Senate debates

Thursday, 10 May 2007

Questions without Notice: Take Note of Answers

Budget 2007-08

3:11 pm

Photo of Kerry O'BrienKerry O'Brien (Tasmania, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Minister for Primary Industries, Fisheries and Forestry) Share this | | Hansard source

I move:

That the Senate take note of answers given by ministers to questions without notice asked by Opposition senators today relating to the 2007-08 Budget.

Firstly, I want to remark on Senator Johnston’s contribution in answer to Senator Sterle’s question today. I confirm that my recollection of budget night was that the parties that were taking place were convened by government senators and in the offices of ministers. In my experience, there were no parties taking place on the opposition side. Indeed, the newspapers were reporting the functions that were being run so that donations could be made to the coalition’s election campaign. I recall seeing a number of people with visitor passes, who had been at parties, wandering around the Senate corridors. I think it is an absolute disgrace for Senator Johnston to misrepresent the facts, trying to make a theatrical point in answering a serious question from Senator Sterle.

In terms of the matters which he addressed, frankly it is pretty important to note that the member for Kalgoorlie saw nothing for his electorate in the budget. I am glad that Senator Johnston talked about a rail project; otherwise there would have been nothing he could have said about the measures in the budget that were directly related to the member for Kalgoorlie’s electorate. But he did remark about the mining industry. Of course, it is notable that this government has been in denial about the fact that the boom in the mining industry has been responsible for the economic position that this country faces at the moment.

The fact is that Treasurer Costello will not acknowledge that the Australian economy’s current performance is being driven by the mining boom rather than by good policymaking. The mining boom, in turn, is being driven by a world economy that is experiencing the best performance over three decades. Let me quote from Budget Statement 3: Economic Outlook, the Treasurer’s own paper, which says:

The world economy grew by 5.4 per cent in 2006, the fastest growth rate recorded in over 30 years ...

The budget papers acknowledge that the mining boom is the main story for the Australian economy. Further, on page 3-3, it says:

The Australian economy is adjusting well to the increasing global demand for mineral and energy resources ...

Further, it says:

The Australian economy continues to benefit from strong world demand, with labour and capital continuing to shift towards the mining and construction sectors in response to the increase in commodity prices.

I know that the government senators do not want to hear this because it gives the lie to the claims by the government that the mining boom is not responsible for this—that it is their economic management.

Government Senators:

Government senators interjecting

Photo of Kerry O'BrienKerry O'Brien (Tasmania, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Minister for Primary Industries, Fisheries and Forestry) Share this | | Hansard source

I am glad that they are interjecting, because I know that this hurts. I know that they have been exposed as telling the Australian public an untruth about their performance. It is an untruth because we all know that, if the Chinese economy were not booming and if the mining sector were not booming, the money would not be there for the sorts of things which we heard described by one of the ministers opposite as ‘largesse’—the government’s performance in spending money was actually ‘largesse’. That was the word used by a government minister. If anyone else says something is largesse, never let the government say that it is wrong, because that was the word used by a government minister.

The mining boom is clearly a matter which is responsible for the best terms of trade we have ever had. The terms of trade reached their highest level in over 50 years in the December quarter. The recent strength in the terms of trade has predominantly been driven by non-rural commodity export prices, which rose by 67 per cent over the past two years. The aggregate increase was dominated by large rises in the price of iron ore and coal, as well as mineral fuels, gold and metals. That is from Budget Paper No. 3. It is the Treasurer’s own paper that proves that this government’s economic performance rests substantially, if not entirely, on the minerals boom. The fact that the Treasurer is trying to walk away from it proves that this Treasurer is not prepared to be truthful with the Australian public about the benefits that they are receiving—the ‘largesse’ that they are receiving from this government is designed for one thing, and that is the government’s own re-election.

Honourable Senators:

Honourable senators interjecting

Photo of Paul CalvertPaul Calvert (President) Share this | | Hansard source

Order! I understand that this may be Senator Ian Campbell’s last contribution to this chamber. I would ask senators to acknowledge that.

3:16 pm

Photo of Ian CampbellIan Campbell (WA, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I say, in taking note of answers, that what the Australian Labor Party needs to understand is that, yes, the minerals, gas and oil industries in Australia have never been in better shape, and they need to be in much better shape if we are to continue the prosperity that has been built in Australia since I made my first speech in this place back in May 1990, almost to the day.

