Tuesday, 17 October 2023
Questions without Notice: Take Note of Answers
That the Senate take note of the answers given by the Minister for Foreign Affairs (Senator Wong), to a question without notice asked by Senator Colbeck today relating to fuel.
The Voice debate is now over and, given that, it's time for the government to listen to the Australian people about how they are struggling right now with the cost of living, with high prices for almost everything, with higher interest rates and with maintaining their ability to service their mortgages.
I was out at prepolls over the last couple of weeks, and I listened to voters coming in to vote on the government's Canberra Voice. Many people raised the issue of how much petrol costs right now. I don't think it's a good enough answer for a government to say, 'It's totally out of our control. We can't do anything for you.' It's especially not an acceptable answer given that, when the Prime Minister was opposition leader and he was trying to get support from the Australian people, he made it known—and he certainly suggested to the Australian people—that he could do something about it. At multiple times on the campaign trail in the last couple of years before the election last year, the Prime Minister attacked the government for the high prices at the time, which were about $1.70 to $1.80 a litre. Wouldn't it be great to go back to those days? He was out there complaining and pinning it on Scott Morrison, the then Prime Minister, and blaming him somehow for those high petrol prices. Now that he is the Prime Minister, he's washing his hands of it completely. He's Pontius Pilate now. He can't do anything about it—'It's got nothing to do with me. Go talk to somebody else.' It's deceptive to the Australian people for Anthony Albanese to have acted in that way and to suggest that he could do something about petrol prices and then, once people supported him and voted for him, to completely walk away from any of those statements or problems. I also think it's incorrect.
There are things that we could do—admittedly things that may take time to benefit the Australian people—to restore a degree of independence and self-sufficiency for our country when it comes to our energy needs. That's what should be the focus of any Australian government. In a large landmass like we have in Australia, there should be a concerted effort to keep ourselves independent for our energy needs, to establish energy independence and, in fact, to establish energy abundance. We should have an abundance of energy available to us in this country, and not be beholden to the dictatorial regimes of Russia and Saudi Arabia, who are principally responsible for the recent increases in petrol prices. There is no doubt—and I accept what Senator Wong was saying—that there are international factors here. What's happened in the last few months is that Saudia Arabia and Russia have got together and restricted the supply of oil to the world. Our dollar has fallen. I think it's partly a lack of confidence in this government's financial merits that's contributed to it falling. Those factors have made a difference, but why do we sit back and say that there's nothing we can do about that?
We've got a massive country. Our best geologists say there are a trillion barrels of oil in north Western Australia. Just 20 years ago, we used to produce enough raw petroleum to service almost all our needs, with 96 per cent of our needs met by our own petroleum production. In the past few years we have lost two oil refineries, despite efforts—the coalition government kept the two we've got left; they were kept alive. The former coalition government was putting money into fuel storages around the country, to make sure we had more than just 35 days of reserves of our net import needs.
These are things we should be doing, and principally we should be supporting our oil and gas industry to invest in oil and gas fields in this country so we can break the control that Saudi Arabia, Russia and other OPEC countries have over our nation and over the wallets of Australian consumers. We should be investing in those industries. Instead of that, the government, in their first budget, cut over $50 million to support finding new discoveries of oil and gas across Australia, including in the Beetaloo basin. A few months later they put massive new regulations on our oil and gas industry, which has meant that $1 billion of investment in a new gas field in western Queensland has been paused and frozen for almost a year now.
These are the things the government could do to help, but instead they are telling you that there is nothing they can do. Apparently there is nothing they can do to help you. Well, they should be doing what they can. They should be making an effort here to help Australian consumers with the high price of petrol, with the high price of fuel, especially given that they made those promises on the campaign trail.
There is a limited time here where we can do these things, because it will take a long time for those investments to pay off. It's important for the government to listen to the Australian people now. All they've been wanting to talk about for the past six months is the Voice. It's time for them to listen, because Australians are hurting, Australians are doing it tough, and they deserve a government that actually has a plan to do something about it.
