Wednesday, 26 November 2008
Matters of Public Importance
I have received a letter from the honourable member for Stirling proposing that a definite matter of public importance be submitted to the House for discussion, namely:
The failure of the Government to develop a plan to save Australian jobs.
I call upon those members who approve of the proposed discussion to rise in their places.
More than the number of members required by the standing orders having risen in their places—
The Deputy Prime Minister, the Minister for Employment and Workplace Relations is obviously a very busy woman because she cannot find time to come into this House to discuss Australian jobs. With ‘Kevin 747’, the Prime Minister, jetting off overseas most weeks, the Deputy Prime Minister seems to spend half her time acting as Prime Minister and seems to enjoy it too. She is the Minister for Education overseeing perhaps the most timid revolution in the history of the world. She is the Minister for Social Inclusion. She is the Deputy Prime Minister. She is the minister for enhancing her partner’s curriculum vitae. She is a very busy person.
Of course, amongst all these responsibilities she is also the Minister for Employment and Workplace Relations. Yet you never hear the minister for employment mention jobs. She will talk ad nauseam on workplace regulation. She is never happier than when she is horse-trading with the union movement about what they can and cannot have under their new workplace system. You can get the Minister for Employment and Workplace Relations to wax lyrical about the minutiae of industrial law. Yet on the biggest issue that is facing this country, on the biggest issue that is facing this government, an issue for which she has direct responsibility—Australian jobs—she remains practically mute. This is a minister who has got her priorities seriously wrong. It is as though the government is the captain of the Titanic, they have hit an iceberg, the ship is taking water, people are running for the life rafts, yet the minister for employment is running around fretting about some loose screws in cabin 24B.
I am not sure that the minister for employment actually understands what is going on in the real world. Everywhere I go the issue of job security is raised with me. We consistently have lists in the papers of impending job losses across many different industry sectors in Australia, including industry sectors such as mining that have previously been robust and supported job creation in this country. Every economic forecaster, including the government’s own, points to increasing unemployment. In some cases it is especially alarming: the chief economist at JP Morgan predicts that one million Australians will lose their jobs within the next two years. Regardless of which set of forecasts you believe, it is absolutely clear that unemployment in Australia is going up.
Unemployment is now the No. 1 policy challenge that faces us in this parliament. Yet if you look through the public statements of the Minister for Employment and Workplace Relations you will see that she refuses to address the issue of jobs. In her speeches she rarely talks about jobs or job creation. I brought some examples of her speeches into the House today. If you look through them all, she does not mention jobs once—not in a speech to the House on 14 February on the Skills Australia Bill or in her second reading speech for the first tranche of the government’s workplace relations reform or in speeches outside the parliament. Never does she mention jobs, the most serious issue that is facing this parliament. Quite frankly, at a time when unemployment is on the rise, the minister for employment should think about nothing else than how she would go about creating Australian jobs. She should think about nothing else than how she is going to keep Australians safe in their employment. It should be the subject of her every waking thought. It should be the priority of every policy discussion. Addressing this problem should be the primary aim of the government, yet we have a minister who has too much on her plate to effectively address this issue. The impact of the global financial crisis will obviously complicate this role, but the government must not wash their hands of this problem. We cannot have a government that accepts a challenging international economic climate as an excuse to put more and more Australians out of work. The state of the global economy only makes this issue more pressing.
I might just remind the House of the record of the previous government in this area. In 11 years of coalition government, between March 1996 and November 2007, more than 2.2 million jobs were created. Of these jobs, over 1.2 million were full time and 950,000 were part time. There are currently well over 10.6 million Australians in work, a record high. Over 7.6 million are in full-time employment and three million in part-time employment. In December 1992, under Labor, the unemployment rate peaked at 10.9 per cent, leaving almost one million Australians unemployed.
Long-term unemployment in August 2007 was 66,700. It was slashed by almost two-thirds under the Howard government and it was almost 80 per cent lower than the peak of 330,000 set in May 1993 under the previous Labor government. Very long-term unemployment stood at 33,000 in August 2007 and had fallen sharply from its peak of 171,000 in November 1993. Long-term unemployment fell by 3.7 per cent from March 2006 to November 2007. There was a 21 per cent increase in real wages under the coalition, compared to a 1.8 per cent increase under Labor. That is a pretty impressive record.
