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Wednesday, 2 May 1984
Page: 1490

Senator CHANEY (Leader of the Opposition in the Senate)(3.09) -The Opposition is bringing forward this matter of public importance for reasons which, in part, are demonstrated by the display we had in Question Time today when, under the guise of answering questions, Government Ministers used the opportunity to obscure the situation rather than provide facts for the Australian people to make judgments. I suppose that the attempts of the Attorney -General (Senator Gareth Evans) to obscure the position on the four-year term for Parliament was the classic but not unusual example in what has been a most unsatisfactory Question Time. On that occasion the Attorney-General was trying to suggest that, in some way, the Opposition had subverted the idea of the four- year term when, of course, it is quite evident-that evidence comes in part from the Attorney's own answer in Question Time-that the Government's own election manoeuvering has resulted in its changing its own proposals for referendum. That is so typical of everything that this Government is presently doing.

The Opposition's matter of public importance is based on two easily sustainable assertions. We say the Prime Minister wants an early election because he is worried about the future of the economy. We say that because he is going to have this election he has decided to avoid any potentially unpopular issues until after the poll. During the election campaign in February last year Mr Hawke said : 'Under my government parliaments will run their full time'. In February 1983 Mr Hawke said that parliaments under him would run their full time. Now in 1984 Mr Hawke has made it clear that he will have an early election either late this year or perhaps early next year, but almost certainly later this year. That is just one broken promise among many.

We know that when the Prime Minister gained government in 1983 he recanted on virtually every undertaking given before the election. He always has an excuse. In this case there are two possible excuses that he will use for an early election. The first is that he wants to synchronise the House of Representatives election with the Senate election. Or he might choose to use the excuse he floated in Adelaide just a few weeks ago relating to Senate obstruction. Very briefly in anticipation I will dispose of those two arguments of Mr Hawke. Does he have a case for an election this year to synchronise the House of Representatives election with the Senate election? My response is to say that such an election is totally unnecessary. In fact, a much later election could be held bringing the election of both Houses together. What the Australian people are facing is the prospect of the shortest parliament for many a parliament. They are facing a term of office of somewhere around a year and a half for Mr Hawke's Government when in fact Mr Hawke could run through until at least May next year and still have a House of Representatives election-albeit an early one -in conjunction with the Senate election. Somehow the idea has been put abroad that in order to bring the election of the two Houses together Mr Hawke needs to have this election this year. That is not true. It is inaccurate. It is a lie. It is a lie which should be put to rest.

We have heard Mr Hawke talk about Senate obstruction. According to a radio broadcast, he got a very good reception to a speech he made on 18 or 19 April in Adelaide. He is reported as saying:

Our major attack on tax avoidance has been frustrated by what has happened in the Senate.

Mr Hawke in that speech then said to the Liberals, the Nationals and the Australian Democrats:

I give . . . notice, that they will be hounded and reminded of that fact for every week between now and the election.

That is good political stuff. It is absolutely farcical when we note that a senior Minister who was very active in the arguments about tax avoidance in Australia and who, somewhat to his surprise, was caught up personally in such arguments, within a matter of days of Mr Hawke's fulminating about the Senate role in protecting tax avoiders, said that tax avoidance was no longer an issue in Australia. Mr Dawkins on 16 April told a conference of accountants in Sydney that tax avoidance was no longer an issue in Australia and that the Government had 'put the question of tax avoidance behind them'. That is a ludicrous statement if we are to take Mr Hawke's statement seriously. the fact of the matter is that it is Mr Hawke who made the ludicrous statement. He is not to be taken seriously. He is running this as a political rort because it is known throughout Australia that the tax avoidance industry was destroyed by the Fraser Government. This Government now is merely trying to resurrect the issue to damage the Senate.

We have brought on this debate because we are concerned that there should be some factual information available to the Australian people instead of the lies being peddled by members of the Government. We believe that it is absolutely important that we should see what the Government is up to and why it is rushing to this early election. In this regard I will first deal with the economic outlook. I will not rely on Opposition assessments of where the economy is going because it might be argued that the Opposition is a doom sayer, is trying to talk the economy down and is trying to damn the Government for partisan political advantage. In fact, the Opposition welcomes the current signs of economic improvement. At the same time we point out, as indeed does almost every economic commentator, that the improvement has occurred almost in spite of the Hawke Government's policies and statements and arises largely from the Fraser Government's wage pause, the pick-up in the United States economy and the much brighter rural outlook following the breaking of the drought. Commentator after commentator has made the point that these factors are the foundation of the economic upsurge over the last year. We would all hope to see that fledgling recovery permanently sustained. However, we are all being advised by almost every economic commentator that there are enormous risks ahead.

