Senate debates

Wednesday, 25 November 2015

Questions without Notice: Take Note of Answers

Economy, Broadband

3:07 pm

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

I move:

That the Senate take note of the answers given by the Minister for Finance (Senator Cormann) and the Minister for Communications (Senator Fifield) to questions without notice asked by Senators Ketter and McLucas today relating to the economy and to the National Broadband Network.

I rise to take note of answers to questions asked by Senators Ketter and McLucas. I want to point to two of the words that we have heard throughout the week while we have been playing 'nimble, agile' bingo on this side of the chamber. This is a government that uses those words and they are going to have to practise being nimble and agile because they are dancing everywhere around the truth. They need to mind the gap between what they say here and the reality that Australians understand about this government. There is a massive credibility gap. This government cannot be believed. In anything it says, it completely distorts the truth—even in response to the first question. The GST has been very much brought to life as a conversation by a government that, once upon a time, said there would 'never ever' be a change to the 10 per cent GST—and now they have opened it up. 'Everything is on the table', they say outside this chamber. But we ask a question to the minister and he says, 'No, we're not talking about that'. Ten per cent, and up to 15 per cent, on all the things that people are already paying GST on and from zero to 15 per cent proposed for everything, including fresh food—what a devastating impact!

There is a credibility gap between what they say here and what they say outside the chamber. These guys simply are not capable of telling the truth. If we in anyway needed to have that backed up, it became even more evident when Senator Katter, my good colleague here beside me, asked directly: 'Is it true what was said yesterday by the Treasury deputy secretary—that Australia is now in for a prolonged period of below par growth the likes of which we have rarely seen outside a recession?' That is the direct quote that was in the question, that is the direct quote from the speech that was given and it is the direct quote from the two articles that reported it in the paper—by Mark Coultan, in The Australian, and by Peter Martin in The Sydney Morning Herald. But do you think the fact that it was on the public record in those three places would prevent the Minister for Finance, Senator Cormann, from actually telling the truth? No. He decided that he was ready to absolutely slander other people who are telling the truth about what was said yesterday. He said that that was not accurate. Well, it absolutely was accurate and the sad reality is that it is going to have a devastating impact on Australians right across the country.

As the deputy treasury secretary said, we are in fact in a prolonged period of below par growth, the likes of which we have rarely seen outside a recession—and it is attributable to the shameful economic action of this government. They are out there telling the community, as they have done for many decades, that they are great economic managers. But the reality is that growth is well below trend. It was predicted to be three per cent in May but the reality we now see is that it has been downgraded to 2.75 per cent. That is bad for Australia and it does bear out the second part of the question that my colleague asked, which was about the fact that Australians knew that we were not doing too well under the member for North Sydney, Joe Hockey, but we are going to do an awful lot worse under the new Treasurer, Mr Morrison, who is doing an appalling job from the record of these economic forecasts that were put forward yesterday.

Finally, in another gilding of the lily, the MTM, the multi-technology mix, as those opposite would have us call it, which is really being translated into a disaster right across this nation—

Photo of Catryna BilykCatryna Bilyk (Tasmania, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

'Malcolm Turnbull's Mess'!

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

Indeed it is, Senator Bilyk. It is a disaster. It is a sell-out. They continue to tell the Australian people they are rolling out the NBN. They are rolling out an absolute mess! There is no ubiquitous delivery of the fair and equitable access to the future that a real NBN could deliver.

Questions were asked today by Senator McLucas about the HFC network possibilities. We know, from very early on, that this technology is completely inferior to fibre to the home; it is on a par with fibre to the node, and we have documented here the problems with that technology. There is a failure rate of 14 per cent—where it simply does not work. What we are seeing with the HFC rollout is another con, another sell-out, of the future technologies that Australia needs by this shameful government that has a massive credibility gap to bridge with the Australian people. We had a 17-year-old by the name of Kenneth Tsang provide a critique of the contestability problems on the HFC network—a 17-year-old can see through the disgraceful implementation of an inequitable distribution of access to the future through the NBN! We are getting a Dodgy Brothers version of the NBN instead of a real one under a government that refuses to tell the truth. (Time expired)

Photo of Matthew CanavanMatthew Canavan (Queensland, Liberal National Party) Share this | | Hansard source

It is pretty obvious what the Labor Party are going for and strategising about at the moment. It is pretty obvious that they are on a 'GST' campaign—a 'Give Shorten a Try' scare campaign! That is what they are all about at the moment. And aren't people scared! They are scared out of their pants about the potential of giving Shorten a try at running this country—

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

Senator Canavan, I have let you go on a couple of occasions but we will refer to members in the other place by their correct title.

