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Tuesday, 10 February 2009
Page: 631

Senator LUDLAM (3:50 PM) —I am pleased to speak on the Appropriation (Nation Building and Jobs) Bill (No. 1) 2008-2009 and related legislation. The global economic crisis is causing many Australians, including, apparently, our own Prime Minister, to step back and rethink the fundamental principles upon which our economy rests and in particular the balance between the market, the government and the community—the people that these institutions are meant to serve. At long last, in some small but persistent ways, capitalism is coming under some long overdue scrutiny as its terrible failures are laid bare every day.

The package of measures before us today represents a mixed and contradictory response to the crisis that has planted these seeds of doubt. On the one hand, there is a solid, long overdue and very welcome investment in affordable public housing. This is something that will make a lasting difference in people’s lives. It will provide relief to the construction sector, which has slumped in recent months, so the economic stimulus is there. And the impact will be lasting and not transitory.

On the other hand, the package has the imprint of a kind of desperation to rescue the runaway consumerism that speaks to a much deeper crisis. How do we rescue a consumer society from a crisis brought on by short-term thinking and toxic debt? Apparently, we rescue it with a massive short-term injection of cash to provoke urgent consumption, on anything at all, that takes the country deep into debt.

Many people are now reflecting on what the market fundamentalists have told us—with little more than faith in the dominant theoretical models—about growth, about globalisation and about the infallibility of the market. It may seem abstract but it is a worldview that has very well served the interests of the multinational corporations, even as it undermined the foundations of the real economy. The privatisation and deregulation faiths that have been preached by both sides of politics for a long time have done nothing for sustainable or equitable development. Privatisation has not increased the efficiency or the quality of services, as our experience with public transport or our national telecommunications company has made abundantly clear.

The theoretical frictionless efficiency of markets is contradicted every day by corporate scandals and bailouts, or the kind of disaster we saw the week before last when BHP decided without warning to shut down the Ravensthorpe mine that was the only economic support for the town that had grown up around it. Today more than half of the top 100 economies in the world are corporations, not countries. The push to downsize governments, privatise assets and cripple the ability of governments to raise taxes, and this catch-all drive to deregulation, have seriously weakened the ability of citizens—of us—through our democratically elected parliaments and governments to ensure that food is safe, that we will not get ripped off by our phone company or that banks do not take excessive risks. Both here in Australia and in the United States, the two countries where the myth of the evils of  ‘big government’ has been most strongly promoted, governments are now being forced to step in to address the crisis, reasserting that there is a role for government expenditure. But the expenditure should not be in bailing out large corporations and banks, as we have seen in the US, but in investing in long-term education, in the environment and in the elimination of poverty.

And we know now that there is also a role for government in regulation. What we see in this package is large government expenditure, but we do not see real advances in regulating the unchecked powers of banks and corporations to gamble and determine their own terms. This must be addressed with more than think-pieces in the Monthly; it also must be addressed with action—and urgently, Mr Rudd. What we have now is a form of volatile casino capitalism, where the financial markets have taken leave of the real economy. The oversimplified free-market ideology has made people vulnerable to financial crises. Let us remember that this is not the first financial crisis and, if we continue to invest in the boom and bust cycle, it will not be our last.

How do we structurally adjust our system to get human beings back into our idea of the economy? How can our economy meet the needs of people and not of profit and privilege? How can poverty be reduced? How can we reverse these trends? Most importantly, perhaps, how can we use this moment of reflection to tackle, head-on, the oncoming challenges of climate change, fossil fuel depletion, food shortages and water scarcity? We can see some of these factors in play with the welcome introduction of the spending on housing in this package of bills. The Australian Greens support the focus on social housing in the economic stimulus package that is before us. The housing sector’s call for an urgent increase in public housing has been heard at long last. We heard in the Senate Standing Committee on Community Affairs this morning that this funding is desperately overdue. It will not go close to meeting the actual demand for affordable housing that has built up over two decades, because we are catching up with 20 years of market failure in which people on low incomes have been let down savagely. Housing is a human right but in Australia we have treated it like just another asset class and cheered on a property bubble that has left millions of people in housing stress and now threatens many more with mortgage default as prices recede. So it is good to be in here today to pass legislation that begins to move us forward. But let us take a long hard look at the fact that the free market did not provide for everyone. It worked nicely for some, and it has really stranded many others, to the degree that up to 100,000 Australians now meet some definition of homelessness.

There are several unanswered questions, however, about how the package will work in practice. It is not clear how the Commonwealth will ensure that the states and territories will deliver the housing to those most in need of housing assistance. The Prime Minister has spoken of punitive measures to ensure states and territories discharge their responsibilities, but it is still not clear what these will be. It is also not clear what the reporting requirements will be under the intergovernmental agreement or whether the reporting will be public. We need to learn more about how the not-for-profit housing sector will be strengthened through this package as they willingly take up the responsibility for managing these new properties. How will the Commonwealth ensure fair and transparent tender processes and avoid conflicts of interest, when states are likely to be the main tenderers and also have a role in assessment? Will state and territory governments’ vetting of proposals take the form of recommendations to the Commonwealth, or will they have the ability to knock out or exclude some providers? We need to know whether Aboriginal housing providers will be able to tender for the funding for Aboriginal housing on the same basis of title being transferred to them as with the main social housing program. Will tenders for Aboriginal housing that come from eligible organisations, on their own or through partnerships, receive a preference in selection?

