House debates

Thursday, 24 November 2022


Appropriation Bill (No. 1) 2022-2023; Consideration in Detail

10:26 am

Photo of Tanya PlibersekTanya Plibersek (Sydney, Australian Labor Party, Minister for the Environment and Water) Share this | | Hansard source

It's a great pleasure to contribute to this consideration in detail on the budget measures connected to my portfolios, environment and water. I'll also touch on the appropriations that fall under the responsibility of the Minister and the Assistant Minister for Climate Change and Energy.

It has been just six months since the new Labor government was elected, and we're absolutely getting on and delivering our commitments. The October budget is a demonstration of that. Australians tell me that they can already see the difference. The environment is back. People are telling me that it's a breath of fresh air and what our country desperately needs. Obviously, we can't fix a decade of Liberal Party neglect and damage to our environment overnight, but we've hit the ground running. We have higher ambition on climate change; a clear path to net zero; no new extinctions; a crackdown on gases that are bad for the ozone layer; new laws that better protect the environment and give businesses faster, clearer decisions; an Environmental Protection Agency; a tough cop on the beat to enforce those new laws; and a commitment to protect 30 per cent of our land and 30 per cent of our oceans by 2030. We've announced a new nature repair market to reward farmers and other landholders for their work in restoring and protecting the environment. We've committed to expanding blue carbon projects, more mangroves and sea grasses, making our oceans cleaner and getting carbon out of the atmosphere, reducing problematic plastics, developing environmentally friendly plastic alternatives, and making recycling easier for families and businesses. There's always more to do, but we are getting on with the job.

This budget delivers $1.8 billion in funding into the future for the environment. This is a downpayment on our commitment to prioritising the environment after almost a decade of neglect under the former government. The Australian government is delivering on its election promises. There is a range of targeted investments to reverse the declines seen under the previous government. The Australian government will build on the commitments in this budget when we respond to the Samuel review of the Environmental Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act in the coming weeks.

In this budget, we see a record $1.2 billion invested to protect and restore our iconic Great Barrier Reef, including $204 million of additional new funding; $90 million over six years to employ and upskill 1,000 Landcare rangers to help conserve and restore our environment; an additional $66½ million over six years to support 10 new Indigenous protected areas, bringing us closer to the government's commitment to protect and conserve 30 per cent of our land and ocean by 2030—this brings the total investment to Indigenous protected areas to $235 million over five years—$14.7 million to protect First Nations cultural and heritage places; $224½ million for actions to help threatened species, places and recovery activities prioritised under the Threatened Species Action Plan, including targeted koala programs, the eradication of gamba grass and yellow crazy ants; and $10.8 million to improve ocean and marine park management in Australia and strengthen our international environmental leadership in ocean related policy. There will be $91.1 million over six years for the first round of our $200 million election promise to improve local waterways through the Urban Rivers and Catchments Program.

Turning to dam and water infrastructure, the Australian government is investing to secure our precious natural water resources for future generations. We will invest more than a billion dollars in water infrastructure projects, including Paradise Dam, Cairns Water Security Stage 1, the Mount Morgan water supply, Big Rocks Weir, groundwater improvements and water efficiency on the lower Burdekin, the Pipeline to Prosperity in Tasmania, the Darwin regional water supply, Adelaide River science project, the Nyngan to Cobar pipeline, strategic planning for improving water security in Queensland, and so much more. We've also put aside a billion dollars for future water infrastructure projects that are properly costed and will deliver results.

The 2023 budget delivers long overdue investments in Australia's obligations to meet our climate challenge and energy transformation. These investments are central to our economic plan, reducing emissions and developing new industries and jobs as a renewable energy superpower. The international fuel crisis triggered by Russia's illegal war has shown the consequence of a decade of underinvestment and neglect in renewables, the cheapest form of new energy.

10:31 am

Photo of Ted O'BrienTed O'Brien (Fairfax, Liberal Party, Shadow Minister for Climate Change and Energy) Share this | | Hansard source

I think we can all agree that there is a shared purpose within the Australian parliament of having an orderly decarbonisation of the Australian economy. I would like to think that all Australians and, indeed, all parliamentarians believe that we should have a cleaner future, one in which Australia remains a prosperous, high-wealth country and is strong and fiercely independent with its own sovereignty.

The question, however, is always going to come down to how we achieve that vision for our country. The results are what really count. When the coalition was in government we saw those results in the price of energy, the reliability of the grid and the reduction of emissions. Emissions reduced by over 20 per cent on 2005 levels, a record that the rest of the world finds very difficult to match. We saw enormous reliability in the grid on our watch. Especially as the Ukraine war started to unravel, we were able to continue to pour more supply into the market of gas. In our last term alone we saw household prices in Australia reduce by eight per cent, business by 10 per cent and industry by 12 per cent.

We have a new government in town. Under the Albanese Labor government things have changed. In that time we have seen power prices go through the roof. Australians know that; Australian households know it. The AWU points out the threat to 800,000 manufacturing jobs in this country because of the skyrocketing prices. We've had unprecedented intervention in the grid by the market operator because of real concerns around reliability, with the threat of blackouts. Never before has the operator had to intervene to the extent that it has on this relatively new government's watch. As for emissions reduction, only time will tell whether the damage they are prepared to inflict on the Australian economy will result in lower emissions.

