Thursday, 8 October 2020
Statement and Documents
The value of independence in the parliament isn't to play dress-ups. We don't get elected to be you guys; we get elected to be everything but. No matter how hard you try to keep this place to yourselves, we're here. And we're here with a mission. We get a seat at the table to talk about things you wouldn't otherwise talk about. We can force issues into debate. If we're going to do that, I reckon we should deal with the issues that aren't getting discussed.
There is plenty in the budget that I have no issue with at all. I just want to take a couple of minutes to say a few things about what I'd like to see more of. These times of crisis are a chance to reset. We have an opportunity here to use the emergency response to get the country on a path that is better than the one it was on before. We don't just want to go back to where we were; we want to aim higher. We should be sorting out the problems that we've been letting drift for way too long and thinking about how we want things to work when we get back to normal. We should be looking for ideas for the country that we never could have considered possible before, and deciding to do things that we've been putting off for too long.
The enormous spending measures in this budget are a chance to use the huge amounts of money that we are borrowing on behalf of the country to build a future that looks very different from our past. It is a chance to take a step back and look at what's been working for the country and what's not been going so well—and there is plenty of that. It's time to wipe the slate clean and say, 'Let's build something new that will last beyond this crisis.' You don't get a free pass to spend $100 billion very often. You don't get a get-out-of-jail-free card on $1 trillion of debt very often. It takes a global pandemic for people to go, 'Yes, that sounds fair enough.' It takes a national shutdown for the rest of us in this place to see the government going for that and let it slide. That kind of money is enough to completely reshape our country and the way our economy works. When you've got that sort of opportunity ahead of you, there is a lot you can do with it. The choices you make reflect what your true priorities are. They show who you put first and who you will put last. They show what you think Australia should look like 10 years from now.
I'd have made different choices about how to spend that money. First of all, I wonder whether the government are actually putting enough into the economy to get us out of this mess in the first place. There are going to be more people out of work because of this crisis for years, and the people who are lucky enough to have a job won't see their wages go up for a very long time. The assumptions that underpin the Treasurer's pictures of where we are going to be in a year from now seem pretty rosy to me. For one thing, he's assumed that we will have a population-wide vaccine by the end of the year. Dear oh dear! I don't know what vaccine he's been taking, but I can tell you now that vaccines take decades to be developed, tested and manufactured. Then they have to be distributed so everyone is covered. Honestly, if the Treasurer thinks he is safe banking on all that happening in 12 months, he is living in la la land. He seriously is. He reckons that once we get a vaccine people will go back to spending money, building houses and coming to Australia like normal. It's a pretty big gamble to take. If it turns out he's wrong, he might wish we'd put in some more economic support to stand us in better stead through the next year at the very least. So while I understand that Australians out there are worried about the debt, I think there's more the Treasurer should have put into this budget to keep the economy rolling.
The first thing I would have put in is more for social housing. The only party that has not agreed with that is the government. It's absolutely bizarre that the rest of us can see it. The government has been looking the other way from people who don't have a safe place to sleep for far too long. With the Treasurer going on a $74 billion spending spree, I would have thought he could find some coins down the back of the couch to do something about that. Building a few thousand new homes would take a dent out of the huge waiting list for people to get into affordable housing, which has been growing across the states and territories for more than a decade. The government wouldn't just be helping people to get a roof over their heads; it would help people get back into work and give them stability. Ask just about any economist in the country about what the Treasurer should spend money on to get the economy moving, and they will tell you that social housing is a sure bet. It's a sure bet. When the government goes in and directly builds houses, they are employing tradies, keeping the construction industry going and getting that money straight into local businesses. It's much better than building a new road or train line, because you can roll it out really fast and you know the finished product will be put to good use.
I know the Treasurer would say that social housing is a problem for the states, not his party, but honestly, that's a real cop out. It is the coalition's favourite thing to say when they are faced with a problem that they can't be bothered to fix but which makes sense to fix. It absolutely makes sense to fix this. I would say to them it's about time they showed some leadership and got this done. They are perfectly capable of it. The federal government has run this show before, and we all know they can do it again. All it takes is the will and the courage to make it happen.
