Senate debates

Tuesday, 26 August 2014

Questions without Notice: Take Note of Answers

Answers to Questions

3:04 pm

Photo of Kim CarrKim Carr (Victoria, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Minister Assisting the Leader for Science) Share this | | Hansard source

I move:

That the Senate take note of the answers given by ministers to questions without notice asked by Opposition senators today.

People who invoke absolute principles should take great care to stand by them. If they do not, they will be exposed as people whose words simply cannot be trusted, people for whom principles and promises ultimately mean nothing.

The Prime Minister of this country now stands exposed for his failure to live up to a little sermon that he preached in August last year. I bring his words to the Senate's attention once more:

It is an absolute principle of democracy that governments should not and must not say one thing before an election and do the opposite afterwards. Nothing could be more calculated to bring our democracy into disrepute and alienate the citizenry of Australia from their government than if governments were to establish by precedent that they could say one thing before an election and do the opposite afterwards.

Photo of Stephen ConroyStephen Conroy (Victoria, Australian Labor Party, Deputy Leader of the Opposition in the Senate) Share this | | Hansard source

Who said that?

Photo of Kim CarrKim Carr (Victoria, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Minister Assisting the Leader for Science) Share this | | Hansard source

The Prime Minister of Australia said that. Mr Abbott said that. He did not mince his words. He said this was the standard for democratic governments and he has conspicuously failed to live up to that standard. The Prime Minister and his government have set a great precedent—a precedent that he warned against. Before the last election, he declared emphatically and without any ambiguity whatsoever that there would be:

… no cuts to education, no cuts to health, no changes to pensions, no change to the GST, and no cuts to the ABC or SBS.

Just in case anyone missed the point, he later went on to say that there would be 'no surprises and no excuses' from a coalition government. The people who trusted this Prime Minister were certainly in for a very big surprise—first, when the government unveiled its list of spending cuts in the Commission of Audit's report, and then in the budget, when it announced the cuts that it wanted to make. There were indeed massive cuts to education. There were massive cuts to health, changes to pensions, cuts to the ABC and cuts to SBS. There are $50 billion worth of cuts to hospitals, a $7 GP tax, and a $5 prescription fee. There are $30 billion worth of cuts to schools over the next decade and more than $5 billion to universities, with the very real prospect of $100,000 degrees. Changes in indexation will see cuts to the value of pensions over time. There is a one per cent cut in funding to the ABC and SBS. These are cuts that the Prime Minister said—remember?—he would not make. The government have evasively claimed that there are no cuts to schools—and we heard it again today. They have got more front than Myers to come into this chamber and say that they are not really cutting at all! The Prime Minister and his colleagues have failed to persuade the Australian premiers that that is the case. The government have failed to persuade the Australian people that that is the case. And, of course, we know that the budget has been completely and totally discredited in the eyes of the public right across this nation.

The Australian people know that this budget is fundamentally unfair because it places the greatest of all burdens upon the most disadvantaged members of our community. The budget cuts into higher education have abandoned the ideal of equality of opportunity—the fair go that Australians have had traditionally come to see as their right to expect. These cuts mean that we will no longer have the view that, if you have ability and are prepared to work hard, you can get a decent education in this country. What this government has done is reimposed the great Menzies tradition which said that, if you came from a well-off family, you enjoyed the opportunities of privilege being continued. The whole principle of this government's approach to higher education is to entrench privilege, to entrench wealth and to entrench opportunities for those who already have a disproportionate share of those opportunities. Families will be forced to make choices, all right! They will have to choose: do they take out a second mortgage— (Time expired)

3:09 pm

Photo of Simon BirminghamSimon Birmingham (SA, Liberal Party, Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister for the Environment) Share this | | Hansard source

If those opposite want to have a debate about promises and commitments and commitments delivered, well, bring it on. I welcome it. I welcome it warmly because our government went to the election with some very key promises and commitments. This was very obvious to all. We said we would axe the carbon tax, and we have axed the carbon tax. We said we would stop the flow of illegal arrivals and stop the boats, and we are stopping the boats. We said we would build the roads of the 21st century, and we are building those roads. We are starting construction and we are delivering across cities around Australia. We said we would fix Labor's debt and deficit disaster, and that is exactly what our budget seeks to do: to take responsibility for the failures of those opposite, to take responsibility for the mess they left us and this country in, to get on with the job of fixing what needs to be fixed and to make the difficult decisions to do so.

