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Thursday, 12 February 2015
Page: 676

Senator BACK (Western Australia) (17:22): I am at a loss to understand why Senator Moore continues to give me these gifts. Yesterday, I thought that the gift of the MPI that she gave me was for my birthday, but I do not quite know why she has served it up again and given me the opportunity to share with the Australian people the absolute failure and the incompetence of the last Labor government. I take the opportunity to remark on Senator Ketter's comments with regard to Queensland, which is where, at the University of Queensland, I undertook my undergraduate studies. I will just check with a fine Queenslander, Senator O'Sullivan. Senator Ketter, in that era Queensland was debt free. As I recall, one of the proud claims of the then Queensland government was that all retail fuel prices throughout Queensland were exactly the same. It did not matter if it was Cairns, Mareeba or Brisbane, they were all the same. Today, you have an $89 billion debt.

Do you remember when John Howard won government? He and Peter Costello inherited a $96 billion debt from the Labor government and Mr Keating. But that was shared at the time amongst about 18 or 19 million people. Today, that $89 billion, nearly $90 billion, debt is shared amongst four million Queenslanders. And that represents $22½ thousand of debt for every single person in that state. And do you know what? It has to be paid back. What was the Newman government able to do in terms of retiring debt? Not too much, but what it did do was retire a $6 billion deficit. That is the difference between what you get in each year and what you actually pay out in expenditure each year. They reduced it by more than two-thirds—from $6 billion down to $2.7 billion. So that is what we have in Queensland today. Good luck to the good people of Queensland, because all they are going to see is that $89 billion debt just go up and up and up. That $22½ thousand per person is going to go up, Senator O'Sullivan.

I would agree with Senator Ketter that we did make one mistake on coming into government in 2013. I will tell you what it was: we actually believed the outgoing Labor government. How stupid would you have to be to do so! But we believed in them that that year there was going to be an $18 billion deficit.

Senator Bilyk interjecting

Senator BACK: Do you know what it turned out to be? In case Senator Bilyk did not hear it, it was not $18 billion; it was $40 billion. A deficit, as we all know, is that shortfall between what you get in each year and what you give out each year. Over the six years of the Labor government, they managed to run up $200 billion of deficit, whilst they ran from a surplus and approached about $600 billion in debt. As we all know, that translates to $1 billion a month, $33 million a day. It is about $1½ million an hour that this country is borrowing overseas, not to repay the debt but just to repay the interest. And how often do many of us in this place reflect on where we need to have funds to spend in the welfare sector, to spend in the pension sector, to spend on child care, et cetera? But when you watch that $1,000 million a month just going offshore, that is the new teaching hospital every month, that is the two new primary schools every day, seven days a week, that we are losing because we are paying back Labor's debt. Yes, there was a mistake by the incoming government, and that was that we believed the figure of $18 billion.

Acting Deputy President Seselja, you know—and those of us who have run businesses throughout our lives know—that leadership is about responding to changing circumstances. What are the circumstances today? The Labor government enjoyed the best terms of trade in Australia's history. They inherited no debt, no deficit. They inherited about $40 billion that was earning about $5 billion a year interest that was actually going into programs, et cetera—absolutely incredible. But we went to an election and we made a few promises. The first one was that we would get rid of the regressive carbon tax, because the carbon tax was simply putting the foot on the hose of industry, jobs and businesses. It was sending industry offshore; it was costing more for energy.

When young people come to my office and they want you to do this and do that, I say to them, 'In a population of 23 million in a land mass the size of continental USA, why do you think we have one of the highest per capita incomes in the world?' And they say, 'We lived on the sheep's back.' Well, it is a long, long time ago that we got a pound per pound of wool. Then they say, 'It's gold.' No, it is not gold. 'It's Iron ore.' We have probably had iron ore for six, seven, eight, nine or 10 years. Eventually, they cannot answer the question, so I say to them: 'Do you know why we are such a wealthy country per capita? It's because of cheap energy.' That has been it—nothing else, nothing more. We do not have the population. We do not have the population of the United States. We do not have the population of China and the other Asian countries. We have got—or did have—cheap energy.

So what did the carbon tax do? It attacked Australia's one great advantage. So we said we would reverse it, and we did. Who was the mining tax going to affect? Mainly, of course, Western Australia. That did not worry Labor, because they have so little representation in Western Australia. Even good Senator Bullock, before he came into this place, and others at the time, said, 'Don't do this.' We stood up here day after day and said, 'You will not bring in a mining tax, because it will make no money.' Did the then Labor government listen? No. What did they do? They not only made a prediction that they were going to earn $4½ billion a year when we told them it would earn them nothing. But, do you know what good old Mr Swan—that responsible and that best Treasurer in the world—went out and did? He spent it! Could you imagine a household getting the hope or the promise of $4,500 or a business getting $45,000, and at the beginning of the financial year saying, 'You beauty, I am going to go out and spend the $45,000 or the $4,500, or whatever it is.' Would any responsible household or business do that? Of course it would not. Mr Swan did. He made all these promises. He said, 'We're going to increase superannuation, we're going to change every circumstance, we're going to make all these concessions for everyone.' He built up expectations and hopes. And what happened when he earned nothing from his mining tax? Of course, they were dashed. And so we quite rightly committed them to the dustbin.

