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Wednesday, 7 June 1989
Page: 3572


Senator LEWIS(4.34) —The Senate is debating the ministerial statements by the Minister for Transport and Communications (Mr Willis) relating to shipping and the waterfront, government business enterprises and telecommunications pricing. Senator Burns, for most of his speech, was talking about distant history-way back in the dark period compared with the 1990s, which is what we are looking at. He was talking about periods before the First World War and the period of the Great Depression in between the two world wars. But the present economy has been so mismanaged by the Hawke Labor Government that, from 30 June 1983 up to the period for which the latest figures have been published, our net external debt has increased from $23 billion-which we owed at 30 June 1983, when the Hawke Government had been in office for a few months-to $103 billion. That means money down the drain-a deficit. We are going down the drain this year at the rate of about $17 billion. That represents an increase of nearly 350 per cent during the Hawke Government's reign. What governments were doing in relation to the economy and privatisation prior to the Hawke Government coming into office is distant history. The situation in this nation has so changed under the mismanagement of the Hawke Government that we now have to look at a totally different set of circumstances. We have to take every available opportunity to change the economic climate of this nation. On the question of the foreign debt, let me refer to an article by Mr Ross Gittins in the Sydney Morning Herald today. He said:

So the basic cause of the build-up in foreign debt is that for years we've been importing more than we've exported, and borrowing to cover the difference.

That puts the situation very simply and clearly so that people can understand it:

. . . for years we've been importing more than we've exported, and borrowing to cover the difference.

We have now reached the stage under the Hawke Government where, frankly, the economy is like a passenger train travelling at full speed with the throttle stuck wide open on the wrong track, the crew members having gone back into the dining car where they are eating and drinking with the passengers while Mr Willis, this Minister, is playing on his fiddle. We need to explore every avenue to change the economic climate of this nation. These ministerial statements were the Government's opportunity to demonstrate that it meant to do that in these areas. It has failed. It is a case of too little too late. Mr Gittins also said:

Obviously, the way to slow the growth in our foreign debt-

one notices that he is talking only about slowing it down because we are in such a bad way that we cannot turn it around at this stage-

is to reduce the size of the current account deficits which add to it. But how? There's nothing we can do to reduce the interest we've contracted to pay on our existing debt.

And here is the significant part:

All we can do is reduce our imports and increase our exports.

I repeat that because it is so important:

All we can do is reduce our imports and increase our exports.

To do that we have to take every opportunity-as I have now said for the third time-that presents itself. That will include tax reform. Certainly we have to do something about our taxation system. It will include deregulation to get rid of the regulations which are hindering opportunities for entrepreneurs and businesses to develop. It will include some privatisation. At one stage during Question Time Senator Button accused me of thinking that privatisation was the sole answer to all of our problems. I said this morning-and I say again-that there is no simple golden key that can be put into a lock and turned to fix it. All these things have to be taken into account. Privatisation is one of the areas where they ought to be considered.

We need greater efficiency, greater productivity and, in particular, the benefits which we would gain from competition. Privatisation is all about introducing competition rather than government manipulation of monopoly markets for the benefit of government business enterprises. We need to produce more of better goods and services at cheaper prices. Australians would then buy Australian rather than imported goods. They would buy Australian goods not out of loyalty or something of that nature, but simply because our goods and services would be cheaper and better than foreign goods. That should be the aim of the Government. What we desperately need to do is produce more of better goods and services at lower prices, backed up with better services and spare parts. If we can improve our productivity and our quality at lower costs, as I say, not only will Australians buy more Australian goods but so will foreigners. In other words, we would be able to export more. We would then achieve what Mr Gittins is saying in this article: `All we can do is reduce our imports and increase our exports'.

Perhaps I may digress briefly. There are those who worry that this talk about productivity, efficiency and competition will create environmental problems. That is a debate for another day. The core problem in relation to environment around the world is related more to population and to poverty than to productivity, efficiency and competition. The world's population and poverty problems are the chief causes of the environmental problems.

Given the magnitude of Australia's foreign debt and the balance of payment problems, the strategy spelt out by the Minister for dealing with Australian ports and uncompetitive domestic shipping services is totally inadequate. As Senator Chaney said, it is too little too late. These papers fail to communicate any sense of urgency. Senator Burns was talking about the Government having to fix up the waterfront and taking, perhaps, two or three years for some agreement to be entered into. We do not have two or three years. The Minister has acknowledged that:

. . . Australia has been poorly served by its shipping and waterfront industries. The gross inefficiencies which have been allowed to develop in these industries have restricted our economic growth, reduced our living standards and impaired our capacity to develop export markets. In part, our balance of payments difficulties are directly attributable to the acute inefficiencies in these key industries in the export chain.