I am also disappointed that here we are in consideration in detail—I pay credit to the Minister for Environment and Water for being present today. This is an important part of our—

Of course you should turn up. She's right on that—I take her intervention—she should turn up. But it points to the fact that the Minister for Climate Change and Energy has not turned up. He has not turned up at all. This is his opportunity to hear from his colleagues across the aisle, to have consideration in detail, yet he does not show. He is a no-show. This goes to a problem that we have in Australia at the moment. This minister is absent.

For six months now, we have seen Australian industry and households struggling under price restraints. The minister is not present. He is not present in the chamber now, and he has not been present for the Australian people. Why? Why is the minister incapable of answering a straight question when it comes to breaking the promise of a $275 reduction in household power bills?

Why does the minister fail to ensure his own department does economic modelling on what he signs up to, whether it be the 43 per cent legislation, whether it be the global methane pledge or whether it be the loss and damage fund? At no point has the minister undertaken any economic modelling, so the Australian people, businesses and industries have no idea of the impact that this minister is signing up for, both internationally and here in Australia.

Why is it that it's taken the minister over six months to deal with the energy crisis in Australia? It's been over six months, with prices skyrocketing. Still, to this day, we wait for the minister and the government to come out with any solution whatsoever. Why is it that the minister continues to dodge questions in every single question time and then, given the opportunity to turn up to consideration in detail, is yet again absent? That is my key question: why?

10:36 am

Photo of Alicia PayneAlicia Payne (Canberra, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

It's a great pleasure to contribute to this consideration in detail discussion and to be able to ask the Minister for the Environment and Water questions about why it is so important that we protect our environment, why the environment is back under the Albanese Labor government and how this is so incredibly important.

I'm blown away by the previous contribution from those opposite, who, for 10 years, did nothing but contribute to a crisis of uncertainty in energy that has set us up for the situation we are in now. I want to ask why it is so important that we transition to renewable energy. Why will this help reduce power prices and put us on the path that we need to be on to have a sustainable future for our Earth? It's pretty central stuff, and it's stuff that the previous government ignored for the entire time that they were in government.

Our government is instead working to deliver cleaner, cheaper and more-secure energy for Australian households and businesses through unprecedented investment in renewable energy, including through Rewiring the Nation, to bring our grid up to speed so that it can be ready to transmit that energy from renewable sources, which we need. This is the certainty that the private sector needs to invest in renewable energy, and it's what was missing under the previous government.

Yes, there is an international market crisis at the moment, caused by Russia's illegal invasion in Ukraine, and that is contributing. But it has exposed Australia's underinvestment to date in the cheapest form of energy, firmed renewables. Australian households and businesses are now paying the price for a decade of denial and delay, in which three gigawatts of dispatchable generation exited the grid.

Rewiring the Nation is the $20 billion centrepiece of the Powering Australia plan and a key pillar of the 2022-23 budget. It will provide low-cost finance to upgrade, expand and modernise Australia's electricity grid and drive down power prices. We have already secured agreements with the states to invest in crucial links between Tasmania and the mainland, with the Marinus Link, and between Victoria and New South Wales, through VNI West. Along with other actions in the budget, Rewiring the Nation will help ramp up renewable generation, place downward pressure on energy bills and put Australia on track to becoming a renewable energy superpower.

Investment in reforms to stabilise and improve gas and electricity markets also features in this budget, as does delivering on the government's community battery and solar banks policies. I'm really pleased that the electorate that I represent—the electorate of Canberra—will be receiving one of those community batteries, as will two others in the ACT. This is about enabling households to share in the benefits of reduced power prices from renewable energy and to store that energy. We have already had a great uptake of solar energy in the ACT, in terms of rooftop solar. This is about enabling households that may not be able to do that themselves to benefit from these community batteries, so it's a very important thing, and I'm really pleased that Canberra is part of our federal government's plan.

The ACT is, of course, the first jurisdiction to get to 100 per cent renewable energy. We already see that reflected in the lower power prices that we enjoy compared to New South Wales, and I think that is a case in point as to why it is so important that, as a nation, we make that transition. This is where we need to be. We have fantastic resources and natural advantages in renewable energy here in Australia. We should be making the most of them and becoming a renewable energy superpower. We should be leading the way in the world.

I am so proud that one of the first things we did after forming government was to legislate our emissions reduction targets. It is incredibly important, and it is something that the people of Canberra have been crying out for. The whole time that I have been in this place, people have raised it with me more than any other issue, and it is the issue that I have talked about more in this place, so I'm really pleased to be here today with the minister to talk about why these things are so critically important for Australia and for our world.

