Tuesday, 11 February 2020
Questions without Notice: Take Note of Answers
Energy, Morrison Government
That the Senate take note of the answers given by the Minister for Finance (Senator Cormann) and the Minister for Trade, Tourism and Investment (Senator Birmingham) to questions without notice asked by Senators Marielle Smith and Sheldon today relating to coal-fired power stations.
I don't know where to start. I don't know if I should be standing with a top hat, singing like the circus leader: 'Gather round, everyone!' What was it? 'Roll up, roll up, roll up!' But I've got to say this very clearly. In all the moons that I've served in here, I have not seen a situation like the one we find ourselves as a nation in here today. Never before have I seen the coalition at each other's throats, whether it be over coal, promotions, leadership or rorts within the sports portfolio. Senator McKenzie is leaving, but I've got to say this: I reckon you're the fall guy, Senator McKenzie. I honestly believe you're the fall guy. There's no way you acted on your own with coloured bits of paper to make sure that there was rorting.
I'll tell you how bad it's got: it's got so bad that all the Nats have been relegated down to this end of the chamber and even Senator Henderson got promoted up. How badly are they going over that side? What an absolute rort!
Madam Deputy President, I rise on a point of order: the senator has reflected on Senator McKenzie in relation to her leaving the chamber, which is in defiance of the standing orders, and I would ask that he withdraw his comment and ensure that he doesn't reflect on her or any other senator in that way again.
Thank you, Senator Henderson. If you check the record, you will see that I often remind senators of that convention—it's not a standing order—and I would have reminded Senator Sterle at the conclusion of his contribution. Please continue, Senator Sterle, and bear in mind the point.
I will do that with pleasure, because I don't have to defend anyone over there, because that just goes to show there is no coalition over there. What we clearly have here in the rural and regional areas—and I think there are some decent people in the Nats. I think there really are some decent people who have come here to try and do good. The trouble is that the circus is being led by the clowns. Never before have we seen such white hot anger. Never before have we seen this carry-on going on between the Nats and the Libs. I honestly believe—for you, Madam Deputy President, and others that are listening—that they may be tigers out there in the bush but, for crying out loud, they're pussycats when they come here to Canberra. The only thing that they will stand up and fight for is their own personal pay packet. Look at the choice that they have—the choice of Mr McCormack. I don't know where his friends come from, but he dug a few up the other day. It's amazing what you can do to win a vote when you get the opportunity to offer ministries and assistant ministries.
It's amazing how much they are at each other's throats. They hate each other. I don't know if that's a word I can use, but I can't think of anything else. There is a very famous saying in politics that I think of when I look at the carry-on between the Libs and the Nats: if you can't govern yourself, how the hell can you govern the nation? The more they sit back and tear each other apart, the more they have the former leader, the member for New England, Mr Joyce, proudly saying, on the one hand, 'If I'm called to arms I'll stand up.' He was busily working the phones—surprise, surprise! He was called to arms. He couldn't even count 11. I know that, unfairly, Senator Cormann gets tagged as being the powerbroker, and he couldn't get that magical number, whatever it was, in the Liberal Party at the time. But it was a lot more than 11. In the next breath, Mr Joyce says: 'I won't challenge again. I'm only interested in having a strong National Party, and we're in a coalition.' How long did that last—17 hours?—before the headline about Joyce and Co. and the breakaway group and what they're going to do to demand coal-fired plants?
What happened to the days when the good old Country Party used to stand up for farmers? Where is the good old Country Party—even those as recent as Senator Boswell—that actually stood up for Australia's food producers? Where are those country members now? They are long, long gone. There are a couple of members in the Nats who actually come here with dirt under their fingernails—and that's a nice thing to have, because it proves they've worked for a living—but, by crikey, they're starting to fall into the same trap as the Libs: go through university, go and work in a parliamentary office, run for the state secretaryship of your party or whatever it may be, and come in here with no skills. I'm not looking at you two, Senator McDonald and Senator McMahon. You just happen to be there because the others were out of here like a rat up a drain. They've absolutely absconded, because they fall into that trap.
Senator Henderson interjecting—
You be careful too. You be very careful what you wish for, Senator Henderson.
It's just: 'How can I get a promotion?' Keep carrying on; I'm enjoying every bit. You know how we've got Aussie's here? I wish we had a popcorn-vending machine, because of the entertainment. There shouldn't be, but there's so much entertainment.
