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Tuesday, 3 February 2009
Page: 53

Mr SHORTEN (Parliamentary Secretary for Disabilities and Children’s Services) (5:49 PM) —There is no doubt today, in listening to this MPI debate, that someone has got to be wrong. Of course, the opposition could not countenance that they might be wrong. In fact, they would have you believe that the National Farmers Federation, the Retailers Association and the builders associations—all of these people—are wrong and that the business interests are wrong. In fact, nation building and jobs for Australia have been an objective for the Labor Party for as long as we have been in existence. The Rudd government has continued this tradition because it believes that preserving employment is not just an economic responsibility but indeed a social responsibility. The unemployed are not just statistics; they are individuals and families struggling with uncertainty and despair.

I waited futilely to hear the strategies of the opposition to provide hope to people whose jobs are threatened by this current crisis, and no help was forthcoming, I am afraid to say. A rising unemployment rate is not just an indicator of an economic crisis; it is a crisis in itself. We believe the government can, through acting decisively, preserve the jobs of Australians and keep our economy growing. No-one can argue against the proposition that the achievement of supporting existing jobs and creating new ones is in fact a more difficult task today than it was in those long, languorous years of the long boom of the Howard government. The problems caused by the global economic conditions make our mission to secure jobs more important than ever. When families and individuals are experiencing uncertainty about job security, anxiety about guaranteed income and fear of being unable to work, what they require from government is a pro-jobs strategy.

It is a fact that every country across the globe is affected by this current financial crisis. Growth will fall, jobs will be threatened and budgets will be pressured—there is no quick fix to this global recession. Governments around the world are grappling with this issue of how best to tackle it, developing packages for the individual circumstances that their countries face.

We on this side of the House understand that the people who are most at risk in hard times are those who have more limited training and the weakest attachment to the labour market. When unemployment rose in earlier decades, the increase in the unemployment rate for those without higher education was considerably higher than for those people who had it. Fighting unemployment is not done by cutting wages and conditions. It is not done by delay and obfuscation. It is done by improving the skills of workers. We are building a country in which there are many different ways to be educated and in which every Australian can find a pathway into learning which enriches their opportunities, but we have a long way to go before we can achieve this, especially after the 11 years of the enforced political narcolepsy of the conservatives.

Opposition members interjecting—

Mr SHORTEN —I thought that would wake you up! Forgive me, Madam Deputy Speaker; the National Party is still slumbering. We are investing in every stage of the life cycle. We are investing in the early years through quality schooling in classrooms equipped with the latest information technology and we are also focusing on the long-term unemployed. These are the people whose cases were considered too hard by the previous government. Despite the rhetoric and the trumpeting of the alleged success of Work for the Dole, the fact is that DEEWR figures show that one-third—one in every three—of those who were unemployed in 2001 were still unemployed in 2007. For young women with little education that figure was 75 per cent. What an unacceptable waste of human potential in an economic boom! We are reforming the employment services system and we are developing the productivity places. Indeed, under the previous government—if they want to talk about jobs—the disability support pension rose faster than the unemployment rate—again, not acceptable in an economic boom.

Labor’s vision, as outlined again today by the Prime Minister, is that we want to see jobs and the economy well stimulated. Today the government released a $42 billion Nation Building and Jobs Plan to build the nation and preserve 90,000 jobs over the next two years. This will provide an immediate stimulus to the economy, as well as long-term benefits through the creation of infrastructure, most notably for our schools, our roads and our housing. We have not stood back in that most comfortable of political poses of conservatives, with folded arms, and watched the crisis unfold. What a contrast to the maudlin sloganeering of a jealous and frustrated opposition, dimly aware that they blew their 11 years and they blew the fruits of an economic boom!

I have to say that no phenomenon of recent months has been more surprising than the revival by the Leader of the Opposition of support for well-paid, highly skilled jobs. After all, despite their nostalgia for the past days of the Howard government, supported by the country branch of the Liberal Party, the National Party, how quickly those opposite forgot Work Choices! This was a policy designed to lower pay, create insecurity, reduce expenditure on skills and training and send jobs offshore. But the Work Choices law was the wrong doctrine in the wrong century directed against the wrong enemies.

As Warren Buffett has said, when the tide goes out you can see who has been swimming naked. This tide has gone out and the economic crisis has shown that the previous government were skinny dipping, coasting through the good times and failing to invest in this country’s future prosperity. They blew a once-in-a-generation economic boom; for instance, between 1998 and 2004 the annual growth in labour productivity averaged just 2.1 per cent. This was 1.2 per cent below the record average growth of the preceding cycle, when Labor was in office, and in fact between 2004 and 2007 labour productivity growth dropped to 0.8 per cent. We need productivity to preserve jobs, and that is what the Rudd government is doing. Today’s productivity growth is tomorrow’s future prosperity. Today’s economic package will in fact deliver an immediate boost to the economy but it will also deliver long-term benefits to our country. The children of our country are our future, and our future as a nation depends on their knowledge, their education, their health and their strength. What better investment can there be than to provide resources for developing minds?

We are going to provide $14.7 billion for repairs and improvements across all the primary schools in the nation to benefit the next generation of Australian children. This is the biggest school improvement program that Australia has ever seen. It is the Snowy River scheme of primary school resource development. It will see the construction of libraries, science laboratories—surely the National Party are not against books and science laboratories—and language learning centres. Furthermore, we will share the national wealth to create opportunities for all our children.

These are the toughest economic times in living memory. We can no longer afford as a nation the ‘she’ll be right’, ‘leave it alone’, ‘head in the sand’, ostrich-imitating mentality of conservative politics. Until the last election it was not the capabilities of the Australian people that were inadequate; it was the priorities of the previous government that were inadequate. We have the vision on this side of the House that the Australians who put their trust in us require for the future. We have the vision to provide tax relief for 8.7 million Australian workers; the vision to support small business by tax relief; the vision to build 20,000 new units of crucial social housing over the next two years, an initiative which will benefit our vulnerable Australians long into the future; and the vision to make our housing stock more energy efficient and environmentally friendly by providing insulation to 2.7 million homes and by increasing the solar hot water rebate system. We have the vision to improve every school in this country; the vision to ensure that Australians have the incentive to get the skills they require and to keep their jobs in these tough economic times; and the vision to fix accident black spots, install rail boom gates, repair regional roads and build community infrastructure such as libraries, town halls, community centres and sports centres.

Behind everything in this package announced today by the Prime Minister is the need to keep the economy going to preserve Australian jobs. This money will keep the wheels of our economy turning and it will preserve jobs over the next two years. It also strikes a balance between jobs now and jobs in the future. For every dollar that will go to immediate stimulus at least $2 will go on far-sighted projects which will support jobs over the next two years and deliver benefits down through the decades. We have not tried to sugar coat the tough times facing Australian people. Our unemployment rate has risen to 4.5 per cent. We do not go into a temporary deficit lightly but we do believe it is necessary to preserve as many jobs as possible. The $10.4 billion stimulus provided last October was effective in boosting retail spending in the lead-up to Christmas. Our other investments, such as the car plan, the investment in local government and the investment in infrastructure, will also assist, preserve and create jobs. This is not to forget the $15 billion package of reforms through the Council of Australian Governments, estimated to support over 100,000 jobs.

Unlike the opposition, one should never assume that success in this unprecedented economic crisis is inevitable. It is not inevitable. We are in unknown territory and anyone who says otherwise really does not know what they are talking about. We can only promote and protect jobs if we rise to the challenge. Thank goodness we have a fresh government which can step up to these toughest of times.