Wednesday, 31 August 2016
That the following address-in-reply be agreed to.
To His Excellency the Governor–General
We, the Senate of the Commonwealth of Australia in Parliament assembled, desire to express our loyalty to our Most Gracious Sovereign and to thank Your Excellency for the speech which you have been pleased to address to Parliament.
I indicate that this is not my first speech, but I wanted to say briefly that it is an honour and a privilege to move this address-in-reply to His Excellency the Governor-General's speech yesterday to the 45th Parliament. I reserve my right to speak in reply at the end of debate on this motion.
I second the motion. In doing so, can I congratulate Senator Hume and all other senators who are taking their seat in this chamber for the first time. There can be no greater honour than to serve your country in this place. Can I also take this opportunity, Acting Deputy President Whish-Wilson, to acknowledge the large number and diverse range of crossbenchers that we have in the Senate and to note, with some degree of satisfaction, that it was the people of Australia who elected the Senate crossbench this time, entirely on the strength of their primary vote and not by some sort of backroom preference deal, as has been the case in the past. The crossbench is here because the people of Australia elected them, and I believe that this truly is a Senate of the people.
I also acknowledge the uncontested re-election of Senator Parry as the President. It is a reflection of the extraordinary non-partisan way in which he has conducted this chamber over the two years he has presided over it. I also acknowledge the manner in which the Deputy President of the 44th Parliament, Senator Gavin Marshall, took his role and the impartial way he conducted business in this chamber. I certainly look forward to the new Deputy President, Senator Sue Lines, continuing in that vein.
In 2013, it was my privilege to deliver the address-in-reply to the Governor-General's opening speech in the 44th Parliament, and it is indeed an honour to second the motion in this new parliament. I echo His Excellency's sentiments about the purpose of this parliament. We must be responsible, we must be diligent, but above all we must be sensible as we debate and implement this government's legislative agenda. I acknowledge the comments that have been made by many of the crossbenchers to date indicating that it is their intention to undertake their role in this government in exactly the way that the Governor-General suggested that we should all behave.
There is no senator in this chamber that is under any illusion that this must be a parliament, and a term, of delivery. We are a second-term government, and we intend to start this term ready to deliver on our election agenda. We are not going to shy away from scrutiny. However, the people of Australia rightfully expect that we should be allowed to deliver the promises that we took to the election. I am glad to see that many of those opposite have already indicated that they intend to support us in doing exactly that.
The Turnbull government, of which I am privileged to be a member, stand ready to be judged on what we do and not on what we say. First and foremost, we have to address one of the great moral dilemmas of our time: intergenerational debt. As a generation, we are inflicting on our children and their children excesses of our own making. It is born of our own greed, and we must stop. We are racking up on the federal credit card a debt that we can only pass on to the next generation, if we do not do something about the continued spending that is occurring. Worse still, the ultimate outcome of continuing to spend more and more, year upon year, is eventually you will end up going broke. One day, we are going to wake up and realise that nobody is prepared to lend us any money anymore.
The government of which I am a member stand ready to address this situation through our commitment to responsible fiscal repair and strong and stable leadership. Our policies are all focused on strengthening the economic growth while reducing our spending growth. We need to make Australia more resilient to economic shocks. To achieve this, the Turnbull government have a plan and a detailed method of delivery. We are going to focus entirely on economic growth, both within Australia and in our export markets. Through our trade policy and initiatives, we intend to make sure that Australia is protected, because we are a very trade exposed nation. We are never going to get rich selling to ourselves, so our focus must always be on ensuring that we have adequate and lucrative export markets to which we can export our wonderful Australian produce.
The importance of this cannot be understated for our rural and regional communities—communities like the one that I come from. Some 67 per cent of our exports are generated in our rural and regional communities outside of our capital cities. For this reason, we cannot underestimate the importance of ensuring that we have trade arrangements in place that enable our farmers and our primary producers to sell their products, not just in Australia but at the lucrative prices that we can get in the emerging markets, particularly those that are immediately to our north. That is why the free trade arrangements that were negotiated under the previous government are so terribly important, and we must continue to make sure that these trade arrangements are negotiated in the best interests of Australian producers.
To that end, this government and the previous government of the 44th Parliament have been very focused on the development of agricultural policy. There is no doubt that Australia's competitive advantage in the international marketplace comes on the back of the fact that we are a clean, green and safe producer of primary produce. It is for that reason that we need to continue to maintain our competitive advantage. Our policy, the Agricultural competitiveness white paper, focuses very much on a number of initiatives which will deliver that security for our primary producers. We have a very strong focus on research and development and making sure that we continue to be the best producers in the world. We place a very high level of importance on biosecurity and making sure that we are able to continue to protect that clean, green, safe image. We all know that, with the high standards of living and compliance we have in Australia, we are never going to be the cheapest producers in the world, but we certainly can continue to be the best producers in the world.
We also, as part of our agricultural policy, are making sure that we have quick and adequate drought response. We acknowledge the change in climatic conditions that is occurring across Australia and we need, as an agricultural sector, to be ready to respond to this change. We need not only to ensure that we are planting the right crops in the right places but also to make sure that when our farmers go through times of great adversity not of their making we, as a government, are ready to stand by them to help them through some tough times.
Lastly, one of the major platforms of our agricultural policy and, more broadly, our government policy is the provision of infrastructure. We cannot possibly hope to get our farmers, our primary producers or our business sector to realise rewards and opportunities if we do not provide the infrastructure through which they can deliver them. We are very proud, in the agricultural space, of the amount of money that we are putting towards ensuring water security through our dams policies. More broadly, the Turnbull government believe that public infrastructure—economic infrastructure—is a very strong basis and platform on which we need to build the economic growth and prosperity of this country.
To do so we also need to be prepared to deal with issues like taxation reform. There is no doubt that everybody in this country would accept that everybody needs to pay their fair share of tax to make sure that we can continue to provide the level of public amenity that I think we have all become used to. Certainly, one of the areas in the 2016 budget that I think was a very positive one was the addressing of the importance of small business. We all know that every large business was once a small business. The government of which I am a member are very keen to make sure that we support all of our small businesses so that they can prosper and flourish and hopefully one day become medium businesses and large businesses or just successful small businesses in their own right. For that reason we increased the tax threshold for eligibility to qualify as a small business from $2 million to $10 million. We also undertook a number of other taxation measures in support of small businesses and their ongoing prosperity.
One of the other areas that is very, very important and is constantly of concern to the Australian public is the number of multinationals that seem to have the capacity to undertake tax avoidance and not pay the level of tax in Australia that we believe they should. For that reason the Treasurer was very clear about the importance of cracking down on multinational tax avoidance to make sure that everybody pays their fair share and that it is not just the little guy who gets to pay the majority, or the lion's share, of the taxation burden in Australia.
Another platform of the Turnbull government in this 45th Parliament is going to be breaking down the stifling hold of unions on our economy and our society. When I say 'unions', I do not mean every union. There are certainly some very responsible unions. But, if you have a look at the kind of activities that we have seen over the last little while with unions like the CFMEU and the unlawfulness on our building sites, I think every Australian has a right to expect better management and control over the part of our economy that employs over one million people and provides in excess of eight per cent of the gross domestic product of this country. You only have to look at the advertisement that is currently playing on television to realise the length and extent that some of our unions are prepared to go to protect their position. I do not believe anybody in Australia—whether they are a union, whether they are a business or whether they are an individual—should be above the law.
We saw during the election campaign the disgraceful hold on firefighters by their firefighting union in Victoria. We stand ready to support the volunteer firefighters in Victoria by making sure that we pass legislation to protect their interests and to make sure that their interests are not being stifled or quashed by a selfish union that is only interested in looking after its own members and not the safety of the community it is supposed to be protecting.
Another example that occurred during the election campaign was the Road Safety Remuneration Tribunal. We in the government were very pleased to be able to successfully abolish that tribunal, which once again was trying to destroy the mum-and-dad small businesses of the transport industry—owner-drivers. So I think that, if we were to bring back into this place the ABCC and registered organisations bills and introduce the emergency services volunteers bill, those bills, along with the abolition of the Road Safety Remuneration Tribunal, would all go towards making sure that unions are held to account to the same level as everybody else in Australia is held to account.
Nothing can be as important as national security. Of course, Australians have taken for granted for many, many years that, when they go to bed at night, they will be safe. There was no greater example of that than last year's commemoration of the Anzac centenary and the commemoration of the Battle of Long Tan, amongst many other celebrations or commemorations that we have had this year and last year, which constantly remind us of the extent that those before us have gone to protect our safety.
It is for that reason that this government places a massive level of importance on national security. To that end, my home state of South Australia has been a great beneficiary of the new continuous naval shipbuilding program, including the $50 billion submarine program, which will directly sustain 1,100 jobs and an additional 1,700 jobs in the supply chain. In addition to that, there is the $35 billion frigate program. Both these programs provide not just national security benefits for the country but also long-term economic sustainability benefits for the country. Importantly, they underpin our education system by providing the opportunity and the reason for our education system to focus on educating our young people for the jobs of the future. A nearly $90 billion spend on shipbuilding provides a long-term opportunity for many young Australians who wish to undertake a career in this particularly high-tech industry and these very lucrative jobs. It is a whole-of-government, whole-of-economy initiative which will see Australia, and particularly my home state of South Australia, as great beneficiaries of a great and very important government program that is part of this government's agenda. It also fits in very well with the National Innovation and Science Agenda, which once again underpins the absolute necessity for Australia to continue to be the smartest, the most innovative and the most technologically advanced country in the world, because we are never going to be the cheapest.
We are also, as a government, very focused on the fact that we have not only a large population base in the city but eight million Australians that do not live in our capital cities. As I said before, 67 per cent of our export earnings are generated in rural and regional areas. To this end, the Turnbull government places a huge amount of emphasis on rural, regional and remote Australia. We have announced a $200 million Regional Jobs and Investment Package. We are certainly working towards reducing the number of mobile black spots, the development of northern Australia, one of the most underdeveloped areas of our country, and our $10 billion investment in the Murray-Darling Basin Plan, all of which not only go towards ensuring that rural and regional Australia has the opportunity to have the same benefits and opportunities as our cousins in the city but because the economic and growth opportunities that exist in rural and regional Australia are so great.
Equally, the rollout of the NBN network has been focused to a much greater degree on rural and regional Australia. We saw the launching of the Sky Muster satellites so that people who otherwise would have had no capacity at all to get access to high-speed connectivity are now able to get access at a similar rate to many of those that live in less remote areas.
Can I say in conclusion that I can absolutely assure the parliament that their government always puts the customer first. When it comes to education, it is the children's interests that are primary. In our healthcare system, we focus on delivering the best outcomes for our patients. In agriculture, our policies strive to return better farm gate prices to our farmers.
However, the ability to continue to pay for these much-needed and justifiably expected services is the reason that we have placed budget repair at the front of our economic agenda for the 45th Parliament. I know budget repair is not a particularly sexy thing to put at the front of your agenda, but I can assure you that unless we do something about the continuing increase in the debt and the deficit, and unless we have got a strong budgetary position and have reserves in the bank so that we are able to be more resilient, we are not going to be in a position to stand in this place and talk about all the wonderful things that are on the government's agenda to support the Australian economy and to provide the things that the Australian public want and expect. There is no doubt that we live in a time of great global uncertainty, and we are never quite sure what is around the next corner.
We have certainly seen great unrest on the international front, but we have also seen political uncertainty, the uncertainty of decisions like Brexit. Australia need to make sure that we are prepared so that we are resilient when international shocks come our way. So I would call on those opposite and ask them to please support us in our endeavour as we undertake what we believe is the absolute responsibility of government—that is, to repair the budget and to put us on a sustainable path so that we can continue to afford all of the things that we take for granted in Australia.
We take for granted our high standards of living, and nobody is suggesting for a minute that we should not continue to have those high standards of living, but they come at a price in the budget. We also need to recognise that we marvel at the fact that we have world recognised levels of environmental protections in this country. Equally, they come at a price. We also need to be able to maintain our clean, our green and our safe image, which is our competitive advantage when it comes to exporting our primary produce to the rest of the world. The ability to do that comes at a price. Biosecurity is probably one of the most expensive things that a government needs to deliver.
