Wednesday, 9 May 2012
Consideration of Legislation
I ask that government business notice of motion No. 1 relating to the consideration of the Family Assistance and Other Legislation Amendment (Schoolkids Bonus Budget Measures) Bill 2012 be taken as formal.
Pursuant to contingent notice No. 2, 'Conduct of business', and at the request of the Leader of the Government in the Senate, Senator Evans, I move:
That so much of the standing orders be suspended as would prevent Senator Evans moving a motion to provide for the consideration of a matter, namely a motion to give precedence to a motion relating to the consideration of the Family Assistance and Other Legislation Amendment (Schoolkids Bonus Budget Measures) Bill 2012.
I move this as part of a procedure to allow me to move government business notice of motion No. 1 for today. The government's aim is to organise the business of the Senate for tomorrow so that the chamber can debate the Family Assistance and Other Legislation Amendment (Schoolkids Bonus Budget Measures) Bill 2012 so that payments can be made to families.
In asking us to acquiesce to this motion to suspend standing orders, the government are asking those of us on this side of the chamber to facilitate them in yet again denying this chamber the opportunity to provide full and appropriate scrutiny to a piece of legislation. And this is not just any piece of legislation; this is a piece of budget legislation.
We know what the government want to do. We have seen in the motions they have listed here that they want to bring into effect a guillotine for this legislation tomorrow. They do not just want to give precedence to it; they want to apply a guillotine. This matter has not yet been dealt with over on the other side of this building, but still we are being asked to agree to a suspension of standing orders which would enable this government to give precedence to this bill so that they can apply a guillotine. We will not be part of it.
The first reason we will not be part of it is that yet again the government seek to deny appropriate scrutiny of legislation in this place. The second reason we will not agree to this request for a suspension is that the particular piece of legislation in question, the one the government is seeking to have precedence given to, is nothing short of a con. It is nothing short of a sham. The student bonus legislation is the rebadging of the education tax offset currently in place. They are rebadging it and they are saying it is essentially the same thing—but it bears no comparison. What is currently in place is specifically for educational purposes. Receipts have to be collected. What it is going to be transformed into, if the government have their way, is simply a cash handout—nothing to do with education. You might put the word 'education' on the letter which conveys the money, although I understand the government's intention is that the money goes straight into people's bank accounts, but no doubt there will be a letter that kindly lets them know it has come along. But that does not mean that the money is for educational purposes and you cannot guarantee that it will be used for that. This is a cynical attempt to redirect money to assist the government in selling their carbon tax. This is a carbon tax compensation measure, plain and simple, dressed up as an education measure. We will not be part of that.
This bill needs proper scrutiny. This bill needs appropriate examination and the government are seeking to prevent that happening. I do not want to go into the substance of the bill—that matter is not currently before us. But it really does need to be pointed out that this bill seeks to bring forward spending in the back-to-school payment program. If you add that to the Commonwealth grants to local government, which the government are also seeking to bring forward into the current financial year, it gives a total of $1½ billion. So the bringing forward into this financial year of the back-to-school spend and the local government grants is what secures the illusion of a budget surplus. That is what this is all about. That is what this suspension is about. This suspension is about seeking precedence so that a bill can be introduced—and the government will then guillotine it, meaning it will not get proper scrutiny—to enable them to manufacture a surplus. That is what the purpose of this suspension motion is. We will not be a part of it.
But the thing which annoys me, which frustrates me and which drives me to distraction more than anything else about this suspension request is the fact that we have seen it so often before. It seems as if every other week the government have sought some sort of procedural stunt to deny this chamber its rights and prerogatives. It might be a gag. That happens all the time. They move 'that the question now be put' in the middle of a debate. It might be a guillotine or, as the government euphemistically call it, 'time management'. It might be denying the opportunity for a piece of legislation to go to the relevant parliamentary committee for examination. Every opportunity to deny scrutiny that presents itself to the government they take. But we say no. This motion should be defeated.
I rarely get the opportunity to speak on procedural matters, procedure not being one of my strong points. But there is a particular reason why this shabby suspension motion, this shabby legislation, is being pushed through. And Senator Fifield is quite right—it is in fact to cook the books, to bring forward expenditure to this financial year so that the money is not spent next financial year, which would upset the government's surplus. That is very naughty. But it reflects the sleight of hand, the soft-shoe shuffle, which underlies the entire budget—the dodgy figures that speak for the government and for the surplus.
Secondly, and even more importantly, the reason for this legislation is to distract families, to distract schoolchildren in particular, from the elephant in the room, the elephant in the Senate, the elephant in the budget lock-up, the elephant in the parliament—that is, the carbon tax. I cannot recall Mr Swan talking about the carbon tax last night. Or did he just once mention carbon pricing in passing? He mentioned it just once. That is the elephant in the room. What the government wants to do is this: it wants to say, 'Oh, look at that cute little possum up there in the tree'. While you are looking at that cute little possum up in the tree, you will be run over by a bus—a carbon tax bus. What is the government's answer to the cost-of-living increases that will certainly come with a carbon tax? A schoolkids bonus. That is the government's answer to the cost-of-living increases brought on by the carbon tax—and this parliament is supposed to take that seriously, this suspension order seriously, this potential guillotine seriously? That is their public policy answer to the introduction of a carbon tax?
I am not very good at budget papers, but I had a look at them before I came down. Based on Budget Paper No. 1, statement 3 on page 13, the government's own figures, there is a $25 billion tax over the forward estimates. To address the $25 billion slug there will be this sugar hit; a bit of a cash bonus before the end of the financial year. It will not come anywhere near addressing the issues facing schoolchildren or facing working families, who have experienced a 60 per cent increase in the price of electricity over the last five years. This is just a pathetic sugar hit.
