Tuesday, 3 March 2020
Matters of Public Importance
I have received a letter from the honourable member for Brand proposing that a definite matter of public importance be submitted to the House for discussion, namely:
The government's failure to adequately support the economy.
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—
I do indeed rise today to talk about the government's failure to adequately support the economy. That has been demonstrated in today's decision by the Reserve Bank to cut the cash rate to a new record low. It's a new low for the cash rate in this country, but it's also a new record low for the Morrison government's economic credibility.
This is a massive and unforgivable failure. It is a failure that will haunt this third-term coalition government. This government under the leadership of this rotten Prime Minister will predictably try to spin its way out of this terrible economic mess. That's because the Prime Minister is a salesman and not a leader. We have had ample evidence of this over the summer and we have had ample evidence of this right here today in question time.
In times like this, when the world and Australia are confronted by very serious issues such as coronavirus and the bushfires that we had earlier this summer, Australia is crying out for a leader. Instead we get an ineffective Prime Minister with no plan for this country and certainly no plan for this economy. This is a ramshackle coalition government of disaffected Liberals and disappointed Nationals. Even worse, this is a blatantly dishonest government led by a Prime Minister who is up to his neck in this sports rorts fraud.
Amazingly, this Prime Minister and his Treasurer are now trying to use the coronavirus and bushfires as an excuse for their longstanding failures of economic management. I'm amazed but I am not at all surprised, and neither are any of us on this side of the chamber. This government desperately wants people to forget that before this occurred growth in this country was already slowing, that wages were already stagnant and that we had big problems with investment and productivity.
The Australian people will see through this latest marketing ploy from this ad man. For a long time Australian people have worried about their jobs and family budgets. They know the economy was weak before the emergence of coronavirus and the bushfires. The government cannot escape this fact. It has been confirmed by the Reserve Bank of Australia, leading economists, business groups and other analysts. Another fact is of course the cut in the cash rate today—another blow to the economic credibility of this rotten government.
I will give you more inescapable facts about the government's economic record. Economic growth has slowed since the election, it has slowed since Mr Morrison became Prime Minister and it has slowed since the Liberals came to office in 2013. Underemployment is at record highs, with almost two million Australians looking for work or for more work. Weak wages growth has stalled further, and the Liberals are presiding over the worst wages growth on record. The worst wages growth on record—what a legacy for a Liberal-National coalition government in this country. Household spending is growing at its slowest pace since the global financial crisis. Again, what a legacy! And we know consumer confidence is below average. Household living standards have declined under the liberals, with real household median income lower than it was in 2013. Everyone knows it. Everyone around this country knows it. They know they have less to live on than they did seven years ago when this government came to power. We know it on this side of the House, because we talk to our constituents and we witness their lives and what the higher cost of living and stagnant wages growth is doing to them every single day. This government does not care and does not listen. It has no plan for the economy and no plan for this country.
Business investment is down 20 per cent since the Liberals came into office, and now it is at its lowest levels since the 1990s recession. The private domestic economy is contracting and has experienced the biggest decline since the GFC. Labor productivity has declined for the first time on record. Net debt has more than doubled—more than doubled!—under the Liberals and rocketed to record highs of $430 billion.
These are the facts. The Liberals can say what they want—and they will say what they want—but facts remain. That's the good thing about facts: they always remain. The data doesn't lie and facts don't lie. That's something all of us in this place can have a think about.
For many months before the bushfires and coronavirus, Labor had been calling on the government to stimulate the economy in a sensible, responsible way by bringing forward infrastructure spending and tax cuts. We have said that the economy is much weaker than the government had pretended and much weaker than their own budget forecast. But the Prime Minister and the Treasurer refused to do a thing. For the past several weeks, we, on this side, have been saying the impacts of the coronavirus on the economy have been and will continue to be substantial. We have called on the government to do more. You'd think by now this government would have come up with a plan to support business and workers during the fallout from this virus but, again, we have seen nothing. Again, this government is behind the eight ball when it comes to confronting the true economic impacts it is facing.
In my role as the shadow minister for trade, I've been made aware of serious concerns among business groups about the current and particular impacts of this virus. Businesses are concerned about a lack of information and guidance from government. The government has a national hotline for anyone concerned about the health effects of the virus. That is entirely a good thing. But, for businesses struggling to stay afloat, there is little information available on the exposure they face or the steps they can take to plan for different scenarios in the weeks and months ahead. Today even in the Financial Review it's been noted that businesses with a network of consumer outlets around every state in this country have complained about a lack of information coming from government about the impact of this virus on their businesses. They seek to know more about potential protocols that they could follow if a customer or staff members is diagnosed with the virus, but they are not getting this information.
I first raised concerns about the government's lacklustre response on the business side and the economic impact of the coronavirus back on 6 February. Four weeks later, business is still waiting for this information. It's still waiting for anything—some kind of better information on the website, some kind of hotline—for something to support the economy, and that's why we speak about this government's failure to support the economy today.
