Thursday, 27 February 2020
At the request of senator Gallagher, I move general business notice of motion No. 512:
That the Senate notes that—
(a) after six years in office, the economy is floundering on the Government’s watch;
(b) Australians are struggling with stagnant wages, with wage growth stalling further;
(c) net debt has more than doubled under this Government;
(d) the Government does not have a plan to boost wages or growth in the economy; and
(e) it is because of the Government’s failures that Australia meets the challenges and uncertainties of the bushfires and coronavirus from a position of weakness, not strength.
There are so many people on the Labor side who would absolutely love to discuss this matter. So, even though there is considerable time, please take my short contribution only as a generosity to my colleagues, who have great things to say. There is so much wrong with this government. The gap between what the government say themselves about how good they are at managing the economy and what they're actually doing is like in a relationship where somebody promises that they're going to be a particular way and, bit by bit, you find out that they are not what they said they would be. That's exactly the case with this government.
The content of the notice of motion that we're discussing today is to note these critical things: that after six years—and it is now seven years—in office, the economy is actually floundering on this government's watch. In absolute contrast to what it is that they put out there and claim day after day, week after week, year after year, like drips on a stone. People have had this oil poured into their ears and they've been inclined to believe it for a little while, but the truth is coming out. It's coming out that this economy is in great trouble because they are not the economic managers that they claim to be.
We know that Australians are struggling with stagnant wages, with wage growth stalling further. That is the reality that's happening under this government. We know that net debt has more than doubled under this government and that the government doesn't have a plan to boost wages or grow the economy. It is because of this government's succession of failures that Australia meets the challenges and uncertainties of the bushfire summer that has just passed and the coronavirus from a position of economic weakness, not strength. That is what we are here to talk about this afternoon.
In the language around debt that this government has inflicted on the nation over the years, they claim they are great economic managers. I decided that I would do what Australians do for their sources of information, because I can tell you that you cannot trust the Prime Minister. He is very loose with the truth. You cannot trust Mr Frydenberg, for example, who declared outright last year in his budget speech that we were 'back in black'. Not that we were going to be, but that Australia 'back in black' and 'back on track'. He was so confident in that, and so were the Liberal Party, in their masquerade, in their deception to the Australian people, that they decided they'd cash in by actually creating a product to improve their chances of fundraising for the election. They actually came up with this little official 'back in black' mug. It was a limited edition. They said:
The 2019 Budget delivers the first surplus in more than a decade. Mark this event with the official Back in Black mug.
The problem is that it's just not true. What they really should have put out was 'still in the red', because that was the reality at the time that this government was declaring to Australians, in April last year, that the accounts were back in black.
This government has seen debt spiral. If we go back to 2011, this government was sitting with $191 billion of gross debt. You don't need to take my word for it. Just go to Wikipedia. It's not hard to find; it's the first search result that comes up. It has a table—
Well, you will have to use the screen on your own laptop or iPad to see the truth of what I'm telling you. Any Australian who cares to hear the truth, that this government wants to deny, that they are a failure as economic managers, just Google 'Australian government debt' and you will get the facts on Wikipedia. These are the facts. In 2010 there was $147 billion of gross debt. They worked pretty hard on that with their great mantra of 'jobs and growth' and by 2011 they grew the debt to $191 billion. By 2012, they grew Australia's national debt to $233 billion. Not happy with that, in 2013 they bumped it up a little further, to $257 billion. Well, by this time there was a pattern emerging. Under the Liberal-National parties, who claim to be great economic managers, who came in to fix the debt crisis, debt went up and up and up—and it continues. In 2013, even though they don't want to accept it, they must have seen there was a bit of a pattern here. I remember that they came in here and did a bit of a deal with the Greens to get rid of the debt ceiling, which was then sitting at $300 billion, because they knew they were going to fly past that. Indeed, that is exactly what they did. By 2014, this government, these so-called good economic managers, had Australia's gross debt at $319 billion. In 2015, it was $368 billion. In 