Mr Deputy President, you have heard me many times on the subject and you heard the same thing with Senator Sinodinos's question to Senator Wong. There is an enormous instability in the world at the moment, particularly in Western Europe but also, to some degree, in the United States. This government wants to introduce carbon pricing into Australia, which has a comparative advantage in exporting energy, to make our economy less competitive at a time when Western Europe is in turmoil. Isn't that good timing? Even Senator Wong conceded that Western economies are struggling and, despite the fact that this will be an impost of $25 billion over the forward estimates, this lot want to unilaterally bring in carbon pricing. My colleagues often say the greatest criticism is that the Prime Minister did not tell the truth on this. I disagree with my colleagues. I think the great criticism is that this lot is the only political party in the world, along with the Greens, that believes that the unilateral imposition of carbon pricing is in Australia's national interest. Irrespective of what any other nation on earth does, this lot believes, in a country that is an energy exporter, that is trade exposed, that it is in our national interest to unilaterally bring on the world's largest carbon tax. No other party on earth believes that, certainly no other government—and to bring in a schoolkids bonus! How pathetic. (Time expired)
I was reading the Australian this morning when I became aware that this motion would be moved. The article I was reading was headed 'Culture of deception'. This matter is about a culture of deception again. As Senator Fifield said, this is about the government refusing to allow any parliamentary scrutiny whatsoever of a bill that they are rushing through. Senator Mason quite rightly talked about sugar. This is a sugar-coated arsenic pill which will not fool the Australian community. When you look at a tainted government elected on the back of a lie, when you look at what commentary has been made about the budget deficits, when you look at the cumulative budget deficit, who seriously thinks this mob can deliver a budget surplus? We originally had a forecast of $4 billion, then it was out to $24 billion, then to $44 billion. The Family Assistance and Other Legislation Amendment (Schoolkids Bonus Budget Measures) Bill that is going to be rushed through the other place and this place is about bringing forward more expenditure into this budget year. It is a complete and utter deception—the culture of deception.
I wonder where the Australian Greens will stand on this matter. We saw Senator Milne's first test in the other place yesterday, and she failed because her deputy leader, Adam Bandt, voted with the government on the suspension of Mr Craig Thomson. If there are two great examples of the culture of deception of the Australian Labor Party, aided and abetted by the Australian Greens, it is their behaviour in relation to Mr Thomson and Mr Slipper. No one believes this surplus will be delivered. I draw to the attention of honourable senators a comment from Peter van Onselen in this morning's Australian:
Hands up anyone who thinks the $1.5bn surplus now being forecast for the next financial year will be realised, or the $2bn for the year after that. The betting markets certainly don't. Before this financial year Swan handed down deficits of $47bn, $54bn and $27bn, going back to 2008-09.
… … …
This budget is also tricky in parts. Money is being moved around (on paper) to achieve the surplus forecast. For example, by pre-paying the Clean Energy Advance to households as part of the assistance package this month and next instead of after July (once the carbon tax begins) the 2012-13 forecast is spared $1.5bn in spending. It is simply shifted into that $44bn figure delivered for 2011-12.
Given that the surplus for next year is predicted to be $1.5bn, clever accounting in this example alone represents the difference between a deficit and a surplus for 2012-13.
The Australian community will not be fooled by this suspension motion and the bill that it relates to. The Australian people know that this is a tainted government operating on the back of a tainted member, aided and supported by the Prime Minister of this country. Who seriously thinks that the comments by the Prime Minister and her actions a week and a half ago were not premised on the Fair Work Australia report, when she was still pleading the innocence of and her support for the tainted member for Dobell?
The Australian community knows this government has run its course. They will not be fooled by suspension motions such as this. The Australian community has given up on the Australian Labor Party, so I say to the Greens: are you going to sit back and watch this happen? I can remember full well over the seven or eight years I have been here the bleating from the Australian Greens if there was any sniff of a lack of parliamentary scrutiny of legislation. Let us see whether they are now prepared to stand by those words and vote against this motion. This will be Senator Milne's first test of whether she is serious about parliamentary process or whether she is just another partner of the Australian Labor Party, and when they say, 'Roll' she will roll. Let us see what she is going to do. There cannot be one member of the government who sits back and allows— (Time expired)
I held a press conference at about one o'clock today and announced that the Australian Greens would support the Family Assistance and Other Legislation Amendment (Schoolkids Bonus Budget Measures) Bill and support the process to get it through the parliament in the timeframe that the government proposed. The government has made it clear that it wants this bill through by the end of the week in order for the money to flow in this financial year.
I have also made it clear that this is not the way that the Australian Greens would have spent the money—we would have preferred to see it go towards implementing the Gonski review; we would like to have seen $5 billion go into education. However, that is not how the government has chosen to spend the money. Having said that, this measure will provide access to assistance to more low-income people than currently get the benefit. I will talk about that when we get to the substantive debate.
Waste, mismanagement and reckless spending are part of Labor's DNA. But this proposal takes the cake.They are so desperate to get the cash out of the door that they are doing away with any part of the most basic parliamentary processes, the part of our job actually, of scrutinising the activities and performance of executive government. The Greens, under the leadership of their new leader Senator Milne, are now coming into this chamber and making themselves complicit with the executive government to prosecute a complete abuse of power in pushing this cash splash through the parliament without proper parliamentary scrutiny. It is an absolute disgrace. People across Australia should take note that this government completely disrespects taxpayers' dollars and has absolutely no regard for spending money carefully and wisely and living within its means. And of course the Australian Greens are right next to them, side-by-side, aiding and abetting the cash splash, the waste of money and the reckless spending which has become the hallmark of this bad Labor government.
This government has promised for some years now that it will deliver a surplus budget in 2012. This morning Bill Shorten, the Minister for Financial Services and Superannuation, was at a breakfast saying, 'We have delivered a surplus. The surplus is here.' Let me say to the Australian people that this government has not delivered a surplus; this government has promised a surplus. It will never deliver a surplus because, when all is said and done, in September 2012, when we look at their past track record, no doubt we will be back in deficit. No number of accounting tricks will hide the fact that this government is trying to achieve a surplus through some sort of dodgy budget of magic. I say to the Labor Party and the Greens: shifting spending from 2012-13 to 2011-12 is not a spending cut. Shifting funding or spending from 2012-13 in the 2011-12 is cooking the books in order to make it look as though there is going to be a surplus in 2013. Everybody knows what you are up to. Everybody knows what you are doing.
