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Thursday, 30 May 1996
Page: 1471

Senator ABETZ(5.28 p.m.) —I am pleased to be able to take part in this debate because a few of the fundamentals have been forgotten in it. Also, I will deal with some of the terminology employed by Senator Carr in his quite disingenuous motion. It would be fair to say that some of the terminology employed by Senator Carr, talking about the turmoil, et cetera, has been deliberately generated by certain individuals for their own political purposes. Of course, in Tasmania we have had classic examples of that.

The Liberal Party has a very proud record in relation to education. When we went into the 1993 election campaign, those of us who remember Fightback will recall that even in that dry economic statement the only area of government funding which was to be increased was—what was it? Education. When we were challenged before the last election as to where we would make savings to enable us to fund our election policies, the Department of Education, Employment and Training was quarantined—because that was our commitment to the area of education.

The Australian Labor Party committed an absolute fraud on the Australian people. They left us with a legacy of $8 billion that we have to find. It gives us no joy as a new government to have all our dreams and aspirations for this country absolutely shattered by the fact that people like Senator Crowley and other ministers wasted all the money and went into debt, which requires repayment before we get on with establishing our dreams and aspirations for this great country.

That is the starting point in this debate. We honestly went to the people on the basis of the figures provided to us. It is quite clear that when the Leader of the Opposition, Kim Beazley, was the finance minister, he knew what the black hole was. He refused to tell us; he said it was not available. Why is it that when the new Treasurer, Peter Costello, came on the scene he was able to get the figures within a matter of days? They were always available, but the Labor Party were too scared to let the people of Australia know the rack and ruin that they had brought upon this country.

Senator Crowley —Can we have some tomorrow? If they are here, if they are available, let's have some now with this new figure—1.8 per cent growth. Why don't we adjust again?

Senator ABETZ —Senator Crowley, you really are a living example of a failed minister, aren't you? No matter how much the Labor Party squeal on this issue, they know that they bear the guilt and shame of the economic ruin that this country is facing because of their overspending. They sold off our assets for recurrent expenditure. They were prepared to spend $110,000 on a republic campaign which was purely party political. They were willing to spend money on former Senator Michael Tate, on Dr Neal Blewett—and who was the third one?

Senator McGauran —Kerry Sibraa.

Senator ABETZ —Kerry Sibraa, thank you very much. People without any qualifications for the diplomatic corps in the professional area, though undoubtedly suited—I do not make any criticism of that—were being paid more than the highest professionals in the most important diplomatic missions around the world. Why? Because Labor thought that looking after their Labor mates was a lot more important than balancing the budget. Indeed, whilst we are talking about universities, I recall that at one stage the now Leader of the Opposition, the former minister for finance, introduced legislation, supported by the Democrats and Greens, to refund student unions moneys that they lost because students no longer wanted to be members. They took the money from the states.

I got the figures out of the Parliamentary Library the other day. Some $14.5 million was spent on that. I simply say to the Labor Party, `Wouldn't that have been a lot better taken off the bottom line of the budget?' But no! The student union activists fund the Labor Party and support the Labor Party, so the Labor Party funds the student unions with taxpayers' money. Indeed the University of Tasmania would be delighted and would not even have to face any cuts if they could get that $14.5 million.

Senator Calvert —Even half that much would do.

Senator ABETZ —Indeed, Senator Calvert. But Labor's commitment is more to student unions than it is to the institutions of the universities. I do not need to give any more examples of the Labor Party's waste, be it on student unions, be it on diplomatic missions or be it on the republican issue—the list absolutely goes on.

The classic example of the mismanagement of Labor was in the Australian national railways. For how many months did they cover up the fact that they were running at a loss? Minister Sharp came into office, opened it up, had dreams and aspirations for the Australian national railways and thought he could do something with them, but he found they were running at a $160 million loss. So Minister Sharp, now no longer able to implement all of what he had wanted to do, finds his first task is to clean up the mess left to him by the former Labor administration. In every area of Labor administration we look we see the waste of money and the reason for the $8 billion black hole that we are faced with.