2016, it was $420 billion. In 2017, it was $500 billion. In 2018—it keeps going up—it was $531 billion, and in 2019, according to this source, as of last week it was $541 billion. That is the truth about this government and their capacity to manage the economy. They have celebrated a surplus that doesn't exist. They sold congratulatory mugs on their website. They've lifted debt year after year for seven years in a row. This is economic mismanagement that has resulted in the stagnation of our economy and placed an incredible burden on families. And to do that with a sort of little double-deal, a little shuffle of the pea and thimble trick that they tried in April last year in the budget, when they declared that they were back in black—to even do that in that deceptive way, what they did was bank $4.6 billion from the NDIS. That was money that was there and should have gone out to people with disability. This government pulled that money out, yanked it out, and shoved it over onto what they declared as a surplus—a non-existent surplus—all the while racking up debt year after year. This government can find money and raise money for themselves in the bushfire crisis with a donation button, but they still cannot manage to raise the funds to get the budget back in black. This mob are no AC/DC. They're a show, and they've got the greatest showman on Earth at the front with all the sales lines and all the magic marketing phrases of Mr Morrison. The reality is that this is a government that is incapable of managing the economy of Australia. Australians are paying the price of a government that has no plan for jobs, no plan for wage growth and no plan to address climate change that Australians know, as of last summer, is reality. It's Mr Morrison and his government full of slogans, but they have no plan for our economy.
As the last election result showed in absolutely no uncertain terms, Australians are no fools when it comes to knowing the economic management of this country could not be in better hands than those of the coalition government. The intelligence and intuition of Australians could only be insulted by any suggestion that somehow they got it wrong by making sure Prime Minister Morrison and Treasurer Frydenberg continued to command the nation's economic shift.
It's about time those opposite showed some respect to those Australians and the fact they got it right. With one-third of the budget spent on welfare and the usual cries and intellectually bereft suggestions that the Newstart allowance should be raised simply ignores the fair way in which the Morrison government is managing welfare payments with the highest standards of fiscal responsibility while retaining the sensitivity needed to support those in hardship. The Morrison government is extremely sensitive to the pressing needs of Australians doing it tough, and, as I've said previously, any suggestion to the contrary is pure mischief. But, once again, it's time to correct the public record of our welfare commitments and focus on the facts.
Once again, it's necessary to highlight that the Newstart rate increases every six months. It's boosted in accordance with the CPI. Please take note of this, and perhaps you might want to all write it down using indelible ink: 99 per cent of recipients receive additional payments. Newstart will always be increased by indexation, and that's not going to change. Labor knows full well the recipients are not just receiving Newstart. They know that rental assistance and other measures are also supporting people in challenging circumstances as they seek employment. They know Newstart and youth allowance are often supplemented by a fortnightly energy payment and rental assistance payments. Nineteen per cent of unemployed people receive family payments, and that's just for starters. The Morrison government remains committed to focusing on the key issues—
It's something you might want to have a really good listen to, Senator Pratt. We're actually focused on the key issue of securing employment. Just look at the Morrison government's recent record on jobs. It makes for fantastic reading: employment grew by 1.9 per cent through the year to January 2020, which is almost double the OECD average and compares to the 0.7 per cent when we came to office. The last three months of jobs data have beaten median market expectations with around 800,000 jobs created. On average, over the past 12 months, a record 74.5 per cent of the population aged 15 to 64 had a job, which the RBA governor said was, 'Fantastic.' There are more people in jobs and fewer people on welfare, pushing welfare dependency to its lowest level in 30 years, with 100,000 fewer working-age people on welfare over the past year.
The December quartile retail trade volumes increased by half a per cent, beating median market expectations. It's the fastest increase since the June quarter 2018. This followed the largest increase in household disposable income in a decade in the September quarter 2019, following the government's low- and middle-income tax offsets, putting money back into the pockets of Australians, which boosted income by $4.5 billion in the quarter. December also saw a trade surplus for a record 24 consecutive months, bringing the trade balance to $67.6 billion in 2019—a record high.
