Monday, 3 June 2013
Appropriation Bill (No. 1) 2012-2013; Consideration in Detail
May I suggest that it might suit the convenience of the Federation Chamber to consider the items of proposed expenditure in the order and groupings shown in the schedule which has been circulated to honourable members. I also take the opportunity to indicate to the Federation Chamber that the proposed order for consideration of portfolios estimates has been discussed with the opposition and other non-government members and there has been no objection to what has been proposed.
The schedule read as follows—
Foreign Affairs and Trade
Families, Housing, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs
Finance and Deregulation
Immigration and Citizenship
Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population and Communities
Education, Employment and Workplace Relations—Employment and Workplace Relations
Infrastructure and Transport
Education, Employment and Workplace Relations—School Education, Early Childhood and Youth
Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry
Resources, Energy and Tourism
Industry, Innovation, Climate Change, Science, Research and Tertiary Education—Climate Change, Industry, Innovation and Small Business
Broadband, Communications and the Digital Economy
Prime Minister and Cabinet
Is it the wish of the Federation Chamber to consider the items of the proposed expenditure in the order suggested by the minister? If there is no objection, it is so ordered.
Foreign Affairs and Trade
Proposed expenditure, 6,823,418,000
I do have a number of questions of the minister which I will put to him. If he is unable to answer them now, I do ask that he take them on notice and ensure that they are answered before the parliamentary recess. I refer the minister to the 2013-14 budget for the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. Can the minister confirm that funding for the department will decline by one per cent in real terms? Could he advise how much this in dollar terms? Where will the savings be made? Is the minister aware of reports showing funding for the department declining to 0.31 per cent of total government expenditure by 2016-17? Can the minister confirm that this would represent a one third decline in the level of funding when compared to the final year of the Howard government? Could the minister also advise the implications for the department if funding falls to the level projected?
On a matter in Budget Paper No. 2, the section marked 'Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade Efficiencies', when was the decision made to close Australia's embassy in Hungary? Why was Hungary chosen for closure? Was a cost benefit analysis carried out? When was the Hungarian ambassador to Australia informed of this decision and who informed the ambassador? Can the minister explain how journalist Dan Flitton came to know of this decision at a time that I suggest was prior to information being provided to the Hungarian ambassador? Is the department investigating how the media came to know of this decision on the morning before I understand the ambassador was told? If not, why not? When was the Australian ambassador to Hungary informed of this decision? When were locally-engaged staff informed of the decision? How many weeks notice have they been given? Will they receive a termination payout and, if so, how much? I ask whether the minister agrees with the statement of the then secretary of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade Dennis Richardson who said:
Closing a mission saves very little, the reason being once you have got a mission up and running your running costs are quite low.
It might cost you $25 million over three or four years to open a post, but if, 10 years later, you were to close that post you would probably only save about $2 million a year.
In relation to the proposal to establish an embassy in Senegal, when was the decision taken to postpone the establishment of an embassy in Senegal? Had any planning or construction work taken place? Had the department entered into any contracts regarding the proposed embassy? Had any funds been spent and, if so, how much? Did the department advise the Senegal government that Australia was not going to proceed with the embassy before the government announced it publicly? If so, when was this advice given? Has the Senegal government made any representations to the department on this issue since the government's announcement? Can or will the minister rule out closing other embassies?
I refer to Budget Paper No. 2 and the section marked 'Efficiencies'. According to the budget paper, the government will achieve savings from 'a temporary reduction in Canberra based positions'. How many jobs will be cut at the department in 2013-14? Does the department expect to offer any voluntary redundancies? If so, how many? Will the department have to make any forced redundancies? If so, how many?
As a result of the government funding cuts in 2012-13, the then secretary of the department stated that 100 to 150 jobs would be shed. Can the minister advise how many jobs have been lost at the department this year, how many of these were voluntary redundancies and how much money has been spent on voluntary redundancy payments in total in 2012-13? How much does the department expect to spend next year as a result of these job losses?
On the United Nations Security Council, I refer to the section marked 'United Nations Security Council term'. How much money has been spent to date to support Australia's role on the United Nations Security Council? How many additional positions have been created to support Australia's role on the council? Have all the additional positions being filled?
