Thursday, 4 February 2021
At the request of Senator Gallagher, I move:
That the Senate—
(a) notes that:
(i) under the Morrison Government the Australian economy entered the coronavirus pandemic from a position of weakness not strength,
(ii) Australia has experienced the deepest recession in almost a century and the decisions the Morrison Government is taking are making things worse for hardworking Australians,
(iii) the Morrison Government intends to terminate JobKeeper at the end of March despite having no jobs plan to replace it and with 1.6 million Australians continuing to rely on the payment,
(iv) 2 million more Australians remain out of work or are working less hours than they need to support their families,
(v) unemployment is forecast to remain above pre-pandemic levels over the next three years,
(vi) wages growth, already at records lows under the Morrison Government, is expected to remain stagnant, and
(vii) Prime Minister Morrison deliberately excluded 928,000 people aged 35 and over from hiring subsidies; and
(b) expresses its disappointment that after racking up more than $1 trillion in debt and with no plan for jobs, the Morrison Government plans to cut wages, cut super and wind back consumer protections in the banking system that risks weakening the recovery and will leave too many Australians behind.
I'm very pleased to have an opportunity to speak in relation to this matter. We are in a position today where the Australian economy is in a very fragile state indeed. The Australian economy is in a very fragile state in part because of the coronavirus pandemic and because the public health response and the response of economies around the world has plunged the Australian economy into the deepest recession in nearly 100 years. But it's also in a fragile state because the underlying fundamentals of the Australian economy were very weak indeed in 2019, and they were very weak during the years leading up to 2019.
The Australian economy was characterised by low wages, low productivity growth and a government that had walked away from its responsibilities to the economy, pursuing a pretty shallow, pretty weak, visionless approach to economic management, abrogating its responsibilities as a government. That is in no small part due to the fact that what underlines the Liberal Party's obsessions with the economy is a deep antipathy towards cooperation, a deep antipathy towards Australians working together to make the country stronger and a commitment to the low road—low wages, low growth, low productivity and not much in the area of achievement. Because they have set their objectives so low, the outcome has been so poor. That is going to make it impossible for this government to summon up what's required in what should be a year of reconstruction, a year of growth and a year where we rebuild the Australian economy. It is impossible for this government to effectively conceive of a plan, beyond a marketing plan, to rebuild the economy.
I note that there has been a bit of a difference this week. Obviously, the focus group people have been hard at work. Many of them have been enriched by the rivers of gold that flow from the Prime Minister's office and from ministers' offices around the place to consultants who are mates of theirs who provide research and advertising to the government. They will, as they did every other time, turn up at election time with very deep pockets, enriched by the largesse from Mr Morrison's department and from the finance minister's department, ready to provide advertising material for the Liberal Party. I've noticed that their work must have said something, because, in the last two weeks of the year, what I saw when I walked into the supermarket in Holder in the ACT was an enormous billboard that said 'Our comeback'. It had all this green and gold stuff and a series of slogans encouraging Australians who were going about their shopping that Sunday night to think that the government was doing something for them, and all we heard in question time after question time after question time were weak replies from ministers to questions on the other side, supplemented by the refrain over and again 'our comeback'. It went on over and over again. It started being boring, and it became sickening. It was sickening because we on this side knew that it was supported by Liberal Party research and Liberal Party focus groups.
This week it has all disappeared. It's all gone. We're not hearing any more about 'our comeback'. We're seeing some other focus group tested phrases entering. I suppose a marketer has to market because they don't know how to do anything else. A marketer has got to market. A marketer has no capacity to lead, no capacity for vision and no capacity for policy depth, but he can market. We've seen that develop over the course of the past few weeks, and I know that this government, with depressing monotony, will be using press release, announcement, marketing campaign and focus group tested phrases. They will do everything but their job. They will do everything but look after the interests of ordinary Australians.
Well, at the end of last year, 912,000 Australians were unemployed, and it peaked at over a million in July. And 197,900 are long-term unemployed. They've been unemployed for 12 months or more. We have not seen a cohort of long-term unemployed Australians that large since the early 1990s. There was a 20 per cent rise from July 2016. That is 33,000 more Australians who are long-term unemployed. And 301,200 young Australians are unemployed. They are entering the labour market at a perilous moment, when the only jobs that are available for them—and we hear ministers opposite and the Prime Minister talking about jobs growth—the jobs that are emerging in the economy, are low-wage jobs. The jobs that are emerging in the economy are casual jobs. Many of the jobs that are emerging in the economy are at the low-rent end of labour hire employment, where labour hire employers rip off Australians, rip off companies and, indeed, get rivers of gold from this government through labour hire contracts in the Australian public sector. The other jobs that are available for them are gig jobs. The only jobs that are available for young Australians when they can get them are poor-quality jobs. And no amount of focus group tested JobMaker nonsense will change the experience of Australian families, who know that when their kids leave school, when their kids leave university, when their kids leave what's left of the vocational training system in this country, there is very little out there that they can look forward to in terms of a decent job.
