Senate debates

Tuesday, 8 September 2009

Questions without Notice: Take Note of Answers

Answers to Questions

3:08 pm

Photo of Scott RyanScott Ryan (Victoria, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I move:

That the Senate take note of the answers given by the Minister for Employment Participation (Senator Arbib) to questions without notice asked by Senators Ryan, Eggleston and Payne today.

Over the last few days, there has been much discussion in this chamber, in the other place and in the media about the application of funding under various aspects of the Labor stimulus program. I am not going to talk in a more general sense about the stimulus program—that will be covered by my colleagues—but I will address some of these facts that have been in the public domain. The reason this has been in the public domain is that Labor has form. There is good reason for the public to doubt Labor’s claims that funds are applied in a fair and transparent way. Those who have been around this place a long time will remember the whiteboard. Those in states that have, unfortunately, been governed by the Labor Party will know that when independent panels are quoted by the Labor Party it is often a veil of independence to cover a politically motivated program.

It took the Minister for Employment Participation a while to come back to this chamber and outline that the panel’s advice with respect to the Science and Language Centres for 21st Century Secondary Schools program had been followed. But the minister could not confirm whether there had been any discussion between either his office and the panel or between the responsible minister’s office and the panel about this funding program. Those questions need to be answered. The question we have today is: why on earth do these numbers betray such a political agenda? I will quote a few of these numbers for the benefit of the record. Under the science and language centres program, Labor marginal seats receive on average $1 million more than coalition seats. Inner metropolitan seats held by Labor receive an extraordinary 3½ times as much as the same type of seat held by the coalition—$3.5 million compared with just under $1 million each on average. Labor seats in outer metropolitan areas receive almost double the amount coalition seats receive—$5.6 million to $2.9 million—and when all metropolitan seats across Australia are considered the bias in favour of government held seats is more than doubled: $4.4 million to $2.1 million. Australia is a relatively homogeneous country and when like is being compared with like there are very serious questions to be answered about how any panel could come to such an extraordinary differential in applying funding for schools.

Despite the much smaller number of seats held in rural Australia, we also see a bias there in favour of the government. Government held rural seats receive just under $9.6 million, with coalition seats receiving a little over $9.3 million each on average. The bias is comprehensive and begs an answer. When we consider marginal seats in the state of Queensland, the numbers are again extraordinary and defy belief if we believe what the government has to say. Nine government held marginal seats in the state of Queensland receive on average just over $8.1 million each, whereas seven coalition held marginal seats in the same state receive just under $5.2 million each. On average, government held marginal seats in the state of Queensland receive nearly $3 million more than their coalition counterparts. In my home state of Victoria, the bias is again quite extraordinary: every single government held seat received funding under the program, whereas just under one in five non-Labor seats missed out entirely. Of metropolitan seats in Victoria, coalition held electorates received an average of $2 million each and Labor held electorates received an average of $6.5 million each. These numbers come from the government’s own figures, and the classifications of seats are the same as those used by the Australian Electoral Commission. We have read in today’s Australian Financial Review that the community infrastructure program has also seen a similar level of bias in its application of funding around Australia.

The Labor Party has long had form on this—a leopard does not change its spots. Whether it hides behind a veil of independence does not change the fact that the numbers tell us something. The numbers tell us that money is being spent in Labor held seats at the expense of the rest of the community. Everyone pays taxes, but not everyone receives the benefit. This is a stimulus program for the Labor Party, not a stimulus program for Australia.

3:13 pm

Photo of Trish CrossinTrish Crossin (NT, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise in response to Senator Ryan’s motion to take notice of answers today in question time. What is not accepted by the opposition in this place at this time is that these decisions have been made at arm’s length from the government. They will not accept that. They prefer to accept the allegation that more of the funding has gone into Labor held seats, which is not correct. Assessments have been made by an independent panel at arm’s length from this government—something that the previous government did not do. All I need do is cite the rural and regional grants paid through the area consultative committees as an example. The grants were controlled entirely by the minister, dished out entirely according to where or where not their members in marginal seats had been re-elected at the previous election. The coalition government had a grants program allocated through the area consultative committees. The minister kept a stranglehold on them in his office, where they were vetted absolutely by ministerial staff and the minister and where they were given out absolutely according to where they could curry the most favour with those in the electorate.

