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Thursday, 25 May 1989
Page: 2665


Senator SHEIL(11.32) —I speak on these appropriation and supply Bills with a certain amount of relish. I do so because of the cavalier fashion in which the Government responded to the urgency motion moved yesterday to the effect that we ought to do something about improving our overseas competitiveness. It really is most urgent that we do something about that matter. The economy has been drifting for some years now, despite the protestations of the Minister for Finance (Senator Walsh) and the Opposition. The Minister for Finance was reduced to a case of extremism to the point of offering his resignation because the Government would not listen to the kind of advice that he was giving it. After witnessing Senator Button's giggling gibberish in his reply yesterday, Senator Maguire garbling his usual socialist platitudes, Senator Aulich presenting, in his most plausible and reasonable way, a whole lot of soft soap and snake oil as if he expected us to believe what he was saying-it was almost as if he believed what he was saying himself-I am constrained to reply in this debate.

Six Bills are now being debated cognately-three appropriation Bills and three supply Bills. They are designed to provide money for the ordinary services of Government between July and November at which time the Budget 1989-90 Bills will come into effect. At the moment, Australia is faced with a dangerous situation. The high level of foreign debt that we must service means that the interest component is mounting year by year. It will be passed on to our children, our heirs and assigns, forever and ever; and the cost is mounting. It cannot be serviced-not readily, at any rate. Australia's high foreign debt represents the savings of other people. But, as was mentioned in the debate yesterday, Australia's living standards, simply because of that debt, are declining. The way matters are organised at the moment means that our future is insecure. Our current account deficit is over $14 billion for the year-


Senator Stone —That was for 10 months.


Senator SHEIL —For the first 10 months of the current financial year. It was forecast at $9 billion for the whole year. It is $14 billion for the first 10 months, so it will probably wind up around $17 billion for the year. If we continue the way that we are going, next year it will reach $25 billion-$2 billion a month. It is hard even to conceive that the country could be involved with figures such as those. To fix the problem, we must borrow more, earn more or sell some assets such as land. Unease is being felt as a result of sales of land and increasing foreign ownership. Not only Japan but also other countries are buying up Australian land. And why not? When Australian assets can be picked up at bargain basement prices and the value of their currency is high while the value of our dollar is low, why should they not do that? Our net foreign debt is already around $100 billion. When Mr Hawke took over it was about $23 billion-a manageable amount. In that short space of a few years, it has quadrupled to $100 billion. It is being nudged along of course by these successive monthly deficits which, by the looks of it, are gradually increasing and also by the fall in the Australian dollar.

Our consumer price index is moving up. At the moment, it is nearly 7 per cent-and we can safely say-and mounting. Interest rates are high. They are currently at 16 per cent and even 19 per cent in some areas. The Treasurer (Mr Keating) says he will not hesitate to use interest rates as a weapon if he thinks fit. The Government, despite its protestations, has not cut its spending. We had the usual charade of the Premiers Conference and the Loan Council meetings last week. There were some savage cuts to States' spending and their ability to borrow but the Federal Government has not cut its own expenditure at all although it says it has done that.

The famous accord between the Government and the Australian Council of Trade Unions is a failure. They claim that it is not but one has only to look at the figures to see that productivity has not increased. Therefore, real wages have not been provided for and our living standards are down. Our international competitiveness is down. After all, we are an exporting nation and international competitiveness is important to us. Our dollar has fallen in value and our credit rating is down. In other words, all the lights are flashing either yellow or red on our economic indicator board but the Government, up until now, has not taken any notice of it.

I notice that the Treasurer is now starting to show signs of insecurity. Certainly Senator Button and the Prime Minister (Mr Hawke) are showing signs of insecurity. And it is about time because we have been warning them for a long time. They have thrown the argument back to us and said, `What would you do in circumstances such as this?'. From this side, I have heard the argument put many times as to what we would do. I have not heard the Government mention opening up the mining industry. The Government's policy on mining is abysmal for Australia. If the Government changed its mining policy, this area, on its own, could almost pay off our debt within a few years.

The Government talks of micro-economic reform in waterfront, coastal shipping, transport and communications. In the sugar industry, the Government has pulled the plug on the interstate sugar agreement and is removing the embargo against imports of sugar. This is all very well. The sugar industry will adapt to this but the Government did not do its homework on this matter. It had to be referred to a Senate committee of inquiry, which came out with a reasonable arrangement for removal of the sugar embargo. But the Committee did not pay attention to the cost of transporting sugar round our coast. The cost of shipping and handling is enormous, and it has been shown that proper reform in that area would save the Government approximately $2 billion-just that one measure. But that has not been done, and I can confidently predict that, if the arrangements stay as they are, it will be a lot cheaper to import sugar from surrounding sugar-producing countries than to take it round our own coast from our own production areas. That is a sorry state of affairs. We have seen a similar situation in relation to the wheat legislation. The Government has deregulated one end of the system, the wheat growers, but not the other end, transport and handling. In those areas we could save an enormous amount of money and make ourselves more competitive.