In relation to the Asian century, I refer the minister to the reference to the implementation of the Australia in the Asian Century white paper and DFAT's strategic directions statement. What resources have been provided to the department to open a full embassy in Mongolia and consulates in China, Thailand and eastern Indonesia? Has the government given any undertakings to the relevant governments about these posts? Why were these locations identified as priorities? Why are they being delayed if they are a priority? What percentage of board members— (Time expired)
In relation to departmental funding, the fact is that the budget for the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, I am advised, has increased since 2007-08 by $70 million. Any government would like to spend more on just about anything, but the fact is that the decline in commodity prices operating in conjunction with a very high dollar has meant that there have been very substantial write-downs of revenue. When I listened to the opposition leader's budget reply I heard him say, or at the very least heard it said subsequently, that the coalition would be waving through the various savings measures that have been announced by this government. If the Deputy Leader of the Opposition has departed from that position, I am sure that at the time of the PEFO 10 days into the election campaign those extra expenditures that are being foreshadowed by the Deputy Leader of the Opposition will be booked to account against the coalition.
In relation to Hungary, this is a decision which with a very large amount of money and no limits on money we would not have made. But in the end you do need to make decisions to achieve the budget bottom line that we have set out in the 2013-14 budget. In that tight fiscal environment the department, like all government agencies, has been subject to savings to offset new budget measures. We do not take lightly any decision to close a post. Budapest is one of our smallest posts and we will continue to serve the bilateral relationship well from other missions nearby. The embassy is scheduled to be closed by the end of September 2013 and savings from the closure will be $0.3 million in 2013-14 and around $1.7 million thereafter. In respect of whether the Hungarian government was advised of the announcement in advance, no, the Hungarian government became aware of the closure before formal advice had been conveyed. The Australian Ambassador to Hungary, His Excellency John Griffin, was directed to advise the Hungarian government of the decision on Monday, 13 May immediately ahead of the budget announcement on 14 May. DFAT was also scheduled to convey the decision to the Hungarian ambassador to Australia, Her Excellency Anna Maria Siko, on 13 May. The closure of the embassy was reported in the Age on Monday, 13 May and then confirmed by Senator Carr on ABC radio that morning.
In relation to Senegal, we are already establishing a presence in Senegal. We will be establishing that as promised in 2013. We expect to operate from temporary premises initially. We anticipate it will take a year or two until a suitable location or a chancelry is identified and work can commence on establishing a permanent presence. These time frames are pretty standard for a post opening. Again, we have committed to a post in Senegal. We are going ahead with that commitment.
In relation to job cuts at the department, obviously it is in the interests of the department and of the government to minimise any impact on jobs. We believe that the officers of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade are highly valued and highly professional people. It is, let us say, a supreme irony that I am getting a question from the opposition about job cuts in the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade when that political party has committed to job cuts of 20,000 people—which would have an enormous impact on Canberra, on the ACT and on house prices. To be lectured about job cuts by an opposition that is committed to cutting 20,000 people's jobs is a bit rich.
I will seek to answer the remaining questions by the Deputy Leader of the Opposition on the UN Security Council—to the extent that it is feasible to do so—on notice. In relation to posts more generally, under this government the following posts have been opened: the Holy See, Mumbai, Chennai and Addis Ababa, and we are opening Chengdu and Senegal. (Time expired)
Mr Deputy Speaker, I note that the minister has provided rather general answers. I do ask again that the minister take the specific questions on notice and provide specific answers to my questions prior to the parliamentary recess.
I would like to go on in regard to the Australia and the Asian century white paper: what percentage of board members and Australian Public Service senior leadership are currently considered by the government to have 'deep experience in and knowledge of Asia', and how does the government define deep experience as set out in the white paper? What has the government done to make it easier for low-risk visitors to come to Australia, as called for in the white paper? What steps has the government taken to streamline the visa process? Given the importance placed on food security in the white paper, what assurances has the government provided to Indonesia that it will not again unilaterally ban live cattle exports, thus threatening Indonesia's food security? What has the government done to expand the Work and Holiday visa program to 1,000 places for Indonesia? Could we have an update on that? When will this expansion of places take place?
I also refer the minister to Budget Paper No. 2 and to the section marked Australia in the Asian century: business engagement program. How many Australian businesses are currently participating in that engagement program? How many grants have been made available under the program, and what is the average size of the grants? I point out that the grants are apparently available for amounts from $20,000 to $300,000.
On the matter of trade, I have a number of questions. I refer the minister to the 2013-14 budget for the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, and to the fact that funding for the department will be cut by one per cent in real terms. Which of Australia's long-running, free trade agreement negotiations currently under way does the government expect to conclude before the September election, given the government's latest budget cuts? Does the minister stand by his comment that a free trade agreement with China is 'overrated'—despite a joint feasibility study finding that a free trade agreement could boost Australia's real GDP by around $24 billion over the period 2006 to 2015? What impact are the government's funding cuts having on the department's ability to commence new free trade agreement negotiations? When did Hong Kong first approach the government about establishing a free trade agreement? What was the government's response to the proposal? If it was in writing, will the minister release the letter? When was the government's response officially communicated to the Hong Kong government? What reasons were given for this decision? Was the department asked to provide advice on the proposed free trade agreement with Hong Kong? If so, when was that advice provided? Did the department undertake any economic modelling to determine the benefits to Australia, should a free trade agreement be signed with Hong Kong, and if so, what was the result of that economic modelling?
