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Wednesday, 18 March 1987
Page: 1037

Mr BEALE(2.57) —There can be no more appropriate way to commence this discussion of the matter of public importance today, there can be no more appropriate fashion in which to expose the latest public relations stunt by the Prime Minister (Mr Hawke), and there can be no more appropriate means of demonstrating the inability of the Government to deal with the true causes of price rises than to show to the House the photograph on the front page of today's Sydney Morning Herald. There it is: `Meet the Minister for Puffed Wheat'. The Minister for Science (Mr Barry Jones) who has been appointed by the Prime Minister to supervise the so-called arrangements to deal with price increases is to become the Minister Assisting the Attorney-General on Consumer Affairs and the Minister Assisting the Treasurer on Prices. What is the media reaction to that? It is the `Minister for Puffed Wheat'. This latest attempt to mislead the Australian public is just another public relations stunt by the Prime Minister. It is another drugs offensive; it is another Priority One; it is another Hercules to Ethiopia; it is another trick that the Government thinks will enable it to avoid coming to terms and dealing with the true economic issues facing Australia.

Let us see what the Minister for puffed wheat has to do in his new capacity. The first thing is that he has to oversee the Prices Surveillance Authority which will arrange for retailers operating on a national basis to report regularly on their gross profit margins. What a joke! We all know that the retail industry is one of the most competitive industries, and last year retail prices rose by 8.8 per cent compared with inflation of 10 per cent. The Prices Surveillance Authority will also have some inquiries into clothing and toiletries, which are also very competitive industries, and an inquiry into biscuits. The Minister is to have an inquiry into biscuits! He is to have an inquiry into biscuits so that he can pick up the crumbs! The biscuit situation is interesting. The Australian Bureau of Statistics shows that for the December quarter a 250 gram packet of dry biscuits cost 87c in Canberra, $1.05 in Hobart and $1.14 in Darwin. The price of biscuits is lower in Canberra than in other capital cities and 31 per cent lower than in Darwin. Perhaps the Minister is having an inquiry into biscuits so that he can attempt to prevent the price of biscuits in Canberra rising to the level that they are in Darwin.

The second thing that the Minister will do in his new capacity is to oversee a new government authority. We all know that, in these difficult times, we need a new government authority like we need a 10 per cent inflation rate. Anyhow, we will have a new government authority called the Bureau of Consumer Affairs. What will it do? It will be concerned with food and beverage standards and it will have a policy in relation to packaging and labelling. The new Bureau will considerably streamline the various government services directed at the consumer. We all know that famous one-liner: `I am from the Government; I am here to help you'. Now we have another one: `I am from the Bureau of Consumer Affairs and I am here to protect you'. There we have the expose of this fraud being perpetrated on the Australian people. The Minister for Science will oversee three of the most competitive industries in Australia. He will have an inquiry into biscuits and he will look after food and beverage standards and packaging and labelling.

The Government is not serious in attempting to deal with the true causes of price rises and it is not serious about the effect on Australian families, farmers and small businesses of its failed economic policies. What does the Minister think about this? On the Sunday program he was interviewed by Laurie Oakes. When questioned about what the Prime Minister thought that the Minister had to do, the Minister for Science said: `Well, I didn't write his speech'. Later in that program, when he was talking about food prices, he disclosed that food prices as a proportion of total income had been remarkably stable over the last 15 years and he used the phrase `extraordinary consistency'. If that is the situation what is the Minister doing in that job? Laurie Oakes then asked him: `Why are you here?' The Minister said: `Because I think the community doesn't quite understand where the pressure for initial prices come'. I challenge anyone in this House to understand what that response means.

Yesterday, in response to a question in the House about fuel pricing, the Minister disclosed that that would be outside his jurisdiction. Today he blamed devaluation and twice in this House today he got dumped by the Treasurer (Mr Keating). If the Treasurer takes responsibility for questions directed to this Minister, where is the Treasurer now? Why is the Treasurer not responding to this matter of public importance? How can the Government be serious about prices if the Minister has no jurisdiction on fuel pricing policy? How can the Government be serious about pricing if the Minister has no jurisdiction over interest rates, housing repayments, postal services and telecommunications services? This whole exercise is a farce and if it were not so serious for Australian families, small businesses and farmers it would be seen as a joke.

The real culprit on price rises is the Hawke-Keating Government. Australia's inflation rate, at 9.8 per cent, is four times the average of Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development countries and compares with zero per cent for Japan, our major trading competitor. How can we ever hope to hold the value of our currency? How can we ever hope to be competitive internationally? How can we ever hope to restore real growth based on private investment in this country with an inflation rate four times that of our trading competitors? If the Prime Minister was serious about dealing with price rises he would do something about the level of interest rates; he would do something about the high increase in tax and charges; he would do something about deregulating our labour market to improve productivity; he would do something about freeing up our communications and transport industries, and he would do something about the massive cost of regulation on business.