We are absolutely and completely committed to getting our debt under control for the simple and primary reason that we can no longer continue to spend the money of our children and their grandchildren. No responsible economic manager, whether it be in a business or when you are dealing with your family, would. There is no way that anybody here, as a parent, would be spending money and racking up a debt which they expect their children or their grandchildren to pay. I believe governments should be exactly the same. We should spend within our means and we should never ever think that it is okay to pass on a debt for something that we have consumed in this time to a generation in the future.
I rise today to speak in reply to the Governor-General's speech of yesterday. But before I do that, I would like to take this opportunity to congratulate the President on his re-election and Sue Lines on her election as the new Deputy President. I would also like to place on the record my thanks to Gavin Marshall for the leadership that he demonstrated during his tenure as Deputy President of the Senate.
Today I want to reflect on Labor's federal election results in Tasmania, my home state. I urge those opposite to take heed of this result and listen to the people of Tasmania, something which they have failed to do over the previous three years, and I encourage those opposite to deliver in full every election commitment they made to the people of Tasmania.
Firstly, I would like to congratulate Labor's new members elected to the House of Representatives and to the Senate and, in particular, those elected from Tasmania. Congratulations to Ross Hart, the new member for Bass, Justine Keay in Braddon and Brian Mitchell in Lyons. I would like to particularly acknowledge Julie Collins, the federal member for Franklin, on her re-election for the fourth consecutive time. In fact, she increased her margin.
I also acknowledge my Tasmanian Senate colleagues. I congratulate senators Carol Brown, Anne Urquhart, Catryna Bilyk and Lisa Singh and I look forward to continuing to work with them for the people of our home state of Tasmania. I also want to acknowledge Jane Austin, our Labor candidate for the seat of Denison, who put up a great fight but, unfortunately, was not elected. The House of Representatives will miss the contribution that I am sure she would have made. I also thank my colleague John Short, who was on our Labor Senate team. John is a stalwart of the Labor movement, and he would have made a fantastic contribution in this place. He is one of those people who roll up their sleeves and get into it. He is a team player. We sat together on many occasions stuffing envelopes and making phone calls to the electorate, so I will miss the opportunity of serving in this place with John.
I would like to draw your attention to what happened in Bass. I am the duty senator for Bass, which is in northern Tasmania. Labor witnessed a swing of 10.1 per cent—an extraordinary outcome, particularly as there were three fairly new members of the House of Representatives from the government's benches. In Braddon we saw a swing of 4.8 per cent, in Lyons it was 3.5 per cent, and in Franklin there was a swing of 5.6 per cent. This was only possible because of the passion and dedication of our election campaigners, who were fighting for fairness. I thank each and every one of them. They know who they are. They helped elect our candidates who now sit in the House of Representatives, and they helped to ensure that the five Labor senators were returned to this place. We should never forget those people, and we had so many people who came from outside the Labor Party to work on this campaign because they knew of the horror and terror of the policies of this government. Each and every one of them should be immensely proud of their achievements. I would also like to place on record—because sometimes we do not do this enough—my thanks to my own staff for the way they committed themselves not only during the election campaign but for the previous three years. Being in the shadow ministry has been a great honour. There is a lot of work attached to it, and I want to say to them each and every one of them: thank you.
Federal Labor is very well represented here in the Senate and in the House of Representatives, but the reason we were so successful in Tasmania was that we took policies to the people and stood up for the things that they value most: education, saving Medicare, protecting penalty rates and being there for the people. Most importantly, we listened to them and we delivered. The promises and commitments that we made reflected what the Tasmanian community are all about.
Labor has a strong jobs policy. We took that to the last election. I would also like to acknowledge the fact that it was Bill Shorten who instigated our setting up of the Tasmanian task force, where we went out and consulted across the length and breadth of Tasmania and across all sectors to find out what people were looking for from an alternative government. We did that. We went out to the community over a long period of time, and I believe that we came up with really good policies. What the government forget is that we actually do not just live in an economy; we live in communities. I am hoping that the people on the government side of the chamber will take heed of the message that the Tasmanian community has sent to the Turnbull government.
The rejection of this government's agenda by the people of Tasmania could not have been shown more starkly than by this election result. The reason Labor won four House of Representatives seats and five in the Senate is that we had a comprehensive plan for the future. We know that those opposite—and I have said it enough times in this chamber—have no vision. They have no policies and they have no plan for the future.
A good example of this comprehensive plan for the future was borne out by the election campaign. The University of Tasmania wanted to relocate one of its campuses from outer Launceston to the suburb of Inveresk at the edge of the city, and they were going to do the same thing in Burnie. We took to the community a 21st century solution to a very old problem concerning Launceston's sewerage and infrastructure issues. We had major investments in multiple tourism and community building infrastructure initiatives. We had a positive plan for our hospitals: more beds and more staff—not fewer beds, and staff walking out, as they have been at Launceston General Hospital. We had a plan for education, with more investment in our teachers and funding for years 5 and 6 of Gonski. Bill Shorten and Labor articulated a strong policy agenda for Tasmania, and I thank Bill for his work, not only in the policy area that he took around the nation but for the fact that he spent time in Tasmania listening to what Tasmanians wanted from their leaders. The Tasmanian task force was a great manifest for us to build our policies and our announcements around.
I was on the polling booth on election day so I know that Tasmanians knew how they were going to vote. They were determined. They knew that this government had let them down for three years already. They knew, because they had firsthand experience of cuts to our schools and our hospitals, the GP tax, an attack on Medicare and the threat of $100,000 degrees, which is still a real threat. There were cuts to pensioners' concessions, the increase in the retirement age to 70 and the cuts to pathology services, although they did manage to do a deal to give the pathologists a little bit of time to themselves, because for the first time we had pathology services around this country out campaigning against a conservative government. This is a government that had GPs—not the most radical people in our community, I would have to say—campaigning against cuts in health and a tax to see their GP.
In Tasmania, we also knew what it would mean if there were going to be an increase in the GST. We know that was their plan and that it is still in their bottom drawer. If they thought they could get it through the states, by starving them of funds, that is exactly what those opposite will do. We have a Prime Minister who goes over to Western Australia and makes a commitment that Western Australia will get more funding out of the GST—they will get a greater share. That share has to come from somewhere, and no doubt it will come from Tasmania, South Australia, the Northern Territory and Queensland. But what he forgets is that we are pretty smart people here in Tasmania. We understand that he will say one thing in Western Australia and then come to Tasmania and the eastern states and say something very different. Well, the Tasmanian community is much smarter than Mr Turnbull is, because they were not hoodwinked again by this government. We know, firsthand, that the Liberal members of Lyons, Bass and Braddon failed to listen to their communities. Those former members and the senators opposite have still failed to accept any responsibility for losing those seats in Tasmania.
We understand, as the Tasmanian people understand, that a $50 billion tax cut to big business and the undermining of our universal health care system—Medicare—were never going to be fair policies. They sent a very strong message to Mr Turnbull, because they understand how out of touch his representatives were in Tasmania and how out of touch he really is. People who voted for Malcolm Turnbull have gotten somebody very different as Prime Minister, because we know he has backed away from so many things. A lot of people in the community—not me—believed very much that he would be a better Prime Minister than Tony Abbott. Well, we have all learnt that they were very wrong about that—very wrong indeed.
We on this side feel very humble for the result that we got at this last federal election. We accept responsibility for the policies that we put forward to the people. But the blame games have already started in Tasmania from those opposite. They are looking around blaming everyone else but themselves. First it was GetUp!'s fault that they lost the seat of Bass. Then they tried to pin the defeat on a Tasmanian Legislative Council member, who is quite conservative and one of them, for holding a press conference and talking about the crisis at our local Launceston General Hospital under the Liberal's watch. They blamed Malcolm Turnbull's national campaign. Those opposite have not for one second taken the time to reflect on their policies to see how unfair they were. It might be the fact that they ignored Tasmanians and took them for granted. There is no greater example of scapegoating on Tasmania's political issues. Own it, Senator. Own the defeat. You owe the Tasmanian people at least that much. How about some self-reflection from those opposite? You may actually learn something about yourselves and your failed campaign.
Professor of Political Science at the University of Tasmania, Richard Eccleston, said of the election campaign in Tasmania that health was clearly an issue. Yes, it was most definitely an issue. Yet the former federal member for Bass kept saying throughout the election campaign that the crisis at the Launceston General Hospital was a 'state issue'. Mr Nikolic denied the fact that the Commonwealth, alongside states and territories, has been funding public hospitals since World War II. On his watch in Bass, Mr Nikolic just ignored the community and ignored the crisis at the Launceston General Hospital.
So what has the Liberal Party learnt from this election result? From the disunity and dysfunction already demonstrated by those since they were elected, I do not believe they have learnt anything at all. I hope that they will look very seriously at the health and education policies that they are putting forward—the threat of $100,000 degrees. I hope that they will listen to the conversations of people in our communities. I hope that they come up with some decent plans for jobs, plans for TAFE graduates to ensure that we have apprentices, plans to ensure that essential funding for schools and hospitals continue and plans to protect penalty rates and Medicare and I hope that they will not pursue any change to the GST.
The Liberals came kicking and screaming to support the University of Tasmania's move to Inveresk in Launceston and Burnie, but it took them seven weeks. Labor came out early because we understand that we have such a low retention rate and that we need something to drive our local economy to create the jobs so that our young people will not leave the state. We had the support of the state Liberal government and we had the Launceston City Council and the five surrounding councils all supporting this. We had the conservative newspaper, The Examiner, back this move and we had support within the broader community. But the Liberals were kicking and screaming when they had to come out at the very end of the election campaign and commit. That is not a good message to send to the people of Tasmanian.
Tasmanians will not forget that it was Labor and the community who put the pressure on this government to come forward. That was because Labor understand that the economy will be richer, as long as these people opposite keep their commitment to fund the university. In the north and north-west of Tasmania, this expansion is set to create 430 construction jobs and 230 academic and support jobs, but this government could not really see the writing on the wall of how important this was.
We have also learnt from the last election campaign that those people opposite, like Senator Abetz—who belong to the conservatives, who belong to the Liberal Party—are still about getting GetUp!. After the election Senator Abetz said:
What we need to do as a Liberal Party is inoculate against that and expose the money sources of these organisations and what their true agenda is.
Senator Abetz, how can you argue against a third-party organisation campaigning in a democracy during an election campaign? We live in a free society. Making public comment and campaigning during an election campaign is free speech. Those opposite espouse the fundamental principal of free speech and yet when anyone criticises them they cannot handle it. I think that is a great shame. According to the Liberals, free speech is only allowed when you agree with the Liberal Party.
The fact is that those opposite ignored the Tasmanian community. They ignored the crisis in our health system. It is not just in the Launceston General Hospital; it is in the Hobart Mercy Hospital. We do not want to keep going on and on about our health problems there. I always like to talk up my home state. Through this election campaign there was such heavy campaigning and so many ads going on about millions of dollars being spent, but they did not work in Tasmania because they did not reflect the policies that were important to our community—the policies of providing jobs, of enabling young Tasmanians to go on to university, of ensuring that Tasmanians can get a hospital bed when they need it and that they can go to the GP. Labor stood firm and said time and time again that we would never, ever stop fighting to protect Medicare.
We know that the former member for Bass used to block people on Facebook and social media and we know that he used to turn constituents away from his offices and refuse to seem them, but I only just learnt recently that of a morning in his office he and his staff would have a daily chant of 'jobs and growth, jobs and growth'. I truly believe that Mr Nikolic believed that if he kept saying that same slogan—jobs and growth, jobs and growth—that jobs would magically appear. Quite frankly, they did not. But the arrogance does not stop there. The federal members for Bass, Braddon and Lyons were so arrogant and out of touch they actually proclaimed themselves 'the three amigos'. The arrogance of a member of parliament refusing to meet with their constituents and blocking people on social media because they failed to support their views! I have not even begun to talk about aged care and the fact that that was so badly neglected, but I will be speaking later today about aged care. But I do have a message from the Tasmanian community to these three arrogant, out of touch former members of the House of Representatives who called themselves 'the three amigos': adios amigos, get on your horses and ride out of town. (Time expired)
I begin by acknowledging the traditional owners of the land that we are meeting on, the Ngunawal people, and I want to pay my respects to their elders past and present. I want to acknowledge that their land was stolen and never ceded, and I look forward to a respectful dialogue in the 45th Parliament to achieve a just settlement with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples in this country.
