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Tuesday, 1 November 2011
Page: 7787

Senator THISTLETHWAITE (New South Wales) (16:35): Last Friday afternoon, I had the pleasure of visiting East Maitland Public School in the electorate of Paterson and opening that school's brand new Building the Education Revolution facilities. These facilities, a $3.4 million investment, provide four new classrooms and a covered learning centre. Two of those brand new classrooms are for special-needs children—children with severe learning disabilities, Down syndrome and autism, and some who are non-verbal. I was touched to visit that school and to talk to the principal, who was over the moon about the fact that finally her school had some facilities that could offer a decent education for kids with learning disabilities. I spoke to a parent at the completion of the ceremony who had moved from Western Australia to get their kid into this particular school because of the educational opportunities that could be offered to their son, who has a severe learning disability. In the government's view and in my view, this is money well spent. It is invested in public education and in greater educational opportunities for kids, particularly those with learning disabilities.

I am flabbergasted to still hear the criticism and the ridiculous claims from those opposite about this scheme. I challenge any of those opposite to look in the eye of the parent of a kid with learning disabilities and tell that parent that the money we spent in providing their son or daughter with the same educational opportunities as other students in that school was a waste of money.

When I was a kid at school and a university student, I can remember a time when debates in our nation's parliament were about a belief and a vision for our country, a genuine contest of ideas, a battle for the hearts and minds of the people of Australia. I can remember a time when the Liberal Party had vision and belief, albeit a conservative belief and one that I did not agree with, and they had policies on issues. This matter of public importance today clearly demon­strates that the modern Liberal Party have no belief, no philosophy, no vision and in particular no policies for this nation. They are a policy free zone.

When it comes to policy development, they are woefully inferior to the Liberal Parties of the past and that shows in this MPI today. It reflects the philosophy under the leadership of Tony Abbott, whose approach is to say no to every idea, no to every policy, no to every vision, no to every philosophy for our nation. It is not only the policies of the Labor government that Mr Abbott opposes; it is also his own party room. When was the last time we heard a policy announcement from the Leader of the Opposition? When was the last occasion on which a shadow minister made a policy announcement? I cannot remember.

The only policy to have come out of the Liberals' party room in the last few months has been from the member for Mayo, Jamie Briggs, who said that individual contracts should be part of the Liberal Party's workplace relations policy, that the Liberal Party should consider extending the GST to the likes of food. They are a policy free zone and this MPI today demonstrates that. It is not for me to make these claims. It is not for me to criticise them when one of their own is doing an ample job of doing that. I draw the Senate's attention to a quote from former Leader of the Liberal Party John Hewson, who said in respect of Tony Abbott:

He's not a policy-driven person; he sees politics as a game—you say or do whatever you have to win and if you have to change your view, you do. His strategy is to be provocative, to be in people's faces … He throws a bomb and then he moves on, or if it blows up too badly, he apologises.

That was the view of John Hewson, a former leader of the Liberal Party. Why is that? Why are they a policy free zone? When they announce policies we see why. Let us have a look at the last election and how the Liberal Party proved what wonderful economic managers they would be of our economy. Not only were they pledging to cut services but when they lodged their election commitments for costing, they came up $11 billion short. Not even their own financial auditors would give an unqualified signoff on their accounts. There was an $11 billion black hole in their costings—and they claim to be an alternate government!—and that black hole was only beaten by a recent leak from their shadow cabinet about $70 billion worth of cuts which they are planning.

On their direct action policy on climate change, they say that they agree with our policy of a five per cent reduction in emissions by 2020. How will they achieve that? They will pay big polluters. They will provide subsidies with no guarantee of reductions in emissions.

I always thought that the Liberal Party philosophy believed in market efficiency. Indeed, I had a look at the Liberal Party website today. One of their beliefs is that government should not compete with an efficient private sector and that businesses and individuals are true creators of wealth and employment. If you looked at the Liberal Party policy on climate change, you could be blown over and fooled by the fact that it is in direct contrast to their beliefs on their own web site.

Then we have had them criticise us about Qantas—but they do not have a policy when it comes to workplace relations. I asked those opposite, 'What is your policy on workplace relations? Are individual contracts in or out? Is the member for Mayo right or wrong?' When are we going to get a policy announcement from those opposite on important issues? They fail to understand that the provisions in the Workplace Relations Act relating to suspension and termination of bargaining periods have been there since 1993. They were there for the whole period of the Howard years. Not once—never ever—was that particular section, which allows the minister to make a declaration, used by those opposite, yet they seek to criticise us.

Our philosophies and our policies are clear. We are a reforming government. We have put our policies before the people. We have announced our policies and we continue to do so. They are fully funded and fully costed. Our policies and our vision are for economic growth with fairness and we are delivering on that. We have one of the best performing economies in the world, with unemployment half that of the United Kingdom and the United States. We have created jobs. We have protected jobs during the global financial crisis.

Senator Williams mentioned debt. Austra­lia has one of the most enviable rates of net debt in the developed world. Our average is well below that of the OECD. We have a clear plan to return our budget to surplus. We have a clear plan to protect the environment by pricing carbon through a market based mechanism that will allow businesses to make their own decisions about how they reduce their costs associated with carbon emissions, a plan that will drive investment and jobs growth in renewables technology in the new economy. We have a plan to reform our health system and we are delivering that reform, with more doctors and nurses being trained and pressure being taken off our hospitals and our emergency centres with GP superclinics. We have an ageing population, and this is something that we realise will place a great impost on our budget. That is why we have a plan to increase occupational superannuation from nine per cent to 12 per cent. We are delivering extra public housing. We are delivering pension increases. We are delivering tax reform for low- to middle-income earners. When it comes to policies, Labor has a clear plan. The opposition is a policy vacuum, and this is well demonstrated by this motion this afternoon.