If no economic modelling was undertaken, why not? What are the benefits to Australia from closer economic and trade ties with Hong Kong? Would the minister describe the potential benefits as significant or does the minister believe that a free trade agreement with Hong Kong is overrated as he said in relation to a free trade agreement with China? Does the minister agree that Hong Kong is considered an important gateway in and out of the Chinese market? Would a free trade agreement with Hong Kong give Australian businesses greater access to China? Does the minister agree with that?
I also refer the minister to the reference to Indonesia in the department's strategic directions statement. What is the current state of negotiations on the Indonesia-Australia Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement? When did the last round of negotiations take place? Has a date been set for next round of talks and, if so, what date is that?
What steps has the Australian embassy in Indonesia taken recently to restore the live cattle trade between Australia and Indonesia? What consultations have taken place between the live cattle industry and the department? Is the department aware of the campaign by Animals Australia Inc. to end live exports? Does the minister agree that this would have a devastating impact on regional Australia? (Time expired)
In respect of the white paper on Australia in the Asian century, this is a plan for Australia. It is a plan for deeper and broader engagement between Australia and the region, which is the fastest growing region on earth. By 2030, it is expected that there will be three billion middle-class customers in Asia, and the Australian government is overseeing a transition where we broaden that relationship. Minerals and energy will continue to be important, but there are whole lot of areas such as premium agricultural products and services where we think Australia has potential strengths based on our natural endowments and our acquired attributes—that is the theme of the white paper on Australia in the Asian century.
That white paper is being implemented and an implementation plan, as the Deputy Leader of the Opposition has indicated, has been released publicly. It has been overseen by an advisory board, and the shadow minister's question is: what experience have members of that advisory board had in Asia? I think the shadow minister should know that. Ken Henry, as the original chair, of this exercise has consulted extensively and gone through various countries of the region in preparing a lot of input into the white paper. John Denton, who is a senior in the Business Council of Australia, as a legal professional has had deep experience with Asia and continues to do so, and Catherine Livingstone of Telstra, similarly. We have a appointed the chair, Hamish Tyrwhitt , and he through Leighton Holdings and his earlier work has had at least 15 years not only experience with Asia but living in Asia. I would have thought that the Deputy Leader of the Opposition would have tried to do enough homework even just to check his curriculum vitae. She would have found that. Rebecca Dee-Bradbury is the CEO of Kraft. This is an industry which we consider to be a sunrise industry—that is, the production of premium agricultural products here in Australia, not only the growing, Mr Deputy Speaker Georganas, but the manufacturing of those products. In your own area, South Australian wines are regarded very highly in the region, and this is an areas of high value-added and very high demand. Margaret Gardner from RMIT: again, they have engagement with and some campuses in Asia and of course we see one of the future growing industries—and it is more than an industry—with Asia as our higher education. This is a way of strengthening the ties between our two countries, earning some expert income and creating ambassadors for Australia in Asia and for Asian countries in Australia.
In respect of streamlining of visa processes, we have moved in that direction. We have been working with China to do that, and more work will be done as the Chinese are able to take some further steps with Australia in that regard.
On food security: the issue is a big one in the 21st century. There are seven billion people on earth now. By 2050 there will be 9.3 billion people on earth, and obviously food security is one of the defining issues of the 21st century.
I hear the Deputy Leader of the Opposition asking about live cattle exports. Yes, I do talk very regularly with my counterpart Indonesian Trade Minister Gita Wirjawan about those matters. You might be aware that just last week the Indonesians announced that they are allowing premium beef cuts in duty free and quota free. That is a really good development. I must have missed the press release from the coalition congratulating Australia and Indonesia on that, but the fact is that the coalition is only interested in bad news and never good news.
On the business program of $6 million that is contained in the white paper: the fact is that applications have been received—there has been an enormous level of interest in that—and final decisions will be announced on the successful recipients of this round of applications.
On free trade agreements, let us just start with China, where I remember the Deputy Leader of the Opposition saying that that was a priority, and the day after— (Time expired)
In relation to the free trade agreement negotiations with South Korea, when did the last round of negotiations take place? Are there any remaining sticking points or hurdles in the negotiations and, if so, what are they? Is the minister aware of comments by Mr David Farley, Managing Director of the Australian Agricultural Company, that Australia's failure to conclude a free trade agreement with Korea is costing the country $3 million per week? Is this figure correct? If not, what is the correct figure?