The minister interjects it was nothing to do with the mining boom, but we are now seeing job losses even in that robust industry under this new government. The state of the global economy only makes this issue more pressing. Since the Rudd Labor government came to power, business and consumer confidence has steadily fallen to lows not seen even under the Keating Labor government in the early 1990s and unemployment has steadily risen from the record low of four per cent in January this year. In the 12 months since the Rudd Labor government came to power there have also been large and well-publicised layoffs across the country. According to the OECD in their report released today, the unemployment rate is expected to rise from the current level of 4.3 per cent to 5.3 per cent next year and then six per cent in 2010. In this time, GDP growth is expected to decrease from 4.4 per cent in 2007 to 1.7 per cent this year. The National Australia Bank’s most recent economic outlook survey has unemployment increasing to over 6.5 per cent, well in excess of the government’s own forecast. Yet no matter where we look we see the same theme coming from the Rudd Labor government. That is no plan to save Australian jobs. In just one year of Rudd Labor government the resilience of the labour market in this country is now looking shaky, and we are faced with a minister who has no plan to save the millions of Australian jobs that are currently at risk due to the ineptitude of this new Labor government.
The government has been spending the coalition’s hard earned surplus—we have heard today that the government is about to go into deficit—and we now have the OECD saying that the effectiveness of the federal government’s $10.4 billion economic stimulus package may be limited if confidence is not restored. A Sensis consumer report released earlier this year highlighted the concerns that Australians have about their financial future. In particular, the report noted that unemployment has not been on the nation’s radar for some time, but that since May concern about this issue has risen more than for any other issue.
The government’s leading indicator of employment for November, released by the Commonwealth Department of Education, Employment and Workplace Relations, confirmed that employment prospects are continuing to decline. This indicator has now fallen for 10 consecutive months. Earlier this month we saw the Treasurer release Labor’s Mid-Year Economic and Fiscal Outlook, which listed off a series of policy responses to the current economic crisis. Yet again—this will come as no surprise to my colleagues in the coalition—the document contained not one reference to a government plan to save Australian jobs, despite providing confirmation of a slowdown in employment growth and a significant increase in job losses.
We have seen the Treasurer try and tell us that the new economic security package will create over 70,000 jobs—and that was repeated in the parliament today—yet we have had no analysis, no formal modelling, and no plan from the government on how jobs will be created. Sadly, it appears that this theme is set to continue. The Minister for Employment and Workplace Relations conceded that her new regulatory framework for workplace relations will increase costs, no doubt leading to more job losses, but once again she was unable to provide any plan to save Australian jobs.
And it gets worse. In addition to the admission from the government that their new IR framework will increase costs, it is clear that the government once again has dodged their own requirements to submit a regulatory impact statement with this new legislation. If I can, I will cast members’ minds back to 17 March of this year, when the Minister for Finance and Deregulation made a ministerial statement on best practice regulation requirements—the new requirements that he was setting up for the Rudd Labor government. I would just like to read the introduction because it takes us back to an interesting phase of this government. The minister said:
Increasing Australia’s long term productive capacity is the key to maintaining downward pressure on inflation and therefore downward pressure on interest rates.
That is something we do not hear from the government any longer. He continues:
As Labor announced prior to the election, a key element in the government’s plan to increase Australia’s productivity is our deregulation agenda.
The minister went on to say:
The level of regulatory impact analysis required is greater the more significant the regulatory proposal is likely to be. A preliminary assessment must be undertaken for all regulatory proposals. Proposals likely to involve medium business compliance costs must also have a further full quantitative assessment of compliance cost implications using the Business Cost Calculator or approved equivalent. Proposals likely to have a significant impact require even greater analysis, including compliance cost quantification, to be undertaken and documented in a Regulation Impact Statement (RIS).
Yet, in one of the most significant policy documents that this government has produced in this House, what do we find under the heading ‘Regulatory analysis’? We find two paragraphs, and in them we learn that the Prime Minister has granted an exceptional circumstances exemption for these proposals at the decision-making stage.
So we had the minister for finance saying how vital it is that the government conforms to its own requirements for a regulatory impact statement, yet on one of the most significant policy documents this government has produced in its 12 months in office they exempt themselves from the requirement for one of these regulatory impact statements.
On this side of the House we know that it is not good enough to put in place a workplace regulatory framework and stand back and expect that jobs are going to be created out of thin air. The government has just sat back and watched the unemployment rate increase and listened to the forecasts of increasing job losses as the alarm bells get louder and louder, yet they have provided no plan to this parliament on exactly how they intend to save Australian jobs.
Incredibly, the Minister for Employment and Workplace Relations, despite conceding that the new framework will increase costs for employers, has not required a detailed, rigorous analysis of the new framework and how her new legislation will impact on Australian jobs. It appears that the minister for employment—despite her or her representatives attending at least 50 meetings on the regulatory framework for the workplace relations system—cannot even find time to talk about creating or protecting jobs, which is the main issue that is facing her in her portfolio.