We hear a lot of bluff and bluster from those opposite, and none more so perhaps than from Senator Carr. They go on and claim and talk about the cuts that are allegedly made in this budget. We have taken difficult decisions in this budget—

Opposition Senators:

Opposition senators interjecting

Photo of Simon BirminghamSimon Birmingham (SA, Liberal Party, Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister for the Environment) Share this | | Hansard source

but not those that are represented or claimed by those opposite like Senator Carr or those who carp like seagulls from the back row. The truth is that Commonwealth funding for public hospitals, contrary to what Senator Carr says, goes up nine per cent this year, nine per cent next year, nine per cent the year after that and six per cent in the final year of the forward estimates. Commonwealth funding for school education—

Photo of Sue LinesSue Lines (WA, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source


Photo of Simon BirminghamSimon Birmingham (SA, Liberal Party, Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister for the Environment) Share this | | Hansard source

goes up eight per cent this year, eight per cent next year, eight per cent the year after that and six per cent in the final year. The seagull cannot do maths! In my home state, as is the case, of course, across the rest of the country, total Commonwealth funding for public hospitals and schools goes up 30 per cent over the four years of the forward estimates—up and up and up. Far from Labor's claims, Labor's lies of cuts, funding is going up for hospitals. Funding is going up for schools. As Senator Bushby rightly points out, not just in nominal terms but in real terms—real funding growth for hospitals and real funding growth for schools. That is because our government knows they are priority areas for expenditure. So we have made sure that we can continue to fund those increases whilst taking difficult decisions elsewhere across the budget to bring us back towards surplus.

Now 'surplus'—there is a word that I challenge any of those opposite to mention in this debate. I challenge those opposite to use the word 'surplus'. It seems as if the Labor Party has abandoned all sense of fiscal or economic responsibility. They have given up completely on the idea that we should drive the budget back to balance, back to surplus. The problem with it is that they are leaving a legacy of disaster for future generations. Their failure to accept responsibility for the debt they created under their watch, through their policies, creates a disaster which future generations will bear the burden of. We on this side are not willing to stand by and do nothing, like those opposite. We are getting on with implementing our budget. We have delivered a range of savings measures already, and we wish we could get all of them through this place. We are amazed at the fact that the Labor Party are blocking even $5 billion worth of savings measures that they themselves proposed when they were in government.

Senator Lines interjecting

The seagull signed onto those savings measure when she was in government, yet now of course is voting with the Labor Party to oppose them. It is a remarkable turn of events.

Photo of Deborah O'NeillDeborah O'Neill (NSW, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Mr Deputy President, I rise on a point of order. I think the senator behind me deserves her correct title to be used in this instance.

Photo of Eric AbetzEric Abetz (Tasmania, Liberal Party, Minister for Employment) Share this | | Hansard source

How did she know who was being referred to?

Photo of Gavin MarshallGavin Marshall (Victoria, Deputy-President) Share this | | Hansard source

Senator Abetz, please!

Opposition senators interjecting

If the chamber could come to order! There have been a lot of interjections from both sides. Senator Birmingham, you have the call.

Photo of Simon BirminghamSimon Birmingham (SA, Liberal Party, Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister for the Environment) Share this | | Hansard source

Thank you, Mr Deputy President. Indeed, if those opposite wish to identify themselves in relation to the interjections made and the remarks that I have made in response, well, good luck to them. But this is a serious matter. Australians are paying at present $1 billion a month in interest on Labor's debt. That situation will only get worse and will cost future generations more. The time to act is now, and the Labor Party should accept responsibility for the mess that they made and start to help to clean it up. (Time expired)

3:15 pm

Photo of Alex GallacherAlex Gallacher (SA, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise to take note of answers from Senator Abetz to questions from the opposition. In doing so, I seek leave to address a reply from Senator Abetz, who invited Senator Bilyk to table budget papers to support her claims. I seek leave to table Senate budget estimates 3 to 5 June 2014, question No. 41 and the subsequent answer to that question.

Photo of Eric AbetzEric Abetz (Tasmania, Liberal Party, Minister for Employment) Share this | | Hansard source

That is not the budget paper, but by all means table it.

Photo of Gavin MarshallGavin Marshall (Victoria, Deputy-President) Share this | | Hansard source

Is leave granted?

Leave granted.

Photo of Alex GallacherAlex Gallacher (SA, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Clearly, there is some merit in this and some substantiating information going to the meat of Senator Bilyk's question. As Senator Abetz invited some evidence to go to that question, we are only too happy to oblige.