The housing market continues to strengthen, with house prices up 5.2 per cent over the year. The value of new housing loans is up by 14 per cent over the year to December 2019—the biggest increase in almost three years and above market expectations. Building approvals are also up by 2.7 per cent over the year, with the RBA expecting residential construction to support activity by the end of this year. The number of owner-occupied loan commitments to first home buyers increased by 6.2 per cent in December to be 21.3 per cent higher through the year. First home buyers now make up 34.9 per cent of total owner-occupier loans—well above the 10-year average.
On 7 February the RBA Governor noted: 'Loan arrear rates are coming down. The number of people who have problems with their personal debt is coming down.' So it looks like balance sheets are in a better position across a range of dimensions. This improvement is supported by the introduction of the government's low and middle income tax offset, with more than $6 billion already paid out to more than 8 million taxpayers. Then there is the impressive wage growth. It's expected to gradually pick up across the forward estimates, supported by ongoing employment growth. Wages, as measured by the wage price index, rose by 2.2 per cent through the year to the December quarter. Real wages grew by 0.4 per cent through the year to the December quarter, slightly lower than the 20-year average; however, over the past ten years growth in the WPI has usually outpaced CPI.
Compensation of employees was up five per cent in through-the-year terms in the September quarter, compared to 3.5 per cent in the September quarter 2013. In Australia, as in other advanced economies, the response of wages to improving labour market conditions has been slower and more muted than in past cycles, but this is partly explained by lower inflation expectations and spare capacity in the labour market, as indicated by broader measures of labour underutilisation. Strong employment growth has also drawn people into the labour market who were not previously looking for work.
Going forward, wage growth will be supported by the key drivers of wages: spare capacity in the labour market, inflation and labour productivity. Spare capacity in the labour market is being reduced, with employment increasing by 247,400 people during the 12 months to January 2020. Inflation is likely to pick up and be within the RBA's target band by the June quarter of 2021. Wage growth is expected to pick up in through-the-year terms to 2.5 per cent to the June quarter of 2020 and the June quarter of 2021. In the projection years, wage growth is projected to pick up to be a further 2¾ per cent in 2022 and three per cent in 2023 as spare capacity is reduced. The WPI grew by 2.2 per cent through the year to the December quarter 2019, up from 1.9 per cent through the year to the June quarter 2017. Average earnings on a national accounts basis, another measure of wage growth which is calculated as the total compensation of employees divided by total employees, increased by 0.7 per cent in the September quarter 2019 to be 2.9 per cent higher through the year. Total compensation of employees increased by 1.1 per cent in the September quarter to be five per cent higher through the year. Total company profits increased by 1.7 per cent to 11.1 per cent higher through the year.
Spare capacity in the labour market is an important factor influencing wage growth, as are consumer price investments. The unemployment rate was 5.3 per cent in January 2020, down from a recent peak of 6.4 per cent in October 2014. In the December quarter, the trend means that CPI, a measure of underlying inflation, increased by 0.4 per cent to be 1.6 per cent higher through the year. I realise that there are a lot of numbers here, but I hope particularly for Senator O'Neill's sake that she is taking a great deal of note of them.
The Mid-Year Economic and Fiscal Outlook forecasts for wage growth are consistent with the broad consensus among economists for a pick-up in wage growth. Treasury's projections of economic parameters, including wage growth, from 2021-22 onwards are determined by medium-term methodology introduced in the 2014-15 budget.
But wait. The economic measures of living standards provide even more encouraging news. Household disposable income, as measured by the ABS in the national accounts, increased by 5.1 per cent through the year to September. Strong growth in household disposable income in the September quarter was driven by a decline in income tax payable due to the introduction of the low and middle income tax offset. The WPI grew at a faster rate than all of the selected living cost indexes over the year to the December quarter, with the pensioner and beneficiary living cost index rising by 1.8 per cent. CPI rose by 1.8 per cent through the year, and real household disposable income rose by 3.2 per cent through to September 2019. Real household disposable income is calculated by deflating nominal household disposable income by the household final consumption expenditure deflator. In contrast, the real wage, seasonally adjusted, increased by 0.4 per cent through the year to the December quarter.