A review of the speeches made by the minister for employment over the past 12 months reveals that she never, ever mentions or addresses the issue. Sometimes it can be difficult in this place to measure ministerial performance. The measures of success or failure can be hazy and clouded in the rhetorical battles that occur in this chamber. But when you are the Minister for Employment and Workplace Relations you have absolutely nowhere to hide. You have one very clear indicator of your performance. You can be judged on your success or failure by the rising or falling of the rate of unemployment. If it goes down, as it did under successive ministers in the Howard government, then you have been a success. If it goes up, as it has been doing under this government—if Australians are losing their jobs in increasing numbers under your tenure—then you have clearly failed.
Not only does this government not have a plan to save Australian jobs or to create Australian jobs, they are wilfully ignoring this issue by their actions. It is time that this minister, who has not had the courtesy to appear in the chamber for this important debate, faced up to the biggest issue in all of her portfolios—the one that she refuses to mention, the elephant in the room that she is determined to ignore: the issue of saving Australian jobs.
Can I say, having listened to the contribution by the member for Stirling, that the first job that is at risk is his. If he is trying to prosecute an argument on behalf of the opposition about what the government should do in assisting workers keep jobs and indeed in assisting job seekers to find jobs and that is the best he can do then the opposition is in a whole lot of trouble. The fact is that in the 15 minutes of his contribution today the member for Stirling did not have one idea about what we should be doing in relation to this very important matter—not one idea.
The Prime Minister quite rightly in his statement today made it very clear how significant, how important and how potentially adverse the consequences will be of the global financial crisis across the world and, indeed, in this country.
Well, those are the facts, and if people do not want to talk about these things and want to live in a bubble then they have got a problem. The Prime Minister quite rightly said today prior to question time that the impacts of the global financial crisis on our economy will be real. Its impact on our businesses will be real. Its impact on our families will be real. Its impact on our workers will be real, and its impact on our country will be real.
The first thing you have to do if you are going to tackle a problem is identify it and, indeed, recognise it. Those opposite are talking as if there is no global financial crisis. They are acting as if nothing has changed this year—
whereas the entire world knows that there has been fundamental change to economies across the world as a result of these changes.
Unlike the Leader of the Opposition, who wants a bob each way, who likes to walk both sides of the street when it comes to any policy prescription that might be under consideration by government, the government acted very swiftly to respond by ensuring a fiscal stimulus to our economy. Before I get to the detail of the response by the government in relation to this very important area in ensuring that we protect and create jobs, can I say that it is clear that the opposition are quite happy to make merry, to make fun, of the fact that people might be losing their jobs. They seem to concern themselves with what may be the perception of the government if unemployment rises rather than concerning themselves with the unemployed or with those people who may lose their jobs.
As Terry McCrann, a very credible economist from the Herald Sun, said recently in relation to the Leader of the Opposition’s stance:
Terry McCrann went on to say—and he is quite right in making this point:
This is not a good time to undermine the profitability of our banks.
What we have had from the opposition throughout the last six weeks has been an effort to undermine the economic performance of this nation and to call into question the financial institutions of this country in order to score cheap political points. That is what has occurred in the response by the opposition to the global financial crisis.
The one thing we will not do is listen to the architects of Work Choices about what we should do for workers. The last thing we will ever do is ask those who designed Work Choices—
the worst and most radical assault on the working people in this country since Federation—what their view is on protecting workers, because we know that they have no regard for workers and their families. That is of course why they introduced Work Choices, the most radical, extreme, anti-worker legislation this country has ever seen. So we really do not need any lectures from those on the other side about what to do for workers.
I made reference to the economic fiscal response by the government. We took decisive and early action to stimulate the economy. We took decisive and early action to protect vulnerable people in this country by introducing a $10.4 billion economic security package. As the payments are made to vulnerable Australians—pensioners, veterans, carers and parents—the package will do a number of things. It will provide protection for those people who are vulnerable to cost-of-living pressures and other pressures. It will also provide the necessary economic fiscal stimulus to the economy to protect the interests of small, medium and larger businesses in this period.
We have had criticism from those opposite in relation to that package. On the one hand they say that they embrace the stimulus package. On the other hand they seek to undermine it. They have to make up their mind whether or not they support the support for pensioners, carers, parents, veterans and others and support for small businesses and other businesses that will be beneficiaries of the fiscal stimulus. They have again shown their capacity to walk both sides of the street in this debate and never stand behind the government in responding to the global financial crisis.