What has the impact of the Korea-United States Free Trade Agreement been on Australian exports to Korea? Specifically, how much beef does Australia currently export to Korea? Has the amount of beef exported to Korea declined since the introduction of the Korea-United States Free Trade Agreement, and how much has Australia lost in dollar terms? What is the current tariff rate for Australian beef exports to Korea, and how does this compare to the tariff imposed on US exports? What is the tariff rate for other agricultural products? What is the estimated benefit of a free trade agreement with South Korea for the Australian economy, and what are the estimated benefits for Australia's agricultural sector from a free trade agreement with Korea?
In relation to the Japan free trade agreement, what is the current status of the free trade negotiations with Japan? When did the last round of negotiations take place? What are the remaining hurdles or sticking points in the negotiations? What are the estimated benefits for Australia's agricultural sector from a free trade agreement with Japan? Has the minister's recent comment blaming Japan's central bank for driving down the value of the yen had any impact in Japan, and is the minister aware of any coverage in the Japanese media of his comments? Does the minister agree that his comments were unhelpful, given the circumstances surrounding current negotiations that are underway?
In relation to the China free trade agreement—the minister made reference to it—could he state what the current status of the free trade agreement negotiations with China is? When did the last round of negotiations take place, and did the Minister for Trade take part in those negotiations? When does the minister expect negotiations to conclude? If there are remaining sticking points or hurdles to concluding an agreement, what are they? Is the minister aware that New Zealand's goods exports to China have trebled since the conclusion of their free trade agreement in 2008? Is the minister also aware that 90 per cent of New Zealand's goods exports now enter China duty free? What is the current tariff rate for Australian agricultural exports to China, and how does this compare to New Zealand exports? What has been the impact of the China-New Zealand Free Trade Agreement on Australian exports to China in both volume and dollar terms?
According to the portfolio budget statement, the revised budget figures for both passports and notary acts have been lowered due to the closure of the Atlanta office. I would like to ask some questions about the Atlanta office that was closed in August 2012. How much consular work was conducted by the Atlanta office? How many Australian businesses operating in the United States were engaged with the Atlanta office? Has the government received any complaints from Australian businesses regarding the closure of the Atlanta office and, if so, how many? Has the workload for other posts increased since the closure of the Atlanta office?
I have another question on trade. In 2009, as the minister would be aware, the Australia government launched Brand Australia and contributed $20 million over four years, yet in the 2013-14 budget the government is terminating the program. Does the minister consider the Brand Australia trial to have been a success? If so, why is it now being terminated? If it was not a success, what were the specific problems? What is the implication for associated projects, including Australia Unlimited and Future Unlimited? How much money was spent promoting Brand Australia at the London Olympics and, specifically, what was the money spent on? When was the decision made to terminate Brand Australia? Can the minister advise whether this decision to terminate Brand Australia was made before or after the London Olympics?
Finally, on expenditure on diplomatic appointments: what head of mission positions will be appointed between now and the September election? What are those positions? Have people already been selected to fill all of the positions? Have the names of any current or former Labor Party politicians been raised in regard to these positions and will any of them be appointed to these head of mission positions?
I will seek to complete my answers to the previous set of questions and then move on to the current set. I have been asked about the Indonesia Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement and the impact of the suspension of live cattle exports to Indonesia on our broader relations with Indonesia. The fact is that Australia enjoys a very good relationship with Indonesia at all levels, especially between the President and the Prime Minister and ministers and their counterparts. I repeat that I see trade minister Gita Wirjawan very often. In fact, I discussed with him in Surabaya at the APEC trade ministers meeting the issue of beef exports, where he indicated that he was seeking to expand beef imports into Indonesia.
In terms of potential damage to the relationship with Indonesia, there can be no greater damage than seeking to verbal ministers in the Indonesian government and, indeed, the Indonesian ambassador—
My point of order is that in the other chamber I made quite clear in a personal explanation that the media had got that headline wrong and, in fact, the media have withdrawn it. So the minister should not continue to verbal me in this place, because he is on notice—
In fact, the Deputy Leader of the Opposition has sought to create an impression that there was an understanding between the coalition and the Indonesian government to tow back boats. That is completely false. That has been denied by the Indonesian foreign minister, Marty Natalegawa, and it has been denied by—
Ms Julie Bishop interjecting—
I said that there was an understanding—and you know that. Of course, the Deputy Leader of the Opposition has form, because she said that she had had only one phone conversation with Ralph Blewitt and in fact she had two. So she has form in these matters.