Photo of Matthew CanavanMatthew Canavan (Queensland, Liberal National Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Thank you, Mr Deputy President. I think people now understand what I am referring to. This GST campaign is scaring voters. They are extremely scared about the prospect of Mr Bill Shorten, from the other place, leading this nation. They are so scared that they have even settled on a number to estimate that particular scare—15 per cent. That is the number of people that now support the GST process that the Labor Party are putting forward. Fifteen per cent—that is what they have settled on. That is why we have heard that figure a lot from the Labor Party as well.

I think some of those on the other side are getting a bit worried that this particular GST scare campaign is not working. Putting forward Mr Bill Shorten as an alternative, as a distraction tactic, may not be the best strategy going forward. There is an alternative approach from the other side—and it is not a GST scare campaign but a 'VAT' scare campaign—'Vote for Albo Tomorrow'! That is the alternative for them—have another campaign and put in Mr Anthony Albanese. That is what a few of them are talking about at the moment. Their GST scare campaign is not working, so they are going to try another one on the Australian people and see if that works—a 'VAT' scare campaign. They are going to roll out that proposal. The only ideas the Labor Party are coming up with are about who should lead them. That is what they always talk about. That is what the last five years have all been about. It is about which leader, which union hack—which particular former trade union leader—they should put forward, to the Australian people, this time. That is what their real 'year of ideas' is going to end up about.

They are not talking about ideas for how we can grow our economy. They are not talking about ideas for how we can reform our tax system. They are not talking about ideas for how we can innovate and become more efficient. They are certainly not talking about ideas for how we can re-engage competition policy in this country. They are only focused on who will give them the best chance to save some of their seats, next year, at the election.

This government has a different approach. This government is focused on trying to make sure we promote strong economic growth in our country. We recognise it is difficult for the Australian economy, at the moment, because we have had a terms-of-trade boom that is ending and that, naturally—without any other influence—means lower per capita growth. In the last few years we have been experiencing higher economic growth just from getting higher prices, and those higher prices are not going to continue for us. Therefore, we need to look at other ways to energise our economy.

We are going to find new sources of economic growth and potential for creating jobs. We have been creating a good level of jobs over the last couple of years. It has been quite a strong labour market, which is positive, but it will become harder. As I said, the North Queensland Cowboys have done a terrific job, this year, in winning the premiership but it will be even harder for them, next year, to back up. That is the same process for our economic growth. We have done a terrific job in not having a recession, for 25 years, in this country—the second-longest period in economic history—but it is becoming harder to make sure we keep growing from that high base, as we have avoided a recession for so long.

That is why we need to have these difficult discussions on tax reform. That is why we have to think about how we can strengthen our innovation policy. That is also why we need to respond to the Harper review with stronger competition laws, with reform of health education and other sectors, to grow productivity and ensure a higher level of economic growth.

The reason we want that higher economic growth is not for growth in and of itself. It is not because we like seeing higher numbers in the budget every year. It is because only through that process can we make sure all Australians have the opportunity to have their own job or the confidence to start their own business, to get a loan from the bank to do so, to have the security to start their own family and make sure their own potential is fulfilled in this great nation of ours.

3:17 pm

Photo of Chris KetterChris Ketter (Queensland, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

What a disappointing question time we had today. I draw my attention to the question I asked of Senator Cormann. The question was asked of Senator Cormann in relation to comments by Mr Nigel Ray, the deputy secretary of the Treasury. That question went to quite legitimate concerns in the community about the fact that we have had a prolonged period of below-par growth, the likes of which we have rarely seen outside of a recession.

Rather than dealing with the facts in that question, rather than tackling the issue head-on, Senator Cormann chose an intellectually bankrupt route for dealing with that question by simply saying, 'That is not what Mr Ray said.' I happen to have the speech given by Mr Ray to the Australian Business Economists Conference. It is titled: 'The Macroeconomic Context'. On page 4 of that speech, Mr Ray said:

This means Australia is now in a prolonged period of below-par growth, the likes of which we have rarely seen outside of a recession.

