Senate debates

Wednesday, 19 September 2018

Questions without Notice: Take Note of Answers

Council of Australian Governments

3:04 pm

Photo of Jenny McAllisterJenny McAllister (NSW, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Assistant Minister for Families and Communities) Share this | | Hansard source

I move:

That the Senate take note of the answer given by the Minister for Finance and the Public Service (Senator Cormann) to a question without notice asked by the Leader of the Opposition in the Senate (Senator Wong) today relating to the Council of Australian Governments.

From that answer it is entirely obvious that the government has run out of ideas. That is also obvious in this chamber because it has run out of legislation to debate. It's obvious in its handling of COAG, and that was the subject of the question to Minister Cormann. Minister Cormann tried to defend the cancellation of COAG by saying that the government doesn't need to hold meetings in order to get things done. In some ways he's right. Holding a meeting does not impact the coalition government's ability to get things done, because this government cannot get anything done. It cannot get anything at all done.

Let's examine the public record to see what happens when the government does take a policy through an extensive process of meetings and consultations. Let's have a look at the NEG. The Prime Minister met with the rogue MPs. The NEG was amended in response to feedback—

Senator Gallacher interjecting

That's right, Senator Gallacher. It went back to the coalition party room. It was subject to extensive debate, much of which was leaked publicly. It was approved. They got it through the party room—good on them—and now it has been dumped. They had many meetings inside the parliament and outside the parliament, but they still don't have a policy and a plan for energy.

What about COAG is different? Maybe it's a little bit different. What is on the record when the government takes one of its policy proposals to COAG? It was a while ago—and obviously we have had a lot of political turmoil—but do people remember former Prime Minister Turnbull's proposal to reform state and federal fiscal relations? I think that was the one that they came up with in the car park. That was presumably done with the support of former Treasurer and current Prime Minister, Scott Morrison, the person now leading the government. This reform effort was announced with great fanfare. Where is it now? What has happened to the proposal that they sought to take to COAG? Are we debating legislation? No, we're not; we're actually having the Governor-General's address-in-reply debate two years after he gave his speech here. This idea has entirely disappeared from view because, like the coalition party room, when the coalition take things into COAG they can't make any progress there either.

Are there meetings that do help the coalition get things done? Here's one—a Liberal Party meeting on the South Coast chaired by Minister Payne. They got a lot done there because, as Ann Sudmalis has detailed, all the member for Gilmore's friends and allies were rolled out of the FEC and replaced with people hostile to her that made, as she said, her position 'untenable'. It led to her resignation. There were vivid stories of bullying, backstabbing and betrayal.

Are there any other meetings where the coalition gets things done? We've heard this week about a 40-minute meeting—for which there was no agenda—with a not-for-profit headed up by their mates in the Great Barrier Reef Foundation.

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

No minutes.

Photo of Jenny McAllisterJenny McAllister (NSW, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Assistant Minister for Families and Communities) Share this | | Hansard source

Senator Gallacher is correct again—there were no minutes. Close to $½ billion was handed out at that meeting. It was a very effective meeting. There was no oversight or accountability. It was handed out to a group of people with close links to fossil fuel companies and even closer links to the Liberal Party. This is unbelievable.

Is this ransacking the china cabinet on your way out? But this is the thing: there is a bit of a theme here. This is a government that has run out of serious things to do. It has run out of serious policy proposals, so we now find ourselves without a proposal for education. Some have suggested that that's why the COAG meeting wasn't able to go ahead. We find ourselves without an energy policy, even though the coalition for a year has been talking about the significance of energy prices and the industry has been warning the coalition that, without a policy, energy prices will continue to go up.

We find ourselves without any legislation before this chamber. We find ourselves preparing again to debate the address-in-reply to the Governor-General's speech. There is a key to all of this. If you're trying to get a policy up on their side of politics then meetings are no use. This is a group of people who cannot agree on the future direction of this country. It doesn't matter how many meetings they hold, nothing happens. But it is useful for something. If you want to fight a Liberal Party vendetta and if you want to get rid of one of the few women in the lower house, it is useful. If you want to get $½ billion for your mates, as it turned out for this government, a meeting can be very useful. But that's about it.

