, the Australian National Line, telecommunications, media, civil aviation, the Federal Airports Corporation and, more recently, in his portfolio of primary industry; in each and every one of those he has been a failure. There have been constant problems brought out in each and every one of these particular areas.

  Minister Brereton, one would have thought, would have understood the principles of privatisation and industrial relations. But his whole area is caught up in confusion and frustration and has no bearing whatsoever on the economic or financial impact in Australia.

  Minister Cook has been strangely silent for the past few months. There has been very little forthcoming; perhaps it has been because he has been away junketing around various areas of the world. I want to see some reports and results of those trips, if he has any. We have heard only today a few throwaway lines of his particular involvement with the Australian National Line, which is this catastrophe that now looks like costing over $200 million in accumulated losses. So we have to come back and say, `What's the bearing of that on financial administration and how it affects it?'

  I said in my earlier remarks that the Leader of the Government in this place, Senator Evans, has just been totally preoccupied with fighting off rearguard actions with regard to preselection with the party president, Mr Barry Jones. Fancy taking on the federal party president for preselection of some seat!

Senator Sherry —What has this to do with interest rates?

Senator TAMBLING —It has a lot to do with interest rates because it totally preoccupies all of the ministers, who get caught up in putting the knives into the back of Senator Evans, trying to take them out, or trying to put a blanket around him in some way, and not concentrating on their responsibilities at the cabinet table. Senator Robert Ray, the Minister for Defence, has been totally preoccupied. Defence is one of the biggest spending portfolio areas in Australia, billions and billions of dollars. His time is obviously not being spent on proper economic management. Instead, he is running around helping Senator Collins run a rearguard action on uranium—and I hope he is successful. But the other part of Senator Ray's job, of course, is again back to the Victorian numbers game. It is a matter of shuffling the pack, whether it is branch stacking with ethnic groups or whether it is again the preselection preoccupation. I would love to know the amount of time that Senator Ray has been deviated from the cabinet table, from the issues of finance that come back to economic management of Australia or housing. Then we have Senator Schacht and Senator Crowley, two South Australian ministers of the Crown, who are caught up—

Senator Sherry —It is all numbers.

Senator TAMBLING —Obviously in the Labor Party it is all numbers, just numbers, nothing else but numbers. What a pity it is not the numbers of finance; it is only the numbers of power that those opposite are obviously playing with.

Senator Sherry —What has this to do with it?

Senator TAMBLING —Senator Sherry is now just saying it is all just numbers to do with Schacht and Crowley. Yes, I think it must be. They are both South Australians; at the moment, they are both desperately fighting behind the scenes with each other for preselection in their own home camp. What time does Senator Crowley have, a person who normally deals in the issues of compassion and the social agenda? She must be away from the cabinet table just back in South Australia, garnisheeing up and getting the numbers for the preselection fight.

  Senator Schacht, who has always made an effort in the areas to do with science and technology, has been distracted away from the cabinet table. Dr Lawrence is a new minister of the Crown who has appeared on the scene. She has to clean up the mess of Medicare that she has inherited. But, back home in Western Australia, she is constantly running around deciding whether or not to appear in court as a character witness for Mr Burke or some of her predecessors. The government has to keep shuffling her around the pack.

  Mr Willis ought to be looking very carefully at the whole area of the changing FIRB rules, the involvement of foreign investment, and the impact that that will have on the national economy. But when do we ever hear from Mr Willis? Does anyone recall ever seeing a cartoon letting us know that he has done something that someone might want to make an issue about. Mr Willis has obviously got stuck in the trench somewhere.

  In the whole of area of native title—its impact on development and the government's being in disarray over the issue—we see a constant hodgepodging together of Mr Tickner, Mr Walker, Mr Keating and Mr Brereton. These four are always around behind the scenes, one way or another, patching up the issues relating to Aboriginal land issues and not looking at the focus of development on Aboriginal land for the benefit of Aboriginal people in relation to mining royalties or whatever.

   I want to see something meaningful flowing from the trade areas which are the responsibility of the new Minister for Trade, Senator McMullan, and Senator Cook. Instead, Senator McMullan is very obviously running around the ACT making sure that the ALP's concentration of funds for its private coffers from Centenary House for the Labor Party's headquarters are properly in order so that the ALP can enjoy the largess of millions and millions of taxpayers' funds flowing through rent to the ALP. That is the sort of budget control and fiscal responsibility that these ministers are constantly bringing to the fore.

  I have not yet had the time to sit down and read Bob Hawke's book. I am looking forward to doing so when I have some time. I also want to look at the psychology of what he is exposing on many of these issues.

Senator Sherry —Mr Acting Deputy President, I raise a point of order. I ask for your ruling on the grounds of relevance. We have had at least seven to 10 minutes of background description of a variety of ministers, the Prime Minister, and now former prime Minister Hawke's book. What does this have to do with notice of motion No. 966 moved by Senator Tambling? He should come back to the central issue that he is supposedly attempting to develop, the issue of interest rates. He is clearly not doing that.

Senator O'Chee —Mr Acting Deputy President, on the point of order: Senator Tambling is in fact speaking to the motion because the motion states, amongst other things:

. . . the Government's disregard of evidence that Australia's home finance market has continued its slowdown over recent months;

Anybody who is aware of the economic situation in this country would know that. Senator Tambling is advancing the reason why the government is unaware of the parlous state of the home market in this country, and that is that the government is distracted by other things. I believe he is exactly on point.

  The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT (Senator Teague)—I have listened to the two senators on the point of order that Senator Sherry has raised. Senator Sherry rightly appeals to a requirement in our standing orders that, when there is a motion before the chamber, senators address the elements of that motion. Senator Tambling's motion that is before us has four parts to it. I do not find that the point of order is sustained, but I appeal to Senator Tambling and at the same to all senators that, if they wish to refer to things such as a recent book or whatever, they should note which part of the motion they are referring to and, in their argument, relate their material to one of the propositions that is in the motion. On that ground, I ask Senator Tambling to continue.

Senator TAMBLING —I take note of your comments, Mr Acting Deputy President, and return to the core of the motion, which states:

(a) condemns the Government for its fiscal irresponsibilities and mismanagement . . .

(b) notes the Government's disregard of evidence . . .

Part (c) deplores the government's approval of the conditions that relate to housing. The final part states:

(d) expresses concern at the Government's lack of understanding and compassion . . .

What I was developing very clearly in the debate was that the ministers of the Labor government have lost the plot. In each of the issues that I have brought out I was very clearly demonstrating that probably a majority of the members of the federal ministry have not been concentrating on the issues that are so very importantly highlighted in this motion.

  How can ministers give due regard to fiscal responsibility? How can they give full responsibility to the management of the country? How can they give regard to the home financing arrangements of average Australian families or the conditions of those arrangements? How can they express concern when they are constantly spending their time in total distraction from the issues of economic and financial management?

  I find it incomprehensible that Senator Sherry cannot understand that there is very valid argument in each of the parts of the motion put forward. It probably would be interesting to list each and every other member of the ministry and look at where they have spent the last two months to see what they have been concentrating on.

  As we know from the report of the Reserve Bank that was tabled yesterday, these criticisms have been backed up. We only have to read the media. I can assure those opposite that I, as shadow minister for housing, deal with people all round Australia concerned about renting of housing, the provision of housing, access to funds, and all of those areas. It is very proper that my motion dwells on this particular point, and the government must bear the blame.