Another thing that happens in this place time after time in question time is that the government trots out one of these tired lines about its virtues in international trade. It has this line, 'The government has increased our two-way trade by free trade agreements from 26 per cent to more than 70 per cent and are aiming for a high of 90 per cent.' They repeat this over and over. That's fine. What we do know is that Labor has supported the passage of these trade agreements through the parliament. Without our support for open international trade, this government would have nothing—nothing!—to gloat about in respect of its economic record. All it has is its failure to support the economy and its luck that it has the support of a Labor opposition that will do the right thing and make sure we do get international trade happening through this country.
Labor in government has a history of supporting international trade and we'll continue to do so. We support the Indonesia-Australia Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement. We started IA-CEPA. It was a Labor initiative. It took time, it took patience and it took Craig Emerson to start it. We helped finish it, and we're proud of it. Labor support and always will support free, fair and open trade because we know that it raises living standards around the country.
The truth is that this government is more concerned with doing absolutely anything it can at any possible cost to remain in government. As we've seen in answer to questions here, it relies on technically correct yet vague assertions about deals it has signed. What is clear to everyone in this place and in this country is that this government cannot run an economy but it sure can run a corrupt sports rorts program. This government can't run an economy but it can run a regional infrastructure program that funds swimming pools in North Sydney. That's great for the National Party. This is their very first dam. They would be very pleased indeed. As an actual bonus, they've delivered a dam with change rooms in North Sydney. Congratulations to the government! This government had a plan and enacted a plan to flagrantly buy the last election, but it's never had a plan to boost economic growth. There will be a reckoning for this government, because the Australian people, the Australian voters, will not forget this sports rorts program, this fraudulent, corrupt program that you have ownership of. This will go with you for all of your careers, because you all played a part in it. You should be ashamed of yourselves. You should just apologise. You do not support the economy.
I thank the member for Brand for bringing forward this MPI, because we on this side of the House, as Liberal-Nationals, know that a strong economy is essential for all Australians. It funds all the essential services that so many people rely on.
Before coming into this House, I ran my own small family-owned business and employed between 15 and 20 people. As a small business owner, I know the pressures that many small, medium and family businesses are under when employing people. When the economy slows, when times get a bit tough or when you have 6.3 per cent unemployment like we do in Queensland, the highest in the country, it's tough on small and medium businesses. We appreciate our staff. We value their contribution to our businesses and we want to make sure that they have a job going forward.
Today the Treasurer mentioned that it was the 24th anniversary yesterday of the Howard government coming to office in 1996. Those on this side of the House remember that the Keating government left the Howard-Costello government a debt of some $96 billion. Nothing has changed. Howard and Costello paid off that debt, left $50 billion in the bank, grew the Future Fund and so forth. When we came to government in 2013 the situation was far worse. We had a much higher debt, which we inherited from the Rudd-Gillard-Rudd government, a fact that those opposite don't like to know. They went on an unnecessary spending spree that they claimed saved the country. What saved the country was 11 prudent years of the Howard-Costello government balancing the budget and leaving money in the bank for those opposite. Australians know this.
The reason why our government won in May was that we had a plan around the economy and that plan didn't involve taxing Australians another $387 billion in new taxes. Can you imagine where retirees would be today if this mob opposite had got in and taken away their dividend imputation, taken away the extra money they had? Where would people trying to rent in this country be if those opposite had introduced negative gearing and all the other new taxes that they wanted to implement?
No, it wasn't luck that the coalition won; it was a plan around the economy. Since we were elected in May, we proceeded with $300 billion in legislated tax cuts. That will mean that many Australians earning $90,000 a year—$95,000 a year very soon—will have their 37c tax bracket eliminated completely. What it will mean, in the not too distant future under the legislated tax cuts that have gone through, is that people earning upwards to a higher income will only pay 30c in the dollar, and that will mean more money in people's pockets for the majority of Australians. That's very important.
We also know that this government, the coalition government, the Liberal-National government, has reduced taxes for businesses. That has also been very, very important, because, when you're employing people, that all helps. I said today to the member for Curtin, over in Western Australia: 'What about your electorate in Curtin? What are we doing there to help people?' She spoke about the instant asset write-off, where businesses can immediately write off assets and get a tax deduction. She spoke about the changes through the Deregulation Taskforce to help small and medium businesses with simplification of business registers. So a local cafe in Curtin or in Petrie employing staff for the first time—they haven't done it before—can now go to servicesaustralia.gov.au and see how they do it. The information is there.
I spoke to the member for Barker, down in South Australia, who has a lot of farmers in his electorate—cattle farmers, sheep farmers, horticulture, citrus, almonds, wine, grapes. Mr Deputy Speaker Howarth, in your electorate, you would have a lot of that. By negotiating world-leading free trade agreements, the Morrison government, the coalition government, has helped the farmers of Barker to work through the non-tariff barrier, and, when exporting fruit and citrus overseas, the fruit fly-free status into countries like China has been a game changer for electorates like Barker. The member for Barker spoke about the instant asset tax write off. He spoke about the increased thresholds to $800,000 for farm management deposits, which is just fantastic. If farmers have a bumper year and take $1.1 million in earnings one year and they withdraw $300,000 and pay tax on it, they can leave $800,000 in there for future years in times of drought. They might go through three years of drought and they can withdraw that $800,000 down and then pay tax on it. That has been a game changer for farmers in Barker.