3:09 pm

Photo of Jim MolanJim Molan (NSW, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Our government gets things done. The allegation that is being made, initially in broadcasts made from the ABC, is that the COAG meeting which was scheduled to meet on 4 October was somehow related to a vast range of reasons that, in essence, the ABC made up.

The negotiations by the education ministers on bilateral school funding agreements are occurring and they're still underway. The National Health Reform Agreement and the Closing the Gap Refresh would benefit, certainly, as anyone would agree, from further discussion between portfolio ministers before they are brought to the COAG. These and the other issues that were to be discussed at the COAG meeting on 4 October will now be discussed at the 12 December COAG meeting in Adelaide.

On 12 December, there will be a full day's worth of COAG meetings. The morning session will provide an opportunity for all governments to consider progress on a new National Health Reform Agreement, the Closing the Gap Refresh and actions arising from the Reducing Violence against Women Summit. The afternoon session will be focused on national security.

We are getting things done. We are doing things. One of the greatest examples of us doing things mentioned by Senator McAllister is energy policy. We have a very good energy policy, based on AEMO comments and ACCC reports. We have the ability to set the default price, we have the ability to put a cop on the beat and we have the ability to increase generation of electricity, of energy. We are doing things. In particular, we don't need meetings to do things. We are doing things on aged-care refunding reform. And, despite the number of questions which have come from the opposition claiming that there has been some form of cut to aged care, the government is not planning any changes that would reduce funding to aged care. So we are doing things on aged care. Annual funding will increase to record levels by $5 billion over the forward estimates, from $18.6 billion in 2017-18 to $23.6 billion in 2021-22. This is doing things, and it is not a cut.

The Morrison government, our government, is providing record aged-care funding of $19.8 billion this year. That is not a cut. Aged-care spending has increased by an average of more than six per cent each and every year. We are doing things, and that is not a cut. Looking at the six per cent each year, that is, on average, $1 billion of extra support for older Australians each year. We're adding an additional 13,500 residential aged-care places and 775 short-term restorative places. This is doing things, and this is not a cut.

From the last budget, we are delivering 20,000 new high-level home care packages to support senior Australians to remain at home longer. That is critically important, and it is doing things. By 2021-22, over 74,000 high-level home care places will be available. That is an increase of 86 per cent on 2017-18. How could that be a cut? That is no cut; that is doing things. There is over $100 million in investment in mental health services for ageing Australians in the community and in residential aged care. This consists of a $20-million trial to improve mental health services for Australians over 75 years of age. We are doing things, and that is no cut. There is also $82.5 million of that $100 million in new mental health services for people with a diagnosed mental disorder living in residential aged-care facilities. Again, we are doing this and there is no cut.

Last week we announced an additional $16 million to police quality in aged care. This is doing things. Any allegation or any view that we are not doing things is fundamentally wrong. We don't need meetings to do things. We just do them.

3:14 pm

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

I suppose we'd have to throw a shout-out there to Senator Molan for soldiering on in the face of the overwhelming evidence to the contrary. But I suppose he's well experienced in soldiering on in the face of adversity. The simple facts do not sustain his contribution, and, in taking note of Senator Wong's question to and the answer from Senator Cormann, I'd like to point out a couple of really interesting facts. We have headlines which say that the Hon. Scott Morrison has cancelled the Council of Australian Governments meeting in order to address his bullying policy. It's a headline which we all know will be contested, but it just goes to show the state of dysfunction and disunity that is apparent on the other side.

I want to go, more particularly, to the real business of government. Have the charter letters been issued to every minister that was sworn in in the short period of time since that happened? I can point you to one explicit area of policy that I'm very familiar with, which is the National Disability Insurance Scheme. In the oversight committee that looks after that—having been a member of it since 2013—there have been about five responsible ministers in that space. There have been four assistant ministers in that space. There have been three coalition chairs in that space. There have been two CEOs and two new chairs of the board. So how is it possible that you can be prepared for a COAG meeting if you have a continual stream of musical chairs? When the music stops, you sit down, find a seat and find a ministry.

