Monday, 20 August 2018
Matters of Public Importance
I inform the Senate that at 8.30 am two proposals were received in accordance with standing order 75. The question of which proposal would be submitted to the Senate was determined by lot. As a result, I inform the Senate that the following letter has been received from Senator Collins:
Pursuant to standing order 75, I propose that the following matter of public importance be submitted to the Senate for discussion:
'Division and dysfunction within the Turnbull government causing policy paralysis that is hurting Australians.'
Senator Jacinta Collins
Senator for Victoria
Is the proposal supported?
More than the number of senators required by the standing orders having risen in their places—
The proposal is supported. I understand that informal arrangements have been made to allocate specific times to each of the speakers in today's debate. With the concurrence of the Senate, I shall ask the clerks to set the clock accordingly.
I've been in this place just over 10 years, and I know some very strange things can happen in politics. But the idea that, by the end of the week, Mr Dutton could be Prime Minister of Australia is one of the most bizarre things I've heard. Yet this is a reality. Despite the howls of denial from those opposite and the casual dismissals from government frontbenchers on morning radio, we all know that the leadership tensions among those opposite are very, very real. We can summarise the situation in two simple words—it's on. While Mr Turnbull should be focused on improving the lives of Australians, he is instead looking over his shoulder, his attention focused on saving his own job as Prime Minister. Ironically, this is a situation that has been brought about by Mr Turnbull's own inaction and indecision on a number of issues.
When a government starts to focus in on itself, good policy and, in turn, the Australian people suffer as a result. A case in point is the National Energy Guarantee. We're still trying to figure out where Mr Turnbull and the rest of the government really stand on their own NEG. We've had the bizarre spectacle of Mr Turnbull declaring a victory in his own party room, followed by government MPs announcing their own energy plans—threatening to cross the floor—and the threats of a leadership challenge. It only took three days, since claiming that a legislated emissions target was non-negotiable, for the Prime Minister to do a spectacular backflip and announce the target would be in regulation instead. Now we've learned that the legislation has been pulled entirely, because Mr Turnbull couldn't guarantee he could get it through the House of Representatives. Clearly, Mr Turnbull is in panic mode, and he's making policy on the run—policy that's guided by what he can do to save his own political skin, not by what would be in the best interests of Australians and what would be in the best interests of Australia's energy consumers or the environment.
We find the government is also introducing regional price hikes for broadband and a new tax on other providers, because of the failure of Mr Turnbull's second-rate copper network to deliver revenue, and Mr Turnbull is still struggling to convince the Senate crossbench of the merits of his multibillion-dollar big business tax giveaway. For what it's worth—very little in our view—this tax cut is meant to be the government's signature economic policy. So what is their economic policy if it fails to pass the Senate? On policy after policy after policy, we see the Prime Minister beating a hasty retreat. His credibility is in tatters.
The Australian public must be scratching their heads wondering what, if anything, Mr Turnbull really stands for right now. At the same time they must also be wondering, 'If Mr Dutton is the answer then we have to ask: what is the question?' Do those opposite seriously want to give the leadership to the former health minister who introduced the GP tax and who slashed billions of dollars from hospitals in the Abbott government's horror 2014 budget? Mr Abbott told a meeting of young Liberals in Tasmania just on the weekend that he was looking forward to serving in a Dutton Liberal government. Is this a sign that, if Mr Dutton is successful with his challenge, Mr Abbott could make a return to the frontbench? How much influence would Mr Abbott and the conservative politics that he represents have on any Dutton government? The Australian public and the Liberal Party themselves rejected Mr Abbott several years ago, but, should Mr Dutton be successful in his bid for the leadership, we know that Mr Abbott would be the de facto Prime Minister—that he would be the puppeteer pulling Mr Dutton's strings.
I have a little bit of advice for Mr Turnbull, and I'll give it to him for free. If he wants to fend off a leadership challenge, there's a simple way to do it: let the Australian people decide. Call an election. Call it now. Regardless of who is victorious in this leadership spill—and trust me: the leadership spill will happen—whether it's Mr Dutton or Mr Turnbull who wins, or maybe some unexpected third candidate—who would know with those opposite?—the chaos, the dysfunction and the division in this government will continue.
There's only really one way that this farce will end, and that's a federal election. The Australian people are relishing the opportunity to put this government out of its miserable existence. They know that a Shorten Labor government will be ready to hit the ground running with a set of policies that put Australian people front and centre. Unlike those opposite, we are united and we are ready to govern in the interests of all Australians.
I just have to compose myself and control my mirth at the comment that the Shorten government is ready, willing and able with all the policies to go ahead. It's so far from the truth it really is laughable.
