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Thursday, 10 February 2011
Page: 423

Senator JACINTA COLLINS (Parliamentary Secretary for School Education and Workplace Relations) (10:25 AM) —One thing that Senator Kroger was correct about is that we should look at the broader context in relation to the Social Security Amendment (Income Support for Regional Students) Bill 2010 because, indeed, it is the second, if not the third, response to the government’s Bradley review measures. What this debate has failed to take into account are the other advantageous measures for all low-SES students that those measures have incorporated.

Senator Nash —You are contradicting yourself.

Senator JACINTA COLLINS —Let us have a little bit of a look at history, Senator Nash, which you have failed to do but indeed Senator Kroger did. In March last year, after lengthy negotiations with the coalition, the parliament legislated to make income support system arrangements more equitable and more generous for students from low-income families, in line with the recommendations of the Bradley review. This included those from rural and regional communities. You may not be 100 per cent happy with those measures, Senator Nash, but that was the deal and the deal was intended to last longer than just a few months.

At this stage I should highlight some of the points that have already partly been made in this debate, because Senator Cameron is quite right. The measures before the Senate today—which, unfortunately, are historically the first private senators’ bill measures under the new Senate arrangements, as referred to by Senator Hanson-Young—do involve either constitutional vandalism or fiscal recklessness, if not both, on behalf of the coalition. Senator Cameron referred in part to the difficulties that the coalition is having at the moment. Indeed, one does ponder what Mr Robb makes of these arrangements because, if you look at the Bills Digest and the discussion on the constitutionality issues, you cannot have it both ways. This measure either is fiscally irresponsible and reckless or is sheer constitutional vandalism. If you look, for instance, at the reference to Odgers, which a Senate clerk referred to, and the claim that the bill does not appropriate money because it does not have a formal clause to that effect, how on earth can the coalition claim to be fiscally responsible when relying on such a device? You cannot.

The issue of whether this is an appropriation bill is contested between the houses and that debate will go on for some time yet. I note that the very comprehensive letter from the Attorney-General has been made available to the Senate to refer to. I agree that there are some very serious concerns.

Senator Nash —You are digging a hole for yourself.

Senator JACINTA COLLINS —Senator Nash says that we are digging a hole. Well, in her very short-term view, if she thinks responsible government is about using devices such as this and trying to skirt the Constitution on what are appropriation bills she is highlighting my very point about the problems that the coalition faces today. This is completely fiscally irresponsible. Indeed, Senator Mason knew that last time we debated this—hence his sheepish response to the debate in the Senate on the last occasion, and indeed today. Today Senator Mason is not able to assure the Senate that these measures were properly costed in the coalition’s policy at the last election, because he cannot. These measures were part of that more than $10 billion black hole that the coalition took to the last election.

So I go back to reinforce the points that Senator Cameron made that the constitutionality issues here are very serious. They are serious not only in this bill but also in other bills that may move forward in debates such as this. I reinforce particularly to the Greens on that issue that, if we are to move forward with these new arrangements for private senators’ bills, the arrangements around how we deal with appropriation matters are very serious policy considerations that need to be looked at very carefully.

I want to spend more time on the fiscal recklessness issue. This bill is only one example of the coalition’s approach here. The change to youth allowance that we are debating here today has a cost of $317 million over four years. The Nationals will say, ‘But there’s not a clause in the bill appropriating money; therefore, it is not an appropriation bill.’ Well, again, you cannot have it both ways: either this is fiscally irresponsible or it is constitutional vandalism.

The spending proposal also wipes out half of Mr Abbott’s $600 million cut to the water buybacks. What further measures will he cut to make up for this shortfall? Will we see further cuts to foreign aid? Is that what the coalition is going to come up with next? This is just the tip of the iceberg. Another opposition bill introduced today, the Defence Force Retirement and Death Benefits Amendment (Fair Indexation) Bill 2010, would have a fiscal cost of $1.7 billion—yes, billion, not million—over four years and an underlying cash cost of $175 million over four years. It would increase Commonwealth unfunded liabilities by $6.2 billion—yes, Barnaby, not million—

The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT (Senator Troeth)—Order! Senator Collins, you will refer to other senators by their correct name.

Senator JACINTA COLLINS —I apologise; I should have said Senator Joyce. This would increase the Commonwealth’s unfunded liabilities by $6.2 billion. That is why I highlight that these constitutionality issues around appropriation bills are very serious indeed, not only with respect to this one involving $317 million over four years but also with respect to the next one up for debate in private senators’ time involving $1.7 billion over four years. If we continue along this path and deal with money and appropriation matters in this fashion, it can only highlight the fiscal recklessness of this opposition and, indeed, Mr Abbott’s incapacity to manage his coalition.

It is only week 1 of the parliament and already the opposition have introduced bills that would cost the budget almost $500 million and increase unfunded liabilities by $6.2 billion, with not one additional savings option in sight. On top of this, the opposition have also demonstrated their fiscal recklessness by twice blocking $5 billion in savings measures put forward by this government. This includes means-testing the private health insurance rebate, which will cost the budget some $2.1 billion over the next four years, and the closure of the Chronic Disease Dental Scheme, an out-of-design scheme that has had significant cost blowouts and will cost the budget $3.1 billion over the next four years. Yet they think they can ride on Mr Fahey’s credibility as a responsible fiscal manager. I hate to say this to Senator Brandis but logic does not say that because Mr Fahey has some common sense every other Liberal Party member does, which seemed to be the argument they were presenting in question time yesterday. This spending is an additional $5 billion over the next four years as a result of the opposition’s recklessness. They are also in the process of trying to block a further $2 billion in savings to the budget over four years by voting against reforms to the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme.

The opposition have demonstrated time and time again that they are not committed to bringing the budget back to surplus. After spending weeks saying that it would be easy to find savings, what we have is a series of deferrals, double counts and backflips and still no serious strategy about flood reconstruction. They have double counted around $700 million in savings. They say they will use it to fund the rebuild, but they have already earmarked those savings to fund other spending priorities; you cannot spend it twice. They have claimed over $100 million in savings from the BER which has already been allocated to projects that are committed or underway. The fact is that 99.9 per cent of BER projects have been completed or commenced. Which ones are you to discontinue? They have reversed their position on foreign aid, taking savings from a measure that they supported in government. They have had to roll Warren Truss and the Nationals, who said that they will not support our infrastructure saves. Is this part of the rationale behind the recklessness that we are dealing with in the Senate today? The opposition, the coalition, is indeed a shambles. (Time expired)