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Wednesday, 4 February 2009
Page: 276

Senator COONAN (2:00 PM) —My question is to the Minister representing the Treasurer, Senator Conroy. Will the minister outline for the Senate exactly how many years the budget will remain in deficit?

Senator CONROY (Minister for Broadband, Communications and the Digital Economy) —Dear, oh dear! The global recession has led to deficits around the world. The IMF predicts that the deficits of advanced economies will rise to an average of seven per cent of GDP in 2009. The fact that those opposite still do not understand the severity of the global conditions and do not understand how that impacts on deficits in Australia is an indictment of those opposite, because it is very relevant to talk about world conditions when you are talking about how long Australia will be in deficit. That is why it is relevant to this answer. The fact that those opposite do not like that does not make it irrelevant to the question, because the state of the international economy bears directly on the length and the severity of the impact on the Australian economy. It goes to the heart of the question that those opposite are asking.

As I noted yesterday, government tax revenue has collapsed by $75 billion over the forward estimates since MYEFO and $115 billion since the budget. In the midst of this global recession, it would be irresponsible not to act swiftly and decisively to support jobs and invest in nation building. The reduction—

Opposition senators interjecting—

Senator CONROY —You just go on believing that.

Senator Coonan —Mr President, I raise a point of order and it relates to the standing order requirement that the minister be directly relevant to the question in his answer. He was asked very specifically a timing question—how many years the Australian budget will remain in deficit. So far he has not addressed that at all.

Senator Ludwig —Mr President, on the point of order, this is exactly the difficulty that these questions pose. The good senator, Senator Conroy, is providing a directly relevant answer to the question. The difficulty, as always, is that the framing of the question suggests an answer—in this instance what it does is try to pin it down by asking how many years. But, if you listen to Senator Conroy’s answer, the answer provides the answer. In other words, Senator Conroy is directly answering the question by explaining about the global financial crisis, how countries around the world are in—

Honourable senators interjecting—

The PRESIDENT —Senator Ludwig, resume your seat. When there is quiet we will proceed.

Senator Ludwig —The global financial crisis around the world leads to a recessionary outcome. What Senator Conroy is explaining for those opposite, which Senator Coonan does not seem to grasp, is the way the process will go forward—but I do not want to debate the matter. The simple fact is that the question presupposes an answer. Senator Conroy is on point and is directly relevant to it.

The PRESIDENT —Senator Conroy, you have 10 seconds remaining in your answer in which to address the question that has been raised by Senator Coonan.

Senator CONROY —Thank you, Mr President. Treasury and Finance have been working around the clock to ensure the government could release robust forecasts as quickly as possible. (Time expired)

Senator COONAN —Mr President, I note that Senator Conroy is struggling with how many years the budget will remain in deficit. Could he try this as a supplementary question: will the minister outline exactly how many years our children will be paying off Labor’s new debt?

Senator Chris Evans —Yesterday Turnbull supported a deficit.

Senator CONROY (Minister for Broadband, Communications and the Digital Economy) —Absolutely.

Senator Abetz —Not as big as this.

Senator CONROY —Oh, so Liberal debt is okay and ours is not?

Senator Abetz —No, it’s the size.

Senator CONROY —Oh, okay.

The PRESIDENT —Order! It is not debating time; it is question time. Senator Conroy is required to answer the question.

Senator CONROY —Thank you, Mr President. The government will return the budget to surplus after the global recession is through. Specifically, as the economy recovers and grows above trend, the government will take action to return the budget to surplus by banking any increases in tax receipts associated with the economic recovery, while maintaining our commitment to keep taxation as a share of GDP on average below the level that we inherited from those opposite and holding real growth in spending to two per cent a year until the budget returns to surplus. As the Prime Minister noted yesterday— (Time expired)

Senator COONAN —Mr President, I ask a further supplementary question. Given that we are probably in for many years of deficit, what is the government’s official projection of the annual interest repayments on Labor’s new debt?

Senator CONROY (Minister for Broadband, Communications and the Digital Economy) —Once again, those opposite are demonstrating their complete lack of understanding of how this economy is working—how a modern economy works. We have made it perfectly clear through the commitments that I have just outlined that we will be returning the budget to surplus.

Senator Abetz —That’s irrelevant to the question.

Senator CONROY —The supp is actually irrelevant to the question as well, just for the record—yes, it is.

Opposition senators interjecting—

The PRESIDENT —Order! Senator Coonan, I will not give you the call until there is silence, and it is your side that is stopping me calling you.

Senator Coonan —Mr President, I rise on a point of order that relates to the requirement to be directly relevant. The question that was asked directly was: what is the figure on the annual interest repayments on Labor’s new debt?

Senator Chris Evans —Mr President, on the point of order raised by Senator Coonan, firstly Senator Conroy was attempting to answer that question in the time available and was responding to the question. In speaking to this point of order, Mr President, I draw your attention to the fact that, since the new system of question time was introduced, members of the opposition make commentary before asking each question and supplementary. If they are going to argue for relevance, I think we also ought to make sure that there are questions and that it does not turn into a taking note debate, because at the rate we are going there will be about three questions at question time.

Senator Abetz —Mr President, in your examination and ruling, I would invite you to consider what commentary there was in the supplementary question that Senator Coonan asked, which was, very simply: what is the official government projection of the annual interest repayments on Labor’s new debt? It was very straightforward with no commentary—a direct question that, under the new standing orders, now deserves and indeed requires a directly relevant answer.

Senator Faulkner —Mr President, on the point of order, I listened carefully to Senator Abetz’s additional point of order and respectfully suggest to you that there are of course new arrangements for question time and there are rules in relation to relevance. Originally, these new question time arrangements were designed on an understanding that ministers would be provided with some indication of the broad nature of questions—

Senator Abetz —Nonsense.

Senator Faulkner —that is true, Senator—that were to be asked by the opposition. My additional point of order is to make this point: this is a very specific question and, given the nature of the changes, the opposition has taken the relevance point but failed of course to deliver on what Senator Ferguson first proposed, which is an indication to ministers of the broad nature of questions that would be asked. Do not argue relevance when you have not delivered on the other element of what you designed as a new question time arrangement.

Senator Ian Macdonald —Mr President, on the point of order: if Senator Faulkner is correct, then either Senator Conroy’s answer should be a figure or he does not know and he will take it on notice and get back to us. He does not need to give us the spiel and spin that we have become used to from Senator Conroy. So I agree with Senator Faulkner, and Senator Conroy should just say he has not got a clue and that he will take it on notice and get back to us.

The PRESIDENT —Senator Conroy, I draw to your attention to the fact that there is 23 seconds left to answer the question and you are required to answer the question that has been asked.

Senator CONROY —As I was saying, those opposite have no understanding of how the economy works. They have lost all corporate memory. Increased borrowing to fund the temporary deficit will impose a short-term cost on the budget. On current projections—

Opposition senators interjecting—

Senator CONROY —I was just about to give you the answer. (Time expired)

The PRESIDENT —Order! If those on my left want to hear the answer, you will need to be quiet.