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Tuesday, 10 February 2009
Page: 660


Senator FERGUSON (5:56 PM) —When this debate on the Appropriation (Nation Building and Jobs) Bill (No. 1) 2008-2009 and associated bills commenced last Friday, I am quite sure none of us expected it to be continuing today following probably one of the worst tragedies this country has faced in its whole lifetime, certainly since Federation. The debate has continued but it is pretty hard to call it a debate—it is a rather loose term because it generally takes two sides to debate and we have seen only one side of this chamber prepared to put their views and their expressions about this package in Hansard. Not one Labor senator is prepared to place their support for this package of bills on the record. It means, of course, that they have their own doubts about the wisdom of this big spend, which is going to send our country spiralling into debt. If no-one is prepared on that side of the chamber to support this package of bills, perhaps they do not support them as wholeheartedly as we have been led to believe.

I had a mate back on Yorke Peninsula who was born the same year as me, 1943, which is a fair while ago now. He owned a couple of pubs on the peninsula. He said to me a few years ago ‘Fergie, I always vote for you so-and-sos but I am buggered if I know why.’ I said, ‘What makes you say that?’ He said, ‘In those few times we have had Labor governments since I have owned hotels, I’ve always done much better because they throw money around like a drunken sailor. I enjoy the good times while they last because I know that when you blokes get in you’ll spend half your life paying off the debt.’ It seems this is what we have in store for us today.

I started primary school in 1949, the year that Bob Menzies was elected to lead the Liberal Party, and for the next 16 years he was Prime Minister. Of the last 60 years since I started school the coalition has been in government for 43 years and the Labor Party for 17. There have been only three periods of Labor government in that time. The first was the three years of the Whitlam disaster from 1972 to 1975, and I well remember it because we had 18 per cent inflation on the farm at that time. It was not easy—18 per cent inflation was not easy for anybody to handle during those three disastrous years.

I have never quite understood why the Labor Party put Gough Whitlam on such a pedestal. I guess it had a lot to do with his demise in 1975. But during that three-year period we saw the Labor government of the day taking the extraordinary measure of trying to borrow money from overseas to pay off debt. Then we got to 1983. We had 13 years of a Labor government. During those 13 years, I worked on the farm with my brother and we paid 24 per cent interest.


Senator Williams —Twenty-five.


Senator FERGUSON —Senator Williams assures me that he paid 25 per cent. He must have more debt than me, I think; I cannot remember. We went through those terrible times when the country went into debt again—so much so that by 1996, when the Howard government took over, we had $96 billion worth of government debt. That has been well documented. You do not need me to remind you of all of those things. But here we are, a little over 12 months into the next Labor government—the Rudd Labor government—and we have gone from a surplus of $22 billion, which this government inherited, to a debt which may grow to anything up to $200 billion.

It was only this time last year that coming into this chamber we were castigated by Senator Conroy and other people over that side for letting the inflation genie out of the bottle. For six months, they talked about inflation monsters and the inflation genie. We received terrible criticism from those opposite about our record when in fact all we had done for the Labor Party was to leave them $22 billion of surplus. And they soon chewed that up. We have the third Labor government since 1949 and what are they doing? History is repeating itself again and we are going into serious debt—and I mean serious debt.

One of the things that I can always remember from 1996 is that the Howard government decided that it would pay off the $96 billion worth of government debt and pay off the $10 billion deficit in the current account at that stage as soon as was humanly possible. And we did. We as a government not only paid off the debt but also set up funds for the future which had assets of some $60 billion or $70 billion.

Here we are presented with a package of bills which they initially wanted us to pass through this parliament in 48 hours. Just imagine what those opposite would have said if we had tried to pass a set of bills with the magnitude of this expenditure in 48 hours when we were in government. I see Senator Carr sitting there. He would have been one of the greatest critics of us in government if we had tried to do exactly that. It was only because of the commonsense of the minor parties and the Greens that we are able to make sure that these bills were looked at closely and properly so that any flaws were able to be brought to the public’s attention.

The fact that the very large spending package that has come before has now been questioned has meant that many people in the public are now also starting to question the wisdom of giving away cash. As the previous speaker, Senator Payne, said, we had $10.4 billion given out in December. That was supposed to create 75,000 jobs. Where on earth did the Prime Minister get the figure of 75,000 jobs from? He must be totally embarrassed at having made that statement in December; to have suggested that by spending $10.4 billion—by that stage, they had got rid of the surplus—he would create 75,000 jobs. Some people in the Australian community believed what he said. But in fact no jobs—to the best of our knowledge—were created. Senator O’Brien was probably very lucky, he was in New York at that time, because he has some insulation from what was going on in Australia.