The Treasurer (Mr Keating), in introducing his last Budget, predicated the whole strategy on high commodity prices. He punted on his luck, and he was reasonably lucky, but he cannot go on being lucky forever. It now looks as though commodity prices are going to drop. That will derail the Treasurer's whole Budget strategy. He has refused to change it up until now, but it looks as if the Government is coming to its senses-at least, I hope so-and is going to do something about it.

I want to deal now with a matter that is causing some public comment-health. I do not think that there is one area of the whole health industry that is happy with the way it is being run by the Government at the moment-from the pharmacists to the pathologists, the radiologists, the general practitioners, the Australian Medical Association, all the doctors and health-care providers and the nursing fraternity, plus the hospitals, nursing homes and hostels. If one were to go to any area of health administration in Australia today one would find the people there unhappy. They are unhappy because of Medicare. Medicare is the fundamental and basic cause of the whole problem. It is not as if the Government has not been warned about this for many years. I have warned it myself. However, I do not intend to go over the whole argument. I am getting sick and tired of saying these things to the Government.

Let me turn to the way in which the Government handles legislation that it brings into the House of Representatives. The health Bills are a very good example, but not the only one. The Government brings legislation in subject to the guillotine. It allows only a limited time for debate-maybe one or two speakers on major legislation that is going to have far-reaching effects on many aspects of health. After limited debate the Bills are put to the vote. They do not even get to the committee stage. Any amendments that the Opposition may have are not even discussed; they just have to be tabled. This is a very sour way to deal with Bills. It is a travesty of the political process. It shows the importance of having a Senate, where these things can at least be given time for discussion. At the moment we are having problems because of the cut-off date for Bills in the Senate-when we will discuss them and when we will not. The Government blames the Senate because we have a cut-off date, but it jams so much legislation through the House of Representatives in a limited time that this sort of thing is inevitable. It is not the Senate's fault at all. We have just tried to bring some sanity into the legislative process, and the Government will not see eye to eye with it.

The current package of health legislation is a big one affecting a lot of areas. In particular, it affects medical insurance, which is the fundamental backbone, the driving force, of the whole private sector of health. It affects the elderly, the pensioners; it affects the way general practitioners will practise in the future; and it affects the medical insurance industry itself. Fundamentally, the Government is opting out of its responsibilities in that area. At the moment the main problem about medical insurance arises at the expensive end of the business. I refer to elderly people who require expensive long term care. In that area the Government has progressively reduced its contribution over the years. It has said that care of the elderly has to be handed back to the private insurance industry, that the burden has to be shared by the insurance companies there.

The Government has cut its contribution from about $450m to $100m, and to just $1m this year-a token amount. Of course, this is driving the insurance companies to the wall. They are not going to be able to provide insurance, yet all the Government wants to do is give them a one-shot, quick fix of $20m-largely, I would say, to take medical insurance off the agenda for the next Federal election in the hope of putting it to bed so that it will not become an issue. But the $20m would only exacerbate the problem and take us further down the road of disruption of private medical insurance. That may be the Government's goal. Perhaps it wants us all to be on Medicare and to have nobody on private medical insurance. Right now the medical insurance companies are in a very dangerous position because of the withdrawal of government funding.

I do not want to go on talking about health at this stage. The Bills will be brought into the House of Representatives tonight, I think, so they will be coming over to the Senate next week. This is the only place where they will get a full airing and a decent debate. I notice that the Democrats are going to support the proposal to send the issues of medical insurance and general practitioners' rebates to Senate committees. It is high time those things were inquired into in a big way. I just hope that the committees can report back before our medical insurance industry is completely on its beam ends.

I support the amendment that was foreshadowed by Senator Stone. It is a long one. Let me read just the first part, which seeks to add at the end of the motion:

. . . condemns the Government for its failure to pursue policies which will address the twin evils of a dangerous level of foreign debt and declining living standards, leading to a growing loss of control over the future of Australia . . .

The amendment then lists seven points that are of vital importance to reconstruction and to resolution of the economic plight that we find our country in today.

Question resolved in the affirmative.

Bill read a second time.

Motion (by Senator Bolkus)-by leave-agreed to:

That, in Committee of the Whole-

(1) Leave be given to Senators to move motions expressing opinions or making recommendations based on the Report of Estimates Committee A.

(2) Where more than one motion is proposed the motions may be debated together, but in all cases a motion or motions shall be disposed of before the question is put on the Vote before the Chair.

(3) Any resolutions be reported when the Chairman reports to the President at the conclusion of proceedings in Committee of the Whole.

Bill passed through its remaining stages without amendment or debate.