So, 1,474,300 Australians receive either JobKeeper or youth allowance, and they are about to return to $40 a day. I know it's impossible for those opposite to conceive of what living on $40 a day is like. If you live in Sydney's eastern suburbs you don't meet too many people living on $40 a day; you would never have conceived of meeting somebody living on $40 a day.
Senator Bragg interjecting—
I'm about to come to Narrandera or Deniliquin or wherever it is that Senator Davey comes from—
Senator Bragg interjecting—
She's from Deniliquin. Well, you've spent a lot of time in the eastern suburbs, Senator Bragg. You find it difficult to leave, I know, and you find it very difficult to conceive of the experience of somebody who can't pay their rent, who can't pay for the basics, who struggles day to day. You couldn't struggle your way out of a wet paper bag, Senator Bragg. What you need to do is get some real life experience and get out there and talk to ordinary people. Senator Davey may well have met people in Deniliquin who've had to live on $40 a day. But perhaps, Senator Bragg, you could actually think deeply about the experience of their lives and try to understand that what your government is about to do is about to plunge them back into desperate poverty.
There are 1.3 million people out there who are either unemployed or looking for more work because the jobs they've ended up with are not sufficient to pay their rent, to pay their mortgage, to put shoes on their kids' feet and to pay their utility bills. They are out there looking for more work—1.3 million people. There are just 129,000 jobs out there. For every job, there are 10 jobseekers. But this government wants to plunge those people who are looking for work into abject poverty.
What will happen when JobKeeper ends? Wage growth is at historic lows—well below two per cent, year after year. There's been no lift in the living standards of ordinary Australians. Bills keep going up. Costs keep going up. Rents keep going up. House prices keep rising. But what ordinary Australians are expected to cop from this government is no wages policy that's going to lift wages and the only new jobs are casual-gig labour hire. Indeed, instead of a plan to lift wages, a wages policy to work with business, unions and firms to lift wages in the economy, the government's introduced an industrial relations bill which will make it easier for employers to cut wages. That's the only recipe it's got for the modern economy in this shallow, sterile vision. No wonder the wages share of the economy is at record lows. No wonder it is.
Year after year, Australian workers are lifting productivity, increasing their work rates and working harder than many of their colleagues in countries around the world, yet their share of income has continued to decline. It has not been this low since the war ended in the Pacific. It has not been this low since our greatest national emergency. Yet the profit share of income is at a record high. These jokers over here have only one recipe—'The wage share's low and the profit share's high; we're going to cut your wages and we're going to cut your super too.' A wage cut and a super cut is a cut to people's income now and a cut to people's retirement income later.
Poor old Scott Morrison, the Prime Minister, thinks that forcing companies to pay back JobKeeper that they didn't need is class war. There is no vision, no understanding, no empathy, no plan and no capacity to conceive of what life is like for ordinary Australians. What does this amount to for ordinary Australian families? It's Australians who have fought the coronavirus. The Prime Minister doesn't hold a hose in this area. There's been a complete absence of national leadership. It's been Australians, not Scott Morrison, fighting the coronavirus. It's a credit to them. On public health work, we know the Prime Minister doesn't hold a hose there. The states have led the pandemic response in every state—nothing from Scott Morrison. There's a national cabinet that scarcely meets and is really about announcements for the Prime Minister. A wage subsidy proposed by Labor—not Scott Morrison, not the Liberal Party and not the National Party—is the only thing that has prevented a full collapse in the economy. An increase in unemployment benefits proposed by Labor, supported by the Labor Party through both houses, is what this government proposes to cut.
There's the entire absence of a plan and the entire absence of a capacity to develop a plan. If you're going to develop a plan to solve the problems facing the Australian economy, you need heart and you need guts. This show is entirely incapable of summoning the heart and the guts that are required. The end of JobKeeper and the return of JobSeeker to $40 a day should fill all Australians with dread. There's no plan for any industry sector. We heard today in question time glib responses from the minister responsible. The tourism industry is about to collapse. There's no plan from the Australian government for tourism and no plan for any industry sector. This is a government that's abrogated its responsibilities and has become too content with just sitting on the treasury bench and not doing its job.
That last contribution, from Senator Ayres, was very telling. I think that to run through that 10- or 15-minute summary without a single policy is the most telling component of that 15-minute address.
We won't be taking any lectures from the Labor Party on economic management. The last time Labor was on the Treasury benches it was a disaster. The only way to generate more jobs is to have more private investment. Labor's policy was to increase taxes. They failed to do things like trade deals because the bosses of the unions said that they weren't allowed to do them, and they left office with unemployment at about six per cent. Coming into the pandemic, unemployment was closer to five per cent, so we came into this pandemic in a much stronger position than the country would have if Labor were in office.
Just before the significant economic shock, we—this country—had landed our first balanced budget for almost 10 years and so we were able to come into this pandemic with the cupboard full of bullets and artillery, and those are exactly what have been fired over the course of this last 12 months. The government has been prepared to do whatever has been necessary to keep the economy together.