Order! There is no point of order. The Minister for Trade has the call. I remind the Minister for Trade that there was a set of questions. It is entirely up to the minister how he answers but keep it relevant.
Absolutely. Directly relevant to the question about our relations with Indonesia is the behaviour of the Deputy Leader of the Opposition in seeking to create an impression that there was an understanding between the Indonesian government and the coalition about towing back boats. There is no such understanding and there was no such understanding. That has been completely denied at all relevant levels of the Indonesian government.
In relation to Korea, I think the Deputy Leader of the Opposition well knows that the two remaining issues there are in relation to the schedule for reducing the import tariff on beef and, secondly, investor state dispute settlement provisions. The Australian government does not agree with the insertion of investor-state dispute settlement procedures. I know from the public record that the Deputy Leader of the Opposition has said that the opposition does agree, on a case-by-case basis. That means that the Deputy Leader of the Opposition, if the coalition ever form government, would be quite willing to constrain the capacity of the Australian government to regulate, for example, coal-seam methane projects on farms in Australia.
Ms Julie Bishop interjecting—
So she may like to check with Senator Barnaby Joyce and other National party members whether they in fact agree with being constrained in environmental regulation and health regulation, such as the plain packaging of cigarettes. The coalition said they supported the government's plain packaging measures, but they would implement investor-state dispute settlement provisions that will hobble the Australian government's attempts—
Ms Julie Bishop interjecting—
and measures to implement the plain packaging of cigarettes. So let the Australian public decide whether it agrees with investor-state dispute settlement provisions, which the coalition support, or whether it does not, which is the position of the Labor government. In respect of the impact on Mr Farley's operations, I think that the Deputy Leader of the Opposition would know Mr Farley very well and that she could have that conversation with him.
In relation to Japan, I met their agriculture minister at the OECD just a couple of days ago. We are still talking about a couple of the critical agricultural products. We do need a commercially meaningful offer in relation to high-quality beef—so-called chilled beef, alternatively known as grain fed beef—and the government of Japan is considering that request. (Time expired)
Mr Deputy Speaker Georganas, I ask that the minister take the answers to our questions on notice and get back to us before the parliamentary recess. Our questions are on foreign aid. In December 2012 and now, again, in May 2013, the Gillard government has hijacked two separate amounts of $375 million from the foreign aid budget, in the process making Australia not only the third largest recipient of Australian foreign aid but also the fastest growing recipient of Australian foreign aid, to the tune of the $750 million announced, within six months. Minister, what criteria were applied in determining that that diverted amount would be $375 million? Why was it not $475 million or $275 million?
On 13 May, Senator Bob Carr undertook to provide information about the impact of the appropriation to DIAC, under Australia's aid program, in the financial year 2013-14. When will this information be publicly released? In Senate estimates last week, DIAC indicated that it does anticipate that all of the recently re-prioritised $375 million will in fact be spent. What will happen to that money if it is not spent? Will it be returned to AusAID or will it simply be returned to consolidated revenue?
Minister, can you also confirm whether or not all of the $375 million in re-prioritised money from the financial year 2012-13 has in fact been spent by AusAID? I note in your response dated 5 February 2013 to my question on notice No. 1337 that DIAC's CFO should have reported and signed off on assistance expenditure for developing countries to AusAID via a six-monthly survey, which in turn would have verified this expenditure against reporting directives. Could you please confirm for me the following: has AusAID received any signed-off reports from the CFO of DIAC verifying assistance expenditure for developing countries; if not, why not? What is AusAID's schedule for these recent CFO sign-offs from AusAID and from all other Australian government agency assistance expenditure for developing countries? Can you also provide an update on the progress in implementing the NGO accreditation reform process. When is it scheduled to be completed?
Please provide an update on progress in implementing the whole-of-government uniform standards for the planning, delivering, monitoring and reporting of official development assistance? When is it scheduled to be committed and when will they be implemented? The AusAID Director-General reported to additional Senate estimates in February this year that they are due to be completed by the end of the financial year. Is that still on track, and will they be used in the coming financial year 2013-14 for all agencies to report their expenditure of ODA?
Could the minister also give an update of the progress of the railway project in Phnom Penh? When is the completion date? Is the project on schedule; and what is the total cost?
I also refer to the Pacific women's solution initiative that was costed at $320 million that Mr Baxter admitted was now money for the program in estimates in October 2012. Will the minister detail how the reprioritisation of $750 million has impacted on that particular initiative?
Also, I refer to the recommendation on the Independent Review of Aid Effectiveness, regarding the need to focus on medical research. What allocation has been made in the financial year 2013-14 to start this process?