What we will see very shortly are lump sum payments of $1,400 to single pensioners, $2,100 to pensioner couples, $1,000 each for eligible persons who are on the carer allowance and a $3.9 billion package to support two million low- and middle-income families. We will be delivering a one-off payment of $1,000 for each eligible child in their care. Those who will receive the support include families who receive family tax benefit A, families with dependent children who receive youth allowance or Abstudy or who benefit from the Veterans’ Children Education Scheme payment.
Another part of the package which is important is the $1.5 billion investment to help first home buyers. These elements of the Economic Security Strategy will provide much needed relief for those people who are in that situation but will also provide necessary fiscal stimulus for the economy. In relation to our regulators, the Reserve Bank have made decisions which have also provided some relief and will provide confidence in the economic system and confidence in our economy as we go forward. The opposition ask what we are doing in creating or protecting jobs. That decision was made decisively and early and, as a result, we are in a position to create jobs.
This particular forecast is advice we have received from Treasury. It is an important element of the response by government to this difficult global situation. In addition to that initiative, recently the Prime Minister and the Minister for Innovation, Industry, Science and Research announced the New Car Plan for a Greener Future. That is a $6.2 billion package over 13 years that will provide support for the automotive industry in this country. It will also ensure that there are new initiatives so we can see a reduction in carbon emissions, provide improved opportunities for our automotive industry and improve their opportunities in the marketplace. This initiative—again something the opposition seems to have two positions on—is a very important response to protect the 60,000 direct jobs and 200,000 indirect jobs in the automotive and automotive parts industry. Again this was a swift response by the government to protect jobs in this country. It is not coincidental that, subsequent to the government announcing this very important car plan, Ford announced that it will keep the Geelong plant and maintain employment there.
Last week, as the Minister for Infrastructure, Transport, Regional Development and Local Government mentioned in question time today, there was the $300 million package for 565 councils across the country. This initiative will assist with small infrastructure projects. It will provide opportunities to create local jobs across the country. It is the third element of the government’s response to protecting and creating jobs in this country. Those three ideas are concrete proposals. We have heard nothing from the opposition on their position on this matter.
We know that the opposition have not had a particularly good time in responding to problems. We also know that they were the beneficiaries of the largest commodities boom in this country. While that occurred they did nothing to address skill shortages.
The shadow minister in his first speech in November 2004 said—and I agree with him entirely:
Skills development and training remains a significant national challenge.
Indeed, it does. It did then and it does now. The reason it does is that the previous government did nothing to reduce the skills crisis in this country.
The previous government failed to address the skill problems in this country. Indeed, the shadow minister himself in his first speech to parliament indicated that it was a major challenge. He was quite right to underline the deficiencies of the previous government in providing those skills. By comparison, since we have been elected we have announced 700,000 training places over the next five years, 309,000 of which will be training places for job seekers. This is very important because, as we know, today we have employers in this country crying out for skilled labour. They cannot fill those vacancies because those opposite did nothing to address the skills crisis in this country.
The member for Murray, the member for Stirling and others across the divide know that they failed to address these problems. We, of course, are now responding to them. Labor will always concern itself with the creation and protection of jobs. We concern ourselves with those issues because we, unlike those opposite, relate to workers, empathise with workers’ needs and do not see them as mere units of labour. Those opposite may talk about jobs all they like but in the end all we have to do is go to Work Choices to see exactly how the previous government considered it should relate to working people.
We are very interested in seeing, notwithstanding the comments of the Leader of the Opposition yesterday in a media conference, what the opposition do in relation to the Fair Work Bill in the Senate. We will see whether Work Choices is dead or not. We do know that many members opposite have been defending Work Choices throughout this year. They have defended it because they have in the end an ideological predisposition to supporting Work Choices.
So you are saying that Work Choices is good for jobs. Did you say, ‘Work Choices is good for jobs’? I think the member for Cook, quite rightly, has highlighted the opposition’s position. They believe that Work Choices is good for jobs. Therefore, I am very interested to see exactly what those opposite do when that bill goes before the Senate. In 15 minutes the member for Stirling did not respond to or provide one answer for the job issues in this country. (Time expired)
I have been in the House for quite a long time and I have never heard 15 minutes of such waffle uttered by a minister of the Crown. It is absolutely clear that the Deputy Prime Minister is a very busy person. However, one of the key issues confronting Australia today is job security and jobs. The minister could have come into the chamber to address this important issue, but she has run away from the parliament and she has sent in a message boy, the Minister for Employment Participation, who simply did not perform adequately at all. I listened carefully to what the minister said, and he abused the honourable member for Stirling. He accused the honourable member for Stirling of not having any answers, but I want to draw the minister’s attention to the topic of the matter of public importance: the failure of the government to develop a plan to save Australian jobs.
