Tuesday, 14 August 2012
Matters of Public Importance
The President has received the following letter from Senator Fifield:
Pursuant to standing order 75, I propose that the following matter of public importance be submitted to the Senate for discussion:
The Gillard Government's pattern of broken promises, raised expectations and unfunded commitments.
Is the proposal supported?
More than the number of senators required by the standing orders having risen in their places—
I understand that informal arrangements have been made to allocate specific times to each of the speakers in today’s debate. With the concurrence of the Senate, I shall ask the clerks to set the clock accordingly.
I rise to speak on this matter of public importance which, by its very nature, indicates the necessity for discussion—again, the pattern of broken promises of this government, the expectations that have been raised and dashed and the commitments which have been given but remain unfunded. I am keenly aware every day in my shadow portfolio responsibility areas like housing, in particular, and homelessness that individuals who look to government for leadership in this space find that view sadly wanting, I must say, in the case of this government.
We are all aware of this government's track record of overpromising and underdelivering. The repeated discussions we have had in this chamber in relation to company tax, for example, would be a good start—again and again put forward, with the one per cent reduction promised on about 100 occasions. It is a ridiculous proposition for a business operator in Australia to be waiting for any certainty from this government, because it simply is not delivered. The last time that this promise was made—a promise that was due to commence less than two months after the budget—it was dumped without even being introduced to the parliament properly.
We heard today from the Minister for Broadband, Communications and the Digital Economy, Senator Conroy, about his personal white elephant, the NBN—which was of course promised in 2007 with much fanfare and with a cost, at the time, of $4.7 billion. Two years ago what were Labor saying about the NBN? They said it would be rolled out to 1.3 million households with over half a million paying customers by June 2013. That is not too far away, really, if you look at your calendar closely. But now we learn that the revised June 2013 target is 341,000 households with only 54,000 customers. What a convenient revision that is! And the price tag itself just beggars the imagination. We are looking at almost 10 times the originally promised price. That is just another example of Labor, as the government, promising the world for free and delivering very little at enormous cost. And I have not even come close to talking about the carbon tax, but I think I can rely on some of my colleagues to also address that matter here this afternoon.
I want to go to some very important issues close to my shadow ministerial responsibilities and raise the attention of the Senate in relation to those and the broken promises, the raised expectations and the lack of true commitment to funding. Last week, as many senators would know, was Homeless Persons Week—a time when many Australians took the opportunity to reflect on the situation of homeless people in our community and the work of those in so many non-government and not-for-profit organisations who do such an extraordinary job supporting and caring for them.
Many Australians are struggling to avoid the rising costs of living that are affecting their most basic comforts. In the middle of winter, that includes very simple things such as the heating of a home and the use of electricity to turn on lights. Those of us who have been in and around our electorates during the break and talking to our constituents have all heard stories from individuals, most particularly the elderly, who are finding this an extraordinarily difficult process to live through. Many of them are facing this with great fear and great concern.
But too many Australians do not even have a home to heat, with families living in a vast range of circumstances—none of which are desirable—and, indeed, many children forced to sleep rough. And things continue to get worse, not better. Rents and mortgage payments are rising for many, especially at the lower end of the market. And the carbon tax itself will add thousands of dollars to the construction cost of new homes, for those who dare to put their toe in the water. That is an additional pressure on housing costs, which will push more lower income families into housing stress, rental stress, mortgage stress and, for some, into homelessness as rents become less affordable and housing costs become less affordable across the board. And not only are housing costs going up; insufficient houses are actually being built.
The national housing shortage in this country is something that I see many of those opposite often wave away with a swipe of the hand as though it is not important. But, for a country that depends not only on its own population but also on migration to survive and to sustain ourselves in the business market and the employment market, to have a housing shortage which was recently reported to have increased another 14 per cent to 228,000 as at June last year is a very, very scary statistic.
It adds up to one-quarter of a million houses that we need but do not have. It is a fairly stark question for the government to respond to. In other words, a material percentage of the Australian population would not have access to adequate housing even if they could afford it, and we already have too many people resorting to marginal accommodation. Increasingly, without a demonstration of some leadership in this policy area, more and more Australians will be in that position and, frankly, it does not matter where you come from. It does not matter if, like Senator McKenzie from a rural and regional area in Victoria or, like me, you are from Western Sydney or inner Melbourne, the homeless and their families are absolutely everywhere and communities are becoming more and more alert to that problem.
Homelessness Persons Week 2012, though, was marked by an ironic and extraordinarily unhelpful degree of uncertainty for homelessness services across the country. Hardworking services spent a lot of their week bringing homelessness into the national consciousness, they looked after families who were struggling to provide a roof for themselves and their children, but what was the government doing? It was largely talking about itself and making threats via the Prime Minister to the premiers that she does not like who sit around the COAG table. Where does that get anyone? The National Partnership Agreement on Homelessness, which was introduced to halve homelessness and provide supportive accommodation to all rough sleepers by 2020, is due to expire on 30 June next year. I have asked about its renewal during question time in this chamber and I have asked about it in estimates.