The Labor Party then have the audacity to come into this chamber and move a motion condemning the fact that we are looking at cuts. They have acknowledged that they are only proposed cuts. In fact, they are not even that. Everything is in the melting pot at the moment; we are looking at all options. It is a bit like the arsonist who is still at the scene of the crime: everything is going up in flames and he says to the fire brigade, `Don't, don't! You might cause some water damage.' In the meantime you would let the whole building burn down. We are responsible. We will put water on the fire. We will put the fire out. We will restore the economy.

But, unfortunately, just as firemen from time to time have to create some water damage for the ultimate good of putting out the fire, we as a Liberal government are charged with causing a bit of pain on the side for the greater good of putting the economy back in order—something that the Labor Party failed to do and had no concern about. All they were concerned about was getting into power. Former Senator Richardson always said, do `whatever it takes' to try and get back into power. They bankrupted this nation.

It gave me no joy this morning to be on a radio interview, broadcasting to Tasmania. I was discussing the matter with somebody from the academics union. Do you know what he said? He said, `I am not interested in whether or not there is an $8 billion black hole.'

It is a pretty fundamental issue. He could not dispute the fact that there was a black hole, so he just said, `I am not interested in it'. Well, if he is not interested in it, I could throw up my hands too, and with due respect to one of my colleagues who spoke before me, that is basically what he did. `Yes, there is this big hole but, oh, don't take it out of education.' We could throw up our hands and say, `Don't take it out of Aboriginal affairs, don't take it out of health, don't take it out of welfare, don't take it out of defence'.

Do you know, if we were to abide by that we would be taking it out of the future of our children and the next generation. That is the gross irresponsibility of those on the opposite side who are trying to talk to the Australian community and say that there is no real cause for concern about this $8 billion deficit. In fact, what is it? It is very hard to imagine, isn't it, but it is a huge, huge hole.

It is very interesting listening to the Democrats' approach on this. Senator Stott Despoja in her first speech mentioned the importance of intergenerational responsibility as far as the environment is concerned, and I fully agree with that; no arguments. But if you are going to have a consistent approach you also need intergenerational responsibility in relation to the economy and finances. There is no social justice in me and this generation of parliamentarians keeping on running up the bankcard and leaving it for the next generation to pay off. That is not the intergenerational responsibility that the Democrats were talking about on the environment, but for some reason they do not want to apply it to economic factors. The reality is that the economy is very important and from it flows everything else, because without a sound economy, without a sound budget, we will not be able to fund education for the future.

I still recall as a Liberal student being in Western Australia and that great Australian, Sir Charles Court, addressing us. He made a point, it must be 20 years ago or now, but it has stuck with me to this day. He said, `The reason that I place so great an emphasis on economic development for my state is so that I have got a sufficient business and tax base to fund the hospitals, the schools, the universities, the infrastructure, the arts—all those things that people would like to have funded from the public fund'. So that is why we as a government have set about the task of restoring the economy and getting the budget back into balance. Once we have achieved that there will then be a brighter future, not only for higher education but also for a whole lot of other areas.

It would be fair to say that the university community is the most articulate within society, the most capable of lobbying, the most likely to have access to modern technology, access to editors of newspapers et cetera. Therefore, they have been making their point very loud and clear, but not once have I heard them say, `We agree that there needs to be a reigning-in of the budget deficit'. As soon as they acknowledge that point, and they have to, the next point is: from what area? It is basically the nimby principle—not in my backyard, cut somebody else.

I believe that there are particular institutions in this country that deserve to be looked at individually, and I place the University of Tasmania in that category. I think that there are three outstanding reasons. Firstly, it is the only university in my home state of Tasmania. Secondly, it is a regional university, and for a regional university to be able to survive it does need a degree of infrastructure. But if even my university needs to suffer a certain amount of cuts for the future benefit of all Australians and all Tasmanians, I will reluctantly go along with that because I have a vision for the future of this country.

It is very interesting that the Labor Party and Democrats have been asking us to provide a vision for the future for higher education. I think that is very vital and I think that is a great challenge facing the minister, Senator Vanstone. But I challenge those people also to provide a plan for the future about the budget deficit. How are we going to deal with that for the future? How are my children going to be able to have an Australia which is not that much in debt that they will not be able to do what they want other than pay off the international bankcard that we have run up for them?