On 24 November last year the Australian people made a decision that I suspect many of them now regret. They elected the Rudd Labor government, and as part of the creation of that government the Minister for Employment Participation took on his role, as did the Deputy Prime Minister. We have the global economic crisis, but what the minister has done is to fill in his 15 minutes by talking about anything other than the government’s plan to save Australian jobs. Having listened very carefully to the minister’s contribution, one can only assume that the government simply does not have a plan to save Australian jobs. Sure, the minister spoke about the 75,000 jobs that will allegedly be created as a result of the stimulus package. He spoke about some assistance to the motor vehicle industry. He also spoke about some assistance to local government which will create some minor employment—
some not very high levels of employment through minor local projects, and he highlighted three particular areas where the government may have done a little.
However, what he failed to address is the forecast that unemployment is going to dramatically increase. In its latest economic outlook, the OECD has forecast a prolonged downturn, heralding weak prospects for labour demand. As was indicated by the shadow minister, the projected outlook is that the unemployment rate will drive up from its October level of 4.3 per cent to 5.8 per cent by the end of next year and six per cent in late 2010. It has been predicted that 140,000 people will lose their jobs over the coming months as a result of the crisis, and yet the government has continued to fail to come up with any solutions.
All the minister has done is to turn on the member for Stirling, to heap abuse upon his shoulders and to accuse him of not having the answers. Frankly, I can understand why the minister is asking the honourable member for Stirling for answers: because the minister himself and the Deputy Prime Minister do not have any answers between them. At least the Minister for Employment Participation had the courage to crawl into the chamber and purport to represent the government. I do not know where the Deputy Prime Minister is, but she is not where she should be—and where she should have been is at the dispatch box, at 5.13 today, to respond to what the opposition was saying.
The Australian people elected the Rudd Labor government with high expectations. The Australian people expected answers. At the first challenge to that government, the global economic crisis, we find that the government’s performance has faltered. The Prime Minister trips around the world talking at conferences, and yet at home the situation is quite dire. I challenge the minister to get out of his ivory tower, to go out there and talk to the Australian people, to talk to people who are concerned about employment. The minister, in his speech, spoke at length about assistance packages to pensioners, to carers—to all sorts of people. However, he did not address the need for jobs.
The best way to create jobs is to have a robust economy, such as the economy that the Howard-Costello government implemented over 11 years of office. We repaid $90 billion of Labor debt. We created two million jobs. Most of them were full-time jobs, but there were also part-time jobs. Yet we find that it is now projected that, under the stewardship of the Deputy Prime Minister and the Minister for Employment Participation, we could have a situation where that shocking record under the Keating government of having a million Australians out of work could well be replicated.
Is this what the Australian people voted for on 24 November last year? It certainly is not. They would certainly be disappointed, and I see the situation as being quite shocking. In fact it is a disgrace, because—let us face it—the Labor Party claim to be the party that is interested in the worker. They brought in the Fair Work Bill yesterday and the Minister for Employment and Workplace Relations focused on union rights. She focused on extra costs to business. She basically introduced a bill that will cost jobs.
The situation, Minister, is that the government has its focus entirely wrong. The government is focused on implementing legislation which will destroy job opportunities for generations of Australians. Just walk down the main street of any town or city in the country and you will find that small business and large business have never had a lower level of confidence, and this is after barely 365 days of Labor government. The National Australia Bank’s most recent economic outlook survey has unemployment increasing to 6.5 per cent—well in excess of any government forecast—by mid-2010. In the mid-year forecast, sure, the Treasurer upgraded the anticipated number of unemployed—although not to the extent that independent people said—but the reality is that this government is fiddling, it is talking, it is abusing the opposition and it is playing party politics. It is doing everything other than addressing the desperate job crisis that is now confronting Australian families.
Just imagine, Minister, what it is like to be a breadwinner and to be threatened with redundancy because of the economic situation. Many of these people voted for the Labor Party last year and now many of these people are seriously worried. Minister, I ask you to stop playing politics. I ask you to stop seeking solutions from us. I ask you to think very carefully about the need to save Australian jobs, because the government will not have the economic wherewithal to deliver desirable social outcomes unless the government receives income from taxes—and you do not receive income from taxes unless you have got Australians in real jobs.
I listened carefully also to an answer given during question time by the Deputy Prime Minister in relation to jobs. She talked about the 75,000 jobs allegedly to be created as a result of the stimulus package. Mind you, I will believe that when I see it. I would like to believe it is true but, given the government’s comprehensive failure in so many areas, I am not confident that that is in fact going to occur. She then moved to support services in the area of unemployment. So she did not have any answer. She had even fewer points to make than the Minister for Employment Participation did in this MPI. Maybe that is the reason why the senior minister, the Deputy Prime Minister, has run away from her parliamentary colleagues in this MPI.