I spoke to the member for Brisbane. Our government is working hard to build a stronger recycling sector and circular economy in Australia. Prime Minister Morrison has announced that Australia will ban the export of our plastic waste and other waste streams like glass, mixed paper and tyres. The Prime Minister said, 'It's our waste; it's our responsibility, and our government sees the problem of plastics as an opportunity to create jobs.' We're currently working with state governments to create more jobs locally. The environment is very important to people in my electorate of Petrie as well. Locally, I'm installing a couple of sea bins in a couple of the local marinas. These collect plastics and so forth, which is really important.
When I spoke to the member for Hinkler, the Minister for Resources, Water and Northern Australia, he spoke about the 200 workers on site in the Adani coalmine in Queensland right know. We know that if those opposite were in government, those 200 people would not have a job. Those 200 people would not have a job under a Labor government. It's important to note that the Corio MP said, 'If thermal coal markets collapse, that would be a good thing.' And what does the member for Corio get in return for saying that? He gets promoted to Deputy Leader of the Opposition.
Before the election, the Leader of the Opposition said on radio that there was no market for thermal coal; yet here we are shipping coal and there are 200 new jobs right now in the Adani coalmine. We are shipping coal to China and India, and basically anyone with a coal-powered station, because they want our clean coal. We know that those opposite would not have provided those 200 jobs. We know that the Palaszczuk government in Queensland—which has the worst unemployment rate in the country—would not have signed off on it. They ran around like chooks with their heads cut off after a sweeping victory in Queensland. Why? Because they were caught out. There are reasons why the coalition government was elected, those opposite, and unless you wake up, you won't know. I'll tell you what: in relation to my own electorate and sporting opportunities, we're going to get a lot more.
Ms Wells interjecting—
We're going to get more for Lilley too. We're going to get a lot more opportunities. If it wasn't for people like me, member for Lilley, people like the Sandgate Hawks wouldn't have had that opportunity. It's really good for local people. I'll stand up for the Sandgate Hawks, the Peninsula Power Football Club and the Redcliffe Dolphins and every other sporting organisation around. We will get a lot more for Petrie, I can tell you that. There will be more coming. The Hobart City Deal: as the assistant minister, I can say that we have put in $1 billion.
Ms Madeleine King interjecting—
The member who raised the MPI says, 'What has the Hobart City Deal got to do with it?' It's jobs, the economy. Member for Brand, it's your MPI. We're only pumping a billion dollars into the Hobart City Deal, which should be welcomed by Tasmanians and by the member for Brand. The Morrison government's investment in Hobart is a huge boost for the economy, funding vital infrastructure in the region. It also includes a $30 million investment into community housing. I welcome that investment. We want to see more investment in community housing. We want to see more state governments supporting community housing. I welcome the safe places investment that the Morrison government is looking at right now. We've got some $200 million in new housing for women and children escaping domestic violence.
Ms Madeleine King interjecting—
Member for Brand, this is important stuff. This is what the Morrison government is doing to support the economy. It's your MPI. This is what we're doing. Finally, I welcome today's interest rate cut. It is great for young homebuyers that are paying off their home. We have also introduced the instant asset tax write-off and we're helping people—7,000 people have put in for the deposit scheme. For older Australians, because the economy's strong, we're putting more medicines on the PBS. (Time expired)
My 85-year-old constituent Jean Carter has had it tough. Last September her granddaughter, who lived in the same Wreck Bay house, passed away. Then the fires came within five kilometres of Wreck Bay and she was forced to evacuate. Ms Carter is a member of the stolen generations. She prefers self-reliance to government handouts, but she struggles to access what little disaster assistance is available from the Morrison government.
Here in Canberra, the Belconnen Tennis Club applied for a grant to upgrade their 50-year-old lighting system. Their submission ranked 82 out of 100: it did better than hundreds of applications that were funded. As President Martin Klein said after they were knocked back: 'To play tennis, you need to be able to see the ball.'
But those opposite do their best work in the dark. You can have a go, but the only way you will get a go is if you're a well-connected insider. You have a regional fund used to upgrade the North Sydney pool. You have $50,000 going to a sports club in the Prime Minister's electorate for a project that had already been built. It's a mateocracy, not a meritocracy. As the line goes, those opposite were born on third base thinking they had hit a triple. They cling to trickle-down economics, the idea that the best way of helping out baristas is to give barristers a tax cut and it's all right to give a tax cut to surgeons and a penalty rate cut to nurses.
As the member for Brand has highlighted in bringing this important MPI forward, the economy is in a bad way. Unemployment is a full percentage point higher than in the United States, Germany, Britain or New Zealand. It has been that way for years. Productivity is falling. Debt is rising. The startup rate is down. Today the Reserve Bank cut interest rates to 0.5 per cent—one-sixth of the level that they were during the global financial crisis.