Australia's labour market remains sound, with employment growth above its long-run average and the participation rate close to a recent record high. Since September 2013, more than 1.5 million jobs have been created, and labour force participation is around record high levels. Through the year, jobs growth to January 2020 was 1.9 per cent—stronger than the OECD average. This compares with growth of 0.7 per cent recorded in September 2013. Employment increased by 13,500 people in January 2020 to be 247,400 persons higher over the past year. Around 239,800 jobs have been created every year on average since September 2013.
Employment growth has remained consistently above the 10-year average for the past three years. Almost 60 per cent of employment growth over the past year has been in full-time jobs; 2018-19 was the strongest financial year for full-time jobs growth in 11 years. Over 80 per cent of these jobs created in 2018-19 were full-time. The participation rate has increased to 66.1 per cent in January 2020, remaining close to its record high of 66.2 per cent in August 2019, compared with the 64.9 per cent recorded in September 2013. Additionally, a record high of almost three-quarters of Australians aged between 15 and 64 have a job. More than 890,000 females have found employment since September 2013, representing 59 per cent of the more than 1.5 million jobs created. In fact, female employment has increased by over 183,000 in the last 12 months, with more than two-thirds of these jobs being full-time. Rising female participation has driven the participation rate higher. The female participation rate set a record high of 61.5 per cent in January 2020.
But the good news just keeps on coming. The gender pay gap is at a record low. Older Australians are also benefitting from stronger labour market conditions. Workforce participation for those aged 65 and over is also around a record high. The underemployment rate is the number of employed persons who want to work more hours as a share of the labour force and is a complementary measure of spare capacity in the labour market in addition to the unemployment rate. Employment is forecast to expand over the forecast horizon, underpinned by a pick-up in economic activity. Employment is forecast to grow at 1¾ per cent through the year to the June quarter 2020 and the June quarter 2021.
There have been 1.5 million jobs created since the election of the coalition government in 2013. The minimum wage has increased every year since 2013 at the rate of at least 2.4 per cent. The real minimum wage under Labor was cut twice between 2007 and 2013—a sad fact that provided even more evidence of the need for the repairs and reforms of the coalition that have produced such stunning results for the Australian people.
I rise to contribute to this debate on the motion moved by Senator Gallagher, which relates to our economy. I'm particularly focused on elements of the motion around Australians who are struggling with stagnant wages, with wage growth stalling even further, and point (d) in particular:
the Government does not have a plan to boost wages or growth in the economy.
It is clear that the government doesn't have a plan to boost wages or growth in the economy. In fact, many people feel very excluded from our economy, and that's why I want to focus today on the issues around Newstart.
The previous speaker from the government was just speaking about Newstart and was having a go at a number of us on this side of the chamber, saying that we don't really know what we're talking about, in terms of the need to increase Newstart, because—didn't you know?—most of the people on Newstart are also getting other payments. Well, let's just have a little look at that. Let's look at what most of the people on Newstart are getting in additional payments. There's the energy supplement. Guess how much that is, folks? It's $8.80 per fortnight. You can buy yourself two cups of coffee a fortnight on your energy supplement. You can live it up when you're on Newstart! Let's look at rent assistance. For a single person, it's $138 a fortnight. If you add on Newstart, do you know what you get per week? If you get those two most common additional payments, you get $318.25. Do you know what the poverty line is? There are arguments about what the poverty line is, but if you take it to be half the median household income, it's $426.30. That's the poverty line. What are you getting if you're lucky enough to get Newstart, the energy supplement and the maximum rent assistance? You're getting $318.25. You are still more than $100 a week below the poverty line. So, please, government members, do not try to lecture us about the inadequacies of Newstart. If you really care, go out and talk to the people that are trying to live on Newstart and then you'll know what their life is like. You'll know what it's like to live below the poverty line. So, please, get over yourselves and don't keep up this absolute nonsense that all these people on Newstart are so lucky because they get all these other payments. Yes, they might get a few additional payments—the whole $8.80 per fortnight from the energy supplement. When they say most people get additional payments, that's the payment they're talking about: the extra cup of coffee a week. And you've got to be careful where you spend that, because if you're buying in Perth you can pay over five bucks for a cup of coffee. In Perth you can't even get a cup of coffee for your $4.40 a week extra from your energy supplement.
