Thursday, 11 May 2017
Questions without Notice: Take Note of Answers
That the Senate take note of the answers provided by Senators Cormann and Brandis to questions asked by Labor senators.
Having listened to those answers today, it is very clear that this budget is—
Honourable senators interjecting—
I rise to take note of answers provided by Senators Cormann and Brandis to questions asked by Labor senators.
Senator Abetz interjecting—
In fact, Senator Abetz, we are not missing anything out of this budget. What is very clear about this budget is that it is a reflection of how out of touch and arrogant the Turnbull Liberal government is. In fact, because you are still in the chamber—through you, Madam Deputy President—let's go to Tasmania. Senator Duniam came into this chamber yesterday espousing what he said were great outcomes for the Tasmanian community. Well, he was wrong, because there is no money for infrastructure for Tasmania. He was trying to do justify announcements that had been made previously. The Mersey Hospital funding is not new money and has already been announced. But, because the government have no good news, they want to try and re-announce and re-announce. The Building Better Regions Fund is not specific to Tasmania. The Launceston City Deal was announced weeks ago—so nothing new there—and the Regional Jobs and Investment Package was announced at the election last year. So, consequently, there was nothing new there.
But what is new is that this government are so far out of touch that they are slugging ordinary Australians to put more money into millionaires' back pockets. That is what they are doing. Millionaires get a $16,400 increase in their pay—that is the difference between them and working Australians. And we know, because they seem to be so proud of it, that the government are moving towards trying to ensure that hardworking young Australians do not have the same access to university as most of the people in this chamber had. That is what this government are doing. They are not investing in young people. What they are doing is making sure that the big end of town is looked after—because that is what they do.
We have seen senators from that side come in since Tuesday night trying to defend a budget that they cannot defend. We know from at least the last four budgets that this government have brought down that, yes, there is a bit of a sugar hit for a day or so until we actually drill down and expose them for the frauds that they are. It is quite clear that Prime Minister Turnbull cannot be trusted. Prime Minister Turnbull has let the Australian people down time and time again. He cannot be trusted with Medicare and he cannot be trusted to protect the health system. We know that he certainly cannot be trusted when it comes to education, because $22 billion has been taken away from every Australian child in this country. That is what the government have done in terms of education.
We have seen, yet again, unemployment and youth unemployment increasing in our home state. I am disappointed that Senator Duniam, who is in the chamber, thinks it is such a light-hearted matter to talk about young people and the unemployment rate, when we know what a severe crisis we have in our home state of Tasmania. The government are targeting young Australians. They are targeting people who cannot get a job, who are out there every day trying to get a job. What are the government doing? They are doing what they always do—that is, slug ordinary Australians to protect the big end of town.
I listened very intently to the budget on Tuesday night. And what did I hear that was there for aged care and ageing Australians? There was absolutely nothing, except for one small thing—
Senator Duniam interjecting—
I am not in government, Senator Duniam.
But we did a lot more when it came to aged care than what you ever did. I would have thought that you might have learnt something through the aged-care workforce inquiry that you had been on. I thought that you might have at least got a grasp of the issues that are fronting the Australian community and the aged-care sector. But, quite clearly, once you step into this chamber you say very different things to what you do through the media and within the community in Tasmania. I am bitterly disappointed. It just demonstrates that, in this chamber and in your own caucus, the Liberal Senate team from Tasmania has no influence whatsoever over this government—none. You had given a commitment that you would fight for community health centres in Tasmania and you have delivered nothing new in preventive medicine—nothing at all.
What we have seen is a government that has denied the Australian people. As we get older, we need services and we need a commitment from a government with a plan. (Time expired)
I too rise to take note of the ministers' answers on the very fine coalition government's 2017-18 budget. I commend them for it. I have to say that, in listening to Senator Polley then, all I could think of is that wonderful Monty Python's Life of Brian skit, 'What have the Romans ever given us?' She was exactly like that: 'What have they given us?' We have given health care, education, infrastructure—and the list goes on and on and on. The sad thing is—
Senator Polley interjecting—
I would like to say that I am astounded by the hypocrisy of those opposite, but, unfortunately, and very sadly, I am not. It has become par for the course in this chamber. It would have been farcical if it was not so serious for not only this generation but, at least, the next two generations, who will be paying back the debt that those opposite have incurred for this nation.
