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Thursday, 3 November 1983
Page: 2344

Mr RONALD EDWARDS(8.53) —I think it is important that we reflect upon some of the comments that have been made by honourable members opposite. One of the difficulties they are facing at present, and one can understand this, is that they really are having great difficulty in establishing a coherent policy. Or course, one gets transitions in going to opposition. We are seeing repeatedly evidence of the fact that honourable members opposite are having a great degree of difficulty in establishing a policy.

One of the clear things that has to be pointed out is that we set out in March to establish a set of priorities that the electorate would adopt. We had the National Economic Summit Conference in April in which we managed to discuss with major industry, unions, State governments and other interested parties what we believed was a direction for the Australian economy. The important thing is that we have been able to follow the sort of strategy established by the Summit. I believe that when we look at the comments of the honourable member for Bennelong (Mr Howard) and the honourable member for Wannon (Mr Hawker) we need to understand that it was important to undergo that exercise in April. Largely, members of the Australian commuity were disillusioned and they showed that disillusionment in their election behaviour. They voted out substantially honourable members opposite. More that that, the Australian electorate had had seven years of divisive policies.

One of the things I can say about the honourable member for Wannon, who is present now, is that he certainly is a very pleasant and genuine person. In that sense he represents a marked improvement in terms of quality for the seat of Wannon. I commend the honourable member for Wannon in that respect. I think the history of this country under the previous honourable member for Wannon was really a history of divisiveness. Honourable members opposite have to face the fact that their policies, cloaked within this realm of monetarism, were really designed to create unemployment. They were designed to create a maximum amount of divison and they were certainly designed to do a lot about stirring up trouble in industrial relations.

I have heard of some of the comments that have been made by honourable members opposite. It is true that when one introduces policies one does adjust policies. That is a sensible way to conduct government. If we were to be absolutely deaf to the comments of the electorate we in fact would be governing badly. I think honourable members opposite would have to concede that, in fact, one of the problems they faced in the last couple of years was that the electorate became increasingly disillusioned and realised that the then Government was no longer listening to it.

One of the things we have done-we set out in April to do this-is listen to the electorate. I believe the first task of government, the first task of all of us in this place, is to listen to the electorate. Obviously we hear different things and obviously honourable members opposite will come into this House and say different things from what we will say. That is the nature of the activity we are engaged in. But I think one of the things that is clear and that came out in the election is that honourable members opposite had not listened enough. The electorate was disillusioned and that is the peril that faces all governments. We can say right now that we have gone through that exercise. We have listened to the electorate. We would not want to pretend that everything we do is perfect , or right. But we cay say-I will talk about this in a moment-that the general thrust of our policies is acceptable to the electorate and the general thrust of our policies is fitting together.

That thrust was laid out at the Summit in April. Since then we have found a rather coherent set of circumstances that has been partly the responsibility of government and partly the responsibility of events that have fallen into place. Scenario C set out at the Summit in April certainly did envisage the sort of outcome we have had in terms of wages policy, which has been a full indexation of wages. We have seen a 4.3 per cent increase in wages. That has produced a degree of consensus and co-operation within industrial relations that was sadly lacking in the management of industrial relations and the economy by honourable members opposite. It is also true that when we go beyond that and look at issues such as housing, interest rates, construction and our dealings with the States we see that there are some very good factors that say that we have put together a coherent policy and that that policy is being accepted by the electorate. That is really what we are on about. The honourable member for Bennelong said that, in fact, the Treasurer (Mr Keating) said:

The views I've put at Labor Party conferences were views I put with the aim of getting into government. The debate has moved on. We are now the government.

It has been said already in the debate tonight, so I will not labour it, that when we got into office we found that the real economic circumstances that confronted us were substantially different from those we had imagined we would face. To give due credit to the honourable member for Bennelong, in those latter days of the election we all know the desperate attempt he made to try to reveal to the Australian public the real deficit figure as it was told to him by the Treasury. We know that he was not able to in the context of the election. That is understandable. That is the electoral process. But I think that if we are talking about the real economic circumstances tonight, and we are, we must say that when we got into office we found that the books were a little different from what we had imagined them to be. I think we have to say that when one sets about establishing policy one has to recognise that the figures one faces, irrespective of who is in government, tell a story. The figures we faced were that the deficit, as projected, would have been larger than what we believed the Australian community and certainly the money market could have accepted.

The Australian money market has accepted our deficit. That has been borne out by the fact that we have had two successive drops in housing interest rates, the most recent one in fact occurring today. We would not want to claim all the credit for that because obviously not all the circumstances that work in the monetary mechanisms are the result of government actions. But obviously if government is heading down the right track those events tend to parallel what government is doing and that has been the circumstance. The deficit we have been fortunate to have-a $8.5 billion deficit-has in fact been accepted by the monetary authorities. In fact, we have seen that the banking and building societies have acknowledged that that is a correct way to go. As I have said, the interest rate on Australian savings bonds was lowered tonight. There was an announcement by the Treasurer. We have seen a very quick response by the banks, which are now moving to drop their housing interest rates. If our strategy was not on track we could not have achieved that outcome. I say to those honourable members opposite who mentioned taxes and the need to cut taxes that, of course, there is always the desirability of cutting taxes. But the reality is that with two successive drops in interest rates-we have produced those-real money is now accessible to those who are borrowing from financial institutions.

It is also true to say in the context of the Opposition's observations about tax rebates and the Government's housing policy that we have delivered the goods . The two successive drops in interest rates have done a substantial amount for people in the Australian community and they know that. People in marginal electorates, of which we in this place are always conscious, recognise that those two drops in interest rates have been valuable. I think that that has to be pointed out.

