Thursday, 18 March 2021
Appropriation Bill (No. 3) 2020-2021; Second Reading
Despite some welcome news today on the jobs front, it remains the case that there are two million Australians who either are unemployed or can't find enough hours to support their loved ones. So, while we can welcome the pleasing developments in the economy, we also need to acknowledge those troubling aspects of what we're seeing as we emerge from the deepest, most damaging recession in almost a century. Those two million Australians should not be so lightly dismissed by those opposite, who are so keen to engage in this self-congratulation, when what we're really seeing today, with the recovery in some of these jobs numbers, is two things. The first is the dividend that belongs to the Australian people, the credit that belongs to the Australian people, for the way that they've worked together and done the right thing by each other to try and limit the spread of this virus. That has allowed state borders to reopen and all of that. But, secondly, we need to acknowledge that, for two million Australians, the economy has not recovered sufficiently to provide jobs or to provide enough hours for people not just to get by but to get ahead—to provide for their loved ones but also to have the opportunity to meet the aspirations that they have for themselves and for their families. So, as always, we can welcome what is pleasing but we need to recognise what remains troubling about the Australian economy.
This bill before us now, Appropriation Bill (No. 3) 2020-2021, is essentially a budget bill, and the defining feature of the budget is that for the first time in Australia's history we've got well north of $1 trillion in debt. On this side of the House, we well remember that for some years in the aftermath of the GFC, another defining moment in the economic history of this country—in that case, recession was avoided, unlike this time around—those opposite engaged in a big national campaign based on a massive con, which was that somehow they could have avoided racking up a couple of hundred billion dollars in debt during the GFC. They described it then, when debt was a tiny fraction of what it is now, as a debt and deficit disaster. When it was $200 billion or $250 billion, they described it as a debt and deficit disaster. Now they preside over debt which is at $1 trillion and growing.
What we've said all along is that when things are difficult, when there is a case for government to step in and to support people's jobs and livelihoods and get them through a difficult period, obviously there is a role for government spending. That's why we've been so supportive of the programs that the government has implemented. In some cases, we proposed them. One of them, the key one, JobKeeper, was dismissed by those opposite before it was adopted. We welcomed the change of heart. We didn't rub their noses in it, because we wanted to make sure that we could get those wage subsidies in place, and to some extent they have done the job that we have asked of them. So that's important to recognise as well.
But one of the reasons why there's $1 trillion of debt in this budget and we don't have enough to show for that $1 trillion in debt is that, when you go through the budget, you discover that this is a budget riddled with rorts. Today, if the Senate allows the report to be tabled, we'll hear more about sports rorts, for example. We know about the dodgy land deals. We know about the billion dollars spent on advertising. We know about all the money that was spent on market research. We know about all the money that was spent on various other rorts and rip-offs. These things have meant that there is more debt in the budget than is necessary, or, put another way, that there is 'insufficient room'—to use the government's language—to do the right thing by people who are still struggling—those two million Australians that I mentioned at the outset.
As the member for Kingsford Smith spoke about this morning, we got a really important indication of the damage done to the JobKeeper program and to the budget more broadly by the fact that the government, who were solely responsible for determining the eligibility for JobKeeper, have sprayed around hundreds of millions of dollars to companies that made substantial profits. The member for Fenner deserves a lot of credit here for investigating that wastage and staying on the case when it comes to this unnecessary spending of JobKeeper on quite profitable companies.
We also know—and again my colleagues have done a lot of work here—that a lot of JobKeeper money has gone to puffing up executive bonuses. When the Australian people were asked to kick in taxpayer money to support each other's jobs and do the right thing by each other, I am certain that they were not signing up to pay taxpayer-funded executive bonuses.
I'm certain that if the government had said, 'We are going to spray this money around to companies whose profits will not only increase along the usual lines but actually grow'—companies like those the member for Kingsford Smith just mentioned—the Australian people would not have signed up to it. All we're saying is that, if the government hadn't wasted so much money on companies that didn't need JobKeeper, they would now be able to afford to do the right thing by the workers and small businesses that still need government support. I think that is an entirely reasonable point for us to make.
I've spent a lot of time in recent days in Cairns, Launceston and other parts of Australia that are doing it a little bit tougher than the rest of the country. They are told by this government that there's no room and no blank cheque to support people's jobs in areas where things are still difficult; there's no extra money for that. This is at the same time—as we now know from the story in the paper and from the work of the member for Fenner, the member for Kingsford Smith, the member for Whitlam and others—as a lot of money has been wasted on companies that didn't need it.
This is what that says about this government. This is a government that subsidises the strong and singles out and sacrifices the weak, and that's what we're seeing in JobKeeper. If you are a company which is already profitable, if you are a company which wants to pay, in some cases, exorbitant executive bonuses, then the government will throw money at you. If you are a small business in Cairns or Launceston or somewhere else and you're reliant on the opening of the international border, on the end of social distancing or on the government getting out the four million vaccines they promised by the end of this month, then you are being deliberately singled out and sacrificed. You're being left behind by a government which subsidises the strong and singles out and sacrifices the weak.
