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Tuesday, 3 March 1998
Page: 178

Mr GARETH EVANS —Present are the miners of Cobar as well. You are welcome, to our side anyway. My question is directed to the Treasurer, and it follows the answer he gave to the member for Wannon.

Mr Howard —When were you last there?

Mr GARETH EVANS —Not so long ago, actually.

Mr DEPUTY SPEAKER —Order! Move on to your question.

Mr GARETH EVANS —In 1988. I visited the mine, which is a damn sight more than you have ever done. Treasurer, do you remember the Prime Minister saying on the day you launched your pre-campaign foreign debt truck three years ago that the coalition's `first priority in government economically will be to tackle the current account deficit'? How can you now explain that in less than two years you have brought foreign debt to an all-time record high of $222 billion, which is $28 billion more than it was when Labor left office? How can you now explain the December quarter current account deficit coming in at the highest level since 1995 when you said on the record during that quarter that the impact of the Asian economic crisis would hardly be measurable?

Mr COSTELLO (Treasurer) —I wasn't quite sure whether you had finished or not. I think your point was that the situation now was nearly as bad as it was in 1995. Is that your point? I think that was your point—that foreign debt is now the worse since 1995. Was that your point? Yes, that was your point. I assume it was worse in 1995 when you were in government. Was that your point?

Mr Gareth Evans —How are you going to fix it?

Mr COSTELLO —What is the point of your question? The point of your question is that we are only a little bit better than you; we are not miles in front of you. Is that the point of the question?

Mr Gareth Evans —It is perfectly clear. How can you explain blowing out foreign debt by another $28 billion when you said that you were going to reduce it? How can you explain the current account deficit blowing out in the way that it has at a time when the Asian economic crisis, according to you, was not measurable?

Mr COSTELLO —I will take the subsequent question, too, which is about the Asian economic crisis. I have said consistently that the Asian economic crisis is something that will not be in Australia's interests.

Mr Tanner —What a revelation!

Mr Latham —You said it could not be measured!


Opposition members interjecting

Mr COSTELLO —I am pleased to be of such amusement to the cockies on the frontbench of the Australian Labor Party. We, as a government, have been part of IMF programs for Thailand, Indonesia and Korea. There are only two countries in the world that have done that, and they are Japan and Australia. No other country in the world has been as active as we have been in meeting the financial crisis in Asia; no other country in the world, bar Japan and Australia.

We took a lot of criticism about that from various sources, not necessarily the opposition, in the Australian community who said why was it that Australia was taking such an active role in relation to stabilising the Asian financial system. The point I made at the time was this: it was in Australia's interests to have a strong Asia and we will be doing what is necessary in Australia's interests to try to secure Australia's interests in the region.

Mr Gareth Evans —Mr Deputy Speaker, I raise a point of order. It goes to relevance. The point of the question is not what the government is now doing to address the Asian crisis but what it actually did before there was an Asian crisis to ensure that we had debt blowing out to $28 billion more than it was when we left office. That was the question.

Mr DEPUTY SPEAKER —There is no point of order.

Mr COSTELLO —That is now the third question that he has asked, and I will go to the third question as well. Point No. 1: no other government in the world bar Japan's has been as active as this government has been in relation to the Asian crisis. Number No. 2: he then asks what did we do before the Asian crisis. I will tell you what we did, old tiger: we took $10,000 million and determined to turn it into a surplus. And where would we have been if the Australian Labor Party had been building up $10,000 million deficits in relation to the Asian crisis? We had a failed finance minister—Australia's worst finance minister ever: the Leader of the Opposition—who in two years presided over $27,000 million of losses.

I often say: imagine a crowd of 23,000 at the Sydney Cricket Ground and imagine that every one of them stood for $1 million. That is his record: $23,000 million. While he was the finance minister, he racked up—

Mr Beazley —Mr Deputy Speaker, I raise a point of order. I do not know want relevance this has to the question but, given that he is talking about $28 billion of foreign debt, I suppose he could say the same for those people at the Sydney Cricket Ground under him on foreign debt.

Mr DEPUTY SPEAKER —There is no point of order.

Mr COSTELLO —You say what did we do before the Asian financial crisis. We took a $10,000 million deficit and we determined to turn it around. And what did the Labor Party do? The Labor Party tried to stop this process at every turn. It was not enough that they created the crisis; they then tried to stop us solving it. The best thing about it is that they were incompetent in doing that, just as they were incompetent in their management in the first place.

We as a government sat down and we took the hard decisions—fought all the way by the Australian Labor Party. We decided to put some fireproofing into the Australian economy when Labor said it did not need it. We decided to attend to Australia's budget position when Labor said it was not warranted. We decided to deal with inflation when the Australian Labor Party said they would sue us. You were going to sue us over our agreement with the Reserve Bank for low inflation.

Now the Leader of the Opposition wanders up to Sydney and says, `Hey, guess what the Labor Party policy is now?' The Labor Party policy, after running a decade of deficits—and you ran $23 billion worth—is to produce three years of surplus. Guess what the Labor Party policy now is on inflation? To endorse an inflation target with the Reserve Bank of Australia.

Mr Gareth Evans —Mr Deputy Speaker, I raise a point of order. The question was not about inflation. It was about foreign debt. It was about how he explains $28 billion, which is $1 million for each one of those 23,000 people sitting in the Sydney stadium.

Mr DEPUTY SPEAKER —There is no point of order.

Mr COSTELLO —The question was: what has the government done to address the crisis in Asia? Not only do we have inflation down, not only have we brought the budget back, not only had we overcome the Australian Labor Party but I tell you what else we are going to do: we are going to get a better system of industrial relations in this country. You are against that. You are against any reform in relation to industrial relations. We are going to get a better taxation system in this country. You are against that.

You can get up here and talk about current account deficits, but what is your policy? To have indirect taxes on exports sailing out of this country. That is your policy. That is the tax system that you are defending. You are opposed to Australian exporters being given opportunities on world markets. And why? I will tell you why. This is an opposition that has no policy, no principle, no credibility, no economic literacy, no future and no hope.