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Monday, 15 June 2009
Page: 3021

Senator ABETZ (12:50 PM) —The Senate is considering the Nation-building Funds Amendment Bill 2009. The practical effect of this legislation is to rip $2,500 million out of the Education Investment Fund. I repeat: it will rip out $2,500 million. It is important  from time to time to remind ourselves that $2.5 billion, which so easily slips off the tongue, actually represents $2,500 million. This is from the fund that was created with all the ‘wow’ factor of the The Hollowmen only 12 months ago. This Education Investment Fund was going to be the fundamental underpinning of the Labor Party’s education revolution—it was fundamental to it—but, of course, ‘education revolution’ was yesterday’s slogan. It was yesterday’s slogan to be forgotten today. The focus group has told the government that there should be a new slogan, that of ‘nation building’.

So the government, shortly after introducing its budget—the very same evening, about half an hour later—slipped into the House of Representatives this legislation, which will strip $2,500 million out of the Education Investment Fund and place it in the so-called nation-building fund. Why have I been concentrating on this stripping out of funding from the Education Investment Fund? It is because of all the words spoken so very hollowly by the Prime Minister, the Deputy Prime Minister and, indeed, the Treasurer in relation to this Education Investment Fund. Ms Gillard, on 17 September last year, said:

Our reform agenda will be complemented by increased investment in innovation and infrastructure through the new $11 billion Education Investment Fund.

It will be interesting to hear the minister’s response at the end of this debate as to how much money will actually be in the Education Investment Fund after this raid. Prime Minister Rudd, on 25 August, was bemoaning the supposed, alleged run-down by the Howard government in this area, and he said:

We sought to turn that around, and one of the main vehicles for turning—


around in the Budget was the announcement of … an Education Investment fund.

But, of course, as with everything with this government, that was five minutes ago. Now we need a new slogan and we need new money, so we just take the money out of one fund, slip it into another, give it a new name and once again are able to placate the 24-hour news cycle, which is the real driver of this government’s agenda.

That is the matter that concerns us in the coalition the most, Madam Acting Deputy President, because if you have a look at this government’s approach to economic management in this country then you will recall that it was only some 18 months ago or so that Kevin Rudd thundered, about the coalition government, ‘This reckless spending must stop.’ It had to stop. So, in their very first budget, they hoovered $20 billion out of the Australian economy through extra tax revenue measures because we had to slow the economy down! The reckless Howard government had so overheated the economy that it had to be slowed down! Indeed, the Reserve Bank was goaded and cajoled into increasing interest rates with that memorable line that the inflation genie was out of the bottle, one of the more infamous comments by a federal Treasurer—and, of course, no wonder that it comes from the current federal Treasurer, Mr Swan!

That was in May 2008, but, of course, that was for the news cycle for that month. Shortly thereafter, rather than slowing the economy down, they had to inject over $10 billion into the economy for a stimulus package. This is a government that simply has no idea day to day as to how to manage the economy. It has no vision for the future. It has no idea what the fundamentals that need to be addressed are in our economy. One day it is reckless spending: ‘That sounds like a good, focus-group-tested idea, so we’ll throw that into the media for a while. When that’s run its course, we’ll talk about the inflation genie getting out of the bottle and run that for a little while. Then we’ll talk about an overheated economy for a little while.’ Then, without blinking an eyelid, having said all these things only a matter of a few months earlier, the government turns around and says, ‘We’ve got to stimulate the economy.’

It is this same ad hoc, stop-start approach that Labor are now taking to education. The interesting thing is—and I must say that I will keep scanning the newspapers and listening to the airwaves—that I do not seem to hear the Australian Education Union, such a huge funder of the Labor Party at the last election, complaining about this siphoning of money out of the Education Investment Fund into what the minister described in his second reading speech to the House by saying:

This amount will be made available for the new Clean Energy Initiative.

These new clean energy initiatives may well be worthwhile projects, but what we are saying is: why is it that this money is being taken out of the Education Investment Fund, which was promised to the Australian people and, in fact, funded by Howard government surpluses? That is how the money got into this investment fund in the first place—make no mistake. Now Labor, having pledged themselves to the Education Investment Fund and to ramping it up to $11 billion, are siphoning out $2.5 billion—and I remind myself that that is $2,500 million.

What it shows is that this government has no consistent set of priorities. One day it will be education if that is what focus groups are telling it, but the next day it will be nation building, and it will not bother to check to see if its two lots of rhetoric actually match into a common theme for its management of the Australian economy. Indeed, it is interesting to note—and I invite honourable senators to have a look at the legislation that, in fact, set up the Education Investment Fund—that it was specified in the legislation that this money would only be available for certain purposes, which are enumerated from (a) to (l) in the legislation. I have read through those subparagraphs time and time again, and nowhere—and this might surprise honourable senators—does the Education Investment Fund legislation say that the money might be used for new clean energy initiatives. Nowhere in the legislation does it say that. But, of course, the Australian people were told and guaranteed by Ms Gillard, this great champion of education—how she has allowed this $2.5 billion to be ripped out of her portfolio nobody knows—on 13 May 2008, at the time of the second last budget:

The Future Fund Board of Guardians will be responsible for managing the fund.