Our Constitution says:
… the Senate shall have equal power with the House of Representatives in respect of all proposed laws.
It is not just some aspirational statement; it is the law of the country. Our country's future is determined by this chamber as much as it is in the other place across the Marble Foyer. We have the same powers and we are elected to represent the interests of our constituency, our state and the nation. We are not elected to placate the needs of lobbyists in the government's ear and the donors in their pocket.
The government, of course, will argue that it has a mandate to implement its entire election agenda, but it is a facile argument. People cast their vote for a variety of reasons and motivations, and no government can claim to have popular support for each and every issue they hold—especially a government elected with the slimmest of majorities. Let us not forget that those of us elected to this place also have a mandate. We Greens have a mandate to honour and respect the wishes of more than one million Australians who voted Green at this election. They supported us because we believe in tackling dangerous global warming as a matter of urgency. We believe that unless we act now we risk leaving the planet uninhabitable and we will see entire nation states disappear, coastal inundation affect our own homes, our food production threatened and our cities bombarded with heatwaves and storms.
We believe that we are a country that should care for people irrespective of their background and life circumstances and whether they have arrived here by boat or by birthright. We believe that poverty and inequality are corrosive, that trickle-down economics has failed and that if we are to realise this nation's true potential we need to make decisions in this place that narrow the gap between the rich and the poor. We believe in a country that enshrines equality in its national laws, whether it be the right to marry someone you love or to live a life free from hate speech.
Caring for people and for the environment that sustains us is what the Greens believe and that is what we will fight for in this, the 45th Parliament. Yet here we are at a critical juncture not just here in Australia but right around the world, and here we see a government totally unprepared to tackle the challenges that lie ahead of us. It is not mitigating catastrophic global warming, eliminating harmful inequality or ending the needless suffering of those seeking our protection. Instead its No. 1 legislative priority is the abolition of the ABCC, which seems to come out of the Prime Minister's desperation to unite a divided party room through a bit of good old-fashioned union bashing. We have seen the carbon price, described globally as template legislation, scrapped. We have seen the renewable energy target wound back and we are on the cusp of destroying research into renewable energy in this country, with over $1 billion taken away from the Australian Renewable Energy Agency. Australia is on its own in the world. No other country has gone backwards on clean energy policy. We are swimming against the tide of global investment.
Last year's Paris agreement told business and policymakers that we are all heading towards a zero-pollution world. Last year was also the hottest year ever recorded, smashing the previous year's record, which smashed the record before that. We are entering very dangerous territory where any hope of humans curtailing runaway climatic effects and extreme weather is almost out of reach. Yet in the midst of this we have a government whose very own climate policy has little or no chance of achieving its own measly pollution reduction targets. Just look at what is going on in Queensland right now, where the negative impact of tree clearing over the last few years has wiped out the paltry gains made under the government's policies to pay polluters. A staggering one-third of the $6 billion in spending cuts in the government's omnibus bill comes from cutting research, which just makes a mockery of this government's election commitments around innovation.
Under this government poverty is growing, people that need support are falling further behind every year, and regions are becoming more depressed or abandoned in part as a result of trade deals that further concentrate wealth within privileged cliques. We have seen out-of-pocket costs for Australians' medical care on the rise as universal health care is gradually eroded through policies like freezing Medicare indexation and increasing co-payments. Household debt is now the highest in the world, while the astronomical explosion in property prices means that aspiring first home owners can never hope to keep pace with the gains enjoyed by propertied investors, yet the government refuses to tackle negative gearing or capital gains tax reform. We are pricing young people out of the Australian dream.
It seems that Malcolm Turnbull has not learnt the lessons of his predecessor, and he continues to balance the budget off the back of Australia's poorest people. Consider this: he is halting the only real-adjusted improvement in government payments for over 20 years: the clean energy supplement that helps people on low incomes keep the lights on. We like to talk about the great Australian tradition of egalitarianism and the spirit of the fair go, but they are slowly becoming a thing of the past.
We have to note, with disappointment, that Labor appears set to support both the cuts to renewable energy and to the most vulnerable Australians. I just call on them to reconsider their position and to join with us to oppose those cuts.
We are being told that we need to cut support for the vulnerable—that those with limited means are the ones that have to pay so the government can live within its means. Do not believe it. There are other choices.
Of course we understand that there are structural issues within the budget. It cannot continue on its current trajectory. We accept that.
We should also acknowledge that the structural problems we now face are, in part, due to the huge cash giveaways of the Howard-Costello era that could not be sustained once the rivers of gold from the resources boom dried up: giving successive tax cuts for high-income earners, making superannuation earnings tax-free for retirees, taxing capital gains lighter than income and freezing fuel excise. All four of these measures were short-sighted, finely tuned to the electoral cycle and designed to curry favour with their targeted constituencies.
Taxing capital gains as income has been ruled out by the government, despite three-quarters of the benefit going to the top 10 per cent of income earners. And, not content with having inflicted around $40 billion in lost revenue through those massive income-tax cuts of the Howard-Costello era, the Liberals now want to go further in this budget by reducing taxes for the top 25 per cent of taxpayers.
The Greens stand unequivocally against this failed trickle-down theory that pretends that somehow tax cuts for high-income earners will magically create prosperity for everyone else. The US writer Will Rogers took on the theory when he said of President Hoover: 'President Hoover was an engineer. He knew that water trickles down. Put it uphill and let it go and it will reach the driest little spot. But he didn't know that money trickled up. Give it to the people at the bottom and the people at the top will have it before night. But at least it will have passed through the poor fellow's hands.' That is what we are dealing with right now: a failed ideology that this government continues to pursue.
It comes down to priorities. Tough decisions cannot be made until we get priorities lined up with what the public wants and deserves. How on earth is it possible that we can go to an election campaign with a bipartisan commitment for a two per cent spend on defence spending—an incredible increase in the defence budget—and yet have no targets for spending on health or education? Few everyday Australians would support that nonsense. Yet it is the policy of both of the major parties. How is it that industry policy is only directed at military hardware in marginal states? Again, remarkable—having industry policy dressed up as defence policy.
Why are we not declaring war on runaway greenhouse pollution—something that we know actually threatens us right here right now? We could use industry policy to create jobs and secure a bright future through building clean energy right across the country. We could get investment in the right places through investing in productive infrastructure and investing in people to break entrenched inequality, and pricing harm so that the community no longer has to wear the costs and we put an end to big business and big polluters getting big benefits.
Solid, stable revenue means we can create jobs and prosperity in areas that the private sector simply will not invest in: public education; public health care; Indigenous rangers to care for country; protecting the reefs and forests; preventive health and research into new frontiers that will help us reap benefits into the future. These are all jobs-rich pursuits that enhance the national interest. When the Treasurer says, 'You need to cut taxes for the wealthy to create jobs,' the jobs that he is talking about are jobs like tax advising, financial planning and property conveyancing, and jobs for luxury car salesmen.
The choices that we make today determine the character and quality of our nation. And these choices—let us forget all the posturing and rhetoric—are ultimately made by us. We senators decide who carries the burden of budget decisions. Should it be single parents or multinational tax dodgers, superannuants, polluting industries or workers whose jobs have disappeared? It is our heavy responsibility, because it is we who will make these decisions.
We senators also have to choose whether we want to unite this nation or to divide it. This country will be watching some new senators' first speeches very closely in the coming days to see whether it is division or unity that is offered to the Australian people. When I had the great privilege of giving my first speech, I said:
Multiculturalism is one of this country's enduring successes. Rather than dividing us it compels us to be clear about those things that unite us as a community: respect for our democratic institutions, for universal human rights and for equality of opportunity. The real value of multiculturalism lies … in the fact that relationships with people from different cultures offer important insights into our own.
We often hear about newly arrived migrants having to adopt our values—to share our values. But let us remember: we also learn from theirs. And I stand here today as the proud son of an immigrant family. It was national leadership, embodied in the courage and vision of politicians who came before us who made some tough decisions, that enabled my parents to seek out and create a better life for themselves and for their children. But I do fear that we are on the precipice of damaging support for what I think is one of this nation's greatest achievements: our multicultural nation.
Let us always remain united against harmful views that scapegoat one group of people for the problems of another. I understand that people who advocate that division often do so because they feel frustrated or marginalised and left behind. We need to work hard. We need to engage with them. We need to understand people's concerns. We need to address, first and foremost, their social and economic needs. But hurtful and divisive attacks on people from different cultures or religions should be called out, not given a silent nod of approval or used in some proxy war to weaken the Racial Discrimination Act. And make no mistake: the Greens will call them out. There is no place for racism or bigotry in this chamber or indeed in the Australian nation—no place at all. Let's not use mealy-mouthed words to justify actions that have no justification in this parliament. Racism damages people, it harms people, and we have a duty to call it out whenever we see it, wherever we see it.
Thankfully, we know that the overwhelming majority of Australians are with us. They embrace diversity. And we must give strength and support to the positive voices of hope and inclusion in our communities so that they can speak out and shine a light on the path forward that we must take together as a nation. The indifference to the future of First Australians cannot continue as it is. In his 1968 Boyer Lecture, WEH Stanner called out the 'great Australian silence'—that Indigenous voices were completely missing from the Australian story. While our history books may have been corrected somewhat, our statutes and policy books are still part of that great Australian silence. On that note I want to acknowledge Senator Pat Dodson and Senator Malarndirri McCarthy: you will both make this chamber a better place, and we welcome you here.
The First Australians have still not seen any fundamental shift towards involvement in policy development or control over service delivery really since the apology to the stolen generations. I was there as an observer, sitting there on the lawn watching that speech. It was an inspiring gesture to open the parliament almost 10 years ago with the apology to the stolen generations—a rare moment of unity, something that we all should embrace. There were very high expectations that a new dawn had arrived: the First Australians and all Australians with political power, walking on a shared pathway together. But it is with great sadness that I have to say that things in many respects have gone backwards since that moment. The bipartisan approach, with the heavy-handed intervention in the Northern Territory, and the BasicsCard, show that we have so much more work to do. Whitefellas are still making all the decisions.
We remain the only postcolonial country without a treaty, and crucial Closing the Gap indicators are either stubbornly unchanged or going backwards as a result. We Greens stand here ready to offer a brighter future. We offer the Australian community a voice for a long-term vision for this country that does not take the easy way out, that has the courage to take up these difficult challenges and to turn them into national advantages, national prosperity. We do not fear being the lone advocate in this place for the thousands of innocent people who are being locked up in detention centres under laws sanctioned by this chamber. We will never tolerate knowingly and willingly punishing these people to send a message to another group of people. No decent society does that. And we do not fear the political cost for advocating against the damage done to innocent people in this government's name. The Prime Minister talks about the morality of budget repair, but what about the immorality of locking up innocent people—innocent children—indefinitely in those offshore hellholes?
We do not fear arguing forcefully for the opportunities of shifting towards a clean energy economy as the global transition moves forward, with or without us. We do not fear raising debt to build crucial public infrastructure that will enhance our national productivity. We understand that debt is sometimes necessary for the nation to advance and prosper. The outgoing Reserve Bank Governor, Glenn Stevens, told us that monetary policy has reached its limits in our current economic environment and that now it is up to fiscal policy, and particularly infrastructure spending, to carry us through into the new economy. We will carry this message through the parliament.
We do not fear increases in spending on quality health care and education. What is the purpose of having a debate around our budget if we are not talking about the things that advance us as a society? What is the purpose of raising revenue if not to provide for universal essential services to the citizens of this country? We do not fear raising revenue to fix our budget challenges. For years we have advocated that we have a problem with revenue in this nation, and we welcome the reluctant acknowledgement of that, only recently, by the Treasurer. We have options available to us to fund the public services that Australians want and deserve. We can charge mining companies excise on their fuel, like ordinary, everyday Australians pay, and charge the big four banks for the huge advantages they get from being too big to fail. We can put a price back on pollution and crack down on tax avoidance by companies and wealthy individuals and redirect the wasteful private health insurance rebate into prevention and dental care.
The election platform that the Greens took to this most recent election shows that we can create a fairer society—one that protects the environment, one that cares for people, one that invests in public infrastructure—while reducing the budget deficit. We can re-create the Australia of the fair go, and this is the vision the Australian Greens put forward to the 45th Parliament.
From the outset, I congratulate all my colleagues in the Senate on their election. We have a lot of work to do as a collective team. We have differences of opinion and differences of views, but I think that if we act and work towards getting outcomes for the people of Australia we can have a productive parliament.
