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Tuesday, 10 February 2009
Page: 652


Senator COLBECK (5:19 PM) —I rise to make my contribution to this debate on the Appropriation (Nation Building and Jobs) Bill (No. 1) 2008-2009 and associated bills—the government’s stimulus package. At the outset, can I say that this is a real opportunity lost to the government and to this country. The Prime Minister has demonstrated, in my view, a real failure of leadership with respect to the development of this process and this package. He said during his press conference that he would like to use all of the tools available to him to assist Australia to get through the current economic crisis. It is quite clear that he has not done that. He has shown no willingness to do that. In fact, the offers by members of the opposition—particularly Malcolm Turnbull—to work with the government on the stimulus package to ensure that we did not find ourselves in the situation that we find ourselves in now were completely ignored and rejected by the government. Wayne Swan said that he was not interested in anything that Malcolm Turnbull had to say. That was prior to the announcement of this package. That demonstrates on the part of the government a complete failure of leadership and a complete loss of opportunity to put together a package that could have received bipartisan support. I include in my comments engagement with the crossbenchers and the Greens, because obviously they all have some inputs into this process.

As has been said on many occasions by many members, this is a war type situation. In those circumstances you put politics aside and you engage those who have some understanding of the process. That makes this a political package, not a rescue package, and one that really demeans the processes of this place. The government cannot come in here and call this a rescue package. This is a political package. They should be prepared to admit that. The Prime Minister, in particular, has failed the test of leadership when it comes to something that he claims to be of such significance to the economic future of this country. It was fascinating to listen to the comments of the preceding speaker, Senator Ryan, and to consider the history that he brought to this debate and the issues that he raised. I can only commend him on those comments. They make real sense.

The things that concern me about this package, apart from the fact that this package is obviously political and not a real stimulus package with genuine support—and that has been demonstrated by the events of the last week—are the way it has been put together and the way that it looks to be implemented. While the Prime Minister says that he is going to put processes in place to make sure that states do not diminish their spending in areas that this package covers, I have real concerns about that actually occurring. I also have concerns about the ability of the states to implement the package in the time frames, and in a moment I will come back to some comments of the Prime Minister about that.

I want to go back to an issue that is of significant concern in my home state of Tasmania. In December 2005 the Commonwealth government indicated that it was prepared to put $78 million into repairing the railways. The operator of the railways said that if the railways were not upgraded they would pull out. The initial indication was made in December 2005; it was officially announced in June-July 2006; and it was not until January 2009, this year, that the project to upgrade the railways actually started. In my home state of Tasmania the Labor government has a terrible record, stretching back across its entire term, of failing to manage major projects. It has put forward year after year proposals to increase public housing in the state, yet we have had hardly a house built. I find it very difficult to understand how it is going to turn that around for this package.

The public housing part of the package, I believe, has some real value. In fact, knowing that there was going to be a stimulus package, I asked myself, ‘What types of projects would I fund if I were doing something like that?’ Having been part of the Senate Select Committee on Housing Affordability in Australia last year with Senator Payne, public housing was one of the first things that came to my mind. We have a shortfall in the annual construction of domestic dwellings and, as the government itself has said, we have a shortfall in public housing, and homelessness in this country is a serious issue.

When it comes to the implementation of that policy, is it done on the basis of need? No, it is not. The funding is allocated on the basis of population. How can the Australian people have confidence in the overall process of this package being put together? When the Prime Minister made a speech to the parliament last week announcing this package he said that construction would commence immediately. I do not know whether we need to make another addition to the dictionary of Ruddspeak, but to me the term ‘immediately’ means straightaway, right now. The communique that came out of the COAG meeting last Thursday said that it will be at least some months before construction will commence and then it will be a staged process. That is hardly ‘immediately’. Here we have another demonstration of the grandiose method under which the Prime Minister announces these processes and packages. When you start to read the fine print you see what the real impact of these schemes is going to be.

I move to the libraries and the gymnasiums in schools. To suggest that the schools will have to take one of a number of imposed designs ignores the layout and the set-up of schools across the country. ‘You will take a preprepared design’—that is absolutely absurd. Once upon a time I think that may have been possible. I spent a lot of time working in the primary schools and high schools in my home state of Tasmania during my years in the construction industry and I can tell you that the configurations are completely different to what they might have been when they first started. Yet, here we have imposed on school communities a rigid design process—‘Take what we have said you will take or go without.’ There is capacity within that process to do refurbishment. I was talking to representatives of one school community on the weekend and they said: ‘We’ve got a new library and a new multipurpose area. What do we do now? Are we eligible or not?’ If the design does not fit neatly within the school grounds, do they lose part of their oval? The thought process behind this is so shallow that it is quite extraordinary. Perhaps the government found a real need to beef up their lost education revolution process, which has disintegrated into not much more than a schoolyard scuffle. There is no revolution about it. Imposing these things on school communities in this way is just absurd. Obviously, there will be a bureaucracy set up to support this process, and that is fine. Quite frankly, in those terms I think those two projects raise some real issues.

Let us look at the insulation in homes initiative. The real concern from my perspective is: what will happen to those currently in the business once this project comes to fruition? Effectively, the government is saying to those businesses, ‘Prepare your business for the end of its days.’ It had a program in place that provided $500 as an incentive to insulate. I think that was a reasonable program. The government was making a contribution and the householder was making a contribution. Sure, the government wants to move things forward so that there are reductions in energy bills—and I think that is a reasonable objective for the government to have—but what it is saying to existing small insulation businesses is: ‘Be prepared for the end of your business. You have two or three years. Once this program is over, so are you.’