10:41 am

Photo of James StevensJames Stevens (Sturt, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I, indeed, have questions for the Minister for Climate Change and Energy which I hope the environment minister—

A division having been called in the House of Representatives—

Sitting suspended from 10 : 41 to 10 : 54

My question is to the climate change minister via the minister that's here. I relate it to Rewiring the Nation within Powering Australia—the Labor Party's policy document—which essentially underpins the purported modelling to achieve a $275 cut to the average residential household bill by 2025. I've had a lot to do with transmission projects, particularly the SA-NSW Interconnector, so I wish all the success in the world to the spectacular time line and purported deliverable capacity of this project from an expenditure point of view and from a time point of view. As the Labor Party's policy document reads, the installation of new transmission really underpins the entirety of the presumed household savings.

So my first question to the minister is: can we get an overview and a context and a time line now that the government is the government, and they've had their budget and a lot of time to turn that policy document into government policy? Can we get some confirmation and milestones around the time lines of that expenditure? What is the current anticipated time line for the various significant milestones that you go through to plan and design; to get environmental approval, planning approval, land acquisition; and to get local agreement from Indigenous groups, state government authorities and local government authorities where relevant? And, of course, what discussions have been had with the industry and the sector regarding being able to actually meet the physical requirement of rolling out this additional multibillion-dollar transmission upgrade to the network? That underpins almost the entirety of not only the savings but a lot of the purported achievement of emissions reductions, so obviously we'd very much appreciate as much information and detail that we can get on that.

The $275 cut was as at the Labor Party's announcement of that policy in December 2021, so could we get the new figure of how much you're going to save by 2025 after you've factored in what you confirm in this budget to be a 56 per cent increase in electricity prices in the 2022-23 and 2023-24 years. We all know that you're going to honour that commitment of the $275 cut from the December 2021 period by 2025. What will it be in dollar terms against the new projected June 2024 residential bills after they've increased by the 56 per cent that the budget takes into account? Could we also get that new figure, which I assume will be $275 plus the increase to residential bills in the intervening period, so that the good people of Australia know how by much their bill is going to fall between June 2024 and June 2025 when the $275 cut on December 2021 prices is taken into account.

The Labor Party policy document on this transmission policy indicated the impact at the wholesale level and at the retail level, broken down into households as well as businesses et cetera. So I think all those groups—households and, equally, businesses, major industries et cetera—would like to know: at the full implementation of this policy, keeping the solemn word to the people of Australia from that policy document, how much will power bills be cut between 2024 and 2025 for other sectors, such as the average small business?

I reiterate: could the minister please confirm the time line for rolling out the Rewiring the Nation transmission infrastructure, because that is absolutely vital to achieving any of the emissions reductions projections in the policy document as well as the cost savings.

Proposed expenditure agreed to.

11:00 am

Photo of Stephen JonesStephen Jones (Whitlam, Australian Labor Party, Assistant Treasurer) Share this | | Hansard source

Six months ago, the Albanese Labor government was elected on a mandate to be a better government, and that starts with an honest conversation with the Australian people to ensure we are able to do good policy. You don't do good policy unless you have an honest conversation with the Australian people about the facts. We're also committed to ensuring that we manage the budget and put it on a sustainable footing to end the waste, to address record debt and to put economic growth back on a stable footing. Work is already underway. Millions of Australians are counting on us to deliver on that mandate.

We're getting wages moving again—we're supporting an increase to the minimum wage and strengthening our industrial relations system. This will deliver wage increases for millions of Australian workers, who have been languishing on low or no wage increases for a decade. Our childcare reforms are giving 1.2 million working families the option of taking on more hours and earning more money. Our aged-care reforms—targeted investments—are prioritising delivering more nursing care, more nutritious food and more hours and ensuring that we can provide better pay for those who are looking after our seniors. Our responsible targeted investments are prioritising measures that provide an economic return, not a political pay-off. That's a novel approach compared to the last nine years, but it's an approach the Australian people have voted for.

I want to say a few things about budget measures aimed at tax avoidance. The Albanese government is committed to investing in the capabilities of our tax regulators to increase receipts by around $5.7 billion over the forward estimates. That's $5.7 billion that will be put into cheaper medicines, cheaper child care, better aged care and deficit reduction. The investment in our tax regulators over the forward estimates includes $1.1 billion to increase and extend funding for the Tax Avoidance Taskforce, which focuses on multinationals, large businesses and high-wealth tax avoidance. It complements the measures that my colleague the assistant minister will be addressing in relation to multinational tax avoidance at large. It also includes $242.9 million to extend the shadow economy program for a further three years, which helps stop dishonest and criminal activities outside of our tax system; $80.3 million to extend the Personal Income Taxation Compliance Program for a further two years to support individuals to pay the right amount of tax on time; and $20.8 million for the Tax Practitioners Board to increase compliance investigations on high-risk tax practitioners.

The Albanese government is committed to providing a clear signal that tax avoidance will not be tolerated. The integrity of our tax system is built upon every taxpayer believing and having faith that every other taxpayer is doing the right thing.

A division having been called in the House of Representatives—

Sitting suspended from 11:04 to 11:15

As I was saying, we are committed to ensuring that every cent that is owed through the taxation system is paid because that's the integrity we want in our tax system. Australians can have faith in our tax system if they can look to their left and look to their right and know that all Australians are paying the right amount of tax as is lawfully due.

