Senate debates

Monday, 22 August 2011

Matters of Public Importance

Gillard Government

Photo of Helen CoonanHelen Coonan (NSW, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

We will now return to the matter of public importance.

5:26 pm

Photo of Matt ThistlethwaiteMatt Thistlethwaite (NSW, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I congratulate Senator Fawcett on his first speech to the Senate, but I return to the matter being debated prior to Senator Fawcett's inaugural comments. I indicate, as a new senator, that I am completely dumbfounded and blown away this afternoon by just how out of touch those opposite are in seeking to raise this issue in the Senate. They seek to criticise the government for maladministration and for its handling and management of our economy during the global financial crisis. This is from a coalition who went to the last election campaign with a promise to cut services. It was a promise based on an $11 billion black hole in their budget costings. Just when you thought you had seen and heard it all—the height of hypocrisy from those opposite—we now learn that they seek to go to the next election with a promise of $70 billion worth of cuts to government services. This perfectly highlights the hypocrisy of those opposite and just how out of touch they are.

Labor came to government in 2007 with a significant reform agenda after a decade of stagnation and wasted opportunity under a coalition government. It was a program to move our country forward, to modernise our economy, to deliver better education services, to restore fairness to workplaces and to protect the environment for the next generation of Australians. This program was developed during the years in opposition in consultation with the Australian people. I, personally, was involved in travelling around New South Wales and meeting with workers, families, businesses and community organisations about their wishes from a Labor government. They told us that they wanted fairness restored to workplaces. They were sick and tired of having their children exploited—the vulnerable workers in our society—by individual contracts that cut award conditions and reduced their take-home pay. Labor heard their message, and in government we have delivered. We got rid of Work Choices and instituted the Fair Work Act, which has seen 740,000 jobs created in the Australian economy, a reduction in industrial disputes and an increase in the number of enterprise agreements made between employers and their workers. We have delivered on that promise. They wanted improved educational standards. They wanted a better opportunity for their children, and Labor heard their message. In government we are delivering a national curriculum that sets new, modern standards of educational attainment. That is being delivered by Labor in government.

They were sick and tired of out-of-date infrastructure in many schools throughout the country. Labor heard their pleas, and we are delivering. We are delivering modern infrastructure in each and every school throughout Australia—$16.2 billion being invested in the Building the Education Revolution program: 24,000 projects throughout this great nation of ours, 9½ thousand schools, new libraries, new computer and science facilities, new sporting and cultural facilities and new computer laboratories.

They wanted increased funding for universities, and Labor in government is delivering that. They wanted a skills base that delivered a better opportunity for manufacturing in the future. Labor heard their calls, and we are delivering. We are delivering trade training centres in 927 schools throughout Australia and 97,000 apprenticeships, a record for the last decade. That is all being delivered by Labor in government.

Australians, particularly those in rural and regional areas, told me that they were sick and tired of slow internet and web services, that they were sick of seeing Australia lingering at the bottom of the world league tables when it came to internet speed. Labor heard their pleas, and in government we are delivering on those commitments. We are rolling out the NBN in rural and regional Australia, delivering world-class broadband services for 93 per cent of households and businesses throughout the country and increasing speeds for those remaining seven per cent. This will revolutionise Australia's communication system, increase productivity and, most importantly, break down that tyranny of distance that exists in rural and regional areas—again, being delivered by Labor in government.

Australians told me that their family members are too important to be played around with when it comes to health care—that they were sick of health care being used as a political football. They were sick of the blame game between the states and the federal government. Labor has responded and listened to their concerns, delivering federal healthcare agreements that will see record investment in hospital funding, delivering GP superclinics to reduce the burden on our hospital emergency waiting rooms.

This Labor government is delivering a program of reform based on the wishes and concerns of Australians that we heard during our period in opposition. Contrast that with the program and policy offerings of those opposite. The opposition went to the last election with a promise to cut services. I have mentioned already that its program involved cutting trade trading centres. That would have affected 1,800 schools; 1.2 million students throughout this country would have had their opportunity at skills training diminished by an Abbott led government. For 11½ years those opposite failed to invest in a national curriculum. For rural and regional Australia, they had a plan to axe the $6 billion regional infrastructure fund. Their promises in relation to increasing speeds for broadband are there on the public record. They will rip up the National Broadband Network and rob rural and regional Australians of faster broadband. In health, the record of the Leader of the Opposition speaks for itself: cut $1 billion from our hospital system, equivalent to 1,025 beds across Australia.