There is terminology in this motion which I find offensive. There is talk about the `turmoil engulfing Australia's universities'. Who is generating some of the turmoil? I suppose it depends on your definition of `turmoil'. A street demonstration, no problem with that; articulating, no problem with that. But when you confront the sort of nonsensical activism that my office confronted in recent times, and then you look behind it, you see the young people from the Australian Labor Party. I dealt with that in a previous speech. But when damage is done to buildings and tomatoes brought to the scene and thrown at the building, you have to ask the question: how does this assist the debate in any shape or form? It does not at all but it creates a climate of turmoil and that of course is the plan of the Australian Labor Party.

Senator Calvert —Did they turn up at your place today? Did the students turn up?

Senator ABETZ —Senator Calvert asks whether the students turned up at my office today. Of course they didn't. Allow me to indicate what Senator Calvert was referring to. After their pathetic demonstration, which required the attendance of police, the student union leader, Anthony Llewellyn, well-known Labor Party activist in Tasmania, said, `We will return every lunchtime until we meet with Senator Abetz.' I had refused to meet with him until he apologised to my staff member for the harassment that she suffered and until he paid the damages bill of $815.

Well, Madam Deputy President, I tell you what. On Tuesday only six turned up. This great student leader that talked for the thousands of students at the University of Tasmania could muster all of six. It would not even have been half of the Labor club on campus—not even half of the Labor club turned up. Do you know how long they stayed for? Ten minutes. Then they trotted over to the hotel across the road.

Senator Calvert —The old Telegraph.

Senator ABETZ —Absolutely, Senator Calvert, the old Telegraph. The next day there was not a single soul outside. The demonstration did not even last for a week. I issued a media release indicating how pathetic this campaign had been, how idle the threat was and how this student union leader was clearly not speaking on behalf of the students at the University of Tasmania. The next threat was, `We've changed tactics; we are going to inundate Senator Abetz's office with phone calls and faxes.' They issued a media release of that nature.

All the journalists got the media release and thought, `You beauty. Let's see how it is working.' They rang my office, and within two rings the phone was answered. They came to the conclusion that once again the campaign was an absolute, abysmal failure. The sort of turmoil that certain elements within the community are trying to generate is clearly for party political purposes and not for the purpose of assisting the universities in this very difficult time.

I have spent 1½ hours, along with a number of my Tasmanian colleagues, with the Vice-Chancellor of the University of Tasmania. We see the difficulties, and it gives us no joy. I say to the vast number of genuine students who have rung me to make a point—all of them, might I add, disassociating themselves from the student union-inspired activity—`Can you imagine any politician going to the electorate and saying, "I am going to cut funding"?'

The nature of the political beast is that you usually like to hand out the money—like the former Labor government, which got us into this mess, did. We are saying that rather than simply handing out largess, there is the necessity for responsibility. We are willing, even if it is for short-term political pain, to get the benefit and the recognition for taking the hard and tough decisions that are undoubtedly required.

A lot of people within the small business community, the farmers and the shopkeepers, ask me, `Why is it that over the past decade our incomes have fallen so dramatically, yet those who live off the public sector have not really had to make the sorts of substantial cuts that we have had to endure?' I believe this government has led by example. Junior ministers have had pay cuts. Do you remember the National Media Liaison Service? How many millions of dollars did that cost? It was the propaganda machine of the ALP, funded by the taxpayers. It was abolished by us, saving money. It would have been politically astute for us simply to have kept it, to return the compliments to the ALP. But, no, we are committed to getting this country back on track. That means sometimes taking some hard and difficult decisions.

This motion talks about proposed budget cutbacks. What is the proposal? It also talks about indiscriminate funding cuts. What indiscriminate funding cuts? What is the percentage figure? Which aspects are going to be cut? You don't know.

Senator Campbell —They know all about indiscriminate tax rises; that is their business.

Senator ABETZ —Yes. The reality is that we on this side do not know either because we are still in the situation of public consultation. Everything will be revealed on 20 August in the budget. I suppose the budget, in rough terms, will be put to bed in early August. There is still another two full months of community consultation that can and will take place.

