Thursday, 15 September 2016
Questions without Notice: Take Note of Answers
That the Senate take note of the answers given by the Attorney-General (Senator Brandis) to questions without notice asked by Senators Gallagher and McAllister today relating to superannuation policy.
It was amazing to sit in here and listen to the Leader of the Government in the Senate try to sell the George Christensen superannuation policy as adopted by this government. The superannuation reform shambles—there is no other word to describe what we have seen over the past 4½ months, and particularly the way it has been played out so publicly—shows us, firstly, just how divided the coalition has become and, also, how weak Malcolm Turnbull's leadership has become. Four months ago these reforms were announced as part of the Turnbull-Morrison budget. There they were, clear as day in the budget papers. But since that time at least nine coalition members have spoken out publicly, and certainly many more have behind closed doors challenged the Prime Minister and the Treasurer on these reforms. Not a day would have gone past in the last four months when we did not see another story in the paper or on TV on the latest break-out from the coalition as one by one coalition members went and argued the case publicly against what had been outlined in the budget.
Let us look at the issue of the non-concessional cap. Over the past four months we have had non-concessional caps of $500,000 and $750,000 touted, and a $1 million cap also made an emergence during that time. That was repeated again last night when George Christensen gave one of his final warnings about what the ramifications for the government would be if they did not cave in and agree to the conditions which he had set. Today we find out, after the party room has finally signed off on the Abetz-Christensen deal, that there is to be no cap at all. As late as last night, as I said, we had George Christensen out warning that he would cross the floor and was prepared to lose his position as a whip if his terms were not met.
Contrast this shambles, chaos, disunity and division with the way the Labor Party has gone about formulating its superannuation policy—the policy we took to the election and also the revision we have made since the election to seek an outcome on superannuation reform. We made no secret of the fact that we wanted to see some of the generous tax concessions, particularly as they operated for high-income earners, wound back—that was very much central to the policy that we announced—but we also wanted to see continued structural improvements to the budget over time, and our policy addressed all of those things. Indeed, late in August we came out and again provided the government with a way of dealing with the retrospectivity element of their superannuation policy—the one that had become so abhorrent to their own party room. We suggested some areas where we would agree with the government's package, and we identified some areas where we would oppose them. One of those areas was around the work test for those aged between 65 and 74—about a $130 million component. The Assistant Treasurer, Kelly O'Dwyer, came out swinging, telling us that we were anti older people being able to save for retirement. She had some very strong words on how she saw our position. Then, today, we find out that Labor's position has been adopted in the reforms that we imagine will now come forward for discussion in this place. The whole process has been a complete shambles—it has been a highly public mess and it has been a real lesson in how not to pursue serious policy reform or structural budget repair.
We all understand that Australians need confidence in the superannuation system, they need certainty about how it will operate and they need stability. Those points are fundamental to the success of this system overall, and over the last four months the division, the disunity and the public break-outs have done nothing other than undermine that confidence, that certainty and that stability. (Time expired)
It is an amazing use of words—Senator Gallagher tells us that Labor took a policy to the election but they have been willing to revise it since the election. Apparently it is okay to do that, but if the government of the day uses its expertise and a review is undertaken by the leadership—with the strength and the reasoning of the Prime Minister and indeed the Treasurer—that somehow seems to be discordant and it is disgraceful, et cetera. I will add my name to that review. I was very vocal during and after the election campaign, and I could be vocal because the difference between the two sides of politics is that our side, without fear of losing our seat or being kicked out of the parliament, can bring views forward to our colleagues on the cabinet bench. Heaven forbid if somebody does that on the other side.