Recognising that we live in a society, not an economy, we knew it was very important that the wage subsidy maintained the fabric of large and small businesses. Of course, the foundation of a fair society is that economy. That's because it pays the bills. The wage subsidy, at more than $100 billion, is the most expensive economic policy in Australian history and it has been instrumental in ensuring that we can track through this pandemic in the strongest possible manner. Relative to almost every other OECD country, we have performed very, very strongly. Our policy during the coronavirus pandemic was not only to simply deploy a wage subsidy but also to deploy special packages, where they could be justified—in relation to tourism, for example, or in relation to hospitality. We have opened the nation's chequebook and we have managed to get Australia through this pandemic. It's not over until people are vaccinated, but we'd have to say that it's been a very strong performance thus far.
I guess that the real question is: what are we going to walk away with from this pandemic? Yes, there has been a lot of money expended, and for good reason. But what are the reforms or the changes that we can put forward now which are going to guarantee that we can again grow as a country? That will be because, of course, before this recession we had achieved a record-breaking run of economic growth—almost 30 consecutive years. So that is really the question. We can have a debate about who hasn't got policies and who has, but that's going to be the question for the next 12 months as we get deeper into this parliamentary term.
Some of our policies are already on the table. I think they are quite significant and quite structural. We have decided that we will try to improve Australia's labour laws. When we look at the question of whether or not a private business is going to invest money in our country, two of the biggest factors that come up repeatedly are the labour laws of Australia and the tax policies. Those are big determinants of whether or not an organisation—a person with capital or an organisation with capital—is going to invest capital in this country. So we've already decided that we will try to make some improvements to our labour laws. We've already decided that we will try to improve bankruptcy laws and we've already decided that we will try to improve the flow of credit by reforming the lending laws. And we've already flagged in the budget that we would be prepared to try to improve the disastrous superannuation scheme, which has $3 trillion sitting in it which does virtually nothing for the Australian economy. So we have already set these things out on the table at this juncture and I think these are going to be very important changes.
The question is: what is the opposition going to put forward as its policy? The former opposition leader has been saying in the last few weeks that Labor has a tiny policy agenda, and I think that is true. I guess at the last election they had an agenda to try and impose almost $400 billion in new taxes, which the President of the Labor Party, Mr Swan, has described as a record to be proud of and not resile from. Then, of course, you've got Mr Keating, who's very defensive about his dinosaur of a superannuation scheme. He set up one of the worst public policies. After the last election he said:
If you're talking about the Labor Party and why it lost the election, it failed to understand the middle-class economy …
That's what Paul Keating said about you lot.
You're sticking to all of these policies that the unions have written for you. You're sticking to all of these policies that your friends at the super funds have written for you. You are a policy-free zone. All the policies the Labor Party have are written by the vested interests down here, the lobbyists and the rent-seekers and the bloodsuckers. That is the truth. All of your policies are designed to funnel more money to the unions and the super funds. That is your plan for recovery. That goodness you're not in office.
At the end of the day, we came into this a very strong position, relative to the position we would have been in if Labor were in office. Unemployment was lower and the budget was back in balance. We were prepared to be flexible and nimble during this crisis. We were prepared to spend $100 billion on a wage subsidy which is a very significant policy, the most significant economic policy in Australian history, which has ensured that businesses have been able to stay together, people have stayed in jobs and we can now look at the opportunities to pursue reform. We have already put forward significant reforms on labour laws, bankruptcy, credit laws and superannuation because we think that these schemes, these economic policies, should drive a better deal for Australian workers and for the Australian people. We're not here to create schemes for rent-seekers and bloodsuckers. That is our agenda so far.
The question is: what else can we do? I think that is a good debate to have. I look forward to the Labor Party coming up with some economic policies; I think that would be good. Mr Shorten said you've got a tiny agenda. Maybe you, through the Chair, could have one policy which could actually be designed to promote private investment. Imagine that: one policy to drive private investment, recognising that it's not the government that creates jobs; it is actually the private economy that creates jobs. We look forward to the Labor Party coming up with some policies over the next 12 months or so.
The unemployment rate is now at about 6½ per cent and, of course, our plan will be to try to get that down. The best way to get the unemployment rate down is to find ways to promote private investment, so we will pursue policies which cut taxes, cut regulation and ensure that Australia is an attractive place to do business. That will be our agenda.
I have to say that we are coming out of this pandemic better than almost any other jurisdiction on earth. We are in a very, very good position to capitalise upon our strong performance during the pandemic. We should be looking afar, beyond the navel, because at the end of the day, with the geopolitical events in places like Hong Kong—which is basically going to be destroyed as a finance and technology centre—we should be doing all we can to try and attract jobs and investment from jurisdictions like Hong Kong. Frankly, why would you want to live there if you had to live in danger of the national security law? We are in a good position, and I think we can be optimistic about the future. I look forward to Labor coming out with one policy before the next election—just one—which will promote private investment. It's a tiny agenda at the moment; maybe it will grow over the next little while.
