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Tuesday, 10 February 2009
Page: 668

Senator FIELDING (Leader of the Family First Party) (6:32 PM) —Australia’s economy is about to break, but so too are our communities. The Rudd government’s $42 billion plan, under the Appropriation (Nation Building and Jobs) Bill (No. 1) 2008-2009 and related package of bills, offers stimulus to the economy but little sympathy to help the innocent victims of this crisis—namely, Australian families and communities who lose their jobs. If this is a war against recession, then we might say that a team of economists has meticulously planned a battle to end the war but has forgotten to help the inevitable human casualties of the war itself. Getting the economics of government right is important but, while multipliers, deflation and equilibrium are vital, so too is remembering the importance of security, confidence and compassion in our lives and in our local communities.

Everyone seems to agree that, no matter what we do, hundreds of thousands of Australians are about to lose their jobs. These are real flesh-and-blood people. They are mums and dads who will determine the confidence, cohesion and productivity of their families and therefore of Australia. There is no doubt this $42 billion should be targeted at easing the economic crisis, but surely some of it should also be targeted at easing the inevitable human tragedy over the next two years. This is my concern with the stimulus package.

The British philosopher Isaiah Berlin once declared that all thinkers have an ‘inner citadel’ of firmly held core beliefs around which all other thoughts are constructed. Our nation should be proud that our Prime Minister can easily write an essay on how current economic circumstances can be interpreted through a prism of political philosophy. However, both the PM’s essay and his proposed $42 billion stimulus package can be seen to reflect an inner citadel of beliefs which I believe display a worrying defect. The Rudd government is not infallible, which is why we have the timeless wisdom of the democratic process. We are all fallible. From time to time we can all be wrong. We are just human. Often very intelligent people believe that being smarter than others is the same as always being correct. This is a dangerously false belief. As the Irish philosopher Edmund Burke reminded us:

I have never yet seen any plan which has not been mended by the observations of those who were much inferior in understanding to the person who took the lead in the business.

The Rudd government clearly set out to create a stimulus package that would save jobs, and I applaud them for their efforts. However, as they are only human, they missed something. They forgot they would also need to address those thousands and thousands and thousands of people who are going to lose their jobs anyway, with little hope of finding another job. If we are going to go into debt to spend $42 billion to alleviate the effects of the upcoming recession, then we must surely spend some of that money helping those very people most affected by it. We should use the money to bring security, confidence and hope to those families trying to make it through the next couple of years.

In a plan which gives $950 handouts to even the well-off, surely we should be more targeted in identifying those in true need. In a plan which spends $3.9 billion on roof insulation and solar panels which will take 2½ years to fully install, surely we can find better ways to utilise the ingenuity of the great Aussie battlers soon to be unemployed. The flawed economic thinking of the neoliberals was faulty precisely because they believed they could not be wrong. Many warned the former Chairman of the Federal Reserve, Alan Greenspan, and former President George Bush, but these critics were ignored, sidelined and ridiculed.

Mr Rudd says that his policy is ‘supported by practically all responsible economists’, but what he does not say is that one year ago both he and nearly all the same economists thought the complete opposite. The world was not flat because the majority of people thought it was. The millennium bug was not a threat to the world order just because the majority of people panicked over it. The Rudd government’s rejection of all those who wished to review his plan as ‘standing in the road’ of progress is a worrying indication of a government that believes economics cannot be wrong. When the Rudd government demanded that parliament approve a $42 billion package with only 48 hours notice, it suggested that the Rudd government did not accept the possibility that it could have made a mistake. I respectfully ask the government to work with people’s elected representatives, not to force us into approving the package. As the economist Henry Ergas said this week:

Parliamentary scrutiny of spending decisions is fundamental to democracy. With so many important questions unanswered, the Senate should insist on doing its job, and on having the time to do it well.

I wish that parliament had been given the opportunity to hold a Senate inquiry into the current Iraq war. I suspect the Senate would have discovered that there was no postwar plan and so have saved many lives. As James Surowiecki famously wrote, there is not just wisdom in individuals; there is also great wisdom in crowds. This wisdom of crowds is the power of democracy itself. The Nobel Prize winning economist Amartya Sen wrote that ‘a free press and an active political opposition constitute the best early warning system a country threatened by famine can have’. This is because an eclectic crowd of journalists and parliamentarians can find it much easier to spot flaws and sound the warning of government mistakes.

The Senate is not a rubber stamp. It is there to keep the bastards honest and to correct the mistakes of the government. Indeed, one of my crossbench colleagues has already reported finding a multibillion dollar typo in the stimulus package documentation. The government has made a mistake in ignoring the hundreds of thousands of soon-to-be-unemployed Australians and should allow senators to help fix the stimulus package, ensuring it offers the maximum and best targeted help possible to save Australian families and communities. The Rudd government must respect the institution of parliament, even though institutions are not a very easy concept to spin and sell. They are essential to constitutional democracy, which has protected us over our history. Respecting these democratic institutions will be essential to protecting Australians through these very tough times.