Let Ms Gillard tell the Australian people and this parliament whether the board of guardians of this Future Fund had any say whatsoever in the diversion of $2.5 billion out of the fund. Let her tell the Australian parliament when it was considered. I have a funny feeling that these guardians on the board of this Future Fund would in fact be experts in the field of education. Chances are they are highly qualified capable individuals, able to make decisions as to where an investment fund in education ought be directed. I just have a feeling that if they were to be asked, ‘Where would money be well spent if you were to pursue new clean energy initiatives?’ they might say, ‘You’re asking the wrong people.’ If that is the case, what it shows and highlights is that Ms Gillard’s promise to the Australian people that the guardians would be responsible for managing the fund was wrong, that there was no intention whatsoever of allowing these guardians to manage this fund, which we were told on so many, many occasions was so vital to the future of Australians, especially young Australians.

Let’s just keep this in mind: Labor has stripped $13.8 billion out of future funds—the health one, the building Australia one and the education one—in about 12 months. $13.8 billion has now been spent and taken out of these funds. You then consider that the cash splashes that were splashed around the community for no benefit whatsoever, other than to keep us out of a technical recession, cost the Australian taxpayer $22 billion. So the simple fact is, but for the cash splash of $22 billion, this sleight of hand, stealing money out of the education fund and putting it into the clean energy initiatives, would not have been necessary. This is the price young Australians are already paying for the spending spree of this government. Not only do they have a $9,000 debt hanging over their heads as a result of the spending spree, but they have also been denied the investment of this $11 billion Education Infrastructure Fund, courtesy of the sound management of the Howard government, from being spent on educational institutions around this country. So the young people in particular are going to suffer a double whammy as a result of this economic negligence. In fact, I am not even sure if it is negligence. Sometimes I wish it were just mere incompetence, mere negligence. But there is a deliberate pattern emerging—

Senator Mason —Vandalism!

Senator ABETZ —where the government says one thing one day and does the exact opposite the next day, and still places hand on heart, saying, ‘We are committed to our election policies.’ I note in the chamber Senator Mason, a very excellent advocate for education in this country. He has pursued the issue of the education revolution and shown how hollow it actually is, that it was a mere two words, ‘education revolution’, which meant nothing, especially for the young people of Australia. But for the cash splash, the so-called ‘socks and jocks revolution’, the young people of Australia now are going to be denied a real education revolution. We know the ‘laptops for everybody’ was a disaster. We now know, courtesy of Senator Mason’s questioning at Senate estimates, that the school-building program is also a farce. Schools that were slated to be closed down over the next year or two will still have funding provided to them for new facilities. Indeed, I became aware of one school recently that were given $250,000 for a new facility. They were able to get it for $150,000, but when they put in their submission the department bounced it back to them, saying: ‘No, no, no, naughty people! It has to cost $250,000.’ This is how money is being squandered and that is why the Education Investment Fund has to be raided to the tune of $2,500 million.

Senator Parry —Gross mismanagement!

Senator ABETZ —Senator Parry, you are absolutely right—it is gross mismanagement. But methinks it is not so much negligence as part of the 24-hour news cycle spin. Education revolution was five minutes ago; that no longer has any traction. Now it is nation building; now we have to talk nation building. And I am sure by the time of the next budget—but let’s just wait on this. What is the bet there will not be a budget before the next election? Let’s wait and see whether Labor are willing to deliver another budget. That is when the young people of this nation will get hit with a triple whammy. The first whammy is the $9,000 debt. The second whammy is that it is their Education Investment Fund that has now been stripped of funding. Of course, the third whammy will show how the economy is in a complete train wreck scenario because of the mismanagement. For those of us that are over 50, chances are we have lived half our lives. But the young people, whose cause people like Senator Mason and I are trying to champion, still have their lives in front of them. They still have their educational needs in front of them. That is why the stripping out of this money from the Education Investment Fund is so very damaging to the future of our country. Indeed, I recall Ms Gillard—and I happen to note the minister for innovation and industry, amongst other things, in the chamber—told us on 17 September 2008:

Our reform agenda will be complemented by increased investment in innovation … through the new $11 billion Education Investment Fund.

How hollow those words now sound, because we know there was never any intention. If the government were genuinely concerned about education and its funding for the future, they would have said, ‘Education is a better long-term investment in human capital in this country than giving a cash splash of $22 billion.’ Remember the first $10 billion? That was supposed to create 75,000 new jobs, yet not a single job can be identified for that gross waste of money. But then not to be outdone they came into this place with another $40 billion-plus stimulus package, and you would have thought that by spending four times the amount of money there may have been the creation of a further four times 75,000 jobs. No, they came into this place and said that $40 billion on this occasion would not create—only support—90,000 jobs.

What a waste of money these stimulus packages have been. We as a coalition would have had a lot more modest a figure. We would not have had the cash splashes and as a result the Education Investment Fund, which was the guarantee to future generations, the legacy that was able to be left by the sound financial management of the Howard-Costello governments, money that was set aside for future generations, is now being squandered by Rudd Labor.  We take the view in general terms that governments are elected to govern. They are entitled to make decisions, and on this occasion we will not stand in the way of this legislation, but I, on behalf of the coalition, hope I have been able to express our concerns as to why this raid on the Education Investment Fund has been necessary, the damage it will do to the future of our country and especially to the future of our young people and that but for the reckless spending spree, the reckless cash splashes, there would have been no need for this raid and education would have been able to continue to shine and grow as it did under the Howard years.

Let me remind those opposite, in case they comment on the so-called lack of investment under the Howard government, the greatest investment that the Howard-Costello government made in the future of young people was to pay off Labor’s $96 billion debt that it left from last time. We paid that off only in April 2006. That is how long it took. It was only after that debt was paid off that we were able to start investing in schools and set aside these future funds, and Labor has squandered the future funds and got us back into debt to the great future detriment of the young people of Australia. We will seek to champion their cause yet again, as we undoubtedly will be required to, when we fix up the economy after the next election.