The Minister said that, not the coalition parties. He went on to say:

The reforms I am announcing today will dramatically transform these industries.

What nonsense that was! There have been 11 reports on the waterfront since the end of World War II, each of which has identified the rorts and the cost to the nation. The Government has now entrusted the fate of its waterfront reforms to the Waterside Workers Federation, the stevedoring companies and the Australian Council of Trade Unions-rorts and all. They will have three months to negotiate details of an industry plan and then three years to put it into place. The Minister has said, `What I have said today will reform it all'. What nonsense! When he tabled these reports, what he really said was, `Look, you've got three months to try to work out the answers to the really tough questions'. There are a lot of tough decisions that have to be made here. The Minister has not taken any of those tough decisions. He has not made any decision about anything, other than to defer it all for three months while people talk about it and then for there to be three years in which to implement it.

The key recommendations of the Inter-State Commission have been rejected. The Government has refused to grasp the nettle and accept the Inter-State Commission's recommendations as an integrated package. Instead, the Government has decided to reward efficiency by offering a carrot. It is some carrot-at the cost of the taxpayers of Australia. Stevedoring companies will be provided with $154m of taxpayers' money for redundancy payments, training, retraining, skills audits and job redesign projects, while the union gets $250,000 for union research staff to assist in the implementation of the in-principle agreement and $100,000 towards consultants for skill reviews-or, should I say, for bribery. That seems to me to be a far more appropriate description of these monetary hand-outs in this package.

Even if the scheme comes to fruition, it will not solve the problem. There is no provision to remove the waterside workers' monopoly and no provision for new companies to enter the stevedoring industry. Both are essential if genuine competition is to be generated. While some cross-training may take up to the maximum of the three years envisaged by the Inter-State Commission, much could be done now. There is no valid reason why depot arrangements should not be freed up speedily. There is no valid reason why differing State requirements should not be speedily resolved. There is no valid reason why stevedoring companies should not attack the unacceptable levels of theft and pilferage of cargo now. There is no valid reason why work force and work practice restructuring should not be introduced now. There is no valid reason why barriers to competition resulting from container depot agreements and arrangements should not be removed now. There is no valid reason why enterprise employment arrangements should not replace industry-wide employment arrangements now. There is no valid reason why the manning levels for harbour tugs should not be rationalised now. There is no valid reason why pilotage exemption requirements should not be standardised now. All these things should and could take place now. Of course, there will be the need for some restructuring and cross-training. That might take longer. Redundancy arrangements must be handled sensitively. But this package recommended by the Inter-State Commission should be implemented forthwith.

On government business enterprise reform, the Government fell in a great heap in relation to any business enterprise reform when, over the weekend, Minister Willis made it perfectly clear that the only solution for the provision of adequate capital for Australian Airlines and Qantas Airways Ltd would be privatisation. But yesterday afternoon in this chamber Australian Labor Party senators repudiated the Minister and his support of the Prime Minister (Mr Hawke), who had supported Mr Willis on this, by joining the Australian Democrats and voting against our urgency motion which called upon the Government to ensure the future of Qantas and Australian Airlines by their sale to the public, as Minister Willis had suggested. As I say, yesterday Labor senators refused to accept that resolution of the Senate and so indicated that there is nothing in what the Government is talking about in that area of privatisation and the introduction of competition. The Minister has clearly indicated in these statements that he has engaged in a cosmetic exercise in rhetoric that has little substance. The objective appears to be to attempt to bluff people into believing that the Hawke Government has significantly reformed Government business enterprises. But to the credit of the media-and it is not often that I praise the media-they have not been fooled by this rhetoric. They have probed these statements of the Minister and found them wanting.

It is about time that this Government started to do things. In 1987, Mr Hawke said that micro-economic reform-which means greater efficiency, better production and better quality-would be the keynote of the third Hawke Government. In fact, the Government has done very little indeed in relation to micro-economic reform. It has introduced a few surface changes; it has changed the nature of government business enterprises so that they appear to be companies or they are incorporated under the Companies Act instead of being statutory authorities; it has added the word `Limited' to their names; and it has given them a board of directors instead of appointed officers to manage their affairs. All of that has been rhetoric. Very little has had anything to do with the introduction of competition, efficiency and greater productivity in some genuine attempt to get this country out of the terrible mess it is in by increasing our exports and reducing our imports.