Thursday, 30 November 2023
Questions without Notice: Take Note of Answers
Answers to Questions
That the Senate take note of the answers given by ministers to questions without notice asked by coalition senators today.
I'd like to say there's an embarrassment of riches, but there is an embarrassment of failures on the other side when we look at the variety of questions asked from this side of the chamber on a variety of serious issues impacting the people of Australia and the litany of failures from those opposite across a range of portfolio areas.
We could talk about the national security issue or the asylum seeker problems and the litany of failures that we've had there. It's now clear from the High Court judgement that the 140 people who were released from detention didn't necessarily need to be if the government had been stronger in its approach to national security issues. We've seen repeated attacks by those opposite on the Leader of the Opposition, Peter Dutton, because he is someone who, while in government, showed strength in this area. They're attacking the person rather than the policy. They've had little to say, in fact, in relation to their own policy because it has been so disorganised, chaotic, jumbled and incoherent. As I said in a previous contribution, they were like a rabbit in the spotlight; they froze for a week following the High Court decision. They couldn't work out whether they needed legislation or whether they didn't. They couldn't work out whether they wanted to look strong and try to respond or whether they wanted to play to the far-left end of the political spectrum. As a result, they sat there on their hands while the Australian people were put at risk.
But what I was actually going to talk about was the cost of living! That's because it's the issue which is brought up the most with me in meetings across my home state of Western Australia. I'm sure Senator O'Sullivan would agree with me on this: the first and last topic that people bring up is the cost-of-living pressure on Australian families and on Australian small businesses. We've seen the current and persistent high inflation which those opposite, those in the government, seem to want to wear as a badge of success. But when core inflation is still 5.3 per cent in this economy, that's not a badge of success—that's a badge of pain. It's a badge of pain for every Australian family out there: everyone who is paying off a mortgage, everyone who is struggling with their grocery bills during the week and everyone who is thinking twice about filling up their car with petrol. They're having to tell their kids that playing sport is just a bit too much, that their budget can't hold it. Christmas is less than a month away and Australian families out there are suffering.
Whilst this government want to talk about what they've done, the fact is that their talking points are the same talking points that we on this side heard three months ago, six months ago and nine months ago. I think I first raised inflation as a topic in this place in August of last year, and the talking points they're using today are still the same ones. What have they done? Cheaper child care. The fact is that when I talked to a member of the Western Australian community just yesterday, their childcare costs had gone up, and it's because this is government doesn't understand the way their policies interact with the real world—
I'll take that interjection, Senator O'Sullivan. As he said, this is a government which just can't manage the economy. It has left all the heavy lifting to the Reserve Bank of Australia, which means that interest rates in Australia will stay higher for longer than they otherwise would have to be. That's the legacy of this Labor government, and every Australian family is going to feel at this Christmas.
Those opposite know it. They're trying to pretend otherwise; they're trying to spread some justification for their current policy positions. They're trying to pretend that their policy on energy has actually brought energy prices down, when every Australian family knows it has actually pushed them up. They're trying to pretend that they're doing things to help Australian families, when every Australian family knows that the cost of living has gone up massively and that their real standard of living has plummeted.
What we saw from the opposition in this question time was what I would call a series of dixers. We heard questions from the opposition which allowed our ministers to set the record straight and ensure that we could talk about the things our government is doing, particularly on the cost of living. But whether they were about red imported fire ants in Queensland or working with Tasmanian farmers and senators like Senator Polley to make sure we protect Tasmanian jobs, these were dixer questions written by the opposition which allowed the Labor government to talk about the good work we're doing to make sure we can deal with the cost of living and make sure that people know that these measures are bringing and keeping inflation down. That's exactly what Minister Gallagher was able to speak about today.
When it comes to cost of living, I'm glad that Senator Brockman eventually got to talking about cost of living after two minutes of waffling around, because it is the most important thing to people. It is the most important thing that people are talking to us about. It is the priority of this government. Those opposite want to have a debate about nasty politics and turn this place into a nasty political debate, but we are focused on cost of living. That's exactly what we are talking about.