I can't let Senator Bragg's contribution go without responding to it briefly, particularly his claim that we were in a strong position going into the pandemic. Senator Bragg, the planet is actually cooking. The climate that sustains all life on this planet, including human life, is breaking down around us. We're living through the sixth mass extinction event in the history of our planet. Your policies and those of your neoliberal colleagues in the Labor Party have priced an entire generation of young Australians out of the Australian dream of home ownership. What the pandemic has done is expose the fault lines that already existed in our economy and in our society.
We also hear about this idea that we have had sustained economic growth for 30 years, as if somehow we can keep on growing infinitely even though we live in a finite ecosystem. Then we get the 'jobs, jobs, jobs' mantra. We're used to hearing that from the Liberals, and we're clearly going to hear a lot more of that from the Australian Labor Party given what we've heard from them this week. Well, if you're going to set yourself a test of providing full employment for the people of Australia, you've both failed it abjectly over the last few decades, since Bob Hawke and Paul Keating turbocharged neoliberalism in this country. No matter what stripe of government has been in place since then, they haven't been able to get the unemployment rate below five per cent for any significant length of time. This means, of course, that one in every 20 Australians who is looking for and wants work can't find any. If we actually calculated the unemployment rate properly and fairly, the real unemployment rate would be in double figures in this country, well over 10 per cent of people because, at the moment, if you work one hour a week you are not classified as unemployed. What all of this has led to—environmental and ecosystem collapse; neoliberalism and trickle-down economics, much beloved of both major parties in this place—is mass economic inequality in this country, intergenerational inequality where young people are watching their wages flatline while property prices go through the roof. We are at record highs in the property market in this country, and that is one of the things that is leading to crushing inequality in Australia.
The policies of this government, the Liberal-National government, are designed specifically to make the crushing effects of economic inequality even worse. This government is doing everything it thinks it can get away with to increase economic inequality, to inflate the housing market and to put downward pressure on wage growth. Massive tax cuts which flow overwhelmingly to the top end of town, with more to come—supported, I might add, by the Australian Labor Party; negative gearing for property investors; capital gains tax discounts for property investors; HomeBuilder, which hands out public money for kitchen renos; the RBA printing money hand over fist, as fast as it can, and pumping it into the banks so that they can write yet bigger mortgages; deliberate suppression of public sector wages; regressive IR policies that constrain working people from organising to take effective action to support wage rises; and, of course, keeping income support, JobSeeker so far below the poverty line that people are basically starving in this country, having to choose being paying the rent and putting food on the table. The Liberal Party decided long, long ago that economic inequality was something that it wanted to continue to see grow in this country.
As far as property prices are going, the Liberals decided the line must go up no matter what. Now, that might be okay if you own your own home, and if you're very wealthy—the super rich, the elites of this country—so much the better, because the government will slash your taxes. But if you are in the one-third of people in this country who don't own a home, who don't own property, the Liberals have cut you loose. They've basically said you're on your own, because not only will this government do all they can to drive your rent up; they're doing nothing to increase your wages. In fact, they want to give your bosses more power to cut your wages.
The Liberals are doing nothing to help people who are out of work or who don't have enough work hours to pay the bills. Australia is at the bottom of the pile in the OECD in terms of income support. We are below countries that are much less wealthy than we are in terms of GDP. This is a policy choice. It's a policy choice by the Liberal government to condemn Australians who can't find work or can't find enough work—not because of anything they did but simply because there are not enough jobs to go round—to poverty, starvation and homelessness.
At this time, when people, understandably, have a feeling of precariousness about the future, what is the government trying to do? It's trying to unleash the very worst practices from the banking sector. The kind of dodgy lending that helped cause the global financial crisis and was revealed during the Hayne royal commission is something that this government wants us to go back to. Despite the primary recommendation of the Hayne royal commission being not to change our responsible lending laws in Australia, that is exactly what this government is trying to do.
Why would the government be looking after a banking sector that was exposed by a royal commission as being criminal, having a toxic culture and being driven by greed? Why would the Liberals want to let the predatory banks back off the leash? Well, I'll tell you: because the major banks pour hundreds of thousands of dollars into the Liberal Party's pockets every year. And, of course, in the very definition of hedging, they do the same for the Australian Labor Party. These donations are nothing more than legalised bribery. But I'll tell you what: the banks are getting a damn fine return on investment. A couple of hundred thousand bucks a year into the pockets of the Liberal Party and the government moves to abolish responsible lending laws in Australia.