Let's remember what Joe Hockey—remember Joe Hockey?—said in 2013 when rates were cut. He said, 'They're not cutting interest rates because the economy is doing well; interest rates are being cut to 50-year lows because the economy is struggling.' Now we're not at a 50-year low; we're at a historic low. The economy's problems are not new, despite what the government will try and say. As the Reserve Bank governor told the House Economics Committee in February:
… the extended period of unusually slow growth in household incomes has been weighing on household spending …
We should have seen, over recent years, the Australian economy growing like the member for Fadden's internet bill, but instead we've seen it shrinking, like a bushfire victim when the Prime Minister approaches for a handshake. Australians have all the job security that the head of Tourism Australia had in 2006!
The fact is that, when it comes to economic management, the past decade has seen the bipartisan undoing of much of the damage that Peter Costello did as Treasurer. We've wound back unsustainable superannuation tax concessions, axed the baby bonus, means-tested the private health insurance rebate. Yet those opposite are like a duckling that follows the first animal it sees. Their idea of good economic management is to run razor-thin surpluses. Forget human capital, infrastructure, countercyclical fiscal policy; don't worry about a structural deficit. If you had a notional surplus, Costello was happy. But the 'kids of Costello' can't even get that right. When those opposite came to office, debt was around $8,000 per Australian. Now it's over $17,000 per Australian. Last year they were saying they had 'delivered' a surplus. Now their 'Back in black' coffee mugs are mysteriously out of stock. They can't decide if they're Arthur or Martha. They take the approach of Yogi Berra: 'When you come to a fork in the road, take it.'
It's not surprising confidence is down when you recall the Prime Minister's track record. His first big idea was to increase the GST. He called the banking royal commission a 'populist whinge' and voted against it 26 times. He put his arm around Malcolm Turnbull one day and took his job the next. He said electric vehicles would 'end the weekend', and now he's saying his answer to climate change is technology. As for the Treasurer, his department's latest annual report says that Treasury outcome 1 is 'to improve the wellbeing of the Australian people'. So what does he do? He comes in here and takes a whack at his own department, offending New Zealanders and Hindu Australians on the way.
Those opposite would like to say they're the heirs to Menzies, but, really, they're the successors to Fraser. The Prime Minister is as miserable as a bandicoot and leads a government of know-nothings who stand for nothing and do nothing.
It is very difficult to take this MPI seriously. If the others opposite won't take it seriously, what are we meant to do about it? This is like debating a bunch of chatbots. The member for Fenner simply put together a whole bunch of cliches that he's been trotting out in his speeches for the last three years that I've been in this place. The great offence here is not the MPI; the really great offence here is the fact that he can't even be bothered coming up with new material. He's such a great reader, you'd think he would have thought of something new. I see the member for Fraser is getting ready to speak. They talk about human capital over there. This is how they use their best and brightest: they put them up as cannon fodder in an MPI that doesn't even make sense. The punctuation's not even right!
At least they're doing something for recycling today! At least the member for Fenner recycled a whole bunch of cliches. We're recycling plastic on this side; they're recycling cliches on that side.
Let us not forget the mess—to call it a mess is really expanding the sense and definition of that word—in economic terms that those opposite left us with. They had a runaway budget deficit. They had rising unemployment. They had government debt rising at 30 per cent per annum. They made the labour market in this country more rigid than any other labour market in the world, and of course they won't talk about fixing that. I wonder: how much money did all of you get from the unions in the last election cycle? 'We won't talk about helping ordinary Australians because we wouldn't want to offend our biggest donors.' You guys are all about putting workers first! You guys put workers first! Just ask the people in the coalmines about workers. Just ask the teachers in schools about workers.
Wow! The problem with these guys is that they don't even know what the economy is. I could be talking about the economy using crayons and butcher paper and they still wouldn't get it. Of course, the member for Fraser and the member for Fenner are exempt from that. Maybe they could help those on that side actually understand what an economy looks like. Every time they get into government, the economy disappears. There is no economy. You leave us with a mess. When we get back in government we fix up the mess you left. Then what do you do? You come to this place and complain about it.
Do you know what this MPI should say? This MPI should say: 'We thank the Morrison government for fixing up the mess we left.' That's what it should say. Frankly, I'm going to pretend that's what it does say. That's a much-better MPI topic than the chatbot that the Leader of the Opposition's office came up with today. It's just absurd. Your responsible lending laws, which effectively make lenders responsible for the behaviour of borrowers, have dried up our capital markets and have destroyed the economy and economic activity. Now you come in here and say to us, 'Why haven't you fixed it yet?' You create the most rigid labour markets in the world. Under you real wages fell and under us they're increasing.
Opposition members interjecting—
Can't we all come together over a union official bullying a woman, who was a subcontractor, on a building site? I would have thought the parliament could come together over that. But not these blokes—no, no, no. They see the dollars going in the bank, they see the donors coming to the dinners and they're not interested.