But, at the same time, how embarrassing for this nation! Look at the distress and the hatred. I've just travelled the nation doing an inquiry into the Inland Rail. One minute Mr Joyce, while he's trying to take out Mr McCormack, is talking about how it's great—'We've delivered the Inland Rail.' Well, I've got to tell you: I went to one town, Millmerran, and there is nothing great about that.
You know what, Nats? I've got to tell you: cut the umbilical cord. You're chucking the toys out of the cot, but this mob aren't your mates. This mob have no intention of looking after rural and regional people. These people love your vote. You're going the wrong way. (Time expired)
It's not often that I give the Labor Party free advice, but I will. I sat here and listened to Senator Sterle, and we heard the ridiculous line of questioning that we had again today in the Senate, which we've heard so many times here. It is like deja vu all over again. It does feel like 2018, 2017, 2016, 2015 or 2014—going right back to the election of the coalition government in 2013. The Labor Party believe, as we saw in their question time strategy today, that if they focus on the insider yarns that they're encouraged to take up by the twitterati and other parts of the commentariat then that is a recipe for electoral success. They believe that that is the way to win the hearts and minds of the Australian people. It is this flawed strategy of the Labor Party—focusing not on the fundamentals, not on what's important to the Australian community, but on the insider nitpicking yarns—that they believe is the pathway to electoral success. Well, Senator Sterle, I can tell you and I can tell Labor senators that we've seen this over the last 6½ years and it led them to a position where they received their lowest vote in 100 years. I wonder why that would be? It used to be Sam Dastyari who came in here and played these games. I haven't been here that long, 6½ years or a little under, but to have Senator Sterle lecturing the National Party and the Liberal Party on the diversity of experience coming from the Labor Party—I'm reminded of Martin Ferguson's words when it came to Labor senators, how they would find a place for the underperforming union hacks somewhere in the upper house if they couldn't get them anywhere else. So let's not be lectured by the likes of Senator Sterle on diversity when it comes to political parties.
But let's be clear for those who are listening and those who are watching—
You are correct, Senator Sterle: union thugs. I stand corrected, and I take the interjection. I thank Senator Sterle for the interjection.
But let's be clear on what's actually at stake and some of the things that we are actually debating.
Sorry, 'Miss 26 per cent'? Was it 26 per cent you got in New South Wales, Senator Keneally? I can't remember. You might be able to clarify the worse election result for New South Wales Labor under your leadership, but we'll come back to the fundamentals.
Senator Keneally interjecting—
The fundamentals are about a strong economy, border protection—sorry, Senator Keneally; I couldn't hear the interjection. What was it about New South Wales? Was it Eddie Obeid? I can't remember. Who was it in New South Wales that you're talking about?
Senator Keneally interjecting—
Why don't they want to ask questions about the economy? They took a plan to the last election for $387 billion of extra taxes. And as we respond to some of the challenges that we face, as we respond to the bushfire crisis—when they finally got to a question around the bushfire crisis, they didn't go into the overall response; they just tried to play word games with what the minister had said. They didn't go into the fact that we are delivering 6½ thousand personnel on the ground, $1,000 per eligible adult, $800 per child, $52.6 million paid out across 44,000 claims, the Australian government disaster recovery allowance, payments to volunteer firefighters, $75,000 recovery grants to primary producers, $50,000 grants to affected businesses, $500,000 loans—the list goes on. The reason we can do that is that we have focused on the fundamentals. Unlike the Labor Party, we have focused on the fundamentals: a strong economy, strong budgetary management, making sure we get the policies right.
As we debate the future of our nation, if the Labor Party's pathway forward is to continue with the insider nitpicking then they will continue to get the same results, and the Australian people will see what the Labor Party are about. When it comes to the Liberal and National government, we are about delivering a strong economy, a safe Australia, a prosperous Australia and the services that Australians deserve, which we can deliver because of our strong budgetary and economic management—something those across the aisle could only dream of. (Time expired)
Over the past couple of weeks we've had an absolute masterclass from this government in what they are today calling 'insider nitpicking'. We've had a masterclass in chaos from this government. We've had an absolute masterclass in division. We've had a masterclass in instability. And today, here in the Senate, we've had a masterclass in spin, because this government cannot admit that it just has no plan to take our country forward. And you have to ask: how can this government run the country in this state? How can they run the country when they cannot even run themselves?