Well, I think that's completely wrong. We have been talking about the cost of living ever since we've come into government. So, what Senator Canavan has said is absolutely wrong. We have spoken about the Voice as well, but so have they; they spoke about the Voice as well. We understand that household budgets are tight and are impacted by cost-of-living pressures. We know that. And we know inflation is being felt around the kitchen tables right across this country. But what we saw with the previous government—what did they do? They left us with a $78 billion deficit, one that we've turned around into a $22 billion surplus. That's what we've done. They stand up here, holier than thou, and have a go at us for not looking at the cost of living, which is wrong.
We know that people are paying more for the things they can't do without. That's why we're addressing inflation. We know that that is the No. 1 challenge in our economy, and we are providing targeted and responsible—and that's the real key here—cost-of-living help. That is the Albanese government's No. 1 focus. Our government's cost-of-living support packages are targeted. They go to those in our community who need it most. Our help is actually targeted at those who need the most help, and where pressures on their living expenses are highest.
We all remember the energy debacle we had with those opposite. Who didn't support the energy proposals that we put up, to try to cut the price of electricity for ordinary Australians? Those opposite—they voted against it over there. Cheaper medicines? They voted against it. General patients are now able to save up to $180 a year if their medicine is able to be prescribed for 60 days. That is a huge saving for a lot of people around this country. But who tried to stop that? Those opposite. They get up here and they talk about the cost of living, they talk about the prices of things that people can't afford, but when we put up something that will help people to make ends meet, they stop it: they stand up and they vote against it.
We have put up the JobSeeker payment. Around 782,000 people will benefit from a $40-per-fortnight increase to JobSeeker. That is helping people. Around 220,000 Australians will benefit from a $40-per-forthnight increase to youth allowance. Yet those over there say we are doing nothing to help the cost of living in this country. That is entirely wrong. It is as though what they have to do is spread the fear amongst everyone out there in the community. We've just seen the past six months of that, and we're now seeing it again with everything else.
Around housing: who stopped the housing bill getting through? That bill was trying to put a roof over the heads of people who are struggling to do that. Who, for months and months, held up the housing bill? Those opposite—amongst others. But they tried to stop it.
Around 1.1 million Australian households will benefit from the 15 per cent increase to the Commonwealth rent assistance maximum rates that we proposed and we have brought in. That is the largest increase in the household Commonwealth rent assistance in 30 years. But, instead of providing relief, what those over on that side, those in the coalition, want to do is to put up roadblocks.
Instead of having answers, they're aimless. The only answer that they have is 'no'. It's why they're called 'the no-alition'.
They said 'no' to the lower power prices. We've introduced coal and gas price caps that ease the pressure on energy bills. They said 'no' to that. They said 'no' to energy bill relief. In partnership with the states, we are delivering rebates for around five million households.
An honourable senator interjecting—
I know—it hurts, doesn't it, Senator? To five million households, we are providing energy bill relief, and to one million small businesses. One million small businesses and five million households are getting energy bill relief because we had the courage to bring it in. We had the courage to have a policy that looked at it. We had the gumption, the audacity, the cheek and the ability to bring it in—but not with support from that side of the parliament.
They said 'no' to the 30,000 new social and affordable homes, including for victims of domestic violence. It's hard to believe, isn't it? And they said 'no' to halving the cost of medicines. All these things have helped people out there with the cost of living. They are still doing it tough, but we are—
The government really has two main issues: (1) it has not credibly taken on the inflation challenge; and (2) it has failed on productivity. On the issue du jour here, inflation: obviously, petrol prices and the like are impacted by global markets. We all know that. When the ABS and the government's advisers—the 'official family', as it were—look at all these things, they take out volatile factors, like the oil prices. But the problem for the government and the problem for the Australian people is that inflation has not been appropriately addressed, at least in a competitive sense. We are running a higher profile of inflation in this country than many other OECD and G20 nations, and that's because Canberra has got its foot on the accelerator in relation to the fiscal side of things. In this last budget, we've seen new decisions taken amounting to $50 billion in new expenditure. That comes on top of last year's budget, where you saw an even greater number. The reason that we have this persistent inflation is that Canberra can't stop spending.