When we talk about energy bill price relief and the fact that those opposite voted against it, of course they're going to shout over me, because it is embarrassing for those opposite that they voted against energy bill price relief for some of the lowest income earners in this country. I understand why you would talk over me when I say that. I understand why you don't want us to talk about cheaper medicines. And I understand why you don't want us to talk about the fact that people are saving on medicines in this country, because Australians know that, in this Senate, you voted six times against that policy. You hated cheaper medicines so much that you voted six times to disallow that policy. I understand why it's very difficult for you to go out there and talk to people about cost of living when you voted against cheaper bills and when you voted against cheaper medicines.
The thing that is most embarrassing for those opposite when we talk about cost of living is when we talk about wages and making sure that people have more money in their pocket. If you are serious about cost of living and care about cost of living, then you need to show what you have done to put more money into people's pockets and lift their wages. What have you done to help? Well, you voted against the secure jobs and better pay act. That's what you voted against: a bill to deliver—wait for it—secure jobs and better pay for Australians.
But I take what Senator Brockman said; we have been talking about secure jobs for a long time now. Let's talk about what the opposition did this week when it comes to the cost of living and secure jobs. Just this week those opposite voted against our closing loopholes bill, a bill that would make sure that we close the loopholes that are driving down wages, particularly in regional Queensland. I note that in the House of Representatives the closing loopholes bill was voted against by the member for Capricornia, Michelle Landry; the member for Flynn; and the member for Dawson—all of the people that go out there and say they support mining workers. They don't support mining workers if they don't support the closing loopholes bill.
The number one issue that we talk to people about, particularly in regional Queensland and regional Australia, is housing. Today we saw those opposite team up with the Greens to play politics on housing again with your friends down there on the other side of the chamber—the Max Chandler-Mathers of the world are now friends with those people here—to delay a bill that would make sure that 40,000 low-income earners have access to buy a home. That's what you voted against today: to delay a bill like that; to make it harder; to make that policy take longer; and to avoid a policy that would make sure that 40,000 low- and middle-income earners could have access to buy a home.
If you want to write questions and you want to bring dixers here and you want to ask questions about cost of living, I am happy—and I know our ministers are happy—to answer questions about bill relief and about cost of living and housing and closing the loopholes and wages, because our government is the only government that has taken this to task. The opposition can continue with their nasty politics and rhetoric, but we will continue delivering for Australians.
The best form of cost-of-living relief is a secure job—would you believe? It's amazing to hear today, and have it revealed in this place, that jobs in the salmon industry in Tasmania are not secure—not under this government, not in their dodgy relationship with the Australian Greens, that they try and deflect from and pretend doesn't occur and exist. It does. It was on display again today.
The Australian Labor government, the Albanese government, the once-upon-a-time friend of the worker, funded the Environmental Defenders Office to the tune of nearly $10 million. The EDO take legal action against businesses that are proposing projects that will create jobs across our country. They also engage in green lawfare against sustainable industries like the aquaculture industry. The Labor government gave $10 million to take the salmon industry down. It was astounding to have that revelation. Three complainants—the Australia Institute, closely linked to the Australian Labor Party; the Bob Brown Foundation, closely linked to the Greens; and the EDO, funded by the Labor government—are all saying that the salmon industry is not sustainable and, therefore, we are finding that Minister Plibersek is going through a process to shut this industry down.
Those opposite call this a scare campaign. Well, let's go. Let's take Senator Watt's invitation. We should all go to Strahan, maybe the week after we rise from this place, and we can talk to the salmon workers about exactly the position they've been put in by the Tasmanian Labor senate team, who talk about the cost of living but do nothing at all to secure jobs. Let me tell you about a bit of proof that points to this: the letter from the Prime Minister to the Premier, dated yesterday, 29 November, relating to this exact process that the government is going through to review the salmon industry and whether it should continue to operate on Macquarie Harbour. I'll be interested to know whether Senator Polley has seen this letter, dated yesterday. It talks about this process, and refers to the review, under the EPBC Act, of the salmon industry in Macquarie Harbour, and then it starts talking about compensation packages. Why would we be talking about compensation packages for workers in a community in the west coast of Tasmania if there are no job losses at stake here.