I want to say something about scams. Last year Australian households and businesses lost around $2 billion to scams. That's an estimate. It's probably more than that because there's a hell of a lot of under-reporting. Indeed, this year the ACCC expects that number to be at least $4 billion. Getting scammed will turn a precarious financial situation into a disaster. It's not just the financial cost, it's the personal cost as well, and the time that is taken to rectify your personal and your business and your financial situation. Scammers are targeting our most vulnerable individuals. That's why the government is making it a priority to crack down on scams, with $12.6 million over four years in this budget, and more to come for a real plan to crack down on scammers and protect Australian households.

11:16 am

Photo of Angus TaylorAngus Taylor (Hume, Liberal Party, Shadow Treasurer) Share this | | Hansard source

Before I ask my question, I'd like to make a few comments about the budget. It was a budget that sank to the bottom of the ocean faster than the Titanic. Probably in a hundred years time, a rusting hulk will be discovered deep beneath the ocean of absolute nothingness because that's what the budget was, which makes it very difficult to ask questions about it. However, I will make some comments about it before I do attempt to ask a question about this load of nothingness.

This was an incredible missed opportunity. The economy and the budget were in unexpected health. We saw a real economic growth rate of 3.9 per cent in the last financial year and we saw a budget with a massive $48 billion turnaround in the underlying cash balance from the budget forecasts, and from the moment that New South Wales and Victoria were locked down, we saw a budget that was in balance through to the end of the financial year. So this was a chance for Labor to consolidate the strength of that position and, in the process, take pressure off the pressures that Australian households, families and businesses are feeling on interest rates and inflation. And they are very real pressures. As they approach Christmas and they're looking at Christmas presents and holidays over the January period, there is no doubt that the tightening of budgets is really being felt because of the increase in interest rates and the cost of living.

The opportunity for government was to deliver a budget that was responsible and that would do what treasurers normally do when they come into a role, which is to deliver a budget which is improving year on year. In fact what we saw, remarkably, was a budget that made the budget deficit worse over the coming years, going from a $32 billion deficit up to a $51 billion deficit. You say to yourself: how on earth could they have done that as we're coming out of a pandemic? The answer is: they added $115 billion of spending since the March budget, as we are coming out of the pandemic. It is a Herculean feat to have pulled that off. The Treasurer, of course, has chosen on a famous occasion to mishear questions about the budget. I'd be mishearing questions about the budget if I'd achieved such a dreadful outcome as he did in this budget.

When you look at what economists have to say, they reflect this point. Stephen Koukoulas, who's not on our side of politics, a former economist to Julia Gillard, says, 'The budget puts no downward pressure on inflation, leaving "the RBA with all the work of carrying the can in getting the inflation rate lower."' You left them carrying the can. Warren Hogan, former ANZ economist, wrote in the AFR:

… federal fiscal policy has failed to join the fight against inflation, preferring to sit on the sidelines and cheer on the "independent Reserve Bank" as it takes up the task.

And then we see the spectre in recent days of them bagging the governor. Well, they've left him with the job. He's the one that actually has to deal with this situation because their budget does absolutely nothing. And since the budget was released, we've seen annual inflation hit 7.3 per cent, the highest level in three decades. I was looking at the cash rate expected in the futures market. It's expected to go close to four per cent. That puts mortgages in the six to seven per cent range. That's where the market expects it to go.

We've got a long way to go here. There's a lot of pain to be felt. And, sadly, we have no plan; we have a white flag from those opposite, who have absolutely nothing to contribute. I'll tell you what? This is a government with an excuse for everything and a plan for nothing, and the result is that a family with a $750,000 mortgage is now paying more than $1,200 more every month on their repayments compared to May this year, and there is a lot further to go. So, given this budget has no plan to tackle inflation, my question to the Assistant Treasurer—seeing that the Treasurer hasn't found the time to turn up to answer questions—is: will the Assistant Treasurer confirm they have left the RBA carrying the can to fight against inflation?

11:21 am

Photo of Julie CollinsJulie Collins (Franklin, Australian Labor Party, Minister for Small Business) Share this | | Hansard source

Of course this budget was the right budget for the right times. It did try to deal with inflation. It is trying to deal with the cost of living while putting downward pressure on inflation, and we're doing that through measures such as cheaper child care, cheaper medicines, more affordable homes—which I want to talk about in a little bit—and extending paid parental leave.

We announced in the budget the housing accord, which is our aspiration for a million homes over five years from 2024 to 2029. This is an historic agreement, an intergenerational agreement, whereby we have the three tiers of government—local government, state government and federal government—working together to deliver, with the construction sector and with social housing providers, ensuring that we keep up the supply of dwellings in this country. We know that here in Australia there is a severe shortage of dwellings. When you look at the OECD average compared to what is happening in Australia in housing, we have a long way to go. We need to get more supply into the market, and is what we want to do.

A division having been called in the House of Representatives—

Sitting suspended from 11 : 23 to 11 : 3 1

I was talking about the Housing Accord and our aspiration for a million homes from 2024 to 2029. We also had in the budget the Housing Australia Future Fund, which will create 30,000 social and affordable homes within the first five years of the fund. We're obviously working to establish that fund and to get to work on those social and affordable homes. I do want to thank the state ministers and indeed local government and social housing providers for their active engagement in terms of delivering on those 30,000 homes in the first five years of the fund.