Over the last four years this government has given us $176 billion worth of accumulated deficits. This government does not know how to look after money. People across Australia know that the Labor Party never knows how to manage money. The Labor Party in government always stuffs up our public finances. The people across Australia know that it always comes down to the coalition to fix up the Labor mess after a number of years of Labor government. The only thing that is worse now than before is that the Labor Party together with the Greens now have a majority in this place which means they can at will just ram any bad piece of legislation through this parliament. This is absolutely not in the national interest, and I am sure people across Australia would be appalled to realise that this government is ramming $420 million worth of spending through this parliament without any proper scrutiny whatsoever.
Let us reflect on what this is about, on what we have been asked to look at very quickly. We are talking about the government wanting to borrow money so they can give it away. This is not money they have; this is money they are going to borrow so that they can give it away. They are going to give it away without any strings attached. They are going to call it the education bonus that there is no requirement to spend on anything remotely related to education. This can be spent on anything. This is just a complete cash splash. This does not even have to be spent on schoolchildren. In fact, we know that the schoolchildren of Australia will be asked to repay the debt this government has accumulated, with interest. This government have given us deficit after deficit and have taken us from a position of no government net debt to a position where we are now heading for $145 billion of government net debt. The government are spending nearly $30 billion on interest to service the debt they have accumulated, interest payments that will be a burden for generations of children for years to come. It is this Labor-Greens government which is to blame. These processes, without proper parliamentary scrutiny and ramming through yet another Labor Party cash splash, is not the way we in the Senate should be doing business.
I do not know why we should be so aghast and so appalled by this sort of tactic from this government, a government which is supposedly all care but no responsibility, no accountability and no transparency, a government which hopefully is in its dying days. You can almost hear the screech of their fingernails as they slide down the blackboard with this one. It is yet another attempt to avoid accountability and to avoid transparency, with the support of their brothers and sisters in arms, the Greens. It is exactly the same as their avoidance of accountability and transparency with the $900 cash splash under then Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, the supposed stimulus for the economy—fail—the supposed stimulus for jobs—fail. Just as with that cash splash, now we have no accountability, no transparency and no checks and balances.
As Senator Cormann said, there is no requirement for any documentation as to what mums and dads have done with his money. There is no requirement that it be spent on anything in particular, just a hope that it will be. It is not unlike the Home Insulation Program, for which there was a litany of failed checks and balances and a government which refused to make transparent written warnings it received about the risks of home insulation, a government which said that the Home Insulation Program was going to stimulate jobs, stimulate the economy and help the environment. We now know some years later that it did none of those. It cost jobs—
Sadly, it cost some lives—it cost the economy and it did not one jot for the environment. Indeed, arguably it cost the environment because much of the insulation put in then had to be taken out and much of that which was taken out is not biodegradable. This was from a government which takes pride in wham bam thank you ma'am, in wham bam thank you electorate—'Just give us our way.' This measure is all about sophistry to achieve a so-called surplus—that is what this measure is all about. 'Wham bam thank you ma'am; just get it through parliament so we can shower the cash on the electorate.' They want to be able to use this Senate to do their dirty deal again with the Greens—not unlike the dirty deal which this government did with the Greens at the eleventh hour in the House of Representatives as a means of getting passage of the bill to all but neuter the Australian Building and Construction Commission. Remember that dirty little amendment from the Greens in the House which made it so that, even where there is a breach of the industrial law in the building and construction industry, provided that one of the parties to that breach—for example, a perpetrator and another perpetrate or a perpetrator and a victim—reach agreement, reach a side deal, that would prevent the very much watered-down construction industry cop who is now housed in that house of repute, the one in which the Prime Minister places so much stock, Fair Work Australia? It means that Fair Work Australia cannot investigate any further and cannot prosecute just because a dirty little deal has been done on the site.
What is this government thinking, in passing and ensuring the passage of legislation of that nature? If this government really thinks that is good law, then why is it not trying to make it the same for the ACCC, to stop the ACCC prosecuting two parties who are in collusion but reach some side deal? Why is this government not making it so that the Australian Taxation Office cannot prosecute an alleged offender who might have reached a side deal? Because they know it is bad law. But they were at pains to make it so that the bad law was not subject to Senate committee scrutiny, just as they are at pains with yet again another deal, sponsored by the Greens, to make sure that this budgetary measure to achieve surplus sophistry is not subject to scrutiny by the Senate.
What is this about? It is not about the budget yesterday—it was a 'fudge-it', and this is more of the same game: let us spend it in this financial year. I was just sitting in my seat and looking up at the young people in the gallery and thinking, 'I hope these youngsters get a good education and get a good-paying job, because they are going to have to pay a lot of tax.' They have got to pay $8 billion a year in tax, just for the interest bill alone. I have seen it all my life. I will say it again: give Labor the chequebook and they will empty the account; they will send you broke. It does not matter whether it is a state government or a federal government; that is how it has been all my life.
What sort of Australia are we leaving for our young ones when we have them wallowing in debt, when we raise the debt cap to $300 billion? To think that the government, when elected 4½ years ago, was debt free—totally debt free, with $60 billion in the bank for the Future Fund and future commitments for public servants—and now they have got a gross debt of $228 billion and they are raising the ceiling to $300 billion. They are mortgaging our children's future away. That is what this is about. This is simply cooking the books to get payments out before 30 June so they can say to the Australian people, come the following year: 'We are not going to borrow any money. We are going to be $1.5 billion in the black.' Wrong. If that were the case they would not be raising the debt ceiling by another $50 billion. That is the amazing thing.
They are saying they will have the budget in the black, but one thing we can be sure of is that because of this budget—or 'fudge-it' as I called it yesterday—there will be an August election next year. They cannot have it in September because of the football finals, and they will not go until October, because in September we will get the true figures for the financial year on their management. They will go to an election before that, before the Australian people get the truth. That is the biggest problem the government have got. The Australian people do not trust you. They do not trust you with your carbon tax. This is a cash splash of money thrown out to compensate for the carbon tax. People know the cost of living is hurting, and you are going to add to it come 1 July. That is all this is about.