The way that this parliament came together in response to the pandemic—by supporting increases in things like JobSeeker and by putting in place programs like JobKeeper—showed how possible it is to alleviate poverty in Australia. It's actually really easy. It's not rocket science; you just give people enough money to have a dignified life. That's all you have to do, and don't tell us you can't afford to do it. It's very simple. It's very simple to raise enough money to give people in poverty what they need to lead a dignified life. The way you do it is to tax the superwealthy and the big corporations. A third of the hundred highest-earning corporations in Australia pay zero tax. We don't even have a wealth tax in this country. We should be taxing billionaires out of existence. There is no excuse for having billionaires while other Australians are homeless or can't afford to put enough food on the table to sustain themselves.
We've got to tax the big corporates, particularly the big polluting corporates; we've got to tax the superwealthy. We've got to make them pay their fair share of tax so we can fund the public services that Australian people expect and so we can give people a dignified life in this country, no matter whether they've got a job or not and no matter what their level of ability is. We know we've got enough money to do those things, but, tragically for Australians who are doing it tough, alleviating poverty doesn't appease the Liberals' big donors. I'll tell you what does appease the Liberal big donors: handing over cash to the big corporates and the super wealthy. That's exactly what we are seeing happen in Australia. It is those who are living below the poverty line, those who have no work or not enough work or whose work is too low paid and those who don't own their own property who are paying the price while the billionaires and big corporates are making off like bandits. We are a better country than this, and we can do better. It's all about the choices that we make.
I too would like to make a contribution in this debate on the Australian economy. It's always interesting to follow Senator Bragg, because he usually gives you enough ammunition or material for a couple of contributions. But I don't want to get sidetracked into his ramble about rent-seekers and bloodsuckers, because those sorts of people are mainly on his side.
We are 12 months into this pandemic. I think all Australians need to take a bow and say: 'We've done the best we possibly could as Australian citizens.' We've been led by a government that, despite having its flaws, has made some very impressive moves, and JobKeeper is amongst them. But then you look at JobKeeper and do the analysis over 12 months.
The airline industry has had people unload and load planes since around 1959. In 1976 I was one of those people. Here we are in 2021, where a company like Qantas got JobKeeper. It sustained employment. Then it got done in the Federal Court for not quite following the rules, so to speak. Then they went to appeal, and it's now in the High Court. There's an old adage: business and Liberal governments will never waste a crisis. What has Qantas done? Qantas has abolished those jobs. They no longer exist as direct hire of the airlines. I worked for TAA, Australian Airlines and Qantas, but that job now no longer exists. There is a crisis, and they saw an opportunity to spend their ground-handling functions. They will come back at vastly lower, inferior rates—that's how it will work.
Today Senator Sheldon asked a question about Virgin. They're getting JobKeeper, but they're already planning to get rid of 2,000 jobs. They're planning to get rid of those jobs because they know they're jobs that are hard to crack. They know they're full of unionists who have agreements, who have willpower, strength and the ability to organise, and who will resist attacks upon them. With the IR bill that's coming our way after 12 months of the pandemic, we can see very clearly what's going to happen into the future.
There's another tranche of change in superannuation. That tranche of change in superannuation is going to impact most significantly—I think this is a point that needs to be stressed every day in this chamber—on working women. They work fewer hours to get less money, they live longer in retirement and their superannuation balances are lower. Any diminution in their ability to get decent superannuation prior to retirement condemns them to eking out an existence in retirement on the pension and struggling.
The impact is not felt by highly organised union members; they just go and belt it out of the employer. There are plenty of transport employers now paying more than 12 per cent because it's been negotiated in agreements. As always, these changes impact on those who are least able to defend themselves, those who are least able to be organised and those who are more frequently out of the workforce and who, more often than not, get lower outcomes in respect of wages. These are the people that these changes will impact on. When Senator Bragg rails against that monster of superannuation, he's actually railing against the 50 per cent of the Australian community who are going to struggle to even get close to a respectable retirement income—and that is the women working in Australia.
I'd like to have a look, and I might even ask in estimates if there's any assessment of how many women took money out of their superannuation accounts. How many women availed themselves of the $20,000 and potentially put themselves well down the path to poverty in retirement? That's what this government facilitated. It all sounded very good: 'Take 20 grand out and look after yourself.' But you really took your future away. It will always impact on those least able to defend themselves: migrant workers, unorganised workers and women workers.
If we go into the IR changes, Senator Bragg says we have to get taxes down and make it easier for people to employ in Australia. Well, it's easy to employ in Australia; there's thousands and millions of hardworking Australians who will give you 120 per cent a day. All they ask for is the legal outcome with respect to an award or an enterprise agreement. But it's been falling away for decades now. I spoke to a young woman the other day. She is at university, had three months off, got a job and was getting quite respectable pay. Her complaint was twofold. One is that she never got paid on the same day of the week at any time. If Monday was payday, it came on Tuesday, Wednesday or Thursday. Her other complaint was that her superannuation appeared on her payslip but it didn't appear in her account. This is going on every day of the week. No-one is policing this stuff.
We had a company fold in Adelaide the other day despite the enormous injection of capital works into Adelaide. There has been an enormous injection of capital works into steel fabrication, concrete road building and the like. A company fell over with $200 million worth of debt, leaving a parade of small businesses in its wake and leaving hundreds of workers unpaid. One of the telling things that I noticed was that one of the workers said, 'I knew the company was in trouble when my super stopped going into my account 12 months ago.' It came on his payslip but it wasn't going into his account.
