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Tuesday, 3 February 2009
Page: 59

Mr HARTSUYKER (6:10 PM) —I welcome the opportunity to speak in this House on Appropriation Bill (No. 3) 2008-2009 and Appropriation Bill (No. 4) 2008-2009 on a day when there has been very important debate on the future direction of this country and the financial measures which will set this country up for a strong and prosperous future in the face of some very significant challenges. We have already seen the initial response by this government to the challenges that are faced by this nation with the $10.4 billion Economic Security Strategy, which is something of a misnomer. Is it secure? Is it a strategy? I think not. It was more akin to a one-off Christmas bonus to sweeten up the voters coming into Christmas shopping time. It was not thought through. It was more like an attempt to grab the headlines. No-one was going to argue with plenty of extra cash for Christmas. We saw big flashing signs out at the front of shops saying, ‘Spend your Ruddbucks here!’ The question we need to ask as responsible members of this House is: was that the best use of the funds? Did that package achieve what it set out to do? When one gets out on the streets one finds some people who say, ‘I welcomed those funds and put them to good use.’ But many people saved the money, so the stimulus did not occur to the extent that was intended.

We have seen $10.4 billion of expenditure, which is in the order of half of the budget surplus that was bequeathed to the incoming government, and it went in one hit. Now that we have had the sugar fix and the Christmas shopping spree, to the extent that it occurred, that money is gone. When we look around we can see very little to show for it, and today we saw a new package introduced into this House and being put before the members of this House. We quite rightly ask the question: has this package been well thought through? Is this package going to achieve what it sets out to do?

When you look at the previous $10.4 billion package, you can see signs right throughout that it is not well thought through. One of my constituents came and raised a concern about it with me. She worked voluntarily for a charity but managed to secure one or two days work in the fortnight which became the basis for the Economic Security Strategy. As a result of working a couple of days in one particular fortnight she was disenfranchised of the opportunity to receive that funding. Clearly it was not intended that a person doing a very rare day or two of work—helping out a charity organisation with a very modest amount of employment—be prevented from getting the package. That was not the intention at all, but that in fact was the effect. Because this government had not thought through the technical problems that might arise, that person missed out on what she should have been entitled to receive. Once again we see the Rudd government falling short on the detail—big on the rhetoric, big on the huff and puff and big on the hot air, but found lacking on the detail. And now we have the $42 billion Nation Building and Jobs Plan—but more on that later.

Let us remember where all this money is coming from. Where is the money that this government has to spend to get this package enacted? Some of it is coming from debt—we know that there is going to be debt. Again, we have Labor in power and we have got deficits; the two run hand-in-hand. So we know we are going to get a deficit. Part of the funding comes from the surplus that was bequeathed to Labor by the coalition government. This was a surplus generated after paying off $96 billion of Labor debt. At their first budget they talked about the surplus that they had built—the surplus that was allegedly built by the Labor government is almost an Orwellian concept. More correctly, it was the surplus that was bequeathed to the new, incoming government, and at the end of their first year they have turned surplus into deficit.

The Prime Minister conveniently forgets about the record of economic management of the previous coalition government. He is also keen to talk about the fact that our banks are riding out the subprime crisis quite well. They are riding out the subprime crisis because they have been well regulated. We have a solid banking system. But do we have a solid banking system because of the legislation enacted by Labor, this government? No, we do not. We have a strong and secure banking sector because the previous coalition government ensured over its term that the settings, the policies and the legislation were in place to protect our banking system and to ensure that it was strong.

But this government does not want to give credit where credit is due. It would rather chase a headline or a 10-second sound bite. It tries to gloss over the fact that much of the prosperity we have enjoyed up until this point, and much of the strength of the banking system, is directly related to decisions made by the previous coalition government. When we look at the decisions taken by this government since then, there are some very stark contrasts indeed. We have policy on the run. We have the ill-conceived guarantee—a guarantee that had a dramatic effect on people right around this country, a guarantee which had the intent of doing good in the financial sector but in fact caused a run on many other financial institutions. This was a guarantee that was introduced without proper consultation and without taking the right advice. Then we saw the government having to back-pedal and reduce the unlimited guarantee to a guarantee of $1 million dollars—too little, too late.