But to say that is not to hide the fact that we do have what I would perceive to be a crisis of confidence in politics around the world and also here in Australia. Successive elections have seen the growing rise of minor parties, a growing crossbench in this place and in the other place, as Australians have taken their primary votes away from the major parties. Of course, I accept and I welcome the will of the Australian people in this regard, and once again I congratulate all my colleagues on their election to this place. They have been rightfully endorsed by the Australian people. But what the minor parties are actually doing is tapping in to a wide cross-section of community concerns about the direction in which our country is headed.
The government, quite rightly so, is concerned about debt and deficits and is about getting the budget back on track not just for our benefit today but also for the benefit of future generations. We also, quite frankly, have to restore faith in politicians and in the political process. If we do not, we risk losing something that is truly significant. I will not say that it is unique to Australia but it is a very special part of Australia's body politic. As I said in my 2014 address to the National Press Club, broken promises, politicians' perks, spin over substance, scandals, little perceived difference between the major parties and a lack of focus on the issues that truly matter all add to the gaping chasm between politicians and the people.
We have just had a double dissolution election. Many of us were optimistic that this would enable the country and the body politic to embark upon a fresh start. I regret to say that that fresh start has not occurred. One of the most damning things that has already condemned aspects of this parliament is the stench of possible improper use of and requests for money by a member of the ALP—that is, Senator Sam Dastyari. Senator Dastyari declared in October of last year that he had received compensation from a Chinese linked company for a personal debt that he owed to the Commonwealth caused by his own mismanagement of his office resources. This is a personal debt owed by a senator being paid by a third party that is linked to a foreign country.
Senator Dastyari overspent the relatively modest amount of $1,670.82 on his staff travel budget. This was a debt that he was required to pay. Yet Senator Sam Dastyari—one of the highest paid officials in the country; in the top one per cent of income earners—could not find it within his own resources to pay back $1,670.82 to the Commonwealth. For some reason, which he has not explained to this chamber or to the Australian people, he got the Top Education Institute to pay his bills. This education institute has made donations to both sides of politics. Making a political contribution to a political party is legitimate conduct that has been accepted as appropriate. But never in my recollection, never in my memory, has it been appropriate for an entity linked to a foreign government to pay the personal debts of a member of parliament.
I invite anyone who thinks that can be justified in any way, shape or form to come into this chamber and explain it today. I invited Senator Dastyari to come in and explain it, and he gave a statement saying that, yes, he did the wrong thing. But let me tell you: it is not just about accepting our responsibilities and requirements under the parliamentary act to disclose benefits or various other support mechanisms that we may have received in the course of our duties; we owe the people of Australia our good judgement. How can the Manager of Opposition Business in the Senate stand up in this chamber and say that his judgement should be relied on by his colleagues, by the people of Australia or by the ALP nationally when he does not see it as wrong to get reimbursed for a personal expense by a company linked to the Chinese government? This is absolutely wrong.
Senator Dastyari needs to come in here and provide a full disclosure of how the circumstances came to be. It is simply not credible that the Top Education Institute just discovered that Senator Dastyari had a debt to the Commonwealth and thought, 'I'll pay those bills for him.' Did Senator Dastyari write to them and ask them? Did he go and visit them? Did he call them in one of his extravagant phone calls—which clocked up $15,000 to the taxpayers? This is an organisation with very close links to the Chinese government—the head of this organisation has had photos taken with both a Chinese premier and the education minister of China—which received a special sanction from the Chinese government as the only approved nonspecialist education provider in 2013. How did Senator Sam Dastyari have his expenses reimbursed by this organisation?
We are right to question this. This is a question of judgement; this is not a question of political ideology. This is a question about anyone in this place who thinks it is okay to go and ask a company linked to a third entity, another country, a sovereign nation, to pay their personal bills. It has the stench of corruption. How deep and how widespread this is is the question that needs to be asked. If you go through Senator Dastyari's statement of interests, it all seems linked to the Chinese government. Typical Labor: they leave others to pick up the tab—such as the catering for an afternoon tea sponsored by the Australia China Relations Institute. For goodness sake, can't a senator—a highly paid senator and a good political operator—pay for the afternoon tea himself?
The links between Senator Dastyari and the Communist Party of China are extraordinary. Yes, they have been disclosed in his register of interests, but there is a pattern here. We are right to question what influence, if any, a foreign power has over Senator Dastyari when they are not only sponsoring his travel and his hospitality bills but also paying or supporting, in one way, shape or form, his personal bills.
I do not know the truth about Senator Dastyari's involvement. I do not know the truth about whether Senator Dastyari has disclosed everything he should. But I do know that under no circumstances could any person that is fit and proper to hold the position of Manager of Opposition Business in this place think it is okay to have his personal expenses paid by a company linked to a foreign government. As I said, this is not about political donations per se. This is about a personal benefit, a benefit that has been paid by a foreign linked corporation to cover someone's personal expenses, which were incurred in the course of their political duties.
Earlier today, as she was defending Senator Dastyari, Senator Wong took me to task—quite rightly so—for asking a rhetorical question about who pays her mortgage, and I withdrew that. But the rhetorical nature of the question was simply because Senator Wong pays her own mortgage, as we all do. So how can she defend the fact that Senator Dastyari has a debt to the Commonwealth that was paid by people linked to the Chinese government? That is a judgement issue, and if Senator Wong or anyone else on the other side wants to defend that, then they have judgement issues too.
The only answer is for Senator Dastyari to stand aside from his position as Manager of Opposition Business, for the ALP to conduct a full inquiry, for Senator Dastyari to be asked to fully disclose to this place all the dealings he has had and what other remuneration or benefits he may have received and not disclosed, and for Senator Dastyari to explain the nature of the benefits more fully than he has disclosed. We are quite right to question whether we should undermine the integrity of this parliament and the confidence of the Australian people in the incorruptibility of those that are here, for a seemingly minor amount of $1,600. The amount does not matter. It does not matter if it is $1,600 or $16,000; what matters is the principle applied here.
The Manager of Opposition Business could not manage his own office budgets. He could not manage his own office budgets and he had a debt to the Commonwealth. That in itself is not unknown in this place, but what is unknown in this place is expecting a foreign entity to pick up your personal bills. Other senators—and I do not have to name them—have worked out debt repayment plans, because mistakes can happen. This is not a mistake. This is a grievous error of judgement that brings into question the influence of foreign entities on our body politic.
Just yesterday the AustralianFinancial Review reported that one of the significant donors to both major parties was complaining, in a Chinese language paper, that they were not getting enough value for money out of their donations. This individual, who, as I say, has donated to both major parties through their company, is the same individual who also bailed out Senator Dastyari from legal obligations he had, and that was fully disclosed as well. But the fact is that it comes back to this: how does it come to pass that a foreign controlled entity with close ties to another sovereign government is paying the legal bills of a senator? It has got the stench that should inflame the nostrils of every single person in this place and every single person outside this place. The only conclusion I can draw, in the absence of any other information coming to hand, is that Senator Dastyari is not fit for his current position and he should question whether he is suitable and appropriate to remain as a senator in this place.
We clearly have a problem. Personal benefits have been given to a senator by people associated with foreign entities, and one of those people has complained in recent days about not getting enough value for their money. Just what did they expect? Is it okay for individuals to travel at other governments' expense? Yes, it is, because in this place we go on delegations and we cooperate in official functions all the time. Maybe on occasions it is right for some of us to avail ourselves of information by going to other lands to attend formal sponsored events. But when there is a historical pattern of largesse, personal benefit, that has been directed to a senator, we are right to ask: do we have a bigger problem?
One of the stories doing the rounds is from an ALP member who was going to Hong Kong to meet with someone. They received a phone call from a close associate of the Chinese embassy suggesting that they do not meet with that individual. Quite rightly so, they said, 'No, I'm going ahead with it.' Yet, when they were in Hong Kong about to meet with this individual, one of their colleagues from the ALP rang them up and begged them not to go, because it would upset the Chinese embassy. Who do you think that person was? I would like them to come in here and explain the circumstances. I would like them to explain why our own members of parliament are being warned off, by their own colleagues, from meeting with individuals because it might upset the local embassy.
Do we have a problem in this country? I do not know. If I keep tugging this thread, I do not know how deep and wide and far it is going to unravel. But what I can tell you is that the aroma, the scent, that is emanating from just this one small, seemingly innocuous payment of $1,600 and the pattern to which it is attached make Senator Dastyari's position as Manager of Opposition Business entirely untenable. He needs to come in here and he needs to provide a more full explanation than he provided this morning, when he said: 'I disclosed it; I'm within the parliamentary requirements. It was just an error of judgement.' There is much more to this than that. How did it come to pass that another company paid his legal bills? How did it come to pass that the Top Education Institute was made aware of Senator Dastyari's obligations and debts to the Commonwealth? What sort of member of parliament thinks that it is okay to take the fat salary and all the benefits and perks that go with it but not repay the $1,600 themself? That person is not fit to occupy the position he currently occupies and, until a full explanation can be brought forward, I think it is incumbent upon the ALP to ask Senator Dastyari to stand aside. If he will not do that, then we need to have a much broader investigation into what is going on with the body politic in this country.
I make no bones about it: I have been on the record for years saying that we need donation reform. We need donation reform and we need to start thinking about how hospitality and donations to individuals are influencing parliamentary behaviour. As I said, I do not know of any other circumstance—and I am happy to stand corrected on this—where the personal debts of an individual senator, where they are owed to the Commonwealth of Australia, have been paid by what is effectively a very close entity of another sovereign government. This is not a case of raising a legal fund and crowdfunding it, or staving off bankruptcy or anything else like that; this is a case of a seemingly minor debt. All giant scandals begin with the tugging of just one thread, and I suspect that there is a giant scandal here. Until we can get to the bottom of it and until Senator Dastyari fully discloses and can assure the people of Australia, the people of this chamber and the parliament that there is nothing untoward in this, or in anything else that he has done, he needs to stand aside.
It gives me no pleasure to do that and to say that, but it is the integrity of this place that is more important in the eyes of the people than anything else. We can have our disagreements on policy views, we can call each other names, we can do a whole range of other things; but the fact that there is even a whiff, a hint, that there may be some corrupt practices going on is enough to justify our concern. The crisis of confidence in politics is universal because people are in it, seemingly, for themselves rather than for the people they are meant to represent. We need to change that. We need to change it, and we can start changing it by getting to the bottom of exactly what has transpired here.
I am pleased to participate in the address-in-reply to the Governor-General, and I will take up some of the issues that Senator Bernardi has raised in his contribution. For those who are listening in, bear with me; I have had the flu. A lot of people will understand how bad it has been for some people, so I hope my voice will last for the full 20 minutes.
This is the 45th parliament. It is a parliament where we see a weakened government and a weak Prime Minister for this country. I think that is the biggest threat to this country—not what Senator Bernardi has been talking about, but the threat of a weak Prime Minister; a Prime Minister who would stand up to Senator Bernardi. It is a bit rich for Senator Bernardi to be talking about outside influence when he has been influenced by the United States Tea Party and by some of the most right-wing groups ever in the US, and he brings that type of political culture—a culture of dividing the community—back into this country. It is a culture of destroying multiculturalism, a culture of denying that climate change is a serious issue in this country. So I will not be lectured by Senator Bernardi on anything to do with morality or the right thing. Senator Bernardi is the last person who should be standing up here lecturing anyone about people's judgement in this place.
If you had proper judgement you would not be taking the position Senator Bernardi is taking in leading the coalition on. He leads the right wing of the coalition in this place, and he is about destroying the leadership of Malcolm Turnbull. When I use the term 'leadership' I use it lightly, as the current Prime Minister has not demonstrated much leadership at all. He is completely at the mercy of people like Senator Bernardi; he is completely at the mercy of people like the right wing of the coalition, who hold the most extreme views in this country. You only have to look at the press over the last few days to see who is leading this Prime Minister by the nose. I will come back to the issue that Senator Bernardi raised a bit further down the track, but first let me get to the key issues I want to get on the record here today.