It's nice to see that order has been restored to the House. It's genuinely nice to have an opportunity to have a debate in this parliament. Since the election in May last year we have been shut down so many times by those opposite that those of us who are new have had very few opportunities to debate matters of great consequence to the nation, such as the economy. So thanks—thanks for your sympathy, thanks for your compassion and thanks for giving us this opportunity. You normally act like a bunch of schoolchildren in this chamber, specifically schoolboys. You on that side of the chamber are like schoolboys who have a weird obsession with stripy ties, like schoolboys who thump the table when someone makes a particularly petty point—that seems to go down very well over there—and like schoolboys who, despite the fact that they clearly all did it in high school, missed the opportunity to have a proper private school debate. So that's what they do and what they give us instead.
It's such a pleasure to give these schoolboys their report card on the economy. I know they take great exception to our opinion, so I won't put that on them. What I will do is give them the opinions of the experts in our country. The renowned bastion of socialism the Ai Group said, 'We can see that from well before the onset of the devastating bushfires the Australian economy has been slowing.' Those rampaging communists Deloitte said back in October 2019, 'The pain in our economy has been home-grown.' EY, those barefoot vegans, said, 'The economy is losing momentum quite quickly.' PwC said, 'The imperative for additional stimulation of the economy remains.' Finally BCA, the workers' friends, said, 'We need to pull all the levers if we really want to get a sustained rise in investment to lock in future productivity growth and income growth.' That's your report card. That is the national report card on how you've been managing the books for seven very long years.
Let me tell you about the experience of people in my electorate of Lilley. In just the past few months, under your watch—which you boast about for 90 minutes every single day you come here—Lockheed Martin has completely shut down operations in Pinkenba, the corporate office of Virgin Australia in inner-northern Brisbane has cut 750 jobs and Arnott's, the iconic Australian company that provides us all with biscuits that we love, has been sold to a US private equity giant.
No Tim Tams for that side of the chamber. Look what you did. The Courier Mail has called Nundah 'the village of the dammed' because the shopfront situation there is so bad. The retail figures under your watch are so appalling that shopfronts cannot prosper there anymore. Just last week Tigerair announced that they would be closing operations in Brisbane. That will mean up to 100 jobs lost. Finally, Jetstar treats its workers so poorly that they have had to strike for eight months to try and get something better than the insecure work they are being offered by the bosses in this economy. That is what it looks like in the real world. That is what your economy does to people out in the real world.
You should be hanging your heads in shame and you should be burying yourselves in your phones, because for 90 minutes every day we have to hear about how you're engraving your medals with what a great job you've done. That is not how it feels to people in the real world. That's only how it feels to people on the 'HMAS Aloha' on that side of the chamber, led and captained by the PM who says that he can do a better job at managing peoples' money than anybody else. During the election he said: 'It's not their money; it's your money. It's not our money; it's your money.' Look what he did with your money—$100 million rorted, $100 million misspent!
What does that look like on the ground? It mean the mums and dads and volunteers and active citizens who gave up hours and hours of their time each week to fill out a grant application in the hope that their 1960s toilets, which are shared by the weightlifters and the soccer kids, might get an upgrade—did they get an upgrade? No, not unless they're in a key Liberal marginal seat, they didn't. Instead, this Prime Minister shovelled $100 million out the door to bolster his own political prospects. Now he has been caught red-handed, and day in, day out we have to listen to the most feeble defence. But it will come undone. You will all come undone by this. We will watch this with some pleasure, because, as we heard today, despite the fact that, clearly, answers are required, the Prime Minister is still only referring to them as 'on rorter' matters.
Despite the fact that the grants were supposed to be given on merit, we are operating in a 'merortocracy' under this government. The Prime Minister, under the Prime Minister's XI, is now 'the rorter boy'. We are all operating under 'Rortership Down', and I hope very much that you do not find yourselves with the same ending as 'On the Rorter Front.'
It's another week in Canberra and it's another assertion from those opposite that is just plain wrong. There's more doom and gloom from the member for Brand, when the reality is quite the opposite, because we on this side are getting on with the job and we always do. We're getting on with the job of securing our future through a stronger economy. We're making sure taxes are low so that Australians can keep more of what they earn. Unlike those opposite, we believe Australians know how best to spend their money, not the other way around. Equally true is the fact that Australians know they can't trust Labor to manage money. How do Australians know that we are on the right track with regard to economic management? Well, I can tell you: we have had 29 years of consecutive unprecedented economic growth. The Morrison government, with my good friend the member for Kooyong, Josh Frydenberg, as Treasurer, has balanced the budget for the first time in 11 years.
But we're not the only ones who think we're doing a good job: just look to the external bodies such as the International Monetary Fund. The IMF is predicting that Australia will grow faster than the US, Canada, Japan, France, Germany and the UK—countries with similar economies and government structures—over the next two years. Australia holds a AAA credit rating and has done for eight consecutive years, one of only 10 countries in the world to have maintained a AAA credit rating. The Reserve Bank governor, Philip Lowe, is also positive about Australia's economic future under our strong economic management. The Reserve Bank isn't known for getting ahead of itself. The Reserve Bank governor confirmed:
Australia's economic fundamentals remain very strong and they provide a solid foundation for us to be optimistic about our future.