We can rest assured that there will be an election by early September 2013, before Treasury and the Australian Office of Financial Management release the exact facts of this budget. And it will not be in the black. There will be more borrowing, more mortgaging away of our children's future. To think of the finances the government had in the bank when they were elected! I would say with confidence that we were the only nation in the world that was debt free. I said that to an American soldier at Hellfire Pass on Anzac Day and he said, 'Debt free?' and I said, 'Yes, we were debt free.' And now look at the financial mess the government have put us in. That is why we are debating this motion—so that the government can fudge the books again to get spending into this financial year and somehow save their political hide come the next election, whenever that is. It may be sooner rather than later. If the Independents Mr Oakeshott and Mr Windsor actually come to their senses, it may be sooner rather than later, and the Australian people can have their say.
At the request of Senator Evans, I move:
That government business notice of motion No. 1 may be moved immediately and have precedence over all other business today until determined.
This is the second motion for the chamber to consider before we can get to the substantive motion for allowing debate on the Family Assistance and Other Legislation Amendment (Schoolkids Bonus Budget Measures) Bill 2012.
I relish the opportunity that this second procedural motion provides to canvass the reasons why we find ourselves in this situation today. The reason we are in this situation today is, as I mentioned in my first contribution to these procedural debates, that this government is seeking yet again to avoid scrutiny. It is the intention of this government, if these procedural motions are successful, to time-limit and time-manage this debate tomorrow.
These matters have not been completed over on the other side. They are still in progress. And yet the government are seeking to prejudge what will happen over in the other place—that that legislation will come across here in good time to be dealt with tomorrow. But even if that is the case, even if that does happen, even if the legislation is rammed through the House of Representatives, it does not give this government the justification to seek to deny this chamber the opportunity to provide the appropriate scrutiny that this legislation demands.
We in this place pride ourselves on not being like the other place. We in this place pride ourselves on often being the first people in this building to actually read the legislation. As we know, legislation often goes to a caucus committee—no-one reads it. It then goes to the caucus—no-one reads it. It goes to the cabinet, where no-one reads it. It goes to the House of Representatives, where the chances are no-one will read it. When legislation hits this chamber it is often the first time that legislators have actually read the legislation that has come before this parliament. So our responsibility in this chamber—it is an historic one; it is an important one—is taken very seriously. Clearly it is not by those on the other side of the chamber but we on this side of the chamber not only take our responsibility as opposition senators to provide scrutiny of the legislation of the government of the day very seriously but also take our separate role as senators in a house of review to provide the scrutiny that legislation demands very seriously.
Whenever we read government motions such as the one on the Notice Paper which talk about consideration of the government business order of the day relating to such and such a bill and that the bill listed be considered under a limitation of time we know that 'limitation of time' means denial of scrutiny. Limitation of time means preventing sunlight. Limitation of time means seeking to abrogate the prerogatives and responsibilities of this chamber. Whenever we hear the euphemism 'time limitation' we know what it means. It means the guillotine. We have come to expect nothing else from this government because we have seen time and again under this government procedural tactics used to deny the opportunity to apply scrutiny. We have seen it with the frequent use of the gag. We have seen it with the frequent use of the guillotine. This government have set new standards in relation to the use of the guillotine. They positively broke a hamstring at the start of this year so keen were they to apply the guillotine—so keen were they that the Senate had barely been sitting seven or eight days before the guillotine was applied. There was no possibility that the rationale could be claimed that the opposition had been obstructionist or delaying, because there had been only seven or eight sitting days of the Australian Senate before they sought to use the guillotine.
As I said, it comes as no surprise that the government are seeking to use a number of procedural measures, but we have seen something very interesting today. We know the Greens have long held themselves out as paragons of parliamentary virtue. They always did under the reign of Senator Bob Brown. Over time there was a relationship between the increase in the size of the parliamentary representation of the Australian Greens and their commitment to parliamentary scrutiny. When they were a small and happy few, they held tightly to the concept of parliamentary scrutiny. They would stand against every motion that sought to deny parliamentary scrutiny. But as their numbers grew they became more like the larger party they sit with. We had hoped for a brief time that with a change of leader, with the ascension of Senator Milne, there would be a new Australian Greens, that the Greens would grab hold of the spirit they once had to be a party of review and to support the prerogatives of this chamber. But Senator Milne has continued in the traditions of Senator Bob Brown, I am sad to say.
But we know why we are really here. It is for two reasons. The first is the carbon tax. The whole purpose of the this motion, which is to give precedence to the motion which Senator Collins seeks to move, is so that we can get through the parliament in record time a compensation measure for the carbon tax dressed up as an education initiative. The government are saying, 'We are simply rebadging the education tax rebate which is currently in existence and making it easier for people to get their hands on it.' That is what they say they are doing. Sure, they are rebadging it. Yes, they are making it easier to distribute that money. But the reason they are doing this is that they want to have a sugar hit. They want to give people something which will take a little bit of the pain away, maybe distract them or make them forget that the carbon tax has come and that it will cause a real increase in their cost of living. That is the purpose of this motion. It is to facilitate that sugar hit to the Australian economy. Some would say it is a stimulus of sorts. We know how well those go down. We know how well those have tracked before when the government have sought to pursue sugar hits. But this is really about seeking to distract people from the implementation of the carbon tax.
The other purpose of the suspension motion and this motion to give precedence to the motion that Senator Collins seeks to move is an attempt at a budget fix. The government is seeking to bring forward this spending which was previously under the guise of the education tax rebate together with grants to local government which together will amount to about $1.5 billion. Alone this almost accounts for this fake budget surplus which the government have presented. That is the other purpose of the motion that is before us today.
But the real reason we are here is the issue of economic management. That is why we are here. There had not been until this government a government that were so appalling at managing this nation's finances. How does that manifest itself? The thing that most people grab onto as a key measure of economic competence, of competence in managing the Australian budget, is the surplus figure—is the budget in surplus or in deficit? Why do people grab that? Because it tells you whether a government can live within its means, whether it is capable of managing its finances. I will explain it to you, Madam Acting Deputy President Fisher, even though I know you know this. A surplus means that a government receives more in revenue than it spends in a particular financial year. A deficit means that it spends more than comes in as revenue. The job of a government is to make sure that revenue and expenditure roughly match. If a government has very large surpluses over an extended period of time it tells you that the government is taxing too much. On the other hand, if a government has consistent budget deficits over time that tells you that the government is spending too much. A government's job is to manage priorities and to manage the differences between revenue and spending.