As I have said, we have a weak Prime Minister, a vacillating Prime Minister, a Prime Minister who owes his job to the right-wing extremists in the Liberal Party. We have a Prime Minister who said he had a plan for the economy during the last election, but let's remember what the plans for the economy were that the Prime Minister was backing. You cannot simply say that conservatism and liberalism in this country started afresh when Mr Turnbull became Prime Minister. It started under Tony Abbott, the former Prime Minister, with the lifters and leaners argument when he tried to divide the community by attacking those who were at the bottom of society in this country—attacking unemployed youth, attacking pensioners, attacking the working poor—while defending the big end of town and defending the banking industry in this country. We see that thread go straight from Prime Minister Abbott to Prime Minister Turnbull—a clear position—where they will defend the big end of town, where they will defend those who are rich and powerful against the working poor in this country. That is why we see Senator Bernardi so determined to attack Senator Dastyari, because Senator Dastyari has been exposing day in, day out this linkage between the right wing of the Liberal Party and the big end of town, and between the Liberal Party in general and the big end of town.
So what did we get from the Prime Minister before the election? He indicated that he supported every aspect of that 2014-15 budget: young unemployed people with no money for six months; cuts to pensions; cuts to family tax benefits; cuts to the poorest in this country; attacks on penalty rates; attacks on the trade union movement—all designed to diminish the living standards of ordinary people in this country so that the money can flow back to the big end of town. That is what the current Prime Minister stood for. He stood for every aspect of that 2014-15 budget that increased inequality in this country and made this country a poorer country, because we would not stand up and look after the poorest people in the economy.
So then we had Mr Turnbull stab Mr Abbott in the back. We had Mr Turnbull take over the leadership on the basis that he was going to articulate the issues that were required for the economy. He had a plan while the former Prime Minister, Mr Abbott, did not have the capacity to articulate the issues that were important for the economy. Well, Mr Turnbull has been an abject failure. It is not just Labor people who are saying that; the press are saying it and his own party members are saying it when you talk to them. They say: 'This guy is not delivering. He's weak. He won't stand up for anything. He's got no values. He's got no principles.' You have only got to look at how he performs every day. Having a deep baritone voice and presenting your case as if you are a Queen's Counsel does not make up for the fact that your case is wrong, that your case is bad, that your case is just not resonating with the Australian community.
This guy squeaked into power. If the election had probably gone another week, we would be sitting over there and the Liberals would be sitting on this side, because he was so incompetent. He just would not put the hours in. He was just lazy, incompetent, and had no vision, no policies and no priorities for ordinary working people in this country. That is the Prime Minister that we have at the moment in this country—a Prime Minister who cannot be trusted. Worse still, we have a Prime Minister who is incompetent. So he just gives up his values and his principles, if it means that he will personally benefit.
Let's talk about people who personally benefit. Let's talk about Prime Minister Turnbull: he personally benefited by knifing the former Prime Minister Tony Abbott—the biggest personal benefit anybody would have: you knife the Prime Minister and you become the Prime Minister. You say you have a great plan for the economy, so what is the first plan you come up with? The first plan you come up with is a goods and services tax—a tax that will put more strain on working-class families' budgets, more strain on their standard of living and increase inequality in this country.
That was the first economic plan from the Prime Minister, and the states said: 'No way. This is not fair. It's not good for our constituents.' Both Liberal and Labor premiers said: 'You've got it wrong. We're not going to accept this. This is not a plan that is fair. It's not a plan that is equitable. It's not a plan we're prepared to accept.' So the Prime Minister's first plan for the economy lasted a few weeks and then it just died. Then the Prime Minister, this incompetent Prime Minister, moved on.
So what was the next big plan? The next big plan was reforming the Federation: the federal government would fund the private school system and the state governments would fund the state system. We all know what that would mean. It would mean that private schools would continue to get access to funding that would give them an opportunity to have wealthy families have their kids looked after in private schools while public schools would absolutely struggle to get more funding into the schools. So that was the second proposition: we would give taxing powers to the states, and the federal government would opt out of these areas.
This is classical conservatism—that you want small government. But I have to alert you to the fact that small government means nothing for Kerry Packer, for the billionaires in this country. It is not a problem. But if you are a working class family, if you are an Aboriginal person, if you are sick or if you are trying to get your child educated and you do not have a lot of money, small government means that you will never get a fair go in this country. You will never get a fair go. So, when you hear them talk about cutting taxes, when you hear them talking from the other side about small government, realise what that means. That means that working-class families in this country will get screwed by the conservatives. That is what it means.
That was his second big economic plan, and it was torpedoed. It did not last long. I think it lasted one day. I do not know why. I will tell you what. I do not think any Leader of the Liberal Party should ever go to the Panthers stadium in Penrith again, because every time they go out there they stuff it up so badly. You know that the former Prime Minister, Tony Abbott, went out to the Panthers stadium and talked about no cuts to tax, no cuts to health, no cuts to education, no cuts to the SBS and no cuts to the ABC, and in the next budget they did all of those things. And then we had Prime Minister Turnbull going out and, in the morning, announcing this great change, the reform of Federation; the next day it was off the agenda.
Prime Minister Turnbull is simply incompetent. Prime Minister Turnbull just has not got it. I cannot think of a better analogy than Paul Keating's analogy: he is all tip and no iceberg—absolutely all tip and no iceberg, this guy. His own people do not believe he is competent, because they sacked him when he was the leader. They do not believe he can take this government through the full term, because he is incompetent. We know he is incompetent. Look at the two economic plans, and look at the third economic plan. This is his third economic plan in 12 months.
His third economic plan was jobs and growth, innovation, $50 billion of tax cuts to the big end of town, and what he describes as export trade agreements. Well, I do not see the jobs and growth. All I see is, in places like Elizabeth, in South Australia, jobs disappearing as the coalition—which Malcolm Turnbull was part of—chased GM and Toyota out of this country and destroyed high-skilled, high-paid jobs in this country. I do not see the jobs and growth there. On innovation, they were setting out to destroy the CSIRO. They had no care about innovation until the public said, 'We want to keep our scientists.' And tax cuts: $50 billion of tax cuts, including $8 billion of tax cuts to the banks that are ripping people off, day in, day out—$8 billion of tax cuts to the banks. Where is the economic sense and credibility in that? Again, the Prime Minister and his team are incompetent—absolutely incompetent.
Trickle-down economics has failed. Look at the United States. You can draw a graph in the United States from when Ronald Reagan slashed the taxes in the United States. If you put another line up against it which is inequality in the United States, you see taxes coming down for corporations, taxes coming down for the wealthy, and inequality shooting up. Well, this is Australia, Mr Turnbull; this is not the United States. Trickle-down economics has failed, and we will fight trickle-down economics. We would rather spend $50 billion on health, on education, on infrastructure, than hand it over on tax cuts on a failed economic theory.
Let me just go back. I just want to say quickly that I am very pleased to have been appointed shadow minister for skills and apprenticeships and shadow minister for housing and homelessness. We had Homelessness Week, and not one minister in this government thought it was important enough to make one statement about homelessness in this country—not one minister. I think that says everything about this government. It will look after its mates in Collins Street and at the big end of town, but if you are a rough sleeper, if you are living in overcrowded accommodation, if you cannot afford to buy a house, that is just bad luck. You are collateral damage to this mob's economic theories. This is a bad government. This is a weak, incompetent Prime Minister. I do not think they will see the three years out.
I just want to finish up on this. I have not known Sam Dastyari for that long, but I do know Sam Dastyari, Senator Dastyari, and I am convinced that Senator Dastyari is honest and capable and a good politician. Senator Dastyari himself, I think, has conceded that he made a mistake, and he has come in and he has indicated that here this morning. I think that what has been put forward by Senator Bernardi today is a big overstep in terms of the coalition. If you want to talk about corruption, let us talk about Stuart Robert. If you want to talk about corruption, let us talk about Senator Sinodinos and his appearances at ICAC. If you want to talk about corruption, let us talk about the Millennium Forum and the money that gets poured in by the big end of town, into the Liberals' pockets, day in, day out. Let us talk about the brown paper bags getting handed over in the back seats of the Bentleys in Newcastle. Do not come here and try to come after a decent politician, a good politician, on the basis of one mistake, when there have been systematic breaches of the law by the Liberal Party in New South Wales.
Do not tell me that if you are getting handed a brown paper bag in the back of a Bentley by a property developer, as a Liberal politician, you do not know there is a problem. Well, there is a problem. There should be a forensic examination of every Liberal politicians' election fund in this country, and then we will see where the Chinese money is going, then we will see where the money is coming from—the big end of town—and then we will see where the property developers' money is going.
Sam Dastyari is a decent human being. Senator Dastyari has stood this mob up on their ears. He has exposed their link to the big banks; they do not like it. Senator Dastyari will continue to do that. He will be a great politician in this place, and I support Sam Dastyari.
Well, what a difference a year makes. This time last year, Mr Turnbull's challenge to Prime Minister Tony Abbott's cringe-worthy prime ministership was actually still on the horizon and the coalition were still locked into the pretence that everything was going to work out fine for them. A year on, with 2016 election now receding fast into the political rear-view mirror, it is a good time to think about what has happened in the intervening year and what role this chamber is going to play as we enter more complex times.
I have on occasion seen the Hon. Sir Peter Cosgrove's ability to hold a room. He can be an excellent public speaker so none of what I am about to say is intended with any disrespect to him because obviously he has to deal with the material that he is given. What was presented to the parliament yesterday when we were all in here, I suppose, was meant to stand in for some kind of manifesto of the point of the Turnbull government for the next couple of years. The government were meant to really be establishing for the benefit of this chamber and for anybody watching outside of this room what their purpose is, why we would bother with them for the years to come. It felt to me as though he had been handed a bunch of crumpled notes, this weird laundry list of thoroughly mediocre incoherent talking points that were almost entirely indifferent to the actual challenges that face the country. With no disrespect to the Governor-General, whose role it was quite rightly to deliver this address to the parliament while we were all in here, but of those who wrote that material, you can only imagine a handful of people sealed into a room with their eyes glazed over.
What kind of agenda was presented to us yesterday? Where was the housing affordability crisis or the fact that $40 million was ripped from homeless services' capital budgets in the 2014 budget and not returned? Where was housing stress? Where was rental affordability? Where was the self-inflicted humanitarian catastrophe unfolding inside our immigration detention centres—many of them established by the Labor Party, the offshore islands in particular, when they were in government and retained and entrenched by those who hold office now? Where was the climate? Where was the single most important economic, humanitarian, environmental and security threat facing this country in that speech yesterday? Where was it?
A large fraction of the world is decarbonising, phasing out fossil fuel combustion. The agreement signed in Paris, imperfect as it was, sets a rough pathway forward for phasing out the fossil underpinnings of the crisis that is beginning to overwhelm the world. The coal industry is hitting the wall, one bankruptcy after another, including here in Australia. The international oil price is approaching historic postwar lows. The fracking industry has been fought to a standstill across large parts of the country. Where was all of that in yesterday's speech?
I have discovered in these addresses that only happen reasonably infrequently that it is important to listen for what is not in the speech. What is the government seeking not to highlight? What is it less proud of? What is it choosing to ignore? What is being deprioritised or subordinated in these infrequent and rare addresses to the nation? There was certainly talk of innovation. If I can recall anything from the turnover between former Prime Minister Abbott and Minister Turnbull, which ignited a small spark of hope—it did not last long but was there—for myself and probably for many others in the country, was this talk of innovation. It was the talk of somebody who was digitally literate, who did not have his head stuck in a vanishing coal industry but who knew something about the telecommunications sector, by way of one single example, and recognised that we needed to transition to a more diversified economy. Where has all that talk of innovation gone? The words are still used.
In the meantime, a bill is shortly to be presented to this parliament which would cut $1 billion from ARENA, which does the essential R&D and early commercialisation work for innovative clean energy technologies that will buy us a bit of time in the clean energy transition. The extraordinarily reckless attacks on CSIRO and the rest of the research community, and the unfolding debacle of the National Broadband Network will be revisited again within this parliament. These are the entities and the enabling infrastructure that can actually carry us into that more diversified and resilient economy. So the government can read all the buzzwords it likes into the parliamentary record or deliver impressive sounding headland speeches about agility and innovation, but we do not even really have to look under the bonnet to see what is going on here. It is a government that is desperately in hock to the fading fortunes of the extractive industries that have bordered with government on more than one occasion and have played backstop during debates like on the mining tax, for example, which completely skittled a Prime Minister and put the country fiscally on the backfoot for years. It is a government that is wedded to these industries. Instead of talking transition on behalf of the workforce in towns like Collie in the south-west of Western Australia, which has a very narrow economic base because it has provided the underpinnings of the power system—no pun intended—in Western Australia, or at least in the south-west, for a century, and instead of talking measured, realistic transitions for those workers, the government is simply burying its head in the sand and undercutting the very industries that could provide a pathway forward.