Mr Chalmers can't say no to his favourite vested interests when it comes to putting money in their pockets. Of course, the whole business model of this government is to line the coffers of their fellow travellers—the people that preselect their senators and members; the people that fund their campaigns; the people that turn up for them on election day: the unions and the big super funds. This whole government's economic agenda is skewed towards lining the pockets of the unions and the super funds. So, whether it is policy on pattern bargaining—so that everyone is to be paid the same amount of money, no matter what their circumstances, effectively ending the idea and the concept of enterprise bargaining, which was introduced by Paul Keating, decades ago—or whether it is the removal of labour hire, which gives small business the flexibility it needs to meet changes in the economy, the whole of the government's economic program is geared towards these narrow vested interests. When you spend all your time thinking about these narrow vested interests, you have no time to work on the major economic challenges facing the nation.
So, when you look at what the government is putting on the books here in Canberra, for us to talk about when we come down to the bush capital, it's all about working through the laundry list of the bloodsuckers and the rent-seekers and trying to enact all the things that they are looking for in relation to their union and superannuation agendas. That is the major problem, I think, that the government has at its core.
That, of course, applies to the other issue, productivity. You can't improve productivity when you're running a government which is designed to slow productivity. The very nature of the laundry list of the issues from the unions, which is all about inserting themselves as the perennial and perpetual middle man, is to slow down productivity, to put sand into the gears so you can clip the ticket and collect a portion of the enterprise's business, because you are by law required to be there in some form, even if you're not needed. That is a fundamental problem that the government and now the Australian people have. It is a government for vested interests, working only for a narrow few, not for all of us.
So the test in the year to come, as we move into the second part of this term, will be, what are the policies that the government is going to put on the table to improve investment, to improve productivity? How much longer do the Productivity Commission's reports have to gather dust for? How many more months? The Productivity Commission says 'You should improve productivity because that will improve the lives of the Australian people.' The Labor government says 'No, that doesn't suit the unions and the super funds and the other bloodsuckers and the other rent seekers that have sent us here to Canberra.' That is the fundamental problem we have here. The test is, what can the Labor Party do, now they are the government—the dog that caught the car—to improve investment, jobs and productivity in this country?
The government doesn't need those opposite to tell us that families are hurting with cost of living challenges. We know that the pressure on household budgets is real. We know that petrol prices are putting people under pressure. We know that we're seeing those rising petrol prices as a consequence of a global shortfall, but we know that that doesn't help families deal with the rising price of petrol, and we know that without the assistance of government families in this country would continue to struggle with the rising cost of living.
That's why our government's number one priority has been rolling out $23 billion of cost-of-living relief and cost-of-living support. We've been able to do that in a way that has taken the edge off inflation. We've been able to do that in a way where we can still record the first budget surplus in 15 years. That is the responsible approach to economic management that we are taking. It's the responsible approach we are taking to meeting the cost of living challenges that people are facing.
Those opposite come in here and ask us what we are doing to relieve the cost of living pressures that families are facing. Again, we feel those pressures. We see those pressures. That's why we've rolled out 10 measures just in the last few months to help families with the cost of living. Number 1: energy bill relief. Number 2: cheaper child care. Number 3: rent assistance increases. Number 4: tripling the Medicare bulk billing rate. Number 5: making medicines cheaper. Number 6: boosting income support programs. Number 7: fee-free TAFE. Number 8: building more homes. Number 9: expanding paid parental leave. Number 10: getting wages moving again.