The same goes for our TAFEs and our manufacturing sector. I'm glad that the Prime Minister has finally woken up to the fact that we need to start making things in Australia again. That's a start. But don't talk the talk on this one with me, Prime Minister; I want to see you walk the walk. I can tell you: if ripping off our students is any guide for the future then I don't hold out much hope for our TAFEs. So my question is: where's the commitment? Where's the follow-through? You talk big on supporting trades, but there's nothing in this budget to fix up our crumbling TAFEs. We've got kids trying to get their cert IIIs in rooms with broken windows and no heating. They're working on machines from the Cold War that are older than we are in here. At my local TAFE, toxic paint fumes rise up through the holes in the floorboards where kids are doing nursing courses. Kids all around Tassie are being trained in rooms full of asbestos, because we can't afford to fix them up. Where's your commitment, Prime Minister? You can't manufacture without skills. You need to get those skills from TAFE.
I wanted this manufacturing plan from the PM to lay out how we're going to fix this stuff. I'd hoped it meant we'd get some real reform for vocational education in this country. Surely it's obvious that we aren't going to kickstart our manufacturing industry if the people who want to do a trade can't get the training they need to get onto a work site in the first place. Instead, we got $7 million a year for the organisation that pays Scott Cam a six-figure salary to put up a few flashy videos about trades on social media. Honestly! Our TAFEs are allowed to apply for 'some' funding to offer free short courses for school leavers and jobseekers. That's it? That's as good as it gets?
Our TAFEs need more leadership and they need a hell of a lot more than what you are offering, which is nothing. We're going nowhere. They need the Prime Minister to stand up and figure out how to get our vocational education sector back up to the job of training our kids for the jobs that we will need to rebuild our economy. That's what I'd spend some money on. That's where my priorities would be. I figure you're not doing that, because you actually don't have a plan for the future. If you can't start at the basics and tell our kids who want trades what trades are going to be available, then I tell you what: you have no bloody idea. I don't actually believe you have an idea or a plan for manufacturing or building in this country. I don't think you are actually capable of it, and I'll call you out for it now.
Do something about JobSeeker. We're in October. The extra money for people on JobSeeker ends in December, 2½ months from now. People on the dole are looking at going back to eating noodles, missing bills and not being able to turn on the air con through the middle of summer. We haven't even got to the May budget yet, when they're going to need their heating. I imagine that by then they'll be living with blankets from Vinnies. Instead of giving people on JobSeeker any idea about how much money they'll have to live on next year, we're pouring cash into the pockets of people who have managed to keep their jobs and do quite well through the crisis. That's the answer to it.
I'm not saying those tax cuts won't help; maybe they will. I see the value in letting people keep more of the money that they earn, and I guess some of it will get spent to help the local economy move again. But the people who get the most benefit are the people who are lucky enough to still have a job. They've made it through the previous six months with their careers intact and their pay cheques full. They don't need it as much as the childcare workers and the home carers who got the boot from their jobs when the community went into lockdown back in March. Anyone can see that it would have made a lot more sense to spread that money out the other way. We all know that people on the lower end would spend it more. The money would be going straight into their local communities and their local economies, not their bank accounts.
I would have put more into veteran hubs for our ex-service men and women who need a place to go when times are getting tough. There are already centres in Townsville and Brisbane. The people who rely on them say they're magic. They work by bringing together veteran service organisations and advocates under one roof. They are a one-stop-shop; they save lives. That's what they do. Once again, here's the veterans minister: 'Yes, we want hubs; we're promising, promising.' It's like a horse race, isn't it? It just comes to a halt. It's all over red rover and we never get to the finish line, do we, Minister Chester? Shocker! These hubs are not hard, and there is no excuse for not having every single one of them in a state by now. You've had more than enough time. There are no more excuses, apart from the fact you're incapable of getting the job done. Maybe it is time you went elsewhere. Go to another department; bring someone else in who can actually get the job done, because you are certainly not getting the job done for veterans.
These hubs create a community space for at-risk veterans to put their hands up and ask for help. If you think spending $26 million a year for the next four years—it's certainly not going to be enough for our veterans to get the help that they need, and $64 million won't touch the sides in the Department of Veterans' Affairs. The problems there are so big. It's not money that we need, mate, it's management. It's structural reform that we need. If you can't see that, Minister Chester, then, once again, you're in the wrong department, mate—get out! Throwing money at the problem, like we do every year, isn't going to be enough to stop veterans from being let down by a department that fundamentally does not put their interests first. The department is more interested in covering its arse, and that's exactly what it does. It's an institution that has lost its way, but it's not there for veterans.