As every Australian household and every Australian mum and dad who look after their household budget know, if you want to spend more money you have three options. You increase your income—you take on another part-time job. But, in the case of the Australian taxpayers, we actually then have to increase taxes. So that is option 1. The second one is you borrow more money. The third is you actually have to increase taxes. They are the only three ways. We all know what those opposite do. They promise, promise, promise. With their hand on their hearts, they talk about compassion endlessly. They make promises, but the thing that they always fail to do is fund them. Promises are dirt cheap. They are politically populist and they are easy to do. But actually delivering—
Senator Cameron interjecting—
So promising and properly funding are what we do on this side.
Despite all the 'Ministry of Truth's' alternative truths trotted out by those opposite, let us just go back and remind ourselves of the facts. In 1996, when Labor lost government, they left us and the Australian taxpayers with $96 billion worth of debt. That took the Howard-Castello government 10 years to pay off—10 years of prudent financial management to pay off. In fact, 21 April 2006 was actually the first ever debt-free day. We had very high hopes back then that that would then lead to future governments living within the national means and being fiscally responsible. Sadly, we all know what happened. In 2007, those opposite inherited—and Penny Wong was part of that—not only zero debt but money in the bank. We had money in the bank. We could actually set up the Future Fund.
Exactly, Senator Duniam; what exactly did you do with it? You went on the most recklessly irresponsible spending spree, which will now leave Australians with at least $550 billion worth of debt—five times that that the previous Labor government had left us to pay off. And it took us 10 years to pay that off. Those opposite would have us continue borrowing or raising taxes, trading on the economic security of future Australians so that they can spend today. What have we heard from those opposite? They spend. In the three years that I have been in this place, I cannot recall those opposite ever once suggesting an alternative way of paying for funding and expenditure. Not only that, but we have tried many times in this place to put forward sensible proposals to reduce government expenditure, and what they do? They block, block and block. They do not engage in sensible negotiations to compromise to find a way forward. The people of Australia elected those opposite, as they did those on this side, to take hard decisions and do what is in the best interest of all Australians.
My apologies to George Orwell and his wonderful dystopian classic, but listening to those opposite talking on the budget, and listening to the interjections and to the senator previously, I keep thinking of the Ministry of Truth. Just because you say it does not make it true. Alternative truths have no place in this chamber. (Time expired)
I rise to take note of answers provided by the minister to the opposition's questions during question time. I was going to start by stating the fact that there is no-one on the government side that is talking about debt, but we have just heard one senator. There is finally one senator in this place, Senator Reynolds, who is game enough to talk about debt. I give you full points, Senator Reynolds, for raising that big, ugly word, 'debt'. You are the only one in your government doing so. You know why no-one is raising it: because under this government, debt has blown out to half a trillion dollars. From what they started with in 2013 to where they are now is an incredibly dark, dark hole.
On that dark, dark hole, the government has tried to be really tricky. It has tried to be really tricky and really clever with this budget. It has been crawling around in the dark for some time. Finally, it has decided to turn on the light and adopt Labor's approach for fairness. But, in doing so, they have tried their best to copy us, and they have failed. They have failed dismally. It fails the fairness test miserably. It fails on health. It fails to implement the Medicare freeze—in fact, Medicare cuts will stay in place for three years. On top of that, veterans' health has been cut as well. It fails in education. University students will pay more for their degrees, and pay earlier. University funding is down 2.5 per cent. It rips $22 billion out of schools compared to Labor's original Gonski deal. It fails on housing affordability, one of the most crucial issues facing our country. Instead, property investors will still get more government assistance than first-home buyers. It fails our economy, because growth is down, employment is down, wages are down and jobs are forecast to be down by 95,000.
