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Wednesday, 25 September 1974
Page: 1414

Senator BUTTON (Victoria) - I begin by congratulating Senator Martin on her maiden speech. For nine or ten weeks she has adorned this chamber- I hope she will understand what I am trying to say- like the Mona Lisa, smiling at everybody and saying little. Tonight she said something. Like the Mona Lisa, if one looks at that picture, it has been a pretty interesting and intellectual contribution to the debate. I congratulate heron that.

It is 8 days since the Treasurer (Mr Crean) introduced the Budget in another place. Since then there has been much speculation about the effects of that Budget. Last night the Leader of the Opposition in the other place (Mr Snedden) and tonight the Leader of the Opposition in the Senate (Senator Withers) delivered speeches in voices of prophetic gloom which were meant, one suspects, to sound like the statements of statesmen with grave responsibility. They attacked the Budget on many of its smaller points. But no alternative to the strategy adopted by the Budget was really produced. In fact the speech delivered last night by the Leader of the Opposition in the other place could have been delivered by the Leader of the Opposition in any Western democracy which is subject to the same sort of problems as this country's. It would not matter whether the government of that country was a conservative government or a government of radical change, because what has been attacked in the Australian situation is symptomatic only of a general malaise in the whole world economy.

I am reminded of a story which I was told only last night. A president of an unnamed republic was congratulated on the exchange rate of the currency which the republic had maintained. He was told that his currency had maintained its standard and gone up against the yen, the lire and the dollar. He replied: 'Yes, but it has gone down against the tomato'. That is symptomatic of the sort of problem which every country with a comparable economy to that of Australia faces. All have incurred problems with inflation, and most of those countries are incurring problems with unemployment. Those 2 problems are the ones which are being most talked about in Western democracies and throughout the world at the moment.

The Budget which was presented last week is an historic budget if only for one reason. It is the first budget which specifically rejects the notion of created unemployment as an instrument of economic policy. I remind the Senate of our history, which people frequently are too ready to forget. For 23 years we lived in a country which was constantly described as a country with a stop-go economy- a country which had recessions in 1961 and 1972, and in both cases unemployment was used deliberately as an economic weapon. In December 1972 this Government inherited an inflationary situation and unemployment. That unemployment was largely created by the Budget which was brought down in 1972 by the present Leader of the Opposition. There can be no doubt about the Labor Government 's priorities in relation to unemployment. Politicians sometimes talk about unemployment with a sickening degree of hypocrisy and scarcely concealed glee. Tonight in the Senate one heard the Leader of the Opposition talking about unemployment in much the same way as Walter Bagehot once referred to statisticians' use of figures. He said that statisticians use figures like a drunkard uses a lamp-post- for support rather than illumination. That is what the Opposition is doing in this Budget debate and has been doing for a number of weeks in talking about unemployment figures. The figures are not only threats, but also are designed to produce a sense of gloom in the community.

I was talking about the 23 years of previous conservative government in this country. Following the end of those 23 years in December 1972 the present Government took 2 steps in relation to economic policy which were universally applauded as being courageous measures which the Liberal-Country Party coalition would not have taken. Firstly, we reduced tariffs and, secondly, we revalued the currency. There are two effects of those policies which could not have been foreseen at that time by any economist or any politician. Those effects briefly were thesefirst that some selective unemployment might have flowed from those decisions, and it can now be seen that it has flowed in part from those decisions. Secondly, the tariff cuts designed to produce price reductions in Australia had little effect on the reduction of prices and the countering of inflation because of the greed of certain retailers and importers in this community who failed to pass on the reduced prices of imported goods to the Australian community.

That illustrates a point which we all have to face up to in considering the Australian economy in 1974, that is, that there are interests in Australian society which have a very great effect on the level of inflation and which have a responsibility, just as the Australian Government is constantly said by the Opposition to have a responsibility. Many of those interests are in the private sector of the economy.

Following those actions of the Government in 1973 in relation to tariffs and revaluation, we had in 1974 the May election which was brought about by the refusal of supply to the elected government. I make only one comment about that and simply refer to the scenario, if I may use that expression, leading up to the present Budget. By using the refusal of" supply as an expedient political instrument, the Opposition in this Senate for the first time in Australia's history did more to undermine confidence in Australian democratic institutions than the present level of inflation or unemployment in. this community could possibly do because it is impossible for a government, with an Opposition prepared to stoop to those methods in the Senate, to carry out long term policies and at the same time consider its own electoral interest as any political Party in office has to do. So that is the situation leading up to the present Budget debate.

What is the Opposition's role in the Budget debate? In this morning's Melbourne 'Age' the economics writer, Mr Davidson, made this comment: . . even though Mr Snedden has been constantly talking about the economy since the May election, he so far has displayed little evidence that he has the intellectual and political toughness to take the decisions which the deteriorating situation demands.