If we have a look here at two of the programs I assume that the opposition are talking about, the Regional and Local Community Infrastructure Program provided funding to every—every—council and shire in this country. Under the $800 million community infrastructure program the government is delivering funding to every council regardless of their political persuasion and regardless of what sort of political electorate representative they have. Let us get this very clear here. It is being delivered to every council and shire in this country regardless of the electorate. Fifty-three per cent of the stimulus was directed to Labor held electorates but in fact Labor MPs actually comprised 55 per cent of the House of Representatives. So again, every council and shire in the country received funding from the Regional and Local Community Infrastructure Program, the largest ever federal investment in local infrastructure.

Three of the top four grants were provided to coalition electorates, so it flies in the face of anything that we have heard from people on the other side of the chamber this afternoon. Three of the four largest single project grants are in coalition electorates. What are they? The safe Liberal seat of Moncrieff received the largest single grant of $36 million towards a new 25,000-seat AFL and sports stadium at Carrara. Where is the bias in that? It is nowhere. There is fairness and accountability in this.

Einasleigh River in Kennedy, which is held by the Independent member Bob Katter, got $18 million. Then we have the Flinders Street Mall in Townsville, which is in the seat of Herbert, another coalition held electorate, $16.2 million. There is the Goulburn River High Country Rail Trail in the seat of Indi, held by Mrs Mirabella, and the electorate of McEwen, which received $13.2 million. Again, four of the largest projects handed out are actually in coalition seats. So you cannot stand up on the other side of the chamber and allege that there is some gerrymandering of money being handed out—a cash splash—to Labor seats under this government. The figures defy that and show otherwise.

In a state by state breakdown, in New South Wales the total amount of funding was $138.5 million. Sixty-five per cent of the money is going to Labor seats, and Labor has 50 per cent of the seats. In coalition and other seats we have $47.2 million. So if we want to have a look at what is happening with this funding, we can see that the majority of seats that have the largest grants are coalition held seats.

If we go to the questions from Senator Ryan today about the science and language centres, again and again this opposition has been told that an independent panel has made that assessment. The BER guidelines were released in February. They stated that DEEWR would convene an independent assessment panel, which they did. That panel looked at the criteria and made recommendations. (Time expired)

3:18 pm

Photo of Mitch FifieldMitch Fifield (Victoria, Liberal Party, Shadow Parliamentary Secretary for Disabilities, Carers and the Voluntary Sector) Share this | | Hansard source

Over the last two question times we have witnessed skills which I think indicate that Senator Arbib would be a gun skier—and I will explain what I mean. The minister was asked a series of questions by Senator Ryan in relation to the science and language component of the BER. He was asked if Labor held metropolitan seats received double the amount of coalition held metropolitan seats. He was asked if Labor held marginals received on average $1 million more than coalition marginals. He was asked if any electorate by electorate analysis was undertaken by the minister’s office during project assessment.

There were no answers. Senator Arbib treated Senator Ryan’s questions as a slalom course to be negotiated, and it is clear why. The truth is the government’s stimulus package is not about economic strength; it is about political strength. It was all about being seen to be doing something regardless of effects. That is why the Senator Arbib and the government cannot answer how many jobs will be created from the $14 billion school spend. They cannot answer because they do not know. They do not know because they did not ask. And they did not ask because they were not interested. The purpose of the spend was to be seen to be doing something. It was there as a cover for a bit of old-fashioned pork-barrelling.

It is not about securing an economic dividend. It is about securing a political dividend. Efficacy was the last consideration. Look at the pink batts. Look at the bike paths. I think that Chris Berg from the Institute of Public Affairs put it well when he came up with a new definition for the noun ‘stimulus’. He defined it as ‘a huge amount of money spent on any old crap’. I think that is the best definition I have heard of this program to date.