This government does not have a great record, I think it would be fair to say. I know it is a bit of an understatement, but it does not have a terrific record when it comes to that key test of competence of an Australian government. Mr Swan, when he came into government, did something very helpful: he changed the colour of the budget papers. When we were in government we went for basic, simple, classic, elegant white. This government changed them to blue. That colour change is very handy, because it distinguishes easily for everyone those budgets which are in surplus and those which are in deficit. Let me count them: we have one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, 10 white, surplus budgets. I know this cannot possibly be unparliamentary conduct, Madam Acting Deputy President, because these are budget papers. So we have 10 surplus budgets from the previous government. Thank you so much, Wayne Swan, for changing the colour of the budget papers so that we can more easily distinguish surplus budgets from deficit budgets. What did we have for 2008-09? Any prizes for guessing: surplus or deficit?
Opposition senators: Deficit!
Yes, deficit. Despite what it says inside:
We are budgeting for a surplus of $21.7 billion in 2008-09, 1.8 per cent of GDP, the largest budget surplus as a share of GDP in nearly a decade.
Let us hear that again:
… the largest budget surplus as a share of GDP in nearly a decade.
Wrong: it was a deficit. In 2009-10, any prizes?
Opposition senators: Deficit!
Yes, it was a deficit. Here is 2010-11, our luck's got to change soon, doesn't it? It cannot be all bad luck.
Opposition senators: Deficit!
Deficit. Madam Deputy President, you can hazard a guess for 2011-12: surplus or deficit?
In 2011-12, was it a surplus or deficit? I can see you hazarding a guess there, Madam Acting Deputy President. It was a deficit. I will take the interjection from Senator Collins, who said, 'We might call him to order.' What could be more unparliamentary than pointing out with budget papers which budgets are in surplus and which are in deficit. I know it is excruciatingly embarrassing, but there you have it. That is the key indicator, the key measure, of competence which this government is being judged on. Despite being promised, despite being forecast, surpluses have not eventuated. As we knew he would, this year Wayne Swan got to the dispatch box and projected a budget surplus, but it is nothing more than a projection. We will not know what the final budget outcome is until September next year, which rather conveniently occurs after the next election.
That is why we are here. This motion seeks to give precedence to debate about a budget measure that will bring forward spending from next financial year to this financial year. The reason it is doing that, apart from being a bit of a sop to cover the cost of the carbon tax on households, is to manufacture, fabricate and create the illusion of a real budget surplus. Why has the government gone to such links to do that? Why has it gone to such lengths to shift, to fiddle, to fudge and to frame this budget? It knows that the surplus or, rather, I should say, consecutive deficits have been the key measure of competence upon which it has been judged. It is going all out, to all lengths, to manufacture, to create, to fabricate, to frame a budget surplus. In order to do that it has to seek to deny this chamber the opportunity to properly examine the education bonus legislation. Two things are in conflict here. There is the need to provide appropriate scrutiny to legislation—that is the role of the Australian Senate. Going in the other direction is this government's need to fabricate a surplus. To do that it needs to bring forward spending, but to get that money out it needs to pass this legislation quick smart.
We are finding, yet again, that pragmatism, politics and partisan self-interest triumph over the obligations and duties of the government to provide the opportunity for appropriate scrutiny of legislation. We always know that when you put pragmatism, politics and self-interest against parliamentary accountability, for the Australian Labor Party pragmatism and self-interest will win out every time. Every time, Labor will try to dress up self-interest and pragmatism as the national interest. I wish I had a dollar for every time I have heard a Labor member or senator talk about doing things in the national interest. But saying you are doing something in the national interest does not make it in the national interest. It does not matter how many times you say it; it does not make it true. No matter how many times you say it, the Australian public are not going to buy it. The Australian public are not going to buy that this proposed education bonus is in the national interest. They will see it for exactly what it is: a con and a sham designed to try to further mask the effects of the carbon tax on households. The Australian people will see it as a con and a sham in order to fabricate a budget surplus.
This government always succumbs to temptation. Whenever there is put before it the temptation to do a budget fiddle, it will take it. Whenever there is put before it the temptation to deny parliamentary scrutiny, it will take it. Whenever there comes before it the temptation to put partisan self-interest ahead of the national interest, it will take that opportunity. One of the things about being in government is that there are all sorts of options before you. There are all sorts of temptations, if you are a government, to look to your own party interest rather than to the national interest. We have seen as a pattern—week in, week out; month in, month out; year in, year out; budget in, budget out—since this government has been in office that it has always defaulted to its own interest. It has always defaulted to politics. It has always defaulted, on occasion, to being not entirely straightforward, I hate to say. Parliamentary scrutiny and parliamentary accountability are the furthest things from its mind. We know that they conduct themselves in a different manner in the other place, and we know that they have their own issues with certain members of that chamber. We know they have those, and I do not want to go there. But we have always hoped that in this chamber we do things better. We have always hoped that we are a real house of review and that we shine the sunlight on legislation that is needed. If this motion is passed, this chamber will yet again be failing in its duties, in its prerogatives and in its obligations. We on the opposition side will not be a party to that. We will not be complicit in that endeavour. It is for those reasons that I think it is very important that this motion, be it a procedural one, should be defeated.
That, on Thursday, 10 May 2012:
(a) the routine of business from not later than 12.30 pm to 1.50 pm shall be consideration of the government business order of the day relating to the Family Assistance and Other Legislation Amendment (Schoolkids Bonus Budget Measures) Bill 2012;
(b) the bill listed in paragraph (a) be considered under a limitation of time, and that the time allotted for all remaining stages be as follows:
commencing at 12.30 pm until 1.50 pm; and
(c) paragraph (b) of this order operate as a limitation of debate under standing order 142.