So no matter where we go, no matter where we look, we find that the Rudd Labor government simply do not have an answer with respect to jobs. The Rudd Labor government are simply wringing their hands. They have collectively made a decision that this is just too difficult. They wish that next year would come. They wish that the economic crisis had not occurred—as, indeed, we all do—but they simply do not have the mettle to take on the challenges presented to government at this time. Any party can provide government in good times. The test of a good government or a bad government is the ability to govern for all Australians in bad times. At the present time we face increasing job challenges, lack of job security, high levels of concern in the community, and yet this minister has the audacity to come into the parliament and not give us any response. He comes into the parliament and waffles on, he talks, he fills up his 15 minutes, but at the end of the day we are little clearer than we were at the outset of this debate on just where the government are going. The government have run out of steam. This is amazing after 12 months! (Time expired)
Of course the minister was absolutely right when he said that the member for Stirling and those opposite had no answers, but he was far too kind to them. Not only have they not got any answers, they have not got any questions! The member for Stirling, who raised in his speech his concern that there had not been enough discussion from the minister about unemployment, has been in this parliament as the shadow minister for a year and, in a year, has managed to ask how many questions about unemployment? One! One question in 12 months!
And when did he do that? Did he do that when the parliament first met, when obviously it would have been on his mind? No, he did not. Did he do it when the Labor government introduced a budget with a $20 billion-plus surplus? No, he did not. Did he do it after he came back from the winter recess in August? No, it was not important then. He only managed to ask his one single question in a year on this important topic in October—after the Labor government had announced its initiative of a $10.4 billion stimulus package.
Mr Deputy Speaker, I rise on a point of order. Before this member continues to embarrass himself even more, I would like to tell him I have been the shadow minister for all of six weeks.
I was going to come to that but, now that you have brought it up, let me come to it straightaway. Let me give you a bit of free advice: when you want to raise those sorts of arguments, it is good to do a bit of groundwork. Now you may have floated position by virtue of the leadership change rather than other characteristics. I would not regard your six weeks in the job as the highlight of a parliamentary career. But as it happens, your predecessor did not ask any questions either. So the opposition, who want to pursue this matter as an issue of great concern, do so from a very false platform.
I apologise, and of course I should not have said ‘you’, Mr Deputy Speaker, because I know that would be a gross misrepresentation of your view. I was clearly referring to the members of the opposition. I am happily corrected on that. Yet again we have seen, as we have seen on a daily basis, an opposition that cannot hold to a thought for more than 24 hours. It has been the case here again. Someone asked today, ‘What are we going to talk about today in the MPI?’ It is a great challenge for the tactics committee, so they decided to talk about unemployment—even though they have shown no interest in it whatsoever, even though the government has acted decisively, in a very significant way, with a $10.4 billion stimulus package, along with support for the vehicle industry, along with a number of other packages that time may or may not permit me to talk about, but some of which I know were touched on by the minister. In spite of that, the paucity of knowledge and tactics in the opposition leads them to raise this as an issue, once again demonstrating that 24 hours is a long time for the concentration span of those opposite.
But who better to second this from the other side than the member for Fisher? When it comes to changing positions, I think he holds the record in this place. This is the person who came into this parliament as a National Party member, then changed to become a Liberal Party member, and then after the last election listed himself on the members’ register as a Liberal-National Party member before finding out that he was the only one who did that. I thought that was a career move to make him the leader of a political party. It turns out I did him a disservice. He was not endeavouring to become the leader of a political party; he just made a mistake, so now he is a Liberal again. So who better to be involved in a flip-flop performance than the member for Fisher?
I think the House notes his plea of guilty. Mr Deputy Speaker, the simple fact is that when the global economic crisis clearly became an issue, this government was on the front foot, well ahead of the game, well ahead of others around the world and well ahead, I have to say, of many commentators and those opposite. The trouble for those opposite is that, given that is the case, they have not been quite sure what to do. They instinctively knew they could not oppose it, so they said they supported our $10.4 billion package. They then spent weeks doing their best to undermine it in this place.
That duplicity will win the opposition absolutely no support—none here in this place with the commentators and none out in the real world, where it matters and where the Australian citizens look at what we all say and do. That $10.4 billion stimulus package—and I do not have time to go through all of it—will insulate a large portion of the Australian economy, including the tourism industry and the retail industry, in the three months ahead as we go through the summer vacation period. The money will go to low-income Australians, and we are confident it will be used constructively for their benefit and for the broader economic benefit of our nation. It is good policy, good social policy, good economics and—I have to say—good Labor economics. It will make a difference to many families.