We know that those opposite like to talk down the economy. As one of my constituents in Higgins told me, Labor is the party of the glass half empty while we are the party of the glass half full. Where Labor sees problems, we see opportunity. We understand the resilience of Australians. We understand and support the resilience of Australian businesses. We understand and support our economy despite headwinds. Whether they are trade headwinds, bushfires, droughts or now the coronavirus, we understand and invest in businesses getting ahead. We know that Australians trust us to take sensible and proportional steps to help build confidence and act to build a strengthened economy.
When you have a strong economy, you can provide a better safety net when we hit external headwinds. When the devastating bushfires ravaged New South Wales and Victoria earlier this year, the Morrison government was there to lend a hand. And the government's support will continue as our bushfire affected communities rebuild. We can and will weather the storm of a public-health emergency like coronavirus. No-one could have possibly foreseen the speed at which this new virus moved, but Australia was ready. We were ready because of the investments we have made in research and development of institutions like the Doherty institute. Australia has been at the forefront of the response to this terrible global epidemic. I commend the government for its investment in the Doherty institute in creating and developing a vaccine.
It's because of the actions we've taken on the coronavirus that we've got ahead. That includes our responses that have been proportionate and include communication and containment, responses with the Diamond Princessand responses with investment in medical research into the coronavirus vaccine. And we intend to stay ahead. Together as a country we will get through this.
We are supporting Australians through a strong economy and in turn creating a strong future for the next generation. Economically we will weather this storm, and already the Treasury is working on a suite of measures that are targeted, modest, and scalable so we can adjust accordingly as economic implications are realised. Unlike those opposite, we are supporting Australians for the next generation through a strong economy.
I rise to commend the Shadow Minister for Trade for raising this motion today, a critical day when the Reserve Bank has dropped the cash rate to all-time lows. As she indicated, it is not because the economy is in a position of strength but as a reflection of the weakness of this economy. I will argue today that this motion should be supported because this government has sat on its hands for seven years, which places us in a position of far greater weakness than we ought to be in when we face the inevitable economic shocks that arise. When shocks do arise, often with some warning, this government does not respond in a timely fashion.
Let's firstly look at the state of our economy. Those opposite—the Treasurer, the Prime Minister and even some of those who have spoken today—come in here and pat themselves on the back every day of every sitting week, repetitively misquoting and misrepresenting economic statistics. If we look at a series of comparator economies, we find that those opposite can only claim our economy is doing well when they use aggregate figures—when they count up the number of jobs being created or look at gross domestic product in aggregate terms. When you reduce economic figures to per capita terms—what really matters to people—you find that our performance is far worse than those opposite are willing to concede.
They will say, for example, 'Our economic growth in aggregate terms is faster than Japan,' without telling anybody that our population growth is two full percentage points faster than Japan. When you look at it in per capita terms, our GDP per capita growth is lower than Japan's. There are any number of tables out there showing that we drop down the table dramatically when you look at us in per capita terms.
So let's look at economic statistics that matter to real people in real terms. What about wages growth? It is the lowest on record. What about labour productivity growth? It is going backwards for the first time ever. Let's look at how households responded to the first tranche of tax cuts. Twenty-five per cent of it was spent, according to bank estimates. That's far lower than any economic modellers had estimated. Let's look at unemployment and underemployment. Those opposite will occasionally compare our unemployment figures with some other comparable countries, but what they don't acknowledge is that underemployment in this country is going through the roof. It's over eight per cent and climbing, and in some areas is more than 10 per cent. And labour under-utilisation in some regional areas of Australia is nearly 20 per cent, or one in five workers who aren't being given the opportunity to use their talents. More importantly than that are the structural problems in our economy where many people are not earning enough, even from their main job, to put food on the table and are being subjected to worse and worse insecurity in the workplace because of the uneven laws that this government has put in place and won't reform. So the economy, for seven years, has been lacklustre and, in many key respects, worsening.
What we also find is that we have seen a number of negative shocks to the economy, but we have seen warnings given to this government that this government has not acted upon. Let's look at the bushfires. We had fire experts begging to meet with the Prime Minister months in advance of this terrible fire season. He wouldn't meet with them. They had a number of practical policies which they wanted the Prime Minister to consider. Moreover, once we had the fire season, this government has been all too slow to respond.
We've had question time after question time where this government fails to answer questions about people who are not being given benefits. The bushfires was a classic example. Coronavirus looks like being another example. We have had weeks and weeks now where the world has become aware of a growing risk of a pandemic. What is this government doing? It is sitting on its hands, week after week after week. Presumably all this government is doing is hoping it can squeeze a surplus, so it's going to wait until the budget, which will be four full months after there were well-disclosed risks arising in the global economy. This government, yet again, is sitting on its hands.