As far as the Opposition can ascertain, there are no reputable economic commentators prepared to predict that 1985 will see a continuation of the current upturn. If Government senators come in here and say 'We believe there will be an economic upturn and you are engaging in scare mongering' I issue a challenge. If they believe that let them ask their Prime Minister to postpone the election so that we and the people of Australia can wait and see what happens. I guarantee that we will not get that challenge taken up. We will not see the Labor Party holding off an election in order to see whether its policies are working but one which will go helter-skelter to an election at the earliest possible opportunity.

As I said earlier, it is not the Opposition's view that I am promoting that there will be difficulties for the next year and the years beyond; it is the view of commentator after commentator. The most recent independent public statement was the reported submission by the Australian Merchant Bankers Association. The Association made a submission to the Government's own economic advisory body, the Economic Planning and Advisory Council. The Merchant Bankers Association predicted a shrinking of the economy in the financial year 1985-86. It predicted a short term drop in inflation and a rise the year after. On the critical question of unemployment the Association is saying:

Unemployment will bottom out at 8.8 per cent in 1984-85, but will rise to 10.5 per cent in 1985-86 and 11.5 per cent in 1986-87.

What we face is a prediction which confirms the predictions which the Government 's own bodies put down at the Economic Summit last year, namely, that if we return to full wage indexation there will be a gradual rise in unemployment. We have had the benefit of seasonal and one-off charges to the economy which have affected some improvement. However, the long term prospect is much gloomier. At nearly the same time the Victorian Chamber of Manufactures in its monthly summary said that its predictions paint a fairly dismal picture of the Australian economy. The fact is that most people believe that the rest of this year will see the maintenance of economic growth but most have reservations about 1985 because of the potential for wage rises and the generally unsatisfactory nature of the long term recovery. Mr Des Keegan of the Australian in a report yesterday said:

Cheerful forecasts of economic recovery should fade as disturbing export figures seep into public opinon in 1984-85. Reality is overtaking propaganda.

He also made the point, which is in line with the view which we in the Opposition have been urging now for some months, namely that private advice to the Government urges it to go to the polls before the economy strands it on the dangerous economic shoals which are ahead. In another enconomic commentary, much objected to by the Government which seems to object to anybody having a view which is contrary to the view of the Government itself holds, Mr P. P. McGuiness , the editor of the Australian Financial Review, said on 10 April:

The current economic recovery will be short-lived. It is the inheritance of the Labor Government from the Fraser Government and the breaking of the drought, and the inheritance will be soon dissipated.

Only today the same newspaper said in its leading article:

The balance of probabilities is that the effect of wage indexation, even with an artificially low CPI, will tend to abort the economic recovery within the remainder of 1984.

Again, within the last month or so Hill Samuel Ltd, a merchant bank, has drawn attention to the fragile nature of the recovery. I stress that I do not raise those matters from the point of view of wishing those things to happen. I do not raise them as being the forecast of the Opposition. Rather, I raise them as examples of what is being said very broadly among the well-informed in the community about the nature of economic recovery which has been achieved by this Government. It has been achieved because of its inheritance. It is an achievement which it is dissipating by failing to come to grips with the real issues which dog the Australian economy.

In the currently relatively cheery atmosphere in Australia, in the circumstances in which informed opinion is making it clear to the Government that it faces real problems next year, we can understand the urgency of feeling within the Australian Labor Party, the urgency of feeling within the Government, the urgency of feeling within the breast of Mr R. J. Hawke that he must take himself back to the Australian people before they wake up to what the experts are unanimously pointing to. So we are facing a situation in which the Government is getting near uniform advice that it will be in real difficulties in the future. It is not prepared-indeed, I think it would say that it is totally unable-to come to grips with the policies that are required to do something about next year and the year beyond that. Therefore, it must pick up the option of an early election.

Again, it is no secret among informed people, but I am sure it is still dimly perceived by the electorate generally, that the Government as part of its early election strategy set out to remove those irritants which might cause the public to question its policies. Of course, the Senate has tended to be the forum in which those potentially difficult policy issues have been raised and where the Government has seen itself getting into difficulties. The fact of the matter is that the Government has shown itself quite unprepared to come to grips with any issue on which there is a serious clash between it and the Opposition and the possibility of a serious clash with public opinion.