One of the ways that we can stimulate the economy is by increasing Newstart. We know that the report by Deloitte Access Economics, which was released in 2018, was based on a $75 increase to Newstart. That increase has been proposed for some time, but, because the government has failed so consistently to increase Newstart, ACOSS is now calling for an increase of $95 a week to meet cost of living increases. But if you look at the Deloitte Access Economics analysis of the positive impact of raising Newstart and the impact it would have on the economy—even based on a $75 increase; and, as I said, as the cost of living has increased, so too has the need to increase Newstart even further, to at least $95—it's very interesting.
I must say that people were constantly talking to me or phoning our office and saying that the $75 wasn't enough. We're now getting people ringing and saying that $95 isn't enough. I acknowledge that $95 will not take us to the point I was just talking about, which is making sure that Newstart actually takes people above the poverty line. It's quite clear that $95 won't do that. I was actually using a fairly low level for the poverty line there, so, even using that level, you can see that $95 would not take a single person above the poverty line, even if they had all those other supplements.
But what Deloitte Access Economics found was that by investing, by $75 a week, in those people who are trying to survive on Newstart you would lift the Australian economy by $4 billion. This has a lot to do with the fact that when you're living below the poverty line and you actually get an increase then you spend that money straightaway to meet your costs of living, to make sure you're paying your bills, to make sure you can actually feed your kids, to make sure you can send your kids to school with lunches. And that's what surveys have consistently found—that parents sometimes are not able to send their kids to school with lunches, and parents on Newstart in particular are frequently going without food themselves. So, if you're a single person or you're trying to raise kids on Newstart, you will be investing that money in your wellbeing and your family's wellbeing. In other words, you're spending it straightaway. That's automatically injecting money into the economy. We know that people living below the poverty line will spend those extra dollars to make sure they're looking after the essentials, such as food, heating and housing—spreading it throughout the economy.
But the Deloitte Access Economics report also found that it would create 12,000 extra jobs in Australia. By spending that money, we can generate 12,000 extra jobs and then of course address the issues around employment. I just heard Senator Hughes talking about all those extra jobs the government's generated. I'll come back to that in a minute, but today it was reported that 1.2 million Australians were underemployed last year, and this problem is likely to get worse. With the stupid way that we measure employment in this country—and quite frankly it is stupid—you're counted as employed if you've got a job for an hour a week. How ridiculous is that? So, quote all the figures you want, but we know, from this data, that at least 1.2 million Australians are underemployed.
I just heard claims made about the people who have come off income support. It was a claim that over 100,000 people had come off income support. At the last estimates we identified 104,000 people who had been breached through the government's flawed targeted compliance framework—up to three demerit points, and then they get reviewed. The government keeps saying that people aren't penalised when they get a demerit point. In fact, they are, because their payments are suspended. When I asked how many of those are reconnecting, the government finally admitted that 104,000 people had not reconnected. And when I asked what had happened to them they said, 'Oh, we just assume they've got a job'—which is not fair to assume at all, because we know there are a lot of people who are dropping out of the system. Fortunately some of this data does show up when we look at the Community Development Program, which is targeted mainly at First Nations people in remote communities. But from that the data for the jobs generated and the data for the people who have come off income support don't match. In other words, there are people who are not accessing income support and are making do with support from their family. So, you cannot assume that those 104,000 people have gone into work. And I'm very concerned that they have in fact come off income support when they were suspended and haven't reconnected and now are finding other ways of trying to exist, including support from their families.
You would think that in the midst of figures like this, with so many people who are underemployed or unemployed, the government would jump at the chance to create these extra jobs as well as inject money into the economy that would get spent straightaway, therefore boosting the economy. We argue that investment in Newstart is not only investment in people and community but also an investment in boosting our economy. A stronger economy means that the government can raise extra taxes, and it's postulated that they could earn up to a billion dollars extra in taxes by making sure that we are boosting the economy.