We are also moving ahead with a national affordability and supply council to give advice to tiers of government about what else we can do to get more homes on the ground more quickly in terms of supply. We also had in the budget our regional first-home-buyer guarantee, and I can update the House to say that we now have over 1,000 applications. It was great to see earlier in the week—I think it was in the Townsville Bulletina couple going into their first home. They'll have the keys and be in that home before Christmas. This is the difference that a good government policy can make for people. It can change lives. The regional first-home-buyer guarantee is where people can get into their first home with a five per cent deposit, with the government guaranteeing the other 15 per cent. That, of course, helps them overcome that hurdle of the 20 per cent deposit. It is a terrific scheme, and I was pleased to see the number of applications hit over 1,000.

I did want to take the opportunity to talk about some of the things we are doing to support small businesses as well. We have legislated changes to unfair contract terms. This is something those on the other side talked about for nine years; we have actually legislated this in the first six months. It is so that smaller businesses can have fair terms when negotiating with big businesses and big providers. We have been working in terms of payment times. People may have seen the report about payment times between big businesses and small businesses. We know that there is a lot more work to be done there, and we're working to try and deliver on our election promise of trying to improve payment times for small businesses. We have also amended the Commonwealth Procurement Rules to make sure that small businesses get better access to the $70 billion that the government goes to tender on each year. That is with a 20 per cent target for Commonwealth procurement. So we are moving to improve things for small business.

As I said in the House earlier in the week, we have also found room in the budget to extend two measures that were due to end on 31 December. They are about the mental health and wellbeing program run by Beyond Blue. This is a free program for small businesses. They don't need to go to the GP, and they don't need to get a mental health plan. They can access the services from Beyond Blue to give them some support and, of course, from the Small Business Debt Helpline. That will help small businesses. It is targeted support from specialists in small business that can provide advice to those small businesses that have been doing it tough, and we know small businesses have been doing it tough. As we come out of the global pandemic, they are dealing with natural disasters such as floods. Our government will continue to support small businesses, we'll continue to be there for small businesses and we'll continue to make sure they are at the heart of our government's decision-making.

11:35 am

Photo of Stuart RobertStuart Robert (Fadden, Liberal Party, Shadow Assistant Treasurer) Share this | | Hansard source

I'm cognisant of the time and trying to get through everything before we get to the adjournment at one o'clock, so I will be brief. In terms of the budget, it is a missed opportunity to continue to set lines and standards. Being an ERC minister when the last government brought the budget into balance, the rules of budget balance are quite simple: 75 per cent is receipts and 25 per cent is expenditure. That's what has to be managed. We did that by having a speed bump of 23.9 per cent of GDP in terms of tax receipts. That forms a basis by which government can live within its means, and a basis by which government does not tax its population too much—noting that, when we came in in 2013, the previous Labor government receipts had dropped down to 22½ per cent in 2011-12, courtesy of the GFC. Likewise, in terms of living within your means, we also set a spending cap at 1.9 per cent of growth so that year-on-year growth in spending wouldn't increase beyond 1.9 per cent. As the economy grew, expenditure of government didn't, and the increase in tax receipts and the decrease in expenditure equals a balanced budget.

Unfortunately, this budget is a missed opportunity. Those speed bumps are gone. There's no limit on government debt, there's no 23.9 per cent limit on receipts in terms of percentage of GDP and there's no limit on government expenditure. That is why we've seen, in the out years, government debt—as in, deficits—increasing. We saw, as soon as New South Wales and Victoria come out of lockdown, the budget for those months started to come back into balance. Unfortunately, with $115 billion in new spending, those tax limits have been run over, and that's why this budget is now running away. We're seeing unemployment going up. There are 150,000 more Australians unemployed. This government was bequeathed an unemployment level that had dropped to 3.4 per cent—an extraordinary level—the lowest in 50 years, with the participation rate at its highest.

Government needs to ensure that the economy runs smoothly, that inflation is not fed by extra spending, and that people have the opportunity to keep those jobs. We're seeing power prices coming up, because of the government's ill-advised approach on legislating—56 per cent in the next two years, compared with an average of 0.3 per cent year on year over the previous government. The budget is, unfortunately, a missed opportunity. It's a missed opportunity to balance and it's a missed opportunity for fiscal restraint, and Australians will pay for it.

11:38 am

Kate Chaney (Curtin, Independent) Share this | | Hansard source

I appreciate the opportunity to discuss Treasury's budget measures and ask for some clarifications. Firstly, the inclusion of Measuring what matters, the discussion paper on the wellbeing economy, is a great start. It's a step in the right direction to start considering the broader picture of what prosperity would look like in the long term. It will be really vital that this is built on broad community engagement and views about what we value and what we think a successful country looks like, rather than just sitting in Treasury. While it may take longer to build consensus on what we care about than it would for Treasury to adapt a predesigned model from another jurisdiction, this engagement work is essential in rebuilding trust in our democracy and building a common understanding of the context in which we'll need to make difficult decisions. My first question is: has Treasury allocated any funding to support community engagement on setting a common vision to underpin a wellbeing budget?

