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Monday, 2 December 2013
Page: 1238

Mr DREYFUS (Isaacs) (17:28): Madam Speaker, thank you for the opportunity to rise today to speak. It is an honour to have been re-elected for a third time to represent the people in my electorate of Isaacs. I thank them for their support and their trust. Today I will talk about three things. The first is Labor's economic record. I am proud of Labor's achievements for our nation's prosperity during our two terms of government—a period of ongoing economic growth, low unemployment, low inflation and low interest rates that was accomplished despite the massive upheavals occurring in the global economy. I believe this record should be acknowledged. I also believe that Labor's excellent economic record must be defended against the scurrilous and self-serving rewriting of economic history that is already underway from the new government and its supporters. Today I will also state briefly my objectives as shadow minister for the arts and as shadow Attorney-General.

Finally, I will say a few words about my approach to the role of opposition, because I believe that it is possible to approach opposition in a constructive manner that places the national interest first and foremost. This is an entirely different approach to opposition to that of the Prime Minister, whose quarrelsome, destructive and dishonest tactics were a burden on our national life for the past four years, placing as they did the partisan political interests of the Liberal Party above all else, with the national interest a secondary consideration, if it was a consideration at all.

Australians look to their governments for many things—for support when times are tough and for an honest engagement with the major challenges that face us as a nation, such as climate change. They look to government to manage the economy effectively and in the interests of all Australians, particularly working people, who form the backbone of the Australian economy. They look for governments to provide justice, to support the rule of law and to work to lessen the injustices that many, many people in our community continue to face as a result of their race or gender.

First and foremost, the Australian people look to government to manage the economy, because they understand that government has a vitally important role to play in fostering economic prosperity. Good economic management means investing in transformative infrastructure like the National Broadband Network, investing in research and innovation and, perhaps most importantly, investing in our future through education. Good economic management also means maintaining demand through stimulus when the economy contracts. Good economic management means that, in delivering prosperity to our nation, government ensures that the benefits of our economic successes are spread fairly, that all Australians get a fair share of our national wealth and that Australians all have an opportunity to secure work that is dignified and fairly paid. The economy must always be managed in the interests of the great majority of Australians; it should never be managed for a few privileged and powerful sectional interests.

I am very proud of having served as a cabinet minister in a government that did an excellent job of managing the Australian economy, judged by those essential criteria that I have just outlined. I am proud to have served in a government that made the right decisions, a government that stayed true to the values of fairness, justice, openness and respect for the sovereign people that it was elected to serve, a government that got the big calls right, managing to keep our economy strong through the crisis that engulfed the rest of the world and, at the same time, making great strides to improve the lives of ordinary Australians and Australians in need. Despite all the hysteria, propaganda and manipulation used by the coalition to further its political interests, we must not allow the new government and its supporters to recast economic history to deny Labor successes or to paint their own self-serving and destructive opposition to Labor's nation-building policies as anything other than the politically opportunistic deceit that it was.

The agenda of this new government and particularly its approach to managing the economy will be deeply felt by millions of Australians over the coming years. This government's ability to manage the economy will determine whether many Australians will be able to get jobs. This government's decency and vision, or lack of them, will determine the quality of the social services that many Australians can access. We will know how authentic its professed concerns for Indigenous justice are when we see how the Indigenous community fares.

Let me pause to remark that we will hold this government to account on Indigenous affairs, given the Prime Minister's professed goodwill towards Aboriginal people and his desire to be the Prime Minister for Indigenous affairs. I have to say that the new government's goodwill is not discernible in the massive funding cut to Aboriginal legal services revealed in the last days of the election campaign when the coalition finally released their remarkably lightweight policy document on Indigenous affairs. Nor is any goodwill discernible in the Prime Minister's stated aim of repealing the protections against racial vilification contained in section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act. These provisions have served our nation well for almost two decades and send a clear message that racist hate speech is unacceptable. The provisions were left intact throughout the entire period of the Howard government, but, since one of the Liberal Party's media cheerleaders, Andrew Bolt, was found by the Federal Court of Australia to have engaged in racial vilification, the Prime Minister and Senator Brandis have been eager to repeal these provisions of the Racial Discrimination Act that for almost 20 years have protected Australians against racially motivated hate speech.

We will be holding the government to account not only for their stated agenda but perhaps more importantly for the agenda that they have hidden from the Australian people, for the agenda that they have denied but that is now all too apparent in their first decisions, for the agenda that they are assiduously preparing the ground for but that they are too fearful to spell out—their agenda for cuts.