When it comes to the biggest economic and social challenge facing our generation, the Leader of the Opposition has been all over the place. During the time John Howard was the leader of the party, he supported an ETS. When Malcolm Turnbull was the leader he initially supported an ETS, but then he changed his mind; he saw a vote in it. Now he does not support an ETS. One day he supports a five per cent cut in emissions by 2020; the next day he says that this is a crazy target.

The biggest example of maladministration in Australian politics in the last 20 years was the opposition's costings at the last federal election. Not only had they promised to cut services and cut programs, but their costings came up short—to the tune of $11 billion. Not even their accountants would give an unqualified audit of their figures. And they have the hide to criticise this government for its record on economic management, particularly in a period in which the Rudd-Gillard government has managed the largest economic crisis our country has seen in the last 50 years.

When the global financial crisis hit, the Rudd-Gillard government acted quickly and decisively in response to the threat to the Australian economy. We implemented a stimulus program that protected Australian workers' jobs. We protected communities and we protected our economy, so much so that Australia now has one of the best-performing economies in the world. We have an unemployment rate that is half that of the United States and the United Kingdom. We have a record terms of trade, and levels of net debt 6½ times below the OECD average. And we do this with a plan to increase superannuation and a plan to cut the company tax rate. In all respects, this government is delivering on behalf of the people of Australia, and it is a cogent plan for the future.

5:36 pm

Photo of Gary HumphriesGary Humphries (ACT, Liberal Party, Shadow Parliamentary Secretary for Defence Materiel) Share this | | Hansard source

As I move around my electorate, the ACT, and travel to other places around Australia, I have to say that there is one sentiment that comes through almost universally, almost without fail. And it comes through even from people who I know have been supporters of the Labor Party in the past. It is a theme that recurs again and again—that is, that this Gillard Labor government has lost its way, that the government cannot be trusted, that the government she leads cannot be believed in what it says to the Australian people. And it is not difficult to see why. This government has systematically, comprehensively trashed its authority. You could not script a fall from grace, in the eyes of the Australian people, as perfectly as this government has executed it. If the polls are to be believed, no government in the history of Australian politics has spent so much on so many half-baked schemes to so little electoral benefit.

Why is this? Why is it that this government has so comprehensively lost its way and lost the confidence of the Australian people? It has lost their trust. Why? It is not hard to see why. The Australian people now see these examples recurring again and again before their eyes and they have become almost axioms in the eyes of many people.

Of course, the previous government, the Rudd government, broke such a long list of promises, such a litany of commitments to the Australian people, that their lack of trustworthiness on the question of keeping their word became almost legendary. The 10 minutes or so I have in this place does not give me a chance to even scratch the surface of those broken promises. They promised to cut the number of consultancies the federal government used; they in fact increased the number of consultancies. They promised a laptop on the desk of every school student; most of that scheme is yet to be delivered. They promised 260 childcare centres; only 38 were ultimately delivered. They promised 36 GP superclinics; I think only three have been delivered so far. They promised to stop whaling in our waters by Japanese whaling boats, a promise not delivered on. They promised a department of homeland security. They promised an election debates com­mission. They promised an Auditor-General review of government advertising. They promised to make sure all major projects would be subject to cost-benefit analyses. They promised a grocery choice scheme. They promised Fuelwatch. And the list goes on and on and on. It is not difficult to understand why people, who I suppose are already inured, to be frank, to a certain level of suspicion of politicians, would so compre­hensively believe that this government has reached the gold standard when it comes to breaking promises.