Today we find ourselves in a period of unprecedented global change – change that is … introducing significant emerging challenges to the global security environment. Foremost among these emerging challenges are the long-term security implications of climate change …
… … …
These changes are prompting U.S. policymakers, decision-makers, and military planners … reevaluate and adjust our long-term ‘whole of government’ strategic priorities and approaches in the region.
We can critique all we like the way that the climate debate has played out in the United States—and, if anything, it has been uglier than what has unfolded here. But that is a very clear and precise statement from a very senior US military commander who is seeing the climate imperative roll through every dimension of his work. I—and no doubt Senator Whish-Wilson and my other Greens colleagues—will have more to say in this parliament about what security means in the 21st century, in a world where this energy transition is well underway, where the old priorities of protecting oil pipelines and shipping lanes out of the Persian Gulf may change quite rapidly in an energy transition where we are finally reaping the benefits of the near infinite supplies of solar energy, wind energy, wave energy and other renewable sources. Where was any of that in yesterday's speech? If this Prime Minister, who professes to understand the urgency of climate change and the importance of diversifying our economy away from low-value extractive industries toward value-adding, toward true green economics, uses the buzzwords—and what we saw yesterday was something completely different—where in the speech was the optimism?
In my home town at the moment there is a proposal afoot from Mr Turnbull's Liberal-National colleagues for the Perth Freight Link, a 19th-century piece of infrastructure—or we could be generous and say at least a mid-20th century piece of infrastructure. It has four to six lanes of tarmac through precious wetlands, through areas of great significance to the Whadjuk and Noongar people who have traversed and camped in that area for 40,000 years. The Barnett government is proposing to smash a freeway through that area to take trucks not all the way to Fremantle port but, actually, to several kilometres short of the port of Fremantle, where there will be a huge traffic pile-up.
Where were the 21st-century priorities for our settlements, for our cities? Where was the talk of rapid telecommunications, of rapid transit, of clean energy, of innovative fast-build housing to solve our housing supply crisis, of rebuilding biodiversity and, perhaps, most importantly, of becoming reunited with the concept of country by entering into treaty and measured negotiations that recognise sovereignty with the people who occupied this country for tens of thousands of years before the colonists arrived from over the horizon? These are the issues that the Australian Greens believe should be brought into the frame in the kind of speech that we heard yesterday. If the government had any vision to present for this country beyond the almost macabre political self-destruction that appears to be occurring behind the scenes on the first and second days in parliament, surely yesterday was the day to put it to us. There is nothing there but a kind of fevered emptiness.
I think there is a reason why media oligarchs beam 24/7 race hate and paranoia into outer metropolitan suburbs—and I gather we will be discussing media reform in this parliament before too long, because the government has a proposition to put to us to consolidate and entrench media ownership even more tightly than it already is. I think there is a reason why that race hate and that fear and that division is such a preoccupation of certain corners of the press—the beaming of those messages of division into outer metro suburbs and regional towns hit very hard by the slow-motion collapse of the commodities boom. There is a reason why people facing intergenerational unemployment and privatisation of basic health and education services are being offered Syrian refugees as convenient targets of their discontent. I would suggest that it is an old bait-and-switch trick that is probably as old as politics itself. If you are focusing your grievances on people even less fortunate than yourselves—Aboriginal mob, people fleeing Aleppo, people in cages on prison islands—then it is a lot less likely that you will end up on the barricades going up against the one per cent?
So our commitment and our priorities in this parliament and in those to come, as we link arms with those in our region and further afield who are doing it a lot tougher than ourselves, as we combine our numbers to support those here at home fighting for sovereignty, treaty and to get kids out of prison, and as we work every single day for the kind of economy that serves people and planet rather than treating both as disposable assets to be stripped and discarded, I cannot help but recall the words of Arundhati Roy, who said:
Another world is not only possible, she is on her way. On a quiet day, I can hear her breathing.
I rise to support my colleague Senator Hume's motion on the address-in-reply to the address by the Hon. Governor-General of Australia in this place yesterday. Madam Deputy President, I firstly congratulate you on your election to the position of Deputy President of the Senate. I also congratulate those who have been elected or re-elected to this place and to the other place for the 45th Parliament. I place on record my acknowledgement of the excellence of colleagues who in the 44th Parliament were in this chamber with me and, to my disappointment, were not re-elected: David Johnston, from Western Australia; Sean Edwards, from South Australia; Richard Colbeck, from Tasmania; and Jo Lindgren, from Queensland. The place will be poorer for their absence. I also note that Luke Simpkins, the previous member for Cowan, was unsuccessful. I congratulate his successor, Ms Anne Aly, who is now the new member for Cowan.
What the Governor-General yesterday highlighted for this country was the awesome responsibility that the 226 of us—150 in the other place and 76 in this place—have in the 45th Parliament, and beyond, and our responsibility to the people of Australia. Each of us is accountable to the wider community for how we manage the Australian economy in the immediate future, and beyond, and for the signals that we will give to the business community and the welfare community, pensioners and those with disabilities, those who will be relying on the decisions of this parliament to guide their future. I say that in the context of contrasting 2007-08 with 2016. I do so because in 2008-09 we faced a global financial crisis, and, from my experience of many years in business and my contacts both here in Australia and overseas, I can say without any doubt or contradiction that there are black clouds over the world economy and, whilst Australia is strong, with a AAA rating, we are by no means immune from the impact of the world economy.
I want to explain that in some more detail, but let me give you these figures by way of setting the scene, Deputy President. In 2007 this country had no net debt. It was debt free. By 2013 it had $317 billion of debt. Now we have $430 billion and we are racing to $667 billion. I turn to deficit. For those of you in the public gallery perhaps not so familiar with it, deficit is the difference between what you earn and what you spend. If you spend more than you earn, then you have a deficit. There was no deficit in this country in 2007. By 2013, when the Abbott government assumed power, the accumulated deficit was $240 billion, and of course it is now even higher. In 2007, facing what was to become a global financial crisis, we had money in the bank. We had some $30 billion to $40 billion earning interest. Today the bickie barrel is empty. We have no cash in the bank.
Reserve Bank Governor Stevens in 2008, at the commencement of the global financial crisis, had a cash rate of some 7.25 per cent with which he could manipulate monetary policy, at a time when other advanced economies around the world—the UK, the US, Canada, France, Italy, countries with whom we are often compared—were already down at 1½ per cent in their cash rates. Our cash rate was 7.25 per cent in 2007-08. As we know today, in one of his last acts as Governor of the Reserve Bank, Mr Stevens—and I congratulate him as he moves towards his retirement—brought the cash rate down to a historic level of 1.5 per cent. Effectively there is nowhere else to go. He cannot use that as a manipulative tool anymore. Why? Because generally one of the effects of reducing the cash rate is to also bring down the value of the Australian dollar, which makes our exports more competitive, but, as we all know, the other day, following the reduction in the cash rate from 1.75 to 1.5 per cent, the Australian dollar actually went up. So clearly that manipulative tool has now ceased to work.
In 2007-08 China was wanting to buy everything that Australia had—iron ore, coking coal, thermal coal, gas, you name it. Today the Chinese economy is looking very, very subdued. In 2007-08 the value, the price, of iron ore—and, for that matter, LNG—was up over $150 a tonne. Today they are both scratching at around $45 and $50 a tonne. I say these things because there are those who do not understand that, if this country is to move, as the rest of the world is moving, towards stark economic times, we have got very little fat left in our system. I urge people to be well aware of it. If ever there was a time to help your generation—through you, Deputy President, to the young people in the gallery—and indeed your children's generation, when and if you have them, it is now, by returning the budget to balance.
What is the impact of those figures I just gave you? Just reflect on this for a moment. This country is borrowing $1.2 billion a month not to repay the debt, just to pay the interest. We are borrowing offshore against your futures just to pay the interest on the debt. What does that translate to? It translates to two to three new primary schools per day, seven days a week, that this country is not building because we are borrowing $1.2 billion a month. In the Deputy President's and my home city of Perth, we are just concluding the construction of a new children's hospital. One point two billion dollars, one month's interest on the debt, would pay for that hospital in its entirety. Those are the sorts of figures that we are talking about.
I then ask you to reflect on what is happening in the world and what happened in Britain recently, where they voted to leave the European Economic Community, and all of the impacts that is having. The United States would have the two least popular candidates in history leading up to their presidential election in November, and who knows what the impact will be on the United States. Russia will technically be in recession today and Eastern Europe is looking very, very shaky. I am pleased that a person with much more economic background than me is in the chamber, Senator Whish-Wilson. Japan and Switzerland, both First World countries, at the moment have negative interest rates. If somebody puts money in the bank in Tokyo or in Bern, they are actually paying the bank to have those funds in the bank with them. China, as I mentioned, has some significant difficulties and its growth rate has declined. As my predecessor speaking before me mentioned, there is a downturn in the oil and gas industry. Have a look at those countries in the world that produce oil and gas—the Middle East region, Eastern Europe, Africa. With the exception of the United States, most of those countries have difficult economies.
The Australian community expects us to have money for homelessness, for affordable housing, for health and for education, but as we all know in our own homes, in our small businesses—if we have been or are in small business—and indeed as it is in the nation, it is the case that if we are spending more than we are earning then we are in deficit, then we accumulate debt and then we must pay the interest on the debt. As the Minister for Employment comes into the room, I remind you all again that the $1.2 billion a month interest that we are paying on the debt is at the low rate of 1.5 per cent. Imagine if and when interest rates go up to three or four per cent where we are going to be in that space.
Where are our income taxes being spent? I received my own tax return only the other day and printed on it for me was an indicator of where my tax goes, and it would be similar for those who pay tax in this country. Thirty-nine per cent of my tax goes on welfare and, within that 39 per cent, 40 per cent on the aged, just 25 per cent on families and 24 per cent on disability. Eighteen and a half per cent of my tax goes on health, 8.7 per cent on education and 8.7 per cent on defence. My contribution to the interest on that government debt is absorbing four per cent of my tax that I pay and it is more than our transport and communications cost of 2.3 per cent. I say to my colleagues in this place that we have an awesome responsibility to the people of Australia to see that we return this budget to surplus so that we will have the adequate cash necessary to maintain the services across our community at the highest level that we all enjoy.
In the time available I want to speak a little about legislative issues. The first one I want to speak about is the legislation that will come, I think, before the chamber associated with Country Fire Authority of Victoria volunteers. The minister, much more eloquently than I, will be able to share with the parliament what the objectives are in this space, but they are largely directed at ensuring that volunteers in our emergency services—fire, rescue, marine rescue, the State Emergency Service et cetera—will enjoy the continued protection that all of our volunteers must have. I declare my interest here, as a past chief executive of the Bush Fires Board of Western Australia—a proud organisation which, when it existed, and I was its last chief executive, had 58 staff and 19,000 volunteers. Why do I make that point? I make it because it is not just about the CFA at all; it is a national issue and everybody in Australia is watching what is happening.
I am disappointed that my colleague, Senator Gavin Marshall, is not in the chamber at the moment because it has been put to me that in some way I am opposed to the United Firefighters Union. Let me place on the record that I have no such opposition. If the head of the United Firefighters Union of Australia, Mr Peter Marshall, was in the chamber now, I am sure he would acknowledge that. And why would he? He would acknowledge it because he sat in the public gallery of this very chamber in November 2011 when this place unanimously passed legislation which would ensure that firefighters who had picked up carcinogens and now have cancers due to their firefighting activities would be covered by workers compensation. Prior to that, they would not have been covered. If they could not prove which fire it was in the past, what the carcinogen was or where they were and when they were there, they did not have a workers comp claim.
Mr Peter Marshall came to a committee of the Senate and he asked for seven cancers to be recognised as those that would be supported in terms of cancers which firefighters in Australia now have. I say with a high degree of pride that, by the end of that process, we did not accept Mr Peter Marshall's request for seven such cancers; we widened it to 13 cancers, because international evidence from the Canadians, the Americans, the British and others was that there were 14 cancers that could be ascribed through medical epidemiology to be due to their jobs as firefighters. The one that I was not willing to accept was that of melanomas and skin cancers. Why? Because Australians have such a propensity for them.