In 2008 the then Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd, told us that homelessness was a national obscenity and promised that his 12-year plan to address homelessness would have significant results. In agreeing with the states and territories to new funding, he declared that that four-year $1.1 billion agreement was a 'down payment' on the overall plan. But as a responsible, hardworking Australian would know, putting a down payment on a house is just the beginning. You still need to pay the debt. We were attacked—many were attacked—for saying that that was a very significant target that the government had set for itself and for querying its real attainability.
The government cannot even measure its own progress now. The most recent minister in this area has stated that the government will have to look at data from the latest census to see how it is going. So, four years in, two years until the interim target of a 20 per cent reduction in homelessness is supposed to be met, eight years until homelessness is to be halved, the government cannot say whether it is making progress. Now, when it is asked how it will meet those targets, its plan appears to be to revise the definition of homelessness, to make a few global statements in its homelessness bill, to try to find some savings apparently to fund homelessness prevention and to ask the states for more money. In what appears to be an effort to stay afloat politically, it is really struggling to stay afloat financially.
The minister also says they will have to find savings to provide for the funding to extend the agreement. He cannot say how they will do this beyond June 2013. He is quoted as saying that the federal government have not determined the level of resources they could put at this point and, 'We would have to find savings to provide those resources'. So much for a down payment! So much for responsible forward budgeting! It is not trivial funding. There are about 180 homelessness services across the country that have no funding certainty from the middle of next year and many have reported that they are concerned that services with which they work may have to close early. Those services are lining up to warn of the dangers to those homelessness targets if the NPA is not extended.
Across the nation, we see people struggling every night. The government's response is not good enough; the minister's response is not good enough. To tell us from Finland and from Berlin about international programs and what he thinks they might do in Homelessness Week 2012 in Australia is not a good enough response to the people who are currently sleeping rough. It is not a good enough response to vulnerable mothers and their children and it is not a good enough response to people who put their faith in this government to mean what it says. They are profoundly disappointed and have every right to be. The government needs to do a much better job.
I am pleased to rise this afternoon to make a contribution to this debate on a matter of public importance. When considering the subject of 'broken promises, raised expectations and unfunded commitments' there is no-one better qualified than those in the coalition to comment on these matters. In considering the contribution that I would make to this debate my first thought was that Labor had kept not only its most important promises but also the most central promise of all—a promise to manage the economy, to manage reform, to manage prosperity and to deal with the extraordinary challenges of recent times. That is a promise that Labor has kept and it has kept it in spades.
The government is returning the budget to surplus on time and as promised after what can only be described as some of the most momentous times in world economic history. Budget 2012-13 has cut spending by $33 billion—the greatest fiscal consolidation in the history of our economy—an extraordinary, remarkable achievement and one that means this country and this government will be heading back into surplus at a time when much of the rest of the world can only dream of such a scenario.
When one considers the promises that this government has kept, the one that we can be proudest of, the one that affects every Australian, is that promise to manage the budget and to manage it well. Economic growth is expected to be stronger than in every major advanced economy over the coming two years: solid growth and real GDP of 3¼ per cent in 2012-13 and three per cent in 2013-14. Unemployment is forecast to remain low at 5½ per cent in the next two years. We saw only a few days ago that unemployment number again deliver a very strong result for Australia and again a number that surprised many commentators. No doubt, it grievously disappointed those who make it their business to talk down this economy.
Official interest rates are lower now than at any time for our predecessors and make a mockery of the boast that those opposite used to make that interest rates would always be lower under a coalition government. Well, the Australian people can now see that that boast was an empty one, and that in fact it is Labor and our economic management that have provided the lowest official rates in memory and delivered real and tangible results for mortgage holders across the country. By mid-2014, our economy is expected to be over 16 per cent bigger than it was before the global financial crisis, again outstripping the major advanced economies.
Despite a $150 billion loss of tax receipts since the GFC over the five years to 2012-13, the budget forecasts strengthening surpluses in each of the next four years, beginning of course with a $1.5 billion surplus in 2012-13. This year, tax as a proportion of the economy is just 22.1 per cent, compared to the 23.7 per cent we inherited from our predecessors. That means that this government is taking $24 billion less than our predecessors. The tax burden on the economy has shrunk and the proportion of the public sector as a part of the whole economy has also shrunk. So, of the whole mythology that those opposite have tried to build of big government, big taxation and economic failure, none of them bear the results. None of them are able to stand up to scrutiny, and clearly this government's economic management credentials sit at the very heart of its achievement in recent times.