To answer to my question, not one guarantee was given about the 400 jobs in that regional community—not one guarantee. We were just told we were scaremongering. Well, I put it to you, Deputy President, that this is exactly what's going to happen. The EDO will win their day. They'll succeed in shutting down this industry. And those opposite—particularly Tasmanian Labor senators—will deflect and say it was all the fault of the last government or someone else or somewhere else. In fact, in the copies of the letters I've got here from Minister Plibersek, they even blame John Howard for all of this, unbelievably. They refer to these laws having been put in place in the year 2000. Between then and now, of course, they have been in government and they have been custodians of what the laws look like in this land. It's a ridiculous argument, a silly claim and one that people in the west coast of Tasmania will not accept. They want a guarantee this Christmas that their jobs will be secure, and I don't think we should be in any way resiling from that.
The salmon industry in Tasmania is a proud and sustainable industry. Of course we should make sure that the environment is well-protected. The industry has invested heavily in measures to mitigate against oxygen levels being diminished in Macquarie Harbour, and that is a good thing. As I said at the time when this funding was announced, the government should back industry in to make sure that science comes to the fore here, not politics—not green lawfare. But instead of actually dealing with the issues here that relate to the problems and the plight that the workers in this industry face as a result of the Albanese Labor government bowing to the pressure of the Greens, which have not been addressed, the minister refused to go anywhere near a guarantee. They made quips about how many salmon workers they've met, and that sort of thing, flippantly refusing to answer questions around the future of this industry and doing what's right for the people that work in this industry.
I'll tell you what: with this letter here from the Prime Minister—and I'll be interested to know whether Senator Polley or any of the Tasmanian Labor senators are aware of it—I want to know how they refuse to say that there will be jobs lost. If they are going to do that, they must guarantee not a single job will be lost in western Tasmania in the salmon industry—this sustainable, science-based industry. And if they can't do that today, it is going to be a very gloomy Christmas for the 400 families on the west coast that depend on this, much in the same way it will be for the workers at Rosebery's MMG mine that Labor senators aren't standing up for. These are the problems they're doing nothing about. They're playing politics. It's a very sad day.
It gives me great pleasure to make a contribution in taking note of answers today because, as usual, the senator from Tasmania has misled the Senate. There is no terminology in this letter that has any reference at all to compensation. Again, the senator has come into this chamber and misled with the usual mistruths that he is spouting. He is again running a scare campaign. He's not interested in supporting any jobs on the west coast, because he wouldn't even know how to get to the west coast. He's Hobart-centric. That's what he is. Not one word in this letter mentions anything at all about compensation. Again, as usual, it's mistruths misleading this chamber. He's running a scare campaign and causing undue stress to the salmon workers. I can assure you that there is not one Tasmanian—
Opposition senators interjecting—
I have a point of order. I'd like to listen to this fine Tasmanian senator and her contribution, but I can't hear with the ridiculous number of interjections. Senator Duniam left the chamber and came back just to make interjections.
We're not having a debate. The minister has asked for a little bit of quiet so that he can listen to his colleague. It's not a debating point. I ask members on my left to be measured, although I do note that Senator Polley was more than capable of handling those interjections.
Can I say—through you, Deputy President—that what is really disappointing is that the good senators on that side of the chamber who represent Tasmania would cause undue stress to the salmon industry workers. He knows, quite frankly, that there isn't any senator from Tasmania, with the exception of your friends down in the corner, that doesn't support the salmon industry in Tasmania. He knows that very well. Again, it's just about misleading, causing a scare campaign and causing stress to workers. If he were really serious about supporting the industry and protecting jobs, he would be working with the government. That's what he would be doing. He would be working with the government.
But let's not leave this debate today without putting some other facts on the record. They're facts in relation to the Fair Work Legislation Amendment (Closing Loopholes) Bill 2023, which, again, the Liberals and the Nationals voted against in the other place. Let's also remind people that each and every measure that we as a government introduced to help households deal with the increase in cost-of-living pressures, which we acknowledge are happening in this country, they have voted against—some of them up to six times. I know it's part of the opposition's role to come in and try and criticise the responses that we've given to their questions. But, really, I think Senator Green hit the nail on the head when she said that we, in this place today, witnessed some of the best dorothy dixer questions to our ministers, which enabled our ministers to talk about the real benefits that we're bringing to the community.