I'm very proud to be a member of a party in government that has achieved such magnificent things for Australia and Australians in the last several years. Senator Bilyk talked about significant economic policies. I'll tell you what the most significant economic policy of the Turnbull government has been, and that is that more than 412,000 jobs were created in the last 12 months. That's 412,000 of our fellow Australians who now have a job. Since the coalition government came into power four or five years ago, the number of jobs created is something like over one million. If I can put that in perspective, for one million of our fellow Australians who under six years of Labor did not have a job—with the good economic management of the coalition government those one million of our fellow Australians now have a job.
Since September 2015 the number of Australians who were unemployed has fallen by over 60,000. The unemployment rate has fallen from 6.1 per cent under Labor to about five per cent under the coalition. In the last year of office for Labor, unemployment rose by 33,000. No wonder I laughed when Senator Bilyk said that the Shorten government was ready to govern! There'd be another 33,000 Australians unemployed if the Labor Party were ever able to implement the policies they've spoken about.
We heard in question time the crocodile tears of the Greens political party about one child on Manus Island. But I'm delighted that under a coalition government we have saved upwards of 1,200 people, many of them children, from death by drowning, which occurred under the policies of the Labor Party, supported by the Greens. They don't seem to worry about the 1,200 whom we know were drowned—and many more thousands, I suspect, that we will never know of. They're very concerned about one child but can't bring themselves to thank the coalition government for stopping the deaths of 1,200 people who died from drowning.
We have secured the borders, and we've saved lives in doing it. We've got 8,000 children out of detention in Australia, children who were put there by the Labor Party, supported by the Greens political party. Yet they complain about a dozen or so children on Manus Island—who are not in detention but in open living arrangements on that island. The Greens would carry on about them when, under Labor—the party they support—there were literally thousands of children in detention in Australia, all released, all taken out of detention by successive coalition governments.
The other thing I'm very proud of this government for is the tax policy. Remember that after the last budget Labor Party people around Australia were running the mantra—no doubt directed by that great intellect Mr Shorten—that there was nothing in it for the people of Herbert or for the people of Kennedy, two electorates that I'm very involved in. But they forgot about the 70,000 people in the electorate of Herbert who are paying less tax today than they were on 30 June because of the activities of the Turnbull government in reducing taxes for all Australians. And I'm very proud about the boost given to small business in this country through our taxation regime and our instant asset write-off. We all know that it is small business that creates jobs for Australians. That's why in the last 12 months over 400,000 new jobs have been created—not by government but by government-supported small and medium businesses. One of this government's signature economic achievements is the help it's given to small business, which has enabled small business to employ more people and to invest in their businesses, which again makes it easier for people to get jobs.
I'm also pleased with what we've done in the health sphere. We as a government have provided affordable access to over $9 billion worth of new, life-saving medicines. These listings, which were announced in recent times, slashed the cost of medicines to sufferers of diabetes, asthma, arthritis, cancer, eye disease and hepatitis. These new drugs were able to be brought onto the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme because this government has been able to manage its money so that it has money available for those life-saving drugs that have meant so much. It is not often talked about. When we think about Medicare and health, all we remember is the lie of the Labor Party at the last federal election when they said that Medicare was to be sold. Everybody, including the Labor Party, knew that was a lie. But, if you say it often enough and you repeat it loudly enough to voters who don't really understand, you can change the result of an election, even on the basis of what is now accepted by everyone as an outright, absolute and abject lie. Yet what we think about when we talk about Medicare is 'Mediscare'. In fact, the real Medicare has never been stronger. We're investing more and more money in Medicare. Why? Because we can afford it, because we run the economy properly and because we watch the cents. If you watch the cents, you can save the dollars, and that's what we've done. We've increased Medicare funding, which will go up every year from $23 billion in 2017-18 to $24 billion in later years, to $26 billion and then to $28 billion in 2020-21. Spending under Labor was very, very static at about $19.5 billion in 2012-13. So you can see how, under coalition governments, we have been able to invest more in health.
I'd like to have more time to talk about the great success of coalition governments with free trade agreements. Labor fiddled around for eight years and did nothing. It was the same as their shipbuilding rhetoric. They were there for six years and didn't build a ship; they didn't even plan to build a ship. Under the coalition government, we are now building ships in Australia for the Australian Defence Force. On free trade agreements, Labor talked about them for six years and didn't sign off on one of them. Under the coalition government, there have been any number of free trade agreements, the most recent being the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which has been wonderful for Australia, particularly for beef and sugar, two very significant export commodities from the north of Queensland, the area that I represent in this parliament. That Trans-Pacific Partnership has just been a wonderful exercise in increasing Australia's competitiveness overseas and allowing Australians to export more. That means, of course, that our businesses in those fields get bigger and better, and that enables us to provide real jobs for Australians.
Our government, the Turnbull government, and the coalition governments have been wonderful managers. They have made very significant economic advancement for this country. I'm proud to be part of it. I can only fear that at some time in the future the government will change. (Time expired)
The Senate is debating a proposal put forward by the Labor Party suggesting the division and dysfunction within the Turnbull government is a matter of public importance. I'm sure it's a matter of public interest, but I have to say that I'm not actually sure it's that important. I don't think it's really very important whether the leader is Mr Turnbull or Mr Dutton. It's going to be an appalling, disgraceful, divisive and destructive government whoever is leading it.