I have nothing but cordial relationships with the Hon. Dan Tehan. I've had very good experiences working with him in the area of veterans affairs. The Hon. Dan Tehan has had seven ministerial appointments in two years and seven months. He has had three portfolios in the last nine months. People could go their entire career of two or three terms as a senator in this place and not have as many portfolios. How is it possible that you can govern coherently and effectively deal with the states and territories when you hardly have your ministers in place in a portfolio for three months? The Hon. Simon Birmingham, an adversary across the chamber but a good elected South Australian, has picked up trade. Now he's got to learn the trade portfolio and contribute. The Hon. Dan Tehan's got to pick up education. Put out the myriad of fights, get concise policy in place and then deal with COAG.

Is it any wonder why this new Prime Minister has cancelled COAG? He hasn't even got his ministers briefed about their portfolios. I would hazard a guess that some on that side have not even received their charter letters. We know, through the estimates process, that the charter letters between the Hon. Marise Payne and the Hon. Christopher Pyne took a very, very long time to work out. So how can you program meetings with the states and territories and the premiers and chief ministers of those states and territories if you haven't got your act together as a government? Clearly there is underlying turmoil which is not apparent to the general electorate. They see a Prime Minister go and they think, 'That's it; Prime Minister Turnbull's gone and the Hon. Scott Morrison is in.' But what lies underneath that is an enormous amount of change. It slows down process; it slows down government. It means they cannot effectively govern. When I looked at the proposed legislative schedule for the Senate last week, I saw an interesting item on there: the Governor-General's address-in-reply. That normally only comes up when you're a little bit thin on legislation.

Clearly Senator Molan, soldiering on in the face of adversity and soldiering on in the face of the overwhelming evidence to the contrary, did a reasonably good job of reading out things that they do and the fact they don't need meetings to do stuff. But you do need charter letters. You do need ministers who have coverage of their area of responsibility and an understanding of their area of responsibility—the briefings from the department and the view forward—otherwise what is the point of meeting with COAG? That's because, with COAG, the work is done incrementally, and on the day that they meet they will probably announce some reasonably effective stuff. I will leave you with this: young people left stranded in aged care. COAG was to address that.

3:19 pm

Photo of Jane HumeJane Hume (Victoria, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I thank the opposition for an opportunity to speak today about exactly what it is that the coalition has been doing. They use COAG as a cover. COAG, as they well know, was scheduled to meet on 4 October. Negotiations by education ministers on bilateral school funding agreements are still underway. The health reform agreements and the Closing the Gap Refresh will benefit from further discussion between the portfolio ministers before they are brought to COAG. As those in opposition all know, these and other issues will be discussed at COAG on 12 December. That meeting in Adelaide on 12 December will continue to go ahead. It is a full-day meeting. The morning session provides an opportunity for all governments to consider the progress on a new national health reform agreement and the Closing the Gap Refresh as well as the National Summit on Reducing Violence against Women, and the afternoon session will be focused on national security. It's a rather disingenuous cover story for the opposition to try and give the coalition a bit of a bash but it is so unsuccessful.

Essentially we're seeing the opposition clutching at straws and saying, 'Don't look over here; look over there.' They want to cover up the fact that this government, in its five years in government, has been more successful than any Labor government ever. We announced 3.4 per cent growth last week. Those are the best growth figures we've had since the mining boom of 2012. In the life of this government, 1.1 million jobs have been created by the private sector. Of those 1.1 million jobs, the vast majority went to women. The vast majority were full-time. More than 100,000 jobs in the last 12 months alone went to the regions, and 44,000 jobs were created just in the last month. Female participation rates are at record levels. Youth employment is at its highest level since I was at school—and, I assure you, that was a considerable period of time ago.

Senator Wong interjecting

I promise you, Senator Wong, it was not yesterday; it was a considerable period of time ago. Why have we got such good economic growth? Why has there been such good job creation in the last five years? I will tell you. It doesn't come by accident. This government has worked tirelessly to ensure that the policy settings are right to encourage investment, to encourage employment and to encourage higher wages. We have five free trade agreements with China, with South Korea, with Japan, the TPP and now with Indonesia. These free trade agreements give Australian businesses the opportunity to invest, to employ and to grow.

What about company tax cuts for small to medium enterprises? That is a fundamentally important incentive. And please don't forget for a second that we've provided tax cuts to individuals as well. The coalition is committed to ensuring that people keep more of their own money in their own pockets. The instant asset write-off is, again, another policy that encourages businesses to invest. In my state of Victoria alone, for instance, small businesses and farmers are benefitting from the coalition's instant asset write-off. It was used by almost 350,000 small businesses in 2016-17 alone, and is a policy that would not be possible without the coalition in office.