We're actually an adult government. I'm quite surprised that those opposite would question the integrity of the government, when what we did in relation to the issue that was brought down by the High Court of this country was to follow the letter of the law. That's what we did, unlike those who created and wrote the legislation which was thrown out by the High Court of Australia. But, no—all we hear is the usual mantra of those opposite since they've been in opposition.
Look, I think you're going to have a lot of time to get used to being in opposition. But, when coming into this place and trying to rewrite history on so many different levels, as you do, you forget that the Australian people are much smarter, obviously, than you are. They see right through you. Don't think that they've forgotten about all the terrible things you did. It was part of your policy to keep wages low, when it was this Labor government who supported an increase to wages for some of the lowest-paid workers in this country. We've supported workers in the aged-care sector, which your government neglected for 10 years. That's without even going into the whole issue of aged care and the embarrassment that you should be feeling about the way you've treated older Australians in this country.
But let's just get the facts straight. We acknowledge that there is a cost-of-living crisis—we do. But, instead of working with us and supporting good legislation, what you do is to continue to vote against it. No wonder the Australian people keep telling me that Peter Dutton is not fit to be Prime Minister of this country.
I'll also take note of pretty much all of the questions. I'm not thinking about us rewriting history; I'm just trying to think about how the good senator is trying to rewrite the questions in question time that just happened now—in particular, the question from Senator Cadell. The senators on the other side, and Minister Watt, in their responses, didn't actually answer the questions of Senator Cadell. He wasn't asking questions about fire ants in Queensland. He was asking questions about fire ants in New South Wales. Not one single point of answer was addressed to fire ants in New South Wales—only to answering a question that wasn't asked about fire ants in Queensland. The issue is that three fire ant nests have now been located in South Murwillumbah, 13 kilometres south of the Queensland/New South Wales border in New South Wales. They're unable to actually understand the difference between a problem in Queensland and a problem in New South Wales and so unable to actually answer the question that was asked about a problem in New South Wales. As a senator for New South Wales, it is very important to me that the minister is actually able to answer a question about a problem in my home state.
But it's not a problem that impacts just my home state. The whole country has been put at risk of fire ants because this Labor government was, once again, too slow to act. The funding should have been committed back in July—not on 22 October, but back in July. Nothing, all the time—and also not understanding the difference between New South Wales and Queensland when answering a question, but that's another matter.
So, again, we understand that the Labor government doesn't understand the difference between a problem in New South Wales and a problem in Queensland. It also does not understand what a massive threat this is. To that end, the National Red Imported Fire Ant Eradication Program Strategic Review estimated that at least $200 million to $300 million per year was required to deal with this massive problem. So what does this government do? It dallies, for a number of months, and then commits $268 million over four years, when you need $200 million to $300 million per year. So let's have a big think about that and what impact that is going to have on our communities. Unbelievable!
The next thing I'm going to talk about is the cost-of-living piece. I heard a couple of senators talking about how the coalition's done this and the coalition's done that, where we're not focused and how we haven't agreed to support legislation that would cut cost-of-living pressures. It was all very confusing to me, particularly when Senator Green said that the coalition 'hates cheaper medicines'.
The coalition doesn't hate cheaper medicines. What the coalition hates is using community pharmacies in this country to fund government policy, when this government is unable to create its own policies to cut the cost of medicines without harming local family community pharmacies. And most of those community pharmacies are owned by women. So this government would like female small-business owners to fund the cost of cheaper medicines in this country. That's what this government should be embarrassed about. That's what this government should be ashamed of, on top of the fact that it has been totally incapable of providing any meaningful policy to stop the pain for Australian families and Australian mortgage holders, who have faced 13 interest rate hikes. There has been zero impactful or meaningful policy change from this government to stop that.
Question agreed to.