The current dysfunction is apparent to everybody, and the division has been apparent to everybody for literally years. It has come to a bit of a head in the last few days, and, frankly, where that goes I really don't care. Until we get rid of this government altogether, the harm being done to the majority of Australians will continue. I would really urge those people in the media—who, of course, love nothing better than to sit around all day interviewing each other about the latest leadership permutations and combinations and internal gossip—to actually focus on the policy issues, the legislation, as some of it will still get discussed in this place. Who knows what version of the national energy guarantee legislation we might deal with? But there is still other legislation being dealt with there. There are other matters before these houses of parliament that are hurting Australians, that are continuing to cause massive and potentially irreversible damage to our natural environment and that are undermining and fraying the social fabric. That is what the attention of not just the press gallery but all parliamentarians and legislators here should be focused on.
Not only have the internal personal enmities within the Liberal and National parties, both jointly and severally, been clear for a long time; it has also been clear for a long time that there has been no binding or uniting philosophy or value base in the coalition. As with any organisation that is basically part of the establishment, its main focus remains on keeping itself in power and continuing its privileges. Any shred of keeping a consistent value base is jettisoned a long time before it ever becomes a threat to maintaining those privileges and that grip on power.
It's all fine to have a diversity of views within an organisation, but the coalition have become so disconnected from each other in their parliamentary representation, let alone the disconnect from their membership base, that it's very clear that the main purpose of their existence is to keep a hold on power and keep anyone else out of it. It was not something that suddenly appeared this week or in the last month or even since Mr Turnbull rolled Mr Abbott. It was very, very clear from the very early days of the Abbott government, if not before—and that is what is hurting Australians. I guess you could say that is policy paralysis, although, when you see some of the very destructive policies that do get through this place, I wish they would be paralysed a bit more often and did even less to push through the measures that are causing ever-growing inequality in Australia, continuing to lead to massive environmental destruction and continuing to damage the fundamentals of our economy.
Let us not forget: we are in an era now where we have record corporate profits. Perhaps one thing that does unite this government is its attempt to give tax breaks to corporations when their profits are at record levels, whilst we have continuing wage stagnation, growing casualisation of the workforce, increasing job insecurity and increasing underemployment. Anybody who has been watching the inquiry in my state of Queensland recently would realise that we have outrageously entrenched, systemic amounts of wages theft. Many people are not getting even the inadequate wages that they should be getting. They are being ripped off to unimaginable levels by the banks and by the superannuation funds. People have been calling that out for years and years and years. I wouldn't say it has been policy paralysis; rather, it has been a conscious decision to enable that to continue, to harm Australians, because this is a government that puts its mates first. It puts its corporate donors first. It puts the interests of the political elite and the establishment first, and the vast majority of Australians last.
So I don't think the division and dysfunction within the Turnbull government at the moment is particularly important. It is a symptom of political parties that have decayed from the inside. I shouldn't reflect on you while you're in the chair, Acting Deputy President Bernardi, because I know you can't respond, but your actions in disconnecting yourself from that party is, itself, an indication of the fraying of all the divergent views within the current government, which means the only thing that's holding them together is trying to keep a grip on power.
We have seen, in this place, continuing attacks on the poorest people. We've seen the continuing expansion of the disgraceful robo-debt program through Centrelink, which is seeking to claw back money from the poorest in the community. In many cases, it's money that they don't actually owe; it's money that they are legally entitled to. We've seen a reverse onus of proof, targeting people who are already the poorest, trying to rip money back off them. We've seen the handing out of huge amounts of money, billions of dollars, to the wealthiest and the biggest corporations. We're seeing ever-increasing fees for people who, having finished university degrees and TAFE courses, are trying to retrain and trying to get into the workforce, having to go into debt to get those additional skills. Now they are being forced to pay back that debt before they've even got to an income level that matches the median, the middle, income level. By definition low-income earners are being forced to pay back a debt whilst they're still in poverty.
Newstart has not increased in real terms since 1994. Talk about policy paralysis: that's been a policy paralysis of both the Labor and Liberal parties for over two decades. That's where we need action. That's where the real hurt is. There is massive hurt for the enormous numbers of people who are homeless, who are in insecure housing, who are in financially-induced housing stress and having to pay massive proportions of their income on their rent or their mortgage because of the ridiculously overheated, turbocharged property market—turbocharged deliberately by governments that operate in the interests of their mates in the development industry rather than seeing housing as a fundamental human right to ensure somebody has a home. That's the policy paralysis that's been injected into this political system by the poison of neoliberal thinking, going way back to the 1980s when Labor was in government. That has paralysed the thinking of governments ever since, meaning that they put the interests of the market first and the interests of the community last. That is the paralysis that we've got to deal with.