Let's talk about the government's performance over the past couple of weeks, and in this chamber today. We've had two New South Wales members of the government—Mr Zimmerman and Mr Sharma—say that it is not the government's job to fund a new coal-fired power station and that they don't support it. At the very same time, we've had Senator Canavan and Mr Christensen—from Queensland—telling Queensland voters that the government is in fact funding a new coal-fired power station. Then, today, we heard from the minister, Senator Birmingham, who said, 'No, the government is not funding a coal-fired power station.' Which is it: yes or no? Who knows? This government is in absolute chaos. It is divided. It has no plan to deal with the big issues that are facing our country today. Today we heard a member of the government describe other members as 'toddlers having a tantrum', and we saw a bit of that in the chamber here today. Yesterday one of their former prime ministers condemned the government's support for this proposed coal-fired power station. Then, on the other hand, a Queensland senator called the renewable energy sector the dole bludgers of the energy system—of course, we could only be referring there to Senator Canavan. So, again, what is this government's plan? What is its policy? Does it support renewable energy or does it not support renewable energy?
Let's talk about the feasibility study. What is it actually about? It is $4 million of taxpayers' money being spent on a study for a coal-fired power station that no-one in the private sector wants to touch. No-one in the private sector wants to go anywhere near coal-fired power stations right now. If the government is proposing to support this, what is it doing with taxpayers' money? If the private sector doesn't want to go anywhere near it—if it doesn't want to take the risk—then why risk taxpayers' money? The answer has been on show here today and over the past couple of weeks. This feasibility study is $4 million being spent to just shut up the climate deniers in the coalition who are in the government today. So chaos, division, instability, confusion, different answers to the same question and different points of view within the party is what this government is putting on show for the Australian people right now.
The big problem for the Australian people is that this means that the government cannot deliver on the big challenges that are facing the country today. It just does not have a plan for anything. Government MPs and senators are speaking out against their own leadership. We've had the Nationals in a leadership coup. Just yesterday, the government lost a vote, losing control in the House of Representative and losing the vote on an important position for the government. Those in the government have no idea what is coming at them at the moment. How are they meant to be governing the country when they cannot even govern themselves? They like to talk about the economy. Where is their plan for the economy? They don't have a plan for the climate, they don't have a plan to tackle energy prices or the cost of living and they don't have a plan to take Australia forward, because they are so focused on themselves—on their own internal divisions and their own chaos—that they cannot deliver what Australians need today. (Time expired)
It's really quite interesting to stand up and take note today, having heard people go on and on about division and conflict and leadership and so forth. They think that if they say it often enough it will become so, but it just doesn't work that way at all. In fact, I find it quite disturbing that those opposite have a culture that finds it so unhealthy, so unusual for people to think for themselves, to debate among themselves and to try and work together to come up with new ideas. In fact, I would like to hope that when each and every one of those people opposite put up their hand to come to parliament they might have thought, even just for a moment: 'Boy, I'd like to contribute some ideas. I'd like to bring my life experience and my learning and my ideas and my community's perspectives into the parliament and debate it with my colleagues so, together, we can come up with a great, refined fabulous policy.' But instead those on the other side come in here and go, 'Yes, I want to be a robot who doesn't think for themselves, who doesn't debate with colleagues.'
In fact, in question time yesterday we even had those opposite criticising a government member of the Senate for having an open mind. Can you believe it? What treachery! What heresy for a person to have an open mind, to think for themselves, to consider evidence on its merits using their brain that the good Lord gave them and to reach conclusions based on that evidence. Isn't that an extraordinary thing! And yet those opposite think that that is heresy. The people of Australia should be horrified to hear that those opposite have a problem with open-mindedness, with thinking, with debate, with people bringing their varied experience and ideas and the perspectives of the different communities they come from into this place to make up a healthy broad church where we work through problems together. You know what? That's exactly what we're doing.