Secondly, I would like to know whether Treasury is being resourced to undertake the longer term tax reform that we desperately need. A stalemate over genuine tax reform has evolved between the major parties over the last 30 years, with ideology overriding facts and evidence. Every Australian loses because of this. Our tax system's robustness is in continual decline, which increasingly undermines our ability to provide essential services and a reasonable social safety net at both the federal and the state and territory levels. The government has the opportunity to build on the wellbeing framework proposed to seek a consensus on where we want to be in 20 years. This would enable us to make the harder decisions about the trade-offs in our tax system.

I'd like to thank the government for the focus on the housing shortage in the budget, but I have two questions about how this might work. The government has said it will invest $10 billion in the Housing Australia Future Fund, which will generate funds to build social and affordable homes. Can the Assistant Treasurer please explain the modelling undertaken for this $10 billion allocation? How does the chosen level of allocation relate to forecast demand for housing, which is significantly higher than 30,000 homes?

The government has also said it will provide $350 million over five years to support funding of an additional 10,000 affordable homes under a Housing Accord. The announcement was accompanied with grand statements of how the government's shared ambition with all levels of government, institutional investors and the construction sector was to build one million homes between 2024 and 2029. Can the Treasurer please outline how the Housing Accord will actually work in an environment of labour shortages, delayed supply chains and the rising cost of materials? What financing model can deliver one million homes with a relatively small investment from government? Do the increasing stresses on the construction industry change this aspirational figure?

I'd also be keen to understand more about the $36.1 million commitment to 'Restoring Treasury's Capability on Climate Risks and Opportunities'. My initial response is horror that it's going to cost $29.8 million to restore capability for Treasury officials to model climate risks and opportunities. It seems surprising that at this point in history this skill set doesn't already exist, but, given this is where we are, could the Treasurer please outline how this figure will be spent? How do you restore capability? Is this being allocated to training or to acquire new skilled employees? And how will the success of this funding be measured?

Proposed expenditure agreed to.

A division having been called in the House of Representatives—

Sitting suspended from 11:43 to 11:56

11:56 am

Photo of Brendan O'ConnorBrendan O'Connor (Gorton, Australian Labor Party, Minister for Skills and Training) Share this | | Hansard source

I'm glad to be able to make some comments in relation to the decision by government to invest in skills. The budget handed down by the Treasurer was an important one. It will ensure that we supply skills to a labour market that really has skills shortages across it. Whatever profession or industry you look at, there are skill deficits. The National Skills Commission's last report underlined the scale of the challenge for the country by indicating that there had been an almost doubling of the occupations on the skills shortage list, from 153 to 286, in 12 months. That speaks to an economy and labour market that's starved of skills.

There's a variety of reasons for that. Firstly, understandably, the closure of borders by the previous government obviously meant that there was a slowing down or a suspension of normal skilled migration pathways. We supported the previous government when they were compelled to close borders at a time when we were dealing with a global pandemic and with no vaccination in sight. It was quite understandable. What we didn't agree on with the previous government was their failure to support temporary visa holders in the labour market, making them ineligible for JobKeeper and JobSeeker, which compounded the skills deficit. It's something we now need to attend to.

I'm happy to say the investment by this government in the skills agenda is quite significant. We made an announcement at the Jobs and Skills Summit to commit to 180,000 fee-free TAFE and VET places for 2023. That provides certainty to the VET sector and provides certainty to industry that there will be courses undertaken in skills that are in demand, whether it be in the traditional trades, aged care, advanced manufacturing, hospitality or retail. Many sectors that are suffering from a shortage of labour and skills. In fact, the OECD has said that Australia has the second-highest labour shortage per capita in the developed world; therefore, it's critical that we move very quickly.

That decision by the Prime Minister and premiers at National Cabinet, announced at the Jobs and Skills Summit, led to discussions that I had with all eight other governments, who help deliver the training in the VET sector. We are moving very rapidly to allocate those places to particular areas of the economy and labour market that are in need; we are focusing on skills shortage areas. In many cases, they are fee-free places which will provide much-needed economic relief for those people who need to undertake these courses to acquire skills so that they have skills that are in demand. For that reason, we support the state and territory governments making the decisions that they are.

I was fortunate to be in Adelaide last Friday, where there was an announcement by the South Australian government and the Commonwealth about the allocation of 12,500 additional places for next year. There's progress across all jurisdictions, including Victoria, Western Australia and New South Wales, and I'll be making some more announcements before Christmas to make sure that this matter is moved on as quickly as possible.

We were left with a skills deficit. We were left without a national skills agreement, an agreement that should have been struck from 1 July this year for a five-year period. That didn't happen. We now need to negotiate some reforms for the VET sector. To provide certainty for this year and next calendar year, we've undertaken that investment and that is now being progressed. For people who are looking for work, seeking to acquire new skills or seeking to reskill in the workforce, the result of the decision and the provisions of the budget mean that those courses will be available for students across the country commencing next year.