Even on that we find ourselves in a situation where those opposite cannot agree. In his contribution today the member for Fisher decided to have a bit of a swipe at that. The Leader of the National Party—and I think it is still the National Party and not the Liberal-National Party; I am not sure—Barnaby Jones, has been on the record a number of times complaining about the package. Senator Barnaby Jones needs to have a look at the comments of those who are recipients.
He is commonly referred to as Jones! There are actually some serious commentators out there in the business community who know the importance of that package to their businesses, to their profit lines and to their capacity to keep their doors open and people employed in the difficult months ahead. My attention has been drawn to a comment by Gerry Harvey about the situation he confronts. These are difficult times for all retailers. He is clearly one of the retailers who will have to look hard at their bottom lines. In the last 24 hours he has said that he supports the government’s $10.4 billion fiscal stimulus package and that he believes the government was probably doing a pretty good job on it. He is at the sharp end of this. The retail sector is facing a pretty bleak Christmas. Had it not been for the Commonwealth government’s initiative, had it not been for Labor’s stimulus package, we would be now confronting a much worse situation.
The fact that we are not has been recognised globally. It may not be recognised by Liberal and National members of the parliament, who struggle daily to find some issue to attack us with, but it has been recognised widely. We are all aware of the OECD report published overnight that identifies Australia as one of the very few countries in the OECD not forecast to go into recession. Indeed, it forecasts the growth rate in Australia to drop down to about 1.7 per cent and to then rise the year after. That is a very significant achievement. Whenever we talk about that achievement, those opposite immediately say, ‘That’s only because we were in government before.’
That is true; it has not been achieved yet. It has not. I am talking about the forecast. Every time that forecast is mentioned, those opposite want to claim some credit by saying that something they did three or four or 10 years ago has somehow produced it. I will tell you what produced the surplus that has enabled these funds to be used: it was the May budget and the way that was crafted. That was a difficult thing to do. It was not only a difficult thing to do; it was a thing that those opposite seldom did.
My time is running out, but there is one thing that I think needs to be corrected because it comes up so often in these debates. People talk about budget surpluses without much regard for the facts. This fact usually gets overlooked, especially by those opposite. Between World War II and when the Hawke Labor government came into office in 1983, those opposite were in power throughout. It was a boom period. In that period there was not one surplus budget. The Commonwealth ran its first surplus budgets in the Hawke-Keating years. To give you an example: in 1988-89, the budget surplus was 1.8 per cent of GDP. This is what Terry McCrann said after the member for Higgins boasted about a budget surplus. He said, ‘It’s sobering to be reminded, as the budget papers do, that an earlier world champion Treasurer had—’ (Time expired)
The Rudd government showed scant regard for employment when it ran up the white flag and predicted 134,000 Australians would lose their jobs in the period after the 2008 budget. The government’s lack of will to fight unemployment comes into even starker relief when you look at the current economic conditions. Local and overseas agencies know we are in trouble. The OECD has predicted unemployment will rise to six per cent by 2010 and the government itself has again thrown up its hands in surrender, saying we can expect national unemployment of five per cent by June next year and 5.75 per cent by June 2010. But the national bank says it will be even higher. The national bank says it will be 6½ per cent. So jobs are going to be scarce under Labor, and there is no doubt regional areas will be hardest hit.
Looking at the unemployment rate for the entire Wide Bay area—my area—over the past 20 years, the all-time high was in February 1996, just before we came to power, when it was almost 20 per cent. The all-time unemployment low, ironically, in the October just before we left office was 3.9 per cent. Those figures are from either side of the Howard government. I am sad to say that the region’s unemployment rate is already creeping up under Labor. The Wide Bay-Burnett area is an ideal template for what can be achieved when the right regional development policies are put in place. Conversely, if job losses increase to Hawke-Keating levels, we could see unemployment in my area back to around 15-plus per cent.
As members are aware, I delivered a dissent to the interim House committee report Funding regional and local community infrastructure. There was no malice in it, I might add. The committee’s recommendation that commercial enterprises not be considered for funding—despite the evidence in favour of it—is a huge mistake. The 20-year recovery achieved in the Wide Bay-Burnett area cannot happen without robust local enterprises. One such example is Austchilli, a Bundaberg-based company which processes and packages small crops for the domestic and export markets. Austchilli was due to receive $650,000 from Regional Partnerships so it could complete stage 2 of its development, incorporating state-of-the-art high-pressure pasteurisation of food products. It would have created 25 new jobs and, despite the fact that the former Deputy Prime Minister announced the project, the Rudd Labor government withdrew the funding, causing the loss of these potential jobs as well as six other positions within the company. Austchilli also lost a contract to provide avocado puree to a nationwide food outlet—the same product is now being imported from Mexico.