Senator Walsh, in what was a very good-natured display, said: 'We have no plan to take our country forward. Where is your plan?' Thank you for the invitation, Senator Walsh. We have an outstanding plan that we are delivering day in, day out for the Australian people. I don't have enough time to go through all of it, but let's get cracking so we can get through some of the gems. Instead of smashing Australians with $387 billion worth of new taxes, we're all about getting more opportunity into the lives of Australians. We're all about getting more money into the pockets of Australians, not into big government far away in Canberra, because Australians know what they want to do with their money. We have given 8.1 million hardworking Australians around $6.1 billion in additional income. This isn't a gift from government; this is allowing Australians to keep more of what they earn, what they deserve, because they know what they need to do with their money. We're not about redistribution; we are about reward for effort. When Australians want to deliver for their families, we want to deliver for them too, so we give them more of their money back in their pockets. And it has flow-on effects: more ability for people to spend in their local communities, more growth for local businesses and more jobs. That is a virtuous cycle we just love here on the government side of the chamber.
We are always working hard to make sure Australians are getting ahead, every day of the week. That's why we are so focused on jobs. There have been over 1.3 million new jobs created by the private sector in the term of this government. It's an enormous number of new, real jobs. And we won't stop; we will keep on going, because Australians depend on it for their livelihood. That's how we give them choice. It's how we give them the freedom to live a life of their own design, to reach their goals and to reach their potential. We know big government can't design, with its pulling of levers, the perfect life for all people. That is something that can only be determined in the heart of the individual. We are putting the tools back in the hands of Australians so they can design their perfect lives with their money, their time, their family and a whole lot less of the interfering, we-know-best approach that we get from those opposite.
What an interesting debate. We're hearing about all the things that the government are doing, yet they are spending their entire time fighting each other. We had the comments from Senator Cormann earlier. In actual fact, I agree with Senator Cormann that Senator Canavan got it wrong when he said, 'Renewables are the dole bludgers of the energy system.' We're on a unity ticket! We think that that comment is stupid, and the Minister representing the Prime Minister also thinks it's stupid. But the Liberal and National parties are boxing it out. Why is the fact that they are boxing it out so important? Because the economy is in some serious trouble. It was reported late last week that non-paying creditors have jumped by 29 per cent, and that defaults have increased to 64 per cent in 2019 in the transport industry. In 2019, health care went up by 79 per cent. The economy is in trouble, and this is not postcoronavirus and not post the bushfire challenges; these are the problems which exist because this government is in an absolute mess.
We heard a comment before about robots. I think what we're seeing across the other side of the chamber are the robot wars. They're battling it out amongst each other, trying to tear each other's arms off, rather than trying to get the economy to start ticking over in a fashion that everyone needs it to. We see that wages growth is not moving. We see that there is no plan to deal with systematic wage and superannuation theft. We see chronic underemployment—over two million Australians can't get the hours that they're seeking. There is no plan for the economy and there is no plan for energy, but there is a plan for the robots about how to bash each other up and tear each other's arms off. Unfortunately, we're seeing that day in and day out.
I think that universally people thought Tim Fischer, the former leader of the National Party, was a pretty good bloke. He was admired right around the country. And I think his wife has also been greatly admired. According to reports today, it was her pleas for unity that the currently embattled leader, Michael McCormack, was forced to deliver to the divided coalition room. She told Mr McCormack that her husband would 'want us all to stand firm together'. That's an obvious point! That was because the challenges in the economy are significant, and yet the government is spending its time tearing itself apart.
To see the National Party holding a vote for the deputy leader on the same day that we were making condolences for many of their own constituents and for many Australians who fought on behalf of so many others—putting their lives on the line and sometimes losing them—was an absolute tragedy. We have to turn around and look at the sorts of changes that we can make together. But I would say this to the coalition first of all: can you start working out what you're going to do rather than spending your time beating the living daylights out of each other? I agree with Minister Cormann: we have to have a position to make a difference in this parliament, not just an opportunity to watch the other side turn around and tear itself apart.
I know that when we have this number of defaults and creditors in the trucking industry it means that people start losing jobs. The government has no plan. I note that when there are wage freezes and underemployment that people can't provide for their families. But the government has no plan! I see $6 billion being ripped off from the Australian community in billions of dollars of superannuation and wages, and that the government has no plan to recoup it. It's quite clear that all this government has is a plan on how to beat the living daylights out of each other. We've seen this time and time again.
We've seen that with the sorts of divisions there were when Mr Abbott was Prime Minister. We saw the divisions when Mr Turnbull was the Prime Minister. In actual fact, we were reminded by Senator Cormann about his time in the Turnbull government. Well, we're finding the exact same issues right now: fighting at a time of crisis. This is when we need to be making sure that this country is put first, but the divisions in the government and within their parties— (Time expired)
Question agreed to.