Monday, 11 September 2023
Questions without Notice: Take Note of Answers
Answers To Questions
That the Senate take note of all answers to all questions asked by coalition Senators during question time today.
Some very good questions were asked today in question time by the coalition senators, but, rather disappointingly, the answers that were given by Labor's ministers were somewhat disappointing. It is a variation on a theme, and it's a theme that has been a trademark of this government—that is, a lack of transparency and a lack of the willingness or the ability to give answers to questions. We saw that in question time today, particularly in relation to the questions asked concerning the decision to refuse Qatar Airways additional flights to Australia. We have a pattern of behaviour with Labor ministers being opaque and using a lot of words—a lot of ums and ahs—to say nothing. That is disappointing, because this chamber exists to hold the executive to account. Whether you're a believer in states' rights or just a believer in the fundamental principles of democracy, it is an important principle that the executive be held accountable.
We've seen this pattern in question time today, and my colleagues Senator Ruston and Senator Cadell have just talked about the failure of this government to answer questions placed on notice. Indeed, I moved a similar motion in the Senate last week concerning questions that I put on notice. As of about an hour ago, 22 of those are still outstanding, no doubt sitting either on the minister's desk somewhere or in the bowels of a government department. That is not good enough, because we're here representing the voters and the taxpayers of Australia, and it's important that the voters and the taxpayers of Australia know that their money, which funds this government and the Public Service, is being appropriately spent and that ministers and public servants are being held to account.
What we've seen in question time today is a continual trend where ministers refuse to answer questions, particularly when it comes to Qatar. We can't work out what Labor are hiding here. Clearly, something is being hidden, because of the different answers that are being put forward by Labor ministers concerning that particular decision. It goes not just to the decision of Minister Catherine King but to the information leading up to the decision that was made by Minister King. Questions were put to Minister Farrell today concerning whether he and Senator Wong were consulted with and the time line. What is interesting is that no information was forthcoming. We should not be surprised by that, because Minister King and other ministers have put forward seven excuses in as many weeks as to—
It might be up to nine, Senator Colbeck. There may have been nine excuses as to why this Labor government refused the application by Qatar Airways.
By the way, the point of the application by Qatar Airways to have additional flights to Australia is to ensure that there are cheaper flights. This is a cost-of-living issue. This is all about ensuring that the consumers in Australia can have a choice when it comes to who they fly with, and having greater choice means that the market works and that flights actually go down in price. Otherwise, it looks like the Labor government is running a protection racket for Qantas Airways, and it would be disappointing if a political party were running a protection racket for one particular airline.
We've heard everything from human rights concerns to protecting Australian jobs to decarbonisation to the application not being in the national interest to Qantas having bought new airliners to the idea that our aviation industry could be destroyed if Qantas weren't profitable to the statement that Qatar Airways have unused access right now—all sorts of different reasons. Minister King had an absolute car crash of a press conference last week. She was all over the shop when it came to not being able to answer questions, and that trend continued in question time today—that the Labor ministers are unable to answer basic questions. Quite frankly, they are taking the mickey.
I'm really pleased to be able to speak today in regard to aviation in this country, but I will say before I continue that on the Labor side of parliament we let our ministers make decisions. We don't have a prime minister who comes in, takes over, makes himself a minister and forgets to tell the ministers that that's what he's doing. We actually let our ministers make decisions.
It might be timely to remind our colleagues opposite that requests for additional capacity for airlines are made routinely by governments around the world, including by Australia, and sometimes these requests aren't granted, including when they were in government. In the case of Qatar's request, the minister determined that it was not in Australia's national interest to grant their request. It was the minister's decision, just like it was when Mr McCormack was minister. He made decisions. That's how it works. It is interesting that those opposite, since they've been in opposition, have developed a level of suspicion that, I hesitate to say, I think verges on near-paranoia. Everything's a little 'gotcha' moment. They try to make everything a 'gotcha' moment, but they're not doing that well in that regard either. I'm sure the minister's aware—we're all aware—that there are some businesses and airlines who would like to have made a different decision. But she is the minister, and it is her right to make the decision, just like Mr McCormack made the decision when he was minister.
Capacity is going up in Australia. Cathay Pacific, China Southern and Singapore Airlines have all announced more flights. I remind people that Qatar Airways can operate as many flights as it wants to to our secondary gateways, including Adelaide, Darwin, Canberra, Cairns and the Gold Coast. It could even fly to Hobart, the capital of my and Senator Duniam's state, but it doesn't choose to do that.