Investors had already seen their funds frozen because this government and this Prime Minister did not take the time to get the detail right. He did not take the time to consult. Why would any Prime Minister not consult the Reserve Bank before enacting such an important piece of policy? He was not big enough to admit that the proposal by the Leader of the Opposition for a $100,000 cap would have done the job without the dislocation caused by Labor’s policy on the run. He did not seek the best advice—he was more intent on meeting the media cycle. He was more intent on getting that sound grab for the six o’clock news, so he rushed, he did not take advice and thousands of investors around the country paid the price.

More recently, we see our Prime Minister being critical about the right-wing free marketeers—this crusade against neo-liberalism. The free market has delivered benefits to people right around the world. The actions of the free market have lifted tens of millions of people out of poverty over the last 30 years but—conveniently—this Prime Minister seeks to deny that. He is in denial on the impact of the free market and he has almost become some sort of left-wing feral, one might say, in this matter. He has changed his stripes and he has certainly changed tack. It is quite curious that you can deny the growth that has happened over such a long period of time and deny the effectiveness of the free market in delivering wealth and growth to economies, purely because it is expedient. It suits the Labor rhetoric to suddenly wind back their support for the free market.

It was the free marketeers—the coalition—who paid back Labor’s $96 billion of debt. It was the free marketeers who delivered to this incoming government a $22 billion surplus, which they claim was a surplus that they built. They have a hide! But what did they do with their $22 billion surplus? They converted it into a deficit of a similar magnitude. After only a year in the job, we see surplus turned to deficit.

Earlier today, speaking of the Nation Building and Jobs Plan, the Prime Minister said the alternative was to do nothing. One alternative is running deficits—running this particular package of expenditure and, if you listen to the Prime Minister’s rhetoric, only this particular set of initiatives will deliver the benefits. Another package of initiatives apparently would not be as effective, if you believe their rhetoric. But he said the alternative to this package is to do nothing. He sounds eerily like another free marketeer, Margaret Thatcher, when she announced, ‘There is no alternative.’ I would like to remind the Prime Minister that it was the members of Baroness Thatcher’s own party who decided that there was indeed an alternative to the programs that she was putting forward and they deposed her. I would remind him that there is an alternative to his blanket guarantee on deposits: he should have listened to the Reserve Bank; he should have initiated a guarantee more in the order of $100,000 as recommended by the opposition leader—there was an alternative to that policy. But he did not heed the advice of the opposition leader and he did not take the advice from the Reserve Bank to come up with an outcome that was going to provide stability in the financial system. Rather, he came up with an outcome that caused chaos.

We have another interesting program, and no doubt the Prime Minister will say that there is no alternative to it—that is, Ruddbank, a program that will allegedly create thousands upon thousands of jobs. We do not know where, we do not know when and we do not know how, but allegedly Ruddbank will create jobs. It begs the question: if the value of a particular commercial property or commercial property portfolio were to fall, how does preventing that fall in value create a job? A particular property’s value fluctuates in the market. How does interfering in the market fluctuation in the value of a building create jobs? New construction will not necessarily be created through Ruddbank. It may fund the rollover of a particular package of financing for a commercial property or the completion of projects which may be nearing completion, so the labour content may be very low. In providing a benefit, if you like, to the big banks, rather than providing a benefit to deliver jobs down on Main Street, how is this new program, Ruddbank, going to create jobs? The Prime Minister has not answered that. He cannot answer it, because he knows it will not create jobs. He is actually misleading the Australian people. He is trying to get the spin machine to cover up for his policy flaws. We have had the flawed scheme in relation to the bank guarantee. We have an equally flawed scheme in Ruddbank.