There is enormous avoidance of legal responsibilities right now, but Senator Bragg's position is: 'We need to make it easier. It's all too complex. Superannuation—what's that? 12 per cent? What's that?' It's simple: it's a part of the employment agreement. It's a legislated component of the laws of Australia. It's not tough. It's not hard to understand, and neither is wages. People who have 42,000 items in their grocery stores and who, with an algorithm, can check out their profitability in an eye blink claim that IR and wages are too expensive or too hard to understand. It's not too hard to understand. It's simple to understand. There are laws in Australia that need to be maintained, safeguarded and policed, and they're not at the moment. The solution is not to dumb them down. The solution is not to give people a bigger and wider avenue to rort and take money off workers, because, at the end of the day, that's going to make the economy smaller, and we need to make the economy bigger.
Those with position, power and privilege—which the Liberals are well versed in dealing with—don't need a hand. The Commonwealth Bank doesn't need a hand. They're working out how big a dividend they want to pay. They don't need a hand on commercial lending or weakening of standards. One in two Australians are with the Commonwealth Bank. Why would you give the bank a hand? They should be in there getting competition enforced upon them. The regulations should be saying, 'Make sure you're doing the right thing here.' That's what the royal commission found.
Senator Bragg has a jihad against the superannuation industry, but there's no evidence that the $3 trillion superannuation industry hasn't contributed to Australia's continued economic growth. We have one of the largest saving pools of any country in the world. The other day I heard Senator Hume say '$30 billion worth of fees--more than the electricity spend in the country'. If it's $3 trillion and $30 billion, is that one per cent? My maths is not really good, but it's probably around one per cent, which in terms of investment fee outcomes is not all that high. I accept there can always be efficiencies. As a superannuation participant in industry super, I look at those fees quite often, but I don't find any reason to be calling people rent seekers and blood suckers, like Senator Bragg does.
Here we are, 12 months into the pandemic, and now crunch time is coming. I think parts of the economy are going really well. The housing industry is overheating. I look at some of the prices paid in suburbs around me and wonder. I bought a house 15 years ago for probably 20 per cent of what they're selling for now. The housing economy is overheating. I've just built a house. I've just completed a house. There was a bit of delay because people were very busy. We went very quickly from an era where builders were going broke to now, where builders can't get the work done on time. There is a bubble going on and it will come off the boil. We want to make sure that we don't collapse in a heap in certain segments of the economy in the next six to 12 months.
I think, importantly, we need to provide ongoing, secure, well-paid, permanent jobs. We can't exist on this plethora of: 'Okay, I have a job as a security guard. I'm now going to go and work for Ola, Uber, Menulog and someone else to try and cobble together 45 hours a week.' We can't exist on that basis forever. I accept that there will always be people who will do two jobs, and even three jobs, and that's fine. They're hardworking people and they're entitled to do that. If we can get back to a bit more permanent employment, a bit more ongoing employment and a bit more certainty, it will steady and underpin a recovery in the economy.
I want to finish on some of the ideology. You can bring this industrial legislation into the parliament and you can pass it. I have spent most of my working life in the industrial relations environment. You will target Mr John Setka, or Mr Transport Worker, or Mr Building Worker, or Mr Meat Worker, or whatever, but the actual effect of what will happen is you will punish the most vulnerable in the community. You will punish the least organised, the least educated and the lowest paid. If your plan is to have an Australia where you push down people who need a hand up, you're not going to be successful.
There is the history of the 12 years of the Howard government. I was a union secretary in all of those 12 years. I got smarter every day. I got sharper every day. Our finances got better every day. We survived those 12 years and came out much stronger. We didn't lose wages and conditions. We bargained hard with employers and got deals. You can change the laws, but the effect of those laws changes. They won't change where you think they're going to change. They will change and decimate people least able to defend themselves—those who have done nothing to you: women in the workforce, cleaners in the workforce, low-paid migrant workers in the workforce.
If the employer has the ability to say, 'I'm going to do this agreement and you lot are all going to vote for it,' and they say, 'Okay; yes, Boss,' that's what will happen. It won't happen in an organised workplace. It won't happen in many transport yards—it'll happen in some. I think the old adage is to never waste a crisis—you're going to be able to point to a mountain of debt and say, 'If we don't do this, you are going to get that.' I've got to tell you: organised labour will defend itself. Organised labour has always defended itself. The effect will primarily be felt by the women in the workforce, particularly with respect to superannuation—I think that is an empirical fact—lower wages, fewer hours, less time in the workforce, reduction in super entitlements, longer in retirement, lower return. They live longer. So it's really one-way traffic there. And, if we look at the industrial relations effect, it will be predominantly amongst unorganised migrant workers who are least able to understand the system. They're not organised and they're going to suffer exponentially.
