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Thursday, 10 May 2012
Page: 4611

Mr ABBOTT (WarringahLeader of the Opposition) (19:30): The job, Madam Deputy Speaker, of every member of this parliament is to help shape a better Australia. It is to listen carefully to the Australian people, respect the hard-won dollars they pay in tax, do our honest best to make people's lives easier, not harder, and honour the commitments we make to those who vote for us. If that is how we discharge our duties as members of parliament, politics is an honourable calling, the public can respect their MPs and MPs can respect each other even when we disagree.

My values are the product of an Australian life—a real life much like yours—with Margie, raising three daughters in suburban Sydney, paying a mortgage, worrying about bills, trying to be a good neighbour and a good citizen, appreciating that no-one has a monopoly on virtue or wisdom, and grateful that our country has normally been free from the class struggle that has raged elsewhere, to other countries' terrible cost.

In a healthy democracy, people need not agree with everything a government does but they should be able to appreciate its purpose and why it could be for the long-term good of the nation as whole. The fundamental problem with this budget is that it deliberately, coldly, calculatedly plays the class-war card. It cancels previous commitments to company tax cuts and replaces them with means tested payments because a drowning government has decided to portray the political contest in this country as billionaires versus battlers. It is an ignoble piece of work from an unworthy Prime Minister that will offend the intelligence of the Australian people.

So, on behalf of the Liberal-National coalition, I assert these fundamental truths: government should be at least as interested in the creation of wealth as in its redistribution; government should protect the vulnerable, not to create more clients of the state but to foster more self-reliant citizens; the small business people who put their houses on the line to create jobs deserve support from government, not broken promises; people who work hard and put money aside so they will not be a burden on others should be encouraged, not hit with higher taxes; and people earning $83,000 a year and families on $150,000 a year are not rich, especially if they are paying mortgages in our big cities. Australia needs more successful people and more opportunities for people to succeed, yet this government's message is: 'The harder you try, the harder we'll make it for you.'

From an economic perspective, the worst aspect of this year's budget is that there is no plan for economic growth—nothing whatsoever to promote investment or employment. Without a growing economy, everything a government does is basically robbing Peter to pay Paul. With a growing economy, it is possible to have lower taxes, better services and a stronger budget bottom line—as Australians discovered during the Howard era. That now seems like a lost golden age of prosperity. As this budget shows, to every issue this government's knee-jerk response is more tax, more regulation and more vitriol.

The Treasurer referred just once on Tuesday night to what he coyly called the 'carbon price' before rushing to assure people that it would not affect them. If the carbon tax will not hurt anyone why is the government topping up compensation in this budget? If the carbon tax will not hurt anyone, why did the Prime Minister say, six days before the last election, that there would be no carbon tax under the government she led? If the carbon tax will not hurt anyone, why are Labor members of parliament now frightened to go doorknocking, even in their heartland?

Let's be clear about this: no genuine Labor government would be hitting the families and businesses of Australia with the world's biggest carbon tax at the worst possible time. No genuine Labor government would be hitting our economy with what amounts to a reverse tariff, making Australian businesses less competitive and Australian jobs less secure compared to our overseas rivals who face no such tax. It does not matter how many times the Treasurer refers to a Labor government with Labor values; the real Labor people with whom I mix beyond the Parliamentary Triangle despair of the politicians who have sold their party's soul to the Greens.

I applaud the Treasurer's eagerness to deliver a surplus—but, if a forecast $1.5 billion surplus is enough to encourage the Reserve Bank to reduce interest rates, what has been the impact on interest rates of his $174 billion in delivered deficits over the past four years?

How can the Treasurer be so confident of next year’s skinny surplus when this year’s deficit, forecast to be $23 billion in last year’s budget, has now grown to $44 billion? How can he be confident that next year’s surplus will not evaporate completely, given that it has already shrunk from $3.5 billion in last year’s budget, and the cumulative budget bottom line has deteriorated by $26 billion in just 12 months?