This short-term political theatre that is happening at the moment is, I'm sure, fascinating to many people in this building. But I can tell you that most of the people outside in the community couldn't care less. They want to see these issues addressed. They want measures that will increase their wages, that will increase their job security, that will lift them out of poverty, that will increase Newstart, that will stop them getting evicted without cause, that will ensure that they can afford a home, that will ensure that they can afford health care for their children, that will ensure that they can get proper education for their children, that will ensure that the schools their kids are going to are properly funded, that will ensure that those people with disability or caring needs have proper support, that will ensure that people in regional and rural areas have proper services and adequate public transport, and that will ensure that there are measures to address the rapid expansion of greenhouse emissions that is causing not just environmental damage but the economic damage that goes along with it.
The paralysis has been longstanding, and the hurt to the Australian community—and many other communities around the globe, because governments elsewhere have also adopted the mantra of neoliberalism and austerity—is very long-standing. We need major change. We need it very quickly. Who leads the Liberal Party at the moment is irrelevant to that change. They could pull a name out of a hat; it's not going to give us the change we need. What we need to change is the government and the people who are elected in the House of Representatives.
Rudolph Giuliani took American politics through the looking glass yesterday when he helpfully explained that truth is not truth. We seem to be approaching a similar point in energy policy today. It is a mess. It is an absolute mess. You could describe the situation as a farce, and I've done it in the past, but it's actually ceased to be funny. It is actually embarrassing, watching the Prime Minister sell out on climate change, an issue he was once prepared to cross the floor on. It's actually tragic. It is tragic watching the coalition sabotage, yet again, Australia's opportunity to take meaningful action on climate change, to establish a stable foundation for investment in the energy system and to finally start dealing with the underlying cause of the prices that people have been experiencing over the last five years. All of that has been put to one side.
Where are we now? Today the Prime Minister unveiled his fifth energy policy. Over the past few years, the Prime Minister has floated an emissions intensity scheme; a clean energy target; the National Energy Guarantee that the PM took to the party room last week after long discussions at COAG; then the NEG, the version announced on Saturday; and again, today, another version of the NEG. We are up to five energy policies in one term. The version announced today is apparently the government's policy—or is it? Well, it is until it isn't. It turns out that the Minister for Home Affairs had it correct when he described the NEG version 1.0 as the government's 'current' policy on radio last week. As Giuliani said, 'Truth isn't truth.' At least, it's not for this crowd.
The only consistency through all of this has been our commitment to taking meaningful action on climate change, to renewing our ageing energy infrastructure and to bringing those two things together. We have tried and tried to work in good faith with the government through their tortured and convoluted processes. We have tried to offer bipartisanship, despite the government's best efforts to sabotage that through indecision and division. Here we are; we are all here again. As of less than six hours ago, the government has a new energy policy. It's a bit like a newborn baby giraffe: it's a bit unsteady on its feet, it's a little bit clumsy and it's a little bit unworldly. Will it see out the day? Nobody knows. Nobody knows if this is the government's final policy. No-one can tell, least of all the Prime Minister. This process has revealed just how little power and respect he has in his own party.
Indeed, for all of the discussion of leadership today, it has become quite clear that the Prime Minister has not been leading his party for some time. The Prime Minister explained to the House of Representatives earlier today that the NEG had been improved following consultations with colleagues. What did those colleagues say about this respectful consultation process? Mr Christensen said:
We have a new energy policy thanks to a band of Liberal-National rebels who stood firm and fought for common sense.
He went on to say:
This is a victory for common sense, in that we take advantage of the abundant coal reserves this country still has, and we use that abundance to deal with this issue of power prices once and for all.
It sounds a lot more like extortion than consultation.
The Prime Minister can pretend that the changes to the NEG were made on the basis of policy, but we all know what it's actually about. It is about his inability to enjoy the confidence of his colleagues, whether in the party room or, amazingly, in the parliament. The Prime Minister confirmed during question time that he had legislation drafted and ready to go on the NEG. Why hasn't it been introduced? He explained in question time today:
The government will introduce the legislation when it has concluded that it has the support in the House of Representatives for it to be passed.
In other words, the government cannot be confident that the legislation will pass a chamber it supposedly controls. I suspect that the Prime Minister will find it difficult to get the necessary support for any compromise. Anything that he offers will be rejected, especially if it contains even the weakest commitment to dealing with climate change.
How can the Prime Minister have the authority to stand up for what he used to believe in when he is too busy, hour by hour, fighting for his own job? Even TheDaily Telegraph's afternoon email update was titled 'How long can Turnbull be PM?' There are reports that the president of the LNP, Mr Gary Spence, has been encouraging members of parliament to support the member for Dickson. Today, he dodged an opportunity to deny it. He said:
You are asking me to talk about private conversations with MPs. A party president has private conversations with Members of Parliament all the time. … I think everything that needs to be said has been said today. I haven't got anything further to add.
