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Tuesday, 3 February 2009
Page: 58

Senator MILNE (4:23 PM) —I rise today to respond to Senator Abetz’s matter of public importance on whether the Prime Minister is actually a neoliberal or an economic conservative. I do not think there is any evidence to suggest that the government has moved away from neoliberalism, so I do not know what the debate is. It seems to me that it is only a matter of degrees. The Rudd government did go to the people with a very strong position and say, ‘We will not rock the boat in fiscal terms or change the way that the Howard government has managed the economy.’ People were out there asking, ‘Are you going to increase spending to public education?’ The government’s response seemed to be, ‘We’re not going to significantly change. We’re not going to discuss education policy; we’re going to lock in the funding to private education that the Howard government increased all those years—that’s going to stay the same.’

When I moved a motion in this Senate to require those companies that identified energy efficiency opportunities to implement them—to require them to implement the opportunities that they identified—I recall Senator Evans stood up and said very clearly: ‘Regulation isn’t necessary. It should be voluntary. Everybody in this chamber agrees it should be voluntary. Companies should not be made to do the right thing. They will see that they need to do the right thing.’

I come back to education. There is a huge disappointment out there in the public education sector that we have a Minister for Education still talking about vouchers, still talking about giving people the option of going to private tutoring as opposed to putting more teachers in public education. There are a whole range of issues like that. At the moment we have talk about a green car in Australia at the same time as the government is saying we need to advance the free trade negotiation with Saudi Arabia so that we can put six-cylinder vehicles into the Middle East. Now where is the consistent philosophy there?

What we have with the rescue packages—we had $10 billion in December and $42 billion has been announced today—is $52 billion going into the Australian economy, but essentially there is no consistent philosophical base for that. It is a scattergun approach. Before Christmas it was: ‘Let me give you all those dollars. Go out and spend it.’ I remember the Minister for Finance and Deregulation saying: ‘Go and spend it on whitegoods. Go and buy washing machines and all the rest of it.’ This is at a time when we have a global crisis with climate change and with energy consumption and we need to restructure the economy. We are faced with peak oil prices and yet this was, ‘Here’s $10 billion, go out and spend it’!

Einstein said you cannot solve problems with the same mentality that created them and yet we had the Rudd government going out there saying, ‘The problem was greed, excess consumerism and unsustainable use, so here’s $10 billion to go out and do more of it.’ This was in order to keep people employed in the retail sector so that people could buy more things that they probably did not need in a lot of cases. I admit that a lot of people did save that money, and good on them if they did. But look at the casino turnover and the poker machine turnover in Tasmania. Last week I was shocked to see the figures on poker machines in Tasmania, where each poker machine earned more than the average wage in Tasmania. A lot of that money was just thrown in all sorts of directions but with no view to restructuring the Australian economy. There was no suggestion that the old system is broken and needs to be fixed. Now we have another $42 billion. I totally support the money being spent on infrastructure in schools. I am delighted to see that money is going to be spent on providing infrastructure in Australian schools. But it is not infrastructure alone that drives education. Where is the additional funding for public education in order that you would have the staffing of those schools? It is all very well to have new infrastructure, but what about the staffing? What is it that the schools are designed to deliver for Australian students? What sort of education system do we want?

We are hearing the idea that the government might have turned away from neoliberalism, but have I heard about the abolition of HECS? Have I heard about the abolition of fees for tertiary education? That would be a shift from neoliberalism to something different, but we have not heard that. Fees in universities are there to stay under the Labor government. They were introduced under a Labor government and maintained under the Howard government, which went even further with the full-fee-paying courses. While there has been some modification to that under the Rudd government, it is still a case of students having to pay fees for tertiary education. Then we heard floated the other day the idea of sending young people out to pay off their HECS by doing voluntary work in the community. That is effectively providing a subsidy, so you might as well pay people who are better qualified to do that work. If you want people to work in aged-care facilities, train them and pay them to work in aged-care facilities; do not just try to shift the burden to students in our community.

I do not see that the Rudd government has changed very much at all. The Rudd government was out there saying today that we have to get the Doha Round reorganised. That is what the minister said in question time. He said that we must get it back on track. Free trade is everything; unfettered free trade is still the philosophy of the Rudd government, just as it was the philosophy of the Howard government. It is all about undervaluing the Public Service and overvaluing the private sector with regard to the delivery of services. That is consistent across parties.

What we need is a new philosophy which recognises that the major crisis that we are facing now is that posed by climate change and peak oil. We have a financial collapse. The system is broken. This was an opportunity. We could have put $52 billion into restructuring the Australian economy in order to go to a low-carbon or zero-carbon economy and create jobs.

The one good thing about today’s package was in relation to energy efficiency. For the first time, the Rudd government has acknowledged that addressing climate change creates jobs. If you are going to make people’s homes more energy efficient, you have to employ people to go and do that. That stimulates business and jobs. But how much more would it do so if you retrofitted the whole country, as the Greens have been suggesting for some time, not only with insulation but with solar hot water? What if you used the money to drive the manufacturing sector in relation to renewable energy? What about investing in public transport—in public services—instead of the private car? Why can’t we see that we need a massive restructure and that we need a different way of viewing the world? That is not going to happen with this package.

I remain unconvinced that there has been any shift away from the neoliberalism that has dominated political thought in this country for the last 30 years. It is absolutely still there. There has been a lot of lost opportunity here. Half the package announced today is supposedly about supporting jobs. But effectively it is just a cash handout. There is an undirected cash handout across a whole range of sectors, giving people $950 here and $550 there to go and spend. This is about the Rudd government avoiding being seen to take Australia into a technical recession. It is not about restructuring the Australian economy for a low-carbon future and doing something that is consistent across the board—a whole-of-government approach—that would shift us from that old philosophical way of doing things, which celebrated greed and has not allowed for proper regulation particularly of the fat cats. Obscene salaries have been paid to corporate executives, and that is still the case in this country. I cannot see that Senator Abetz has anything to worry about. If he looks carefully, he will find that the Rudd government is in exactly the same fiscal conservative and neoliberal mode that their predecessor, the Howard government, was in.