Ms Gillard was the deputy leader of the Rudd government and, since taking the reins of this government herself, has perfected the technique of breaking election promises. She has a host of broken promises to her own name. But of course one stands out, in a way which is in a sense a little hard to understand. It is the promise that she broke with respect to the carbon tax. It is a promise that was, in a sense, less audacious than many of those broken by her predecessor. But the fact is that this broken promise, the particular promise she made that there would 'be no carbon tax under the government I lead', has crystallised the Australian public's view of this government. This broken promise has told the Australian people more than any other broken promise made by this government that it cannot be trusted. It is a government not true to its word. And the government's shallow and unconvincing attempts to direct the ire of the Australian community away from that broken promise have been singularly unsuccessful. That is why today, a month or more after some of the details of this government's carbon tax have been laid on the table, it is still failing to reap much benefit from the delivery of this carbon tax and the details of this carbon tax because, frankly, far too many Australians have ceased to listen to this government, are no longer interested in what this government has to say, because they simply do not believe what they hear.

The recent events surrounding the member for Dobell reinforce yet again the sense that this government is a government that is not prepared to live by its word. A government that promised transparency in government, a government that promised a higher standard with respect to the behaviour of ministers and members than the previous government had exhibited, has delivered what I think can fairly be described as the most conspicuously disgraceful piece of cover-up that this community has seen for a very long time.

The opposition acknowledges that the member for Dobell may face proceedings, and he is absolutely entitled to the presumption of innocence with respect to those proceedings. But there are other matters that the member for Dobell has faced which are not on-foot, which are concluded and about which the parliament deserves an explanation—and neither the public nor the parliament has received that explanation. Again, even if the Prime Minister were to offer an explanation as to, for example, why $90,000 of funds of members of the Australian Labor Party has been put to settling a defamation action which was promptly then cancelled and the money used to disburse legal costs, even if the Prime Minister were to account today for why that occurred, I doubt that many Australians would be listening to hear—because they have ceased to trust her and her government.

The matter of public importance motion that has been moved today again draws attention to this government's maladministra­tion. Again, in just a few minutes it is impossible to do more than scratch the surface of that—broken promise after broken promise, botched execution of a scheme after botched execution of a scheme. The figures entailed in these failures of administration almost boggle the mind. On the govern­ment's own appointed assessor's view, for example, of its BER scheme, the Building the Education Revolution scheme, we hear that waste in public schools in New South Wales and Victoria alone cost $1.53 billion—a loss of effectiveness of $1,530 million has been squandered by this government on their own independent commissioner's assessment.

Yet these days it almost does not register with the Australian community because its level of waste and mismanagement is of such a scale that that figure almost means nothing. The $50 million wasted on the pink batts scheme is small fry in comparison with that; the $67 million wasted on the set-top box program; the concern in the community about the $25 million to sell a carbon tax before the scheme has even passed the parliament and even before people understand what is entailed in the scheme; and there is the $7 million wasted on market research testing federal government policies. We do not need market research to know what is happening to federal government policies. Then there is the abject failure, the smoking ruin, of a policy that the government's so-called Malaysian solution represents. This has again simply reinforced the sense that this government has reached a gold standard when it comes to broken promises and maladministered schemes.

I am concerned about these things because the value of Australian government, the authority of Australian government, is an important asset that everybody in this chamber ought to protect. At the end of the day, whoever takes responsibility for the Treasury benches needs to be able to deliver a certain number of programs and actions through the credibility of being the government of the country. I do not know that anybody can occupy the Treasury benches of this country anytime soon and look the Australian people in the eye and command that kind of respect, precisely because of the way in which this government has trashed that authority and debased that currency.

5:46 pm

Photo of John FaulknerJohn Faulkner (NSW, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

This matter of public importance has again demonstrated the fact that Her Majesty's opposition really is just a one-trick pony. All they offer is relentless negativity and carping criticism of the government. And of course the Leader of the Opposition, Mr Abbott, is relentlessly and exclusively negative. I have to say that as each day passes he becomes more extreme, more reckless and more inconsistent in what he says.

I give Mr Abbott great credit for being an absolute expert in rewriting history. He is very good at it. Look at what he said about a carbon tax, or an emissions trading scheme. He said he never supported one. But on Star FM Gippsland on 19 July 2011 he said, 'I mean, that is my position and that has always been my position. But I've never been in favour of a carbon tax or an emissions trading scheme and what the coalition is proposing to do is to take what some people call "no regrets" action.' Well, what about when he supported a tax, like on Sky News on 29 July 2009:

I also think that if you want to put a price on carbon why not just do it with a simple tax.