The infrastructure committee took some very interesting evidence at the public hearings. The former mayor of the Isis Shire, Bill Trevor, told the committee of the importance of government supporting business, which in turn creates jobs in the regions. He said:
The last thing a community needs is a bright new shiny toilet block but no jobs … Jobs in rural and remote areas are extremely important for the value-adding that they do in a community.
He went on:
If you take away all those opportunities to bring forward the technical advancement and development of industry in rural areas, then, what we are going to have left is people on unemployment queues.
It was hard to get money into regional and rural areas from banks previously. It is going to be even more difficult in the future to convince the bankers to lend into regional and rural areas because of the financial situation around the world.
This is where these grants—whether it be through Sustainable Regions, Bundaberg Futures Programs or the Regional Partnerships—play a vital role in lifting the technology job values and letting the enterprise grow.
And he goes on:
By having this grant coming in it allows it to happen now. We need jobs now in rural and regional Australia, not in 10 or 15 years time.
What he and I are saying is that small and medium industries are essential for the growth of provincial communities. They are a buffer against creeping unemployment. When government supports small and medium industries it gives confidence to banks and other investors to come on board. Government approbation creates a level of confidence in itself. That is why seeding programs must continue. The government should not wring its hands about unemployment and throw money at the problem. Rather, the answer is in strengthening regional employment profiles.
It comes as no surprise to me, the day after the introduction of the Fair Work Bill that returns fairness to Australian workers, that we are in here entertaining the opposition’s efforts to distract us all from the fact that they are the party of Work Choices. And it is with some temerity, might I add, that they want to have a debate about jobs—about a plan for jobs—after yesterday’s events and their atrocious track record of ripping off workers’ rights. But we are very happy to have this debate if the opposition want it and I am happy to talk about some of the things the Rudd government is implementing to boost jobs and drive our economy into the future. The member for Swan might even call this a case of ‘double happiness’!
A good place to start is to look at the Rudd government’s early and decisive response to the global financial crisis through our $10.4 billion Economic Security Strategy. As the Minister for Employment Participation said earlier, fundamental change across the economies of the world is happening because of the global financial crisis. With payments of $1,400 for single pensioners and $2,100 for couples, one-off $1,000 payments for people receiving the carer allowance and $1,000 one-off payments for each eligible child of families who receive family tax benefit A, there will be a direct economic boost to our economy as these payments arrive from 8 December, and increasing the first home buyer’s grant has already led to a pick-up in demand in the housing industry.
Sustaining demand in the economy protects jobs across many industries, especially in the retail and service sectors. The government has brought forward an additional 56,000 productivity places for job seekers for 2008-09, taking the government’s commitment to over 700,000 training places. This comes as part of the government’s Skilling Australia for the Future initiative. The issue of skills is something the previous government neglected for 11 years and is one of the very reasons that we still have jobs unfilled whilst there are people unemployed. Without training in the areas of need this problem will only grow, as it did throughout the term of the Howard government. Many Australian employers have not been able to find enough skilled labour in the required areas and imported labour is used in some cases to fill these skill shortage gaps.
Proper job development depends on us having workers with the right skills for the future. Six hundred and forty-five thousand training places over five years in the vocational education and training sector will be created through the Productivity Places Program to develop the skills that Australian industry needs. Three hundred and ninety-two thousand places have been allocated as part of this program to allow people currently in the workforce to upgrade their skills or retrain to better meet the needs of industry and employers. Over 300,000 additional VET places will be available to people outside the workforce to acquire skills and gain lasting employment, and more than 58,000 job seekers have already enrolled in the program in just over six months. Fifteen thousand of these people have already completed their training in areas of skill shortage and almost 1,000 of these job seekers referred for training by their employment service provider have already obtained jobs.
Training for new skills and increasing productivity are central to the government’s economic agenda. The Australian government is working cooperatively with state and territory governments and has fast-tracked 4,500 places for the health and community sectors. Labor governments have always been the governments that care about workers and working families. For the opposition to cry crocodile tears about the effects of the global financial crisis on jobs just does not ring true given their attack on workers and workers’ rights in the Work Choices debacle.
And while on the issue of training, we have also established over 1,000 new training places for nurses in our universities as well as providing incentives to encourage thousands of nurses who are out of the workforce to return to work. And of course we have our trade training centres programs for secondary schools to help address shortages in both traditional trades and emerging industries. Already 34 projects have been approved in the first round of the program and this covers funding of nearly $100 million with 96 schools involved across those 34 projects. And, quickly, we can turn to the government’s enormous nation-building agenda.