I'm sure that there are those in the Liberal Party who have a penchant for attacking on the industrial relations front, and I'm sure that there are plenty of other people on that side who have a bit more compassion and understanding of how this system works. Let's hope that Australia doesn't go into this period of creating a mass underclass of underprivileged, underpaid, poorly researched and underfunded-in-retirement workers. I really do hope those opposite take some notice, particularly in respect of women and the outcomes for women in super and in attacking IR.
As I rise today, I'm reminded of a verse in the Bible, which translates as, 'There are none so blind as those who refuse to see.' This is a criticism of those who won't allow themselves to accept the uncomfortable reality placed right in front of them. The Bible also says that you shouldn't point out the splinter in your friend's eye when you have a plank in your own. Both these parables can be applied to the Australian Labor Party, a party that loves to criticise the coalition's economic credentials despite its own woeful record of tax-and-spend disasters. The Labor Party likes to paint itself as the arbiter of what constitutes good economic management, but their economic record reads like a bad steward's report of a horse race: stumbled at the start, failed to respond, rider told to use more vigour, unable to clear running, pulled up lame and an inquiry into performance—
A government senator: Overuse of the whip!
Overuse of the whip! In contrast, the coalition government has proven itself to be the Winx of world economic management. Just on Wednesday this week, The Australian reported that the Reserve Bank forecast the economy will return to its pre-pandemic size by the middle of this year, six months earlier than expected. RBA Governor Philip Lowe was quoted as saying that the economic recovery was well underway and had been stronger than was earlier expected. The central bank also found that unemployment would fall to 5.5 per cent by the end of 2022, better than the expected six per cent it forecast in December.
If we look back, the only reason the Morrison government could respond so effectively to COVID was the coalition's commendable economic management leading up to it. In 2019 the unemployment rate was 5.1 per cent, down from 5.7 per cent when Labor left office. Workforce participation was at a record high and welfare dependency was at its lowest level in 30 years. But back to today: Australia's economic outlook is more favourable than those of almost all of the world's major advanced economies and we are forecast to grow faster than those advanced economies, while our AAA credit rating has been affirmed by all three major ratings agencies.
The job vacancy rate in regional Australia means that businesses, the small businesses that provide over 60 per cent of jobs, are desperate to fill jobs. Senator Ayres suggested that there are not well-paid jobs available, particularly for the young. This is just wrong. There are over 300 apprenticeship jobs available in Mount Isa today. There are jobs available all over regional Queensland, and yet we continue to hear this bizarre story that there are no jobs available to young people. The Labor Party saying something which is untrue over and over again will not make it correct, and so I seek to introduce a bit of reality to Labor.
I'm not sure how many people opposite have ever run a business—have ever actually employed somebody or have ever worried about what the economy is doing and how they maintain their commitment to their staff. I can assure you: every employer I know worries about that more than about themselves. How many of those opposite have just sat at the teat of someone else's hardworking tax dollar? The states—and, in particular, I talk about Queensland—have shut down airline jobs and shut down tourism jobs. They have done it over and over again, and I can tell you that the small-business owners who are employing those people are not sleeping at night. They're wondering how to pay their mortgages and they're wondering why Palaszczuk doesn't give a damn about them, their families or their futures.
Thank you for that correction. They wonder why the Premier of Queensland doesn't give a damn about their future, their families, their mortgages or their employees. I also need to correct Senator Gallacher, who is well out of touch. He believes that nobody is monitoring business payments. I can tell him that Single Touch Payroll was introduced some time ago, and I can give him a tutorial in other business practices that he's obviously not aware of in this modern world. Although Senator Gallacher is often a great advocate for regional South Australia, I'm afraid he has no idea of what's happening with the businesses there.
Business confidence is now above prepandemic levels according to two bank run surveys. All I can say is that the Australian people and businesses must be hugely relieved that the coalition has held the country's financial reins during this shock. In fact, Australians would be thanking their lucky stars that Labor hasn't had a chance to get its hands on the Treasury for some time. Studies show that, without the groundbreaking JobKeeper subsidy, unemployment would have skyrocketed to 12 per cent and stayed there until at least 2022. The Labor Party loves to paint the coalition as holding back wage growth, but, if we look at the facts, Labor's record on wages was a cut to the real minimum wage in three out of six years, whereas it has grown every year under the coalition. Average earnings adjusted for hours as measured in the National Accounts increased 3.3 per cent through the year to the December quarter, above the 10-year average of around 2.3 per cent, and that compares to just 1.3 per cent in the June quarter of 2013. Even though we are facing a once-in-a-century pandemic, the coalition's strong economic management resulted in solid household income growth of 3.4 per cent in the September quarter and 8.1 per cent compared to a year ago.