It's important to note that, regardless of who is in government, it's not normal practice to delve into all the factors that are part of the national interest when making these decisions. Those opposite took that view when they were in government. We take that view. We don't do that when we talk about international investment through the FIRB, for example. We particularly do not do it when it comes to foreign investment by governments. Having said that, Minister King outlined in a television interview last week a number of considerations that went into the decision. Not all decisions are made on just one factor. I can't believe that those on that side worry that there might be more than one factor that helped make the decision. That's illogical to me. If you've got more issues come in, then those issues help make the decision. Minister King mentioned what's happening with the international aviation market with COVID recovery, capacity coming back into the system and the impact any decisions would have on jobs in the long term. It's also the usual course of action for the government to consult with Australian airlines, including Qantas. Qantas are not my best mates. I object to the fact that they took all that JobKeeper money and didn't give it to the people that really needed it there. I find that completely immoral. But I will say this: what if we hadn't consulted with Qantas? We know what those opposite would have done. They would have jumped up and down. But because we did consult with Qantas, they jump up and down too.
As I've said, the request before the minister was for a doubling of Qatar's flights under their bilateral international aviation service agreement. It was four times more than has ever been granted before. Let's make that clear so that people listening know what we're actually talking about. Qatar could still increase its flights into any of Australia's regional secondary airports—into Cairns, into Gold Coast. I'm sure there'd be lots of people that want to go to the Gold Coast or Darwin or even Hobart. We're doing very well in regard to tourism in Hobart, I understand.
If the opposition are trying to suggest that Qantas received some kind of special deal, then I suggest they take a good look in the mirror. I do not forget that it was that side, when they were in government, that gave $2 billion to Qantas without any strings attached. That's what I call a special deal.
It's a great pleasure for me to rise and take note of answers to questions asked by coalition senators to ministers of the government today. We see more of the same from government ministers—same old Labor, not prepared to take responsibility for their actions, trying to blame somebody else—and we've just seen that in the last contribution, talking about somebody else, about anything but the government. Don't talk about what the government's done. Blame someone else. Deflect. And don't mention anything to do with any of the decisions the government's made, because they're a government of broken promises, and question time today proved that yet again.
We didn't talk about power prices today, although it was mentioned by one of the government ministers that renewable energy's cheaper, and that's why they're going after it. But that doesn't explain why power prices are going up. They promised a $275 cut in power prices, but they're delivering higher. They promised higher real wages, but they're delivering lower real wages. In fact, real wages are not keeping up with the rate of inflation. They promised lower cost of living, but they're delivering higher. They promised lower housing costs, and they're delivering higher. So, this is a government of broken promises. This is a government that promised it would be open and transparent. And what are they delivering? The exact opposite—another broken promise. It's a theme that's developing. The Australian people don't believe them either.
They said we would spend more on space. That's what the now Deputy Prime Minister said we should do: we should spend more on space. What do they do? They secretly cut $1.2 billion from it. We've seen the emails: don't tell the Americans, keep it on the down low, don't let them in on it yet, until the last moment. Again, it's different to what they said before the election. Before the election, this government was saying we should spend more on space, and then they put a sneaky little $1.2 billion cut in the budget and don't tell our most important allies.
Then we come to Qantas—seriously: nine different reasons as to why they can't increase Qatar flights into this country. And what do they want to talk about? They want to talk about Michael McCormack. Now, Michael McCormack did make a decision. He made a decision at a point in time, several years ago. But as Rod Sims, the former head of the competition commission, says, 'If not now, when? 'This is the best time. We're trying to expand the market. We're trying to increase flights into Australia. This is the best time to do it. When is a better time? When? That's the theme from Mr Sims. But of course, no—no transparency. Apparently the trade minister wasn't consulted; the tourism minister wasn't consulted.
Of course, that brings us back to another broken promise, from the tourism minister. The tourism industry were led to believe that they were going to get a huge increase in funding. What does the government do? It cuts $36 million out of the marketing budget for Tourism Australia—$36 million, 20 people gone. So, at a time when the minister claims that we're trying to increase the number of people coming to Australia, nobody's hearing our message. Why? Because the government cuts $36 million out of the marketing budget—another broken promise. The tourism industry thought they were going to get a huge increase in funding but no, they didn't. They weren't told the funding that was going to put into other things was coming out of their own marketing budget, at a time when the minister claims we're trying to increase the number of people coming in. So, what do they do? They cut the marketing budget and they won't let any more aircraft come in. It doesn't sound to me like they're trying to increase tourism into the country. It sounds like they've got a deal going with their airline mates, with Qantas.
And of course, they don't want to answer the question. All they want to do is talk about the coalition and what's happened in the past. (Time expired)
It was interesting to listen to the contributions by senators this afternoon. I think it's also always worth correcting the record.
Yes, it is very important, Senator Cadell—always worth correcting the record. The Albanese government has, since it's come in, had a regular and enduring dialogue with our partners, particularly the United States, on a range of issues, and this does include space. As a matter of courtesy, Senator Colbeck, ahead of the announcement that we made, the US was informed about the program not actually proceeding.
