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Thursday, 10 March 1977
Page: 154

Mr COHEN (Robertson) -This Government is moving towards the half way mark in its present term of office. It came to office on 13 December 1975, almost 15 months ago, through one of the most disgraceful breaches of parliamentary convention and constitutional law in the history of the world 's democracies. It came to office claiming that the election of a LiberalNational Country Party coalition would eliminate inflation and unemployment. It claimed that the existing economic problems of Australia had nothing to do with the international situation and were all the fault of the Australian Labor Government. In the election campaign the present Prime Minister (Mr Malcolm Fraser), aided and abetted by a sycophantic media was able to get away with one of the most dishonest and deceitful campaigns in history. The policy speech he delivered to launch the campaign was so deliberately vague that almost everyone listening to it was able to put into it whatever they wanted to hear.

Re-reading the document 16 months later, one is struck by something which eluded us all at the time- the Prime Minister is a very funny man. He has missed his real calling; he obviously should have been a comedian. Let us recount the historic opening call. He said:

The Australian people face an historic decision on December 13. On that day, we will be deciding the future of our country. Let us all as Australians determine to restore prosperity, defeat inflation and provide jobs for all.

Fifteen months later there is not a reputable economist in the country who is not predicting an inflation of between 15 per cent and 20 per cent by the end of the June quarter this year. By the end of February last we had achieved an unemployment level of 346 668 people, some 5.7 of the work force. These figures are higher than ever achieved under the Labor Government despite attempts to cook the figures and to discourage people from registering as unemployed. I am reminded of a Utile old lady who said: 'Mr Fraser told me that if I voted Labor there would be more unemployment and inflation. I did, and there is'.

There has been something rather sad and a little pathetic about the speeches from Government supporters opposite in this AddressinReply debate, particularly the speeches by the fresh faced, identi-kit types who turned up in droves after the last election. After listening to the fairly predictable maiden speeches of most of the newcomers, what struck most of us apart from the appalling mediocrity of most of them, was their unquestioning confidence that the return of the Liberals to the Treasury bench meant the solution to all of Australia's economic problems- 'We are here, everyone can relax; Australia's problems are over', they seemed to be saying in unison. What was so pathetic was that they believed it. They recounted Labor's sins and with unabounded confidence informed the nation, to quote again from that famous speech of their leaden 'We have a comprehensive strategy to restore prosperity'. Their leader told them so. How could it be otherwise?

Mr Haslem - He said it would take 3 years.

Mr COHEN - Ringing phrases were quoted from the Messiah's sermon on the mount. The honourable member for Canberra (Mr Haslem) interjects that his leader said that it would take 3 years, 3 years that honourable members opposite were not prepared to give the Labor Government. The policy speech continued:

The major element in the strategy is to bring about growth in production in the private sector ... A government which understands and can manage the Australian economy is essential to Australia's prosperity and to the revival of business confidence . . . Only under a LiberalNational Country Party Government will there be a return to business confidence. Only under a Liberal-National Country Party Government will there be jobs for all who want to work . . . Price and wage restraint is an essential element in our strategy for prosperity and employment.

So it went on. Day after day we listened to the new chums heralding the return of the golden age under the new prophet, the new saviour. Anyone from this side of the House who questioned their chance of success, let alone their dubious methods, was scorned and ridiculed. Then came the job of putting those high sounding phrases into practice. It had been easy to make the speeches, it was not so easy to deliver.