We're talking about these appropriation bills, these budget bills. We have a massive amount of spending, with more than $1 trillion in debt, at the same time as we've still got those two million unemployed and underemployed. The reason for that is that we are not getting the bang for buck that we need from such massive government spending. On this side of the House, we understand the need for government to spend in difficult times. We've done it before and we've understood that. We've been remarkably consistent for all of the 20 or so years that I've been knocking around this place, in different roles. We've been very consistent. The government, on the other hand, says that $200 billion is a debt and deficit disaster but more than $1 trillion is manageable. All we ask is that we get genuine bang for buck from all of this money that the government is borrowing.
The Treasurer has repeatedly said something I agree with wholeheartedly. He has pointed out time and time again that every dollar is borrowed. He usually says that as a justification for not doing the right thing by the small businesses of Cairns, for example, but it is true that every dollar is borrowed. Every dollar for sports rorts has been borrowed. Every dollar for dodgy land deals has been borrowed. Every dollar spent on taxpayer funded executive bonuses has been borrowed. Every dollar that has gone to businesses that turned out to be extraordinarily profitable during the pandemic was borrowed too. Every one of those billion dollars they spent on advertising themselves has been borrowed. Every one of those dollars they spent on market research has been borrowed. This is a good point that the Treasurer makes. We do need to remember that, when the budget is in the condition that it is in right now, we should be extremely focused on getting bang for buck. There would not be an independent observer of this budget anywhere in this country who would look at the budget and think that that money is better spent on companies that are already profitable rather than on companies that still need a little bit of help.
At the end of this month—not far away now; less than two weeks—JobKeeper will be cut. Again the government says there's no blank cheque. There seems to have been a blank cheque when they were buying land around the airport, but there's no blank cheque to continue to support people. Imagine if we had a government that had the competence but also the compassion to say, 'We would be better off spending these hundreds of millions of dollars on businesses that genuinely need it and their workers rather than businesses that by any measure have not needed it and executives who by any measure have not needed extra assistance or extra executive bonuses.'
It remains to be seen what the impact of the cutting of JobKeeper will be on the jobs market. Treasury says about 100,000 jobs could be lost, Commonwealth Bank says 110,000, and respected labour market economist Jeff Borland says 250,000. We don't know. We genuinely hope that the number will be nowhere near as big as that, but it remains to be seen. As the member for Monash, my colleague Mr Broadbent, has said in this place during the week, one job lost to cuts to JobKeeper is one too many.
We have said repeatedly that the future of JobKeeper, the future of a million workers on the payment, the future of those most at risk of losing their jobs, is in the government's hands. That means that any jobs lost from JobKeeper cuts will be on their heads. It's not too late for the government to come forward and say: 'You know what? We shouldn't have sprayed all this money around on companies which were already strong, and we should do a little bit more for a little bit longer for those small businesses who are doing it tough.' As I said before, it's a government which subsidises the strong and sacrifices the weak. That's what we're seeing. So, in a couple of weeks time, unfortunately, when that JobKeeper payment is cut, we will learn who has been left behind. We have learnt which Australian workers and small businesses have been especially vulnerable.
It would be one thing if the government had met its other commitments, such as getting four million vaccinations away by the end of the month—as we're reminded by others, they're almost four million short of their four million target in March. Remember, they had those two commitments next to each other. They said at the end of March they would cut JobKeeper and have four million vaccinations away. I notice they've stuck firmly to their announcement that they'd be cutting something for workers and businesses. The commitment that fell by the wayside—that big, yawning gulf between announcement and delivery that exists on that side of the parliament—is that vaccination commitment. What that means is that companies may have taken the government at their word that they were going to get all these vaccinations away and thought: 'We'll just hang in until the end of March. A big chunk of the Australian population will be vaccinated by then because the Prime Minister said they would be.' But they're now having to confront the JobKeeper cuts without the vaccinations out there. It's a government that's very quick to cut economic support but very slow to meet its commitments on vaccination.
We've heard again and again—and I agree with the Treasurer on this point too—that the rollout of the vaccine will have big economic consequences. When the government was making these big promises about October and about four million by the end of March, they were saying at the time that there would be this big economic dividend from doing things that quickly. So there must be an economic consequence for doing things so slowly. So let's hear what that is. Let's hear what this consequences of the JobKeeper cuts will be. Let's hear what the consequences are of going slow on the vaccine and bumbling the rollout of the vaccine. Even though we have some Australians returning to work in this recovery, too many are being left out and left behind, too many have been deliberately left in the lurch, too many are subject to the bumbling of the vaccine. We owe it to the Australian people, who have done so much to get through this together, to do what we can to support their employment for a little bit longer.