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Thursday, 12 February 2015
Page: 669

Senator DI NATALE (Victoria) (16:51): I start with a frank assessment of where we are as a nation, and I think it is important to look at some of the fundamentals here. Let us start with the economy and some of the key indicators in terms of how our economy is going. If we look at last year, we had a quarterly rate of economic growth of about one per cent. Then we had the budget, that infamous budget, and the economy took a massive hit. Economic growth halved, down to about 5.6 per cent; it dropped further, by about 0.3 per cent; and it is still on the way down. Economic growth is on the way down. It is falling, rather than rising. Do not listen to the huff and bluster that you hear in this place. Look at what the Reserve Bank say about the economic outlook. They say that growth is continuing at a below-trend pace. They say that domestic demand is weak. They say that, looking towards the future, it will be below trend for somewhat longer.

Look at unemployment. In 2012, the unemployment rate was about 5.3 per cent; in 2014, it was over six per cent. That is worse than it was at the peak of the global financial crisis. Again, do not take our word for it; look at what the Reserve Bank say. They expect unemployment to get worse before it gets better. And is not just unemployment. Underemployment has been a problem for a long time. Unemployment figures do not talk about levels of underemployment. But, again, underemployment is now getting worse.

I think it is important to be honest about the role that governments can play in shaping the direction of our economy. It is a very interconnected world, and we are very much subject to the global economic tides, the ebbs and flows, that go along with that. Since the Hawke and Keating reforms of the eighties and nineties, which produced many benefits, the levers that governments have at their disposal are limited. But the one thing that governments do have some control over, the one thing that governments can influence, is a very precious, intangible commodity: confidence. That is something that governments do shape. What we have now is a crisis of confidence. There is a crisis of confidence in this government, its people and its policies, and that starts at the Prime Minister and flows down. That is the heart of the problem for this government, and it started with the budget.

It is very clear that the crisis of confidence we are experiencing at the moment started with the budget, a budget that came as great shock to the Australian community. Despite the promises of no cuts to education, no cuts to health, no cuts to the ABC, we saw a budget that was an attack on the sick, the poor, the young and the old. It was a budget that tore up the social contract, a contract that was developed on the back of generations before us, based on the notion that we are an egalitarian country and that we look after people who are poorer than us and people who are unwell. It was a contract that said: 'This is who we are as a nation. This is what we stand for.' And the budget tore that up. It was a budget that fundamentally redefined who the Australian people were, and they did not like it. It was not just that they did not like it; they did not have confidence in the people who were telling us the direction that we needed to head in.

We had Joe Hockey trying to defend the budget, making ridiculous statements like 'poor people don't drive cars and, if they do, they don't go very far'. He said people work for the government for six months, implying that the ordinary rate of tax for an average Australian is 50 per cent. That is nonsense, utter nonsense. He made these absurd claims that people were going to live until they were 150 and that we needed to make these sorts of cuts because, if we did not, we were going to end up like Greece—comparing the Australian economy to that of Greece. That is the sort of language that leads to a crisis of confidence.

In health care, we saw the same thing. We saw a range of policies implemented based on a lie. We had a health minister saying that Medicare was unsustainable, in the face of all of the evidence saying the opposite. We had the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare report saying that growth in spending on health was lower than it had been in the past 30 years. We saw Commonwealth spending on health as a proportion of GDP actually decline. The government came up with figures like 'a 100 per cent increase in Medicare', but they forget the fact that our GDP has increased by almost that much. These are some of the most basic and deliberate misrepresentations of how our health system is performing.

We have a good health system; we can make it better. But the government tried to implement a range of policies that attacked the very heart of our health system—that is, the principle of universality. You see, you can fund a health system in two ways. You can fund it through progressive tax so that, at the point of access, everybody is entitled to use it. That is why I have no problem with millionaires being bulk-billed. The alternative is the US model. You do not collect the tax revenue; you ask people to pay for it at the point of service. That results in a much less fair system and a much more expensive one. It is why the US spends twice what we do on health as a proportion of GDP.

I also say in the middle of this debate that what is being called 'the GP tax' is not a tax. Every time the Labor Party talk about this as a tax, they are undermining the very thing we should be doing, which is arguing for a fair tax take to fund these services. This is not a tax. It is a co-payment. It is a user-pays model and it dismantles the very core of what Medicare is, and that is a universal system of health insurance. Again, it was not just about the co-payment policy; it was about the way it was implemented. We had version 1, version 2 and then version 3, and today, I understand, version 4 is on the table but it is not on the table. Of two different members of the government, one is suggesting it is on again and the other that it is off again. I do not know—I genuinely do not know—whether the co-payment is still government policy. It is no wonder the former health minister has been voted the worst health minister of all time.

