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Wednesday, 17 November 2004
Page: 29

Senator FIFIELD (10:24 AM) —I second the motion and thank the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Government in the Senate for the opportunity to do so. Mr Acting Deputy President Ferguson, I ask you to imagine—because I know you have a good imagination—that you have just been appointed chief executive of one of Australia's largest organisations and your chief financial officer comes to you and says, `Look, boss, I've got some good news and I've got some bad news. The good news is that you're our new CEO and you've got a great new team. It's going to be a terrific challenge for you; congratulations. The bad news is we have accrued $96 billion in debt. We have an annual interest bill of $8 billion. We have an operating deficit of $10 billion. We have no register of assets. We're not sure if we have too many staff or too few staff. We're not even sure what our core business is. The previous management didn't exactly practise full or continuous disclosure and our customers don't think they get value for money. And things are only projected to get worse.'

That was effectively the situation that the Prime Minister and the coalition faced when first elected to office. That was the context of the then Governor-General's speech to the opening of the 38th Parliament in 1996. The easy thing then would have been to do little and to manage a steady but certain decline. The `do nothing' scenario would have been easy but it would not have been responsible. The coalition government has chosen over its eight years to direct and to lead rather than merely to preside. The government had to make some tough decisions for Australia's future. It is because of those decisions that we have a sound budget and a strong economy and that we can fund a good social policy.

His Excellency delivered his opening speech yesterday at a historic time in the life of this chamber and this parliament. It is a very different economy than it was in 1996 and it is a very different parliament. From next year, for the first time in almost 25 years, the federal government will have a majority of senators in this place and the opportunity to implement a wide-ranging plan. As a result of the Australian public bestowing a government majority in both houses the Governor-General's speech has been transformed. It has been transformed from a government wish list, certain to be opportunistically attacked by the Labor Party, into a legislative agenda that will be implemented.

The Senate will act as a chamber that ensures the elected government honours its commitments rather than as one that periodically seeks to break them. For the past three terms the government has negotiated with Labor and minor party senators with varying degrees of success. Vital reforms such as the new tax system were indeed achieved with the input of the Australian Democrats; however, legislation to reform workplace relations in Australia has been denied by Labor and the minor parties. Much has been achieved without a majority in the Senate, but certainly not all that could or should have been achieved. As a result, the work of the first three terms of this government is incomplete and there are new challenges to be met.

In 1996 no-one could have predicted the prominence of national security on our agenda or the role Australia is playing in global security. In 1996 we did not know what the challenges of today would be, and we do not know what the challenges of tomorrow will be. That is why we have to run a responsible government, responsible budgets and a strong economy—because we just do not know the challenges of tomorrow. We must always be prepared. It is also why we must press ahead with the measures rejected by Labor to address the intergenerational challenges we identified in 2002 and with a range of other measures blocked by Labor.

The election result confers a responsibility on the government but it also offers an opportunity to the opposition. It provides the opportunity, prior to 1 July next year, for Senator Evans to show that he and his team have learnt the lessons of the last election and of the previous three parliaments—the lesson from opposing every single measure designed to bring the budget back into balance, the lesson from opposing the new tax system, the lesson from opposing the intergenerational measures and the lesson from opposing improvements to private health insurance. Labor have the opportunity to demonstrate that they have heard and will heed the message from the Australian voting public. That message was that the Australian public want a strong economy and a sound budget. The electors made it clear that they understand that the only way to underpin a good social policy is with a good economic policy. It is only because of responsible budgets and good economic management that we have the capacity to fund good schools, good hospitals and a strong national defence.

But Australians have also indicated that they want choice in their lives—in schools, in healthcare, in the workplace and in raising children. Parties that threaten the economy, parties that threaten choice, will be rejected. The government has the right and the obligation to deliver its commitments as outlined in His Excellency's speech. The Australian Labor Party claim that they have got the message. Let the opposition demonstrate that in this chamber before 1 July 2005. Let them demonstrate that they have changed. Senator Evans comments at the weekend were far from encouraging, however. He told Meet the Press:

If they re-run some of the legislation which we've seen to be unfair, then we'll vote against it.