Can the minister also answer questions on the Public Service efficiency dividend with regard to budget measures not resulting in a reduction in the number of investigations carried out by AusAID into the allegations of fraud and corruption in the Australian aid program. How many cases of fraud and corruption in the Australian aid program have been reported this financial year? How many investigations are currently active; and how many reported cases in 2012-13 have been upheld following investigation? Is every case officially investigated? How many people currently work in the AusAID risk management and fraud control branch? Is this more or less than the previous financial year? Is the branch's current budget more or less than it received in the previous financial year? How much money has been lost in the 2013-14 as a result of fraud and corruption; and how many reported cases of fraud and corruption were made against aid based staff overseas? Is this more or less (Time expired)
I will continue to seek to answer some of the questions raised by the previous member. In relation to Japan there has been a 25 per cent depreciation of the Japanese currency against the Australian dollar in the last six months and the fact is that such a depreciation does, against the Australian dollar, impose again a very heavy burden on Australian manufacturing, including on the automotive industry—and of course we have seen one consequence of the high dollar being Ford's decision to leave Australia in October of 2016.
I note that the coalition has criticised the government over that decision claiming that there is a $400 dollar per car impost from the carbon price—that is completely false; it is closer to $50, so we have this misrepresentation of the truth by the coalition again. If we are looking at support for Australian manufacturing, next year the coalition has pledged to halve support for the automotive industry in this country, which would lead to the destruction of the Australian automotive industry.
In respect of the question about sticking points in the negotiations with China, there are actually negotiations this week. A key sticking point is this: at this stage China is seeking an increase in the Foreign Investment Review Board's screening threshold for private companies and state owned enterprises from zero in relation to state owned enterprises and $240-odd million in relation to private companies to one billion dollars. The coalition's policy is not to increase those thresholds at all but to cut the threshold for private Chinese investment from $240-odd million to $15 million. The effect of that, as the Deputy Leader of the Opposition well knows, is to kill the Australia-China FTA stone dead. And indeed the Leader of the Opposition went to China specifically to tell them that there are particular forms of Chinese investment that would not be welcome and would be rarely approved.
Again, we do not need lectures about foreign investment from China into Australia. We welcome it, subject to it being in the national interest. But the Deputy Leader of the Opposition has been unable or unwilling to rein in Senator Barnaby Joyce, now the candidate for New England, who has been running around saying the Chinese will take over, buy up all our land and send cheap Chinese labour here—all this hysterical economic Hansonism. I would have hoped that the Deputy Leader of the Opposition would have dedicated herself to trying to prevent this damage to the relationship between Australia and China through the crazy rhetoric of Senator Barnaby Joyce.
In relation to the questions asked by the member for Brisbane, I will not commit to getting answers from the department to all of those questions between now and when parliament recesses in late June. That would be just about all the department ever did. If the member were serious about getting answers to questions then the member would have tailored the questions and limited them to the extent that it would be reasonable to expect the department to provide answers to them. She has decided not to do that, and therefore I will not give that commitment.
In relation to the overseas development assistance budget, this budget boosts Australia's overseas aid to a record $5.7 billion in 2013-14. That is an increase of around $500 million, or 9.6 per cent. This is the highest the aid budget has ever been in dollar terms. We remain committed to increasing the aid budget to 0.5 per cent of gross national income, but we have moved that target out by one year given the very substantial write-downs in revenue.
Opposition members interjecting—
I hear interjections complaining about that. Again, we would be happy to have the coalition book up, through the PEFO process, any indication that they would bring that forward. The fact is that under the coalition the aid budget never reached 0.3 per cent and was usually under 0.25 per cent, and here we are at 0.37 per cent.
Again, in relation to questions about refugees, this year—2013-14—we will report up to $375 million for basic sustenance for refugees waiting to have their claims heard in Australia. It is legitimate aid delivered in accordance with OECD guidelines, consistent with the practice of other OECD countries. By way of example, the following expenditure was reported for refugee expenses in 2011. (Time expired)
Proposed expenditure agreed to.
Proposed expenditure, $4,621,958,000
As we begin on the Treasury portfolio I note, having watched the Minister for Trade and Competitiveness deal with his set of estimates in this place, that he took the questions for 45 minutes and did not seek to have the time taken up by any of his colleagues to come along and waste time. I certainly hope that the Assistant Treasurer will be following the practice of the minister for trade. As you know, Deputy Speaker, it has been a tradition in this place that these estimates take place so the opposition can ask questions of the minister. The Assistant Treasurer has allotted, I think, just 30 minutes of the one hour, and we sincerely hope that he is not going to seek to avoid scrutiny by having his own backbenchers waste half of that time and provide only 15 minutes. We would commend to him the approach of the minister for trade, who did not arrange for any of his colleagues to come in and waste his time.