The only thing that is up is that nasty word that Senator Reynolds was willing to talk about: debt. The debt is up. The deficit is up. In fact, the deficit is 10 times bigger than the Liberals' first budget predicted. It is so bad, this budget—despite them trying to gild it as something that is fair—that during the question time that we just had the government's own senators could only get the gumption to ask two questions on the budget. Two questions! This is the day after. Here we are, the day after, with the big fanfare of fairness, and they have hit the wall already. They could only ask two questions on the budget. That is how good this budget is. That is how fair this budget is. That is how much they want to go out there and sell this budget. The reason they do not want to go out there and sell it is because they do not believe in fairness. They do not believe in fairness and they never have. I do not think there has ever been a time that I have agreed with Andrew Bolt, but today there is going to be a breakthrough! I have to agree with these words in Andrew Bolt's column today:
Turnbull is plagued by seeming a stand-for-nothing guy who blathers.
Andrew Bolt has summed up Turnbull in that sentence, because he does stand for nothing. We do have, unfortunately, a Prime Minister who stands for nothing.
The Liberal Party stands for nothing so much that it has tried to backflip on some of its fundamental ideological policies by introducing new taxes. At the same time, it has held onto some of them by, of course, ensuring it gets rid of taxes for the rich. We still end up with that old Liberal mentality of letting the rich pay little tax and attacking those on a low income. How on earth can you call a budget fair when you are attacking some of the lowest-income Australians and letting the rich get off scot-free?
It is great to be able to contribute to this debate. I have to start by pointing out that today, of course, we expect to see the opposition leader hand down his response to the budget in the other place. I very much look forward to seeing what is in that document. Is it going to be the answer to all the criticisms that have been levelled at the government and everything critics think we have done wrong? I doubt it. I do not think many people listening at home today are going to be surprised to learn that opposition senators are criticising a government budget. I do not think anyone is surprised that nothing we do is right in the opposition's eyes. But, sadly, that is the coloured view they have and we just have to deal with that.
In taking note of the answers that we have provided, it is important to reflect on some of the questions that were asked. As Senator Cormann's first answer pointed out, this is not really about the substance of the budget; this is not really about ensuring that Australians get the best deal out of budget management by a government. This is all about juvenile student politics—'gotcha' moments, 'How much is this figure?' and trying to get people on those little points. Instead, it is important to focus on the substance.
I take issue with points made by the two previous opposition speakers, Senator Polley and Senator Singh, that things have all gone down—things are bad. Hang on, what about the NDIS? Australia is a great country where we want to look after everyone. We want everyone to have the right to live a fulsome and whole life. The cynical question asked by Senator Wong, trying to link tax concessions for business—that they seem to be terming 'the big end of town'—as being paid for by the Medicare levy, when the point was made that the levy, which comes into effect in two years time, is going to fund the NDIS to support our most vulnerable. It was a cynical and disappointing move. I think Australians will understand that that is what that levy will do.
To Senator Polley's point in her contribution suggesting that the state of Tasmania missed out in the budget, I urge her to have a look at the budget yet again and look at the points where we have been funded. It is ridiculous for Senator Polley to suggest that, because those things were not new announcements on budget night—despite the fact that they were in the budget and funded in the budget—they do not count. She is saying to the people of the northwest coast that their $730 million-funded Mersey Community Hospital is not important; it was not a coup for them. The certainty that they now have in having 10 years of funding from the Commonwealth government to support this vital piece of health infrastructure is not important, because it was not new in the budget.
Then you look at other infrastructure funding in Tasmania: Midland Highway upgrades from Epping Forest to Powranna—$19 million this year; Midland Highway safety works from Mangalore to Bagdad—$20 million; Midland Highway work south of St Peters Pass to Tunbridge—$10 million; Midland Highway upgrade of Perth link roads—$25 million. And Senator Polley says to this chamber that there is nothing in the budget for Tasmania? What are those numbers? I do not understand what she is missing here. There is the freight rail revitalisation for Tasmania, which is $12.85 million. And the list goes on.
