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Tuesday, 15 August 1989
Page: 32


Senator STONE (Leader of the National Party of Australia)(4.22) —At the conclusion of Senator Button's remarks he asked-Senator McLean echoed the question-what this matter of public importance debate directed at the Government was all about. I understand Senator Button's state of bemusement because that seems to characterise his general state of mind these days. It was not so long ago-only a few weeks-that Senator Button was being interviewed on the Face to Face television program. After being cross-examined on what his industrial policies have achieved over the past few years he simply did not say very much. When he was asked how he would go about it if he had it all to do again, I felt rather sorry for Senator Button because he simply spread his hands apart and said, `I don't know'. If Senator Button does not know what this matter of public importance is all about-unfortunately he has left the chamber-I will, vicariously, direct his attention to some of the things that it is about.

Today is Budget day. This will probably, although not certainly, be this Government's last Budget. Since the Budget is, after all, the single most important economic statement that any government makes in any given 12 months, as a rule, it will therefore probably be this Government's last opportunity to address Australia's fundamental-I emphasise the word `fundamental'-economic problems.

As Senator Chaney quite rightly said, if we go around this country and talk to average Australians and some of the small businessmen to whom, apparently, Senator Button does not talk-he talks to the great corporate chieftains-and we ask people what they feel about Australia, the almost universal response is that they are very worried about the future of this country. Depending upon their family circumstances they may be very worried about the future of their children. There is a state of growing concern characterised most pithily by people's concern about the extraordinary explosion of foreign indebtedness. In the last six years between March 1983 and March 1989 the foreign debt of Australians-that is, governments, private corporations and private individuals-has risen in net terms from $23 billion to nearly $104 billion. A great many people do not know those sorts of figures but they do understand, because they can see the evidence all around them, that this country is sliding into a morass of foreign debt at a frightening pace. They can also see-this is sometimes even more directly visible; Senator Chaney also referred to this and I believe it is particularly true of my own state of Queensland-the accelerating pace of foreign ownership of Australia.

I mention this matter not in order to indulge in any sort of xenophobia about foreign investment in this country; on the contrary. Yet it is a matter of very great concern to Australians, who can see it happening around them, that somehow or other we are losing control of this country; we are losing control of our future. People may not understand all this economists' jargon, which, I must confess, I still sometimes fall into the error of using. They understand that when a family lives beyond its means at the pace at which this country has been living beyond its means under this Government for the past six years, and when that family accumulates debts in proportion to the magnitude of those that Australia has already accumulated-goodness knows, we will have accumulated another $15 billion before the next election at the pace things are going-when a family is in that situation and is being forced to sell off some of its assets, as Australia has been doing during the life of this Government, they know from their own observation of families that they have seen in those unfortunate circumstances that it is increasingly difficult to get themselves out of that situation. So they are concerned about the future of this country and about our ability to control that future and whether this control will not simply be taken out of our hands.

When we come right down to fundamentals and discuss this with people in a commonsense way and with not too much economic jargon, everybody will agree in the end that it all stems from our fundamental inability to pay our way in the world. Our deficit in our balance of payments stems from the fact that we are not competitive. Our productive game is just not good enough. Our productivity performance-that is a bit of jargon, I suppose-the efficiency of our operating processes in our factories and other areas of production is simply dismal.

When we see the Budget Papers tonight we will ask what this Budget will do to redress that situation. Although we have not seen the documents as yet I suspect that the answer will be nothing. If the press is to be believed, we will probably get some words as to how Mr Keating is going to restructure the Industries Assistance Commission, the Industries Commission and half a dozen other bodies to add to his own power base, and this new body will be given a task of reporting on this and that-but it will be just words, verbiage. It will not be actually doing anything to repair the parlous situation in which we find ourselves.