Over 750,000 jobs have been created since late 2007, while around 27 million jobs have been lost around the world over the same period—again, an Australian result that stands in stark contrast to what is happening in the rest of the world. Of course, this is not unknown to Australian families. They sit at home and they watch the nightly news. They see Greece, they see Italy and they see the instability of the European economy and the Euro, and they comprehend that Australia is sailing very well in very fraught waters. Australia has strong economic fundamentals: solid growth, low unemployment, record levels of mining investment and commodity prices still around historical highs.
The strength of our public finances is a key reason behind Australia receiving a triple-A credit rating, with a stable outlook from all three major rating agencies for the first time in our history. We are now one of only eight countries that currently meets this standard, so clearly Australia is measuring up by international standards as well as by those very stringent standards this government has set itself. Independent economic commentary website Economy Watch said:
Spurred by robust business and consumer confidence, Australia’s economy is expected to grow even quicker in the next five years. 2011 to 2015 should see Australia’s GDP (PPP) grow by 4.81 to 5.09 precent annually …
Likewise, Australia’s GDP (PPP) per capita is expected to experience healthy growth.
The Wall Street Journal opined:
Mr. Swan unveiled the biggest package of budget cuts in 30 years hoping to turn a deficit of A$44.4 billion in the 2011-12 fiscal year ending June 30, into a surplus of A$1.5 billion in fiscal 2012-13.
So these extraordinary accomplishments have not gone unnoticed. This means that the government has already achieved bigger saving measures than anything the Howard government ever managed.
These are extraordinary accomplishments; these are extraordinary promises kept, but there are of course others. One that springs to mind is the minerals resource rent tax. This was a very important Labor policy, one that was taken to the people and taken to the parliament. At its very heart, the minerals resource rent tax was about the principle that the mineral and resources wealth of this country belonged to every Australian in equal measure. While of course those who risk their businesses, their capital, their entrepreneurialism in exploiting those resources should be and are appropriately rewarded, it was appropriate for the people of Australia to take a seat at that negotiating table and say to those companies, 'You are experiencing superprofits as a consequence of record commodity prices—in the case of iron ore, a 600 per cent increase in the price—so it is appropriate that Australia and Australians get a bigger cut of this dramatically expanding pie'.
That message has been understood. It has been understood by the people and it has been embraced by most of the industry. Now we see today that that promise has not only been kept but been kept in a way where we see the support of most of the industry. The proof of that is in the most extraordinary investment pipeline in the history of the Australian resources sector. In the order of $430 billion is now in the pipeline, with something like $82 billion in this year alone, which is up from $35 billion only two years ago. Clearly, there has been spectacular investment in the sector.
Those opposite, in railing against this eminently reasonable tax, have made two contradictory points, the first being that this tax will not realise any receipts and the second being that this tax will ruin the mining industry. They have not been deterred by the fact that these two claims are mutually exclusive. It cannot on the one hand beggar the mining industry and on the other hand produce no receipts for government. But this is just one of many anomalies on many occasions and in many critical debates where the opposition walk on both sides of the street and can be found on both sides of the argument. I will raise further examples.
One of them is climate change. We see in the climate change debate the opposition pandering to those who insist that climate change is not real, that anthropogenic climate change is a fantasy, a fraud, and we see the opposition pandering to those who believe that climate change is real. The opposition hide the fact that their policy to abate carbon and their targets in that policy are the same as the targets in the government's policy. Again, we see them walking both sides of the street.
Sometimes this enters the world of high farce. Recently in the foreign investment debate we saw coalition senators, including Bill Heffernan and Fiona Nash, pushing for further strengthening of foreign investment rules only a week after the opposition had purported to land a policy on this very subject. I have said in this place before that we on this side are, within reason, sympathetic to the enormous challenge that Liberal Party senators have in herding the cats that are the National Party. We know they are policy eccentrics. We know that the National Party's understanding of the importance of foreign investment in this economy is little understood, but last week we had the Nationals calling for sweeping changes to a policy that was barely a week old. Deputy President, it is one thing to tolerate the eccentricities and strange utterances of the National Party when they are talking about our policies, but it seems they are now bagging yours as well.
Of course, when we talk about unfunded commitments we come to the most spectacular part of the hypocrisy of the opposition. When talking about unfunded commitments I must confess I am in the presence of experts, because this coalition intends to face the people at the next election with a $70 billion black hole. You have turned unfunded commitments into a grand new place. The coalition's proposal to abolish the minerals resource rent tax will cost the government exchequer $11.1 billion—and while that no doubt will earn you the lasting friendship of the 'Billionaire Liberation Front' in Perth, it is $11.1 billion that the coalition has to find from the budget. Its plans to axe the carbon price mean there are $24 billion in commitments to refunding the big polluters for carbon permits. But wait, Deputy President, that is not all. There is the $3.2 billion of taxpayers' money to fund the coalition's direct action plan. As you have heard me say before, this is a plan that Ceausescu would have been proud of, a plan that comes straight from the politburo of Eastern Europe: a plan to dispense with supply and demand and introduce the big five-year plan from Chairman Abbott.