Let me paraphrase that. What Senator Evans was really saying was that if the government has the audacity to resubmit legislation that Labor have previously opportunistically opposed then Labor will opportunistically oppose it again. Too bad if the public have returned the government four times with a consistent agenda, too bad if the public have delivered a majority in both houses, too bad if the public intent is clear—nothing has been learned. Let Labor support the sale of the remainder of Telstra. Let Labor support unfair dismissal laws. Let Labor support voluntary student unionism. Let Labor support choice in education, support for technical schools, the 30 per cent child-care rebate and better private health insurance for over-65s. Let Labor support legislation that offers choice and incentive. Let them show that they have learned something.

I would like to touch briefly, in my remaining time, on four planks in the government's agenda. These are four ways that the other side of this chamber could demonstrate a better understanding of the wishes of the Australian people in the areas of freedom of association, choice in school education, choice in post-secondary education and allowing government to focus on its core business. The issue of voluntary student unionism on Australia's tertiary campuses is something of an article of faith for many on this side of the chamber. It goes to the fundamental principle that no-one should be compelled to join an association against their will. It is freedom of association. I commend Minister Nelson on introducing legislation into the last parliament that sought to outlaw compulsory student unionism on campuses. This legislation sought to forbid the requirement that a student join an association or union prior to enrolment.

The Australian Vice-Chancellors Committee recently proposed that this legislation, prior to reintroduction, be amended to draw a distinction between fees compulsorily levied for political purposes and those compulsorily levied for supposedly `essential' student services. I would argue that the only services that are essential to a student are those that relate directly to their study. The argument is put that essential services include medical, legal and child-care services. Yes, they are essential but they are no more essential to university students than to TAFE students or to full-time workers. All those services are available in the general community. If a service is worth while and wanted on campus, if there is a demand for it, let the university or the students association or the union convince the students.

We do not require HECS to be paid up-front, yet we allow universities to require compulsory up-front union dues as a prerequisite for even attending class. The whole rationale of HECS is that it is not required up-front so that lack of means is no barrier to entry. So why do we allow an up-front fee that is a barrier to entry? On this side of the chamber, we are rightly exercised by the $3.5 million of taxpayers' money that is fleeced by the Australian Labor Party over and above market rent on Centenary House. This pales into insignificance in comparison with the $150 million Australian university students are forced to pay in up-front union fees every year. It is inconsistent to allow a compulsory up-front fee to be levied that disproportionately affects potential students from low-income backgrounds. The Vice-Chancellors Committee proposal would fundamentally compromise the integrity of Minister Nelson's original legislation. It would maintain a barrier to entry and deny choice to students. Under this government, compulsory student unionism will be outlawed.

One of the issues I raised in my first speech in the Senate was the need to offer more variety and choice in secondary schooling, including the need to bring back technical colleges. For too long, success has been equated in our community with obtaining a university degree. We are in danger of reaching a point where there is almost a stigma attached to choosing an apprenticeship over a degree. We need to replace the prejudice that is there against apprenticeships, trades and vocational training with pride in skills and entrepreneurship. A trade is often the basis upon which people establish small businesses and turn them into larger enterprises which employ people.

A globalised economy makes it imperative that we maintain our competitive edge across all sectors of the economy. World-class architects need world-class bricklayers and world-class plumbers to bring their visions to reality. The bias against apprenticeships means that Australia faces a crippling skills shortage in a range of areas. As the economy grows, as unemployment declines, these vacancies are exacerbated. Skills shortages already exist in areas such as metals, automotives, construction, carpentry, hairdressing, restaurants and catering.