Boosting income support payments would also have a positive effect on our health and social services budget, because we know that unemployment and poverty are linked to poorer health outcomes, including poorer mental health outcomes and chronic disease. Inadequate payments contribute to housing insecurity and homelessness. Increasing Newstart would also have an impact on the not-for-profit sector by reducing the need for people to rely on food relief, emergency services and frontline services. We know that income support payments are one of the main drivers of poverty in this country. As I have just demonstrated, by keeping Newstart at a level that is way below the poverty line the government continues to trap people in poverty. And as we know from the Australian Council of Social Service report released just at the end of last week, 3.24 million people are living in poverty and 774,000 children are living in poverty. We know that we can help those people by increasing Newstart. We can help their wellbeing and also help them actually find work. We know from the research that poverty is a barrier to employment. By increasing Newstart, you address people's economic wellbeing, you address their social wellbeing and you assist people to find work. So it has this extra impact as well.
Imagine what a $95-a-week increase to Newstart would provide for our economy and to people who are living on income support in terms of helping them to not be trapped in poverty. There is no doubt that keeping Newstart low acts as a barrier to employment. The current rate of Newstart and related payments does not cover basic living costs, let alone the additional costs of looking for work, such as internet, transport and clothing. And we all know that it's now absolutely essential that you have a phone and the internet when you're trying to find work, in particular because the government is driving people to the digital platforms through compliance requirements and through Centrelink. The ongoing stress and struggle to make ends meet can detract from job search activities and undermine health and wellbeing, further undermining people's employment prospects. If we give people an increase in Newstart, we help people live with dignity and we help them to increase their chances of finding work.
I really want to touch on the issues around people living in rural and regional areas, because we know that poverty is at a higher rate in those rural and regional areas. David Tennant, CEO of Shepparton FamilyCare, noted that the low rate of Newstart is:
… devastating rural and regional communities, where unemployment was widespread, and had become a structural level of poverty almost impossible to escape.
It's just a bizarre, slightly cruel conundrum that we're requiring people to go to government funded agencies to get emergency relief, when what really should be happening is they're paid a respectful amount of money that they can constantly survive on.
Last year, the National Rural Health Commissioner also explained how people in rural and regional areas have worse health outcomes, again demonstrating the fact that we need to make sure that we are enabling people to live on an adequate payment. We need to raise Newstart by $95 a week, which will help our economy and, most importantly, help people live with some dignity.
I too rise to speak in today's general business debate on economic conditions. The Liberals like to paint themselves as the superior economic managers, but as we've heard from people on this side—from Senator Siewert and from Senator O'Neill earlier—they're not. It's a con that they've perpetrated on the people of Australia by pretending to be in surplus when they weren't, and I think the people of Australia are waking up to it. I think they understand that the claim that the government is managing everything so well is falling apart. I think the Australian people know that it's rubbish. We've got the economy floundering. The government's economic narrative just unravels day by day. Whenever you open a newspaper, you see something else about it.
The Prime Minister likes to say, 'That's just the Canberra-bubble talk,' and tries to dismiss it, but we all know that the disastrous state of the economy is hurting Australian households. It's hurting Australian people. It's hurting Australia's small and family businesses. It's hurting people who are looking for work—Australian jobseekers. We know also that the prices of essential services are going up. Wages are falling or stagnant. As a result, household living standards are going backwards.
Those on the other side are so good at trying to blame Labor for absolutely everything that they muck up. They are a third-term government. If they were one of my children trying to blame one of my other children for something that happened years ago, I would be having more than severe words with them. I would be telling them to grow up. That's what those on the other side need to do. They need to grow up and they need to take responsibility. They can't keep blaming Labor for their economic failures. They can't blame the bushfires and they can't blame the coronavirus, because, before the bushfires and before the coronavirus, the government were already presiding over a weak economy. Those on the other side have no plans except on how to rort the system. They have no plans to boost the economy, which, as we all know, is more than floundering; it's in decline. It's a disaster. It is just a disaster for anyone who, as Senator Siewert said, is on Newstart and even for families on average incomes. How are you expected to cope if the prices of all your essential services are going up and your wages aren't going up as well? I don't know. They think they're Einstein on that side, but, truly, a three- or four-year-old could do the maths and work out that they're just wrong.