On top of these extraordinary commitments and extraordinary policy pronouncements, we see the coalition currently purporting to support $8 billion in pledged tax cuts with absolutely no idea how it is going to go about delivering that. We see it again in its policy on superannuation where on the one hand the coalition asserts that it is going to get rid of the minerals resource rent tax but on the other hand says it will keep the increases to superannuation that are funded by that plan. Then we have Tony Abbott in a brain snap, one might say, coming out with his own one per cent levy to fund his very own policies in the world of social welfare.
Again and again we see this opposition opposing a budget that has been managed second to none in the world and talking down an economy which is booming by any standard. We see the opposition itself hiding behind a fig leaf of a $70 billion black hole and a determination to be on both sides of every major argument confronting the people of Australia. For those who care to look at the detail of the political debate, can I commend the scribblings of van Onselen—not someone who could be said to be a Labor supporter, a keen enthusiast for the other side but someone who in recent times has been scathing about the opposition and the political opportunities they have squandered. His recent article was entitled 'A case of one bad government replacing another' and in his writings he has offered free character assessments for most of the Liberal Party's front bench. This is an opposition not ready for government, criticising an economy that is the envy of the world.
In that fantastic contribution from Senator Feeney we saw the very point of the motion moved by Senator Fifield. The modern-day Labor Party is really only expert at one thing, and that is in dissembling the English language and trying to redefine a reality that may work in the confines of this chamber for those on the opposite side and their Greens allies but does not work anywhere else in the community. We see at a state and now at a federal level a pattern of behaviour by the modern-day Labor Party that is all about raising expectations and breaching promises. They are irredeemable recidivists in this regard. It is the most potent aspect of what we might call the modern Labor disease.
I note that Senator Feeney did use the phrase, when he was talking about this government's record, that it kept its 'most important promises'. I do not think any Australian could legitimately not think that was a comedy performance, because it was this government and this Prime Minister who, days before the last poll, stared down the barrel of a camera and said: 'There will be no carbon tax under the government that I lead.' It is fair to say that politicians do not always have the best reputation in the community for keeping their promises. But can I tell you there is something particularly important about a promise not to do something, and that is why this government is going to be held accountable by the Australian people. It is why this side of this chamber and this side of the parliament will not let up on holding to account the Prime Minister and everyone who voted for that particular policy in the Labor Party.
A promise not to do something is very easy to keep. It is not about suddenly finding there is not enough money to build three schools and you can only build two. It is not about finding that it takes longer to build a freeway so it is not going to be built in four years, it might be built in six. It is not even about telling a fib before an election about thinking you can build a new freeway or a new transport system and knowing that it cannot be done.
The reason this promise to not introduce a carbon tax is so lethal to our political system is it impacts on the level of trust politicians more generally are held in. It is because this government and this Prime Minister had to do nothing to keep it. It is a promise that required no activity for the government to keep its word. It is a promise that required the Prime Minister to do nothing in order to keep it. The Australian people know that a promise not to do something, that requires nothing to be done for that word to be kept, is a simple promise to keep. But, no, this Prime Minister, along with the Greens allies and the Independent allies in the lower house, decided that their interests and in particular this Prime Minister's interest in staying in the Lodge—those very private interests of the Labor Party—were more important than keeping faith with the Australian people. That promise to not do something, that promise that required no activity, no action, no measure of effort to keep, other than to stay seated and keep one's mouth shut—that promise will hang around the neck of the Labor Party and hang around the neck of this Prime Minister because the people, quite rightly, do not forgive them.
I note Senator Feeney also talked about this government's economic policies. He talked about so-called record cuts in spending. He also mentioned Europe, and what we are learning from Europe now is that so-called cuts against projected growth in spending, while spending in absolute terms increases, are not budget cuts whatsoever. This idea that we are going to cut budget growth from four per cent a year to two per cent a year in absolute terms but all of a sudden that means we are cutting substantially from levels of government expenditure is not a cut to the budget. A cut the budget is spending less next year than this year. It is a very simple equation that every household and every small business makes. But, no, to the modern-day Labor Party dissembling the truth, if I thought the budget was growing at a certain percentage and it grows at a lesser percentage I am going to call that a cut in spending.
Similarly, as has been pointed out often in this chamber, a government that counts revenue measures and tax increases as spending cuts—or 'saves' in the modern parlance used by this government and the Minister for Finance and Deregulation—has no credibility whatsoever, because spending continues to increase. When this government came to office, the Commonwealth budget was in the order of $265 billion to $270 billion per annum. It is now $370 billion just because over the last four years we have seen the most extraordinary rate of increase in public expenditure in this country, often on projects that are going to show absolutely no value for those bearing the debt in future generations and repaying the debt—the school halls fiasco, the insulation in our roofs, the general splurge in consultants and the numbers of public servants. That record rate of increase that was in the top three fastest in the OECD shows that somehow to simply say that stopping the rate of growth constitutes a budget cut or constitutes a real saving to the taxpayer is nothing short of a farce.