Education is no different. We have the spectre now of $100,000 degrees. We have a situation where universities do not know what to charge their students. I do not blame universities and their vice-chancellors for getting out there and arguing in support of some of these changes, and I know some of them are. It is because they are starved of funds. They want to get on and do their jobs, but we have a government that is not prepared to fund higher education. It is the brains of this country that our economic prosperity comes from. Why we would starve our universities of funding, why we would continue to argue for user-pays models in education that discriminate against the poorest and most vulnerable, and people living in regional areas, is beyond me.

In welfare we had the prospect of young kids being taken off Newstart after six months. How on earth is somebody who has no income support, who cannot find a job, who is in a regional community, who might have a chronic health problem and has to go and see their GP a couple of times a month supposed to survive?

The list goes on. We had the review of the renewable energy target, with the brazen, shameless appointment of a climate denier like Dick Warburton to review the renewable energy target. From a government that prides itself on supporting business we have uncertainty in a multibillion dollar business, a business that could be one of the powerhouses in driving our economy forward. Right now we have uncertainty in the renewable energy sector because we have a renewable energy target but both sides are not prepared to say, 'This is it. This is the level of certainty we need, and let's make sure that business knows where they're operating from.' We have had R&D slashed. We have had funding for the CSIRO slashed. We have had funding for the ABC slashed. We have had funding for SBS slashed. We have had public services slashed. And then we had the spectre of the paid parental leave that was, that wasn't, that was, that wasn't.

It is hard to go past the Prime Minister's role in all of this. It is a tough gig being the Prime Minister of a country. I would not wish it on my worst enemy. It is a tough gig, but it has to be said that he has been an international embarrassment. Do you remember him creating that new country Canadia? The suppository of all wisdom? Knights and dames? Then, today, I understand, he tried to compare job losses with the Holocaust. We have a Prime Minister who is showing himself to be unfit for office. People right around the country who have Rhodes scholarships must feel at the moment that the currency of their degree has been debased. It is no wonder that we have had the leadership turmoil we have seen over the past week.

What we are seeing is trust and integrity in government being destroyed. I have always believed that people might not agree with you on every policy proposition, but if they trust you, if they respect you, if they believe you have integrity you can take them with you. This is a government that has lost the trust of the Australian community. It has lost the trust of the Australian community because it promised one thing and did another. What it did was a fundamental attack on the values that we believe are important and that define us as a nation.

Amidst all that, we have a chaotic government. They are divided. They are dysfunctional. They have lost the trust of the Australian people. They can accept some responsibility and stop blaming the electorate for their problems. The electorate is not absent minded; they know very clearly how they feel about this government.

A few words of advice: stop attacking the social contract. People in this country value Medicare. They fought for it. They want it preserved. They want it built up, not torn down. That is what they want. They think it is important to have income support for people who are down on their luck. The last thing people want is a city filled with young people pushing shopping trolleys around because they cannot find a job, cannot find a house and have all their belongings with them while they look for crisis accommodation. We do not want to go down that path. We want to have an education system that ensures that someone from a regional community or a low-income background can afford to get a university degree and pull themselves out of the position they are in.

We value the ABC. We value SBS. We want our public broadcasters improved. We value the public sector. Public servants are our doctors, our nurses and our teachers. They are the people who help make this country function. Sure, address wasteful spending. We agree with you, there are some areas of waste that we can address. I have written to the Minister for Health and said, 'Let's have a conversation about health care and the areas where we can get better value for money.' Let us stop funding things that do not work. It is important to accept that there are areas where there is waste in the system, but you have to drop your ideological baggage. It is not just about spending. Be honest with the Australian community. We are a low-taxing country. People do not like paying tax—I accept that—but we are low-taxing country and the big end of town is not pulling its weight. It is not. Let us start with the enormous tax concessions in the mining industry. Why is it that people like Gina Rinehart get cheap fuel? Why do they get billion-dollar discounts on their fuel bills when ordinary people have to pay the full value of fuel excise? Let us drop the enormous subsidies that exist on fuel for the big end of town, in particular the mining industry. Look at superannuation and negative gearing. There are huge concessions enjoyed by high-income earners. While they enjoy those concessions we are asking people on low incomes to pay more to see a doctor and to pay more for an education, but if they cannot find a job they are not going to be looked after. That is not the sort of country we are. Let us tackle tax avoidance head on. Let us look at the enormous offshoring that goes on with big multinationals, who are creating elaborate tax avoidance schemes—some of them legal, some of them not. Just yesterday we had someone suggest that these are as bad as, if not worse than, the bottom-of-the-harbour tax avoidance schemes that we saw in the seventies and the eighties. The challenge for this country is to take on the big vested interests, to accept that we have a great country with a social contract that we all enjoy. The government ignores that at its peril, because on the trajectory they are on they will not make it to the end of this year.