12:01 pm

Photo of Paul FletcherPaul Fletcher (Bradfield, Liberal Party, Shadow Minister for Government Services and the Digital Economy) Share this | | Hansard source

I'm pleased to rise to speak on Appropriation Bill (No. 1) 2022-2023 in relation to employment and workplace relations as part of this consideration in detail process.

The Albanese government's approach to employment and workplace relations is framed around a simple concept: delivering for the unions. Since being elected, the Minister for Employment and Workplace Relations and the government, have done all they can to impose a big-union agenda on employers and employer organisations. We had the union conference, masquerading as the Jobs and Skills Summit, where the government claimed a consensus was reached on industrial relations law changes. We've seen a government which is seeking to impose the most radical shake-up of our industrial relations system in decades, a shake-up that would complicate and damage our economy.

A division having been called in the House of Representatives—

Sitting suspended from 12 : 02 to 12 : 13

I was observing previously that this government is seeking to impose the most radical shake-up of our industrial relations system in decades, a shake-up that would complicate, create conflict and damage in our economy. It's no surprise that a wide range of business and employer groups have expressed extreme concerns. This bill that the government is presently taking through the parliament seeks to implement the wish list of the big union bosses. The militant CFMMEU aggressively fought against the Registered Organisations Commission because its abolition would effectively shield unions such as the CFMMEU from scrutiny, and the government has legislated in accordance with the wishes of the CFMMEU.

The CFMMEU also campaigned for years on the abolition of the Australian Building and Construction Commission because the commission prosecuted and pursued the union for its lawless conduct. Again, this government has acted in accordance with the wishes of the CFMMEU. We've long seen a campaign from the ACTU on multi-employer bargaining because the union movement is seeking to expand its power to expand the membership of unions and to dictate to businesses, including small businesses, the way they should conduct their affairs.

The bill the government is pursuing gives effect to the ACTU's objectives. The multi-employer bargaining provisions amount to an intent by the union movement to kill off enterprise bargaining and replace it with a new centralised wage-fixing system and a new umpire. The opposition have made it clear that we are opposed to the compulsion inherent in the legislation and the single-interest employer authorisation provisions.

There are a number of questions that the opposition wishes to ask. I note that the minister for workplace relations is not in the chamber, but there are questions that the opposition would wish to ask, and I trust that the minister at the table will be able to answer on behalf of the government. Can the minister inform the parliament how many small businesses and how many small-business representative bodies have informed him and informed the government that they are in support of this government's extreme changes to industrial relations? Can the minister inform the parliament specifically how many employers stakeholder groups have voiced their support for the provisions related to multi-employer bargaining?

We've heard extensive claims from the minister in relation to the likely impacts of this bill in relation to wages. Can the minister inform the parliament by precisely how much wages will rise as a consequence of this legislation? What is the basis for the estimate that is provided, and in particular, has economic modelling been done by the Department of Employment and Workplace Relations or by the Treasury or by consultancies engaged by those organisations in relation to expected wage rises? Over what time period will those wage rises occur? What consideration has the government given to the risk of a wage-price spiral and an entrenchment of inflation across the economy burdening on the already sobering developments we are seeing in relation to inflation in Australia? I further ask: can the minister advise whether any modelling was done by the Department of Employment and Workplace Relations or Treasury as to likely productivity gains as a result of this bill? In any of the modelling that has been done, what consideration was given to the extra time, cost and resources required to be allocated by a wide range of small businesses who now face the prospect of being dragged into multi-employer bargaining processes against their will and consent? What additional costs will that impose on small businesses?

Photo of Andrew WilkieAndrew Wilkie (Clark, Independent) Share this | | Hansard source

As there is no government member seeking the call, I'll alternate and give the call to the member for Curtin.

12:19 pm

Kate Chaney (Curtin, Independent) Share this | | Hansard source

Thank you, very much. I appreciate the opportunity to discuss the Employment and Workplace Relations. I'd like to focus my comments and questions on changes to the funding of the Fair Work Commission.

The secure jobs, better pay bill, which is likely to pass through parliament in the next week, will make significant changes to the workload of the Fair Work Commission. Some of this likely change is recognised with increased funding, but some is not recognised, and I, as well as constituents and others, am concerned that the Fair Work Commission may become a bottleneck preventing wages from increasing.

Firstly, I want to clarify whether a function of the Fair Work Commission has new funding or not. I acknowledge that the functions of the Registered Organisations Commission are transferred to the Fair Work Commission, with a $7.7 million defunding from the Fair Work Ombudsman and Registered Organisations Commission entity and corresponding additional funding to the Fair Work Commission. This seems inconsistent with the text below in the bill, which says that—

A division having been called in the House of Representatives—

Sitting suspended from 12:20 to 12:29

Thirdly, and more broadly, if the IR bill passes in its current form, or close to it, the Fair Work Commission is about to significantly increase its responsibilities and powers beyond the areas already discussed for which additional funding has been allocated. Many of these changes require or increase the likelihood of the intervention of the Fair Work Commission in agreements and industrial disputes. This includes intervening when employees and businesses can't agree on flexible working arrangements; resolving intractable bargaining disputes through arbitration where there's no reasonable prospect of an agreement being reached; determining whether to authorise workers with a common interest to bargain together—this will be complex and will require an in-depth understanding of different types of businesses to determine whether there's a genuine common interest—dealing with the growth in sector-wide industrial disputes under multi-employer bargaining; and arbitrating multi-employer bargaining across a large number of businesses.

