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Tuesday, 27 May 2008
Page: 3297

Dr NELSON (Leader of the Opposition) (3:09 PM) —by leave—I move:

That this House censures the Prime Minister for letting down Australians struggling to make ends meet with the high cost of petrol, in particular for:

(1)   supporting a Treasurer who is so obviously out of touch that he declared yesterday ‘Australians are happy with the Budget’ when the pain of rising fuel costs is being felt across the community;

(2)   the Prime Minister’s admission that he has “done as much as we physically can to provide additional help to the family budget” when he refused to address the immediate pressure of fuel costs to the household and business budget;

(3)   the truth, now exposed by one of the Government’s most senior cabinet ministers, that FuelWatch is ‘FoolWatch’ and will kill off competition in the retail fuel sector, will send small business to the wall and will actually increase the cost of fuel;

(4)   mishandling the treatment of fuel and GST matters in the Government’s tax review that exposes its lack of economic experience; but most of all,

(5)   letting down Australians by quitting after less than six months in the job, when what people need most is a Prime Minister who doesn’t give up when the going gets tough and delivers on his promise to bring down the cost of petrol.

Last year, when Leader of the Opposition, the now Prime Minister said a lot of things to Australians and Australians heard a lot. He said that he would deal with interest rate pressures. He said that he would deal with grocery prices. He said that he would deal with the pressure of petrol prices increasing. Australians heard a lot last year. In the six months since there was a change of government in November last year, in the six months since this Prime Minister has been in office, interest rates have increased twice from the Reserve Bank, the banks have increased interest rates again by another 40 to 50 basis points, in many parts of this country house prices have fallen, business and consumer confidence has been shattered and reached record lows, new building approvals have flatlined, retail sales have softened and petrol today is on average more than 17c per litre more than it was at the time of the election and in rural Australia is more than 18c per litre more than it was in November last year.

The Prime Minister has misled the Australian people. He has falsely led Australians to believe, as he ran around Australia as a cross between Crusader Rabbit and some South Park character trying to convince Australians that he would be able to deal with petrol prices, that he would relieve the pressure on Australian families, that he would be able to do something about interest rates to allow Australians to keep their homes, that he would be able to do something about putting groceries in their shopping trolleys and that he would be able to do something about petrol prices and the pressure on not only Australian families but pensioners and carers and retirees and men and women who do not have a family and are not raising children—they are important too, Prime Minister. He led those people to believe that he would be able to deal with those issues. He led them to believe that, if they changed the government and put him into office, into the Lodge with all the trappings that he has become so accustomed to so quickly, in some way their cost-of-living pressures would be eased.

Then last week in Adelaide we had the Adelaide declaration. In a rare moment of honesty, the Prime Minister said, ‘We have done all we physically can do to help and provide additional support to the family budget.’ In other words, what he has done is drawn a line under Australians and those Australian working families and pensioners and retirees and small business men and women and people in rural and regional Australia and he has said, ‘There is nothing more I can do.’ He has put up the white flag. I say, Prime Minister, that if you cannot do any more for Australians, if you cannot do any more for families that are struggling and buckling under petrol prices, then get out of the way and give the job to somebody who can.

We then have the Treasurer of the country, that nervous man who is trying to fill the huge shoes of the straight-A student, the member for Higgins. You get the impression he is in the backroom trying to read up on it—Economics for Dummies and those sorts of books. He was at the dispatch box yesterday and he said, ‘Mr Speaker, Australians are happy after the budget.’ Well, I have got news for the Treasurer; I have got news for the Prime Minister: Australians are not happy. In fact, they are very unhappy and they are becoming increasingly angry about the arrogance and attitude of a Prime Minister who, after only six months, is out of touch and out of ideas. And what we have had in the six months since he became Prime Minister of Australia is a lot of bread and circuses. We have had a lot of symbolism, some of it supported by many Australians and some of it supported by us. But when it came to the real test of making decisions, of putting together a budget for Australians, the only ray of sunshine in the budget for working Australians, including families, were the tax cuts that came from the member for Higgins—the only thing that actually helped Australians.