This government can talk about its level of tax as a percentage of GDP, but what it does not want to talk about is the debt that it has run up. It does not matter if I am only taxing at 22 or 23 per cent of GDP if we are spending at 25 per cent because it is the spending that actually runs up debt. It is the spending that determines eventually how much tax Australians will pay. A budget deficit is nothing more than deferred taxation plus the interest costs. If in a financial year we spend $46 billion more than we collect in tax, as we did last year, that is just deferred taxation. It does not just sit there; at some point it is going to be paid. As we know, in this parliament in budgets today if we are not servicing the interest payments on the debt that this government has run up, there would be enough money in the Commonwealth budget today to fully fund the NDIS as recommended by the Productivity Commission. We are spending $8 billion a year on interest payments for debt that was run up in four short years of this government.
The performance of this government when it comes to the budget is nothing short of extraordinary. They came to office asserting in 2008 that the economy was too hot, that the 'inflation genie was out of the bottle'. We never saw the inflation genie again—we will probably see it again soon the way this government is going. The following year the government preached that the world was about to end so they had to justify spending money on overpriced halls in schoolyards, taking away the ability for kids to run around at lunchtime, and putting insulation in homes and hopefully not burning too many of them down.
In the following two years it was, 'We have saved you from the global economic crisis.' Then for this last budget there was a promised surplus—that we know it is not going to appear—and even then it was based on funny-money accounting. We are spending and taxes were pulled forward and pushed back in order to confect and contrive a budget surplus.
It goes to the very core of what the modern Labor Party are about, where the promise and the spin are more important than the substance. The Labor Party do not care that over this two- or three-year period we are still going to be running budget deficits in the order of $40-plus billion when you add them all up. What they want is a financial year when by pulling forward payments to local governments you can save a couple of billion dollars and by pushing forward some tax collections you can add a couple of billion dollars more to the collection size of the ledger. All they want is to somehow claim that in one financial year before an election they think, they hope, that they may have actually collected more in revenues than they have spent.
But when you are just shuffling money around and not really cutting spending, that is not a real budget surplus. I am quite happy to stand here today and suggest to this chamber that there is no way a real budget surplus will be delivered by this government. Labor has shown that it is incapable of delivering a budget surplus. The issue of the finances of the Commonwealth and the budget goes to the very core of what modern Labor is about. Modern Labor is about raising expectations, the great moral challenge of our time that had to be dropped in order to save a Prime Minister's skin. They will say what they have to in the days leading up to an election: 'There will be no carbon tax in a government that I lead.' Then after an election they will say: 'The people presented us with a hung parliament. To stay in office I had to concede to the wishes and the whims of an extremist party represented by one person in the House of Representatives,' because to the modern-day Labor Party the ends do justify the means. Staying in office is all-important. It does not matter what you actually do; it only matters what you say you will do.
It is a pattern of behaviour from the modern-day Labor Party. It has shown that it cannot be trusted with the budget. It has shown that it cannot be trusted with the promises and commitments that it makes before an election, even with those most basic ones where the government has to do nothing to keep its word. On the carbon tax it simply had to sit there and stay mum. It had to keep quiet and its promise not to introduce a carbon tax would have been fulfilled. History will condemn this Labor Party despite what people may say over and over again in this chamber, because history shows that it cannot be trusted.
I think that Senator Ryan's last statement should be looked at very carefully. He said quite clearly that no matter how often you say things over and over again, it gets to some degree of truth. I am verballing you, Senator Ryan, but that was how I took your meaning.
The people on the opposite side of this chamber think that the more they can reinforce their own beliefs, the more they can restate their own feelings, the more that people in the wider community will accept that they are right. We know that the people on the other side do reinforce their own views on this issue because they keep talking about them; they keep using the same few lines.
I particularly enjoy the element of spin. I can say that over the last few months I could repeat word by word most of the arguments that we have heard this afternoon because they have been repeated word by word in terms of the one-liners about what constitutes debt and what programs in the past have not worked, and hours in this place have been spent on defining what is a promise and what is not. It does not matter how many times people on this side of the chamber and people in economic think tanks across the world—people who are not friends normally to the labour movement—consistently put on record as economic arguments that point out the process and the arguments on the policies which our government followed and have set up our country to be in an enviable position across the whole world, they still keep repeating the same spin.