I would like to take the Assistant Treasurer to the budget bottom line. He would be well aware, of course, from helping put together these budgets, that after posting a budget deficit of nearly $44 billion in the 2011-12 year the Treasurer announced that the budget would return to surplus within one year. I would direct the Assistant Treasurer to the fact that he went further: when we had these estimates last year, he was in the process of sending out a newsletter to his electorate where he said, 'We've delivered a surplus on time as promised.'
What I want to know from the Assistant Treasurer is—assuming he knows that was a completely false statement, because you cannot say you have delivered anything until the end of the financial year—what action he has taken since then and whether he is taking any action in his post-budget newsletter this year on that very issue. Within that same newsletter, as well as talking about a number of other budget issues, he talked about increased family payments through family tax A. Can I ask whether he has informed his constituents that that promise was broken and it has not gone ahead in the budget? But could he firstly answer why he—we assume intentionally—put out a false statement, paid for by taxpayers' money, saying that a surplus had been delivered when he knew full well that that was not the case?
I point out to the member in response to his very serious concerns about the availability of time for questions that at least a minute was wasted by him talking about concerns he might have about other members having legitimate questions that they might want to come into this place and ask. Of course, every member who is elected by their constituency to represent them would have an expectation that their member, regardless of political persuasion, will take an interest in the budget process and certainly the consideration-in-detail stage of the appropriations bills. As to whether others will ask questions, that is a matter for them as they seek to represent their community. I know those on the other side sometimes put together a bit of a roster, where they send people into bat. It seems as though we have the member for Casey and the member for Higgins today. I welcome that because, having seen their contributions in the past, I am not all that concerned about what might be coming our way.
I am delighted that the member for Casey takes such a keen interest in my newsletters. It has been said to me on occasions that people do not read those newsletters. I am refreshed to know that the member for Casey has travelled several hundred kilometres in fact in order to make sure that he does not miss the important information that is disseminated in my latest correspondence as I send that out to the community. The member for Casey will know, of course, that the revenue situation that the government faces is an incredibly challenging one.
Whilst those opposite seek to minimise the significance of what this country is facing in terms of revenue write-downs, the fact remains that we have seen substantial write-downs in revenues. Those opposite will say, 'No; revenue is higher today than it was last year,' and that is true. But, for an economy growing at the speed that our economy is growing and with all of the other indicators being where they are, you would be expecting a greater share of revenue to be collected. That is the reality that we confront. Of course, we would like to have been able to return the budget to surplus faster than we are going to be able to do.
The member for Casey will resume his seat. I cannot direct any member in this place to answer a particular question. This is a place where we are debating the appropriation bill and each member has five minutes for questions or a statement on their relevant portfolio. The Assistant Treasurer has the call.
The point I was making—and it goes very much to the question that was asked—goes to the issue of revenue write-downs and the impact that that has had on the capacity of the government to return the budget to surplus in the timely fashion that we had expected. Of course, this budget sets out forecasts in terms of when we hope to return the budget to surplus, and that is a couple of years down the track. But I make this point to the member for Casey: our tax to GDP ratio is sitting at about 21.5 per cent of GDP. If the member for Casey believes that the opposition would be able to return the budget to surplus any faster than the government is seeking to do—
Mr Tony Smith interjecting—
I am happy to talk about newsletters. In fact, I am surprised that those opposite would want to talk about the distribution of newsletters in my electorate given the shameful contribution in the past seeking not just to mislead people in a very provocative way to do so in a way that was seeking to incite hatred. I am talking about the pamphlets that were distributed by your then colleague and various others in relation to the so-called Lindsay leaflet scandal. So when it comes to these ridiculous claims about pamphlets, I would have thought that you would be the last people that would want to come forward and make those claims. We stand very much behind the record of what we have achieved. (Time expired)
I have been in the parliament now for nearly nine years and since the Labor government came to power in 2007 I have to say I have watched budgets being brought down in some rather interesting economic times, particularly globally. I watched budgets in the heart of the global financial crisis, in the threat of a possible breakup of the euro, the US fiscal cliff, whether there would be a double dip—budget after budget in really quite volatile global economic circumstances, and we have seen the global economy struggle quite a bit in the last few years. Now we have a persistently high dollar which is putting pressure on a lot of manufacturers in Australia. We have saving levels for consumers cutting back to normal, which is also withdrawing cash from the local economy. One could say we have a fiscal environment that is a little more challenging than it was in the precrisis period due to weaker nominal GDP growth, a fall in the tax share of GDP and a challenging environment for most of the non-mining sector. The government has a lot of work to do to ensure fiscal sustainability and is doing that by achieving budget surpluses on average over the medium term, keeping tax as a share of GDP below the 2007-08 average and improving the government net financial worth over the medium term.