All those opposite can say about the cost of living is that they either oppose those measures—they oppose our energy price relief plans; they oppose cheaper child care; they oppose cheaper medicines; they oppose putting money into social and affordable housing. Or they can say that they did absolutely nothing about these things while they were in government, leaving Australians with nothing more than a trillion dollars of debt and nothing to show for it. Or those opposite can say that they deliberately designed the cost-of-living crisis that Australians are facing today. They deliberately kept wages low; we know that. They froze Medicare; we know that. They gutted TAFE; we know that. Not only that; they went after some of Australia's most vulnerable lowest-income people with their unlawful and unethical robodebt program.
We are very proud to support the Australian people through the cost-of-living challenges that they face. We know that our energy bill relief plans are taking the edge off energy bills. We know that cheaper child care is supporting families with children. We heard this week that people are paying 14 per cent, or $2,000 a year, less if they're on about $120,000 with one child in long day care. That is a huge contribution to a family's budget. We have invested in the biggest boost to rent assistance in 30 years. That is a significant boost to people who are doing it tough and paying rent. We've tripled the bulk-billing rate, and that allows GPs to deliver free consultations for 11 million Australians. We're making medicines cheaper. We know how huge that is—making it cheaper to get necessary medicines like heart medicine and diabetes medicine. We are boosting income support programs—some of the biggest boosts we've seen in decades. Fee-free TAFE is helping people get back into training. We're building more homes, bringing the states and territories together with the federal government in the biggest boost to housing since World War II. We're expanding paid parental leave and getting wages moving again.
I asked a very simple question of the Leader of the Government in the Senate: 'Can you remember the last time unleaded petrol, on average, cost less than $2 a litre?' We still haven't had the answer to that question. Labor member after Labor member has got up and told us how focused they are. Their No. 1 focus is the cost of living. Not one of them could tell us the last time the price of fuel was under $2 a litre. They are so focused on the cost of living they don't know the last time the price of fuel was under $2 a litre, on average, across Australia. That's how focused they are.
They get up and they tell us that they understand how much this is hurting Australian families, that they care about the impact on Australian families. What Australian families want is not the government's understanding; they want the government to do the things they promised they would do before the election. That's what Australian families want. This government promised Australian families a $275 reduction in their energy prices. What has this government delivered? A 20 per cent plus increase in electricity prices, not a $275 reduction. This government promised higher real wages. What's this government delivering? Lower real wages. They dress it up in tricky language. They talk about getting wages moving again, but they don't admit and are not honest with the Australian people about the fact that real wages are reducing under this government. They have a go at us, yet real wages rose under the period of the previous government. Real wages increased under the coalition. There was low inflation, yes, and lower wage increases than the percentage numbers we're seeing now, but there was a real increase in wages. So people are actually seeing their overall situation go backwards under this government when they were promised it would go the other way.
Australians don't want the government's understanding. They want them to keep their promises. They want them to do what they said they would do. They inferred; that's what Mr Albanese was doing, when he said, in a photo op, 'Who remembers when petrol was under $1 a litre?' That's what that was all about; that was when it was 175.9c, just prior to the last election. No-one over there can tell us when it was last under $2. It was a simple question. But what did we get? We got the angry coming out. That's what we got. We ask the government a simple question about their promise, and what do we get? We get name-calling and the angry coming out.
The Australian people said very clearly last Saturday that they're sick of the name-calling. They don't want the guilt trip. They want some respect in this place, and that's what we should be seeing in a post-Jenkins environment. We asked a simple question. It's reasonable for us to ask that that question be answered. For the Australian people, it's reasonable to expect that the promises this government made when they were seeking election are kept. It's a pretty simple thing. We talked about restoring confidence in government. We talked about transparency. We're seeing none of that.
Let's go back to those promises. They promised lower inflation and they're delivering higher inflation. They promised a $275 reduction in electricity bills and they're delivering a 20 per cent plus increase. The inference was that they could lower fuel prices, and now they can't remember when the price of fuel was under $2. They promised higher real wages and they're delivering lower real wages. Australians deserves a government that will keep its promises.
Question agreed to.