This is despite the comments that are made consistently—and despite extraordinarily unhelpful comments like that of the Premier of our state, Mr Acting Deputy President Furner, which compared the Australian and the Queensland economy with that of Spain. This is not only offensive to Queenslanders but deeply offensive to the people of Spain, who are suffering greatly from an economy that is in crisis and that over a number of years has degenerated to a position where people are not able to have an effective cost-of-living process or even able to look at their own welfare, their futures and their superannuation. Those countries, including Spain and various elements in Europe, are struggling greatly. Instead of acknowledging that and saying that together that we would be able to make a difference—even recently, where Australia was offering some support—it was ridiculed by the people on the other side of this chamber as us interfering and having the wrong view of trying to offer support. Rather than seeing how we can share knowledge and effectively look at the overwhelming issues that are impacting on the world economy, it was seen as a cheap political trick—an easy line for personal gain to make comparisons between our economy and that of Spain.
The important thing is that we acknowledge that everything that this government does is transparent. The process that this government follows in financial management, in arranging information, is exactly the same as for previous governments, and I hope that the same will continue in our country. We have a strong legacy of effective transparency of economic and government management. The Senate estimates process, which we all share in this place—sometimes to our joy, sometimes not—is the most effective mechanism of scrutiny of budget expenditure and scrutiny of policy of any government in this world, and has been acknowledged that way. As we sit in those budget estimates processes every six months and go through, line by line, the budget expenditure—actually looking at comparisons, seeing how the money has been spent, seeing where there is underspend and overspend and looking at how policy is implemented on the ground—that is the process which we all share with previous governments, current governments and into the future where we can identify on what basis modelling is done, on what basis arguments are put forward and on what basis policies are developed in this country.
But it does not matter: if it does not suit the one-liners that people in the opposition continually want to say about the economy, it is disregarded. In fact, I think that sometimes disregard is better than disrespect, because one of the things that has happened in this place over the last 12 months has been overt disrespect for the Treasury officials who work independently of any government and provide fair and free advice on which policy can be developed to governments of all flavours. But because the answers are not what the other side want, we have seen that they begin to question the professionalism and indeed the integrity of the Australian Public Service. As you know, Mr Acting Deputy President, that is something that offends me and angers me probably more than any other policy area in which we operate. The role of the Australian Public Service is a strong and noble tradition in our form of government. Public servants are there to provide service and they are there to provide information and advice. And because oppositions do not like the actions that governments take, it is not an effective argument to disrespect the Commonwealth public service and, in particular, the Treasury benches.
I know that Senator Ryan has an obsession with the BER program. I was going to talk about mental health issues in this contribution but I think I might swap and go into the BER process; but I actually advise that if you are obsessed you can get help through mental health processes which our government has funded. When we hear consistently the BER program being brought out in debates such as these as being ineffective and a waste of money, all I can say is, Mr Acting Deputy President, 'Come and visit the schools that you and I have visited'. Go and talk with the people; not just the teachers and the students at the range of schools—and I have been fortunate to visit many across Queensland, as have you—but talk to the construction companies, talk to the architects, talk to the project managers and talk to the delivery drivers, all of whom were directly affected by the BER expenditure. This was a deliberate strategy to look at how we could respond to the global financial crisis.
I know that has been dismissed this afternoon in contributions in this place as another waste; I think someone talked about an 'exaggerated' claim. Check the figures! Find out exactly the crisis which our country was facing. The strategy which our government determined—which was a risk—to invest the amount of money into our education program from the federal level had never been done before. The programs that were being operated looking at public spaces, looking at libraries, looking at centres of excellence and looking at the wonderful science and trades training centres that are now sprinkled throughout our community were a significant investment not just in schools but, as I have said, in the wider community. The jobs that were created and maintained through that process will actually benefit our community not just now but into the future. That is not an example of a promise broken, it is not an example of poor economic management and it is not an example of inability to look at support of our community. That one program, which has been effectively demonised by a combination of the opposition benches and the Australian newspaper, in itself is an example of where government can listen to community, can work with community and can come forward with an innovative way to build into the future.
On that program alone I think our government stands and should be congratulated in terms of economic process. That is not to go into any other area where we have international economic organisations using the Australian economy as a test case to show—under deep threat and problems, looking at what was going on across the world—that we were able to build a future and to build up a process for moving into an area where there will be planning around economic surpluses.
But in itself I do not think that just surplus or deficit can actually effect what must happen in economic management. The more important thing is to look at the community need, to listen to what the community wants and to work as a government responding to need. Alone, the increase in the social welfare payments to our pensioners—an increase never seen before 2009—and the way that people are now able to better survive a difficult times should be an example of where economic management responds to need and does not create undue expectation but does give the community an expectation of government listening to them, working with them and delivering not just in economic management but on effective, representative government. This debate can go on. There will not be new arguments put. Once again, it will be reinforcement of one-liners to make people feel stronger in their own position.