Basically this whole debate has been: 'Was a series of commitments made pre-election and were they honoured?' Clearly, no-one in the Australian electorate believes that the commitments that the Hon. Tony Abbott made pre-election have been honoured. The answer we hear from the other side is: 'The budget deficit'. They have the job of selling that to the Australian electorate. If they want to get a co-payment up, they have the job of convincing the crossbenchers, the electorate and the Australian Labor Party to accept. Good luck. I do not think it is going to happen.

On Mr Hockey, let's have a quick glance at a few of the headlines. The West Australian, under the headline 'Hockey drives home tax', says:

Queensland Liberal Senator Ian Macdonald said people in regional areas did not have the alternative of public transport.

Even people on the government side are against these proposals. Then we have under 'Smokin Joe fuels angry tax backlash':

South Australian Liberal Senator Cory Bernardi said his poorer constituents tended to spend more as a percentage of their income on transport and basic essential items, adding: 'I don’t think it’s in the national interest to have new taxes or higher taxes.'

These are some of the things that this Prime Minister promised not to do. Then we have headlines from the Australian Financial Review: 'Liberals tell Hockey to sharpen up his act'—not us; the Liberals. The article under that headline says:

One senior MP said: 'It's bad enough he makes mistakes but his selfish determination to keep making them is worrying.' Another MP said there was growing 'lament' among the backbench 'about so many of the top echelon'.

Those are not comments from this side of the chamber; those are comments, fully published, from the other side of the chamber—and some of them had the gumption, if you like, to put their name to these comments, but others do not.

Even if you are just a casual observer of the media, you can see that they have an incredibly difficult task at hand—a series of commitments made; a series of commitments not honoured; throw in the budget emergency; take out the budget emergency. If Senator Cormann is the answer, God help us—what was the question? On Sunday morning he was alleged to be doing 2½ jobs—not one but 2½ jobs. Senator Sinodinos—self-inflicted onto the bench—stood aside as Assistant Treasurer and Senator Mathais Cormann picked up his job. But then they go on to say that he is picking up half of Hockey's job as well—that the Hon. Joseph Hockey, the Treasurer, has abdicated half of his role to Senator Cormann.

Mr Hockey thinks people do not like him. Well, I have got news for him: he is the Treasurer. I have been a Secretary/Treasurer. You are not supposed to be liked; you are supposed to make sure that people act prudently in fiscal propriety. If you are looking for people to love you, you are in the wrong job. Mr Hockey has gone missing. I saw a tweet the other day that cracked the whole room up: 'God there's a lot of traffic on the road. There must be a lot of rich people out this morning.' The reality is that he made an incredible gaff.

Why is the fuel tax so clearly abhorrent? The reason is that in the country you are paying $1.70 and $1.80 a litre—service stations are making 33c and 35c a litre—and another cent or two on top of it means you cannot drive. (Time expired)

3:20 pm

Photo of Dean SmithDean Smith (WA, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

While we can debate the popularity of the government, have no fear, Senator Gallacher: the Labor Party is deeply unpopular and there is no love between the Australian electorate and the Labor Party—as demonstrated by the last federal election results. We are here this afternoon having a debate about promises and commitment and about the honouring of those commitments. But let us reflect for a moment on why we are here. Why are we in this place today having a discussion about budget deficits and, dare I say—words that have been erased from the Labor lexicon—budget surpluses? We are here because Labor wanted to do the exact same thing that we are doing and that we will do—Labor, too, wanted to get the budget back into surplus.

While we are talking about honouring commitments and saying one thing and doing another, let's have a look at what Labor said about budget surpluses. In 2008-09, in his first budget speech, Wayne Swan claimed that he would deliver 'a surplus built on disciplined spending'. Let us think about words, commitments and honouring those commitments. What was the result? It was $27 billion worth of deficit. In Wayne Swan's 2009-10 budget night address, he told Australians that the nation was on a path to surplus by 2015-16. What was the result? The result was $54.5 billion worth of deficit. In staying with today's theme 'honouring your commitments and saying what you mean', I note that for the 2010-11 budget, Kevin Rudd's final budget, the Treasurer said that Labor's program would see the budget return to surplus in three years time. What was the result? The result was $47.5 billion worth of deficit. It is very rich indeed for opposition senators, Labor senators, to come to this place and talk about promises kept.