As for whether Mr Dutton would make a better Prime Minister, he went on to say:
Everybody has their own view. My view is my view. The MPs and Senators choose the leader.
Well, thanks very much! I'm sure that Mr Turnbull is extremely grateful for Mr Spence's insights into how the LNP works, but it's hardly a ringing endorsement. Even the member for Sturt, on the radio this morning, referred to the Prime Minister as 'the current leader'. It's embarrassing. Throughout all this the Prime Minister has been emphatic that he enjoys the support of the party room, but, again, I guess truth is no longer truth.
Would a spill fix things for the government—or for energy policy, for that matter? I don't think changing the leadership will bring about leadership. That is because this conflict is about much more than personalities. Part of it is personal, of course. There does seem to be an implacable rump in the Liberal party room that will hate everything that this Prime Minister does, and it doesn't take very much imagination to identify who they are. But it is a mistake to imagine that this is all of it. A large part of the Liberal party room will never agree to meaningful action on climate change because deep down they do not believe that it is real. It is a schism that can only be solved by the hard Right accepting the science and moving climate change out of the culture war basket into the policy basket. In so doing, you could move energy policy out of the culture war basket into the policy basket and you'd get a fix—the fix everybody wants you to find. But there is no indication that anyone on the other side of the chamber is willing to do this.
Energy policy now seems ready to join the elephants' graveyard of the government's failed policy ambition, and it is in very good company. School funding is beset by problems. Every sector is aggrieved at the way the minister has handled their concerns. It takes special genius for our coalition education minister to irritate the independent school sector, to irritate the Catholic school sector and to irritate the public school sector simultaneously, but that is what Minister Birmingham has achieved. Tax reform stalled in the Senate after years of talk—years and years of talk.
And, when the government isn't outflanking itself, it's basically outflanked by events. One of the biggest policy events of the year is, in fact, the banking royal commission, and its revelations have seized the headlines and have shown the inadequacies of the current policy settings. But this was not a policy actually supported, embraced, by this government. It was established by the government despite their own fervent objection to it. The Prime Minister even described it as 'unfortunate' at the press conference when he announced it. He only did so at the urging of the major banks, who had the wit to understand that the calls for intervention in their sector would only cease when a proper examination of the issues had been undertaken. The Prime Minister was the last one to see it and to understand it. One of the very few good things to happen in this parliament, one of the very few achievements, was done on sufferance, not on the initiative of the Prime Minister or the people around him.
This Prime Minister is like a ship in a storm. He is slowly sinking, and he's tossing policy ideas overboard to stay afloat. Like his famous namesake, his crew are mutinying, and he is no longer in any way in control of where this ship goes. But the great tragedy for everybody else is that we're all part of it. We can't get off the ship. This crew is taking us all with it. The only way we will restore sensible policy processes and overcome the paralysis is actually to vote this government out. That is the only conclusion any sane observer could reach after the events of this week and last week.
I will make some commencing comments in relation to Senator Bartlett. He said the ripping-off of superannuation funds is a disaster, and a terrible thing in relation to the royal commission. I agree. What I want to put on the record here is that in September last year we tried to bring in legislation for criminal punishments, criminal laws—$420,000, I think, was the fine, and up to five years in jail—for those trustees, the directors of those super funds, who stole workers' superannuation money. And guess what? The Greens—Senator Bartlett part of them—and Labor would not support that legislation. 'Let the criminals run free'—that was your attitude. When Mr Keating brought in superannuation with no criminal laws attached to it, the Senate said it didn't need it—or they spoke to the industry super funds who had been building their way up through the union movement. Senator Bartlett makes a point: people have been ripping off our super. I wonder: when that bill comes back here to bring those criminal laws in, are the Greens, including the new Senator Faruqi, going to vote for some proper criminal laws for those people that have been stealing our workers' money? Good point, Senator Bartlett, I'm glad you raised it. I'm sure Senator Polley and Senator Ketter will not forget this either. When the bill comes up, we'll see if they'll get fair dinkum.
I'll be frank, Mr Acting Deputy President: it's been a rough week for the coalition. But that's politics, because only a few weeks ago those on that side had a very rough week, when they showed what they thought about business and business tax, and winding back the tax cuts for small business back to a $2 million turnover—oh, they back-pedalled quickly then.