I will talk about our housing policy generally. Undoubtedly our housing policy has been one of the major thrusts of our strategy. The reason for that is that it is a large employer. We have faced the major problem of unemployment. We inherited that problem from the former Government. To some extent part of its economic management created unemployment. We are doing something about trying to reduce unemployment and that is a very important objective. We are very fortunate. For example, I will quote some figures which I was given tonight. In October the Real Institute of Western Australia (Inc.) acheived 448 sales. That is a very substantial figure because in August for the first time it topped 400 sales. It topped 400 again in September and it has now achieved 448.

The Institute indicated to me tonight that 48 per cent of those sales were to first home owners of whom 90 per cent will qualify for our first home owners scheme. That is a very important objective that is being achieved. Incidentally, that figure does not take into account the increased demand that has occurred amongst building companies. There has been a substantial improvement in building companies. To date, Australia wide, we have had 107,000 inquiries about the first home owners scheme. If we take that as being an indicator of our performance, the electorate is saying to us: 'We endorse your policy'. It is not a question of the Government trying to invent reasons why these policies are right. The electorate is telling us that currently our housing policy is satisfactory. People are seeking to take up grants that we are offering under the first home owners scheme. We believe that that is very important because not only is it getting people into houses but also it is creating employment, and we certainly need that in the Australian community.

I indicate to honourable members and the people who are concerned with this issue that recently in my electorate we had the very good experience of one builder signing up a family to build a home. For five years this couple, who have two children, lived in a caravan. They met the income requirements of the first home owners scheme. The fellow said that it was the best day he had ever had in the home building business. He signed up a family to move from a caravan into their first home. I am not saying that to try to reflect all credit upon the government. However, our strategy is very satisfactory because this family, which has two children, was living in a caravan and was socially deprived. The fellow said that the remarkable part of the evening was when the kids ran around and around the caravan and said: 'We have got a home at last; we have got a home at last'. That is a very major gain. We believe that that is an important endorsement of our housing policy. It is creating jobs, it is creating sales, it is creating business activity, and at the same time interest rates are falling. Quite clearly that thrust of our policy is fitting together and working well.

Another major concern that we have relates to the construction industry. Projections for construction in 1984 are not good. They show a 14 per cent decline in capital investment. What we set about doing in the Budget was aimed at increasing capital expenditure. Our expenditure on civil works, financed directly from the Budget, will be $390m for 1983-84, an increase of 16 per cent over expenditure for 1982-83. It is all right in the context of a debate such as this is to say that we have increased outlays in our Budget but we have recognised that government and industry have a partnership in this community and that partnership is designed to ensure that the activities we undertake match up with those in the private sector. We have increased civil works expenditure by 16 per cent because we can project a 14 per cent decline in construction expenditure. Quite obviously, the role of government as we see it is government in partnership. We established that role in April at the Summit and we are continuing to follow it in our policies. Unfortunately, the previous Government tended to see government and the rest of the community in some kind of antagonistic role. We have replaced that. We believe that we have a partnership with the wider community and we are fulfilling our role.

I will speak very briefly on employment. Undoubtedly, the policies that we are adopting are having some effect on employment. That is a very important objective. During the previous Government's last year of office total employment fell by 159,000 and unemployment rose by 263,000. We are starting to get some turnaround in that situation. That has been our policy, that has been our objective, that has been our goal, and we are starting to realise it. Some indications have been given to me by the Master Builders Association of Western Australia. They show job vacancies advertised in the Press in Western Australia. There have been substantial increases in those commencing trades such as bricklaying, carpentering and concreting. We are also seeing increases in employment opportunities for painters, plasterers, and tilers. Quite obviously jobs are being generated and our policies are starting to take effect. We would not want to claim credit for miracles but we are heading in a satisfactory direction.

I think it is important in the context of this debate to say that since the Summit in April we have tried to put up coherent policies, policies which have the endorsement of the community and policies which we believe we can operate in the best interests of the Australian community. We have listened to the remarks that members of the community have made and we have tried to take them seriously into our consideration. I think that that distinguishes us from the previous Government. Towards its latter days in office the previous Government behaved as though it had a monopoly on wisdom. We claim no such thing. We claim that Government is about partnership and that partnership is designed to ensure that the Australian community as a whole benefits.

Honourable members opposite who sit here and take shots at the sorts of policies we put together will find that if they listen to the Australian community it is telling them that the general direction of our policies is fitting together. As I have indicated, the strategy that we have pursued in housing, the first home owners scheme, has received a substantial endorsement from the Australian community. We are finding that employment is increasing in terms of the goals that we have and that is a satisfactory goal. The Opposition has to face up to the fact that it created unemployment and that is not a very good record to have. We have moved in the construction industry because we believe that that is an important area in which to move. We are increasing spending in that area because we can project decreases next year. If we look overall at the thrust of our policies and reflect on what has been said by honourable members opposite, the point is that in terms of market mechanisms, such as interest rates, in terms of the electorate responding, particularly with respect to our housing policy, and in terms of the overall co-operation that we have tried to engender in the Australian community we have achieved a great deal in the short time that we have been in government. Quite obviously the business of government is to manage a lot of competing forces. It is a difficult task. I believe that so far this Government has shown good sense in the strategies that it has adopted. We believe that if we continue in this way the Australian people will continue to endorse our policies.

Question resolved in the negative.