Indeed, on the issue of schools funding in Tasmania, the point has been made by me and others in this chamber before that, under the deal that the others claim is a cut—a cut to their imaginary money—Tasmanian schools in all sectors, government, Catholic and independent, in 2017 received the highest per student funding of any jurisdiction in the country, except for the Northern Territory. And then in 2027, by the time we get to the end of the deal, the same three sectors will also continue to receive the highest funding per student, except for the Northern Territory.
To suggest that Tasmania has got the raw end of the stick here and has not done well out of the budget is just completely wrong. I urge Labor senators from Tasmania, rather than trying to come in here and score political points, to actually go and read the budget and be honest with the Tasmanian people about what is in there for them, including the Mersey Community Hospital, the NDIS funding and the improved school funding for our state. I think that is what people expect—for you to be constructive.
As I said, I look forward to the alternative budget and all of those mentions of Tasmania and all the money for Tasmania that is going to be in the alternative budget.
Before I move to discussing the effect of the budget in Central Queensland, I would just like to correct one thing out of question time. Senator Brandis, in answer to a question from Senator Bilyk, continued to maintain this myth from government that there has been no cut to funding under their school funding arrangements. I would like to table part of the government's own document, which was released when they made their announcement, which says very clearly that compared to Labor's arrangements the government's package represents a saving of $22.3 billion over 10 years—otherwise known as a $22 billion cut.
What I would mostly like to talk about today is yet another dramatic failure from arguably the biggest failure in the House of Representatives, and that is the member for Capricornia, Michelle Landry. This is the member of parliament who was so irrelevant to her own government that she was kept in the dark over the election announcements the government made about the Shoalwater Bay Defence land expansion and the need to compulsorily acquire properties to go ahead with that. She has been a complete failure on jobs, and we are seeing increasing levels of unemployment and jobs walking out the door in Central Queensland, without any action from her. This week's federal budget is yet another gross failure from an incompetent member of parliament who does not deserve to be here.
Many people will be aware that recently Rockhampton experienced another flood, its fourth flood in the last decade. I was up there during the flood and saw the damage for myself. As a result of that, the opposition leader, Bill Shorten, made a very firm commitment that was backed by Jason Clare, our shadow minister for northern Australia, the other day. We are putting $25 million on the table to help construct this levee and to make sure that Rockhampton does not have to go through these floods over and over again.
You would think that a competent local member would get behind this and would actually be in the ear of her Prime Minister and her Treasurer, demanding money for this flood levee and threatening to cross the floor. You would think she would do whatever it took to get the money for her community. But instead all we are seeing from Michelle Landry, the member for Capricornia, is just more pathetic excuses and more dithering as to why she cannot get the job done.
There was another incredibly embarrassing failure from her in Rockhampton's The Morning Bulletintoday. When asked about the levee, she said that there is a lot of contention over this, as many people outside of Depot Hill, one of the flooded suburbs, have concerns about the levee. But, when she was asked for a figure of how many people outside of Depot Hill have concerns, Ms Landry did not offer a number or an answer. That is because she is making it up as she goes along. Then she stuck to her line that full community support is needed before she is going to back a flood levee to protect her own constituents from flooding. But the article goes on to say that, unfortunately, Michelle Landry was not able to clarify what constituted full support. Is it 100 per cent? Is it 95 per cent? Is it 90 per cent? What about these locals and businesses in Rockhampton who have to go through floods, every couple of years at the moment, and have an incompetent local member who cannot get through the door to see her Prime Minister and her Treasurer to demand funding for her electorate?
At the end of the article Ms Landry desperately did not want to talk about the levee any longer, so she tried to put up the fact that funds had been provided to build the Yeppen bridge, which is a critical piece of infrastructure I have travelled on myself, and ensure that Rockhampton during these floods remained connected to Queensland for the very first time. The only problem with this, Ms Landry, is that it actually was not your government that got this done. Ms Landry is pointing to the Yeppen bridge, which was commenced and funded by the last federal Labor government. So not only is she incapable of actually getting money from her own government to build a flood levy; she has to walk away and talk about past federal Labor government achievements to try to detract attention.