Having delivered the last of Peter Costello’s tax cuts, the Prime Minister then says to Australian families, ‘We’ve done everything we physically can to provide additional help to Australians’—in other words: ‘Get out of my way. I want to get into my long white car and I want to have these people look after me, because as the Prime Minister there is nothing more I can do.’ I say there is a lot more that can be done.

If we look at petrol, what we had from the government was the announcement of this so-called Fuelwatch. I say to the Prime Minister: how does watching the price of petrol bring it down? This Fuelwatch system, we have been told by a number of motoring organisations, amongst others, is not actually going to bring down the price of fuel. I might add that the RACV’s motto is in fact ‘We’re there for you’. So, if you are a Victorian and you want someone who is there for you, forget the Prime Minister. He has already said: ‘No, I’ve done as much as I can. You Australians move on; get out of my way.’ In contrast, the RACV, which looks after the interests of motorists in the state of Victoria, in a letter to me from its president on 22 May, said in part: ‘We believe Melbourne motorists would be denied access to weekly discounted fuel as a result of Fuelwatch.’ It goes on: ‘Fuelwatch may put the future of independent operators in jeopardy if they’re unable to move their prices for 24 hours in order to compete with major retailers. These statistics clearly show that motorists take advantage of cheaper days of the week, especially the day when the cheapest price usually applies, which is on a Tuesday.’ Of course, the Prime Minister may not have a high regard for the RACV. We do. We on this side have a very high regard for the RACV.

So, if the Prime Minister is not going to listen to Australians—and I will get to that in a minute—and he is not going to listen to the RACV, who might he listen to? Would he listen to a former ACTU president? I reckon he might. Would he listen to a senior cabinet minister? I reckon he might. But today, in the Australian newspaper, we read that the Minister for Resources and Energy wrote to his own government and said that with the introduction of Fuelwatch:

The biggest losers ... would again be working families in places like western Sydney …

The resources minister in the Prime Minister’s own government wrote to him and said that the Fuelwatch scheme would be:

… an anti-competitive waste of money and predicted it would leave battlers out of pocket, despite government claims it would lead to lower fuel prices.

In other words, it is a stunt. When he is trying to get into the Lodge, when he is trying to get those trappings—that big house, the white car and everything else—he goes around the country and says to Australians, ‘You put me in there and I’ll fix your petrol prices.’ But when petrol prices start going up, as they have significantly since the change of government, he comes up with Fuelwatch. He says, ‘We’re going to have Fuelwatch.’

I point out to the Prime Minister that today is Tuesday. For those of us who live in the real world, tonight, Tuesday night, in every part of the country except Western Australia there will be queues of motorists up to half a kilometre long outside petrol stations—and you know why they are there, Mr Speaker? They will be there in their 20-year-old Mitsubishis, they will be there in their 10-year-old Commodores with three kids in the back seat and they will be there in their Taragos, with a wheelchair in the back, and five kids because tonight is the night in the cycle when you get the cheapest fuel. I say to the Prime Minister: get out of your car and go down there and ask those families whether they reckon a 5c cut in the excise on petrol might make a difference. I say to the Prime Minister: these are men and women who are making decisions about whether they are going to buy processed sausages or chops, whether they can afford to put $40, $50 or $60 worth of petrol in their car. The last thing they need is a Prime Minister who says, ‘There’s nothing more I can do for you.’

There is something that he can do for them. The first thing he can do is to stop this fraud, Fuelwatch. He can listen to the Minister for Resources and Energy and he can listen to the Minister for Small Business, Independent Contractors and the Service Economy and the Minister for Finance and Deregulation—who happen to be talking to each other about this at the moment—because we know from the media that they think that the Prime Minister has got it wrong and, to quote the resources minister, that the people who will suffer most from what he is proposing to do are those battlers.

