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Thursday, 20 September 2001
Page: 31146

Mr BEAZLEY (3:08 PM) —My question is to the Prime Minister, and I refer to his repeated claims that the economy has responded well to the implementation of his GST and tax policy over the course of the last year. Prime Minister, if it is doing so well and business is doing so well, why have there been so many corporate collapses in the last few months? We had Pasminco, Ansett, HIH, One.Tel and Harris Scarfe—all before the international crisis hits our economy. What are the former workers of these companies to think when you tell them how well they are doing, and how many job destroying corporate collapses must there be before you wake up to the serious problems your administration has posed for this economy?

Honourable members interjecting—

Mr SPEAKER —The chair is on his feet! I do not expect to have to rise to get order on my right, least of all from frontbenchers on my right. Nor do I expect the reaction on my left to be as it was.

Mr HOWARD (Prime Minister) —I genuinely thank the Leader of the Opposition for that question, because it is a very general question and it does allow me to say a number of things about Australia's economic performance.

Mr SPEAKER —The member for Jagajaga!

Mr HOWARD —The Australian economy, by any measure, has been performing above the level of the performance of other comparable economies for a very long time.

Mr SPEAKER —The member for Jagjaga! The Prime Minister has the call.

Mr HOWARD —The Australian economy's growth trajectory, until the tragic events of last week, was better than had been predicted at the time the budget was brought down. We have heard a lot from the opposition about jobs over the past few days. I would remind the Leader of the Opposition that, in the time the government has been in office, we have generated almost 900,000 new jobs. I would remind the Leader of the Opposition that, by the end of this financial year, on current projections we will have paid back $58 billion of the $96 billion of government debt you left us. I would remind the Leader of the Opposition that we now enjoy the lowest levels of interest rates that are of ongoing benefit to business as well as to home owners that we have had for a period of more than 30 years.

Mr SPEAKER —The member for Jagajaga, for the third time!

Mr HOWARD —The Leader of the Opposition talks about the impact of the GST. Has the Leader of the Opposition forgotten that, in relation to our current account deficit and our trade performance over the last year, we have achieved near record levels. In fact, our current account deficit for the past quarter is, I understand, the best current account performance for 20 years, since 1981. That is due to a number of factors, and one of those factors is that we have removed indirect taxes completely from the cost of exports. If you look at the performance of the Australian economy up until the tragic events of last week, it is the best performance of the Australian economy since the late 1960s. One of the many reasons why the Australian economy has performed so well is that this country for the last 5½ years has had a government that has had the courage to introduce necessary economic reforms, despite a pattern of almost guerilla opposition from the Australian Labor Party. At every turn, the Labor Party have endeavoured to frustrate the reform agenda of this government. I cast my mind back to the time when the former Labor government were in office. On those occasions when they acted in the national interest—such as in relation to financial deregulation or the reduction of tariffs or, dare I remind the Leader of the Opposition, the privatisation of government enterprises, which he would not have been able to achieve without the support of the then opposition; remember the 12½ per cent broad based consumption tax that you championed in 1986?—the fact is that the Labor Party faced an opposition that was prepared to act in the national interest.

Mr Beazley —What happened to Pasminco workers?

Mr HOWARD —He talks about the Pasminco workers. I will come to the Pasminco workers in just a moment. I remind the Leader of the Opposition that, when you were in government and you put up an idea that was in the national economic interest, we supported it. In the time that we have been in government, whenever we have put up a proposition that has been in the national economic interest of Australia, the Labor Party, for their own short-term cheap political interests, have opposed it. Labor opposed industrial relations reform, they opposed the government's reforms in relation to Telstra, they opposed taxation reform, they opposed Work for the Dole, they opposed for a long time the proposals the government had in relation to illegal immigration and now they are threatening, even though they support it at the moment, that if they happen to win the election they will change the law. That is the measure of the hypocrisy and the neglect of the national interest of the Leader of the Opposition.

By way of interjection, I was asked about the workers at Pasminco. Presumably that is a reference to the entitlements of those workers.

Mr HOWARD —It is about their jobs and their entitlements. In relation to their employment position, the latest advice I have is that the company is continuing to operate. In fact, over lunch I happened to see an interview with the receiver. He indicated that all the operations of the company were going on. I also inform the House that last night the chairman of the company, Mr Mark Rayner, rang me prior to the statement being issued about the receivership to inform me that it was going into receivership. The first question I asked him was about the security of employment and, potentially, entitlements. He assured me that there were adequate provisions within the finances of the company to cover any entitlements. If that is the case, that is an approach and a degree of commercial prudence and responsibility that I would commend to all Australian companies. That is the view also expressed by the receiver.

I also refer to a letter written by the chief executive officer on 12 September to my colleague Senator Nick Minchin, the Minister for Industry, Science and Resources. The letter said:

It is difficult to envisage any circumstances in which employee entitlements are at risk even in the unlikely event of insolvency.

In other words, let me say immediately that, on the basis of the information I have been given—I repeat: that is the basis of my statement—and on the basis of the claims made publicly by the receiver and in this letter by the managing director of the company, any attempt by the Labor Party to run a fear campaign in relation to the entitlements or the security of employment of the employees of Pasminco is one that could be completely rejected. Let me remind the Leader of the Opposition that, although he finds the reality of it very difficult to accept—despite all of the attempts made by the Labor Party over the last five years to stop this economy expanding, to stop this government reforming the economy, to stop this government doing the things for the Australian economy that are in the national interest—this nation, economically, has performed extremely well. This country has performed better than anybody expected. This country has outperformed most other countries.

Our future is bound to be affected by the events of last week. As both the Treasurer and I have said repeatedly over the past few days, in the light of what occurred last week and the consequences of it which are now being played out on financial markets, in world airlines and in so many other areas, there are certainly clouds over the future economic growth of all nations. The comforting thing for Australia is that, because of what the government has done over the last 5½ years, we are better prepared to deal with those problems than any other nation. We are better prepared than any other nation.

I know that right through the front ranks of the Labor Party, starting with the Leader of the Opposition and the deputy leader, it is a reality they do not like to face. But whatever lies ahead of this country economically, one thing can be asserted with total confidence: because of what we have done—

Mr SPEAKER —The member for Jagajaga is warned!

Mr HOWARD —this nation is better prepared than any to deal with anything that the future may throw at us.

Opposition members interjecting—

Mr SPEAKER —When the members on the frontbench and the Leader of the Opposition have managed to exercise just a little restraint, I will have an opportunity to recognise the member for Fairfax.