I acknowledge that this motion is unusual on the second day of this sitting, but the reason for the hasty passage of the Family Assistance and Other Legislation Amendment (Schoolkids Bonus Budget Measures) Bill 2012 is threefold. Passage is essential in the first week of sittings so that the Department of Human Services can deliver the lump sum payments for the 2011-12 Education Tax Refund year to 1.3 million families this financial year. What the opposition does not highlight is the consequence of us not proceeding with this measure, because we know that one million families will continue to miss out if we continue with the status quo of the arrangements that have previously been in place. Passage is also necessary so that the Australian Taxation Office can make the necessary changes to the tax materials for 2011-12. These materials need to be finalised by 15 May so that any changes to the Education Tax Refund for this year must be settled by then. Finally, the motion is necessary because the opposition will block debate on this bill, as we know from their behaviour to date, unless the motion is in place.
The opposition, strangely, is trying to prevent a payment to families in June, by delaying this bill. These families would have been eligible for the payment through the tax system. Instead the payment will be made directly to families to ensure that it is received and received in a timely manner. Soon I will come to the opposition's lengthy history in similar matters.
The payment will assist families to meet the cost of educating their children. The opposition has raised spurious arguments about cash splashes, and they are even claiming that parents will spend the allowance on discretionary items. It is outrageous. They are strange times when the Liberal Party is claiming that people are not in the best position to determine how they will spend their money. How offensive it is to the parents of school children to suggest that they are not spending the money on their children's education. Let me be clear: the allowance will provide assistance directly to those who need it most. It ensures that a payment is received by those who are entitled to it and that they receive it in a timely way so that parents can spend the money as they need it, not 12 months later. Having money to spend when it is needed rather than as a tax refund many months later follows the same principle that applied previously for the payment of the childcare allowance. This government rectified that problem.
I recall, when the Howard government introduced the childcare tax rebate, that they did an even more extreme measure. They suggested that families apply for it in the tax year after the tax year of their expenditure. That was one of the measures we rectified almost immediately after—actually, no, that was one issue that we forced to be rectified from opposition! More recently, we have ensured that families can receive those payments in relation to childcare support in the same circumstances as when they are spending it. And it is strange: you do not hear from this opposition arguments that families will not spend that money on their childcare costs, or arguments that families do not spend their family tax benefit, and indeed the improvements proposed in this budget that the opposition has indicated it will support, on discretionary items. But, for some very strange reason, education costs are something that this opposition thinks families cannot be trusted with. So we have more surprises in that the opposition can readily agree to the principle in the case of childcare and family tax benefit but apparently not with respect to education expenditure. So where is the sham that was suggested in the previous motions? I suggest that the sham lies with the other side, with the inconsistencies and the strange tactical positioning over the last couple of days to prevent, as I said, one million families from being paid their full entitlement in a timely fashion.
The other point that was made in the previous motions was the suggestion that the Senate would not have adequate opportunity to consider these measures. I should highlight at this stage that briefings were offered and did in fact occur with the shadow minister, Kevin Andrews. All questions have been responded to, and in fact Senator Fifield was offered the same from me yesterday. So for this opposition to suggest that we are not facilitating a timely consideration of these measures is laughable.
Let us go to the detail of these measures. The bill introduces a new payment through the family assistance legislation called the 'schoolkids bonus', to begin on 1 January 2013. The payment will provide direct assistance to eligible families with children in school and will be paid through the family payments system twice a year, in January and July. The two payments will total $410 per year for each child in primary school and $820 per year for each child in secondary school. The schoolkids bonus will replace the education tax refund. There is no charade here. We have been quite clear that that is the case, the history of which I will come to in a moment.
Consequently, this bill removes the education tax refund from the taxation legislation. As part of the transitional arrangements to the new schoolkids bonus the bill also creates a new payment in the family assistance and veterans affairs legislation to pay the maximum value of the education tax refund entitlement for the 2011-12 year as a lump sum. This lump sum payment will be delivered to eligible families before the end of June 2012. The bill will have a positive impact on families, delivering assistance to help families with the costs of having kids in schools. Paying the new schoolkids bonus twice a year means that families will have upfront support to help meet educational expenses rather than receiving a payment, if indeed they have claimed it, months after the education expenses are incurred. Paying out the 2011-12 education tax refund in full to all eligible families in June also means families do not have to keep receipts or make a claim for a refund at the end of the current financial year. Who in this chamber can argue that any family with a school-aged child is not expending the amounts involved here? It would be laughable for the opposition to suggest that any family with a child in any school is not incurring educational costs within the scope of the level of this allowance.
These changes mean that one million families will receive more money than they did under the education tax refund last year. As we know, and indeed as the general public knows—it is not being hidden; the opposition knows; anyone who reads contemporary newspapers knows—80 per cent of families did not previously claim either the full amount or any amount under the education tax refund. Think about that: 80 per cent of families are not benefiting from the current arrangements. This is where it is really strange: the opposition is seeking to block one million Australian families from receiving a payment in a more accessible way to meet the educational costs of schoolchildren.
We had Mr Hockey say, today I think, that for the baby bonus you need a baby. Well, certainly, for this entitlement the family needs a school-aged child—there is no argument on that point. I suggest that for the opposition to say we need to tie this allowance to the actual receipted expenditure does indeed seek to argue that there are Australian families that do not expend the amounts in the allowances that are proposed here. Think about it: $410 and $820. Are you seriously suggesting that Australian families are not expending those amounts to send their school-aged children to school?
Another aspect I think I should highlight is that this measure in that sense is not a shock. It is not a budget sham; it is not a surprise to anyone who has been following these issues. We have had the Ken Henry tax review suggest that we should make these very changes. We have looked at who has been accessing these entitlements and we have seen there is a serious problem. What stuns me, though, is why the opposition cannot see the same, why they would seek to block families from accessing quite reasonable and quite justifiable support in relation to the education costs of their children. There is no stunt; we have demonstrated very clearly there is an issue. The Ken Henry review supported the fact that there is an issue. The recent assessment of who has been claiming this entitlement tells us there is an issue—and, in these measures, we have set up appropriate arrangements to transition to a more sensible arrangement. How the opposition, when they can accept the fact that that is required for family tax benefit and can accept the fact that that is required for childcare assistance, cannot accept the fact that it is required for educational costs is astounding. This new payment will benefit 1.3 million Australian families with 2.2 million kids in primary school and secondary school. This is important legislation for families and I commend this motion to the Senate so that the bill can be passed before we break for budget estimates.