In speaking of the minerals export industry and the development industry that is built around it, the prosperity that we see particularly in Western Australia and in states like Queensland—but all across Australia—has occurred because we have as a government since 1996 focused on policies that mean that we can develop those resources in a world-competitive manner. Taking away the Native Title Act restrictions that were put in place by Labor was a big part of that; reforming the Corporations Law, so that you can raise capital, and the takeovers laws were a big part of that; bringing into place environmental laws that ensured that you could get approvals through more quickly are a part of that; and of course industrial relations reforms were vital to that.

The Labor Party cannot become the friend of mining 10 days after it put through its national conference an industrial relations platform that would take Australia back to the 1950s. The north-west of Western Australia and the goldfields of Western Australia have been transformed by AWAs, which allow individuals to negotiate with their employers to create flexibility. That is a phenomenally important thing.

In this my last speech to the Senate I remind Australians that Australia is a much better place than it was in May 1990, when I came here. We did have a lot of leadership shown by the former Labor government—under Paul Keating’s leadership, particularly when he was the Treasurer—to open up the Australian economy, to float the Australian dollar and to allow more financial institutions in. We saw some phenomenal reforms, particularly under Peter Walsh when he was the Minister for Finance, to bring back the fiscal train wreck that was occurring. Labor did do some very good economic policy, and it had an opposition sitting over there that waved it through and encouraged it, as opposed to the opposition we have now that has sought to stop most of the economic reforms of the Howard-Costello era.

There are two points I would like to make in the short time I have; I have chosen to make it short because I think after 17 years in politics it is a bit hard to whinge about things that have not occurred—if you cannot do it then, you should get off and leave it to other people, which is what I will do. One thing that annoys the hell out of me, Mr President, is that in the Senate we totally ignore the standing order about reading speeches. I read my first speech when I was sitting behind where Robert Ray is, but I hated reading it. I found it so boring and so painful. I chose that day not to read another speech and I have virtually stuck to that. I would recommend, particularly to the new senators who have joined us but also to all of you, that you learn how to make a speech without copious notes and without having to read it. Do your research, write it out if you want, learn it and then just give it off the cuff. It is a wonderful skill. I am far from perfect and in fact I am hopeless at reading speeches now. I think it is an incredibly important skill that only the Senate would uphold. They will not do it over the other side; they are not made of the right sort of stuff. It is a wonderful skill to learn. The Prime Minister is probably the greatest practitioner of giving an extempore speech—certainly in this country and possibly in the free world. He is a master at it. A lot of new members and senators, but particularly senators, should learn to do that. Throw away your copious notes, throw away those typed out speeches and the little lecterns that people are using, and learn to make a speech.

In terms of policy, Australia has changed a lot in the years since 1990. We are a much more open place and we have fiscal responsibility, which is building prosperity. It is wonderful to have been a part of a government that has brought in voluntary student unionism, for example, so that we have freedom on campus; I can leave this place knowing we have finally got that policy through. We had the waterfront reforms and the environment reforms—all these reforms are important.

The huge challenge, and it is becoming a cliche to say it, is to get climate change policy right. We have had a lot more realism brought into debate over the past few months. The time for the sort of lazy policy we see from some parts of the polity in Australia is changing. You do need a mix of heavy investment in new technologies and you do need market mechanisms. We need to find a market mechanism that suits Australia’s economy. We cannot just borrow a policy from Great Britain and say, ‘We will take a 60 per cent cut in 30 years.’ That is something that suits the islands of Great Britain, but a target that might suit them is very unlikely to suit the economic circumstances of Australia in the middle of the Asia-Pacific. We need to work with China. I want to thank my friend Zhang Xiaoqiang, the Vice-Chairman of the NDRC in China. He and I made a joke last year in China about the fact that I think I have had more meals with Zhang than I have even had with my wife, Brenda, and our children over recent years. (Extension of time granted) I think that engagement with China in particular is something that Australia can do really well, developing market mechanisms and technology exchanges. The AP6, the Asia-Pacific partnership, is a wonderful way to pursue that.