As Senator Macdonald well knows, we have added expertise. For example, there is the member for Forde, Mr Bert Van Manen. What was Bert's role for many years prior to his coming into the parliament? He was a financial adviser. With people with the expertise of the member for Forde, with the inclusiveness of the Treasurer and his assistant minister, and through the process of wide consultation around this country that the Treasurer participated in, including coming to my home city of Perth, we have arrived at a final position which, as the finance minister has said—contrary to the assertions of Senators Gallagher and McAllister—will save the budget some $670 million over the forward estimates. Even more important than that, because of our inclusiveness, because we went to the industry, because we listened to our constituents, many of whom do not vote for the coalition, we were able to give feedback, provide a measured response and arrive at an excellent system. Senator Gallagher said no cap—but the cap of $1.6 million per person in a couple is still there. For those of you listening, if you have enough, it is $1.6 million for the husband and for the wife. That cap continues, and it is now $100,000 of nonconcessional contributions a year, except that if your grandma dies and leaves you $300,000 you can put the $300,000 into the super scheme under 65 but of course you cannot put any more in for the next two years.
When I learnt what the leader of the Labor Party was suggesting I thought that it was fairly logical—it was a bit unusual for Mr Shorten, but nevertheless—so I made it my business again to investigate the issue with those with expertise in the superannuation industry. I said, 'Why is the Leader of the Opposition's policy not the way to go?' They said, 'Well, the concept of it would have been all right, Chris, except for the fact that it is unworkable.' Why is it unworkable? I was told there are two reasons. It is not my field, but I listened carefully. The first reason is simply the fact that people have more than one superannuation scheme, so, in retirement, they might want to draw from different schemes. As I understand it, under the Leader of the Opposition's process, if you earn more than $70,000 or $80,000 in income from your investments you will be taxed at 15c in the dollar. Unfortunately, that system is not practicable and cannot work realistically, because if someone is drawing from different funds it would be administratively difficult, if not impossible, to calculate from which fund the various income or revenue came and to then decide whether that is to be taxed or not. The second reason, which was again given to me perfectly reasonably, is that the funds are managed within pools, not necessarily in the name of only an individual. Therefore, at tax calculation time, under what would have been Mr Shorten's scheme, the administrative burden would have been far more difficult.
But look what we have now: a scenario that is workable and fair and that has been delayed for people coming back into the workforce, including women on lower incomes coming back into the workforce. All of that has been delayed until 2018. This is a fine example of the coalition doing its best work collaboratively under strong leadership. Look at the rabble on the other side.
Here we go again. Yesterday there was supposed to be a celebration for it being 12 months since Mr Turnbull knifed Tony Abbott. But we in this place know, and the Australian people know, that there was actually nothing to celebrate. The excuse that we have just heard in this chamber today in relation to the backdown on this critical government policy on superannuation just does not stack up. Those on the other side, including Senator Back, were part of the government which developed their policies to go to an election. They had all the resources of the Department of Finance and the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet. Everyone was at their disposal so that they could develop their policies and cost them.
Now we hear the excuse that, 'We've gone out and consulted and we're changing things.' The reality is the backdown has come because the far Right of the Liberal caucus of the government have pulled the strings yet again to say, 'Mr Turnbull, you need to dance to our tune.' That is the reality of it. And then they say: 'What are you going to do? Are you going to support us or are you not going to support us?' But on this side of the chamber, let us face it, the Labor Party have been the supporters of superannuation for workers in this country and we have stood firmly with them. We understand how necessary this policy is.
My colleague Senator Gallagher touched on the serious issue of the debate by those opposite having been shambolic over the last four years, which has led to the community having real concerns about their superannuation. That is a disgrace. It is not like they were coming in and taking the government benches as a new government. They had all those resources at their disposal and, still, what have we seen? Backflips and backdowns. We on this side will do what we do when we consider government policy: we will consult, we will consider and we will get expert advice before we make our decision in relation to these changes.
I can recall the current Prime Minister saying to the Australian community, 'The reason I had to knife Tony Abbott was that he was unable to show any economic leadership.' Well, economic leadership has not happened under Mr Turnbull as Prime Minister. It just has not happened. What has happened is that we have seen a breakdown between the Treasurer, Scott Morrison, and the Prime Minister on so many issues, but particularly on this issue. I understand that Mr Morrison has been going around to his backbenchers, taking out his slideshows, and trying to convince them that what he wanted—what they went to the election with—was the right policy. Now we see another backflip and backdown, and the right wing of the Liberal Party are getting their way yet again.