This government's economic mismanagement takes two forms: year after year it does nothing when we need productivity reform and we need structural reform, and, then, when we actually have risks that arise—like the bushfires, like the drought, like the coronavirus—this government does not respond in a timely fashion to warnings. We've put forward a willingness to discuss all sorts of policies with the government such as targeted tax relief, an increase in Newstart, infrastructure investment and business tax incentives. They don't want to talk to us. We have said we would sit down in a constructive way. As the shadow minister for trade has said, we have supported trade initiatives that have benefited this economy. We would support timely measures that this economy needs in the face of coronavirus. We shouldn't wait till the budget.
I thank the member for Brand for the important opportunity to talk about our economic record and how our economy is well-placed to withstand external shocks. Let's examine our economic record. We are in our 29th year of economic growth, which is a record for any developed country. We've run our first current account surplus in 45 years—our first current account surplus since 1975. We've been running a trade surplus now for a record 24 months, which means, to lay people, we're exporting more than we're importing. We have the lowest welfare dependency ratio in 30 years, which means we've got more people in jobs and less people on welfare. We've got the longest unbroken month-on-month jobs growth since monthly records began in 1978. In the year to January 2020, employment grew 1.9 per cent—that's double the OECD average. We've created 80,000 jobs in the last three months, and 311,000 jobs in the year to October 2019. Our workforce participation is at record levels, with almost 75 per cent of the population aged 15 to 64 in a job. We've handed down the first balanced budget in 11 years, which means we have the fiscal headroom to respond to shocks and act in the face of contingencies like bushfire and like the coronavirus. And we've been able to do all this without raising taxes and without imposing special levies or duties.
Our economic outlook is positive. We've got a AAA credit rating from the three ratings agencies—one of only 10 countries to have this. The IMF is forecasting Australia to grow faster than the United States, faster than Canada, faster than Japan, faster than France, faster than Germany and faster than the United Kingdom, for both the years 2020 and 2021. The Reserve Bank Governor said just a few weeks ago, on 7 February: 'When we met six months ago, I said there were signs that the Australian economy may have reached a gentle turning point. The data that we have received since last met is consistent with this.'
I refer you here to a leader in The Economist, published in October 2018, titled, 'What the world can learn from Australia.' I quote:
Rising incomes, low public debt, an affordable welfare state, popular support for mass immigration and a broad consensus on the policies underpinning these things—that is a distant dream in most rich countries. Many Western politicians could scarcely imagine a place that combined them all. Happily, they do not have to, because such a country already exists: Australia. Its economy is arguably the most successful in the rich world.
This is no reason to rest on our laurels. These things do not happen by accident. They happen because of careful planning, careful budget management and things like fiscal consolidation. For the first time in 11 years, last year the budget was returned to balance. Under six years of Labor, under the former member for Lilley, every year there was a deficit, running up $240 billion in debt altogether. Thank you to the former member for Lilley!
We've reduced the growth in spending from four per cent per year under Labor to 1.3 per cent. That's how we've managed to fiscally consolidate. We've done this whilst delivering tax cuts: tax cuts for households and tax cuts for small businesses, allowing people to keep more of what they earn. When these tax cuts are implemented in full, over 94 per cent of Australians will be paying no more than 30 cents in the dollar. We've done this whilst we've still invested record amounts in public services—schemes like the National Disability Insurance Scheme; adding over 2,000 new lifesaving medicines to the PBS—
Opposition members interjecting—
Remember that—the PBS? The one that you guys didn't add any medicines to? We've done record infrastructure spending. We've overseen once-in-a-generation modernisation and investment in our defence forces and capability, getting defence spending up to two per cent of GDP. We've concluded free trade agreements with China, Japan, Korea, Indonesia, Hong Kong, and the 11 nations in the Trans-Pacific Partnership. We are negotiating free trade agreements with the European Union, the United Kingdom and the 16-nation Regional Economic Comprehensive Partnership. All this is at a time of growing global opposition to free trade.
There's no doubt that we face tough economic conditions. We've still got the impact of the drought from last year. We've got the coronavirus, whose impact is highly uncertain. We've got bushfires, too, which will detract from growth. But with strong policy settings, supportive fiscal and monetary policies and a strong public health system, we will act to safeguard our economy. We will act to safeguard the Australian people. And we will emerge from this, as we have in the past, stronger and better for it.
We come into this House and often hear from the leadership double act—the Treasurer and the Prime Minister—about what cunning plans they have for the economy. Truly, the Treasurer is the Baldrick of this government and the Prime Minister is Blackadder. With the performance from the member for Mackellar we have a pretty good candidate for George as well.
Baldrick and Blackadder would get into all sorts of scrapes, whereupon the hapless Baldrick would suggest he had a 'cunning plan' that would somehow get the dynamic duo out of a mess of their own making. As other speakers have eloquently put it, the lack of leadership from the Treasurer and Prime Minister is responsible for the parlous state of our economy. They are the architects of what was a flatlining economy before the summer commenced and before the challenges of bushfires and now coronavirus. Australian families, workers and businesses were already counting the cost of this government's inaction and ineptitude.
