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Tuesday, 24 February 1987
Page: 627

Mr HOWE (Minister for Social Security)(8.15) —Once again we have had another opportunity for a senior spokesman for the conservative parties to make a statement of policy. We have heard very little indeed from the honourable member for Menzies (Mr N.A. Brown) in relation to any substantive policy issues. That reflects the extraordinary weakness of the members of the Opposition within this Parliament. Day after day they have the opportunity to say what they are for and they do not take that opportunity. They cannot take that opportunity because of the enormous divisions which exist not only within this Parliament but within the parties that are represented in the Parliament. The Opposition increasingly is being ruled from outside.

Mr Cleeland —By whom?

Mr HOWE —For example, by the Premier of Queensland who, from his base in that State, has become a very significant factor. One of the crucial inabilities of the Opposition is to get together any coherent policies on any issue. It is all very well to state, as the honourable member has just done, a number of tendencies with respect to so-called items of policy, none of which were spelt out at all. Of course, as is always the case with Opposition spokesmen, the honourable member placed the greatest emphasis on the need to reduce government spending and public sector borrowing. That statement can be made extraordinarily easily by the Opposition because in its time in government it was unable to tackle any of the hard issues which have been tackled by this Government. Those opposite make that plain with extraordinary ease because they will not give any substance at all to it. They will not directly nominate areas in which they believe government spending ought to be cut back. They will not do that because once they nominate any single area enormous divisions will appear within Opposition ranks.

We want to know what those opposite might do. They certainly talk in tendency terms. For example, the honourable member for Kooyong (Mr Peacock) only a week or so ago said that we must cut the big ticket items. He said that when they took office there would be howls of protest after they cut program after program, and that the most severe cuts would be in welfare. That was said by the honourable member for Kooyong. But even within the safety of the electorate of the honourable member for O'Connor (Mr Tuckey), the honourable member for Kooyong did not go on to spell out where those cuts would be. If we want to understand something of the areas in which such cuts might occur we have to look at some of the background institutions-the centres that exist within this country to promote conservative ideas-to see the kinds of proposals that no doubt eventually will be shown the light of day in Opposition statements, when those opposite have the courage of their convictions. Until they have the courage of their convictions, nothing they say about public spending and cutting spending can be taken seriously at all.

Let us look at some of the options that have been floated in recent weeks. For example, there is the proposition that there ought to be massive cuts in family allowances. That proposal has been made seriously from time to time by isolated members of the Opposition and certainly was floated by the Centre of Policy Studies a week ago. In terms of any equity, fairness or justice, one would not have thought that that was an area that would be taken seriously; but it is certainly one that is floated around. Another proposition was put very explicitly in a Centre of Policy Studies submission a week ago that university fees ought to be reintroduced on a full scale basis. Whilst that policy has not yet been fully adopted by the Opposition, we heard the Opposition's spokesman on education today talking about students who are currently unable to get into educational institutions getting in on a full fee basis. One does not need to look very far beyond that proposition to see what is involved in it-it is the thin edge of the wedge, the movement to full scale university fees.

Also, from time to time, we have had statements which have suggested that we need to attack the welfare system in terms of unemployment benefit. The proposition has been that all 16 and 17-year-olds ought to be denied unemployment benefit. At one time the shadow spokesman who has just been addressing the House suggested this for all long term unemployed. He has just been referring to people who are unfortunate enough to be in the long term unemployed group, suggesting that all those people ought to have their benefits removed. We have had the suggestion that there ought to be significant cuts in job creation and training programs. Proposals have come from the Opposition-they float for a while and then disappear-that there ought to be social insurance principles, that people ought to have a pay as you go form of welfare. We have had, of course, the proposition that Medicare ought to be dismantled and that we ought to go to yet another scheme for health insurance, which would add to the very many schemes that honourable members opposite were responsible for in the period that they were in government.

Of course, all these proposals are floated, but they have no substance; they are not spelt out. They are simply there so that the Opposition can talk about achieving significant cuts in government spending. But whenever any specificity is given to any of these proposals, the Opposition is on the retreat. Of course, in relation to taxation the Opposition has been much more explicit. It has suggested that at least the revenue aspects of the tax package, such as the capital gains tax, the various fringe benefits taxes and the abolition of tax deductibility for entertainment expenses, would be removed. Of course, honourable members opposite can be very explicit about that because it indicates very clearly who it is that the Opposition is willing to serve. It has no interest whatever in any concept of fairness. I challenge the Opposition at any time to state how its policies or proposals-whether in the taxation system, the social security system or generally in any area of fiscal policy-would meet any objective of fairness or would be likely to produce a fairer society. The word `fairness' is not in the lexicon of the Opposition-because that is not what the Opposition is on about. It is on about a form of negative redistribution, which would take from people on low and middle incomes and redistribute to those people on higher incomes who form the traditional base not only of the Liberal Party of Australia, but of the much more self-interested and radically conservative interests that currently lie behind the conservative parties.