Senator Moore, I hope that I contribute more than passionately delivered one-liners to outline why the Gillard government's pattern of broken promises, raised expectations and unfunded commitments is being debated today in the Senate. I guess you have to start by asking a question in times like this: when does a pattern of behaviour become a predictor for future behaviour, and when do we get concerned about it? The three behaviours listed for debate today—broken promises, raised expectations and unfunded commitments—are pretty typical, or stereotypical, of the ALP model of governance under Prime Minister Gillard and, I believe, have resulted in a significant decrease right across our nation in the faith and trust that our citizens have in the government in general. When government speaks to the public and makes commitments to the public, I believe the public has every right to expect—wars aside—that the government will keep its word and can be trusted, and I think that is a fundamental principle of our system of government.
When I go to broken promises—this is the one-liner, Senator Moore, that I will reiterate for those who have not heard it before—apparently, before the last federal election, the Prime Minister stated that there would be no carbon tax under a government she led. It is not the only breach of trust, but we will just dwell on the carbon tax for a moment. We now have the imposition of the world's biggest carbon tax. In 2011-12, the Gillard Labor government spent $100 million on carbon tax advertising without even mentioning the carbon tax. So, when we talk about muddying the waters and the conversation that the government is having with the public, that is a classic example.
Since the Labor government was elected in 2007, it has introduced and increased 20 new taxes. The Gillard Labor government's rhetoric about suppliers being able to pass on the rising carbon tax cost just is not the reality for small business owners in regional towns or primary producers right across regional Australia, particularly in the dairying heartland of our nation, which is the state of Victoria, now facing the burden of this tax. Businesses and primary producers are simply unable to pass on the increased costs arising from this tax, which is, amongst other factors, decreasing their ability to compete internationally.
In my patron seat of Bendigo, it has been revealed that Bendigo Health will suffer under the imposition of the carbon tax. Bendigo Health is a significant employer within the seat of Bendigo. Analysis performed by the coalition state government has confirmed the stretched budgets that public hospitals will face under the carbon tax—between $1,000 and $2,400 per hospital bed per year. For Bendigo Health, it was outlined in a recent newspaper report that an extra $600,000 this financial year was the cost that the carbon tax was going to put on the hospital, taking the hospital's total gas and power bill to over $3 million a year. While the hospital said the bill was the worst-case scenario forecast, without exemption or compensation available from the Commonwealth public hospitals have no choice but to accrue debt or cut services. In regional towns struggling to deliver comprehensive public health services, this will be a challenge. By 2020, the overall impact of the carbon tax on Victorian hospitals and health services will be $143 million. It is expected to cost $13.5 million in its first year, rising to more than $21 million by 2020. The carbon tax will not save the planet, but it might well compromise Bendigo health services and the service they provide to the Bendigo community. Prime Minister Gillard is making it harder to make ends meet not just for Australian families but for hospital services as well.
If we look at other patterns of behaviour which the Gillard government displays and which might be challenging the development of trust between citizen and state, let us look at the food plan and the Gillard government's commitment to agriculture. In the first five years of the Gillard government, Labor has shown a sporadic—and some would suggest schizophrenic—interest in Australian agriculture. Last month it announced the green paper, which will turn into a white paper—who knows when or where?—for a national food plan. This is despite the government, in the 2011-12 budget, taking approximately $33 million from the Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry over the next four years and despite the rhetoric from Minister Emerson on feeding the world and Minister Ludwig on the importance of agriculture. When we look at raising expectations and broken promises, the government's approach to agriculture and the agricultural communities right across our nation beggars belief.
When we look at unfunded commitments, let us talk about the Labor government's commitment to mental health. Despite the stated commitment by the minister, projects in my home state have missed out, and they are significant projects which could make a real difference. I would just like to briefly mention Swan Hill headspace, a youth mental health centre. Swan Hill is one of the places in regional Victoria that have the state's highest incidence of self-harm amongst young people. In fact, it is seven times the state average for this group of young people in Swan Hill. They have missed out on funding, and the town is now struggling to provide adequate support services. The Labor government recently announced 15 locations around the country for new headspace centres, yet Swan Hill, with its population of over 10,000 people, was overlooked.
I guess the pattern of responsible governments that we would like to see is raising aspirations within the community—not raising expectations but raising aspirations, because raising expectations for political purposes with no intent of follow-through is negligent. There has been no greater example in recent times, I think, than the recent NDIS debacle.
The last thing we want to do is raise expectations for those most vulnerable within our community—the severely disabled—which is exactly what has happened around the NDIS conversation. The Prime Minister has failed to adequately provide for the first phase of the NDIS by only allocating $1 billion of the amount required to roll out the launch sites and has used the issue to pick a political fight with state premiers for her own political gain. If they have underfunded the first years, how can we trust that they will not underfund in the years to come? The Labor government has failed to commit to the Productivity Commission's target date for the full NDIS by 2018-19, and even that is six long years away for the most disadvantaged in our community to have their expectations raised and then dashed.