The forecast surplus relies on the continuation of record terms of trade even though growth in China is moderating and Europe is still in deep trouble. Yet on Treasury’s own estimates, a decline in the terms of trade of just four per cent would turn the surplus into a $1.9 billion deficit next year and a $5.1 billion deficit the year after.

As everyone who has managed a household budget knows, shuffling costs from one year to another, as the Treasurer has, does not make them go away; and a tiny surplus in one year does not outweigh huge deficits in other years. Even if the Treasurer is right, it will take 100 years of Swan surpluses to repay just four years of Swan deficits.

I know what it is like to deliver sustained surpluses because I was part of a government that did; indeed, 16 members of my frontbench were ministers in the government that delivered the four biggest surpluses in Australian history. By contrast, no-one will know whether the Treasurer has actually delivered his microsurplus until late next year; is it any wonder that he seems to be suffering from a bad case of surplus envy?

If the budget really was coming into surplus it stands to reason that the government would have no further need to borrow. If the government really thinks that a surplus can be delivered, as opposed to being merely forecast, why is it proposing to add a further $50 billion to the Commonwealth’s debt ceiling? I challenge the government to stop hiding this massive lift in Australia’s credit card limit in the appropriation bills and to present it honestly, openly to the parliament as a separate measure where it will have to be debated and justified on its merits.

Just two months ago, the Prime Minister said, 'If you are against cutting company tax you are against economic growth. If you are against economic growth, then you are against jobs.' In dumping her commitment to company tax cuts, the Prime Minister has reinforced her trust problem: why should this year’s budget commitments be any more reliable than previous ones, especially when so much is such obvious spin?

The Treasurer boasted about his aged care changes but failed to mention that everyone who is not a full pensioner faces up to $10,000 a year more for in-home aged care and up to $25,000 a year more for residential care. He hailed the delivery of the National Disability Insurance Scheme but neglected to mention that it was short-changed $2.9 billion from the Productivity Commission’s version. He trumpeted more money for the states’ dental schemes but not his plans to abolish the Medicare dental scheme. He highlighted more spending on the Pacific Highway but not the get-out clause that it has to be matched 50-50 by New South Wales, not 80-20 as agreed with the previous New South Wales Labor government. The Treasurer insisted that military spending could be cut—breaking more commitments in the process—without harming our defence capability even though defence spending, as a percentage of GDP, will soon be at the lowest level since 1938.

The Australian people deserve better than this and they are looking to the coalition for reassurance that there is a better way. The coalition has a plan for economic growth; it starts with abolishing the carbon tax and abolishing the mining tax. Abolishing the mining tax will make Australia a better place to invest and let the world know that we do not punish success. Abolishing the carbon tax would be the swiftest contribution government could make to relieving cost-of-living pressure; it would take the pressure off power prices, gas prices and rates; it would prevent more pressure on transport prices. Abolishing the carbon tax would make every job in our economy more secure. It would help to ensure that we keep strong manufacturing and vibrant agriculture, and grow knowledge based industries and a resilient services sector as well as a mining industry, in a vigorous five-pillar economy.

Australians understand that a tax reduction to compensate for a tax increase is not a real cut; they know that the only sustainable tax cuts are based on a permanent decrease in the size of government or a permanent increase in the wealth of our nation. Under the coalition, there will be tax cuts without a carbon tax because we will find the savings to pay for them. After all, the Howard government turned a $10 billion budget black hole into consistent surpluses averaging almost one per cent of GDP; it turned $96 billion in net Commonwealth debt into $70 billion in net assets. The coalition identified $50 billion in savings before the last election and will do at least as much again before the next one. It is not as if savings are impossible to find. Why should the government commit nearly $6 billion to power stations that the carbon tax would otherwise send bankrupt rather than just drop the carbon tax? Why spend billions of dollars to put people out of work rather than into it? Why does the Defence Materiel Organisation need 7,000 bureaucrats, especially when major equipment purchases are being put off? Why does Australia need to spend millions to join the African Development Bank?