The Family Assistance and Other Legislation Amendment (Schoolkids Bonus Budget Measures) Bill 2012 is a bill you would expect from this Labor government. There are no surprises there. It is a government that still has not learned any lessons. This government still believes as of today that you can address issues of cost of living—and Senator Collins is right, cost of living is a big issue—by giving a cash handout.
that is a cost of living—by giving a cash handout, a sugar hit. That somehow addresses cost-of-living pressures. We on this side know that does not address cost-of-living pressures. The cost-of-living pressures will only go down when the costs of government go down. I am not too good at budget papers but I did have a look at Budget Paper No. 1, statement 10, page 6. I realised that in fact, despite all the rhetoric, the percentage of GDP on this budget, a so-called horror budget, is higher than any other budget Mr Swan has delivered. It was 23.4 in 2008-09, 22 in 2009-10, 21.6 in 2010-11 and 22.3 in 2011-12, and the estimate for 2012-13 is 23.8 per cent of GDP. In other words, the budget keeps getting bigger, as does the cost of government. A sugar hit, a cash handout, goes nowhere near addressing cost-of-living pressures. All this in a time supposedly of austerity.
The only thing this government can grow is the size of government. That is okay; I concede that this government takes its model from western Europe, countries that have been running in western Europe since World War II, and thank God we have not had Labor governments with the same frequency as they have had social democratic governments in western Europe; otherwise we would have the same problem. The only reason Australia does not suffer the shocking budget deficits and systemic debt that western Europe does is that conservative governments in this country won about two out of every three elections since World War II. In western Europe they have won about one out of every three. That is the difference, and that explains the enormous difference in the budget scope for this country.
I do not know how many times I have had to remind the Senate that every time Labor leaves government it leaves Australia further in debt. This is the golden rule, the indelible ink of the Australian Labor Party. Ever since 1901, ever since John Christian Watson's first government in 1904, every time Labor has been in government and has lost, Australia is further in debt. This is the golden rule of Australian politics: the Australian Labor Party always leaves Australia further in debt. There has never been one exception since Federation. Labor always says that jobs are in its DNA. The golden rule of Australian politics is this: Labor always leaves this country further in debt. There has not been one exception since 1901. The DNA of the Australian Labor Party is debt; it always has been and always will be.
My friend Senator Cormann raised before the issue of intergenerational debt. The problem with social democratic parties is that they believe that it is kind and gentle and fair to get subsequent generations to pay the debt of current generations. The Australian Labor Party believes it is okay to ask future generations to pay the debts of current generations, that it is okay to spend money on overpriced school halls. The hard thing is for the government to spend money and get good value. That is the hardest possible thing for a government. This lot has never managed that. Ever since 1901, when Labor loses office Australia is always further in debt. It has always been so and it always will be.
When I was reading the budget projections I came across a graph. I am not very good at budget papers—I was not very good at economics—but something caught my eye and I was somewhat startled by Budget Paper No. 1, statement 3, on page 21. At the top of the page it says:
On current projections the underlying cash surplus is expected to reach 1 per cent of GDP in 2017-18, the same year as projected in MYEFO.
Listen to this. This is the killer sentence:
Net debt is projected to return to zero in 2020-21.
Let me repeat it very slowly:
Net debt is projected to return to zero in 2020-21.
And in Budget Paper No. 1, chart 2, page 22, there is a graph which shows Australia returning to zero net debt in 2021, in about nine years time, when I suppose the member for Dobell will be the Prime Minister. Who, including the Australian Labor Party, thinks that in 2021 there will be no net debt? What are the chances that in eight or nine years time the Australian Labor Party, if they remain in government, will return Australia to no net debt? Does anyone believe that? Does the government even believe that? I suspect not.
The reason is this: the best guide for future performance is always past performance. What do we know about the Australian Labor Party and debt? Ever since Federation, every time Labor leaves office Australia is further in debt. Every time this lot gets in, when it leaves the next generation has more debt to pay off, more interest to pay off—as Senator Joyce said today, more and more interest for the next generation. So much for equity. This government always talks about equity, as do the Greens. What about intergenerational equity? What about generations paying for their own welfare rather than the current generation's? They never talk about intergenerational equity; it is always about fairness at the moment. It is very easy to spend public money but very hard to spend it well. I need not have worried, because in 2021 we are all going to be back to no net debt, in eight years time. But just in case I am wrong—and some might think I am being cynical, and you know, Acting Deputy President, I am not a cynic, but just in case—the government has raised the debt ceiling to $300 billion. Just in case, the debt ceiling has been raised from $250 billion to $300 billion.
That is right. As Senator Joyce says, you cannot be too careful, because we would not want the government to start borrowing more money now, would we? They have never done that before in Australian history, have they? No. Every time they leave office they leave Australia further in debt.
As my colleagues said this afternoon in this debate, the real reason this legislation is being rushed forward, as Senator Cormann put it eloquently before, is to fudge the figures, the sleight of hand, the dodgy budget figures, to bring forward the spending so it does not operate next financial year and upset the government's surplus. That is the truth.
No; that is the truth. Secondly, it is to distract families from the imposition of the carbon tax on 1 July. I tell you what: this sugar hit will not have any impact compared to the ongoing and systematic impact of a carbon tax. This government wants to somehow distract Australian families from the cost of the carbon tax. It was funny last night listening to the Treasurer, Mr Swan; I was listening in my room, and I think the phrase 'carbon pricing' was used once. Is that right? I think that is right. Carbon pricing was mentioned once by Mr Swan in his budget address. And yet that is truly the elephant in the room.
That is the centrepiece, as Senator Cormann has just interjected. On the government's own figures, it is nearly a $25 billion tax over the forward estimates. So this is not some minor issue; this is all about cost of living. This schoolkids bonus will not come anywhere near touching cost of living over the long term, not at all. The great tragedy for our nation is that this government has decided to introduce a carbon tax—the world's largest carbon tax, as Senator Joyce always reminds me—in a country with a comparative advantage in the export of energy and minerals. I cannot imagine any country actually unilaterally imposing in effect a tariff on itself to make its goods and services more expensive. I cannot imagine what is even worse: a country such as Australia, with a comparative advantage in the export of energy, doing it.