The NBN is another example of raising expectations. As a regional Australian, those expectations have been raised and raised. If only I could take Minister Conroy at his word on the delivery. The NBN's pattern of behaviour would predict it is taking longer and costing more to roll out than the Gillard Labor government claims. We heard that it will be finished by 2012, yet every deadline, every household target and every iteration of customer numbers has been blown out or missed and rolled forward. It was promised that by June 2013—next year—the NBN would be available to 1.3 million households and would have 566,000 paying customers. However, NBN Co. has admitted that its fibre will by June 2013 reach only 341,000 households, missing it by a little under a million and reaching one-quarter of the target, and will have only 54,000 customers, one-tenth of the target.
Costs have blown out, and people are sick of it as expectations are raised. Particularly out there in regional Victoria there are a lot of grumpy potential customers for Senator Conroy. They want cheaper, faster and more affordable broadband to drive the economic and social development of the regions, particularly in those towns of fewer than 1,000 people. I will not be able to go through the list of broken promises that I have before me, but I think Senator Payne mentioned the ALP's strategy of changing the language and definitions. It is all about smoke and mirrors to hide the fact that Australians can no longer continue to support the government when they cannot trust anything it says.
Another sitting day, another ludicrous matter of public importance, another waste of time and another own goal from the opposition. The opposition, of course, have dredged the bottom of the barrel, and what have they pulled out? More over-the-top rhetoric, more bombast, more hyperbole, more exaggeration. But, if the Liberal Party want to talk about broken promises, I say good because, after the Howard government broke promise after promise after promise, the Liberals in fact achieved an infamous addition to the Australian political dictionary: the non-core promise. And didn't the Liberals chalk up a few of them.
Let's start with the one that everyone knows about: the GST. 'Never ever; it's dead,' said Mr Howard. Said Mr Howard, 'It was killed by the voters in the last election.' That was non-core to the core. Following in Mr Howard's footsteps you had Mr Abbott, who promised in February 2010:
We will fund our promises without new taxes and without increased taxes.
But less than a month later he announced the paid maternity leave policy of the opposition would be funded by a new tax on business. At least Mr Howard kept his tax promise for a full term. Mr Abbott could not even keep his promise for a full month.
And speaking of non-core promises, there was Mr Howard's claim that 'there would be no $100,000 university fees under this government'. By 2007 there were 104 domestic full-fee university degrees that were more than $100,000. Even worse, Mr Howard and Mr Downer grievously misled the nation about the existence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq and led this country into a war based on a lie.
Another contribution to the Australian political dictionary eventually became the Howard government's own brand: truth overboard. Truth overboard and kids overboard went into the political lingo courtesy of Mr Howard and his ministers. We now hear in this MPI that the Liberals are appalled by raised expectations. Would it be unreasonable for the people of Australia to expect Mr Abbott to provide some vision for this country? Would it be unreasonable to expect Mr Abbott to put aside his reckless personal ambition, just for once, in the interest of the nation? Should we expect no vision, no cooperation, no common sense? Should we just expect 'no, no, no' from Mr Abbott?
For my part I admit I would rather raise expectations and even fall short than never try anything ambitious at all, because the Australia that cares for people when they are sick, no matter their bank balance, where they live or who they know; the Australia that respects the elderly and believes retired Australians should have the opportunity to live full and fulfilling lives; the Australia that gives you equal opportunity whether you come from Sydney or the bush; the Australia that believes in second chances, that, if a job or business does not work out for you, you should be supported through tough times and have the opportunity again; the Australia whose economy is the envy of the entire world; the Australia that cares for people with disabilities—the Australia that does this will not be built on people who are afraid of raising expectations. I am proud to live in an ambitious Australia. I would prefer that to Mr Abbott's Australia—the 'no Australia' of Mr Abbott.
Finally, the MPI mentions unfunded commitments—this from a political party, the Liberal Party, of gigantic blank cheques and bulging black holes. The Liberals have the hide of a rhinoceros straight off the African savannah to raise this issue. What a gift from the opposition to be given the opportunity to compare the credibility of the opposition's economic management to that of the government. You do not have to go back very far to reveal the opposition's hopeless record of costing blow-outs and budget breakdowns. They were exposed for it in the 2010 election campaign and they have even bettered it with their $70 billion black hole now. It was a black hole so big that it threatened to suck in the entire Department of Climate Change and Energy Efficiency and about 20,000 Commonwealth public servants. Of course we know that action taken by this government during the GFC meant that this country emerged from the GFC with strong growth, low unemployment and solid public finances. So while you have Mr Robb and Mr Hockey out the back with an abacus and a candle trying to figure out what the hell is happening to the budget of this country, this government is forging ahead with the same steady hand that guided us through the worst global economic conditions since the Great Depression.