It is no surprise that she keeps pointing to federal Labor commitments in her electorate. In the long list of projects she tried to pass off as being new projects that she managed to win in this budget she had in there a couple of projects that again were funded and commenced by the former federal Labor government. While Michelle Landry has been the member for Capricornia, this government has done so little to build infrastructure in her own area that she has to desperately try to pass off infrastructure that was provided by the last federal Labor government years ago.
Michelle Landry is like a dodgy used-car dealer who has an old, beaten up lemon of a car that no-one wants to buy anymore. She is dusting off the rust, winding back the odometer and trying to present it as a new car. There is not one new project in the list of projects that Michelle Landry has put forward as her great achievements in this year's budget. Instead, she has got yet another regional growth fund when we have already got three or four different funds operating for Central Queensland and none of them have actually spent any money or provided any jobs. Michelle Landry is not up to the job. (Time expired)
Question agreed to.
That the Senate take note of the answer given by the Minister for Finance (Senator Cormann) to a question without notice asked by Senator Whish-Wilson today relating to the budget.
I asked the minister today a very important question about whether there had been any leaks from Treasury, specifically on the bank levy. I will give a little bit of background. The question I asked the minister was about a report on Sky News on Monday evening that the budget tomorrow would include a bank levy. The next day, when trading opened, bank shares were sold off and nearly four per cent and $14 billion or $15 billion was wiped off their valuation. Today nearly $19 billion still remains wiped off their valuation. I asked Senator Cormann if there had been any leaks from Treasury. Senator Cormann was very careful in his response. He said to me twice:
Treasury … is not aware of any evidence of a leak out of the lockup.
Then he said again:
There is no evidence, according to advice that we have received from Treasury, of any leak out of the lockup.
He did not say that he was not aware of other leaks prior to budget day, such as someone giving some information to Sky News. Instead, he tried to say that that was speculation. So I then asked him: why is it that Tony Boyd in the Financial Review an hour before the lockup was talking about details around the design of the budget levy? He said two things. He said:
In a move reminiscent of Labor's mining tax, Treasurer Scott Morrison is planning to impose a tax on the aggregate liabilities of the major banks, according to banking sources.
… Treasury Secretary John Fraser will call the big four bank chief executives on Tuesday night at 6.30pm before Mr Morrison delivers the bad news.
The banks did confirm that they were called just prior to the speech, but clearly we had a journalist who had some information about the design of the tax, but it came from banking sources. So my second question was: was there government consultation with the banking industry around this levy? Senator Cormann said no. He was very careful in his answers. He said that there was no leak out of the lockup.
My issue is: if there has been a leak prior to the lockup—and clearly there has been; you can call it speculation if you like, but speculation has got to start somewhere—then how do we know that there have not been other leaks to the banks or to other sources prior to the budget? The reason I am so interested in this is that, perhaps unlike other leaks that we see going into budget time, this was a particularly sensitive piece of information that related directly to the valuations of the major banks trading on the share market, and, potentially, could have been an opportunity for someone to short those banks and profit from that information. Nineteen billion dollars of value has been lost from the sector, but that is potentially a very big profit for someone who may have put in place a trading strategy around a fall in bank prices, had they known that price-sensitive information prior to it.
So all I did today was to ask whether Senator Cormann would investigate, so that we could rule in or rule out whether there had been any anomalous share trading, and trading in options—the most likely place for someone to have capitalised on price-sensitive information. That is all I have asked the Treasurer to do. He has said it is not necessary; he has got no evidence that anything has occurred. My point is: we have had leaks on a very sensitive budget measure—that is clear. How do we know, unless we actually look?
So I have written to ASIC and asked them to look at share trading in the weeks leading up to the budget to see if there was any anomalous share trading. I think it is a very reasonable thing to do. Senator Hinch has written to the Federal Police asking for an investigation of leaks around this issue. I think the first step should be to check with ASIC and actually collect the information that would be necessary before we go that next step. So that is what I have done today. And I think Senator Cormann was very tricky in his response and answers to my questions. (Time expired)
Question agreed to.