A year has passed since those maiden speeches and the same new boys are making the same speeches. The economy is worse than ever. Not only has the Government not brought about the golden age; each month brings a further slide into the abyss. What makes it even worse is that when the Labor Government was in office it had the world economic situation to contend with. Now with the world situation improving Australia is going the other way. What makes the present speeches look so pathetic and tragic is that Government supporters really cannot believe or even comprehend what the Prime Minister (Mr Malcolm Fraser) and the Treasurer (Mr Lynch) have done to them. They keep on shouting at one another about the Labor Government which has been out of office for 16 months. I am reminded of the little boy who shouts in the dark to boost his confidence. This year, however, the smugness and the conceit have gone. The speeches are less plausible. They are not quite so sure where to direct their anger. Instead of directing it at the Prime Minister and the Cabinet they reiterate ad nauseam the Labor Government's imagined sins mainly to bolster their own sagging confidence but primarily in the hope that somehow the Australian public which voted them into office will give them another chance and a little bit longer to pull themselves out of the incompetence, inefficiency and general economic mismanagement that has marked their 15 months in office.

The beating of breasts and the abuse of the Labor Government might do something for the morale of the newcomers and the oncers but I can assure honourable members that as far as the Australian public is concerned it is going over like a lead balloon. Because of the way in which the present Government campaigned, telling the people of Australia that it alone had the answer to Australia's economic problems- it raised the hopes of the majority of these people that its election to office would immediately start to put things right- it is now reaping the rewards of its dishonesty. It would be fair to say that nobody expected the Government to solve problems in 3 months or 6 months or even 9 months but people did expect some sign of improvement by the end of the year and no one, not even the Opposition, thought with the signs of an improvement in the world economic situation that things could get worse, even when one examined the outrageous contradictions that were evident in what the Prime Minister was saying in the election campaign. Let us look at just how things have deteriorated since the Government took office. We were told that when the Labor Government was in office unemployment was at the highest level since the depression. The Labor Government was dismissed from office in November 1975. At the end of that month there were 265 567 people unemployed, or 4.3 per cent of the work force. At the end of February 1976, exactly 12 months ago, there were 303 739 people unemployed, or 5 per cent of the work force. A few days ago the figures for February 1977 were released showing that there were 346 668 people unemployed, or 5.7 per cent of the work force. Since the Labor Government's disgraceful sacking, unemployment has increased by 30 per cent. This is from a government which had the gall to berate the Labor Party about high levels of unemployment and about breaking records. At least the Labor Government showed some concern for the unemployed. At least it tried to do something about creating jobs.

This Government, tied as it is to the Ayn Rand-Milton Friedman-Malcolm Fraser philosophy that 'life is not meant to be easy' and that 'there is no such thing as a free lunch'unless one is a politician attending Parliament House the other day- refuses point blank to help the unemployed but instead does everything possible to create unemployment. It has refused to consider the reintroduction of the Regional Employment Development scheme which at its peak created 32 000 jobs directly and probably half as many again indirectly. This is despite the fact that the Labor Party provided the Government with a frank and honest reassessment of the scheme, recognising its strengths and weaknesses, admitting that there were areas for improvement and offering complete cooperation with the Government and the trade unions if the scheme was brought back. Instead, the Government satisfied itself with wasteful cosmetic schemes such as the Community Youth Support scheme and the Special Youth Employment Training program which do little or nothing for unemployment in general or for the unemployment of youth in particular.

The Community Youth Support scheme may have some benefits as a social welfare scheme because it is designed to provide unemployed young people with an orientation to work and make them more acceptable to employers but it will have absolutely no benefit in combatting unemployment. Except for a few jobs for social workers and youth advisers it will not create one job for the young themselves. It is a confidence trick aimed at giving the impression that the Government is concerned at the number of young peole who are unemployed. Incidentally, what little value the scheme does have as a sound measure is being eroded by the incredible bureaucratic bungling and red tape that is being created by the Department of Employment and Industrial Relations for the Commonwealth Employment Service and the community organisations that are making applications. In my electorate of Robertson one organisation has had to make 3 different submissions because each time it applies, the submission is returned with the information that the guidelines have been changed. But the Department will not tell them what the changes are. Apparently, the members of the organisation are supposed to be psychic.