On top of those things, which are incredibly important, the government is focusing on supporting jobs and growth in the short term. Again this is incredibly important. I point to the success of the government during the worst of the global financial crisis in keeping three per cent of my workforce in work on the school halls and public housing build alone, an incredible contribution to the families in my electorate.
In addition to those things, we are also moving ahead on some major enhancements such as the National Plan for School Improvement and DisabilityCare and critical infrastructure. We hear debate in the community from time to time about whether or not those things should be done at this moment. About a month ago I heard representatives from the opposition saying that we should delay some of those things until times were better. That is an interesting comment. I am going to ask the Assistant Treasurer to comment on those things. Why is it important while maintaining a responsible budget to support jobs and growth in the short term? Why is it also important at this time to undertake those important long-term structural decisions to fund initiatives such as disability care and school funding reform?
I thank the member for Parramatta for that question. It is a very insightful one and it goes to the heart of what this budget has been about. The member for Parramatta is right to point to the strength of this government's economic record. If you compare the Australian economy today to where we were before the GFC, we are now 13 per cent larger. There is no advanced economy that has achieved growth levels throughout that period of 13 per cent. I hear those opposite regularly try and make the claim that this is a government that is not interested in growing the pie. Well, this pie is bigger than anyone else's pie in terms of the way it has grown over the last few years. It has grown and grown and is 13 per cent larger. Countries like the UK are not even back to zero, not even back to where they were in terms of the size of their economy before the GFC. We are now 13 per cent larger. So I will not be lectured by those opposite when it comes to questions of growth and growing the national pie. Our pie is certainly growing.
When it comes to jobs, I make the point that I have heard in recent times the Leader of the Opposition—and I know the member for Casey was pretty fixated on this question of pamphlets—and I might take the opportunity to reflect upon the Leader of the Opposition's pamphlet that seems to adorn him at every press conference. He stands up in front of the camera and brandishes this blue pamphlet—
In fact, you should read it. I think, when I read it last, it said: 'Interest rates will always be low. We will return the budget to surplus so that interest rates can be low.' The only problem with that argument is that the shadow Treasurer is out there saying, on the one hand, that interest rates are at emergency levels.
This is relevant to both the member for Parramatta and the member for Casey. Stop denying your colleague the opportunity to have his questions answered. I am sure he wants to hear about his leader parading around with this ridiculous pamphlet at every opportunity. Somehow it is meant to add some credibility to his argument; standing in front of the camera with this pamphlet under his chin. The pamphlet tells you that they will return the budget to surplus faster than the government and, in doing that, they will get interest rates to be even lower than they are at the moment. Yet, when interest rates were cut on the most recent occasion, the shadow Treasurer was out there saying: 'This is terrible. Emergency lows. Interest rates are so low. The economy is tanking.' We are growing; we are 13 per cent larger.
On the question of jobs, the Leader of the Opposition said, 'In six years I will create a million jobs.' We have already done that. We have almost created a million jobs, 960,000 jobs in the last five and a half years. We have done that at a time when tens of millions of jobs have been lost around the global economy. The reason they do not want to talk about this is that when it actually came to the crunch, the global financial crisis, they were not prepared to walk up and support the stimulus measures that we put in place. And that will be forever a stain on their record when it comes to economic credibility. Without the stimulus that was provided—the sort of destruction that would have occurred in our labour market, the sort of destruction to capital that would have occurred, the sort that we would not yet have recovered from—there would be wreckage right across this country. In fact, as a result of what we managed to do, the economy has continued to grow and jobs have been created.
In framing this budget, we have taken the view that, whilst we have been able to bring about one of the biggest and fastest consolidations of federal finances—and the member opposite referred to what the deficit was in the previous year—of the sort that we never, ever saw when they were in office, and at the same time the economy continues to grow and we continue to create jobs. That is what we are about: jobs and growth.
At the same time the member for Parramatta makes the very salient point that it is not enough to just deliver an economy that has all of those strong fundamentals; it is about putting in place the long-term investments our country needs. She alluded to the fact that some opposite say that now is not the right time to do it. Do you know what? When they had what they considered to be the best of times, they never, ever made any of these investments. In fact, they squandered those opportunities; they did not invest in education, they did not invest in the National Disability Insurance Scheme. They squandered money and at the end of the day— (Time expired)