I know Senator Marshall had a task in his caucus, as indeed I did, but I acknowledge fully the support I got from the now foreign minister, Ms Julie Bishop, from my then leader, Senator Abetz, and from my then Leader of the Opposition, Mr Tony Abbott, for that contention by the union to allow us to pass that legislation. I give you that background simply because, as Mr Peter Marshall was right in 2011, he is wrong in 2016 to pick volunteers. The CFA is the senior fire organisation in this country, and I believe it probably has the highest number of paid and volunteer officers of any fire service in the world.
I will make this point for the first time ever. My mentor, when I ran the Bush Fires Board, was a gentleman by the name of Mr Len Foster, who at the time was the head of the Country Fire Authority in Victoria. He is now in his retirement. In 2011, I rang him up, I got him off a golf course and I said: 'Len, the firefighters union and Slater & Gordon, the legal firm representing them, have come before us with a request for seven cancers to be recognised. Do you think the case is valid?' He said: 'Chris, this is something we should have dealt with years ago. If you can achieve this for firefighters, you will have done the right thing.' So it is now known publicly for the first time ever that the advice that I took was from none other Len Foster.
I will tell you the other thing that Len Foster taught me. He said to me, 'Do not ever make the mistake of equating volunteerism to amateurism.' He said, 'If I have appropriately trained, equipped, skilled and resourced paid officers and volunteers in the CFA, each of them will do the exactly equivalent job.' Unfortunately, Mr Marshall is trying to arrange a situation in which, for example, volunteers would never have to give orders to a paid officer and in which if a scale of operation got to a certain level, only paid officers would be eligible to go ahead and do that work. In other words, volunteers would be downgraded and belittled. I have even heard this in our home state of Western Australia following the bushfires that occurred in the summertime at Esperance, Yarloop and Waroona. That is why I say that this is not confined to the CFA; it is linked nationally. The representative of the firefighters union in Perth mentioned, 'We have the professionals who are the paid officers and we have the volunteers,' meaning the well-meaning amateurs. That is a fundamental error. It is an insult.
Of course, in our home state of WA, with its one million square miles of land mass, it is volunteers who have the skill, the equipment, the interest, the devotion and the availability to actually handle the fires and the incidents of the type about which I speak. So if and when this legislation comes before this chamber, I will speak in far greater detail and I will urge this place to ensure the passage of the legislation that Minister Cash will be proposing.
In the few minutes left available to me I will stay on the theme of fire, because we are coming up to another bushfire season.
Of course, around Australia we know that there are going to be significant bushfires even in New South Wales. Through you, Deputy President: I understand, Senator Williams, for once you are having a decent cropping season.
I say this following a Senate inquiry chaired by my old colleague Senator Bill Heffernan, who we also miss dearly. We had an inquiry following the Black Saturday fires in Victoria in February 2009. Amongst other things, the recommendation of that inquiry was that the Productivity Commission be tasked to see where the Commonwealth government's funds could best be spent in mitigation and reduction of fires, which ultimately are a state and territory responsibility. The Productivity Commission indicated that if the Commonwealth spent its money in prevention and preparation there was a $9 to $1 return to the Australian community, but if the Commonwealth did nothing but wait around for what we call the response and recovery—in other words, waiting for the fires to occur and then trying to be involved in combating them and in recovery afterwards—there was scarcely a $1 for $1 value. The message I want to leave you on that theme is there needs to be far more expenditure in prevention and in preparation rather than in response and recovery.
The Governor-General's speech on behalf of the Turnbull government failed on many counts. It failed on one of the most critical issues that this government should be grappling with: how we protect our democracy. The word democracy did not actually appear in the speech at all. There was a vague mention of democracies in general but not Australian democracy and the urgent reforms that are needed.
We know that critical issues bedevil our society. Democracy—that is, the involvement of people in every way possible, in a most democratic way—will be critical to solving those issues, particularly around climate change but also in addressing inequality, environmental issues and social justice issues. People have a right to have a say and a right to be involved. It is particularly critical for this parliament, where corporate power dominates. It is so hard to get reforms in around lobbyists, around political donations and around how parliament itself works. This new parliament has just kicked off, but again you can bet your bottom dollar that corporate power will be the core problem in how this parliament works.
The Greens have a suite of measures to deal with this, and I hope I have time to get to them. But right now what I think is particularly relevant—and it is relevant because it comes from the Prime Minister's home state—is the New South Wales Independent Commission Against Corruption, ICAC. It is also very relevant because Malcolm Turnbull is the Prime Minister and he needs to be learning those lessons in New South Wales and ensuring that we improve and safeguard our democracy at a federal level. Yesterday, in New South Wales, the Spicer report was handed down. Now what is centre stage of so many of the problems that have come out through the work of ICAC and through the Spicer report is the Free Enterprise Foundation, and it rears its head time and time again. Essentially, it is a slush fund for the Liberal Party, and it should be wound up by the Prime Minister as a first step in a major overhaul of political donations. That should have happened before the election. We went through a whole election where, again, the Prime Minister was not addressing this, and neither was the Leader of the Opposition. At the very least, they should have disclosed the donations they were taking. It is long overdue to have donations disclosed in real time. But I will come to the changes that are needed shortly.
The New South Wales Electoral Commission has confirmed what many have suspected for a long time: that the Free Enterprise Foundation has been used by senior Liberal officials as a way to offer anonymity to donors. The New South Wales ICAC has received evidence that the Free Enterprise Foundation was used to wash prohibited donations. So it sits there as a major problem, and a problem at the heart of the Liberal Party and this very government.
But let us look at the Spicer report itself. It probably was a bit unfortunate that it came out on the first day of parliament. Maybe some of my colleagues here did not have time to give it the attention that it deserved. But I certainly urge that they really tune in to what is going on here. The statements I have heard previously from members, in the numerous debates we have had about political donations, and particularly about corruption, that, 'We don't need a national ICAC because we don't have corruption here,' are just sounding more and more ludicrous. How do you know what goes on if you do not have a body to investigate it?
But back to the Spicer report: the findings are damning. It is an explosive report of prohibited donations, funds and non-disclosures leading up to the Liberal Party state election campaign in 2011. The report found that groups associated with the Liberal Party funnelled political donations through the Free Enterprise Foundation to avoid scrutiny. There it is again—more evidence, clearly set out in the findings. Clearly, the intent of senior Liberals here was to accept money from developers, who are prohibited donors in New South Wales—and they knew it. They knew it. This was clearly meant, once those laws came in in New South Wales, to get around them. The great irony here is that, coming into that election in 2011, the Liberals and Nationals were clearly going to win—Labor was so on the nose. But they were so locked in to taking political donations that they were actually breaking the law to do it.
Going back to the report: former Liberal MPs also sought to evade the law around the disclosure of donations and a ban on property donors in New South Wales. They included former police minister Michael Gallacher, former energy minister Chris Hartcher, and former Liberal MPs Garry Edwards, Tim Owen, Andrew Cornwell and Chris Spence. How embarrassing—all those Liberals caught up in these scams, in this breaking of the law. Another two former Liberal MPs, Craig Baumann and Darren Webber, evaded the disclosure of developer donations.
But it does not stop with the Liberals. Former Labor MP Joe Tripodi engaged in serious corruption.
And, while there were no adverse findings against Senator Sinodinos by the New South Wales ICAC, the Australian Electoral Commission found that he had been involved in what they called 'arrangements'—again, in their words—that:
… provided the factual and legal matrix upon which non-disclosure was made by the Party.
It is quite delightful, the way that was expressed! But I will come back to Senator Sinodinos shortly.
The Free Enterprise Foundation, as I have said, was used to channel donations to the Liberal Party for its state election campaign in New South Wales, again—and it needs to be repeated time and time again—to disguise the true identity of donors. That means that you are getting around the law; that is what is going on here. There are all these people who get up and say they want to uphold the law, and who abuse people who try and improve society. This is about undermining democracy and thwarting attempts to ensure that the public knows who is donating to political parties. What it really highlights is that we need to bring in bans and caps on political donations.
To go back to the report: there was an example of a cheque sent to the Free Enterprise Foundation from Lindsay Partridge, the managing director of Brickworks Limited. The cheque was to the value of $125,000. It came with a letter that said: 'We trust this donation will provide assistance with the 2011 New South Wales state election campaign.' Brickworks received government grants totalling $17 million, including $14.6 million of grants relating to the Clean Technology Investment Program.
The relationship between the government and Brickworks Limited does warrant federal investigation, and I pay tribute to the former Greens parliamentary leader, Christine Milne, who requested that Operation Spicer investigate the grants in 2014. She was told that the New South Wales ICAC does not have the jurisdiction to do that, and I would again say that that is further evidence of why we need a national ICAC.
The Operation Spicer report has shone a light on the deep web of lies, dishonesty and corruption in New South Wales, but it does not stop at borders. Nobody can argue that any further.
Some of the findings of the report, including the commentary on Brickworks, warrant investigation at a federal level. This really does put the spotlight on the need, as I have said—and we will say it more often and more loudly: there is a need for a national ICAC.
It is no wonder that the Liberal, Labor and Nationals parties do not want to back the Greens' call for such a commission or our call for far-reaching reforms around political donations, because they are just locked in. Just as we saw Labor, Liberal and Nationals voting together today on the terms of parliament, doing a deal there to benefit themselves, here we are seeing them backing each other up and not bringing in the reforms that are so needed.
I saw it in New South Wales: the scandals get to a point where you cannot but bring in the reforms. Mr Turnbull and Mr Shorten should really move before their parties get caught up in the scandals that inevitably will flow.
What is happening with the New South Wales ICAC is getting us closer. It is starting to open up this Free Enterprise Foundation. But we have not heard the whole story by any means.
In April this year, Labor and the coalition voted down a Greens Senate motion for an equivalent of a federal corruption watchdog, and in May they voted down a motion calling for political donation reform. So it is on the record—how Liberals, Nationals and Labor are working together on these issues.
I will just say a little bit, which is obviously relevant to this discussion, about Senator Sinodinos. Senator Sinodinos had both a relationship with Australian Water Holdings and his role as treasurer of the Liberal Party. This issue has been canvassed considerably, and I acknowledge that the Liberal Party is out there saying that he has been cleared of any wrongdoing. But, again, I would urge people to read much of the evidence as well as the final report, because while there were no adverse findings against Senator Sinodinos the Electoral Commission did find it necessary to report, as I said, on the so-called arrangements he was engaged with.
What we do know is that Senator Sinodinos in 2009 signed a letter as finance director of the New South Wales Liberal Party to MPs and senators, warning that the changes that occurred in the law in New South Wales with regard to donations would have a significant adverse impact on the party's fundraising ability. Now, I acknowledge that the fact that that was said could be interpreted as the now senator doing his job. What is interesting is that in three days the Liberal Party received $629,000 from one donor, but no-one on the finance committee, including Senator Sinodinos, admitted to knowing anything about this. What is significant—and remember the figure, $629,000, which is obviously a lot of money—is that the records show that in the year before the prohibition on donations from property developers the Free Enterprise Foundation donated only $50,000 to the New South Wales Liberal Party. So is it a fair assumption that there were those working in the Liberal Party who realised that once the law came in they needed a way to launder donations, and that is why we saw such a huge increase in the amount of money coming from the Free Enterprise Foundation once the ban on developer donations came in? And I do want to put on the record that the Greens, in the early 2000s, moved a bill for a ban on developer donations, something that we were ridiculed about in the New South Wales parliament.
I am happy to acknowledge the interjection from the senator. What we saw, and why eventually Labor brought in the change to the law, is that it became so onerous, so smelly in terms of how developers were interacting with the Labor government, that Labor, at the death knell of their time in government, brought in this legislation. We now know that people who were connected with the Liberal Party then came up with ways to accept the money.
When Senator Sinodinos was questioned by ICAC, when he gave evidence, his replies regularly were, 'I cannot recollect one way or the other'. Another response from him was, 'It was not a process I involved myself in.' He certainly had many phrases that would trip off his tongue to say that he was unaware of these things going on. Again, when you read the evidence, when you read the reports, you are left with the impression that when it comes to Senator Sinodinos we have not heard the full story. There are now more and more voices coming out talking about the need for political donation reform. And, while I have expressed concern at the failure of the Leader of the Opposition and the Prime Minister to take this up during the election period, people associated with their parties have taken it up. I pay tribute to former senator Mr Faulkner, because it is something that I know he really did try to advance. And I was very interested that just recently former Treasurer Mr Wayne Swan spoke about the possible adverse influence of overseas donations. So the voices are starting to build up, and the momentum is there for change. This is where we need leadership from both sides, for the opposition and government to actually act.