The Special Youth Employment Training program which provides $6 1 a week subsidy for employers has some merit. Once again it shows the inherent prejudices of the Government in happily providing free enterprise with subsidised labour to produce pink toilet seats or green telephones which it regards as the valuable products of the private sector whilst denying the same assistance to the public sector which it regards as wasteful to build roads, schools and railways. Again, ample evidence is already emerging that some employers are misusing the scheme by sacking married men with families and taking on subsidised youth to replace them. I have considerable evidence of these sorts of actions in my electorate. I do not say that the practice is widespread but it does exist. That is the present picture regarding unemployment. It is not a pretty picture and regrettably as the Government's more recent blunderings take effect it is unlikely to improve and may even get considerably worse.

What is so despicable about this particular Government is that not only has its economic policies added to the unemployment but also with the aid of some of its back benchers, the media and some Cabinet Ministers it has constantly waged a campaign to denigrate the unemployed by the use of the term 'dole bludgers' and to play on the prejudices of the members of some sections of the community who are fortunate enough to have a job. Quite frankly, I become a little tired of the smug self-satisfaction of people who have a job. There are 94 per cent of the people at work even though some 6 per cent are out of work -

Mr Sainsbury - Don't you like people having jobs?

Mr COHEN -I like people having jobs. I do not like their smugness when they are fortunate enough to have a job, and I do not like their attitude towards those who are not so fortunate. Apparently, the unemployed are only genuinely unemployed when Labor is in government. A fascinating insight into the Government's economic muddle-headed thinking was provided today by the answer given by the Minister for Employment and Industrial Relations (Mr Street) to a question I asked him. I said:

In view of the reported comments of Government back benchers that people should work for their unemployment benefit, has he further considered the question I asked him late last year in which I suggested that new- I emphasise the word 'new'- local government works be subsidised up to 25 per cent of the total cost? The Minister will recall that I recommended 25 per cent as I believed this would be the amount of money saved through unemployment benefits. If this figure is correct, what possible objection can the Government have to the provision of funds to local government if it will mean simply a transfer of expenditure from one Government department to another?

I am delighted to see that the best Minister for Labor that we have had in years has just come into the chamber. He is the man who introduced the Regional Development scheme. I am not quite sure whether the Minister for Employment and Industrial Relations misunderstood my question or whether he deliberately tried to confuse the issue. What I was saying was that if local government bodies were prepared to undertake new public works with a subsidy of only 25 per cent, which is an amount equal to what would be paid out in unemployment benefits, why not allow them to undertake such works and pay them a 25 per cent subsidy? The balance of 75 per cent would then be paid by the local government bodies. The Minister replied in part:

One area of great concern has been the level of Government spending. It reached record levels and record rates of increase under the previous Government, which resulted in record levels of Budget deficit. Even if the cost of employment creation schemes is reduced by the 25 per cent that I mentioned a moment ago due to factors such as savings in unemployment benefit and increases in tax, such schemes are extremely expensive. No way has yet been found in which such schemes would not add to the Budget deficit that I mentioned a moment ago.

I have always regarded the Minister as one of the more intelligent of a rather thick bunch of Ministers.

Mr Bryant - Which one was that?

Mr COHEN - I am referring to the Minister for Employment and Industrial Relations. Surely he did not mean what he said. If 25 per cent of the cost is saved by a direct transfer from unemployment benefits to a job creation scheme, how can that lead to an increase in the deficit? It surely must have no effect whatsoever. The Minister's comment that 'even if the cost of employment creation schemes is reduced by 25 per cent' makes me feel that he did not understand the question. The cost of the scheme would not be reduced at all; it would remain the same. The cost to the Federal Government would be reduced by a rninimum of 75 per cent because the 75 per cent would be paid by local government. The 25 per cent contributed by the Federal Government would not be extra cost at all because, by the Minister's own admission, that amount would be saved in unemployment benefits and taxes.

Now let us have a look at inflation, that other major area in which the Government promised so much and has delivered so little. For the record I seek leave to incorporate in Hansard a table showing inflation rates for the years 1975 and 1976.

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