Or what about when he supported an emissions trading scheme, like on 2UE on 29 November 2009: 'You cannot have a climate change policy without supporting this ETS at this time.' Or on ABC Lateline on 2 October 2009:

We don't want to play games with the planet. So we are taking this issue seriously and we would like to see an ETS.

That is just out of Mr Abbott's own mouth.

But it is an incredible thing that Mr Abbott is so negative he is now even against himself, and that takes some doing. He reckons his own ETS target is crazy, although it depends on who the audience is. For example, on 18 July 2011 on he said:

Both the government and the opposition accept that Australia should reduce our emissions by 5 per cent by 2020.

But, at a seniors forum on the same day he said: 'And the other crazy thing about this is that at the same time that our country is proposing to reduce its emissions by five per cent, just five per cent, the Chinese are proposing to increase their emissions by 500 per cent.' It is a remarkable thing when somebody is so negative that they are even against themselves, and Mr Abbott of course has achieved that.

Those with an interest in the history of cinema might remember Groucho Marx singing Whatever It Is, I'm Against It, which was composed by Bert Kalmar and Harry Ruby, in that famous 1932 Marx Brothers film, Horse Feathers. It struck me that, if the Liberal Party are looking for a campaign jingle or Mr Abbott would like to have a theme song, there it is: Whatever It Is, I'm Against It from Horse Feathers.

I thought today I might take the opportunity on this matter of public importance to share some of those lyrics with you. Of course, unlike some senators I will not be singing the lyrics!

The first verse is this:

I don’t know what they have to say,

It makes no difference anyway—

Whatever it is, I’m against it!

No matter what it is or who commenced it,

I’m against it.

It is very Mr Abbott, don't you think? The second verse seems as relevant today for Mr Abbott as it was when Kalmar and Ruby penned it 80 years ago. Let me share that with the Senate:

Your proposition may be good

But let’s have one thing understood—

Whatever it is, I’m against it!

And even when you’ve changed it or condensed it,

I’m against it.

Then if you did not like the first two verses there is always the third verse—and you are smiling, Madam Acting Deputy President Coonan, so I assume you did like my rendition of it.

Photo of Richard ColbeckRichard Colbeck (Tasmania, Liberal Party, Shadow Parliamentary Secretary for Fisheries and Forestry) Share this | | Hansard source

The tempo is wrong.

Photo of John FaulknerJohn Faulkner (NSW, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I have not sung the words; I have merely read them into the Hansard. The third verse goes on:

I’m opposed to it—

On general principles I’m opposed to it!

The third verse finishes with some perfect lyrics which my friends in the Liberal Party can take to the party room when it meets tomorrow morning. This is the chorus:

  He’s opposed to it!

In fact, in word, in deed,

He’s opposed to it!

I would commend any interested senator, or anybody else who might like to take a closer look at this, to listen to Groucho Marx perform the original in Horse Feathers. It is just uncanny if you shut your eyes and listen. You would think it was not Groucho Marx 80 years ago but that it is Tony Abbott today. That is the Liberal Party for you. On the other hand, the government is continually doing what is necessary to keep Australia's economy strong, to look to the future, to provide opportunity to all, to have the determination to do what is right, even if there are some costs from time to time in short-term popularity.

Look at what has happened in the last few weeks. The government has finalised national health reform arrangements which will deliver a better deal for patients including a $16.4 billion investment in the health system. Also the government has made great progress in major reform of disability services in Australia to lay the foundation of a national disability insurance scheme. The Productivity Commission has recommended that, like Medicare, Aust­ralians should be insured against significant disability. The government has taken up that report and has committed an additional $10 billion this year to build the foundations for reform. And in aged care, the government has released the 2011 Productivity Commission report Caring for Older Australians. The government is determined to make the necessary reforms to our aged care system as part of a broader aged care agenda that will deliver positive outcomes for older Australians and also for those who care for them. In the face of relentless negativity, I would say the government continues to do what is necessary to keep Australia's economy strong and to make positive reforms for the future.

Photo of Helen CoonanHelen Coonan (NSW, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

The time for the discussion has expired.