The Government's deliberate high interest rates policy has hit home mortgages and increased the cost of consumer credit. The Real Estate Institute of Australia recently released figures showing that, over the past two years, the cost of mortgage repayments for a family on average weekly earnings has risen from 18.3 per cent of those earnings to 26.7 per cent. High interest rates are strangling the housing industry and making decent, hard working Australians spend more and more on housing repayments. The housing crisis is reflected everywhere. New dwelling commencements are running 15 per cent below underlying demand and, as we have heard today, the rental market is in crisis. The Sydney newspapers have been trumpeting for several days the fact that the rent for an unfurnished three-bedroom house in that city is now $267 a week-nearly two-thirds of average weekly earnings. This drastic situation in the rental market has been caused by the Government's taxation policies, notably the abolition of negative gearing and the capital gains tax. Mr Deputy Speaker, I say to you, as I have said again and again, that the coalition, in government, will repeal the capital gains tax.

As a result of low dwelling commencements and the crisis in the rental market, public housing waiting lists around Australia have grown from 100,000 to 160,000 in the last four years. We have 40,000 young Australians sleeping outdoors every night and another 60,000 sleeping outdoors intermittently, and we have 400,000 Australians living in caravan parks, many of whom are doing so because they cannot afford to rent or buy. How can this Government be serious about prices unless it does something about the high level of interest rates? Those interest rates have hurt not only the housing industry, Australian families, the rural community and small businesses, but also consumers generally as a result of the high cost of consumer credit. Government policies have also foisted on the community sharply increased costs on imported items largely as a result of the collapse of the Australian dollar over the last two years.

Since March 1983 inflation in Australia has risen by 30 per cent, yet government taxation has risen by 59 per cent and government spending has risen by 53 per cent. This failure by the Government to control its own taxes is further proof of how empty is the gesture of giving the Minister for puffed wheat his prices responsibilities. Government taxation has risen by 59 per cent under the Hawke-Keating inflationary Government.

Mr N.A. Brown —How much?

Mr BEALE —It has risen by 59 per cent in the four years of the Hawke-Keating inflationary Government. Why will the Government not abolish automatic indexation of traditional excises every six months? Why did the Government increase wholesale taxes on flavoured milk, fruit juices, wine, and film processing in the last Budget? Why did it increase sales tax on cars? Why did it introduce a fringe benefits tax when it knew that the cost of that tax would be passed on to consumers, thus causing higher prices, and when it knew that an unintended consequence would be to institutionalise tax-free perks? I say again, as honourable members on this side of Parliament have said again and again, that in government we will repeal the fringe benefits tax lock, stock and barrel.

Why did the Government introduce its negative gearing provisions which have meant increases in rentals across Australia at rates significantly greater than inflation? Why did the Government increase the bank account debits tax? Why has the Government announced that it will increase the company tax rate and why did the Government pull the two-card trick on petrol excise? As the price of crude oil went down about a year ago the Government failed to pass on all the benefits to the consumers. Now that the crude oil price has risen again the Government has passed on all the additional charges to consumers. This further price rise to Australian car drivers, families and small businesses has been yet another cruel blow to their budgets. But nowhere has it been more cruel than in its effect on our beleaguered farming community. The rural producers of Australia, despite their high productivity, have been suffering a sharp downturn in commodity prices and now have to suffer the indignity of this insensitive, grasping Government forcing higher fuel prices on their operations.

How can the Government be serious about prices if it did not support the call by employers to reopen the national wage case in the light of the changed circumstances that have arisen in the past few weeks? Why is the government sanctioning the unions in their 3 per cent superannuation push? Why is it continuing to allow the operation of the restrictive work practices and demarcation disputes that are strangling business and small business around this country? If the Government is serious about prices, why has it allowed increased costs for pharmaceutical prescriptions and increases in postal and telephone charges? No Government can be serious about prices if it continues to allow the operation of our highly regulated transport and communication industries. If the Government is serious about prices, it must do something about our airlines, about our roads, about our Telecom monopoly and about Australia Post. The Government has failed to deal with the true causes of price rises. The creation of the post of the Minister for puffed wheat is a public relations stunt which will have no effect on dealing with the root causes--

Mr Robert Brown —Mr Deputy Speaker, I take a point of order. I draw your attention to the fact that the honourable member for Deakin, who is perfectly aware of the Standing Orders, has repeatedly referred to the Minister at the table as the Minister for puffed wheat. He knows that the Standing Orders require absolutely that members refer to other members of this chamber and to Ministers by their correct title. I would request, Mr Deputy Speaker, that the honour- able member for Deakin be asked to refer to the Minister at the table in the correct way and that, because of the persistence with which he has referred to the Minister in the incorrect way, he should now be required to apologise as well.

Mr DEPUTY SPEAKER (Mr Leo McLeay) —Order! The honourable member for Charlton has a valid point of order. I thought that the honourable member for Deakin, having used that phrase once, might not have used it a second time. I draw his attention to the fact that he should refer to the Minister by his title.

Mr BEALE —The Minister for Science. This whole exercise is an insult to the Australian people who will dismiss it as a complete waste of time and an utter farce.