The unfolding debacle of the Liberal Party's response to Labor's school funding reforms is a case in point. First we had years of malicious opposition to Labor's fairer school-funding model from the Abbott led opposition. Then, when the Liberals saw that the Australian people wanted their government to invest in better and fairer education for the nation's children, at the last moment before the election they miraculously dropped their objections and claimed to be believers in the Gonski reforms and promised to implement them. But, once the Abbott government were elected, the nasty surprises began as they began to betray their promises to the Australian people and make pathetic excuses seeking to justify those betrayals. Finally, when it became clear that the Australian people were not going to accept the Abbott government's broken promises, pathetic excuses and nasty surprises, the Abbott government tried to backflip yet again. But it is just more excuses and more weasel words, refusing to back their own election promise that no school will be worse off. I say again: opposite me are a government that must and will be held to account.

I want to touch on the economic context in which the coalition finds itself governing, because, while the economy is softening in some sectors and the coalition will have to deal with that reality, the truth is that it has inherited an economy that is doing very well by international standards, in large part due to the stewardship of the former Labor government. Despite the coalition's histrionic rhetoric of a budget emergency prior to the election, the new government has inherited an economy in very good shape.

Let us take a look at some of the key statistics. Interest rates are very low. Australia's current benchmark interest rate is 2.5 per cent, well below the rate of 6.75 per cent when Labor took office. This means access to cheaper home loans for millions of Australians. It also highlights the falsity of the Howard government's promise that interest rates would always be lower under Liberal governments than under Labor. Inflation is below the target range, and taxes as a percentage of GDP are much lower than when Labor first took office. In fact, the total tax take in 2012-13 was 22.2 per cent of GDP, down from a high of 24.2 per cent between 2004 and 2006.

Most importantly, during Labor's term in office Australia has grown strongly compared to most advanced economies and is now one of the world's wealthiest nations. The IMF, for instance, ranks Australia fourth among the 35 wealthiest nations. A recent report by Credit Suisse ranked Australia as the most wealthy nation in the world when measured by median income. Australia is the only one of the OECD nations that has experienced continuous economic growth over the past 22 years. This is incredibly important. It means that the new government has inherited an economy that, as a result of Labor's stimulus package, avoided the worst impacts of the global financial crisis. Not only did the stimulus keep Australia growing; it avoided the tragic impact of mass unemployment that we have seen around the world: a waste of lives, a waste of labour and an enormous burden on those economies that suddenly have to provide support to those who have no opportunity to work.

In March this year our unemployment rate was 5.6 per cent, well below the OECD average of eight per cent, and it remains one of the lowest in the developed world. During the worst of the global recession the differences were even more pronounced. According to the OECD, during 2010 the annual unemployment rate for Australia was 5.2 per cent, while it was 9.6 per cent in the United States, almost 14 per cent in Ireland and over 20 per cent in Spain. Our stimulus package was so successful that it prompted over 50 of our most eminent economists to write an open letter that trumpeted it as a major economic achievement. Nobel Prize winner and former World Bank Chief Economist Joseph Stiglitz called our stimulus package 'one of the best designed Keynesian stimulus packages of any country'. The IMF was also strongly supportive of Labor's stimulus, and the OECD has pointed to Labor's policies as a model of how to respond to the economic crisis.

Labor achieved this despite the strident opposition of the Liberal Party and the Nationals. In fact, the coalition campaigned ferociously against the stimulus package despite the overwhelming economic evidence of its success. The new Treasurer has now let the cat out of the bag on just how cynical this exercise was, recently indicating that he may support stimulus if the economy requires it—despite his claims that the cupboard is bare and that Australia is in a budget emergency.

While the Treasurer's acceptance of the use of stimulus measures so effectively deployed by Labor suggests a welcome return to reality, it is also a timely reminder of the importance of not believing much of what is said by senior figures of this government but instead looking at what the government does. While the government has inherited a very strong economy, it has also inherited a budget in deficit. But the fact is that our deficit is very small by international standards. It is easily manageable in an economy as strong as Australia's and is in part a consequence of the spending measures that were used to keep Australia out of recession. That is why Australia has, despite this modest deficit, a AAA credit rating from all three international ratings agencies. This grand slam of AAA credit ratings is an economic achievement that the Liberal Party has never, ever achieved.

Both sides of politics, despite the hysterical cries of 'budget emergency' from those opposite during the campaign, agree that we need to return to surplus over time. We have no argument with that. Economies are cyclical, and we have moved through the economic cycle to a time when surplus should again be the goal. But there are major differences between the parties about how we should return to surplus. Returning to surplus requires that choices be made about what essential spending by government is and what we can do without.

Labor believes that we should cut unnecessary concessions that go to groups that are already doing well. This is not about class warfare; it is about the Australian ideal of a fair go. While we think that some fat can be cut from concessions to the well off, we believe that we should continue to invest in the future—in infrastructure and education—because that is what we must do to remain a prosperous nation. Failure to invest in our future will cost us much more in the long run. We must also protect the services that Australians rely on. As one of the wealthiest nations in the world, we can afford to both invest in our future and uphold our values of fairness at the same time.