I was late to the AMEC dinner last night because I was talking to a genuine student who wanted to find out some facts. The student union had put out a sheet saying that there would be a 12 per cent cut. That is the Labor Party line. They say, `There will be a 12 per cent cut. This 12 per cent cut will have such and such an effect on the University of Tasmania.' I told him that no decision has been made, that everything is still in the melting pot. We are still considering what we have to do because of Labor's mismanagement. Labor's mismanagement is the cause of our considerations.

The first thing any government coming into office would want to do is to fulfil their dreams and aspirations. Instead, we opened the cupboard and found an absolute mess. We are now, in a proper, genuine way, going about overcoming the difficulties.

Senator Mackay —A 4.8 per cent growth rate?

Senator ABETZ —Senator Mackay asks about the growth rate. It was a great result. Everybody is happy about it. But you know what you did. You ran up the debt whilst we were having negative growth. Whilst we had positive growth, you continued to run up the debt. What you do when you have positive growth is repay your debt—something you people never comprehended.

The Labor Party needs to realise the basic economic principle that every small business knows. When you have a good month, you use that to pay off the overdraft you incurred during the bad month. But the Labor Party does not do that. If they have a bad month, it will be the overdraft. If they have a good month, they will spend all that and increase the overdraft. There has to be an end, and it will either be the big crash or a sensible reduction. That is what we are setting out to do.

Senator Campbell —They flog a few assets and still keep the overdraft up.

Senator ABETZ —Exactly, Senator Campbell. It amazes me that the Australian Labor Party has no sense of shame at the way they dealt with our economy. You would have thought that, if there was any ounce of decency within them, they would not wish to engage in any debate that in any way touches upon the economy. They just seem to say, `We're out of government; it's not our fault anymore.' I remember the last question time before the election. The senators who were sitting on this side then—Senator Cook and others—were still blaming Malcolm Fraser and John Howard for the economic ills, when the Liberal Party had not been in government for 13 years.

Now that Labor Party senators are in opposition, and just out of government for a few weeks, they are straightaway blaming us for the economic ills. It really is a duplicity that the people of Australia can see through. You are exposed and shown for the poor economic performers that you really are.

I believe that a sensible approach needs to be taken to all areas of government, and that is currently what we are embarking upon. There are no specific proposals at this stage. There are no indiscriminate funding cuts and, if there are, you should tell us about them. But of course there are not any. The Labor Party knows there are not any, and they know that we are currently in the consultation stage.

Senator Mackay is trying to interject but, if she had been in parliament a bit longer, she would have realised that we used to play the game on the other side as well. The ministers would be asked just before the budget, `Can you give a guarantee that this won't be cut or that won't be cut?' And Senator Cook would get up, very high and mightily, puff out his little chest and try to use the latest buzz word that he had learnt—he usually could not pronounce it, which was very embarrassing. That aside, he would say, `I will not give you an insight into our budgetary considerations.'

Senator Campbell —Wait till budget night.

Senator ABETZ —`Wait till budget night,' was his line. `You wait till the budget.'

Senator Mackay —Good.

Senator ABETZ —Senator Mackay is now agreeing that that is appropriate. That is exactly what I am saying to Senator Mackay and the Australian Labor Party: do not engage in this deliberate scare campaign. By all means, you should put the case of the university as strongly as you can and assist with the lobbying wherever you can. You can do those sorts of things.

But Senator Mackay would understand that that sort of lobbying is not assisted by producing a crate of tomatoes and damaging public offices to the extent of $815, as was inspired by Labor students at the University of Tasmania. That does nothing for the cause, but a peaceful rally outside our state Parliament House with 2,000 in attendance is clearly a proper, peaceful way to make your point.

Senator Mackay —What about a debate at the university?

Senator ABETZ —Senator Mackay asked, `What about a debate at the university?' I think Senator Mackay wants to go back to the dreamtime. A few people around here might not be aware of this, but Senator Mackay and I were at university together. We used to have debates but, come the student election results, who used to top the poll, Senator Mackay? Who used to lead the AUS delegation each year? And I am more than happy to go back and give you another dose. I would have thought that, after a gap of about 15 years, you would have learnt your lesson and would not want to go back into that sort of forum.

Senator Mackay, I am willing to debate you anywhere that is suitable to me, but—and this is the caveat—it will not be sponsored by the irresponsible University of Tasmania union until such time as they have paid for the damage to the building in which I have got my office and have had the decency to apologise to my staff member.