They've got no plans at all. They have no plans for jobs and employment. We know that, when they talk about employment numbers going up, they're referring to people who are often doing just one hour of work a week. People have to work multiple jobs, when they can find multiple jobs, just to be able to afford the basics of life. There's not enough work out there. Unemployment's too high. There's no job creation on that side. Maybe there's a bit for their mates that they've managed to give money to through sports rorts, but other than that there's no plan at all. There's no plan for wage growth, and we know that they have no plan for climate change.
The government had a plan before the last election, but do you know what that plan was? That plan was to buy its way into government, to buy its way back into power by putting up a showman, by putting Mr Morrison out front, and by doling out money to the marginal electorates through the sports rorts. What really irks me about all of this is that they used taxpayers' money to do that. The taxpayers are not silly. Senator Hughes made a comment about how smart the Australian voters and taxpayers are. Yes, they are. I doubt that they are going to put up with this sort of thing for very much longer. What the government didn't have before the last election, and still doesn't have, was a plan to make the economy work for all Australians. It is probably working for some Australians but not for all Australians.
I mentioned the surplus, or the alleged surplus—I have to be a bit careful about my wording here, because we know there isn't a surplus. It was just alleged there was a surplus and, as we saw, there was a marketing strategy for their own fundraising around that alleged surplus, but there was never a surplus, and it was a bit of a magic show of moving money around a bit to try and get the surplus. But they did claim, on budget night last year, that a surplus had been achieved. To me, that's a bit like building a Lego model before you've got the pieces out of the box and saying that you've built the Lego model. It's just not on.
Mr Morrison and, of course, Mr Frydenberg are hoping that Australians will forget all of that—that they will forget that the economy has been deteriorating under their watch for the past six years, long before the bushfires and long before the coronavirus hit. I don't think that Australians will forget that. I think Australians know that the government didn't have a plan for the economy then, at the election time, and they still don't have a plan now.
Let me just talk about what Labor did, even though it was six or seven years ago—sorry, longer than that, I suppose. You have been there for—what is it?—seven years, seven long years. Under Labor, Australia became one of the two fastest-growing economies in the OECD, and we were the eighth-fastest-growing when the government changed hands in 2013. Under the Liberals, we've dropped to 20th—from eight to 20. The economy is even weaker now than it was when Labor was in government, even though we had to deal with the biggest economic downturn since the Great Depression. It was Labor's economic stimulus that saved Australia from recession during the global financial crisis, and we kept a quarter of a million Australians in work—a quarter of a million people who would have lost their jobs. So I find it really hypocritical of those opposite that they can't take responsibility for anything, let alone their economic failure, despite the criticism that they hurled at us. They can dish it out, of course—they're very good at dishing it out—but they can't take it. Whatever those opposite claim, let's be clear: our economic record stands on its own. But they've had six years to improve it—they're a third term government—and instead they've just made everything worse. We know that they cannot be trusted with the economy.
I just want to quickly, in the last couple of minutes I've got, have a little chat about some economic statistics and facts, just to reiterate my point. Economic growth, as we know, is at its lowest level since the global financial crisis. Productivity fell last financial year. The net debt has more than doubled, and gross debt has risen to over half a trillion dollars. Just have a think about that. When Mr Abbott was Prime Minister, he declared a debt and deficit disaster. Unemployment is high. There are almost two million Australians looking for work or for more work. As I said, there are people in Australia who are working maybe three jobs just to try and make ends meet—just to be able to feed their kids or get their kids their school uniforms or schoolbooks. They do not want to have holidays to Hawaii or anything; they're just trying to make ends meet. Labour productivity actually went backwards for the first time on record. Since Labor started talking about slow wage growth, it's actually slowed even further. So we've got the Morrison government presiding over the worst wages growth on record. That cannot be good for the economy. People need money to spend money. When you let wages stagnate, people cannot spend the money—let alone people on Newstart, who, as we've heard, don't have the money to spend anyway. They're struggling more than other people. They don't bank the money. People on low incomes or Newstart do not bank money. They spend just about every cent they get just trying to survive.