If ever there was one major area that is crying out for reform it is the area to which the matter of public importance referred to by Senator Chaney relates-namely, the whole structure of our trade union movement in this country. During this century Australia has moved from being a country which at the beginning of the twentieth century was the richest country in the world in per capita terms. People in this country enjoyed the highest living standards and the highest income on average of any country in the world. Because we were a more egalitarian country-a matter with which I agree-our working people were even more ahead of their counterparts in other countries than those average figures would imply. What has happened in the past 89 years to move us to a situation in which we are no longer enjoying that admirable pre-eminence, in which we have declined more or less continually relative to other countries, in which we are sliding back to seventeenth, eighteenth, nineteenth or twentieth position in the world, depending on precisely which figures we look at?

We are well back in the field of nations, having been in the very first rank 100 years ago. Although I do not have time in these brief remarks to develop this thesis to the length it deserves, the truth is that we have throughout this period been burdened with a system for the determination of wages and other conditions of employment as well as a system of trade union organisation which is a product of the nineteenth century. The craft union dominated trade union organisation brought to us largely from Britain is a product of the nineteenth century which increasingly is totally unfitted and inappropriate to the problems of the twentieth century, let alone the twenty-first century, which we are only 10 or 11 years away from entering.

If Senator Button does not understand why this matter of public importance on this subject is directed to this Government today then all I can say is that he has not understood that basic point. It is about time that he and the Government he represents did. I accept what Senator Button said about one or two specific instances which he was able to cite-including the Southern Aluminium instance, which has not been finalised. They are precisely the forms of enterprise union to which the Opposition's industrial relations policy is directed and to which Senator Chaney was directing his remarks. Senator Button, in responding to that, said, `We the Government are already moving in that direction'. If we continue at that sort of snail's pace, which is the product of this Government's performance, it will be the twenty-second century before we get there, and by that time Australians will not be running this country.

Last week we saw what I can only describe as an irresponsible national wage case decision by the new Industrial Relations Commission-a decision which that body and the Government say will produce an increase in average wages this year of 6 1/2 per cent, but which every independent private commentator whom I have noticed remarking on the subject has indicated is likely to produce an increase of about 7 1/2 to 8 per cent. Why do I call that decision irresponsible? I call it irresponsible because the Commission noted, before moving to provide these awards, Australia's parlous economic state. The Commission said that in the light of that situation:

There are substantial economic grounds for rejecting any notion of wage increases at the present time.

Notwithstanding those words, the Industrial Relations Commission, having made its bow in the direction of what we might call economic propriety, then proceeded to move to economic irresponsibility with the decision that it handed down.

Only the day after that decision was handed down the Australian Bureau of Statistics produced a paper entitled `Australian National Accounts March Quarter 1989: Gross Product Employment and Hours Worked', which said that labour productivity estimates continue to show very little change from the 1984-85 base year. That is to say, the real product per hour worked per worker employed has hardly changed over the past five years. What a record! What a performance by the present Government! How does that compare with overseas countries? We all know how it compares but I do not have time to go into it in detail. I used an analogy a moment ago of a family living beyond its means. How does a family that is in that situation deal with it? As we all know, there are only two ways: one is to pull in the belt; the other is to lift its productive game to bring more income into the household.

Tonight I suppose we will have the product in Mr Keating's Budget of a process of telling people to pull in their belts. For some time now Mr Keating has been forcing Australians to pull in their belts. He has been doing that through exorbitantly high interests rates. We hear a lot about 17 per cent home loan rates; but the rates being paid by small businessmen, which in many ways are more important in terms of the productivity of this country, are 22 or 23 per cent, not 17 per cent. Mr Keating's view, however, is that the private sector should pull in its belt. He also believes the State governments should pull in their belts. He has told them that they will get less in funds this year. We will see how much sign there is in the Budget Speech tonight of the Government pulling in its belt. I predict confidently that tonight the Government will not be showing any sign of recognition that there is another and better alternative: lifting our productive game. It is that better alternative, through the recognition of the fundamental interdependence of the interests of employers and employees as reflected in enterprise unions, to which Senator Chaney's remarks were properly directed.