The Prime Minister also mentioned the special meeting of COAG later this week. He is looking to the states for effective delivery of his new plan. I can tell you that the residents of New South Wales know that there is one government which you do not look to for the effective delivery of goods and services and a plan, and that is the New South Wales state government. If you want to take on a partner to deliver outcomes, there is no organisation you would venture further from than the New South Wales state government. It has a tragic track record: a failed health system, a failed public transport system and a failed budget. The New South Wales state government is a disaster, and Kevin Rudd, through his plan for the future of this nation, is taking the New South Wales government on board as his partner—as his legs on the ground in New South Wales.

Look at health, for instance. Look at the patients at Dubbo hospital, who are not getting painkillers because the state government has not paid the bills. There are patients not receiving proper medical care because the state government has not paid the bills. Kevin Rudd said that, on health, the buck stopped with him. He was unequivocal in that claim. He said: ‘On health, the buck stops with me. I am going to end the blame game. I am going to fix up health.’ You have to look no further than Dubbo hospital and New South Wales Health to know that he has not fixed anything. We have a health service not paying its bills, and as a result the people who are serviced by that health service are going without proper care.

If you want to stimulate an economy, make sure that jobs are secure and, as a bonus, create better health services and make sure that the health service is paying its bills. Quite clearly, for the small businesses—and the large businesses, for that matter—that are contracting to the New South Wales Department of Health through the local Greater Western Area Health Service, if the cash is not flowing in that area, there are jobs being either put at risk or lost by virtue of the fact that the government is not providing its side of the commercial deal by paying within 30 days. The government should be paying its bills on time. It is inexcusable. So let us not talk about big picture stimulus packages and so on and so forth. Let us have a good look at the basics as well, and let us make sure that the New South Wales state government and other state governments are paying their bills on time to ensure that small business has the cash flow to keep on employing and to secure jobs. At Dubbo hospital they cannot turn on the air conditioning because they cannot afford to pay to have it repaired. They cannot afford the repair bill for the air-conditioning system at the hospital. Staff and patients are sweltering in heatwave conditions because the New South Wales government cannot get its act together and because the local health service is not paying its bills. Local businesses are suffering, jobs are potentially suffering, and patients are certainly suffering.

In Coffs Harbour, in my electorate, we have a firm that prints temperature charts, pregnancy care and patient admission forms. It is not being paid. It is a local printing firm not being paid for the products that it is providing to the health service. We have that health service also trying to get rid of staff. It is a health service already stretched to the limit, but it is not paying its bills and it is looking to downsize the staff at a time when the staff are stressed. Kempsey hospital is in desperate need of redevelopment and funds. This hospital does not really date back to the last century; it very much dates back to the century before, such is its infrastructure. It is old, out of date and unsuitable for 21st century medicine. It is a hospital where the staff do great work. They do their best to provide the services in a substandard environment, and we have Premier Nathan Rees running to the Prime Minister and asking for $2.4 billion to bail out his failed health service.

I hope that the Prime Minister ensures that the funding delivered to New South Wales is spent wisely and that the local area health service pays its bills so that small business gets paid on time. I hope that he ensures that health services are delivered as they should be. We also depend on Premier Rees and his mates to deliver 21st century libraries in every school. If you look at their performance in health and their current performance in delivering to schools within the state, the ability of the New South Wales government to deliver quality libraries within a sensible time frame is highly dubious. In fact, the time period of mid-2010 to have a lot of this work completed, I think, is one of the great leaps of optimism that we have seen in this parliament. That the New South Wales government could do anything on time or efficiently really would be a proposition questioned by the people of New South Wales, because the New South Wales government has form. If the government wants to help small and medium-sized firms through hard times and protect jobs, it should ensure that the state government is paying its bills.