These are men and women in their cars—with their kids, who have houses sometimes worth less than they paid for them and who have a mortgage and interest rates increasing under you, Prime Minister, with 134,000 of them budgeted under you to lose their jobs by the end of this year—who are making decisions about whether to buy food or buy more petrol, and the Prime Minister is perpetrating on them a fraud which not only is anticompetitive but actually means that they will pay more. The one question, amongst the many that he would not answer today, was a simple one. It was: ‘Prime Minister, will you guarantee that no Australian will pay one cent more in petrol as a result of the introduction of Fuelwatch?’ He would not answer the question, and he will not answer the question, because the answer is that they will.

The people—like those who populate the front bench of the government—who do not care too much what the price of petrol is when they pull in will pay a few cents a litre less on the cycle on average. But the people who are queued up there tonight will pay more, and they will pay more from budgets that can least afford to pay more. That is what the Prime Minister knows, and that is what he is not prepared to admit. Prime Minister, in that ACCC report you are so fond of quoting just have a look at the comparison between Perth and Adelaide. You will notice, if you look at it, that there is almost twice as much fuel sold on a Tuesday as on a Thursday in Adelaide, because Australians are watching the price of petrol. But in Perth it is pretty much the same every day, and the petrol is dearer. Petrol is, on average at the moment in Perth, $1.54 a litre. It is more than in every other capital city in the country.

So what we have is a stunt. We have a stunt which is intended to distract people. Then, when that is exposed, the next thing we get is that he is a quitter. He has given up on Australian families. He says that he has done everything he physically can after six months. This must be the first government that has ended its honeymoon with its own budget and with an admission from the Prime Minister that he cannot do anymore.

The other thing that is very important is that, if the Prime Minister really wants to do something about petrol, there is 38c a litre of excise on petrol. There is just under 14c a litre in GST. Then what do we have? We have the stunt, we have the white flag and then we have the media spin. I suspect, by the way, that tomorrow we will have a story about the campaign against obesity or something on breastfeeding—all worthy causes. What does his media department do? His media department says, ‘I know: let’s have a look at the GST on the excise.’ So what we now have is a plan to have a review which might take almost 4c a litre off petrol when the review reports in 18 months, and we have already had the state governments saying, ‘Well, we can’t have this.’

Prime Minister, if you will not go down to one of those queues tonight, Tuesday night, and ask those motorists, firstly, if they would support a 5c cut in the excise on fuel and then, secondly, if they think it is a good idea to have an inquiry that will report in 18 months and might take 4c a litre off the price of petrol—if you will not go down there and ask them—we will send Cardboard Kev! They will get more sense out of him than out of you!

This country is in a strong budgetary position. It is so because, over 11½ years, that man there, the member for Higgins, made tough decisions. He made decisions—along with the then government—to get this country into a strong position where surplus budgeting is the norm, where unemployment was going down, where interest rates were going down and where tax cuts were delivered in almost every budget that was delivered. I say to the Prime Minister—through you, Mr Speaker—that Australians are at breaking point. Petrol is $1.60 a litre and rising. There is one thing the Prime Minister can do—one thing that he has control over. He has 38c a litre of excise, money collected from those same families that are there tonight, in some cases going without the most essential basics to put petrol in their cars. The Prime Minister can make a decision to reorder his priorities and give them some relief.

Everybody knows that the coalition stands for lower taxes and for a cut in the excise of 5c a litre. We must make it clear to you, Prime Minister, that Australians need decisions, they need leadership and they need relief. They do not need another committee. They do not need an inquiry. They do not need a summit. They do not need something that is going to report in 18 months and that might give them less than 4c a litre. Australian families, Australian pensioners and Australian seniors have to eat. Ninety per cent of households have a car, and they need to put petrol in it. They know—Australians know; we all know—that, of course, there are global issues affecting the price of petrol, but they know that the one thing the Prime Minister can control is the excise on petrol. The Prime Minister needs to show leadership, to be decisive, to give Australians relief, to support a 5c a litre cut in the fuel excise and not to give them another committee to eat or to put in their fuel tank. We censure the Prime Minister of Australia because he has given up on Australians.

The SPEAKER —Order! Is the motion seconded?

Mr Turnbull —I second the motion and reserve my right to speak.