Now we have a policy together, and it's about price, it's about competition and it's about supply in electricity networks, because the cost has been outrageous. Who's to blame for it? Probably every state and every federal government of every political persuasion for the last 10 or 15 years. And now the coalition, under Prime Minister Turnbull, has had the courage to take the issue up. It's mainly a state issue. Where did we add to the cost? Renewable energy certificates and renewable energy targets, where the Rudd government wound it up to 41,000 gigs. We wound it back to a proper figure of 33,000, because 41,000 was going to be around 26 per cent, and costly. If we were to construct one wind turbine today—Mr Acting Deputy President Bernardi, you'd be interested in this, since you come from South Australia; when I grew up down there, they were everywhere—that's three megawatts, and if it were to spin for eight hours a day, 365 days a year, and if the large energy certificates were trading at $80, then we would give the owners of that one turbine $700,000 a year before they'd sold one watt of electricity. I've seen the newly constructed ones up near home: hundreds of tonnes of cement at the base of them, and an enormous amount of steel. These are huge towers they're building up home between Inverell and Glen Innes. With all the metals in the generating system, from the copper to the steel, and probably aluminium as well, I wonder how long those things have to spin before they become carbon neutral. I really do. I think their lifetime is 25 years. They are probably going to have to spin for 15 years before they actually pay—if I can put it that way—the carbon usage to construct them.
Going back to some of those on the other side: Senator McAllister is a young lady; I'm sure she's not suffering any memory loss. Let me just bring back a few things about when Labor was in government, a little walk through history and the Rudd-Gillard-Rudd era. What was the story when Kevin Rudd came here? He said the greatest moral challenge of our time is climate change. When the Senate rejected his policy of an emissions trading scheme for a second time, did he go to a double dissolution? No. Head down, tail between the legs, he ran off to the corner. Then it was Ms Gillard, who said: 'Challenge for Prime Minister? I've got more chance of playing full-forward for St Kilda.' I don't think she made a very good full-forward, but you never know. Of course, the next day it was on. Why did they sack Kevin Rudd as Prime Minister? They had the kitchen cabinet—there were four people running the country. They brought out things like the pink batts scheme—what a disastrous campaign that was! There were the school buildings. It was amazing. We had the launch of our National Party campaign in Wagga Wagga and, while we were there, the school building fell over It was brand new, poorly constructed and cheaply done. There was the infamous Grocery Watch, and then there was Fuel Watch. There was the huge debt building. Remember the then Treasurer, Mr Wayne Swan: 'We will have a surplus in two years time,' and the next year, 'We will have a surplus in two years time,' and in the next budget, 'We will have a surplus in two years time.' We never saw a surplus. We only ever saw debt. Now, at least, with proper financial management, in 12 months time we'll be looking at a surplus at last.
Then, of course, there was the biggest disaster of all, when a TV program forced the Labor Party to abandon live exports of cattle to Indonesia. That's the way you treat Indonesia when some in the abattoirs do the wrong thing—you cut off their supply of food! That'll fix them. What a disaster! The people of the Top End, who couldn't get rid of their cattle, what did they do? They put them on trucks at the top of Western Australia and road-transported them down to Bindaree Beef in Inverell, where I live—thousands of kilometres—because they couldn't send them on the short journey across the water to Indonesia. That was the kneejerk reaction of Labor in power, yet they sit over there throwing political hand grenades at us. It's amazing how quickly they forget.
I'm proud of the fact that job numbers have grown so much in Australia under our government. We're now looking at a proper budget surplus, and hopefully that will grow and we can start winding back the debt. There are the little things we've done for small business, like the effects test in the Competition and Consumer Act to give small business a fair go. There are the changes to day care, where it's capped at $7,000. We had parents going out to work. Dad might have been the main wage earner but often mum would want to work as well. There are many, many mothers—millions of them—working these days, of course. They'd get to the stage, as the year went on, where, by the time they'd paid for day care and paid tax, they'd be working for nothing. Thank goodness we made a change to that for the better. There are the free trade agreements. It's a pity the drought's on, because, with the sheep prices, mutton prices, wool prices, lamb prices and beef prices, the agricultural sector in Australia has never looked so good.
Sadly, the rain is not there, but those opposite think they're going to change that. They're going to bring in huge emissions targets, with a huge cost of electricity, and they're going to change the planet. Even though China, India, Japan, Indonesia and Vietnam are building coal-fired power stations, leaving us way behind, those opposite think somehow we're going to change the planet from Australia. No, we're not; we're going to put the cost of doing business up and up until we're uncompetitive and we force those businesses overseas.
I too rise to speak about division and dysfunction within the Turnbull government causing policy paralysis that is hurting Australians. Those opposite are up to their eyeballs in dissent, and the government are in despair. I've not heard one contribution from government senators that denies the dysfunction and chaos that is taking place within their caucus. Liberal division and dysfunction are in fact on steroids. Last week, Mr Turnbull had ministers threatening to resign and backbenchers threatening to cross the floor of parliament, and all he wanted to do was talk about Bill Shorten. According to the newspapers—and I tend to agree—Malcolm Turnbull is a dead man walking. He might still have the title, but it's quite obvious he isn't the leader of his party.
Basically, we have a Prime Minister who is willing to lie on the floor, roll over and be the doormat to the right wing of his party as long as it saves his prime ministership. Last month, Mr Turnbull said this about the Leader of the Opposition, Bill Shorten:
This is a leader who has no authority within his own party, he has no credibility, he can't keep the same policy position for a week.