The key to lifting wages is lifting productivity growth, and that's why we are focused on lowering taxes, investing in infrastructure, equipping our workers with better skills and improving our industrial relations framework. In my home region of northern Australia, the Morrison government has injected more billions of dollars in assistance, infrastructure and support, whereas the state government has been one of the lowest-spending state governments across the land. In the most recent budget, the north received the following allocations, just to name a few: $655 million in additional road infrastructure across the north; $3 million for the North Queensland Water Infrastructure Authority to accelerate water infrastructure planning and agricultural opportunities; $17 million for a regional tourism recovery package to help the industry bounce back from COVID; more than $3 billion in defence funding for facilities in northern Australia; and $1 billion allocated to flow through local councils. So I have to thank the Labor Party. I have to thank them for once again giving us an opportunity to highlight the positive outlook Australians have been given thanks to a coalition government.
As a servant to the people of Queensland and Australia, I want to note that it's certainly true that the Australian economy was not as strong as it should have been in December 2019 just before the government's restrictions on COVID hit. GDP in the December quarter recorded a very poor 0.4 per cent and inventory growth was negative 0.1 per cent, reflecting the low confidence in the manufacturing and retail sectors. Median wages were not growing in real terms, and unemployment had stalled at 5.1 per cent. The only thing holding up the Australian economy was surging mineral exports. It's here that One Nation parts company with Labor. One Nation believes that the weak economy was a result of policies that Labor introduced or supported. At the heart of an economy is electricity. Labor and the Greens cheerlead unreliable energy. If only steal smelters could run on rainbows, Australia would be an economic powerhouse!
According to economist Dr Alan Moran, Australia's excessively high electricity prices are undermining our economic resilience and competitiveness and cutting our standard of living. Since 2002 successive Liberal, National, Labor and Greens governments, in a misguided quest to reduce carbon dioxide, have introduced climate policies at the expense of cheap coal and gas power. As we try vainly and stupidly to cut carbon dioxide, nature's trace atmospheric gas, essential for life on the planet, our electricity prices, once the lowest in the world, have become one of the most expensive. With carbon dioxide at just 0.04 per cent—four one-hundredths of one per cent of our air—this is futility and stupidity. The data shows we cannot even affect the level of carbon dioxide in air.
Dr Moran goes on to state that the financial impact of climate policies and their renewable subsidies are as follows. Higher electricity costs through the supply chain are forcing up retail prices and costing households at least $13 billion annually extra, or around $1,300 per household per annum. Climate policies account for 39 per cent of household electricity bills, not the 6½ per cent the government typically quotes, and it causes a net loss of jobs in the economy. For every green job subsidised, 2.2 jobs are lost in the real economy. State and federal governments' own data reveal the cost of these climate policies to household electricity bills is an extra $536 per annum, significantly more than the government's touted $90 per household per annum. In effect, the government imposed climate policies and renewable subsidies account for 39 per cent of household electricity costs. Labor cannot blame the government for an economy that policies Labor themselves advocate have decimated. To get the economy going and to create breadwinner jobs, baseload coal power is needed desperately.
On Tuesday I moved that the Senate support a new HELE coal fired power station in the Hunter, and Labor voted against this. Last year One Nation supported the government's call for a new HELE coal plant in Collinsville, and Labor voted against that. In a previous sitting One Nation proposed a hydro power station be constructed behind Townsville in northern Queensland. The Bradfield Scheme's first stage would create 2,000 megawatts of clean, green baseload power and thousands of high-quality jobs. Labor voted against it. Labor just doesn't understand energy and its vital core important, nor does Labor give a moment's thought to the energy workers who will be thrown out of work as a result of Labor's policy of closing coal fired power stations. Beleaguered Labor member for the Hunter, Joel Fitzgibbon, is stranded in a party that doesn't give a damn about coal or the three in every five households that coal provides in the Hunter. Mr Fitzgibbon admits that labour—the real labour—is no longer part of Labor, and the Labor Party is no longer the party of labour. One Nation is the party of labour.
I need to mention the National Party, who this week walked from their support for coal despite only just releasing their glossy manufacturing 2035 policy a few weeks ago. After One Nation moved a motion calling on the Nationals to vote in favour of their own policy, a motion that took the words of Senator Canavan and applied them directly, the Nationals backflipped and chucked out a policy they'd only just released. Two days ago, our motion, as I said, copied and pasted the public shoutings of Senator Canavan, the Nationals' deputy leader in the Senate, and that same day they slapped him down. What a joke! The Nationals have a credibility problem, a hypocrisy problem, a duplicity problem.
To be fair to this motion, the Morrison government voted as a whole to oppose HELE coal. That's the Morrison government. And what a sight there was on the opposition benches with the Liberals, the Nationals, Labor, the Greens and the crossbench all crowded together, united in their desire to take jobs and a future away from the Hunter—not so much TheBrady Bunch but F Troop. Of course, the troubles in the Australian economy are to do with more than just power. The last 40 years have seen the largest transfer of wealth in the history of this country, from working Australians into the pockets of the elites. Behind this transfer of wealth is globalism. Australia has exported more than one million manufacturing jobs over the last 30 years, mostly to China.