Senator O’Brien —I needed insulation in New York—it was cold.


Senator FERGUSON —Of course you did; I am sure you needed insulation. I pose this question: where are these jobs? Now we have the new package—some $42 billion, a large amount of money by any standards—and they are not promising that it will create one job. So $10.4 billion was supposed to create 75,000 jobs, but the $42 billion that we have now will not create one job.

I find it very strange that this government could put the budget on course towards four consecutive massive budget deficits, totalling almost $120 billion. It is almost beyond belief that any government would do that. It has taken days and days to get answers from Senator Conroy and Treasury as to what the interest repayments would be. We know find out that it will be somewhere around $9 billion—that is the last figure that I heard—


Senator Coonan —$7 billion.


Senator FERGUSON —Thank you, Senator Coonan: $7 billion. That is $7 billion that will now not be available to the Australian taxpayer. Many people in the community fall into the fallacy of thinking that—and I heard Senator Colbeck touch on this—if they are getting money from the government it does not cost anybody anything; the government have this big bucket of money that they can give away to the ordinary consumer in Australian society and it does not cost anything. In fact, Australian taxpayers need to know that it is their money that this government is borrowing and it is their money that will have to pay off the debt. Governments do not have money; they only have taxpayers’ money.

Parts of this package, such as some of the infrastructure investments, are things that should be done anyway. They are things that this government has promised that it will try and do in the future. Money that is spent on infrastructure for long-term investment has generally proven to be wise investment. But throwing cash at people? I have a daughter, a grand-daughter and her partner who will be recipients of this cash. They probably think it will be very handy at the time, because they are on reasonably low incomes, until such time as we say, ‘Of course, this has to be paid back, you know.’

When we stop and think what this government is doing to the Australian people, we need to think carefully about what the money is being spent on. What are we spending this money on? Pink Batts? Surely a sure supply of water to South Australia through some infrastructure spending is far more important than insulation of homes. I lived in a home without insulation for the first 60 years of my life, and we survived—it had no air conditioning, either! But to consider putting insulation into every home that does not have it ahead of the water needs of South Australia and those downstream of the River Murray I think shows an appalling sense of priority. I hope that some reconsideration will be given to this aspect of the package, should it pass this chamber.

Just for the record, I think we should highlight the fact that, when the coalition left government, Labor inherited a world-class regulatory system with a strong banking and financial sector. The regulations that were put in place by Peter Costello and the Howard government insulated this country against the worst excesses that have affected other countries around the world. Senator O’Brien, you have been to the US. You know what it is like in the United States, and that the lack of a good, strong regulatory system may have been the catalyst—


Senator O’Brien interjecting—


Senator FERGUSON —It does not matter who put it there. It may have been the catalyst for the breakdown we have seen in the financial sector. The coalition ensured that Australian banks were well capitalised, they were highly profitable and they were well regulated. Major reforms of the finance sector by the coalition about 10 years ago ensured that Australian banks did not engage to the same extent in the types of risky lending practices that occurred in the United States. So this government has a lot to be thankful for with respect to the efforts of the past government, the Howard government, in putting all of that regulation in place.

When you think back to the position that this government were left with in November 2007, when they won government, this government ought to pay some consideration to what they are doing to Australia by plunging us so unnecessarily into such debt. One knows that when times are tough there sometimes is a need to go into debt—but it is about the size of the debt, the size of the package; it is about the way the priorities have been put in place for the spending of money in this package. There is nothing for public transport. To the best of my knowledge, there is actually no cash in this package for self-funded retirees, who are suffering terribly.


Senator O’Brien interjecting—


Senator FERGUSON —There are some self-funded retirees who will receive nothing, and they are suffering the most from the drop in the return on their investments, both interest and otherwise.

So can I say that the coalition is opposing this package purely because of the priorities that it contains and the magnitude of the package, which we believe is far larger than is necessary to provide some stimulus to our economy. We look forward with interest to see just what sort of negotiations might take place with the Greens and the minor players in this chamber in order to see what sort of package might eventuate for the Australian people. But I want to place on record my support for our opposition to this package as it stands, because I believe its priorities are wrong and it is condemning my grandchildren—of which I have nearly six—and my children to having to pay off a debt over the next number of years. Who knows how long it will be before this debt is ever paid off?