How far from the truth can this Prime Minister be? 'Speak for yourself, Mr Turnbull,' I say. Today we've seen your fifth energy policy in five years and your second policy reset within as little as four days. You are in fact all over the shop. How long will today's policy stand? That depends on the media and whether or not Mr Turnbull changes his mind yet again. The fact is that the Prime Minister is digging an even deeper hole for himself. He called a press conference in which he declared himself 'a hostage of a group of wreckers from the Liberal Party's conservative wing'. The Prime Minister himself has acknowledged that he is a hostage of the right wing of his caucus. This isn't something that those in the opposition are saying or that's happening within the media; the Prime Minister himself has acknowledged that fact.
This is a man who stands for nothing. He promised so much when he went to the people. People in the community thought Malcolm Turnbull was going to stand up for climate change, that he was going to deliver a stable government, that he was going to be the Prime Minister of an adult government. Well, there's nothing further from the truth. On climate change he has caved in to the sceptics within his party. We're seeing now that the former Prime Minister, Mr Tony Abbott, determined the policy at the very top of government, and this doesn't make a good government. Prime Minister Turnbull isn't leading the party room. The right wing of his caucus are playing him like a puppet. Frankly, it's sad to see. No advanced democracy should have to be witness to such incompetence. With all of his backflips, perhaps Mr Turnbull can get a job with the circus after he's turfed out. He's Tony Abbott's performing seal. That's the reality of this government at the moment.
Sorry—Mr Abbott's seal. We have known for some time that the Australian people have stopped listening to the Turnbull government, because it's so chaotic; it's out of touch. We see that there's such division and that it's a weak government that doesn't really stand for anything. Mr Turnbull promised a stable government, as I said, and all he's been offering is instability and uncertainty.
The Australian people deserve so much more. They deserve to know where the Prime Minister stands on issues, and they want to know that the government is putting them first rather than the big four banks and the big end of town. Mr Abbott said recently:
It's no way to run a government—making absolute commitments on Tuesday and breaking them on Friday.
Mr Turnbull's credibility is shredded, and his popularity is in freefall. The people of Australia want consistency and continuity from the Turnbull government, but all they're getting is a government that is 100 per cent focused on themselves and their own jobs and a Prime Minister who will literally say anything it takes to save his own job. We know this because it's the playbook that unfortunately the Labor caucus went through, as we get reminded of, in the Rudd-Gillard-Rudd phase. So, we know the plays. We can tell, as the media can and as the Australian people can. We learnt our lesson, but those on the other side haven't, because they're desperate. We know that at least 20 of their backbench would be very uncomfortable, looking at poll after poll showing that they're in deep trouble. We know what will happen: there'll be more and more pressure. And it doesn't matter what Mr Dutton has to say, because the reality of what's in the media and what's talked about through the corridors of this place is, quite frankly, that the numbers are being done, and as soon as Mr Dutton has the numbers there will be a challenge.
But what's been really disappointing is that a former investment banker such as Mr Turnbull has had no influence over the economic fortunes of this country. He's been nothing but a disappointment in that Australian families' costs of living continue to go up. We talk about the NEG and the fact that on this policy he's had so many backflips, whereas now he's in limbo. Nobody knows, really, where the Prime Minister stands. Times are tough, and people are looking to the Turnbull government and to the Prime Minister wanting to know what they're going to do to help them.
Remember when Mr Turnbull told us he was a strong leader? Well, that's not what the Australian people are seeing. What they are seeing and what they are experiencing is stubbornly high underemployment and stagnant wages, which are hurting families under this government. There are still 706,000 unemployed Australians. The number of underemployed Australians is now at 1.123 million. The Australian people are seeing that the youth unemployment rate remains more than double the national average. When it comes to secure, decent jobs, Mr Turnbull is silent. His only plan is to attack workers' wages by supporting cuts to penalty rates. What we have is the wrong Prime Minister with the wrong priorities. The Prime Minister's words after the 'super Saturday' by-elections are ringing in my ears. He said that he 'will look very seriously and thoughtfully and humbly at the way in which the voters have responded' to what the government put forward during the by-elections.
Well, power prices are going up, hospital waiting lists are blowing out, wages are almost flatlining and we now have over 108,000 older, vulnerable Australians waiting for home care. But the only thing the Turnbull government and the Liberals are focused on is themselves and giving the big end of town a tax cut. Since when does corporate Australia come first, before the people? With a merchant banker as its leader, are we really surprised to have such an out-of-touch coalition government? It doesn't matter what trick the Prime Minister tries—whether he tries all his backflips or whether he uses smoke and mirrors—everyone knows that Mr Turnbull is all about the top end of town. Mr Turnbull's big policies, the National Energy Guarantee and the tax cuts for the big end of town, are falling apart, just like the government. Mr Turnbull's one-point plan for an economy is to give $17 billion in new tax handouts to the banks. That's all he's got. The community doesn't buy the neoliberal, trickle-down economic myth. Study after study has shown that no corporate tax cut will lead to jobs, growth or an increase in take-home pay for working people. Australians are firmly against these company tax cuts and they don't want to see them put through. The question really is whether Mr Turnbull and Mr Morrison have learned from the humiliating lessons they got in Longman and Braddon.