We've given tax cuts to 3.3 million businesses, and further tax relief has been legislated to reduce the tax rate from 27½ per cent to 25 per cent for businesses with an annual turnover of less than $50 million. That would have been extended to all businesses in Australia if it wasn't for those opposite, who do not want to see the economy grow, don't want to see companies expand, don't want to see further investment and don't want to see further employment.

In fact, this is the most anti-business, anti-investment, anti-employment, anti-jobs opposition we have seen since Whitlam. But don't let me disparage Whitlam. He at least was a man of principles, which is very different from the opposition leader, Mr Shorten, who is a man without principles. He is a man that stands for nothing. All he wants to do is sling mud. Well, dare I say, those opposite should know that, if they're going to sling mud, they should learn how to use a slingshot. Right now they are all over the place. Why don't we ask the opposition about their position on the TPP? If you want to see dysfunction, just look over there. (Time expired)

3:24 pm

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

Today Senator Cormann was given an opportunity to explain why the government has cancelled the October COAG meeting. If you listen to Senator Cormann's response, you could be forgiven for thinking that a COAG meeting is just like any other meeting—it can be cancelled and there are no repercussions in relation to that. But, of course, we know that COAG is actually 'the peak intergovernmental forum in Australia'—and I'm quoting from the COAG website:

COAG was established in 1992 … to manage matters of national significance or matters that need co-ordinated action by all Australian governments.

Senator Cormann was correct when he said that, in his response, it was a non-response to the question as to why COAG was cancelled. He indicated COAG normally meets twice a year, and that will happen. In fact, yes, that's true; COAG does usually meet twice a year. However, according to the website:

… it will meet when needed and at times it has met up to four times in a year. COAG may also settle issues out-of-session by correspondence.

…   …   …

COAG's agenda is broad-ranging and focusses on improving the current and future wellbeing of all Australians.

The website goes on to say:

COAG has a strong record of driving reforms that have improved the lives of all Australians. For example, micro-economic reform linked to national competition policy in the mid-1990s …


COAG will continue to drive reforms that are vital to Australia’s future.

This is not just any meeting; this is a peak intergovernmental meeting across Australia. At the last minute, the Prime Minister started ringing around various premiers and chief ministers to advise them of the cancellation of COAG. So, when given an opportunity to explain why, the government today has squibbed that opportunity to explain why this peak intergovernmental forum has been cancelled.

This is not the first time that the government has failed to give an answer to the 'why' question. We know that, when persistently asked about why Prime Minister Turnbull had to go, the government is completely at their wit's end to explain why. We have essentially seen a rearrangement of the deck chairs on the Titanic here. A Prime Minister is knifed. We have a new Prime Minister. The Australian people want to know what happened, and we don't get an answer.

The cancellation of COAG is from the same government that one Prime Minister ago decided to cancel parliament. All Australians will remember 23 August—that amazing day when the House of Representatives was shut down, apparently at the request of Minister Dutton, in relation to the turmoil that was engulfing the government at that time in the lead-up to the leadership spill. That was a most extraordinary step by this government to basically abandon some key democratic principles of allowing the parliament to continue to debate the top issues of our country, and what arrogance and absolute disregard for the Australian people we saw in that step to cancel the sitting of the House of Representatives. I'm sure all Australians are disgusted by that event.

Of course, this government is at war with itself. It is hopelessly divided, and a government that is divided and warring with itself cannot be focused on the issues that are important to the Australian people. We, on this side, are focused on the key issues. Health, education and energy policy were some of the things that were going to be discussed at the COAG meeting—we want the chance to talk about those things. We want to talk about the cruel funding cuts that have been inflicted on Queensland hospitals and Queensland schools. Our candidate for Petrie, Corinne Mulholland, is so fed up with cuts to schools in the electorate of Petrie that she's brought the message down to Canberra this week. I know Corinne has met with Ms Plibersek, the Deputy Leader of the Opposition, to talk about the impact of these Liberal cuts on her local schools. A couple of those that are most eye-watering are the North Lakes State College, at $2½ million, and the Redcliffe State High School, at $1.13 million. We need a government that will get on with the job. (Time expired)

Question agreed to.