As well as other economic problems, those opposite are the key architects of wage stagnation in this country. This is where they have confidently led by example, ensuring that their own workforce—the Australian Public Service and the broader Australian government workforce—has been restricted from genuine pay increases for the duration of this Abbott/Turnbull/Morrison government. They have supported penalty rate cuts across the hospitality and retail sectors, ensuring that tens of thousands of Australian workers and their families have had significantly thinner pay packets and tighter budgets not offset by tax cuts. Yes, they are the architects of wage stagnation, as the finance minister has previously crowed. They have paired those penalty-rate cuts with a raft of anti-union legislation. There has been close to silence on the case for minimum wage rises—although they were pretty fast to claim credit for decisions made by the Fair Work Commission, when it suits—let alone the failure to act on Newstart. They've relied on an endless series of fantasy based forecasts that wages growth was about to surge. The constituents of Bean are still waiting for that surge to happen. The end result is that Baldrick and Blackadder have trapped us in a low-confidence vortex of their own making. That has been their cunning plan.
And then we have the Reserve Bank cutting the cash rate again today. They have cut this to just 0.5 per cent. That's a mark of some economic success! Those opposite set the bar. They said, 'Judge us by our economic management.' Well, on multiple fronts, they are failing, and it's because they have no plans, no targets, no push for wage growth that is credible. The Reserve Bank have today passed their judgement. We are well beyond emergency levels, to a record low. It is a new low for the cash rate and a new low for this government's economic credibility. As noted by those before, today's decision represents the fourth interest rate in 10 months, leaving the cash rate close to zero, only one-sixth of what it was through the depths of the global financial crisis.
The absence of economic leadership and an economic plan have left Australians dangerously exposed to economic risks. In his statement today, the Reserve Bank governor highlighted that unemployment has increased and that subdued wages growth is not expected to pick up for some time. While the coronavirus will have a substantial economic impact, it doesn't explain or excuse seven years of economic mismanagement and underperformance under this government. It doesn't excuse the $8.1 billion, as outlined by one of Australia's great financial journalists, Michael Pascoe, that has come from politically rorted federal programs—programs focused on election outcomes rather than economic or community benefit. We know that that's what their real cunning plan was.
This isn't a Richard Curtis comedy; it's a tragedy. Put all too simply and all too disappointingly: for working people and small business in my community of Bean, the government has failed to adequately support the economy, and it's time to stop taking Australians for mugs.
It's rare that I actually join in on a matter of public importance. It's a longstanding policy of mine, normally for two reasons. One, it just seems to be a platform for people that want to hark back to their university days, when they were in the debating club, and serves no real point. The second thing is that it harms my mental health to hear some of the arguments from the opposition. I've got to say, today, once again, we've seen that. The matter of public importance that's been put forward by the member for Brand—quite honestly, I have to ask: are the member for Brand's eyes painted on? Are her ears there for decoration? Does she honestly believe that the country is not adequately prepared economically? The government is investing $100 billion in infrastructure right around this nation—a mammoth amount in projects all over Australia.
An opposition member interjecting—
The Bruce Highway upgrades are all up and down the coast, including stage 5 of the Townsville Ring Road; we've done stage 4 already. There is the Walkerston Bypass. I could be here for a long time. The Mackay Northern Access Upgrade—do the members opposite really want me to go on and on? I could. Do you know what? Some of these are the very infrastructure projects that they come in here and complain about. They say, 'Oh, there's too much going into coalition electorates.' Let me tell you: that's what good advocacy does. All of those people on the other side who complain that their electorates don't get much—when they're pointing the finger at the government there should be three or four pointing back at them. It is their failure as a good local member to go in and bang the doors of ministers' offices, bang the desks and demand for their electorates what their electorates deserve. If they don't do that, if they haven't braced the door of a minister's office since they've been here, then they are not decent local representatives. That is the fact. I can tell you, I did it under the Gillard era and the little sliver of Kevin Rudd that we got. I went to ministers, I wrote to ministers and I harangued ministers about getting local infrastructure. I say to those people who are complaining about what coalition electorates got to do the same thing, to be good local members.
It's government investment in local areas, particularly in regional areas, that drives job creation and business growth. It's also the fact that we have deployed a range of measures, from the proposed tax cuts, which have already been delivered, to the small-business instant asset write-off. They have actually caused Australia's economy to be in a very good place going into the economic headwinds we are probably about to go into with the coronavirus and the impact of the bushfires. Our AAA credit rating has been reaffirmed by three leading agencies, one of only 10 countries around the world, and yet the member who put this forward, the member for Brand, reckons that we're not supported adequately in terms of the economy. Employment actually grew by almost two per cent through the year to January 2020, almost double the OECD average. It compares to just 0.7 per cent when those guys were in office. But according to the member for Brand—no eyes and no ears, obviously—we're failing to adequately support the economy. The last three months of jobs data have beaten median market expectations, with around 80,000 jobs created. But apparently the economy is not prepared adequately. More people are in jobs, fewer people are on welfare—