What is also very relevant when considering the momentum that is occurring around the need for reforms regarding political donations is a High Court case last year that was precisely about developer donations. Again, I have spoken about this before, and I will continue to use this case in this debate, because it is very significant in that the court analysed the very nature of corruption, the nature of political donations and the impact they are having. The case makes the point that corruption in Australia has largely moved beyond quid pro quo corruption to what the High Court describes as a more subtle kind of corruption known as 'clientelism'. This kind of patron-client corruption comes about when a politician or a political party becomes so dependent on the financial support of a wealthy patron that they—and these are the words of the High Court—'compromise the expectation, fundamental to representative democracy, that public power will be exercised in the public interest'. The essence of the problem we have here—
and I again acknowledge that we have a Nationals senator keen to interject on this issue—is that we are starting to have a really serious breakdown in MPs who come into this place with the commitment to work for the public good. And it has been set out so clearly by the High Court. The High Court also said:
Unlike straight cash-for-votes transactions, such corruption is neither easily detected nor practical to criminalise. The best means of prevention is to identify and to remove the temptation.
That is precisely why the Greens have brought forward a series of private member's bills on this issue, and we will take it up in the JSCEM in great detail and do everything we can to advance the need for reform here.
I also want to acknowledge the words of the former Leader of the Opposition, when the Liberals and Nationals were in opposition, John Hewson. He wrote yesterday that 'the major parties know exactly what needs to be done' but they do not act because they 'each believe that they can better exploit' the current system, where political donations can be taken, 'to their electoral advantage'. It is really disturbing that you can have a former opposition leader identifying that the self-interest of the major parties in this parliament is absolutely undermining democracy because they are so hooked on taking political donations. Effectively, I would argue that Mr Hewson endorses the Greens position to cap donations and to have them declared in real time and online. Today, TheSydney Morning Herald editorial echoes these calls. It concludes:
Money should not buy access to, or influence with, public officials. The intention to evade the law relating to donations is unacceptable, even if the ICAC cannot legally call it corruption any more.
So there is momentum for change here.
As I said in my opening remarks, it is incredibly disappointing that the word 'democracy' did not figure in this major speech that supposedly is to outline the priorities of the current Turnbull government. That is why I have given over my whole speech to this issue of democracy and to the need for reform around political donations. It really goes to the heart of how we work as senators. Are we able to represent the public good or are we going to be compromised by the corporate interests who continue to attempt to—and so often do—dominate this place?
I rise to contribute to this debate. It is always good to follow Senator Rhiannon when we talk about political donations. It is very interesting that $1.58 million, I believe, was donated by Wotif founder, Graeme Wood, to the Greens for the 2010 election. I wonder about the loyalties there.
The election we just had was about the ABCC, the Australian Building and Construction Commission. Who is voting against it? The Labor Party are and, of course, the Greens are. What is this policy that we want to introduce—which we went to a double dissolution on—about? It is about corruption in the building industry. Deloittes say it costs $6 billion a year through loss of production, rorting and overcharging, whether it be for private buildings or for public sector buildings like hospitals et cetera. Of course, the CFMEU vehemently oppose this. And who donates to the Greens and to the Labor Party? Madam Acting Deputy President Polley, you would be aware of how many hundreds of thousands of dollars the CFMEU have given to the Greens and to the Labor Party. That is just part of the contribution of some $100 million over the last 20 years from the union movement to the Australian Labor Party. We talk about political donations and influence. I wonder why the Greens so vehemently oppose cleaning up corruption in the building industry. Why is that? Do they condone the behaviour? Do they condone the $6 billion worth of rorts?
It was quite amazing to read in the Guardian that, in a recent interview with former Senator Bob Brown on the ABC's 7.30 program, former Senator Bob Brown 'intensified his attack on sitting NSW Greens senator Lee Rhiannon, accusing her of holding the party back, not hitting a chord with voters and introducing factionalism to the party'. Those are pretty powerful words from a former leader, aren't they, Madam Acting Deputy President? The article went on to say:
The power struggle between elements of the NSW party and the other states has long been a feature of internal Green politics but it is increasingly spilling into the public arena—this time ahead of a NSW preselection.
Brown said the NSW Greens party was a 'long term disappointment' which 'lags right behind' and had consistently opposed simple party reforms which the public expected.
'The incumbents in New South Wales—certainly that’s Lee in the Senate—have given great service, but are not hitting a chord with the voters at the moment and we need to move on,' he told the ABC’s 7.30 program.
That is what he told the ABC's 7.30 program.
Following on from Senator Back's comments here in relation to fires and the CFA, the dispute in Victoria and the union bullying by the Victorian government as we went to the federal election, I have said for years that the biggest problem we have with bushfires in Australia is actually controlling the vegetation, the fuel, in national parks. The Greens, with their great friends the National Parks Association, pursue this policy of locking up and leaving country. When it rains this leads to the fuel level getting higher and higher as the grass grows and then of course it gets struck with lightning and away it goes. We cannot control the heat—although some think we might—and we cannot control the wind, but, to a certain extent, we can control the level of fuel on the ground by allowing grazing and reducing the fuel. Once you get to five or 10 tonnes per hectare of fuel, on a 40 degree day with 50 kilometre winds the fire is uncontrollable—as we saw on Black Saturday, with all that country, a lot of it in national parks, burned and, sadly, with so many lives and houses lost. I remember seeing the story of one bloke who cleared the country around his house and his sheds. I think he faced a $50,000 fine under vegetation laws in Victoria. His house was the only house not burned down. The insurance company should have paid his fine, because they did not have to rebuild his house. He used a common-sense approach to reduce the fuel levels around his house and its surroundings and his house was saved—but, of course, it is wrong to disturb the native vegetation, according to some of the greenies and their policies.
I will go back to the Governor-General's speech yesterday. I am glad the election is over. It was a filthy election campaign. Madam Acting Deputy President, you would have heard things like, 'The coalition government is going to privatise Medicare.' What a load of rot!
I will take the interjection, Senator Rhiannon. How are you going to privatise a business—that is, Medicare—that earns $10 billion a year and spends $20 billion a year? Who is going to be the foolish investor that would buy that company? Perhaps the Greens would be foolish enough to buy it. It would be like having a coffee business that collects $10,000 a week in business and spends $20,000 a week. Who is going to buy that? It was just a political scare campaign.
But it got worse as you went north in New South Wales to the seat of New England, where former member Tony Windsor came out of retirement to take on the agriculture minister and Nationals leader, Barnaby Joyce. We had the CFMEU, the MUA, the nurses union, the Teachers Federation—all the unions. We had GetUp! All the lefties lined up behind Mr Windsor, putting in their resources and manning the booths. They came from everywhere. I was even speaking to a bloke from Canberra who travelled up to Tamworth to hand out in a pre-poll. The left-wing alignment had a big orchestrated campaign to oust Minister Barnaby Joyce. Of course, it did not happen. The result was almost 60-40 two-party preferred. It was an outstanding win for Minister Joyce, and he deserved it, because he works hard and he has good policies. But it was a grubby campaign, the grubbiest I have seen—tearing down corflutes, removing corflutes, putting paintwork on corflutes and signs. It was just disgusting and it was getting worse.
From the Governor-General's words yesterday, there is certainly a lot to be very optimistic about. I refer to agricultural industries. We have record beef prices. In fact, they are so high I am getting very worried they might be too high in some regards. If they become too high, our processors would find it very hard to compete overseas. They would probably lose money. I have been around long enough to know what happens when markets get too high—we often have a crash. I hope that does not happen to the beef industry. The lamb industry is looking brilliant, with good demand even though sheep numbers are down. Lamb prices and mutton prices are very good. There are record prices for chickpeas. The cotton industry is doing very well. The wool industry is going great. There are certain concerns in relation to the grain industry, and of course the dairy industry is having a very tough time. I am pleased that the ACCC is having a good look at that industry and at some of the contracts that the milk producers have had to face. I does make it tough when the world price of milk products falls. We produce around nine billion litres of milk a year in Australia and we consume around 4½ billion litres, so about half our milk production relies on the world price and the Australian dollar. It is good to see that the situation is improving. Milk powder, having dropped to around $1,500 a tonne, is now back up to $2,300 a tonne. It had been over $5,000 a tonne. In tough times it is good to see that Minister Joyce and the government are out there supporting dairy farmers and giving them all the help they can.
Manufacturing has been a tough industry in Australia. Can I say proudly that we have a company in Inverell, where I live now, called Boss Engineering. Seven years ago when they kicked off they employed seven people. They build air seeders, tillage machinery. They now employ 90 people, so they have gone from seven employees to 90 employees in seven years. They build a great product—I would say the best in the world. They have a great future. If we can do it with agricultural machinery, we can do it with other things.
The big discussion at the moment is the backpackers tax. I said in my maiden speech in this place on 15 September 2008 that some of our unemployed needed a touch on the backside with a cattle prod to get them off their backside to go and get a job. I stand by that. We have some 735,000 people unemployed, but they cannot pick our fruit and they cannot work in our abattoirs. We are relying on backpackers to do that work. What is wrong? When I was a young fellow, it was an absolute shame to be unemployed. That is why I picked up a handpiece and learnt to shear sheep. Once I could shear sheep, I was never out of a job—never. I was shearing during the shearing season and crutching during the autumn season et cetera.
We have a problem with labour, with people doing basic work. It might not be the highest paid job in the world, but it is an important job to pick our fruit, to get our harvest done, to actually feed people—and much of the product is exported. But, with 735,000 people unemployed, we cannot do it; we are relying on backpackers. I think the backpackers tax should be reduced to a 15 per cent flat rate. I think 32½ per cent is far too high. Sadly, so many businesses rely on backpackers to come and do that important work when it needs to be done, at harvest time especially. The government is reviewing this, and, no doubt, I hope, it will be sorted out very soon.
As far as the debt goes, are we just going to be a selfish generation? Are we just going to borrow and borrow and borrow each and every day, build government debt and make our children and grandchildren pay for it? All senators in this chamber, when it comes to budget savings, must think about the future generations of Australians. Look what our forebears did for us—built the nation, fought the wars, developed a great country. We need to preserve that for future generations. But, of course, politics will be played. In the last parliament we saw the Labor Party propose some $5 billion of savings in their budget, and then they oppose their own savings in here, just to play politics, to add more debt, to add more to the interest bill. That is bad policy. My greatest concern is the debt we are growing up—now some $435 billion of gross debt and growing. We cannot touch the Future Fund. We cannot demand that the $25 billion or so of HECS-HELP fees be paid up tomorrow. That cannot happen. I think we all have to take a bit of pain.
Under the proposed superannuation changes, I am going to be paying about $9,000 extra a year. I do not have a lot of super. I came into this place eight years ago with virtually no super and I will be retiring in three years time—I have made no secret of that. I am here for a three-year term and then I am off to spend some time with my wife, my children and my grandchildren. I am looking forward to my fourth grandchild being born in early October. The due date is 4 October; it might be a bit earlier. Becky, all the best to you and your husband, Pat, for the safe arrival of your second child.
I will wind up, because in the matter of a minute or so we will move on to senators statements, and you have a very interesting speaker first up, Madam Acting Deputy President.
In this parliament, let us hope that we work together to see that we get the budget in order, that we get our businesses growing, that we get jobs out there and that we get exports growing. We do rely a lot on exports in this country, especially agriculture. It is good to see the agricultural industry looking good and the future looking very bright.
I am worried about the grain industry: $205 a tonne for wheat is a very disappointing price. I remember back in 2002 that it was $330 a tonne, and it is now back to $205 a tonne. I wonder if any workers out there were working on $330 a day back in those days and are on $200 a day now, but that is what the wheat growers are facing. There are some tough times with oversupply around the world. I hope they hang in there and look after their industries well and market the wheat well. I would be very happy if the Australian dollar fell another 5c or 6c and went back to 70c.
But the future is looking good. I do hope that everyone in the Senate makes a good contribution to the future of our nation in this upcoming 45th Parliament.