We know that the intergovernmental agreement between the Commonwealth and the state and territory governments includes references to energy and water efficiency, but the targets as they are fall well short of what we know the building industry is capable of and what the climate challenge and basic social justice demands. How will adaptable design components, ageing factors in place and disability access be benchmarked and reported on? Or access to public transport, access to services and preference for development in mixed-use medium and high-density centres with access to modern public transport? It is not acceptable to strand people in hastily built houses on the edge of town, far from services, employment and public transport, condemning them to high energy and water prices because we did not get the houses right in the first place. The department told the community affairs committee this morning that these issues are in the mix, but we still do not know how they will be benchmarked or reported.

I still do not understand why public transport was forgotten and left out of the package entirely. The answers to the questions that we put to the minister in this place last week certainly gave us no comfort. Including public transport in the package would assist Australians in real need of an essential service during a time of petrol price volatility and with peak oil still looming in the background. It would also increase the transit manufacturing sector in Australia. It would also reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Public transport benefits community health as pollution levels are reduced and people’s activity is increased. The fact that people on lower incomes live further from city centres and therefore pay greater prices to travel is well documented. Just to give you one example, those living in inner-eastern Sydney use a car for roughly half of all trips, and travel on average 10 kilometres per day. In contrast, those living in outer-western suburbs of Sydney use private transport for nearly 80 per cent of all trips and travel on average 33 kilometres per day.

It is costing us a lot to keep forgetting about public transport, as we have with this package. The Bureau of Transport and Regional Economics estimates the cost of the health effects of motor vehicle pollution as $2.6 billion every year. The cost of traffic congestion in Australian cities has been estimated by the same bureau as $12.8 billion per year. The cost of road traffic injury and death is $1 billion per year. The higher demand for public transport investment over road funding is certainly by now a matter of record, and it was reflected in a recent Nielsen poll for the Age in Victoria. Of respondents to that survey, 62 per cent wanted the government to give public transport priority over roads. Support in Melbourne specifically was stronger again, with 68 per cent of respondents wanting more funding directed to public transport than to roads.

Building public housing—which we have acknowledged is an extremely welcome measure—without including on ground level, as it is built, fast, efficient and safe public transport does no-one any favours. It does no favours to lower income people to build housing that strands them on the outer fringes of cities, where they are acutely vulnerable to rising transport costs and falling land values.

Heritage is another opportunity not seized in the package. It is an opportunity that perhaps has been missed, but I hope that the government will see that this is one short-term way of stimulating the economy that can have lasting benefits. The National Trust, by way of example, estimated that for a modest $50 million, just as a starting figure, the government could ensure that urgent maintenance and conservation works started for the 250 properties and nature reserves held by the National Trust. This is the sort of work that would engage construction workers, builders, electricians, plumbers and specialist conservators of heritage properties. It is work that would help in the short term but would also have a lasting impact on protection of our built heritage. It is part of our obligation not just to our ancestors and grandparents, who passed these places on to us, but to our children and grandchildren. It is also one easy example of how a short-term economic measure can be converted into something lasting, particularly in regional areas, where many of these properties are located. That $50 million could also be used to improve the environmental performance of properties in energy and water management. In many cases the planning has already been done, and these projects could get off the drawing boards and into the real world very quickly. These properties could become showcases of what can be achieved in making heritage listed properties clean and green.

We know that overall portfolio funding for heritage has reduced by 5.7 per cent and core departmental heritage funding has reduced by 9½ per cent. Compared to 2001 funding, the 2008 heritage budget represents a massive reduction of 21 per cent. So we are going backwards. This sector clearly needs an influx of funding to prevent a part of our collective history from further neglect.

I would like to make a brief observation about the kinds of jobs that are being created and what is happening to the unemployed with this stimulus package. As has already been noted by many participants in this debate, and as it was in the December package, the unemployed have been completely forgotten. As Senator Siewert pointed out, the unemployed have been relegated to a footnote in this package, quite literally. ‘Jobs now’ is the government’s goal, and around 90,000 jobs are expected to be created in the next two years through this package.

I want to touch briefly on the areas in which employment will supposedly be stimulated. The building industry will construct schools and 22,000 units of housing. Workers will be engaged to insulate homes, maintain roads, build boom gates, install solar and heat-pump hot water systems, and so on. These are predominantly jobs currently done by men. Some of these sectors include women, of course—my colleague in Western Australia’s parliament Giz Watson is a builder of great skill and not insignificant fame in WA—but the point that I am making is that these are areas in which men are predominantly employed. Sole parents have the highest risk of poverty, and the economic downturn will particularly affect female headed households. Let us be clear that the face of poverty in Australia is a woman’s face. According to a 2004 Senate report, 91.5 per cent of jobless sole parent families are headed by women.

This economic stimulus package could do with some analysis by those expert in the field of gender responsive budgeting. Gender responsive budgeting is an instrument developed by UNIFEM which is now in wide use around the world. It is about ensuring that government budgets, and the policies and programs that underlie them, address the needs and interests of individuals that belong to different social groups. It is not about having separate budgets for women and men, nor is it about dividing budgets equally; it is about determining where the needs of men and women are the same and where they are different and providing appropriate allocations for those needs. The jobs provided in this economic stimulus package would not stand this test.

In conclusion, I have commented mainly on matters that go to the lasting and not ephemeral impacts of the package. We face a short-term crisis of confidence in an economic system that has been driving blind since before any of us were here. As we consider these measures in coming days and in some detail, I hope that we can keep this big picture in mind and look to the long term.