Let us look at just a few of the issues which are around: The assets test, a capial gains tax, a Bill of rights, lump sum superannuation, national Aboriginal land legislation and the education issue. We do not see a resolute government pushing on with the policies that new senators such as the honourable senator sitting opposite, Senator Crowley, were elected on the basis of and went around telling their constituents they supported. Those policies are being pushed aside because of this early election strategy. There is a very simple explanation for that. A recent survey was taken on the assets test and a capital gains tax. We found that 57 per cent of the Australian people disagreed with the proposal that the Government has for an assets test for pensioners. We found that 70 per cent of the Australian people disagreed with the proposition which is supported by Senator Button and many other Government honourable senators and many other Ministers, that we should move to a capital gains tax. So it is not surprising that the Government has chosen to take those matters off the political agenda.

Let us look at what happened in respect of the assets test. Legislation for it was introduced by the Government at the time of the last Budget. It was made clear to us that the Government was determined that it would legislate for that assets test. The Government roundly criticised us for political opportunism when we raised the question of the concern in the community about the test and suggested there should be a delay. It was only when the Opposition, in conjunction with the Australian Democrats, determined it would delay the assets test until February to enable pensioners and others to put views to the Government that the Government did not proceed with that legislation. We found that by February this year, the Opposition having been abused for its daring to delay this Government measure, the Prime Minister had completely changed his tune. Rather to the surprise we believe of the responsible Minister, the Minister for Social Security, Senator Grimes, we found that Mr Hawke admitted the test was defective; he admitted that it had not been thought through properly and sent it off to an expert committee. I ask the Government: Will it produce a fresh assets test before the next election? Will it disclose its intentions to the Australian people? I for one have very serious doubts that it will.

With respect to a capital gains tax, I suppose the Government has been almost disarmingly frank: That is a matter for the next Parliament. Seventy per cent of the Australian people disagree, so that is a matter for the next Parliament. The Government will not make up its mind. The Government will not tell the Australian people what it proposes. It puts that on to the back burner. It hides it away. It tries to make it into a non-issue.

On a Bill of rights, we all have sat in this Senate and been lectured by the Attorney-General, Senator Gareth Evans, about his law reform proposals. We have been lectured about our slowness in government and his determination to set new records in law reform. He came into this Parliament a few weeks ago and said: ' We can't proceed with the Bill of rights because it will be a pre-election atmosphere. Everybody is emotional in a pre-election atmosphere, so that is something we will have to put off. Of course, it is still Government policy but it is something we have to put off'. That is again part of the same strategy.

Let us look at lump sum superannuation. As long ago as May last year this Government announced it would introduce a new form of taxation of lump sum superannuation. It was part of this Government's first brave steps to change Australia. That was May last year and still we have not seen the legislation. Again I ask the Government: Will we see that legislation before the election? Will the Government show the Australian people what it is up to, or is that another one which is on the agenda for the next time around?

I come to the vexed question, the very difficult question, of national Aboriginal land legislation. It is a matter of common knowledge that this Government has been told by its State counterparts in my State of Western Australia to lay off and go away. I say to those senators who went out and so bravely promised the Aboriginal people of Australia national land rights legislation: I will bet anything you like that you will not deliver on that promise because you know the politics of it. They know that it is something which would not receive popular support around Australia. They will not go ahead with that promise. It is off the agenda between now and the next election.

The fact of the matter is that Mr Hawke is the most popular and least courageous Prime Minister this country has ever had. Mr Hawke has shown no preparedness really to disclose where he stands on these issues. He has shown his preparedness only to sun himself under his popularity lamp. That is the sort of man he is. He is the man who suns himself under the popularity lamp. He is a man who does not have the courage of his convictions. I only wish to say that we achieved the great privilege of having some new Labor senators in this place. I ask them to go back to the ideas they expressed when they campaigned to become members of this place. I ask them to go back to what they promised the Australian people. I ask them to come into this place and honestly say whether they delivered what they promised. Of course it is an absurd question to put to them because there is no way that they would show that degree of honesty.

We in the Opposition believe that Australia has significant and real problems. We believe that the vexed problem of unemployment which has beset us now for some time is not going to go away. We do not believe that the fundamental policies of this Government, which involve a cosy arrangement between those who have to the exclusion of those who have not, are in the long term interests of this country. We do not accept the fundamentals which this Government is embracing and believe that this Government is maintaining itself only by a thoroughly dishonest approach to government. We believe that, unless the Australian people see that, there is no prospect that this popular but cowardly Prime Minister will face up to the real issues which face Australia.