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Monday, 23 May 2011
Page: 4182

Dr LEIGH (Fraser) (12:00): Labor are the chief architects of economic reform and growth in Australia. It was a Labor government which shaped the modern Australian economy, when Prime Minister Curtin took control of Australia's monetary and fiscal policy. As John Edwards explains in his terrific biography, Curtin's Gift, Curtin was not only the man who saved Australia in World War II; he was also one of Australia's great economic reformers. John Curtin regulated private banks, imposed uniform income taxation and transformed the financial relationship between the Commonwealth and states, expanding Commonwealth activity for the benefit of all Australians. The Curtin Labor government oversaw the beginnings of our mass immigration program, supported university education and made substantial social security changes, putting in place the economic bedrock that would then form the basis of a prosperous postwar state. These reforms form part of the pillars of the modern Australian economy. Curtin's greatest achievement, John Edwards argues, was not saving us in World War II but setting us up for economic prosperity today.

Curtin's economic traditions have been continued by modern Labor governments. It was the Whitlam government that cut tariffs in 1973 and the Hawke and Keating governments that put in place economic reform and a productivity agenda that underpinned the economic growth Australia enjoyed in the 1990s. The current Labor government put in place reforms that navigated us through the global financial downturn. While those opposite would have been happy to see 200,000 Australian workers lose their jobs and thousands of businesses go to the wall, it was a Labor government that said no, Keynesian economics works at a time like this—we put in place a quick, timely, targeted temporary fiscal stimulus that ensured that Australia did not experience the economic downturn that much of the rest of the world experienced.

The Gillard government is now delivering much-needed economic reform. We are putting in place reforms to price carbon so that we can tackle dangerous climate change, recognising that the earlier we act on pricing carbon, the lower the cost will be to the Australian economy. Like most things, leaving it too late raises the cost—and that is what those opposite would have us do. We are putting in place reforms through carbon pricing that are mainstream economics. In fact, I often challenge those opposite to name one or two economists who back their proposals. I am yet to find a member of the opposition who is able to name a couple of economists who back direct action on carbon pricing. I am happy to put that challenge to the member for Higgins today. If the member for Higgins would like to name a couple of economists who back the opposition's plan, that would be delightful. But, as with climate change science, in which we see the vast bulk of scientific opinion strongly backing the notion that climate change is happening and that humans are causing it, those recalcitrants in the coalition party room are willing to stand up against science, and again they will stand up against economics when it comes to getting the policy right.

Meanwhile, we in the Labor Party are helping Australians get a fair return on their mineral resources while investing in our community. We are putting out detailed plans for minerals resource rent taxation which recognise that the minerals in the ground are the birthright of all Australians, which recognise that fair minerals taxation is appropriate and is sensible reform to put in place at this time in the economic cycle.

We are here today in a curious position. We are debating a private member's motion by an absent private member. The member for North Sydney is happy to move things, happy to foreshadow them in speeches and put them on the Notice Paper, but he appears to have gone AWOL today. The member for Casey is generously standing in as the shadow Treasurer today. I guess that is because the shadow Treasurer himself has great aspirations to take on the leadership baton. He is too busy trying to get the numbers to knock off the Leader of the Opposition to actually appear here in the chamber and talk about ideas. When we debated the amendments to the executive remuneration exactly the same thing happened. The shadow Treasurer had foreshadowed that these amendments were very important to him. He was very happy to talk about such things on the ABC program Q&A but, when it actually came to going into the chamber and doing the hard work of advocating for reform, he left it to the member for Casey.

That is indicative of much of what is currently going on with economic policymaking in the opposition. When the shadow Treasurer was presenting to the National Press Club, he was forced to put out three steps but with no detail whatsoever. He leaves the accounting to the member for Goldstein, who has presided over the $11 billion black hole in the coalition's budget costing. The coalition are still unwilling to face up to the fact that they have been unable to make the books balance, that they are unable to say which spending measures they would oppose in order to make the books balance. The Leader of the Opposition showed this very clearly when he had the opportunity to deliver a budget reply and instead delivered a speech that better suited a shock jock audience than a mature debating chamber.

Meanwhile the government will get us back into the black by 2012-13. Having seen Australia through one of the greatest economic downturns in world economic history, the government is now presiding over the fastest fiscal consolidation in 40 years. Contrary to the spin by those opposite, Labor treasurers have consistently been more frugal than their Liberal counterparts. George Megalogenis pointed out in a recent opinion piece:

If Labor were spending at the same rate as the Coalition was then—

by which he means at the end of the coalition's term of government in 2007—

the budget would be heading for a deficit of more than $20 billion in 2012-13, rather than for a surplus of $3.5bn.

Despite bellowing about high-taxing and high-spending governments, the opposition knows that the Howard government were bigger spenders of taxpayers' money and that the Gillard government is the more responsible and prudent economic manager.

That is as true for economic management as it is for climate change. The Labor Party in government listened to the advice of expert economists. We put in place climate change plans that represent the consensus views of the world's best economists and are not dissimilar from those that the UK Conservative Party backs through their emissions trading scheme. The UK Conservative Party, the political heirs of Margaret Thatcher, are supporting market based mechanisms, recognising that they are the most cost-effective way of tackling dangerous climate change. Meanwhile, the Gillard government is reinvesting in regions through a $6 billion regional investment fund, boosting superannuation for eight million Australians and simplifying personal tax for six million Australians.

Those opposite might as well be part of a drama penned by Cecily von Ziegesar. The member for North Sydney currently presides over the metro steps, but will a bold move last week by the member for Wentworth steal the keys to the shadow treasury locker? Or is the member for Wentworth manoeuvring to preside over the class again? Perhaps the member for North Sydney will side with the member for Wentworth on this occasion because he feels the current ringleader hung him out to dry. Are we going to see shouting matches with blackberries at 10 paces? Are we going to work out which entourage the members of the opposition party room will follow when they go to the midwinter ball? Who needs policy when you have gossip and intrigue? Of course, if it goes wrong, you can always call in the parents, which are of course John Howard and probably the member for Mackellar. Aren't all problems ultimately solved by pulling the warring parties in for a quiet chat with the headmistress?

Some of us live across the bridge—in the world of hard work and real policies, not constant negativity and three-word slogans. That is the currency by which we aim to make the country even better.

So as those opposite go back to deciding who the current queen of the metro steps is, Labor continues to drive economic growth, to grow jobs, to cut taxes, to get a fairer return on our mineral wealth and to tackle the biggest policy challenge—dangerous climate change.