Why spend $50 billion on a national broadband network just so customers can subsequently spend almost three times their current monthly fee on speeds they might not need? Why dig up every street when fibre to the node could more swiftly and more affordably deliver 21st century broadband? Why put so much into the NBN when the same investment could more than duplicate the Pacific Highway, Sydney's M5 and the road between Hobart and Launceston; build Sydney's M4 East, the Melbourne Metro, and Brisbane's cross-city rail; and upgrade Perth Airport and still leave about $10 billion for faster broadband? Why spend another $1.7 billion on border protection cost blow-outs because the government is too proud to admit that John Howard's policies worked?

The Treasurer boasts that our economy will be 16 per cent bigger by mid-2014 than it was in mid-2008, before the global financial crisis. What he does not mention is that, over the previous six years, growth was 22 per cent and that over the six years before that—spanning the Asian financial crisis, the tech wreck and September 11—the Howard government achieved growth of 26 per cent while implementing far-reaching economic reforms such as the GST.

Strong economic growth will be the overriding aim of the next coalition government. We have done it before; we will do it again. We will cut business red-tape costs by at least $1 billion a year by requiring each government agency to quantify the costs of its reporting and compliance rules and delivering an annual savings target. Public service bonuses will not be paid unless these targets are met. There will be a once-in-a-generation commission of audit to review all the arms and agencies of government to ensure that taxpayers are getting good value for money.

We will respond carefully but decisively to the problems that the community has identified in the Fair Work Act so that small businesses and their staff can get a fair go and our productivity can increase. We will restore the Australian Building and Construction Commission—the successor of the Cole royal commission, which I established—as a strong cop on the beat and the guarantor of $6 billion a year in productivity improvements in a vital industry. Where union officials and business people commit the same offence, they should face the same penalty; but, unlike the government, we did not need the Fair Work report into the Member for Dobell to realise that some unions are corrupt boys' clubs.

We will work with the states to put local people in charge of public schools and public hospitals because they should be as responsive to their patients and to their parents as businesses are to their customers. Our objective is to bring to the running of public schools and hospitals the same have-a-go mindset that the move to the Job Network, which I oversaw, brought to employment services under the former government.

The coalition wants more Australians to be economic as well as cultural contributors. That is why Work for the Dole or some other serious undertaking should be mandatory for long-term unemployed people under 50. Welfare quarantining for long-term unemployed people should be extended from the Northern Territory to the rest of the country. Where unskilled work is readily available, unemployment benefits should be suspended for fit people under 30, as recommended by Warren Mundine, a former Labor Party national president.

Yes, there will finally be a fair dinkum paid parental leave scheme, giving mothers six months at full pay with their babies and bringing Australia into the 21st century to join the 35 other countries whose parental leave schemes are based on people's pay. Because parental leave is a workplace entitlement, not a welfare benefit, it should be paid at people's real wage as sick leave and holiday pay are. There will also be a Productivity Commission inquiry to consider how child care can be made more flexible and more effective, including through in-home care, so that more women can participate in a growing economy if that is their choice.

I will continue to work with Noel Pearson to help shift the welfare culture that has sapped Aboriginal self-respect, and with Twiggy Forrest to get more Aboriginal people into the workforce. I will keep spending a week every year volunteering in Aboriginal communities, and I hope that a tribe of public servants will soon have to come with me to gain more actual experience of the places we are all trying to improve. That is what good social policy does—it empowers people to make the most of their lives and to prove to themselves what they can do rather than what they cannot. That way, it reinforces good economic policy.

In a productive and competitive economy it should be easier to get things built, provided they meet the best environmental standards. So the coalition will allow the states to be a one-stop shop for environmental approvals. The coalition will reward conservation minded businesses with incentives to be more efficient users of energy and lower carbon emitters. Our policy means better soils, more trees and smarter technology—unlike the carbon tax, which is socialism masquerading as environmentalism. There will be a green army, an expanded version of the Green Corps that I put in place in government, to tackle our landcare problems so that beaches and waterways can be cleaner and land more productive.