The opposition is of the view that everything that government does must focus on jobs: on creating jobs, on protecting jobs and on giving employers the confidence to employ. The year 2009 is the year of focus on jobs, jobs, jobs. It is vital that we maintain employment. In my own electorate, the labour market figures tell a very worrying story. You need look no further than your local area to see that, even before the financial crisis built up the huge momentum it now has, unemployment was already on the rise. The latest labour market figures in my electorate relate to the September quarter last year. In Bellingen, the unemployment rate is at 7.7 per cent. It went up almost half of one per cent from the previous quarter. In Coffs Harbour, unemployment is around 7.2 per cent, which is up about half of one per cent from the previous quarter. In Grafton, unemployment is at 6.8 per cent, which is up about half of one per cent from the previous quarter. In Kempsey—an area of substantial disadvantage with a large Indigenous population and urgently in need of government assistance to ensure that employment is maintained—unemployment went up 0.7 per cent, according to the labour market figures. In Maclean, unemployment rose during that quarter by 0.7 per cent. In Nambucca, another area of severe disadvantage, unemployment did not go up by 0.5 per cent or by 0.7 per cent; unemployment rose by 0.9 per cent in one quarter—and this was back in September last year. We are not talking about early 2009. These figures have undoubtedly become worse since then. It is vital that the government focus on jobs. It is vital that every dollar spent be well thought through so that the people of the state of New South Wales and the people of Australia generally will get the maximum benefit from the money expended.

The Prime Minister talks of a national economic emergency, but he tries to shut down debate by saying that the alternative is to do nothing. There are many alternatives. There are a hundred different ways this package could be structured, and one of the alternatives is, quite clearly, tax cuts. Broad-ranging tax cuts are an alternative which could be put forward. Another alternative is requiring the states to pay their bills on time. That is another important strategy. The Prime Minister accuses the coalition of playing the blame game, but when we look at Labor’s policies we see fiasco after fiasco. You do not have to look far to see Fuelwatch. Fuelwatch was going to save us a fortune on our petrol; it was going to make the sun shine every day. Fuelwatch was a disaster. Then we had the GROCERYchoice website, which is costing $4 million a year and provides no useful information to consumers—another fiasco. We had the bungled bank guarantee. And what about computers in schools? Costings were way out. Only the basic infrastructure was costed, not all of the supporting costs for providing laptops to young people in schools. It was another bungled program; it was a program that was designed for the 10-second sound bite. It was intended to be seen as a good thing by the electorate if no-one thought too hard about it. But, when the rubber hit the road and Labor moved from opposition into government and actually had to provide those laptops, they thought: ‘Gee whiz. We will need power. We will need computer support. We will need air conditioning in the classrooms because of the heat the computers give out. Are the power systems at the schools able to support the extra demand that these computers would place on the school system?’ None of these things was thought through. It was all about making Kevin Rudd look good. It was all about the 10-second sound bite. It was a ‘make the claim now, worry about the detail later’ sort of approach.

When we look at what the results will be of what has been announced today, we see a massive deficit confronting the people of Australia. This is not a debt that will be paid back by the members of the Labor Party. This is not a debt that will be paid back by the people who sit opposite. It is a debt that every man, woman and child will have to pay. Our children and our grandchildren may pay back this debt. The coalition had to pay back a $96 billion debt that it was given by the previous Labor administration. This Labor administration is working towards what it calls a ‘temporary deficit’—an undefined concept. What is a temporary deficit? The Prime Minister will not say whether ‘temporary’ is two years or three years or five years. It may be a debt that will never be paid back. What are the consequences of that debt? The consequences are real. They are not consequences that can be dispensed with in a 10-second sound bite. They are not consequences that can be swept under the carpet. This is a debt that will have to be repaid through, for example, higher interest payments for future taxpayers and through lesser services for those same taxpayers and for the people of Australia. What it really means is that future taxpayers will be footing the bill for the policies that are being discussed in this House today. That is of great concern. It will mean that future taxpayers and the people of Australia may have to accept a lower level of services than they would otherwise have been entitled to, because of the decisions of those opposite.

When the Prime Minister says, ‘There is no alternative,’ be very clear: there are a range of alternatives. This opposition will be scrutinising this package very carefully. This opposition will be taking the time to ensure that, to the maximum extent possible given the very tight time frame that we have to look at this, there are no unintended consequences of the government’s haste—as we saw with the previous stimulus package and with the bank guarantee. There are some real concerns about this package, and the opposition will certainly be looking at it carefully.