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Thursday, 5 February 2009
Page: 512

Senator HUMPHRIES (5:57 PM) —I do so hate to follow Senator Mason in these debates. I regret to note in rising to speak that I am the eighth, ninth or 10th coalition speaker in a row to address the Senate on what we are told is one of the most important packages of legislation this country has seen in decades. I suppose the other side have decided—decisively!—to hang out somewhere else and sip coffee or do something else rather than take part in this important debate. What a pity.

What Australia needs most at the moment is experience. Experience affords you insight. It gives you the chance to make points of difference and it allows you to demonstrate calm in the face of pressure and temperance in the face of potential disaster. The Labor government has very little experience and this package of bills demonstrates that very amply. What sort of experience do I mean when I say that? I mean the experience of taking Australia from a deficit of $100 billion to a surplus of $22 billion; the experience of lowering interest rates over 10 years from 12.75 per cent to 7.15 per cent; the experience of lowering unemployment; the experience of creating new jobs; the experience of increasing growth while lowering inflation; the experience of increasing funding affordably and sustainably for schools, universities and public institutions.

This government does not have that experience, and that is a great pity in the present environment. The coalition does, and its experience—which led, of course, to the upgrading of our national credit rating to AAA—is the kind of experience that, frankly, this country needs right now. We balanced market freedom with an appropriate level of market regulation. The Deputy Prime Minister presumably understood that when she told the World Economic Forum at Davos a few days ago that ‘Australia has the best inflation regulation system in the world’. That system was created by, and was successful under, the coalition government.

We now find ourselves on the cusp of perhaps the most important decision this nation will have to take in this decade to ensure the survival of our precious way of life, and in this dire hour the Labor government do not have the wisdom to consult with those more experienced. This Labor government does not have the experience to ensure the package they propose will lead to the best possible outcome for this country. The Labor government do not show the respect for parliamentary institutions that would allow adequate time to review their bills properly. This government is not acting in the best interests of Australians. This government’s lack of experience is excusable. Its immaturity, its panicked response to this crisis, its political gamesmanship and its complete disregard for the proper processes are not. The Labor government’s arrogance is certainly not excusable.

A panicked response is not a plan. A stimulus package cannot simply be labelled that because it says it is going to do that. Not all expenditure, obviously, is good expenditure in this sense. Not all expenditure stimulates the economy. This Labor government is promising most Australians $950 per person as its way of stimulating the economy. The Labor government are not, however, telling Australians that they are asking us to give them the capacity to put us all in debt to the tune of $9,500 per person.

Earlier today the Premier of South Australia drew an analogy between Australia’s present circumstances and fighting a war. When you fight a war you need to have all shoulders to the wheel—everybody needs to be behind a war effort. It is not a bad analogy, but there are some differences between the situation we find ourselves in now and fighting a war. Firstly, when governments start to fight a war they generally bring in the other parties in a parliamentary system to support them. In fact, some countries embark on governments of national unity to make sure that they bring all represented interests around the table. There has been no attempt at that in this situation. In a war you also do not begin the battle by firing off the one big gun and dropping the one big bomb that you have, knowing that there is not much left in your armoury once you have done that.

The Leader of the Opposition in this crisis has put forward alternatives to those which the Labor government has proposed in its stimulus package. We have not simply criticised what the government has on offer; we have proposed alternatives. We proposed that the tax cuts that were scheduled to be rolled out on 1 July this year and next year be brought forward and backdated to 1 January this year. By the middle of 2010, this would have left a two-income household earning about $80,000 something like $1,700 better off. That is money that, because it is coming in on a regular basis, people are more likely to spend to stimulate the economy than is the case with one-off payments. Perhaps the largest gap in the government’s package is the lack of measures that directly and broadly support employment, particularly employment in the small business sector.

The alternatives are as numerous as they are self-evident, were the Labor Party to take a moment to breathe and think rather than what they have called—rather ironically—acting decisively. Acting decisively equates to providing solutions, developing options and making substantial, measured, effective contributions to an extraordinarily important issue. My colleagues have listed a number of possible alternatives today. In doing so, we have shown our willingness and preparedness to discuss other ways of tackling this very important issue.

While, for example, the accelerated depreciation concept has some merit, the coalition believe measures that more directly and immediately improve the cash-flow position of small firms and help them protect jobs are preferable. We have proposed to discuss with the government, if it is willing to do that, the Commonwealth paying a portion of the superannuation guarantee levy on behalf of small employers—those with 20 or fewer staff—for the next two years. That is the sort of measure that would directly allow small employers to make positive decisions to retain staff. I do not see anything in this package that would have a similar effect. I do not see measures that are likely to make an employer say, ‘I’ll make the decision to keep that person on my payroll.’

It is perhaps not surprising that a lot of employers are listening less to what the Prime Minister says and looking more at what the Prime Minister does. The Prime Minister urges Australian businesses not to let their employees go and yet, once the cameras are off him, talks about taking a meataxe to the Public Service and shedding jobs in large numbers—the sorts of jobs I would have thought right now Australians need behind the helmsmen to make sure we have made the right decisions in the face of a serious economic crisis. Jobs are the big question facing us all behind this package. We are doing ours to ensure that Australians can keep theirs.