I will just mention a few thankyous, firstly to Brenda and my family. They are in the gallery today. Thank you very much for putting up with what is an absurd lifestyle. We have had a wonderful journey as a couple and as a family. None of us can come here and change Australia and contribute to policy unless we have the support of a family. All of us have that, and I have been very lucky to have you, Brenda, supporting me and the kids.

I thank the many good friends I have made in this place, some lifelong. Choofer, on the front bench: we have been together since November 1980, from the Nedlands/Dalkeith Young Liberal days. It is an amazing friendship; I do not think we have ever had an argument. We have probably disagreed from time to time over some preselections, but we always get there in the end. Mate, thanks for being there. Thanks for being a friend.

To friends and colleagues on both sides of the chamber, I have very much enjoyed making friendships and working with you. We all come here to improve Australia. Australia is a better place than it was back in May 1990, when I read that first speech. That is the result of a commitment from people in all political parties. We all come here to make it a better place.

I conclude by thanking the staff of the parliament: the clerks, the deputy clerks, the attendants Lorna and Kathy and everybody else, the Hansard staff and the Comcar staff. You all are an amazing team that contributes to making a big difference. I also thank the volunteers in the Liberal Party back in Western Australia, a much-maligned party. There are thousands of people; on both sides of the chamber we have volunteers who ensure that we are here and given the privilege to serve. So I thank all those thousands of people in the Liberal Party back in WA.

I conclude by saying that what is very, very special about serving in parliament is that we are part of a democratic institution. It is so phenomenally important. We take it for granted in a country like Australia. We had delegates from around the Pacific and around our region who are just learning how to create democracies at the moment and who are struggling, and it is only a few hundred years ago that men and women in the British Isles and in the United States—or America as it was then, before it became united—spilt gallons of blood on the battlefields before they created the parliament at Westminster and then ultimately the Congress in Washington. It is a very special thing to have a parliamentary democracy. Ours is based on the traditions of Westminster and Washington. They are phenomenally important institutions. Getting to serve in them is an enormous privilege. Recognising the special thing we have built here in Australia is phenomenally important, and the quality of the government that that delivers is important.

It has been a privilege to serve. I will watch you all and I wish you all well for the years ahead. Thank you.

3:25 pm

Photo of Kate LundyKate Lundy (ACT, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Minister for Local Government) Share this | | Hansard source

I take the opportunity on behalf of the opposition to wish Senator Ian Campbell all the best in his future endeavours. I note with great interest his acknowledgement of Labor’s economic reform and the importance of climate change and also his wistful, ideological nostalgia for the VSU, which of course we opposed but which we know is very dear to Senator Campbell’s heart. But good luck in the future, Senator Campbell, and all the best to you and your family.

My role here is to take note of answers to questions in question time today on matters pertaining to the budget. The key point I want to make, like many of my colleagues, is that this is not a budget designed for the long term, no matter what the government try to dress it up as. The facts are that the Howard government have for 10 long years squandered the positive economic circumstances that we found ourselves in, in particular the resources boom and the windfall arising from it.

I want to pick up the point that Senator O’Brien was making about the use of Senator Johnston’s term ‘largesse’. I think the implication of the use of that word is quite profound. In other words, the Howard government think they are doing people a favour. How condescending, and how exposing of the hubris and arrogance that now pervades the Howard government, that they can use such terms. It is quite offensive, and I think it definitively shows that there is a shallow commitment, if there is any commitment at all, to the welfare and wellbeing of Australians, particularly those who provide caring roles and those most in need in our society.

For Labor’s part, we have been very focused on the issues of the future, the things that will shape our country now and from this time. They are the issues of education. It is about the infrastructure that makes our future possible, including broadband and the sorts of physical and social infrastructure that will underpin our society and economy. On education, Labor has always been committed to building an education system that not only services our current needs but provides for opportunities for growth for all our young people and adults embarking on courses of lifelong learning, renewing their skills or changing their careers later in life. Mr Rudd’s policy of an education revolution has really resonated with Australians because people understand two things: that investment in education is necessary to make the most of our most valuable and renewable resource—that is, people—and that our education system has been not just neglected but hampered and damaged by the Howard government over the last 10 years.