In question time today, Senator McKenzie said that the government's priority was bringing down electricity prices. They say this, but the out-of-touch legislation they currently have before the parliament will abolish the energy supplement for anyone who started to receive a pension or allowance after 20 September 2016. The Liberals' plan to scrap the energy supplement will mean a cut of $14.10 per fortnight, or around $365 a year, for a single pensioner and a cut of $21.20 a fortnight, or $550 a year, for a pensioner couple. No-one should have to choose between turning on the heater and putting food on the table. If this government really wanted to do something about making power more affordable then they would dump their plan to axe the clean energy supplement. This government is in chaos. The time clock is working down for Mr Turnbull. All we can say is: the Australian people want the opportunity to vote this government out.
The matter of public importance which has been raised today addresses division and dysfunction. Let me tell you, I certainly know where I can find division and dysfunction, and that's in the Labor Party and its policy on borders, its policy on border control, the continual series of Labor lies in its policy on migration, its policy on Palestine and the dysfunction in the Rudd-Gillard-Rudd governments on borders, defence and spending, which has been spoken about by Senator Williams. Why would it ever be different?
What an interesting thought it is to go back and listen to people who say that Labor has learned its lesson! There will never be a chance for Labor to show that, so it's an interesting claim to make. We have a range of policies that we are very, very proud of. Senator Polley claims that she hasn't heard anyone who denies her claim of policy paralysis. Well, I do. This is a party where we are actually encouraged to think, and better policy is the result. We're not the drones of the Labor Party. We have policy, which we are very, very proud of, in the areas of energy, tax, borders, health, welfare, education, the NDIS, a fair go in the workplace—Senator Cameron—child care and budget repair.
When I think of dysfunction and division, I think of Ms Ged Kearney MP and Ms Linda Burney MP. What does it take to establish division and dysfunction within the Labor Party but people like these who blatantly oppose the so-called border policy of the Labor Party. At least 30 Labor Party members at the last election declared they did not believe in the regional processing centres, yet their party believes there is not a cigarette paper between the policies of this government and the policies of the Labor opposition. So we have good policies and we have a record that we can be very proud of.
Let's see exactly what one of these policies in particular is, and that is driving power prices down. The big picture is that the Turnbull government has today announced a set of policies, a package of measures, to put downward pressure on electricity prices and stop energy companies from gouging their customers. What are we doing? We're backing the ACCC to drive lower electricity prices for households and for small businesses.
What is the state of the energy market? If you understand where we're going, it's very important to understand where the energy market is at the moment. According to the Retail Electricity Pricing Inquiry report released by the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission, the ACCC, in July, the national energy market is not operating in the best interests of consumers and reform is urgently needed.
So what are we doing? The government is implementing a number of key recommendations from the ACCC inquiry. The ACCC and the Australian Energy Regulator will be directed to set a default price for households and small to medium-sized businesses, a price that will deliver genuine savings to customers. This will replace the current standing offer in New South Wales, Victoria, South Australia and South-East Queensland—jurisdictions where prices are not regulated. The ACCC found that the significant gap between standing offer prices and market offer prices has become excessive and consumers who have not sought a better deal are being ripped off, but that better deal can be sought and can be obtained. A default offer will protect consumers from being exploited while still allowing for the benefits of retail competition. This measure will prevent retailers from exploiting consumers and small businesses with inflated standing offers.
Under our plan, the Australian Energy Regulator would be given the power to set the maximum price for the default market offer in each region. Customers on high-price standing offers will see their electricity price decrease as they move to a lower default market offer. The ACCC estimates that, for average residential customers on an inflated standing offer, the savings from moving to the new default offer could range from $183 to $416.
What about small business? We also think that small businesses have the right to the same protection and support. The ACCC estimates that savings for the average small to medium-sized business on a standing offer could range between $561 and $1,457.
The government will also act to simplify the confusing array of offers that are currently on the market by requiring retailers to use the new default rate as a reference point for all advertised discounts. This will give customers more clarity when they compare retailers and offers and help ensure they get the best deal. Limits will also be placed on the penalties customers can face when they don't pay their bills on time and so lose their discounts.
The government will initially seek to work with the states and territories on this reform. If the states do not agree, we will implement the offer through Commonwealth law. We expect the new default offer to apply from July 2019 at the latest. In addition, the Treasurer will direct the ACCC to hold an inquiry into prices, profits and margins in the National Electricity Market. The inquiry will run until 2025 and will include monitoring of retail prices and margins, our wholesale bids and conduct and contract market liquidity.
We will need regular monitoring—there's no two ways about that. We will need regular monitoring. The ACCC will prepare ongoing reports at least six months—