Mr Deputy President, I know that I am depressing you so I will endeavour to lift your spirits. There is good news. Australia is faring better than had been expected and it is instructive to look at the Reserve Bank governor’s statement on monetary policy from 4 August which makes clear why Australia is faring better than other comparable nations. He cites five reasons. The first is the strength of the Australian financial system—nothing to do with the current government. He cites the significant monetary stimulus from the reduced cash rate—nothing to do with the current government. He cites the depreciation of the exchange rate in 2008—nothing to do with the current government. He cites China’s strong economic recovery—nothing to do with the current government. His fifth and final citation is the government’s fiscal stimulus, and the question I ask is: okay, but how much effect and at what cost? I would contend at great cost and with little effect.

It is important to appreciate the limits of fiscal stimulus. Fiscal stimulus can only make a difference at the margins. If Australia were headed for a deep and prolonged recession, no amount of stimulus would prevent that. If Australia is going to avoid a deep and prolonged recession—as it looks likely to—it will not be because of Labor’s stimulus; it will be because of the other four elements cited by the Reserve Bank governor. I must say that the governor was both modest and politic in his statement.

We contend that the stimulus should have been smaller and better targeted. That is what we have argued. To continue the planned spend will plunge the budget further into deficit and debt. We know that to continue to spend will push up interest rates. We know that to continue to spend will continue the greatest electoral rort in Australian political history. This is a rort that must end. This is a rort that must stop. It is good news that the Auditor-General is already investigating one element of this rort—the schools spending package.

The government frequently ask: how would you curtail this economic stimulus? I have a few ideas. Look at the pink batts, the bike paths and the excessive $14 billion spent on schools. It is not too late for the government to think again. They can save Australia from a future of deficit and debt. (Time expired)

3:23 pm

Photo of Jacinta CollinsJacinta Collins (Victoria, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

As tempted as I am to address the childcare issue on this occasion, I will focus on the language and science centres issue that Senator Fifield addressed at first but then strayed well away from. I say to Senator Fifield: do not try skiing, because you are lacking the snow. Senator Ryan’s questions about which electorates got what, how they compare and what the overall comparison really meant demonstrate that what the previous government did in terms of pork-barrelling has not been applied in this case. The attempts of the opposition to overlay a crass political assessment to these programs is laughable.

Senator Fifield referred to the opposition’s position in relation to our stimulus. Their view is that we should have spent less and it should have been more targeted. He forgot the critical component. The critical component was that our response needed to be timely. Our economic circumstances are where they are today because our response was timely. Our spending in schools was part of that timely, very critical and important response. It was the need for timeliness that encouraged the Rudd government to invest in infrastructure in schools, where this phase of our overall response could be rolled out relatively quickly.

It is important to repeat what Senator Arbib said in question time today. He said, ‘I am advised that the list of fully costed projects deemed by the independent national assessment panel to be highly suitable or suitable was adopted by the government.’ The independent panel determined which fully costed projects were highly suitable or suitable under established criteria, and the government accepted those recommendations. Let us look at what those criteria were.

The criteria for assessment did not include electorates. This is the opposition’s crass political overlay. That is what has informed, unfortunately, the media attention in the last day or so and the discussion in this chamber—their crass overlay. The answers about exactly which electorates got what are not immediately available for some very good reasons, and I will go through some of them.

The applications were assessed by the national assessment panel against the following criteria in order of priority: demonstrated level of disadvantage—if there are more Labor members in electorates where there is a higher level of disadvantage, maybe that better informs the assessment that Senator Scott Ryan has done rather than who the sitting member is; identified and demonstrated need for the specified building—so which schools needed language and science centres; the capacity to build the facility within the specified time frames—again this is the critical issue of timeliness; the effective and efficient use of Commonwealth funding; and the extent to which the project incorporates sustainable building principles. Those were the criteria. Data on a school’s electorate was not collected and was not required as part of the application process. The national assessment panel did not consider electorates when making their recommendations. The brief to the Deputy Prime Minister with the recommendations did not include electorate information.

