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Thursday, 5 April 2001
Page: 26605

Mr CREAN (4:04 PM) —This is the last time the parliament sits for seven weeks to debate matters of serious issue. We have put a proposition on the agenda today for the Prime Minister to come in and defend his record five years after promising he would make the Australian public more `comfortable and relaxed'—and he squibs the debate. The best they can drag up is the minister whom we have just heard from—the Minister for Employment, Workplace Relations and Small Business—the person who has to rehearse his question time answers. I tell you what, brother, go back to rehearsal class because that was a pathetic performance. Where was the audience? The best you could scrape together was six people on your own backbench, and three of them whips. This is the person who admits that his own mother says he is not fit for high office. This is the person they send in to defend the government's record.

It is said that history tends to repeat itself—the first time is tragedy and the second is farce. John Howard, who was Treasurer under Prime Minister Fraser, stands as the embodiment of this statement. After seven wasted years—that was the tragedy—the coalition government, when John Howard was Treasurer and had produced double digits in both unemployment and inflation, was turfed out of office. But the best that the then Treasurer, John Winston Howard, could do was whinge to everyone that Malcolm Fraser had stolen his surplus. Now we have the farce of the former Treasurer, now Prime Minister, doing backflip after backflip while the new Treasurer whinges to everyone that John Howard is stealing his surplus. John Howard has been forced to make so many backflips of late that when he leaves this place he can join the circus. Peter Costello has been rolled so often he is smoother than a ball bearing.

But let us understand the sorts of things that they have been rolled on because all of them constitute deceit, denial and then backflip. They said that BAS could not be simplified and could not be reconciled on an annual basis—wrong, and we proved them wrong. The tax act is burdening small business in this country with complexity. The Prime Minister told the parliament in 1997:

The volume of tax legislation has become a tidal wave which threatens to overwhelm small business.

He was then asked in 1998 by Alan Jones: `Will the number of pages in the tax act be reduced by the introduction of the GST?' The Prime Minister replied, `Yes, it will.' But the tax act is now almost three times the size that it was in 1966. If it was a tidal wave then, it is a tsunami now, and it has all been done under their watch. The Leader of the Opposition has referred to petrol. Labor forced the government to roll back on petrol. Labor forced the backflip. Let us hear none of this sanctimony from the minister who has departed the chamber saying, `Flexible mind, the Prime Minister—out there listening to people.'

This Prime Minister is so out of touch he would not know how to listen. The only language that he understands is when we force the change, when he recognises that he hasn't got the numbers, when he is forced by backbench revolt because of the campaigns we have run in their constituencies saying, `There is no point complaining about the high price of petrol at home if you are not prepared to come and do something in Canberra; no point being heroes at home whilst you are cowards in Canberra, because your constituents will always remember it.'

On beer, the latest backflip, the Prime Minister is still in denial. We heard the minister today saying he was listening and that they had flexible minds. They still do not want to do this. They still do not believe they have broken a promise. Yet it is there in absolute black and white terms: `The price of beer will not rise by more than 1.9 per cent'—and they stuck it up 10 per cent and do not think they broke a promise. You still have the Treasurer cowardly refusing to come into this House and introduce the legislation for the backflip, out at doorstop after doorstop saying, `We shouldn't have to have done it. This is the brewers writing their own tax rate.' This is the government forced to honour its promise and, as the Leader of the Opposition said, we will continue to do it.

The effect of this matter of public importance today is to say that the Prime Minister has failed after his five years in office to make Australians `comfortable and relaxed'. Ask the small businesses of the country, the pensioners, the self-funded retirees, the people who live in regional and rural Australia, the workers whose jobs are threatened, people who are in aged care facilities, people who are in hospitals, parents who are struggling to get their kids into decent education if they are comfortable and relaxed and they will tell you that they are not. Why is that? Because of this government's fundamental economic mismanagement, as well as its deceit.

We heard the Prime Minister in question time talk about the record of economic achievement of his government and try and again ridicule Labor's. Let us just understand what this government's economic watch has produced. Foreign debt has reached a record $301 billion—56 per cent up under Peter Costello. Household debt is at record levels—$487½ billion, an increase of 75 per cent under Peter Costello. For the first time, Australian households now owe more than they earn. Credit card debt has risen from just $6.7 billion in February 1996 to $17½ billion in January 2001—a 161 per cent increase. And under Peter Costello the annual growth rate in credit card debt reached highs not seen since John Howard was last Treasurer.

On investment, the last three years of the Howard government has seen an annual average growth rate for private new capital expenditure of minus 5.1 per cent. Compare that with Labor's last three years in office and you can see we had investment in the economy throughout it positive. This government, presiding over continued economic growth, has got investment in the negative. Is it little wonder that we are struggling as an economy? And it is not just the housing sector, as the government would have you believe. Look at business research and development—the drivers of economic growth. If we want to position ourselves as the new economy, as innovators with the skills to sell to the rest of the world, government has to play a role. This government has driven it down. Business investment in research and development rose every year for 13 years under Labor. Under John Howard, it has fallen every year. Is it little wonder that the rest of the world writes it down? If we are not prepared to invest in our future, why should they? That is the question they continue to ask. This government is not serious about investing in our future.

The government have also produced a decade-high inflation rate, they have produced the first negative quarter of economic growth in 9½ years and they have king-hit the construction sector, so much so that interest rates have had to fall, together with an increase in the home savings grant to drag it off the floor. I presented that graph the other day in the parliament to demonstrate the slump that they have caused to the housing sector—the greatest slump ever recorded. And they pretend that they are good economic managers! Well, let me tell you this: if you cannot manage the economy, you cannot make people comfortable and relaxed. `Comfortable and relaxed' is hardly a vision splendid, but you will never get this from the Prime Minister. But that was his benchmark. If you cannot manage the economy, as they have consistently failed to do, it is no wonder that people are out there hurting.

We heard the Prime Minister today rely on the Wright family. It represents, as the shadow spokesman for social services has said, 1.8 per cent of Australian families. John Howard is satisfied if that minuscule proportion can say, `We are doing well.' What about the rest of them? What about the 98 per cent of families who are struggling under the weight of his GST? And as for the argument that the dollar does not matter unless you are going overseas, what does he say to the people who have to pay more for imported products and more for petrol? What does he say to the businesses that have to pay more for their input costs and therefore strip their margins? This is a government whose GST has mugged the economy. They have not made Australians comfortable and relaxed and they do not deserve to retain office. (Time expired)