I also ask the Prime Minister to contemplate the importance of communities and how, with the stimulus package, we might better protect and help them to heal themselves. The Prime Minister says that neoliberalism has failed, and I agree with him. In fact, that was the topic of my first speech in the Senate more than three years ago. I warned that Australia had taken on some of the values of the unfettered free market economy and that we would have to ditch those and focus back on community life and a savings culture. Neoliberalism’s failure is partly because it became infested with a market fundamentalism that could see only individuals and was blind to the importance of communities and altruism. Yes, I am an individual, but I am also a father, a husband, a boss, a parliamentarian and an okay soccer player. In other words, we are not islands; we are all connected in a web of social interaction which is central to our lives and our identities. When I lost my job in 1992, the biggest factor in whether I could cope, adapt and overcome my circumstances was the support I received from my family and community. As the love and support we receive from our friends and family is impossible to quantify in Treasury modelling, it is too often just ignored by economists trying to tackle recessions. To ignore our emotions, friends and families because they cannot be defined in a calculator or counted in GDP is absolutely foolish.

If good, honest people lose their jobs and cannot find another, they suffer more than the loss of their wage; they can also lose their pride, confidence and hope. They might also lose their home, which will rip their families from their local emotional support network—their community—at the time they need it most. Giving Aussie families a heart full of hope is as important as giving them a pocket full of cash. Amongst the hundreds of thousands of unemployed people will be countless mums and dads who, through no fault of their own, will find themselves out of work with little prospect of finding another job. These people will be our families, friends and the neighbours down the street. They will be hardworking, skilled and innovative people. They will be ordinary people—but people that count. Recently, economists have highlighted risks to our homes because some people cannot claim unemployment benefits if they have savings or property. This law threatens to rip communities apart. We cannot let that happen to our fellow Australians.

I have recently asked the Prime Minister and Treasurer to consider how they might be able to better use 10 per cent of the proposed $42 billion package in a plan that both creates jobs and strengthens our communities. I believe this plan could restore our newly unemployed battlers’ finances, hopes and dignity by awarding grants to local councils and charitable organisations that already exist in our communities. By using these existing structures the government can get cash straight into the system. Most importantly, once armed with this money, local councils and charities can put people in their community back to work on projects which are targeted to help heal those communities in some way. This would empower social entrepreneurs, charities and local councils to heal the problems in our communities. This creates not just thousands of jobs but also a sense of self worth, confidence and hope amongst our communities.

Some charities will no doubt use the grants to employ people to work on environmental projects. Some will be employed to give care to the elderly. Some will be employed to provide after-school projects for our children. Some projects will employ people to clean up our neighbourhoods. Some projects will employ people to offer health services and some will be employed to educate remote communities. The types of projects will be limited only by our imagination.

Amongst these established organisations, like charities and local councils, there is more knowledge of what needs to be done to build and strengthen our communities than could ever be dreamt of in a centralised government bureaucracy. Amongst the soon-to-be-unemployed Aussie battlers there will be the ingenuity to deliver these projects and where training is needed then there is already money in the current package set aside for this training.

I am only one senator in this place entitled to a very small number of staff, so I submitted a paper to the Prime Minister and Treasurer on Friday asking the Treasury to model Family First’s Get Communities Working plan and our projection that this could create up to 100,000 jobs. The Treasury’s response was to come back to say that Family First’s Get Communities Working plan would create 25,000 to 33,000 jobs. Therefore, even by Treasury estimates, the Family First’s plan, which only needs 10 per cent of the total stimulus package—about $4 billion—will create far more jobs per dollar spent than the Rudd government’s plan. For every 10 per cent of the Rudd government’s stimulus package, Treasury estimates an average of up to 9,000 jobs will be supported and sustained. Treasury estimates the Family First plan will create 25,000 to 30,000 jobs with the same amount of money.

Family First’s Get Communities Working plan can also find common ground between all parties. The coalition might like the idea as it allows local social entrepreneurs—not central governments—to decide how best to use the money to benefit their communities. The Greens might see the potential for green projects, and the government already endorsed the concept when it implemented the idea to fund local councils on a much smaller scale last year. Speaking last year Mr Rudd said, ‘Local governments have the capacity to roll out smaller-scale infrastructure projects quickly.’

Equally, when Mr Rudd spoke at the launch of the Australian Council of Local Government he told us it was a ‘framework for future coordination’, believing that last year’s comparable $300 million scheme would ‘create thousands of jobs for tradespeople, engineers and administrators’. This scheme would mean that, far from the decrees of the government telling us exactly what needs to be done in our communities, we could allow the experience of the forgotten ‘third sector’ and local government to show us what needs to be improved in the communities they live in. And, of course, in giving local governments and charities the money to employ people, they can not only build and strengthen the community but also stimulate the economy. This plan can turn the innocent casualties of this crisis into the heroes of their communities.

This message has, of course, been brought home to us this last weekend. Some of this money should go directly to the Victorian communities devastated by fires. It should leverage existing charities and local government organisations to find the jobs and projects in these local communities which will best help them. It would allow an opportunity for those who will be without work to be productive and help rebuild their local community. It would harness that Australian spirit of mateship and soldiering on despite adversity that has again and again come to the fore when Australia has faced difficult challenges. If the Prime Minister wishes for me to vote for this $42 billion package, he should take a more conciliatory approach and welcome ideas from the crossbenches, especially ones which will create thousands of jobs for Australians at no extra cost to the taxpayer. I look forward to his response.