What we really have here, rather than this crass political overlay, is this government delivering 537 science and language centres in secondary schools across Australia, including more than 160 in regional and remote schools. This results in $821.8 million in funding for new or refurbished science laboratories and language learning centres to create state-of-the-art facilities in secondary schools across Australia.

I said Senator Fifield lacked snow. He lacked snow because his assessment—or, indeed, Senator Scott Ryan’s assessment—of which electorate got what, is not the relevant issue; the issue was our criteria: timeliness, disadvantage and need. We have met those criteria. Senator Fifield referred to the fact that the economy is doing very well. It is doing very well in Australia uniquely because we had an effective and timely response. (Time expired)

3:28 pm

Photo of Marise PayneMarise Payne (NSW, Liberal Party, Shadow Parliamentary Secretary for Indigenous Affairs) Share this | | Hansard source

I think it is important to correct that slight misperception of Senator Jacinta Collins when talking about the economy doing well in Australia. Any independent commentator or independent observer knows that the strength of the economy lies in the foundation that was laid down by the previous Treasurer, Peter Costello, and Prime Minister of Australia, John Howard, over in excess of a decade of strong, effective, capable, competent political and economic management and experience, which is sadly lacking in this nation currently. I am also slightly struck by the irony of Senator Collins utilising the term ‘crass political overlay’, but let me not go there.

This afternoon I asked Senator Arbib a question in relation to the potential for increases in childcare costs as a result of the government’s so-called reform program in childcare. The basis of the question, a perfectly reasonable one, stems from the fact that the much vaunted childcare policy of those opposite that was forced down the throats of Australian parents for months and months in advance of the 2007 federal election—discussions I had the opportunity to enjoy on Friday afternoons with Senator Wong during the campaign on ABC radio about the radical plan to slash childcare costs—is proving to be, unsurprisingly, entirely unfounded. Not surprisingly, we look like we are about to have another broken promise from this government, this time in relation to child care. This time there will be more costs on Australian families, more impost on their already struggling family budgets in the current economic environment.

We have been asking for some time now—I have had the opportunity to pursue it myself with officers in estimates in this portfolio area—how the government was actually planning to achieve its reform plans without increasing costs. When you institute a series of reviews and a series of proposals to reform a sector, those participants in the sector—parents in particular, who have to bear the costs—are entitled to ask how those reforms are intended to be implemented without increasing costs. In relation to the minister’s response to me and interjections from those opposite at the time, it is no answer to say, ‘We have made a promise in relation to the childcare tax rebate.’ That is not an answer to the question, because, no matter what you do in relation to the childcare tax rebate, parents will still have to pay increases if fees go up. The commitment was to slash parents’ childcare costs. We were told it was very simple and that it was very plain. That was the commitment: to slash childcare costs.

How can that be the case if parents are going to expected to pay for just some of the reform program? Let me cite a number of those examples: the potential for increasing staff ratios in childcare centres, the proposal to ensure higher staff qualifications and the proposal to insist on higher standards in centres. How is it possible to pursue that reform program without increasing the costs that parents will face? I think Australian parents, those with children in childcare centres, are entitled to ask that question. In this place, it is on their behalf that members of the opposition put that question, quite reasonably, to the Minister representing the Minister for Early Childhood Education, Childcare and Youth here this afternoon.

We also have, as I cited in my question to the minister, an independent economic analysis prepared on behalf of Childcare Queensland, which indicates in the independent modelling that the potential annual increase for a parent who has just one child in care could exceed $3,000 a year. That is not an insignificant amount. Any parent facing that sort of cost, that sort of challenge, would be asking themselves how they are going to pay for that. What we are asking—reasonably, I think, and fairly simply—is how the government expects families struggling in the current environment to meet a price increase like that and how the government expects childcare centres, in the face of some pretty indicting material in this piece of research, to deal with these challenges as well. There is a startling lack of information available to the opposition and most importantly available to parents, who have every right to ask how they are meant to respond to these propositions. They should have been more adequately consulted.

Question agreed to.