Senator Cormann is totally incorrect in making the comment. He missed the opportunity to address the real issue behind the question.

I will begin by talking about some of the facts, as we know them. Treasury has released a new forecast for the Australian economy, indicating that this year's growth will slow even further than anticipated from the projected three per cent to 2.75 per cent. Over the last financial year Australia's GDP growth fell to just 1.5 per cent, the lowest growth rate in 50 years. Assuming all other things remain unchanged, this downgrade will add around $50 billion to Treasury's budget deficit projections over 10 years. Treasury pointed out that the economy recorded its third straight year of below-trend growth in 2014-15. Unemployment remains high at around six per cent. Labour-market analysis reveals the so-called under-utilisation rate of labour—that is, a measure of underemployment in the workforce—has risen to 14 per cent. For our young people, it is double at over 30 per cent. Consumer sentiment as measured by the Westpac-Melbourne Institute is nine per cent below where it was at the election.

The Turnbull government is failing us on many fronts. Firstly, we have a faltering economy that this government has no policies to fix. Secondly, we have a jobs crisis. Given the complete absence of any industry policy by this government, there is little evidence this is will change. We only need to think about the demise of the Australian car industry and associated loss of up to 200,000 jobs as evidence of this government's economic vandalism. At the same time, our economy is slowing: we have workers willing to work, but there is not enough work, not enough investment being undertaken to generate the jobs they require. Thirdly, we have the budget emergency, so-called. The No. 1 item this government was going to fix is getting worse, and the Turnbull government has no apparent solution for this. The budget deficit has doubled in just the last 12 months and here we are getting further away from fixing it.

The Abbott-Turnbull government has made every promise imaginable when it comes to the budget returning to surplus. Instead of an economy and budget getting back on track—as Senator Cormann always likes to say—we have 760,000 Australians out of a job and a budget deficit that has doubled in just the last 12 months. Instead of putting in place policies we need to kick-start the economy, accelerate investment and innovation, and grow our industries this government has, simply, elected to increase the GST by 50 per cent.

I would like to finish up by asking what purpose an increase in the GST would serve to kick-start our economy. Rather than injecting life into our economy, Mr Turnbull is going to slam those who can least afford it with another tax, and sit back and watch as our iconic local businesses disappear. The Turnbull government has not put forward a single policy that will tackle the poor, and slowing, performance of our economy, while at the same time we have a runaway budget that is out of control.

3:22 pm

Photo of Cory BernardiCory Bernardi (SA, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

That was underwhelming, wasn't it! But nonetheless I will seek to respond to it. On behalf of those well-minded senators here I would like to apologise for that almost putting you to sleep there.

There are two keys to a strong economy. One is low taxation, and I am proud to say that I have always advocated for the lowering of taxation across the board in this country. I have fought tooth and nail against tax increases, because if we want to grow our economy and develop economic innovation we will cut the share of the pie that government takes. Ultimately, that will grow revenue to government. But that is not accepted by those on the other side, who want to continually put up taxes, whether it be the sin taxes for tobacco or alcohol, or whether it be the taxes on the hard-working people who go out to try to earn an honest and decent living.

The second part of growing an economy is innovation. This is where the other side have come unstuck. I would like to take you back to when Senator Conroy was communications minister. He decided to hop on a plane with Mr Kevin Rudd and on the back of a napkin he eked out a $50 billion spend for the National Broadband Network, which he said would revolutionise the entire country. The real revolution is taking place outside of Senator Conroy's small mind and his grandiose projects. It is taking place in places like the University of Oxford, where they are getting 224 gigabits a second, in a laboratory environment, on the transfer of data. It is taking place in areas like Estonia, where start-ups have developed a new technology called li-fi, which is getting one gigabyte per second in a commercial environment. Senator Conroy is tethered to the past. He is tethered to his utopian dream where the Conroy fibre network was going to be the solution to everything.