We can no longer afford to leave the critical task of reskilling the work force to the vagaries of state Labor governments. Unlike state and federal Labor parties, which are obsessed with the completion of year 12, the coalition recognises that the curriculum taught in comprehensive secondary schools in years 11 and 12 does not meet the interests or needs of all students. The coalition supports the rights of young Australians who choose vocational education and training to meet their goals. The coalition is going to facilitate choice in education by establishing 24 Australian technical colleges providing world-class academic and skills training to talented young Australians in years 11 and 12. Education cannot and should not be one size fits all. As a government that is emphatically committed to providing choice, we want to make sure that young Australians—whether they choose to go to university or to technical college—can fulfil their ambitions.

This government remains committed to choice in education. Nowhere was the philosophical difference between Labor and the coalition more stark in the last election than in the area of schools. The coalition believes that parents should be able to choose which schools their children attend. Those parents should also expect that their taxes would support their children's education regardless of whether they chose a public or an independent school. Parents who make financial sacrifices to send their children to an independent school should not be penalised.

We should never allow government action to be driven by envy or build policy on class warfare, least of all when it involves our children. There are elements of class envy every time you hear Labor speak about schools funding or independent schools. You hear class and you hear envy in their voices. Labor's policy on schools funding is an attack on schools that achieve high academic results and that promote values that parents want. Labor wants to attack opportunity and choice and then cloak its actions in the language of equity. But remove that cloaking and the truth is that if you send a child to a public school it costs the taxpayers about $9,000. If you send a child to an independent school it could cost as little as $2,000. Trying to shift students from private schools to public schools is more of a burden on the taxpayer than encouraging parents to make their own choices. There is no equity in that.

Fundamentally, ALP policy is a costly battle for control—to give control of children's education to teacher unions and state bureaucracy by weakening competition and restricting choice. The coalition has eschewed, and will continue to eschew, the politics of punishment and envy and instead practises the politics of opportunity and choice. Parents not only have the right to choice but also have the right to knowledge about the progress of their children. That is something that this government will do by continuing to support testing against national standards in numeracy, literacy, civics, citizenship, science and technology. It is why we will ensure as a condition of funding to the states and territories that student report cards are in plain English. This information will be available to parents, as will comparisons between performances in schools, so that parents can make meaningful decisions about what is best for their children.

In order for government to concentrate on its core activities it needs to get out of those ventures that are not fundamental, like running phone companies. The more government is involved in the peripheral, the more it is likely to lose its focus. One of the challenges that will likely face this parliament is the sale of the remainder of Telstra. There does appear to be an emerging misconception that the coalition has an ideological agenda to sell Telstra at all costs. This view is that the coalition wants to sell Telstra at any price and that as a consequence there is massive scope to extract concessions. This perspective is flawed. It misunderstands the rationale behind the sale of Telstra. There is certainly an underlying view in the coalition that governments do not run phone companies well and that they have no particular business in doing so. There is certainly an inherent conflict between government running a business and regulating that business. There is certainly a view that to expand the number of shareholders in Australia is a good and positive thing—to see Australia as the largest share-owning democracy in the world.

These are key reasons to sell Telstra. But another key reason for selling the remainder of Telstra is to save taxpayers' money by using the Telstra sale proceeds to retire debt. The resulting saving in interest costs would free up an additional $3 billion per year to be used on schools, roads, hospitals or tax cuts. Another reason to liberate Telstra is that it would give a better return to millions of Australians who hold shares and it would deliver a better service.

The Australian government's total net interest payments are expected to be around $3 billion this financial year, down from $8 billion in 1996. The sale of the government's remaining shares in Telstra will further reduce net debt and net interest. However, the forgone dividends will come at a cost to the budget bottom line. This leaves little room for the funding of new commitments. Anything other than using the overwhelming bulk of the sale proceeds to lower net debt and net interest payments would very quickly make the sale unattractive. There is no other area of government activity that has been so closely scrutinised. There is no area of government policy that has been as intensely debated. This is a proposal that has been put before the Australian public election after election. This is an area of government involvement that will only continue to serve as a distraction from the core business of government.

The coalition have built a reputation for focus and discipline. We have the backing of the Australian public. It is now incumbent upon the opposition to stop faffing around and to endorse the will of the Australian people. I say to senators opposite: trust the public; respect their will.