These two things, both clearly understood by Australians, mean that any shallow attempt by this government to rid themselves of the reputation of the education underminers will be met with cynicism and disbelief, no matter how they try to dress it up in this budget. People are just sick of being manipulated, and they will not be fooled again.

The bottom line is that the Howard government does not have an eye for the future. It has only blinkered vision that sees only political problems to be resolved. As the alternative government, Labor takes its responsibility far more seriously than that and always will. It is just not good enough for Mr Costello to front up with a university endowment fund and think that the government will be forgiven for a decade of neglect. The fact is that the Treasurer is now smirking in the spotlight of an answer to a problem of his own making. It is not even the right answer; it is a headline in place of an answer. Our kids deserve better. They are the future, and their potential is in the hands of a government that cares more about short-term political power. Now, with HECS caps off, it looks like the Howard government has re-established universities as institutions primarily for those of wealth and privilege.

We know this because we have looked at some of the numbers that show the increases in HECS will pull some $200 million from people in the future. Further proof is that we are at the bottom of the OECD rankings for national investment in education of four-year-olds—a crucial development year. All of the research highlights this fact, yet this government has done nothing to make an investment there. In contrast, Labor has the policy to improve this situation. Further proof is the shrinking proportion of GDP that is spent on universities. (Time expired)

3:30 pm

Photo of Jan McLucasJan McLucas (Queensland, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Minister for Ageing, Disabilities and Carers) Share this | | Hansard source

I also add my best wishes to Senator Ian Campbell for his future. We have crossed swords a bit over time, but I recognise that he has made a considerable contribution to the operation of this chamber.

Today I want to refer to the so-called answers given by Senator Scullion. Senator Scullion’s bluster and defensive responses to Senator Kirk’s and my questions provided no comfort to people with disabilities or older Australians who care for people with disabilities or elderly loved ones. It is not the style that that group of people are looking for, and it is not the way that they will feel they should be considered by this government. These are the facts that I tried to ask Senator Scullion about today: a person who is on an age pension who is caring for an elderly partner or an adult child with a disability will not receive the $1,000 one-off payment that a person under the age of 65 will receive—a person on carer payment. Senator Scullion acknowledged that in a roundabout way today when he said there were two demographics. I am sorry, Senator Scullion; there are three. There is a group of people who are on the age pension but who do exactly the same job; they do exactly the same task as that of a person receiving a carer payment: they care for a person who is severely or profoundly disabled or an elderly person and they are not in receipt of the carer payment.

There is a large group of people who feel as if they have missed out, and rightly so. They will get $600 as a carer allowance recipient. That is the truth, and that is what this government has to deal with. The fact is that the application of this policy is discriminatory. It does discriminate on the basis of age. They do the same job, yet they get different treatment. Older people know that they are being treated differently. They know discrimination when they see it or feel it, and they will not be duped by Treasurer Costello’s patronising rhetoric that this is an acknowledgement of the fine work that they do.

I draw the government’s attention to a media release from Carers Australia in which they state:

Carers Australia is surprised and disappointed at the apparent disregard of recommendations it made for the 2007-08 Federal Budget.

They called for improved financial security for carers, for carer health initiatives, for strategies to assist carers to remain in the workforce and for a national carer framework. These are just a few of the recommendations Carers Australia say were overlooked in the budget. Mr Chodziesner said:

We were expecting a budget that would be family friendly. We thought we would hear announcements that would look to the future. There is nothing for family carers in this regard.

Now I want to go to the question that Senator Kirk asked. Senator Scullion said that the one-off payment was very well received. That is only partially true. It was very well received by those who will receive it. People with disabilities feel as if they have been overlooked in this budget. They feel forgotten. Leanne who rang the ABC in Adelaide said: ‘What are we? Are we nothing?’ Those questions are resonating across the sector. People with disabilities and people who provide services to people with disabilities feel that they have been overlooked and forgotten in this budget. I am sure that the government knows of their concern. The reason for their fury and their concern is that the budget has no indication of growth funding for the CSTDA, which is currently being negotiated. It is my understanding that the ‘negotiations’ that were held on 3 April could hardly be called that. Also, the outcome of those negotiations must be a multilateral agreement, but it looks as if we are heading toward bilateral agreements, which will not be useful. (Time expired)

Question agreed to.