But we on this side of the chamber are open to innovation. We are open to a mix and range of technologies to deliver value for taxpayers' money, but also to embrace the latest technological innovations—the sorts of things that the Labor Party has had their mind closed to for successive generations. We know that those on the other side are adept at many things. We know they are adept at ethnic branch stacking in some of the Victorian Labor Party conferences. We know that they are adept at providing debit cards for these branch stackings so that they can anonymously re-sign up. We know they are adept at flouting the systems of the union movement, and everything else, for personal gain. But what they are not very skilled at is responding to true innovation. They are still anchored in the past, whether it is tax policy, whether it is the embracing of new internet and broadband techniques and systems of delivery, whether it is examining taxation, or whether it is workplace relations. They are still bogged down in 1950s class war rhetoric, which belongs more to the Soviet Union than it does to a modern-day Australia.

It gives me no pleasure to say this, because some of the people on the other side are good people—they are. But they have been captured. It is the Stockholm Syndrome. Some of the more extreme elements of the Labor movement have captured them and they cannot break free, because to break free means that they would lose their cosy sinecures over there, where they can sleep through question time and uncork their lunches. It is just wrong.

At the risk of labouring the point—and there is no pun intended there—I would like to suggest that those on the other side should embrace innovation. They should embrace change. They should embrace the spirit that Australia needs to confront for its viable future—and that is to throw off the shackles of yesteryear. The dinosaurs on the other side need to embrace modernity, much like I have. It is about saying that we need to move forward. We have to reject the tired old politics of fear that they have been peddling for such a long time.

People are no longer buying what you are selling. That is why Mr Shorten is at 15 per cent, it is why the percentage of people in trade unions is less than 15 per cent, and it is why the innovation quotient on that side is much less. (Time expired)

3:27 pm

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

Today is quite an extraordinary day. Today we have seen a document from the National Broadband Network Company that demonstrates once again the folly and the lies of those who have been peddling the NBN MTM. What we have seen today is a document showing that this government is so inept, so incompetent and so ideologically driven that they are prepared to buy a network from Optus that, today in question time, the minister said we are going to use. But, after Prime Minister Turnbull made nbn co buy it, what they have found is that it is 'not fit for use'.

There is a reason we were going to close it down—that is, because it was not fit for use. We knew it, Optus knew it, and the whole country knew it, but not Prime Minister Turnbull. He decided he knew better than all of the engineers and all of the experts in the country, and Optus today are laughing all the way to the bank.

Let us just check the scorecard, because we are regularly being told by this government what a great job it is doing. Let's check the score card of who is using the NBN today. Let me be the first to publicly out Senator Cory Bernardi, who has actually talked about his own NBN. He has the NBN, but he is not alone. Today, there are 610,000 users of the National Broadband Network on Labor's fibre network.

Let's compare that with after over two years in government: how many people are using Prime Minister Turnbull's network? Based on the last published figures, it is a grand total of 375. Six hundred and ten thousand are using Labor's network compared to, after two years and a billion dollars of wasted expenditure, 375 using the government's—Mr Turnbull's—network. So we have seen that this second-rate National Broadband Network is not meeting their election promises. They said it was going to cost $29 billion before this blow-out was exposed, and now it is going to cost $56 billion. Mr Turnbull said it would be rolled out in three years. Now it is going to be seven years before this cost and time blow-out are factored in. And Prime Minister Turnbull has no-one to blame but himself. Virtually every forecast that he has made on the NBN has been hopelessly wrong.

I want to go to the board of nbn co. Just recently, the board was asked to explain the difference for the board's approved strategic review, where the board decided that they had the information they needed to change the direction of the National Broadband Network. Based on the strategic review, this board made a decision to spend $56 billion—and more to come because of this cost blow-out and this time delay. When asked about this cost difference, Mr Morrow said, 'The strategic review did not have all the in-fill costs available to it.' That is a $15 billion blow-out, where the board of nbn co, the management of nbn co—and to be fair to Mr Morrow, he was not there—made a recommendation to shift to a $56 billion model without knowing the costs of the in-fill, the HFC or the FTTN.

Now we are getting all of this debacle coming home to roost. How could a board make a decision to switch to a $56 billion network without knowing the costs at the time? How could the CEO today say that the board members did not know the costs when the board made a decision to shift to a network that is now costing $56 billion? This board was one of political hacks! They were incompetent and they did not know what they were doing.

Question agreed to.