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Friday, 31 May 1996
Page: 1516


Senator MARGETTS(10.11 a.m.) —In speaking to Supply (Parliamentary Departments) Bill 1996, Supply Bill (No. 1) 1996-97 and Supply Bill (No. 2) 1996-97, which are being dealt with together, I want to try to put some context into the debate. Australia is a low tax country. When we compare Australia to OECD countries, we find that Australia does not require individuals to pay a large portion of their income in tax. Australians most certainly pay more tax than people in countries with no social security. Australians most certainly pay more tax than people in countries with governments which do not believe they have a role to look after equity and access in education and in health, or to provide some guarantee that people will not starve in the streets. So, in effect, Australia is a small government country. Therefore, why is there evidence of a strong ideological agenda to push for smaller government and smaller tax?

Let's face it, there are always two sides to any government spending agenda. You work out what funds you are going to need for the programs you want, and you work out how you are going to fund them. There seems to be an overall emphasis on cutting back on the amount of tax paid by people and businesses in Australian society, and therefore we get an overemphasis on cutting back the programs. We do not seem to have an emphasis on the questions: what are we trying to achieve as a country; and, what do we think the role of government is?

I have a different opinion than the government has. The Greens stand for four principles: environmental sustainability, peace and disarmament, social justice, and participatory democracy. My belief is that governments have an a very important role to see that there is a distributive justice in the availability of such things as health and education, and even the ability to have a decent, safe transport system. We seem to have an almost unstated assumption that, for example, our transport system—our rail transport system, air systems, airlines and shipping—must be run not only by private enterprise but also by very large international conglomerates. I am not sure where this comes into logic. The irony is that in recent times we have heard a lot said about political correctness, when perhaps we should be talking more about economic correctness.

What we hear as the norm now from many commentators when talking about not just the economy but how the social system should run is what was a recognised ideological stance back in 1980s. It was then called monetarism and was the work of Milton Freidman. There were certain assumptions associated with that ideology. It was said the market was the answer to all our problems. It was claimed that you could go to a school or university using a voucher system and that that was your a choice, but it forgot to mention that you had a choice to starve. It said you had the right not to pay many taxes, but it also said that you had the right to go to a poor house if you did not fit into the system.

Basically, what was recognised as an ideological economic choice in the 1980s has suddenly become economic correctness. Anybody who speaks differently to that and talks about a value system that does not fit the economic correctness mode is now considered to be a radical. The changes that have occurred in the last few years are probably some of the most radical that this country has ever seen—for example, the changes that have resulted from globalism and internationalism and the changes that have resulted from the assumption that everything that government must do must conform somehow to competition policy and if it does not there has to be a specific exception made for it in legislation.

I cannot see that this place is going to make exceptions in all of the areas where we thought there was some value, apart from the short-term dollar. I am very afraid for this country. I am very afraid about what is going to happen by 1998 when the competition time bomb explodes.

In the last few days, the Treasurer (Mr Costello) has been using the current account figures to justify slashing the budget further. It seems that he has conveniently ignored the demise of the twin deficit theory—that is, that there is no provable connection between the budget and the current account. Certainly you cannot guarantee to improve your current account by further slashing and burning and yet this is what is coming from the Treasurer. He is ignoring completely that in 1993 we signed the Uruguay Round of GATT. He is ignoring people like the Greens who, in 1993, said, `Look at the trade deficit in a year or two years time.'

Let us have a look at what the current account deficit will be once the government takes the very large steps—those steps which were not actually required under the rules of the World Trade Organisation but which Australia chose to take to pretend to be pure and so that the rest of world would follow—it intends to take. How naive!

Surprise, surprise! Here we are in 1996 with a growing current account deficit and a growing trade blow-out, which, funnily enough, started just after the decision to join the World Trade Organisation. From then on the deficit increased by $1 billion or $2 billion a month. Before that we had, almost from time immemorial, a trade surplus. What a surprise.

How on earth do you think we are going to improve the trade surplus by slashing our budget in Australia further? There might be some slight changes, but it might go in other direction. Instead of admitting that our trade regime—our tariff regime and our industry policy—is having a major effect on our balance of trade and our trade figures, we are pretending it only has something to do with the amount we have to slash and burn on government departments.

While speaking about slashing and burning on government departments, I will say that the Greens did give notice to the government that during the committee stage of this bill we will be asking questions about these bills, about the measures in these bills. So far I have largely seen one adviser from the government. I hope the rest are listening in because I expect sufficient people will participate in this debate during the committee stage and ask questions about the nature of these bills.

It is only reasonable to expect that the answers will be provided in the committee stage. Therefore, if answers are not provided perhaps we will need to adjourn the debate until the answers are available. But I would expect that, having given notice that we would like to ask questions about what is in these bills, you would provide the people to answer the questions.

The doctrine of economic correctness has been criticised by people such as Robert Fitzgerald from ACOSS. The frightening thing is that it is simply no longer an economic doctrine. If you think about economic correctness as it is now writ, it now permeates every public sector. It permeates education; it permeates health; it permeates women's issues and Aboriginal issues; it permeates communication; it permeates industrial relations. It permeates every section.

Economic correctness not only is the short-term dollar profitability of major corporations—now considered to be the major driving force of the economy—but it is now the major driving force of how we make decisions on the rest of our society; never mind that the outcome of this level of competition policy actually means that we may well be destroying community, that the casualties of this system may end up costing government a great deal more.

Unfortunately, the system looks at what areas appear to be superfluous. Those kinds of areas are community support mechanisms. Funnily enough, very shortly down the track you will find that if you pull out the community support mechanisms the cost does not decrease. The most effective, most efficient ways to provide support in our community are through community support mechanisms. Once you pull those out and community starts to erode and be destroyed, the costs of rampant individualism soar. The costs of alienation, the costs of people falling out of system and falling along the way, become greater. There are the human costs, the environmental costs and the social costs.

That leads me to the question: what is radical and what is commonsense? The question the Greens have been asking, certainly since I have been talking on Green economic issues since 1993, is: what are the outcomes of the changes that have been made so far and what are the prospective outcomes of the changes that you are proposing from now on? That is not a radical question.

That is the kind of question the Australian Consumers Association is asking, and that is not radical either. It says if you want a new trade regime, if you have a new trade regime, if you have signed onto the Uruguay Round of GATT, let us find out what the implications are. What are the environmental implications? What are the social implications? What are the employment and other economic implications? I have not seen any report that actually indicates that the government has made the effort to find out what they are. Yet we are prepared to jump not only into the Uruguay Round of GATT but also into APEC without even assessing what we have done so far.

Let us look at what the implications are of competition policy. What are the impacts on the people you are serving? What are the impacts on the level of youth health? What are the impacts on the quality of education? What are the impacts on communities able to service their needs? What are the impacts on women? What are the impacts on Aboriginal people? What are the impacts on the environment when during competition policy you say that the most important thing is the dollar, and the short-term dollar at that? We are not even prepared to look at the long-term implications of destroying our natural capital in the meantime.

These are not radical questions; these are basic questions. If you are operating a basic business and making a policy change, you would check out what the implications were of making those decisions. I am very afraid for the policy direction of Australia because we have not asked those questions and I have seen no indication that we have made any attempt to look at the answers. The policy outcomes remain to be seen in terms of real outcomes.

In concluding my speech I have a number of questions I would like to ask during the committee stage about the decisions that have been made which are indicated in the bills before us. I will be expecting that there will be the ability to find answers to those questions.