That brings me back to the point that I have spoken about a number of times in this chamber: who is Malcolm Turnbull, the Prime Minister? Mr Turnbull instilled a lot of energy into trying to convince the community—which he did, to some degree—that he was going to be different. He was going to be a leader that could unite his party. He would be a leader that would not speak in three-word slogans. He would be a leader that was going to show that he had a plan and a strategy. He was going to preside over an agile, innovative, 21st-century government. And what has he delivered? None of those things. There is not any unity in the government. In some respects, people might say, 'What does that matter?' It does matter, because if, as Prime Minister, you cannot govern your own caucus then you certainly do not have the skills and the leadership that this country needs for you to be the Prime Minister. Quite clearly, Mr Turnbull will do whatever it takes. He will appease the right wing of the Liberal Party so that he can keep residing in the Lodge. (Time expired)
The submissions of the opposition senators are quite mad. Unfortunately, Labor senators just do not get it. They do not understand that we were all sent here for a purpose, and that is to represent the people who elected us and to make submissions on and devise policy. The Labor Party, by contrast, and in the famous words of Senator Doug Cameron—never has he spoken a truer word than when he indicated this about all Labor senators—were just 'lobotomised zombies'. Do you remember that? There is one walking out, and there are a few others taking part in this debate. They are lobotomised zombies because they were just meant to sit there and take it—
Madam Deputy President, I think that those sentiments were completely out of order in terms of parliamentary standards, and I seek that the senator withdraw those comments directed at senators on this side of the chamber.
The words I have used are not mine. They are words of Labor Senator Doug Cameron, repeated in this chamber very often in the last parliament by Senator Cameron. So they are not my words, they are Senator Doug Cameron's. If anyone has to withdraw, it should be Senator Doug Cameron.
Thank you, Senator Macdonald. As I said, this is a broad-ranging, robust debate. I would ask all senators to consider, in regard to their language, what is reasonable in robust debate. I would also remind senators to please use the proper names of senators and members both in this place and the other place.
Again, they were Senator Doug Cameron's words, not mine. As I said that to Senator Polley as she was leaving, she turned around and blew me a kiss. Perhaps that is also unparliamentary, if you are going to get down to this ridiculous minutiae.
Again, I repeat the words of Labor Senator Doug Cameron, who referred to his colleagues as 'lobotomised zombies', meaning that they were just meant to sit there in the Labor party room and take whatever the unions had told the leadership and the leadership then told the lobotomised zombies. They were expected not to have a view, not to be able to put an argument and not to disagree with the leadership, who were being instructed by the unions, whereas in our party we are encouraged to contribute to the debate, and I for one, like Senator Back, was one of those who had concerns about this superannuation policy.
You might recall it was announced on budget night, so there was no prediscussion in the joint party room, because you cannot do that, obviously, with budget measures, and not long after the budget the parliament was prorogued and we went to an election. I did not really understand it. I came down to Canberra one day after the election and I spent four hours with Treasury officials going through every element of the proposed changes so that I could make myself aware of what they were, and I came to the conclusion that two of the elements of the package could be deemed to be retrospective. Now, retrospectivity is anathema to the Liberal Party and always will be. I describe retrospectivity as something where people had planned a course of action, had put that course of action into place and then, through a subsequent government decision that was backdated, they were disadvantaged in what they were doing.
I formed that view and I told Mr Morrison that was my view and I indicated that if these things came to the chamber I would be expressing those views and acting accordingly in the chamber, and I know a lot of my colleagues did. Mr Morrison, to his eternal credit, and Ms O'Dwyer, the Assistant Treasurer, went around Australia talking to people and consulting and working through different issues with senators and members. As a result of that, they have come up with a slightly altered position which is still great for superannuants. It is still saving the budget money, the budget that Labor completely stuffed up. It ran up a debt that would have approached something like $700 billion. We are paying—what is it?—$45 million a day in interest on Labor's debt. So it has been good for the budget. It has been a good tweaking, a very minor tweaking, that does away with the retrospective elements that I was concerned about, and that others were clearly concerned about, and I give Mr Morrison and Ms O'Dwyer every congratulation for the collegial way that they dealt with their colleagues, listened to their colleagues and listened to the industry.