Today we have had discussions about the shocking circumstance of the number of people who came here illegally on boats. I will make only one comment about that. We speak about the 1,200 people lost at sea. I spent some time last year with two of my Senate colleagues undertaking the Sovereign Borders program up in Darwin at the Larrakeyah Barracks. I remember one morning speaking to some of the naval personnel who had in fact been at sea during those horrific circumstances. I asked them, 'How real is the figure of 1,200 lost at sea?' One of them said to me, 'Senator Back, the 1,200 were the ones that we pulled out of the water. The number is unknown, but it is infinitely greater than that 1,200.' I will not reflect further at this time on that circumstance.

But I will go on and say that, when Mr Abbott as the Prime Minister was confronted with the opportunity of providing financial support to SPC Ardmona, he said, 'No. Industry and business have got to learn to stand on their own two feet.' I would just make this observation. Do you know when the start of the demise of SPC Ardmona was? It is important to put this on the record. It actually started during the fruit harvest some years earlier at SPC Ardmona when a then industrial official went to the company right in the middle of picking and harvesting and influenced its workers to threaten to strike and arranged a circumstance in which the conditions of employment became such that the company became absolutely uneconomical and unprofitable. Do you know who that then union official was? It was one William Shorten, the now leader of the federal opposition here in this place. So we cannot divorce industrial activities from this but I, for one, will always do my best to encourage employment. I have a long record of encouraging employment, opportunity and skills development for those who have worked or are working with me or for me.

I will also go to some of the issues we are facing. Why are we looking at some of the budget problems we have? It is because the then Labor government identified $5 billion of savings that we supported once we came into government in this place. But what have that group of people on the other side done? They have opposed them. They have opposed their own budget savings.

I will go to higher education. It is a shame that Senator Carr is not here. Senator Carr knows as well as I do, despite his ranting and ravings, that it was the Labor Party's intention to cut some $6 billion out of higher education. In fact, by April 2013 they had started that process. I do not think it is to the credit of Labor senators to talk about $100,000 degrees. Let me give you one example. The University of Western Australia is among the top 100 universities in the world. Paul Johnson, the Vice-Chancellor of the University of Western Australia and an honest, ethical man, has said that the cost of undergraduate degrees at UWA will be $16,000 per annum. A three-year education degree will be three times $16,000, which is $48,000, not $100,000. A four-year agriculture degree will cost four times $16,000, which is $64,000. Perhaps Senator Carr needs to go back to school or borrow a calculator. For heaven's sake, do not insult the intelligence of this place by going on about $100,000 degrees when that university alone, one of the top universities in the world, has said what degrees will really cost. Either that or bring Professor Johnson in here and call him a liar to his face.

Those higher education opportunities will particularly enhance the opportunity for low socioeconomic Australians to avail themselves of scholarship schemes to go to university without fees. Regional universities are now being denied Commonwealth supported places for sub-university programs which will then lead students on towards university degrees. They are being denied them completely. I cannot understand why or how that circumstance is occurring.

Senator Ketter drew attention to jobs, as did Senator Moore. The government is costing jobs, is it? The job advertisement level, according to the ANZ, is growing at 13.6 per cent per annum at the moment—the fastest growth in 3.5 years. Two hundred thousand jobs have been created, equating to just under 600 jobs a day. In 2014 jobs growth was more than triple that of 2013. Is this evidence of costing jobs? These are not coalition figures; these are from the ANZ. The Dun and Bradstreet business expectations survey says it is the best outlook for 10 years.

Bill Evans, the chief economist at Westpac, made this observation the other day in response to the Reserve Bank's decision. He said, 'This lift in confidence should allay any concerns that rate cuts in the current environment of record low rates can be a negative for confidence.' I have a lot of faith in Bill Evans. I have followed him for a long time. I believe that he knows what he is talking about.

If Senator Moore thinks consumer confidence is down she should know that retail trade is up 4.1 per cent higher than last year. We will be introducing a small business tax cut of 1.5 per cent. The ANZ consumer confidence index is at its long-term average. We saw in 2014 a 10 per cent increase in the number of companies registered. These are what will go out and employ people. There are 21,000 new companies, and that does not take account of sole traders, partnerships or other business activities. Senator Whish-Wilson quite rightly said today that small business is the engine room of this country. It is where there is and will be employment.

I have already spoken about the fuel industry and electricity costs. We know that electricity costs are down. We know that fuel costs are down. For how long they will be I do not know. I would not be banking on it, but at least they are down at the moment. These are taking pressures off everybody in the economy.

But I am particularly concerned about and interested in employment prospects. We have at the moment in the hospitality and tourism industry an urgent need for 85,000 to 90,000 jobs to be filled. There is an urgent need now. That is before we get to the ongoing onslaught of new inbound tourists as our Australian dollar goes down. There is $4 billion of value to us in the China-Australia free trade agreement from education related services and exports. There was $1.7 billion last year of revenue to this country just from tourism from China. We have 85,000 to 90,000 jobs in that one sector alone. In the sector which I am very interested in and, of course, passionately associated with, agriculture and agribusiness, the opportunities for our country are vast. Like tourism and hospitality, as Senator Nash knows only too well, many of those jobs are in rural and regional areas. Many of them are jobs that do not require a high degree of skills, but there is the opportunity for skills development.

If only the Labor opposition would stop the negativism. If only they would come in here and act as adults and help in the whole process of improving the economy, of creating jobs and of stimulating activity, the whole of this Australian economy and all of its people would be an awful lot better off.