There was a time in which the Liberal Party in this Parliament perhaps deserved something like the name `Liberal'. But, of course, that is a long while ago. The number of small `l' liberals to be found on the opposite side of this House could be counted virtually on the fingers of my left hand, because they have simply ceased to exist as a dominant force within the conservative party and the coalition today. That is why the word `fairness' and the concept of public expenditure, in terms of having any merit at all, lack currency and form in terms of current conservative philosophy. Opposition members are not liberals. They are radical conservatives; they are Tories who are interested in ensuring that society works in favour of the greedy rather than the needy. They are interested not in protecting the interests of the people who are workers. That is indicated by their taxation policy, which is clearly geared towards the interests of people on the very high incomes; but it is even more clearly demonstrated by the attitudes expressed by the previous speaker in relation to wages policy.

The policy of the conservative Opposition in this country is one of denying wage increases irrespective of economic circumstances and irrespective of any capacity within the economy to pay. Irrespective of circumstances, at every wage case in recent years honourable members opposite have advocated a nil increase. They have never conceded at all that workers ought to share in the very significant growth in productivity that has occurred. In terms of the concept of market deregulation what honourable members opposite are concerned about is introducing a level of industrial conflict within this country which we have not seen, certainly since the 1930s. They are interested in introducing to industrial relations a notion of confrontation because they believe that the collective power of the corporate sector would be sufficient to ensure that any reduction in living standards in this country would be borne not only by people on wages but also often by people within those sectors of industry which struggle to pay the highest wages. Of course, that means a reduction in family living standards, which takes us in the direction of reducing the living standards of people who can least afford to have their standards of living decline.

In terms of the Government's policy, we recognise that this country has been going through a very difficult period. We reject any notion that the difficulties that currently are being experienced in macro terms within this society reflect anything more than very basic changes in external conditions which have imposed a very heavy burden on the living standards of this country. We recognise that these are serious problems which need to be addressed. But I repeat: They need to be addressed in a way which expresses some commitment to some sort of fairness. During this very difficult period, and despite very significant cuts in real wages within this country, we have had the best industrial relations record of any government since the war. The reason for this is that we have been perceived to be moderately fair. We have been seen to be concerned to ensure that there is a reasonable and fair distribution in terms of income and wealth within the community. That is why we have had to take measures which, although tough, have been accepted. They are accepted because they are fair.

On the other hand, we have this absurd proposition being peddled, again in very general terms, that it is possible to achieve a massive cut in the tax burden borne by the wealthiest people in the community at the same time as reducing wages significantly and cutting back on the public sector. This inevitably means a cutback in the area of the social wage and areas such as income security, education and health. It is the proposition that we can achieve a cutback in those areas at the same time as wages are reduced and at the same time as there is a negative redistribution in terms of taxation. What that adds up to is the creation of a society in which unfairness and greed are constantly rewarded and in which real need within the community is ignored.

Mr Reith —What rubbish! You don't believe this, do you?

Mr HOWE —I believe it, if I might say so, with a certain fervency, because I look, for example, in my own area to income security and I see where the poorest people within the social security system were after seven years of government of honourable members opposite-there was a 30 per cent cut in payments for the lowest income families in the community. I look to the massive cuts in the level of benefits paid to the unemployed, particularly the young unemployed. In the term of government of honourable members opposite I look to the lack of any capacity to develop a policy in relation to job creation and employment. I compare that with the record for our period in government. I look also at the fact that during the last year in government of honourable members opposite there was a massive increase in unemployment with 186,000 jobs being shed, whereas since we have been in office 730,000 jobs have been created, 170,000 of which were created during 1986, which was not the easiest year in terms of economic management. I do not believe members of the Australian public are unclear about where our priorities are. Our priorities have been with ordinary people and have been to achieve a fairer society. I think they understand where the Opposition's priorities lie. They lie with the white-shoe brigade in Queensland, with new money, with people who have no interest at all in fairness and equity and no sense of the need to develop a coherent society. Despite all the difficulties of our period in office, we have moved significantly towards achieving that goal.

Madam SPEAKER —Order! The Minister's time has expired.