These were not the ideas of just me and all my colleagues. We were reflecting views given to us by the general public—and that is what we are here to do. But Labor Party senators, by contrast—the lobotomised zombies, according to Labor Senator Doug Cameron—are just meant to sit there, look dumb and take whatever is given to them by their leadership, and that is obviously influenced by what the unions tell the leadership. There is a complete contrast. Labor belt on about these subjects but they just do not understand. They do not get that on our side of parliament we are individuals. We are able to make submissions, and the government works with us to make sure we get the right result, which we have now. (Time expired)
I guess the question is: who is calling the shots in the Liberal Party? Is it the conservatives or the Prime Minister? I think we know from today's superannuation announcement that that has been confirmed: it is the conservatives. Just a few months ago, the Prime Minister told us that each and every one of the superannuation measures that those opposite took to the election was 'absolutely ironclad' and that he was committed to each and every element. But I think Mr Turnbull clearly failed to finish that sentence. Maybe he should have continued his sentence by saying, 'These measures are absolutely ironclad unless the conservatives within my party are displeased, in which case I will get direction from them about what they want to happen and I will endeavour to please them.' I think that is how he should have completed his answer to that question.
For weeks now, day after day, we have seen a slew of conservatives freelancing in the media or anonymously backgrounding against the government's own superannuation policy. Then today, remarkably, what do we see? We see the $500,000 lifetime non-concessional cap, the very issue that Mr Abbott and Mr Christensen were not-too-subtly campaigning on, disappear completely. It disappeared—just puff, gone. Clearly Mr Turnbull has shown that he would rather break a solemn election promise than displease his conservative masters. We have also seen Mr Christensen come out today and give a remarkable press conference for a backbencher, where he congratulated the Prime Minister for not only following orders but exceeding them. This is yet another example, amongst many other examples, of where the Prime Minister has fundamentally failed to deliver on his promise of strong economic leadership.
The budgetary position bears that out. In fact, the deficit was $2.6 billion bigger at this year's PEFO than it was at MYEFO in December. Our net debt had blown out by $7 billion in the same period. Prime Minister Turnbull has worsened the coalition's abysmal fiscal record, which has seen the deficit triple, net debt blow-out by well over $100 billion and the AAA credit rating put at risk. The AAA credit rating that Labor had in government is now at risk. The Labor Party have made it very clear that we are 100 per cent committed to budget repair. It was the Labor Party that secured Australia's AAA credit rating from all three credit rating agencies in the midst of the most serious financial crisis since the Great Depression. It is Labor that has worked to consistently identify a comprehensive set of savings measures that will deliver real structural benefits to the budget. It is Labor that has worked cooperatively with the entire parliament to deliver fair budget repair.
We have seen evidence of that just this week, where we have not only improved the government's omnibus bill and made it fairer but increased the savings that it made. While the government had a $107 million black hole in their sums for the bill, Labor negotiated changes that would not only remove rank unfairness—unfairness to those who can least afford it—but also return even more to the bottom line. While those opposite floundered and bickered amongst themselves, Labor consistently took the lead on economic reform and budget repair. While the Liberals seemingly could not to maintain a consistent fiscal policy from day to day, Labor worked tirelessly to build an extensive and comprehensive plan for fair budget repair.
And so it was with superannuation. We took the lead; we put forward fair reform that would return billions to the budget. But Mr Turnbull has floundered from policy to policy. He is being led by his conservative masters, to secure his own position as Prime Minister. That is the key for him. It is not about what is best for this country; it is about what is best for him. (Time expired)
Question agreed to.