If one studies the comments of economic commentators generally the consensus of opinion about the Opposition's role in the Budget debate is that there is a massive verdict of 'no answer from the Opposition' to the problems which beset Australia at this time. When one hears of proposals for cuts in Government expenditure but no suggestion as to where those cuts might be made, and when one hears nit picking criticisms of certain measures the Government has taken in the Budget, it can be seen that all these criticisms amount to nothing more than that.

There is no production of an alternative solution to the present problems of inflation and unemployment. There has been a continual call by the Opposition for some sort of package to deal with the entire economic ills of Australia at this time- a package which no other country has discovered and which, if the Labor Government were to produce it, would be opened by the Opposition with a gleeful innocence of children delving into a show bag searching for something to criticise. As the distinguished Melbourne political commentator, Mr John Curtain, said, packaging is in in terms of discussing the economy and discussing any matters which are the concern of government. But the Budget is not a universal package or a panacea for the economic ills which beset any country, particularly this country at the moment.

The Budget is concerned with the Government's expenditure and with the Government's priorities. Our priorities as a government are quite clear. There are a large number of steps which can be taken to deal with inflation and with unemployment but they are not necessarily matters for inclusion in the Budget. As I said earlier our priorities arise from 23 years of neglect of a large section of the community by a laissez-faire government. Our priorities are in areas such as education where we are concerned with the long term needs of the majority of Australian children. Nobody seriously suggests that there is anything wrong with that. Sometimes it is suggested that in being concerned with the needs of a majority of Australian children we determine this nation's capacity and wealth in the generations to come and how we keep up with the technological changes which are taking place in the world.

In considering the needs of a majority of children it is sometimes suggested that we neglect the private schools. True it is that we consider that children in government schools have a greater educational priority than children in private schools, but since this Government came to office it has made $23i4m available to private schools for building programs. The Government program now provides for a further $30m for non-government schools from January 1974 to 31 December 1975 for building programs. We have not ignored the interests of private schools; we have emphasised our priority, which is to the public sector of education. Our other priorities have been clearly spelled out. They include child care, our concern to protect the interests of pensioners in the community, and the development of cities and facilities and better conditions in cities. All these matters have to go ahead in our community if people in 10 years time are to be able to look back and say: 'Well, because of its activity in the last decade Australia has kept up with the rest of the world'. All these activities have to go ahead in the interests of the bulk of the Australian community and of the future of this nation.

When the Opposition talks about a package in the Budget it must be remembered that the Budget cannot be seen in isolation from other economic policies designed to cope with inflation and unemployment. As Mr A. C. Goode, a distinguished Melbourne sharebroker, said to the Melbourne Chamber of Commerce on Monday of this week, devaluation is the quickest and most effective way of combating inflation and easing unemployment. The devaluation decision of the Government was not announced in the

Budget; it was announced last night. In giving that address to the Melbourne Chamber of Commerce, Mr Goode also referred to a number of strategies which the Government might adopt in the foreseeable future. He referred to the curtailment of imports, the adjustment of exchange rates which I have referred to, releases from statutory reserve deposits and further cuts in personal tax as the year progresses. These are not necessarily matters to be included in a much vaunted package. These are options which are open to the Government and all within the realms of possibility in the Government's future economic strategy.

What we must be concerned to do it to encourage an atmosphere of confidence in the community, an atmosphere which perhaps has been engendered a little already in the last 24 hours by the devaluation decision. It is of no good joining the gloomy prophets who talk with concealed glee about unemployment levels and industrial unrest but who in this chamber yesterday voted against a Bill of the Government which might have substatially reduced industrial unrest in this community and who indulge in what one might, I think, quite honestly describe as stimulated gloom. Obviously what we have to do is try to encourage the private sector particularly away from that atmosphere of stimulated gloom.

In the 'National Times' of last weekend Mr Fred Miller, who is described as a director of the largest number of companies in Australia, is reported to have said that the Government's attitude could be expressed in terms of: 'We're in, whacko. Let's look after our people'. Of course, that may be so. That may be a valid comment to make. It may be a good criticism. But, as I said earlier, for 23 years we were not in and the needs of our people- and their economic needs in particularwere not looked after. Those 23 years were marked by an utter lack of liaison between the private sector of the economy, the business community, and both the Liberal Party of the time and the Labor Party, particularly in the latter years before this present Government assumed office. I say quite frankly, as a member of the Goverment Party, that I think it is important that the Government encourage greater dialogue with the private sector of the economy. But I do not think we can be blamed entirely for the lack of dialogue which has been apparent. Sir Peter Abeles, the Managing Director of Thomas Nationwide Transport Ltd, is reported in the National Times' of last weekend as saying: 'the initiative for a dialogue between men of good faith has to come from our side, from the employers' side. Without elaborating on it, that is a responsible view of a responsible businessman. He recognises that our economic problems at the moment cannot be cured merely by pointing a gloomy finger in the direction of the Government. They must be cured by an approach of men of goodwill in all sections of industry, in the unions, in the Government and, one would hope, in the Opposition. But from the Opposition we hear only a myopic political view.