In contrast, the coalition believe in cutting spending by targeting support accessed by ordinary families and low-income earners and by cutting public services. I am concerned that that is their real economic agenda: an agenda of cuts and austerity. It may sound far fetched, but there is much to suggest that this is what the modern Liberal Party have become. Take, for example, the recent decisions of the new Treasurer to add $3 billion to the budget deficit by junking a range of savings announced by the former government. This was an incredibly hypocritical action given their professed concern about the state of the budget, but it also gives a stark illustration of the priorities of the Abbott government.

Let us look at just one part of that astonishing decision. The new Treasurer has cut tax to Australia's 16,000 wealthiest superannuants, meaning that they will now not have to pay a very modest tax imposed on earnings above $100,000 per year. This contrasts with their election promise to increase tax for 3.6 million low-income earners, those earning under $37,000 per year, who will pay about $500 per year more tax on superannuation as a result. What a lack of moral vision: spending scarce resources to cut taxes paid by a small group of wealthy Australians, while raising taxes on millions of low-income earners. I am appalled, as I think are all Australians who value basic notions of fairness, by these warped priorities.

And this is just the warm-up act. The Prime Minister's Commission of Audit has just begun, but I have little doubt that he has already planned his response: cuts to education and health and the junking of his own inconvenient promises. We will continue to see wasteful spending, such as their extravagant and inequitable paid-parental-leave scheme, while the Liberal Party seed the ground for massive cuts to health services, education and jobs. We will continue to see the Liberals placing the interests of small, sectional interest groups, such as the 16,000 most wealthy superannuants, ahead of the interests of the great majority of ordinary Australians. We are a prosperous country and we deserve better. And we can afford better. We will be holding the Abbott government to account.

I want to talk briefly about my specific role in holding this government to account as shadow minister for the arts and as shadow Attorney-General. In my new role as shadow minister for the arts, I will be fighting to realise the vision of a creative and vibrant Australia in which our culture is explored, celebrated and understood through artistic endeavours of all kinds. This was a vision that my Labor predecessors in government worked very hard to achieve. The former Minister for the Arts Simon Crean, in particular, worked for three years to deliver Creative Australia—our national cultural policy—and his successor as arts minister, Tony Burke, then worked to implement that policy, with enormous energy and enthusiasm. The government has a vital role to play in continuing to support the arts, because the arts improve the lives of all Australians and enrich our economy. I will be holding the government to account in fulfilling that vital supporting role.

In my role as shadow Attorney-General, I will continue to fight for the same things that I have fought for throughout my life as a lawyer, as a barrister, as a parliamentary secretary and as Attorney-General. Specifically, I will be fighting to continue to build a more just Australia. Sometimes this will mean fighting with this government to defend the reforms we implemented and the gains we made while in office. I hope that sometimes this will mean supporting the government when it proposes a policy that will advance justice in our nation. But whatever the government does—and I must say that the early signs of its approach to justice are deeply disturbing—I will continue fighting to improve access to justice in our nation. I will continue to fight to strengthen the rule of law, and I will continue to fight to strengthen our nation as an egalitarian, participatory democracy in which justice is not a privilege that must be fought for but rather a way of life enjoyed by all Australians.

The final matter I will address today is my approach to the role of opposition in a general sense. I will be clear: I do not see the role of the opposition as the member for Warringah did in his four years as opposition leader. I do not think that the only purpose of the opposition should be to tear down the government of Australia, regardless of the cost to our nation, the prosperity and wellbeing of which suffers when its leaders are embroiled in endless skirmishing, with an unprincipled opposition that reactively opposes almost every policy the government puts forward and that deliberately talks down our national strengths and achievements for partisan political advantage. I do not think that the only purpose of the opposition should be to tear down the government of Australia, regardless of the cost to the public, who have to endure the bitter rhetoric of partisan political conflict. I do not think that the only purpose of the opposition should be to tear down the government of Australia, regardless of the cost to truth and, with that, to our personal integrity.

I hold that the purpose of the opposition, of which I am now a part, is to serve the national interest by engaging constructively in the debate our parliament has been entrusted to conduct about the future of our nation. This means that, when we do decide that the policies of the government are to be opposed, we will not do so with fearmongering negativity and a barrage of slogans founded on distortions and false claims. I hold that a key task of the opposition and of the government is to engage in a genuine political debate, to join in a productive contest of ideas, rather than in a barren war of rhetoric, because it is the robust exchange between those with differing viewpoints that creates the energy that is essential for a vibrant and creative democracy such as ours. As I remarked to the Sydney Institute earlier this year, viewed through one eye the world has no depth, but with the parallax created by differing viewpoints we perceive the world in three dimensions, and our nation is made richer and wiser for that.

I would urge the member for Warringah, now that he leads a new government, to serve the national interest by entering the policy arena and engaging the opposition in a genuine and productive contest of ideas. The space for genuine debate is one of the great strengths of democratic nations such as ours. I welcome such a debate in the months and years ahead.

Debate adjourned.