The next coalition government will fund infrastructure in accordance with a rational national plan based on published cost-benefit analyses. We will find the most responsible ways to get more private investment into priority projects so that the new roads, public transport systems and water storages that we need are not so dependent on the taxpayer. Too often, government's focus is on the urgent rather than the important; on what drives tomorrow's headline rather than on what changes our country for the better. We are supposed to be adapting to the Asian century, yet Australians' study of foreign languages, especially Asian languages, is in precipitous decline. The proportion of year 12 students studying a foreign language has dropped from about 40 per cent in the 1960s to about 12 per cent now. There are now only about 300 year 12 Mandarin students who are not of Chinese heritage. Since 2001, there has been a 21 per cent decline in the numbers studying Japanese and a 40 per cent decline in the numbers studying Indonesian.

If Australians are to make their way in the world, we cannot rely on other people speaking our language. Starting in preschool every student should have an exposure to foreign languages. This will be a generational shift, because foreign language speakers will have to be mobilised and because teachers take time to be trained. Still, the next coalition government will make a strong start. My commitment tonight is to work urgently with the states to ensure that at least 40 per cent of year 12 students are once more taking a language other than English within a decade.

The coalition can find responsible savings to cover tax cuts without a carbon tax and emissions cuts without a carbon tax because, at least until the budget has returned to strong surplus, our plan for a stronger economy and a fairer society involves more efficiency rather than more spending.

There is little wrong with our country that a change of government would not improve. On day 1, a new government would order the carbon tax repealed and accept Nauru's standing offer to reopen the detention centre. Within a week, the Navy would have new orders to turn around illegal boats. Within a month, the commission of audit would be making government more efficient. Within three months the parliament would be dealing with carbon tax, mining tax and border protection legislation. Within a year, national infrastructure priorities would be agreed and there would be more cranes over our cities. Every day, with every fibre of my being, I would be striving to help Australians be their best selves.

As someone whose grandparents were proud to be working class, I can feel the embarrassment of decent Labor people at the failures of this government. As Ben Chifley famously said, the goal of public life, our 'light on the hill', should not be making someone Prime Minister or putting an extra sixpence in people's pockets but rather 'working for the benefit of mankind, not just here but wherever we can lend a helping hand'.

I regret to say that the deeper message of this week's budget is that the Labor Party now stands only for staying in office. Everyone knows that this Prime Minister is a clever politician, but who really trusts her to keep any commitments? She said she would never challenge the former Prime Minister but did. She said there would never be a carbon tax but has imposed one because, she claimed, the Greens made her do it. The Prime Minister told the member for Denison, 'There will be mandatory pre-commitment under the government I lead,' but she now tells clubs and pubs, 'There will be no mandatory pre-commitment under the government I lead.'

This week, the Prime Minister and the Treasurer have constantly invoked Labor values. Were they Labor values the Prime Minister showed in carpet bombing Kevin Rudd's reputation or in turfing Harry Jenkins as speaker for Peter Slipper or in protecting Craig Thomson, the Member for Dobell, to this very day, despite Fair Work Australia's findings? By a government's actions will its values be judged.

Budget week has not just been about the budget. Under these circumstances, how could it be? It has been about the Prime Minister's integrity and judgment. As long as Labor keeps voting in this parliament to protect the Member for Dobell and keeps paying his legal fees, his suspension from the caucus will not end the sleaze factor paralysing this government.

Decent Labor people should not be bluffed by the deal with independents to keep a leader who is trashing a once-honourable political party. Before this government dies of shame, it should find a leader who is not fatally compromised by the need to defend the indefensible. Then this parliament can once more be a proper contest of ideas between those who see bigger government and those who see empowered citizens as the best guarantee of our nation's future.

As budget week has demonstrated, minority governments are too busy managing the parliament to manage the economy properly. While they are surviving, not governing, our country is drifting, not flourishing. With each broken promise, with each peremptory change, with each tawdry revelation, with each embarrassing explanation, the credibility of this government and the standing of this parliament is diminished. But a shrunken government diminishes us all; that is why our country needs a change.

I want to assure the people of Australia that it does not have to be like this; we are a great people let down by a bad government which will pass. There is a better way. The coalition stands ready to restore hope, reward and opportunity so that, once more, all Australians can face a bright future with confidence.

Debate adjourned.

House adjourned at 20 : 00