The Opposition refuses to analyse seriously the overall economic strategy of the Government, and instead concentrates on relatively minor matters which the Opposition would like to think are part of the package which the Budget is supposed to be. In dealing with the question of inflation I think it is obvious to every serious commentator that there must be restraint by all sections of the community in Australia- the sort of restraint to which Sir Peter Abeles refers in that article, the sort of restraint which was not displayed by retailers and importers who took advantage of the tariff cuts of 1972 to say, in the terms that I quoted before: 'Whacko, let's look after ourselves'. There must be restraint, of course, in the industrial relations scene in Australia also. I notice that the Leader of the Opposition (Mr Snedden) suggested again that this could be achieved by some sort of national conference. For many years this has been the Liberals' universal panacea for any problem for which they have no real answer. They say: 'Let us appoint a committee of inquiry and, when we get a report, put it away'.

Senator Durack - How many commissions have you set up?

Senator BUTTON -Every report of a commission established under this Labor Government has been published and discussed. You cannot say that seriously of the Vernon report or the report on constitutional review, which were pigeonholed in your term of office and on which dust was allowed to settle. It is true that many reports that were commissioned by the previous Government were put away and never acted upon. Nothing has happened as a result of the various inquiries that have taken place. Once again the Leader of the Opposition suggests a conference between employers and unions as a solution to all national economic problems. I do not know whether he still seriously thinks that he is capable of indulging in a more rational dialogue with the unions than anybody else, and particularly the present Government.

Senator Baume - He could not do worse.

Senator BUTTON -I do not know whether he seriously believes that. I think that he probably could do worse. I think that he could do a lot worse. Indeed, the conference which took place yesterday in Sydney seems to indicate that Mr Snedden could do a lot worse and that the Government has done quite well. Time alone will tell.

Senator Jessop - The record does not show that.

Senator BUTTON - If you are talking about the number of industrial disputes which have taken place in Australia this year, it is true that there have been a large number.

Senator Jessop - A record. You hold the record. You are the greatest.

Senator BUTTON - Senator Jessopmakes these gleeful comments. He is gleeful about industrial unrest. He is gleeful about unemployment because he thinks he can make some little nit-picking political point out of it. The fact is that industrial unrest in this country might have been considerably lessened if yesterday Senator Jessop had been prepared to get out of his stone age mentality on industrial relations and realise that a lot of industrial unrest is due to demarcation disputes and that there is a need for amalgamation of unions, as every serious commentator on industrial relations says. It is that sort of glee about these things in our community, coupled with the sort of criticism which is made and this action by so-called responsible senators when a serious debate takes place, as it did yesterday, that leads to the present malaise in which we find ourselves. That is not the sort of attitude I am talking about when I quote from people like Sir Peter Abeles and Mr Goode, who are responsible business leaders in this country, about the needs in this community for restraint and cooperation on all sides. We might be able to get it in the community but we certainly do not get it in the Senate.

I said that the suggestion of a conference on industrial relations was something which was regarded by Mr Snedden as a universal panacea. But it is not a very new suggestion, it is not a very sound suggestion in the circumstances and it is typical of the sort of suggestion which was present throughout the speech of the Leader of the Opposition and which was subject to much criticism in the Press. In conclusion, in making the point about a need for dialogue in our community, about the need for restraint in all sections of the community and about the need for encouragement of confidence rather than prophesies of gloom, may I quote again from Mr Good speaking in his address to the Melbourne Chamber of Commerce. He said:

I am fundamentally an optimist and I believe in the political awareness and good sense of the Australian Goverment.

He said that the Budget alone did not fulfil all his desires in relation to the economy but that the Budget accompanied by devaluation would be a package which would go a long way to solving the economic management difficulties which we have incurred. As a member of the Government I share the view of Mr Goode about the fundamental political awareness and good sense of the Australian Government. That awareness and good sense can perhaps be facilitated in its effectiveness by constructive comments from Opposition senators, but not by the sort of criticism of isolated issues in the Budget which we have heard in the debate so far.

The DEPUTY PRESIDENT (Senator McAuliffe)- Before calling Senator Chaney, who will be making his maiden speech, I appeal to honourable senators to extend to him the usual courtesies that are extended to a senator when he is delivering his maiden speech.

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