Now, the ALP might have a crack at the government for debt and deficit. They've got to attack someone for something, so that's fair enough, but if it takes $1 trillion to save 25 million people from losing their jobs, homes, savings and safety nets then spend it. If it costs more, spend more. Spend more! It'll save us in the long run. You can't give me any moral justification for refusing to spend taxpayers money to protect taxpayers from losing all their money. Don't get me wrong, you can spend in good ways and you can spend in bad ways. I'm not saying spend for the sake of it, I'm just saying that it's pretty cynical to attack the government over debt and deficit to try and undermine their reputation for economic responsibility, particularly if sometimes economic responsibility means spending huge amounts of money to keep the economy from falling off the cliff. It's irresponsible to let the economy collapse just so that you can run a surplus. Nobody's receiving a letter of termination from their boss and thinking to themselves, 'At least the government's in surplus.'
If we're going to spend huge amounts of money, if that's what it takes to keep us afloat, we've got to match unprecedented spending with unprecedented transparency. Just like pollen brings bees, cash brings lobbyists. If money is being spent, you can bet anything that there will be donors, mates and lobbyists stepping over each other to get a slice of the pie. The more money we're spending, the more we need to give people confidence that we're spending it right. The good news is that's easily sorted. Don't cut money from the ANAO. The Australian National Audit Office need that money. As a matter of fact, you should be putting more staff in there, you should be smashing them in there so that there's some sort of oversight in this parliament! They're the guys who are out there every week, slapping government ministers across the chops for misusing taxpayers money. They spotted the sports rorts, so this is their punishment. You take cash off them and say: 'Hey! We're going to get less of you guys.' They called out the government for spending $30 million on a plot of land worth 10 times less than that. Who does that? Goodness me! You call yourselves great economists over there. Who got ripped off? No, not you people but the taxpayer. The ANAO are pretty much the only independent check that we have on the way the government spend money and run projects. They asked the government for an extra $6 million this year so that they could keep their heads above water. Instead, guess what the government did? They cut 14 million bucks! Oversight up here is gone. It's finished! It's over. It's very scary, but that's the truth of the matter.
Don't end it there though. Fixed donation laws and real-time disclosures: if you've got nothing to hide then let's do it. But, oh no, don't mention that to the coalition. Jesus Christ, they'd go white and nearly faint! No, nothing about donation laws here. There's nothing to see. Count up how much people donate over a fixed period and make them disclose their donations if they go over a low threshold. It's not that hard. Change the lobbying rules so that everyone who comes into this building looking for something has to play by the same set of rules. Punish them if they break those rules. You need punishment; if you don't punish people the problems will continue. If you don't set an example when people play up and you don't discipline them then the problems will become worse. This one might be a little niche, but if the non-government senators in this place want to inquire into something the government is doing then the government shouldn't get to vote against it. They should go through without debate. It wouldn't cost them anything and it's simple to do. What's wrong with them?
I know we've been talking big numbers since the virus first hit us in March, and the amount of money that we're shovelling out the door in this budget is hard to comprehend. To put it in perspective, last year the government told us that they couldn't afford to pay $5 billion to raise Newstart by 100 bucks a week. They told us that it would be irresponsible for them to start paying people enough to live on because it would risk their 'back in the black' surplus. Well, how is that going now? The stimulus measures in this budget are worth 20 times that. It's enough money to completely change the way this country works, and since we'll be paying it back for decades it's a shame we aren't spending it, once again, on the right things and, once again, on those who are less fortunate.
I think that between now and the May budget we're going to see exactly what the coalition is made of. I'll be honest: I actually don't hold out much hope, because what I've seen since I've been here is a lot of rhetoric and a lot of talking the talk and very little walking the walk. The government cannot continue to spend money—they cannot just throw money out there—and then turn around. When you do something you have to follow it through. They have to make sure that money is actually doing its job. That's what they have to do—that's what good managers do. That's how it works; that's leadership. If we don't see that in this country then all that money they're throwing out there is going to be wasted, and it's the taxpayers' money—it belongs to them. The government has to start following through for the sake of this country. Every dollar counts! Every dollar! I don't want to see my grandchildren having to pay for this, but I can guarantee they will. And their kids are probably going to be paying for it too. It shouldn't be that way.
I seek leave to continue my remarks.