Are the Australian Labor Party doing their job with respect to this legislation? Are they doing that by rushing these bills through with inadequate scrutiny? Are they doing it by promising cash handouts to the Australian public without properly spelling out the cost of those handouts? Would it not be responsible of the government to detail a program for the repayment of that debt—a description of how heavy that debt might be and what strategies the government might be developing to address it? With respect, it was not addressed the last time Labor were in government. The debt was still there when they left office in 1996. This is not a pain-free decision. There are costs and consequences, but we see nothing of that in what the Labor Party have told the public as they describe in gleeful tones the handouts, the cash splash, which they are engineering.

Appealing to voters through promises of boom gates and school buildings and completely ignoring the fact that there is no plan for those very buildings when schools can no longer afford to pay teachers—is that being responsible? Is it responsible of the government to say that parents should gratefully accept these new assets without explaining to them how schools can sustainably continue to grow to meet the needs of their communities? I think that this package is a decision which has not been thought through, is not wise and does not deserve the support of the parliament. In the absence of a demonstration of the government’s comprehensive, careful, meticulous planning of what it needs to do and of how Australia will recover from the position it is being placed in with respect to debt, the government needs to persuade the parliament that it has done its homework, that it has prepared the ground for this momentous decision. That would give us the satisfaction of knowing that the colossal amount of money that the government proposes to spend is money that we can afford to spend and that we need to spend in order to find ourselves in a better place in the future.

I am very shocked at how quickly the government has geared up into PR mode on this package and ignored the harder, more mundane task of planning, explaining and setting out the fiscal basis on which this decision has been made. In particular, I am shocked by the way in which this government is prepared to bypass parliamentary process. What pride this government must have to ignore the lack of success of its most recent stimulus package and propose an even bigger one! The government was apparently unsuccessful with its a $10 billion package last year and now suggests that what we need is a bigger package, but it does not explain why or how this will succeed when the last one failed.

Previous speakers, including Senator Mason, have drawn attention to the lack of logic in the way in which this package is meant to create or support jobs. I would have thought that a package which is worth $10 billion and creates 75,000 jobs must mean that if you spend $42 billion you will create 300,000 jobs. Is that not logical, or has the cost of jobs risen so much in recent months or weeks that we can no longer make that kind of claim? If so, will the government have the decency to tell us that the promise of 75,000 jobs was a false promise, that there were no 75,000 jobs? In his article in Money magazine just yesterday, Mark Westfield, a director of CT Financial, said:

The last stimulus package in which $10.4 billion was given to sensitive voter groups before Christmas barely touched the sides and achieved nothing beyond a very temporary shot in the arm for retailers and pub and club poker machine owners.

Do we have the evidence before us to convince us that we are more likely to be successful with this package than with the last one? I do not think we do.

I would have thought that most Australians would instinctively welcome handouts of this kind. I have no doubt that those organisations who have spoken out in favour of this package—and a large number of them have been referred to already in the course of today’s debate in this chamber—would naturally welcome the spending of money on them or their constituent catchment groups. But I am surprised, in the midst of all that carpetbagging and pork-barrelling, that there are a large number of voices expressing concern. One constituent wrote to me today and told me about the reactions of local businesspeople in Canberra to the announcement of the stimulus package. He quoted a few things that they had to say, such as: ‘This will be great for stimulating poker machines.’ ‘Roof insulation—is that a joke?’ ‘This looks like panic, and that panic will spread.’ ‘They have no idea whether this will work.’ ‘We will be paying this off for years.’ That last comment was the kind of comment that any businessman would make when looking at the size of the debt being incurred by this measure.

I am particularly reminded that the Labor Party, while pushing this legislation through in a short time frame, was very opposed to the way in which the previous government handled sensitive legislation. The Labor Party was scathingly critical of the Liberal government for, for example, passing the Work Choices legislation in two weeks. I remember Senator Lundy expressing her shock on ABC Radio at that kind of ‘poor use of parliamentary processes’. I wonder what she thinks about a party which has now attempted to push through by far the biggest single package other than a budget in the space of just 48 hours. It does not say much for the consistency of the Australian Labor Party.

How astonishingly selfish, how incredibly short-sighted, how immensely patronising to think that the Australian public would not see through this self-serving sham of a stimulus package. The Prime Minister, the Treasurer and indeed the entire Labor Party are behaving as though they deserve a Tim Tam for working so hard to come up with a package to jump-start the economy. I have told my children on occasions that you do not automatically get a Tim Tam because you have started the job; you get one when the job is done. And the fact is that this job is far from done. This job is a very big job that may take months or years to resolve. The Australian Labor Party puts forward its package at enormous cost to the Australian taxpayer in the expectation that this is the job done, and we have to assume that because it has left so little in reserve for the next stage, if that is required. Perhaps when the arrogance abates, the pride subsides and the Labor Party decides to have a mature, reasoned, real discussion and debate with other concerned Australians about the best way forward for Australia and its economy, then there will be a true reason to be proud. Our chores are not done, and now is not the time to break out the Tim Tams.

I hope that this government realises that Australians will see through this, that they will want convincing that this is right. The test of that will not be now or in the next few weeks or even in the next few months. It will be in a year’s time, when we look back and ask ourselves: is Australia substantially better off for having spent $42 billion of our children’s future? And if we cannot say that then that is when Australians will pass judement on this government and its package.