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Thursday, 5 February 2009
Page: 387

Senator COONAN (Manager of Opposition Business in the Senate) (10:00 AM) —That was an extraordinary diatribe from Senator Evans. He put before the Senate a very unconvincing case in relation to changing the sitting hours. It is important that we make very clear here that the coalition does not support the government’s arrogant supposition that the Senate will simply roll over and rubber-stamp a $42 billion spend of taxpayers’ funds virtually sight unseen. That is effectively what we are being asked to do in Senator Evans’s motion. Because of all of the fuss about this, people forget that it has been less than 48 hours since we first heard of this massive cash splash. It is quite extraordinary. The government must have had some notion that they were going to be bringing forward this package. Why was it only announced 48 hours ago? And, at the time it was announced, we were being urged to pass it without even looking critically at what it provided.

One reason why the government fear scrutiny of this package is they do not really know that it will do the job that they contend it will. They do not really know that this will work. In fact, the Prime Minister has said that he cannot guarantee that it will work. I think they fear the quality of what is in this package and they do not want it scrutinised.

We are effectively expected to approve $1 billion in spending for each hour since the bills were introduced. That is what it would amount to. And for those listening to the debate in the Senate, as Senator Evans seems to think people are, just contemplate the fact that we are expected to approve $1 billion in spending for each hour since the bills were introduced to meet this artificial deadline the government set for themselves without any consideration or hesitation. If this was so urgent, one would have thought that before agreeing to a particular date they would have at least considered how they would deal with the proper procedures of the Senate. They might have actually deigned to consult us. But that certainly is not part of Labor’s behaviour pattern. This is a deadline that, quite frankly, screams panic. The government are in panic mode and they have rushed these bills into the parliament with unrealistic time frames for their consideration. I think it really underscores Labor’s contempt for the Senate. It is stark in this respect. They do not want these measures scrutinised; they simply want them passed.

Something was not immediately clear until we eventually got the bills. Included in the bills is a very slim document. It is a bill of two pages, I think, for the borrowing of up to $200 billion. We are expected to blindly approve it. This exhumes the ghost of Rex Connor. This exhumes the ghost of the Khemlani incident of so many years ago. They want us to pass, without any scrutiny whatsoever, a package that will saddle current and future generations of Australians with a crippling debt equivalent to $9,500 for every Australian. The government have simply failed to explain how a couple of extra days, literally, would in fact defeat the objectives of this package. If the Senate does what we have suggested, all it would amount to would be a couple of days delay, and that is not going to be critical. The government have not made the case for why that will be critical, except that they have to crank up the computers at Centrelink and at the tax office. Who is Senator Evans seriously kidding? We have been on the other side of the chamber—we have been in government—and we know the kinds of programs and the kinds of constraints on introducing this kind of package. It is highly unlikely—unless we can be convinced to the contrary, and we cannot—that two days is going to make any critical difference.

In a responsible way, because that is the way we are approaching scrutiny of this package, we have suggested that it is important that we scrutinise these bills and that we scrutinise them as a package. The government have simply failed to explain how a few extra days would in fact impact on it. For example, they have failed to provide the sorts of things that we will want to look at. They have failed to provide any information to back up their claims that this massive level of expenditure will support 90,000 jobs. The splash of cash before Christmas was supposed to create 75,000 jobs—we know that that has not happened; we know that that did not do the job—and now we have heard a few weasel words about how this package will support up to 90,000 jobs. What on earth does that mean? Does it mean 90,000 jobs? Does it mean 50,000 jobs? Or is it simply a stab in the dark? We know that the earlier figure of 75,000 jobs was. We know that there is a massive looming problem with unemployment in this country and we know that before June there will be another 100,000 jobs lost.

The people of Australia deserve a parliament that will hold the government to account for this package. They have simply so far not established the case for it supporting jobs in the order to which they contend. We deserve to see the information to support the claims about this package and any modelling—if they have any—that underpins it. It really comes down to this: you really cannot trust the Labor Party. They have consistently shown us in this term of government that they are very light on detail. They do not have any long-term structural plan for the country. There is certainly no legitimate economic analysis underpinning their budget or other proposals. Just look, for example, at the continuing mess that has resulted from the unlimited guarantee on deposit-taking institutions in this country. There may be more than 250,000 Australians whose funds are frozen because they have their deposits in institutions not covered by the unlimited guarantee. This is an example of a panicked response which was not really thought through. The government has since been fixing it up all the way.

We certainly do not want to see this sort of problem with a package of this magnitude. It has a lot of components in it that need to be properly looked at. Senator Evans suggested that we had scoffed at this. That is certainly not the case. We have cooperated and we intend to cooperate further to scrutinise this package. We have indicated that we will cooperate with the government to get this package of bills through the parliament next week. That is a very clear statement that we are cooperating in the scrutiny of this package, and it should be brought to a vote by the end of next week. In fact, we came forward and suggested deferring estimates next week to allow the Senate to sit to pass this economic package. That was a responsible course. It is one that seems to have found favour with colleagues in the Senate and with the Labor Party. We think that is a very sensible way to ensure that the urgency contended for this package is addressed and that we can get on with examining it.

We simply cannot accept the demands of the government that we consider just part of the package so soon after its introduction. If this were so important, it could have been looked at perhaps even before parliament came back. But there were a couple of days of extraordinary drama and media performances from the Prime Minister and his economic team. Suddenly, the package was presented and then we were told part of it had to be passed practically yesterday morning. That is not really the way we act, unless a convincing case can be made for the need to separate the package. We believe that there should be at least a minimum level of scrutiny applied to the package and that it must be taken as a whole. It simply makes no sense. If the government has introduced it as a package, it has to be looked at as a package. Their economic story, which we think is incoherent anyway, stands only if it is part of a package. That is why we are proposing that, starting this evening, a Senate committee begin questioning officials about the detail of this package. There needs to be some forensic examination of what has gone into this package, how it is composed and what is contended for it. What are the projections and what is the modelling? If the Senate did not do that, it would simply be derelict in its duty.

Of course, we will cooperate today, as we have done so often this year, to meet the government in the full flight of panic mode by giving up opposition business time this afternoon. We will also cooperate next week to ensure that the package of bills is considered in the time frame that we have proposed. We believe that the bills must be considered as a package and that there should be an opportunity for examination through what will be a brief committee inquiry. When you look at the magnitude of this package, in normal circumstances you would have a much more detailed committee process. Various committees would be involved. We think that we have come forward with a proposal for the consideration of the package in a committee process that will enable the various strands of the package to be looked at.

Labor really must respect the role of the Senate as a house of scrutiny. It is all too easy as a government to simply try to roll right over the top of the Senate, but there is not much point in us being here if we do not do our job and hold the government to account. We will not be so irresponsible as to approve $42 billion worth of spending without a basic level of scrutiny. The government should not be so arrogant as to ask. We will not be supporting the motion put forward by Senator Evans.