I note the total agency resourcing for 2022-23 has increased by 12 per cent to $95 million, compared to $85 million in 2021-22. The Fair Work Ombudsman will also need to undertake the current workload of the Australian Building and Construction Commission. While it's acknowledged that there is a reduction in the scope being transferred to the Fair Work Ombudsman, there's still a significant additional workload if it takes on some of the case load.

Can the minister please inform House whether he believes that these additional functions can be done within the funding already allocated, and, if so, what assumptions will be used to estimate the additional workload for each body? My concern is that an additional unfunded workload for the Fair Work Commission will make the Fair Work Commission a bottleneck, contrary to the government's intention to increase wages in a rapid fashion.

12:31 pm

Photo of Angie BellAngie Bell (Moncrieff, Liberal National Party, Shadow Minister for Early Childhood Education) Share this | | Hansard source

Let's not mince our words. Labor's industrial relations bill is a disgracefully bad bill. It's the enemy of small and family businesses across this country. On full display from this government is incompetence and money for its masters at the highest level and a badly constructed legislation that, so far, has been amended 150 times by its own creators, contains errors, and has union bosses licking their lips. The bill clearly delivers one thing: it pays back, in full, with interest, the $100 million in donations that unions have given Labor since 2007.

Nine years in opposition for those opposite was a long time to amass such a large debt to the union bosses. They've had to wait until now to get their money back, and, with it, lipsmacking interest in the form of union membership fees and, ultimately, more power—power to remove employers rights to put deals to a vote by their employees, power to veto employers multi-employer deals, and power to force employers to get written approval from each relevant union before a vote can take place in their own business. In their own business! Legislating for unions to have the right of veto to stop employees from voting on an agreement is outrageous. It unfairly hands unions a completely unacceptable level of control.

This bill is totally unacceptable to every small business in this country with more than 14 staff—or even 20 staff, as it may end up—be they part time, casual or full time. The tidal wave of the Labor wreckage is coming. I ask: how can those opposite sleep at night with the knowledge that this bill risks the livelihood of hundreds of thousands of families across Australia with long-lasting, damaging impacts on our economy? This bill will see small businesses forced into the same agreements as much larger employers, which is totally unfair. Small businesses will have to pay $14,600, including the consultancy fees, just to sit at the bargaining table. Now we know that Labor's error in the regulatory impact statement pushes up costs further for medium businesses, from $75,000 to $80,000.

We saw the National Farmers Federation warn that these changes will lead to increased industrial action in the agricultural sector, which could cripple supply chains and lead to food shortages. Many small businesses already pay their staff above award rates—

A division having been called in the House of Representatives—

Sitting suspended from 12:34 to 12:47

I was saying, many small businesses already pay their teams above award rates to keep their business going. They pay themselves less due to the extra hours they have to put in and increasing costs that are squeezing their margins. Under these laws, the daily break-even will increase substantially for small business to the point of unsustainability. Close the doors and walk out—that's what we're talking about here.

As a Liberal, I believe in rewarding hard work with lower taxes and incentives for entrepreneurs. But Labor wants to break the small business model. They want to crush aspirations and dreams, and this bill delivers power to the unions to run amok inside those dreams. That's not a dream; that's a Labor nightmare, a nightmare akin to the seventies and eighties industrial strikes. And decisions will be made by the unions—not by directors and CEOs. Operation managers and general managers might as well hang up their boots once fair work becomes the umpire for decision-making in small and family business.

I ask those opposite: does the availability of a worker miraculously create a job? I would argue that it's the entrepreneur's business that creates that job.

A division having been call ed in the House of Representatives—

Sitting suspended from 12 : 48 to 12 : 58

It's the entrepreneur's business that creates the pay packet, the taxes, the GST, the superannuation, the opportunity to work and the job security. As I've outlined, businesses simply cannot afford to pay for higher electricity bills, higher interest rates, higher inflation and increased wages under this government, a government that is making, simply, a bad situation worse. So I ask the minister to outline: how many and which small businesses were directly consulted in planning this wrecking ball through small and medium enterprises?

What I do know is that the coalition will always stand up for small and medium enterprises. We will continue to fight against these proposed changes now before the Senate. We all want to see higher wages for Australians, but this bill is bad for the economy, it's bad for business, it's bad for employers and ultimately it's bad for Australians across our country. Remember, to those opposite, it is not the worker that creates the job; it's the small or medium enterprise that creates the job to deliver security in that job, in their work, for their families and for their communities. Small and family businesses are the fabric of our community on the Gold Coast, and so we oppose this bill in its entirety.

Photo of Andrew WilkieAndrew Wilkie (Clark, Independent) Share this | | Hansard source

I thank the member for Moncrieff for her perseverance! The question is that the proposed expenditure for the Employment and Workplace Relations portfolio be agreed to.

Question agreed to.

Debate adjourned.