My colleagues no doubt are tired of me saying this; they have heard me make this argument so often. My colleagues say that the great dishonesty was the Prime Minister's not warning Australians that she would introduce a carbon tax. Sure, that was dishonest, but I think the greater lie, the far more worrying lie, is this: the government has always argued that, irrespective of what any other nation on earth does, the unilateral imposition of this carbon tax by our country is in our national interest. That to me is the greatest lie of all. This lot have said from the beginning, following Professor Garnaut's report, that, irrespective of what any other nation on earth does—even if no other nation prices carbon—it is in our national interest to price carbon.
Indeed, to have the world's largest carbon tax. That might be madness for a country in western Europe that does not export energy and minerals, but, for a country with a huge comparative advantage such as Australia, it will have an enormous impact on the cost of living and the cost of our exports over the forward estimates and over the next generation or two. That to me is the great failure in public policy of the Australian Labor Party and this Labor government. That is the great failure. Okay, the Prime Minister was dishonest, but that is only half the dishonesty. The dishonesty is to impose this tax on our people, on the Australian people, when other nations are not doing it, and in any case arguing that its unilateral imposition is in the interests of Australians. That to me is the greatest farce, the greatest lie, of all.
The carbon tax is being imposed in a world where Greece is in turmoil. I understand they have even had communists and neo-Nazis being re-elected to parliament in Greece. That is helpful, isn't it! And, in France, there is a new socialist President who is against austerity. That no doubt will help the stock market and help western Europe get back to normal! Even in the United States, there are enormous difficulties. The Western world is facing enormous economic challenges, and this lot believe it is in our national interest to unilaterally impose a carbon tax to make our industry less competitive. They believe that, even when the rest of the world is in turmoil, it is in our national interest to impose unilaterally a carbon tax to make our industry, our employees, our workers, less competitive. That is a great argument, isn't it! No other nation on earth buys that argument. The only people that buy that argument are the Australian Labor Party and the Greens. No-one else buys that argument, and somehow the Australian people have to suffer because of it. No-one other than the Australian Labor Party and the Greens believes that you can unilaterally impose this carbon tax and it will be in our national interest. They know it will drive up the cost of our exports, they know it will make our industry less competitive and they will do it, irrespective of what any other nation on earth does. That to me is the greatest lie in this debate over the last 2½ years, by far.
What is the answer to the cost-of-living pressures that will follow on from the carbon tax? What is the government's answer? The government's answer to the cost-of-living pressures is a schoolkids bonus.
Yeah, that'll fix it! If the government gives you a schoolkids bonus, that will somehow address the cost-of-living pressures on families. Yeah, that'll fix it! Great! That is the Australian Labor Party's very cunning public policy. Isn't that wonderful! As if somehow Australian families will benefit sufficiently from that. We know electricity prices have gone up by 60 per cent in the last five years. A sugar hit, a schoolkids bonus, will not match that. But of course this government has not got anything else to proffer. It is the old story: flash a bauble, flash a bit of tinsel, flash anything—take the minds of the electorate off the pain, grab the cash and all the problems will go away. Well, they will not. The Australian people are alive to what Labor is up to. It did take a while, but they are now.
This carbon tax is toxic. The cost-of-living pressures that it will bring are considerable, and the Australian people know, no matter what compensation—such as this schoolkids bonus—is offered, it will not address the fundamental problem, and that is this: the carbon tax will make Australian industry less competitive. That is it in a sentence. It will make Australian industry less competitive. Costs must go up. It will make our exports more expensive. It will make us less competitive in relation to the rest of the world. That is a fact. And they are doing it to a country which is built on exporting energy. Why would you do that? Why would you make it harder for a kid to get a job? Why would you do that? Why would you make it harder for our exporters to export? Why would you do that? Well, this lot have done that. That has been the outcome of their policies.
After all this time debating the carbon tax—God, it seems like forever; two or three years—we are still debating it, and our side will never give up. The carbon tax is wrong, and no schoolkids bonus will answer that. No sugar hit is ever going to wipe away the stain of a tax that makes Australia a less competitive country, that makes it harder for our kids to get jobs. We will never, ever let the Labor Party get away with it.
I know the legislation has gone through, but, when we get in, we will take it back. As Mr Abbott says, if necessary we will go to a double dissolution. We will do whatever we do not because it is the Labor Party's legislation but because the carbon tax is not in our national interest. This lot have never, ever made the case that the carbon tax is in the national interest. That is a debate they lost. They won the election on a lie, and the debate in this chamber was lost by the Labor Party. They could never, ever justify the fact that the prices of our goods would go up and Australia would become less competitive. No amount of compensation, no schoolkids bonus, no other shiny, flashy baubles, will ever—
On a point of order, Madam Acting Deputy President: I have allowed the senator some wide latitude, but the point does need to be made that these measures are not a carbon tax compensation measure. I ask you to bring him to the point or to be relevant to the motion.
This is not a schoolkids bonus budget measure; this is a carbon tax offset. That is what this is. This is to somehow distract Australians and make them think, 'We have a generous government which gives us this money for the cost of schoolkids.'
Let me conclude with one final point. No matter what compensation they give, no matter how many schoolkids bonuses they give, this pernicious tax will make it harder for Australian kids to get jobs, will make it harder to export and will lead to a fall in our standard of living.
I table a statement of reasons relating to the Family Assistance and Other Legislation Amendment (Schoolkids Bonus Budget Measures) Bill 2012 and seek leave to have a statement incorporated in Hansard.
The statement read as follows—
FAMILY ASSISTANCE AND OTHER LEGISLATION AMENDMENT (SCHOOLKIDS BONUS BUDGET MEASURES) BILL 2012
Purpose of the Bill
This Bill will deliver new assistance to families to help with the costs of their child’s education. This new payment – the schoolkids bonus – is a 2012-13 Budget measure that will replace the education tax refund paid through the taxation system.
The Bill will:
Reasons for Urgency
Urgent passage is needed for this Bill so the Australian Taxation Office can reflect the changes to the tax law for 2011-12 in the materials that more than 12 million Australians use to do their tax returns. The tax materials for 2011-12 needs to be finalised by 15 May 2012, so changes to the Education Tax Rebate need to be decided by then.