On the $200,000 for schools, I would have to say I am pleased to see that the government have brought back that scheme. Effectively, what they have done is returned the highly successful Investing in Our Schools Program that the previous government instituted. It gave school communities the opportunity to make some choices. Unlike with the libraries and multipurpose halls process, the schools actually have some opportunities to make some choices. They can decide the works they will require. I think that is well worth supporting, so there is one element of the package that really does have some merit. But, again, when you start to go through these different elements and look at the amounts that are being spent and the processes that apply to them, you can see that, if the government had genuinely wanted to build a stimulus package that would get bipartisan support in the difficult economic times they are talking about, they would have been prepared to consult. Again, it is a demonstration of a lack of leadership.

We come now to the $950. I know that a lot of people have been saying to us that this is going to create all sorts of problems for us as an opposition. They are saying, ‘Don’t get between anybody and a bucket of cash.’ But I would have to say that the feedback I have received with respect to this has been quite extraordinary. We have seen a range of different perspectives, and I know there are some people in communities who would very much like to see that $950. My local paper had a story of a family of five, all of whom were eligible to pick up the $950, so they are doing okay in that respect and I am sure they are looking forward to it. We also saw a story in the Daily Telegraph last week about the West family, who were drawing up a wish list, making a plan for the things they wanted to spend their ‘free money’ on.

This concept of free money is absolutely, utterly and completely absurd. It is not free money. We spent 10 years, from 1996 to 2006, removing—paying back—$96 billion worth of debt as a country. That came with some pain. I still recall Tony Rundle in 1996, after he attended his first Premiers Conference, thinking that the coalition had won, things were going to change and he would come back with some more money. As Premier and Treasurer, Tony Rundle came back to Tasmania with $30 million less because of the cuts that had to be made to spending. That was Tasmania’s share of paying off Paul Keating’s black hole. We were told the budget was in surplus; it was $10 billion on an annual basis in deficit.

So there will be some real pain in paying this back. And to the West family in Sydney I say: this is not a free $950. In fact, this family is Mr and Mrs West and two kids, both also eligible for $950 each. It is like going to the worst loan shark, who says, ‘Sure, I’ll give you 950 bucks each, that’s fine, not a problem at all,’ but the fine print at the bottom of the contract says, ‘You and your husband both owe $9,500 and your children both owe $9,500, plus interest.’ So you have borrowed $950 each, you are paying that back tenfold, your kids are paying that back as well, and you pay interest on top of that. That is the effect of this package: $9,500 for every man, woman and child in this country once that debt rattles up to $200 billion. That is the extent of the credit card: it will go from zero to $200 billion. So any concept that this is free money is absolutely and utterly absurd.

Today in Tasmania new gambling figures were released by the Tasmanian Gaming Commission relating to the period around last Christmas, following the first stimulus package. This is what the commission said—and it demonstrates some of the concerns we as a coalition have in respect of some of this funding:

Player expenditure over the Christmas-New Year period generally follows the same pattern each year, with a rise from November to December and a corresponding fall from December to January. Apart from 2008-09, the rate of increase in expenditure from year to year appears to be quite moderate. However, in December 2008 and January 2009 total expenditure on EGM’s was $40.2 million, an increase of 13.2 per cent over the same period 12 months previously.

So we know some of the traders in the community that are going to be happy. There was some discussion at the Senate committee about what percentage of it might be going into gambling, and here we have some evidence that is pretty fresh—it was released today.

All of this comes without considering the major expenditure decisions that the government have yet to make. They are going to extend the credit card out to its limit and there are still some major things on the agenda that they have to consider. The Health and Hospitals Reform Commission reports in June-July this year, and there is going to be some expenditure required there. There is absolutely no doubt that there needs to be some capital expenditure in aged care. In Tasmania almost 50 per cent of the bed licences offered this year were not taken up. They do not want them because they cannot afford to build the infrastructure to support our aged people. The government are giving away 950 bucks, but would you prefer to have an aged-care bed when you need it or to get 950 bucks now? There definitely needs to be some consideration of preferences.

There is still some consideration to be given to increasing the pension, which the government were talking about last year. In 2002 the then Department of Family and Community Services did some figures on increasing the age pension. There is obviously going to be a range of options considered. But the figures in 2002 showed that to increase pensions by just $1 was going to cost $174 million. And the cost to increase the pension to 35 per cent of MTAWE—which is one of the claims being run by the age sector at the moment—in 2002 dollars was $14.5 billion. By the time that bleeds through the system to pick up all the other services that are provided and paid that are linked to the pension, you are talking about over $30 billion.

Just to service this $200 billion, we are talking about $8 billion a year—$8 billion that has to come off our annual budget of spending every year to service this $200 billion debt. That is the figure that we have received today; the government has again been trying to hide that number. But that reduces our capacity to provide services; it reduces the amount of money free in the budget by that amount every year. So forget the overall debt, if you like, from that perspective: $8 billion a year less available to put into services, aged care, hospitals or the pension increase. We have not even got to those yet.

So I go back to my initial point. The Prime Minister has shown a huge failure in leadership and would not engage. He is not interested in engaging; he is all about being the big man. The man who is the Leader of the Opposition actually understands this stuff. Malcolm Turnbull said, ‘Put a limited bank guarantee in place’. Kevin Rudd could not possibly do that, because Malcolm had said that was the case. He went unlimited, and look at the problems that has caused. So here we see a complete failure in leadership that has brought us to this situation we are in today. (Time expired)