Thursday, 4 February 2010
Questions without Notice
Mr Speaker, I rise on a point of order. A question about commentary is clearly outside the standing orders. This question is clearly out of order and the minister should not be allowed to answer it.
I believe the question then asked about the importance to public policy of accurate commentary. As I heard it I ruled the question in order. I asked the minister to come forward. I take it that there is some concern about the question but, as I heard it, it was in order.
Mr Speaker, I also rise on a point of order. There is another objection to this question, besides the fact that it is about commentary. The minister has absolutely no responsibility for anybody else’s comments about these matters. He therefore has no right to be commenting on somebody else’s comments in the way the question invites. Perhaps the question could be re-worded and asked again, but it should not be asked in the form it has been asked. We are happy to ask our next question and we can come back to this when it has been reworded.
I again thank the member for Canberra for her question. It is important that we have clear and precise commitments and indeed commentary with respect to the public finances in order to maintain public confidence. Unfortunately we are getting exactly the opposite from the new opposition leader and the new, fourth in this term, shadow finance minister. The opposition says that the deficits projected in the budget as a result of the global financial crisis are too big and the debt that is commensurate with that is too high. But they continue to block major savings initiatives in the Senate such as the private health insurance rebate reforms which would save $9½ billion over the next 10 years, and of course they have made huge new spending commitments in their con job on climate change. Those spending commitments are in fact much larger than the opposition understand because, if they are to meet the target they have identified, according to Department of Climate Change calculations they would have to spend almost three times the amount of money that they are projecting. They would have to spend approximately $27 billion over that 10-year period, not the $10 billion that they concede. So there is a giant $27 billion hole in their budget calculations on top of the $9½ billion dollars that they are already blocking in the budget savings that the government has put forward. It is no wonder that the shadow Treasurer, the member for North Sydney, suggested that the Leader of the Opposition’s approach to climate change might cost as much as $50 billion, and it is no wonder it was repudiated by the former Leader of the Opposition.
It is interesting that these days the primary advocate for the opposition on economic policy issues appears not to be the shadow Treasurer; it seems to be shadow finance minister, Senator Barnaby Joyce. He has had a lot of interesting things to say. I know from long personal experience that it is not easy to get a front-page headline, to be the lead story on the front page of a major newspaper, when you are shadow finance minister. Senator Joyce has managed that several times.
I will do that, Mr Speaker. I was asked about the importance of accuracy on statements and commitments regarding public finances. In the one speech yesterday, the new shadow finance minister managed to confuse ‘millions’ with ‘billions’ several times when describing the size of the budget. He managed to claim that the $6 billion that was left in the Higher Education Endowment Fund by the former government was all gone, when in fact the successor fund established by the government with those funds had in its accounts as at 31 December 2009, you guessed it, $6 billion. He claimed that debt would peak at $315 billion, when in fact the projected net debt peak is $153 billion. He claimed that current government debt was $120 billion, when the most recent announced level, of November, was $11 billion net debt. He claimed that Australian Public Service growth was out of control under Labor, when in fact in the two years of this government being in office it has increased by 2.1 per cent—most of that Defence personnel—and in the last two years of the Howard government it increased by 9.3 per cent.
The shadow minister for finance is busily churning out all of these one-liners—and distancing himself from the Leader of the Opposition meeting Lord Monckton, which I noticed with interest—but his comments are contradicting everything that the Liberal Party does and says. This is on top of his statements prior to parliament resuming. He was open to examining the government’s proposals on the private health insurance means test. That was repudiated by the Leader of the Opposition. He was opposed to the Chinese investing in the CSR spin-off company, and the Leader of the Opposition distanced himself from that. He said that the Productivity Commission had watered down its report on executive pay, and the Leader of the Opposition distanced himself from that statement. He said that company tax should be reduced, and the shadow Treasurer—what is left of him—said that that was not opposition policy. He said that Peter Spencer, the farmer who was on a hunger strike, should be compensated and then later repudiated that himself and said that, no, that should not happen.
But, of course, the most incredible statement—and the one that really did impact on public confidence—was his suggestion that the US and Australian state governments might default on their debts, that there was a possibility of ‘economic Armageddon’ and that ‘our capacity to feed ourselves and the capacity to provide the fundamentals in medicines and basic fundamental requirements for our nation’ were somehow in doubt. And he strapped on a sandwich board and was running up and down and saying, ‘The end of the world is nigh’. This is not a shadow finance minister; it is a freak show! It is the bearded lady of Australian politics. And he has taken charge of opposition economic policy!
Mr Speaker, I rise on a point of order. I would ask the minister to withdraw the offensive words about the shadow minister for finance contained in the last few statements he made. They are quite clearly offensive.
I withdraw. The sad thing for this country is that now virtually everything we hear from the opposition with respect to public finances, economic policy, debt, budget and how the promises are going to be paid for by the opposition is coming from Senator Barnaby Joyce. If he ever gets control of the public finances of this nation, God help Australia!