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Wednesday, 30 March 2022
Page: 1200


Dr CHALMERS (Rankin) (12:08): The budget last night delivered from that dispatch box less than 24 hours ago had three defining features. First of all, there is $1 trillion in debt with nowhere near enough to show for that incredibly significant addition of debt that has been put on the budget by those opposite, so $1 trillion in debt and not enough to show for it. Secondly, real wages are falling in the budget. The average worker is $26 a week, $1,355 a year, worse off as a consequence of the real wage cuts which were outlined there in black and white in the government's budget last night. The third defining feature was buried there on a page 49 of Budget Paper No. 2: $3 billion in secret cuts that the government does not want to come clean on this side of the election. If there is a theme that emerges from this budget, it is that the government has taken a whole bunch of problems and challenges that exist in the economy and in our communities from one side of the election and put them on the other side of the election. That is true of the cost-of-living relief that we will be talking about in this bill but it is also true about a whole range of other measures. They've got a cash splash before the election, and then they've got at least $3 billion in secret cuts after the election. They won't tell us if that's pensions, Medicare or some other type of cut that they've attempted before, frankly, over the almost decade that they've been in office. They've tried to come after people's living standards. They've tried to come after Medicare. They've tried to come after pensions. They've got $3 billion of secret cuts in the budget that they won't come clean on.

The Treasurer and the Minister for Finance have been asked repeatedly today to come clean. What does this $3 billion in cuts on page 49 of Budget Paper No. 2 mean for average Australians? What cuts will you make if you are re-elected in May? Neither the Treasurer, the Minister for Finance nor the Prime Minister has been willing or able to come clean on what those $3 billion in secret cuts are. As all of the nauseating spin and marketing has died down, and all the self-congratulation and backslapping that happened on budget night over on that side has died down, the question that remains is: what are the $3 billion in cuts? Why won't they come clean this side of the election? They owe it to the Australian people to tell them today, and certainly before the election, what those $3 billion in cuts are going to be. Is it pensions? Is it Medicare? Is it something else? And is that why they don't want to come clean to the Australian people about what it is?

There are three defining features of the budget: not enough to show for $1 trillion in debt; real wages going backwards because the cost of living is skyrocketing, real wages are falling and ordinary working families are falling further and further behind; and then those secret cuts. It's a budget that takes a lot of challenges for people and moves them from this side of the election to the other side of the election. It's almost as if the Prime Minister woke up at some point in the last couple of weeks, rang the Treasurer and said: 'I've got to call an election in the next fortnight or so. Let's get the shovel out, and hopefully we can shovel enough money around in people's direction that they will forget that we have spent the best past of a decade going after the wages, job security, pensions and Medicare of ordinary Australians who live week to week, fortnight to fortnight on their pay cheques.'

This government has gone after them for the best part of a decade, and they're hoping if they shovel enough money around on the eve of an election that all of a sudden Australians will forget the damage that those opposite have done to their living standards with this almost decade-long campaign of undermining their job security, undermining their wages growth, undermining the pension system and undermining Medicare. All of those things have been like a hammer blow to the living standards of ordinary working Australians. In this cynical, political budget, they think that, if they shovel enough money in the direction of Australians, Australians will forget the damage that the government have done to household budgets over the course of the best part of the last decade.

But the truth is, I think people know this. I think people are seeing through this budget just like they're seeing through this Prime Minister and this Treasurer. Out there in the suburbs, towns, cities and communities of this great country, they understand that nothing that was announced last night in the budget will make up for that decade-long campaign against their wages growth and their job security. They understand that, even after the relief which was budgeted for last night and which we're looking to pass through the parliament today, people are still way, way, way behind.

If you look at the average cost-of-living increases over the past year or so, they are something like $3,600. People are in the hole because costs of living have been skyrocketing. That's before you even think about the extra pressure put on the economy and on prices by the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Prices didn't start skyrocketing and pressure didn't start being applied to working families when Russia invaded Ukraine; it started when the coalition started attacking wages and living standards. People understand that, no matter how much cost-of-living relief is in the budget and passes through the House today, they are still in the hole $3,600 on average in terms of cost-of-living increases and in terms of that real wages cut this year of $1,355 per year on average.

Nothing that we are talking about today makes up for the damage that those opposite have done to household budgets, not accidentally but deliberately. They said that stagnant wages were a deliberate design feature of their economic policy. In lots of ways, this is mission accomplished, because we've got yet another year of real wages going backwards in the government's own budget. What we have said consistently and what we've said for some time is that we won't be standing in the way of some cost-of-living relief, which is made necessary by the government's attacks on wages and the fact that real wages are going backwards. We intend to support the bills which are before the House today which cover the measures announced last night to provide some cost-of-living relief for Australians, particularly pensioners and workers on low and middle incomes, and also motorists, with the fuel excise cut.

It is worth mentioning though, and consistent with what I was talking about before, about taking problems from one side of the election to the other, that what the government will be legislating today is an increase in petrol prices in September, and they'll be legislating the end of the low- and middle-income tax offset. So, if you think about it, if the government were to change hands in May, whether the election is on 14 or 21 or 7 May, the inheritance for a new government—or the inheritance, frankly, for a re-elected government—would be a trillion dollars of debt with nothing to show for it; interest rates going up, as the Reserve Bank has flagged and others have flagged; petrol prices going up in September; and the end of the low- and middle-income tax offset. This is the inheritance after a decade in office that these characters have delivered to the Australian people. After all of the sacrifices that Australians have made for each other, the thanks they get is a trillion dollars in debt, falling real wages, some temporary relief on the eve of an election, but no long-term plan for the future of this economy.

What was missing in this budget that has a shelf life of about six or seven weeks—this act of political desperation that was handed down by the Treasurer over there last night—is a genuine plan for the future. After what Australians have been through together, the least they can expect is that their government can tell them what's next in the economy. How do we generate the opportunities and make it easier for people to grab those opportunities in the economy?

From our point of view, how do we deal with the skills crisis in this economy by providing fee-free TAFE? How do we get our energy costs down with cheaper and cleaner energy? How do we deal with child care so that, if people want to work more and earn more, they've got the capacity to do it? How do we modernise the NBN so that we can have a digital economy where people aren't just deciding how they work but where they work from, including in some of our terrific regional cities and towns? How do we co-invest in advanced manufacturing and in other ways to make sure that we are creating new, secure jobs and new, secure industries of the future? That's what a plan for the future economy would look like. It was absent from the budget last night.

If the government doesn't want to come up with a plan that extends beyond the May election then we're happy to fill that void left by the lack of leadership from those opposite. But first we intend to pass this cost-of-living relief through the parliament. We'd like to see that happen today. It's our understanding that it can happen today. That would provide some relief for Australians, but nowhere near the kind of relief which would make up for the attacks that those opposite have waged on ordinary working people in this country for the best part of a decade.