Since coming to government, we've had to make very tough decisions about the state of our books before us to find $40 billion in savings so that we can begin to rein in the deficit the coalition left when they left government. We also had to tackle inflation, put downward pressure on interest rates and start the hard work to address the $1 trillion of debt that we inherited from those opposite. But those opposite just seem to want to forget that part of history. I'm sure they would have reacted in the same way that we have should it have been the other way around.
As we continue to repair the budget, the government has announced it will not be proceeding with the previous government's National Space Mission for Earth Observation program. The Minister for Industry, Science and Technology has been upfront and very transparent about that. While there is some disappointment with the decision, it is understandable. It's important to emphasise that no tenders have been put to market and no commercial contracts have actually been signed. The Morrison government announced this program back in March 2022, just weeks out from the last election. If those opposite think that this program was so important, why did they leave it to the last few months of their tenure? It was for the same reason that they waited nine months to announce the modern manufacturing grants and then announced them in the shadow of the 2022 election campaign.
Let's also not forget that they voted no to Labor's $15 billion National Reconstruction Fund, which the minister has said will open the door to the Australian space companies to apply for funding. The government recognises that the space sector can make a valuable contribution to Australia's modern economy. We're about announcements and we're about deliverables, unlike those opposite when they were in government in the last term. The space sector can be an essential ingredient for our nation to achieve greater economic complexity, supporting adjacent industries from agriculture to resources all the way through to advanced manufacturing, which we need to do a lot of in this country. Space can also play a significant role in developing Australia's emerging critical technologies like quantum, artificial intelligence, robotics and others. These are priority areas this government wants to invest in, and that is why we've created the National Reconstruction Fund: to address those significant shortfalls.
Space both leverages and creates markets for these technologies, feeding into their development for the benefit of all industries and for the wellbeing of our community. While it might be the glamour stories like rocket launches that grab headlines, we know businesses powering the Australian space industry are getting on with the job of developing skills and technology that help Australians every day. Whether this is in deploying technology to track bushfires from orbit or developing autonomous space systems with applications in mining and agriculture, the space industry is delivering for Australians, and the Albanese government wants to back that practical work.
It's this work and the work of companies like Fleet Space Technologies. Fleet's network of mini-satellites and ground sensors is manufactured in Adelaide, helping the mining sector to conduct mineral exploration activities more quickly, safely, affordably and with minimal environmental impact. Fleet also run inhouse programs to train up the next generation of STEM talent from a range of backgrounds. These are the kinds of practical applications of space technology that we really need to get on board with and back.
One of our first acts as government was to announce the approval for NASA to launch a series of rockets from the Arnhem Space Centre in the Northern Territory, a historic moment for the space industry here in Australia.
We are in a cost-of-living crisis. Right now in this country, inflation is up six per cent. It's rising by six per cent every year, and we've got wage growth at four per cent. That means our hardworking Australians are losing two per cent every year. They are going backwards. That high inflation rate has been caused by a reckless energy policy and an ideology where renewables are apparently going to save the planet. The bird choppers, the bat choppers—all of that ridiculous stuff is somehow going to save the planet. That is hurting people where it counts the most—in their hip pocket—and I say, 'Shame on the Labor government.'
Then we've got the Labor government adding more fuel to the fire, by having a rapid increase in immigration of over 400,000 people a year. That is driving up demand in the economy which is adding more to inflation which therefore means the RBA has to increase interest rates. So we've got the double whammy when it comes to living expenses of either higher rents or higher interest rates. We're coming off that fixed mortgage cliff now where people are rolling out of 2.8 per cent loans into five and 5½ per cent loans. That is hurting people, and we cannot sustain that.
How did Labor deal with that at the recent budget? They didn't keep the low-income tax offset going. In the years under the coalition government, Josh Frydenberg, the former Treasurer, gave a low-income tax offset which was worth $2,000 a year to low-income earners. The Treasurer, and member for Rankin, Jim Chalmers, got rid of the low-income tax offset. If you really cared about the workers, as the Minister for Finance claimed in Senate estimates, you would be giving that rebate to the hardest working Australians of all—those people who get out of bed every day and put their nose to the grindstone. They're lucky to make ends meet. Under the coalition government, we acknowledged the hard work of those low-income earners, but the first thing the Labor government did in their budget was to increase taxes on the people who could afford it least of all, our low-income earners. I say, 'Shame on you, Labor.'
To top it all off, we now find out that, rather than having greater airline competition in this country so that people can go around and travel, Labor are protecting their mates at the big end of town—Virgin, Qantas and Alan Joyce and his $10 million bonuses—so that Qantas would give the Voice advocates free flights and the Prime Minister's son access to the captain's lounge.
Question agreed to.