But the story does not finish there. In the 2011-12 budget, the first budget under Julia Gillard, the Treasurer's speech claimed, 'We will be back in the black by 2012-13, as promised.' What was the result? It was $43.4 billion worth of deficit. In the 2012-13 budget, the year of truly magical thinking on the part of the former Treasurer, Wayne Swan said, 'This budget delivers a surplus this year and surpluses each year after that.' What was the result? It delivered a deficit of $18.8 billion.

I have one more point to demonstrate the theme, if I need to. In the 2013-14 budget, Labor's final budget, the message echoed exactly the same theme as previous years, and Wayne Swan said in the budget speech, 'This budget sets a sensible pathway to surplus.' Of course, we know the history. The coalition comes to office and inherits a $47 billion debt.

The message is a simple one. You will hear us talk about budget surpluses; you will not hear the word 'surplus' from their mouths. The challenge for our country is a real one. Time is against us. If I might just add this sombre note: what the events of MH17 have taught us is that just as our country is not immune from the events in faraway places, so too this country will not be immune should an economic calamity visit itself upon the global economy. More importantly, this country is not ready; this country is not prepared—so, when I hear the opposition talk about unfairness and inequity, I think that is an unfair outcome. That is an outcome we should be concerned about. (Time expired)

3:25 pm

Photo of Sue LinesSue Lines (WA, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise to take note of answers to questions asked today by Labor of various government ministers about the budget. I thought for a moment that we were on the adjournment debate, because all we have heard about from the government is everything except the budget; they do not want to talk about the budget. Over the last five weeks, they have made gaffe after gaffe about all sorts of issues: whether it is, 'Poor people do not drive,' whether it is, 'Women do not do science degrees,' whether it is about women, cancer and abortion—they have gone on and on.

Today, Labor sought to ask proper questions to scrutinise the government's harsh, cruel budget in this place. What did the government do? For the whole of question time—and indeed afterwards—they simply tried to avoid scrutiny. The Australian public is not fooled by the government, and the Australian public has worked out for itself that the government's budget is so harsh and so cruel that there is barely a person in this country who is not impacted. What did the government promise? There were all those lies they told before the election: 'We won't cut health,' 'We won't cut education,' and 'There will be no cuts to pensions'—and we have seen the complete reverse of that. It does not matter what type of spin they try and put on this and whether they try to avoid things by having a go at Labor. We have just heard Senator Smith, from Western Australia—where today the Barnett Liberal government has again dropped our credit rating—go on and on about 'Labor this' and 'Labor that'.

Let me remind him that the coalition are in government, that it is their budget that is under scrutiny and that it is the role of the opposition to scrutinise their budget. The Australian people have also been scrutinising the budget, a budget where we were promised 'no cuts to health' and yet that is what we have seen: big cuts to health and education worth $80 million. Where did the GP tax come from? It was a thought bubble from a former Howard government adviser that Australians were somehow overusing their GP services. Where is the proof of that? Where is the research? Where are the academic papers on that? There are none. The Abbott government have been very good at simply making it up. Recently we have had Senator Cormann putting a new spin on it. They are a little bit like a baseball team that is losing. First we had Mr Hockey try and sell the budget. He got a big fail. 'Next batter up!' Then we had Senator Brandis come out and try and sell aspects of their policy around racial discrimination in this country. He got a big fail and was sent back to the bench. Then we had Senator Abetz on TV embarrass the government to the point where the Prime Minister had to pull him into line. So he is back on the bench. Now we have Senator Cormann batting for team Abbott, trying to sell their ridiculously harsh and cruel budget that no-one in this country, except themselves, seem to be hoodwinked about. The GP tax, the tax on prescriptions, the tax on other health services: where is the research on that? There is nothing to indicate that Australians are overusing GPs. In actual fact, what GPs do in this country is act as a gatekeeper to additional services. I do not know how many times is too many times for the government; maybe if you go to a GP more than 10 times in a year that is too many. But maybe there are underlying reasons that people are visiting their GP: maybe there are mental health issues; maybe there are family issues. But no; the government does not want to do its homework and actually ask GPs what is going on.

Today the government will give itself a slap on the back and say, 'Well done, government; we avoided scrutiny on our budget.' Well, you are wrong, because the Australian public have given you a big 'fail' for your budget. They are not hoodwinked. You can sit in this chamber and carry on about Labor and about this and that—anything else you care to do—and not answer questions about the budget, but no-one is fooled except yourselves. It is time to look in the mirror and realise that your budget is gone. (Time expired)

Question agreed to.