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Wednesday, 3 May 1989
Page: 1682

Senator SCHACHT —My question is directed to the Minister for Industry, Technology and Commerce. Is the Minister aware of the reports in the media that the Australian Bureau of Statistics production data for March indicates that industry competitiveness has collapsed?

Senator BUTTON —I am aware of some media comments on the ABS production figures for the month of March. I have been made aware of them partly by comments made by Senator Chaney, the Opposition spokesman on these issues. I must say that Senator Chaney and sections of the media have drawn very erroneous and at times cynical conclusions from the figures.

Opposition senators interjecting-

Senator BUTTON —I used the word `cynical' because it is a word that rolls readily off Senator Chaney's tongue when he speaks about the Government, and I listen to him--

Senator Puplick —Why don't you learn if you listen?

Senator BUTTON —I listen to him. I listen to what he says. I hope from time to time to get some wisdom from Senator Chaney. Let me tell Senator Puplick where I think Senator Chaney is quite wrong about these things. Let me say first that it is good to see that he is following the fortunes of industry so closely. However, he draws a strong and direct link between these production figures for the month of March and the long-term health of Australian industry. He has also over-glorified these figures. In so doing, not surprisingly as the Leader, he falls into the camp of his colleagues sitting behind him who show a complete lack of understanding in relation to the economy and industry.

Senator Chaney —How is manufacturing production going?

Senator BUTTON —That is the same question which the honourable senator asked yesterday. Senator Chaney made a speech in this chamber which I saw on television. I thought he looked good. It was only when I listened to him that I realised how awful the speech was. He asked this rhetorical question, `One might ask what is happening to production under the politics of this Government.' I can tell the honourable senator that the answer to his question is this: Total manufacturing production in real terms has risen by an average of 3.6 per cent a year under this Government, to the highest level in recorded statistics. That is for the December quarter last year. Senator Chaney asked that question which sounds terrific, `What is happening to manufacturing production under this Government?'. That is a beautiful rhetorical question which is left floating around in the air with no answer. He came in here to get the answer.

By contrast, in the last year of Senator Chaney's coalition Government production fell by 14 per cent after a sluggish performance throughout the 1970s. It is the same old story. We saw it yesterday with Senator Puplick introducing the 1960s show again about science and technology in Australia. Senator Chaney, as Leader of the Opposition in the Senate, is now doing it because he is not prepared to face up to that comparison. He has asked rhetorical questions and I give him the answer now.

When alluding to these issues yesterday Senator Chaney should have taken a slightly closer look at the data and production statistics for March. The Australian Bureau of Statistics figures show a trend in decline in production for 13 items out of 27 surveyed in March compared with February. If the honourable senator had looked at the figures available for the last few years he would have seen that those fluctuations are there month to month all the time. This was the decline referred to by the honourable senator and the massacre referred to in some sections of the media, which I do not want to name. I would regard it as derogatory to name them in this context.

What a pity that Senator Chaney, in his press release-trumped up with a full moon in Western Australia presumably-did not refer to the numerous caveats and qualifications made by the Statistician. What are they? The items surveyed in the figures Senator Chaney referred to cover 14 per cent of total manufacturing output in Australia. Senator Chaney draws enormous conclusions, and poses long rhetorical questions, from statistics relating to 14 per cent of manufacturing output in Australia. As the shadow Minister for industry for a long time now, Senator Chaney should know that these figures are highly volatile, the data is preliminary, the items are unweighted, the seasonal adjustment process has been distorted by the presence of Easter in March and, in yearly terms, the picture is reversed.

Senator Brownhill —You will have to turn the television off now. You have fixed your collar, now fix your elocution.

Senator Teague —I raise a point of order, Mr President. The Minister is debating his answer. Also, in comparing statistics he has not told the Senate that 1982 was a drought year. When he tries to accuse Senator Chaney of unfairness in the use of statistics, he is a hypocrite in that he is guilty of the same offence.

The PRESIDENT —Order! There is no point of order and I ask Senator Teague to withdraw that comment.

Senator Teague —Is it unparliamentary to draw the Minister's attention to being unfair?

The PRESIDENT —Order! You called the Minister a hypocrite and I am asking you to withdraw that remark.

Senator Teague —He also called Senator Chaney a hypocrite.

The PRESIDENT —Order! I heard the honourable senator make the comment and I am asking him to withdraw it.

Senator Teague —I am very happy to withdraw the remark if the Minister also withdraws his accusation of hypocrisy against Senator Chaney.

Senator BUTTON —Mr President, before I was interrupted I was trying to make the point that it is unkind of Opposition senators to interject, not to attack what I am saying, but to suggest that I have a speech impediment. That is an unkind interjection to say that I mispronounced a word. Senator Teague, in seeking to make a point, said that I did not acknowledge that there was a drought in 1982. That was precisely the point. That was what afflicted this country in 1982 and the 29 years beforehand-intellectual drought in the government of the day; a total drought. That is why we have this problem today. There is nothing in these statistics which Senator Chaney has tried to make so much of to suggest that productivity or competitiveness has slumped in the month of March. There are production item figures which move around as demand fluctuates and firms change their production lines to match these fluctuations. These are not output figures for industry sectors but represent a very small sector of industry.