Wrapping up the Parliamentary Week

The last parliamentary fortnight wrapped up with a debate over a motion moved by the Liberal Party about Australia's 'forgotten families'. I spoke in the debate, and used it as a chance to discuss the government's achievements and agenda, and contrast them with the relentless negativity of the Opposition Leader.
Matter of Public Importance Debate, 25 August 2011

The motion before the House today refers to Australia's forgotten families. It is clear where that reference from the Leader of the Opposition comes from. It is a hearkening back to Sir Robert Menzies, the founder of the Liberal Party. What the Liberal Party want to do is to claim that they have some of the policy credibility of Robert Menzies. The Leader of the Opposition is in fact the Sarah Palin of Australian politics. He is willing to say anything, to do anything to wreck the economy.

I know a little bit about the Menzies government and the Leader of the Opposition is no Robert Menzies. Robert Menzies opened up Australian trade with Japan - the Leader of the Opposition would start a trade war with New Zealand. Any chance he gets he will fearmonger about foreigners investing in Australian agriculture. Robert Menzies established the Colombo Plan to bring young Australians to help build a better region - the Leader of the Opposition would scrap aid to Indonesian schools. Robert Menzies began the initial steps of dismantling the White Australia policy - the Leader of the Opposition refers to 'boat people' and he wants to turn back boats to who knows where.

Robert Menzies was committed to Canberra, this fine city that I am proud to represent - the Leader of the Opposition would strip 12,000 jobs out of the Public Service which the ACT government estimates would drop the employment rate in the ACT by six percentage points once you factor in the flow-on effects. The Leader of the Opposition would happily send Canberra into recession. Robert Menzies believed in respect  - any time he thinks he can get away with it the Leader of the Opposition will use the Prime Minister's first name. Robert Menzies massively expanded the CSIRO  - the Leader of the Opposition will attack scientists, describes climate change as 'absolute crap' and thinks CO2 is weightless.

But there is I suppose some similarity. After all Robert Menzies made a lot of his career on attacking communists but won the 1961 election on communist preferences. The opposition leader for a while bankrolled court cases against One Nation but now is quite happy to address extremist rallies with their signs about ‘new world government’ and misogyny.

But the motion before the House today goes to Australia's families and it is worth running through some of the achievements of the Gillard government to date in delivering for Australian families. In the global financial crisis we put in place timely, targeted and temporary fiscal stimulus that saved 200,000 jobs. Those opposite would have been happy to see young lives blighted by unemployment. Their view is that you would never take on any debt, so no stimulus because it would send the budget into debt. No matter that most of the debt is actually revenue downgrades—that is what happens in a recession, you get less revenue. So those opposite would have taken the Herbert Hoover approach—they would have slashed government spending as the recession hit. That is right, as the private sector scaled back, their view was that the government should have scaled back as well. What a disaster that would have been. The Gillard government and the Rudd government have seen 750,000 jobs created since we came to office—three quarters of a million jobs with the pay packets and the dignity that goes with work.

We put in place the largest increase to the pension since it was introduced: $128 a fortnight for single pensioners and $116 a fortnight for pensioner couples. We have got rid of Work Choices, to make sure Australians get a fair go at work and have the rights that they deserve. For Australians with children in care, we have increased the childcare rebate from 30 per cent to 50 per cent - a rebate that helps families and boosts female labour force participation.

We have put in place paid parental leave and we have launched My School 2.0 in an unprecedented wave of education reforms. We have Trade Training Centres rolling out across the country, recognising that we have to start investing in trade skills for the next generation and that we can do so while children are at school. I am particularly proud of the Trade Training Centre here in the ACT, which is a consortium of St Mary MacKillop College, St Francis Xavier College, Merici College and St Clare’s College. There is the National Curriculum, which ensures that those thousands of Australians with children in school who move across state borders have the opportunity for those children to continue their education. And there is a new health deal that is, frankly, the biggest health reform since Medicare.

There are all of these achievements, and yet there is a major agenda for the future. We are putting a price on carbon because we know the scientists tell us that climate change is happening and the economists tell us that a price on dangerous carbon pollution is the most effective way of dealing with the problem.

We have a big health reform agenda: e-health and investment in hospitals. In immigration, we have a regional solution through the Bali process. It has two aims: firstly, to increase the number of humanitarian migrants by 1,000 a year; and, secondly, to ensure that fewer kids die on the seas between Indonesia and Australia. No-one wants to see a repeat of the Christmas Island tragedy, and the Malaysian agreement is aimed at ensuring just that.

We have major reforms with the National Disability Insurance Scheme, aged care and mental health: issues that were long regarded as the ‘third rail’ of Australian politics—too dangerous to touch. We have commissioned major reports on those issues and we are setting about the consultations with states and territories to make them happen. On superannuation: we are boosting retirement savings because we know that Australians need a little bit more in the bank when they get to retirement. Fifteen per cent superannuation is good enough for those opposite. They are happy to give themselves 15 per cent—I do not see them moving any motions, saying, 'No, no, no! Don't let us have 15 per cent. Let's drop parliamentarians’ superannuation back down to nine per cent.' But nine per cent is good enough for ordinary Australians in the view of those opposite. We disagree. Labor is the party that put in place superannuation in the early nineties over the objections of those opposite. And Labor is the party that is now boosting superannuation to 12 per cent.

As was highlighted in question time, those opposite are happy to turn out to openings of new school buildings. Senator Gary Humphries joins me from time to time when I am opening new school buildings in my electorate. I am sure he is proud to be there, opening those new school buildings. But those opposite attack the school building program generally. They are willing to take a swipe at the whole program but are also delighted to turn up for the photo op when it is happening. We see exactly the same in the case of Trade Training Centres.

We see a clear contrast on the big issues in Australian politics. We want Australians to get a fair share of the minerals that are their birthright - the opposition thinks that miners pay too much tax. We are committed to global trade and the notion that Australia has always prospered as an open economy engaged with the world - they want to start a trade war with New Zealand. We are committed to rapid fiscal consolidation and clear budget rules - they have a $70 billion black hole, which is going to look even blacker when we have a Parliamentary Budget Office and there really will be nowhere to hide on those costings—no way of going to an election with an $11 billion hidden black hole as they did at the last election. Of course that $11 billion black hole at the last election looks pretty modest set against the $70 billion black hole that the opposition now faces.

We want to put a price on carbon pollution because we know, as all sensible policy makers do, that going to the heart of the problem is the right way to solve it. They want to put in place a direct action scheme. Maybe it is because they do not actually understand this stuff. Of course, there was the classic interview in which the Leader of the Opposition asked:

'If you want to put a price on carbon, why not just do it with a simple tax?'

But the thing that surprised me most, as an economist, is the next bit:

'Why not ask electricity consumers to pay more, then at the end of the year you can take your invoices to the tax office and get a rebate?'

I am not sure what the Leader of the Opposition was thinking. If you did it that way it is actually true that the assistance would undo the price effects. But that is not what anyone is proposing. We are proposing generous household compensation, untied to your carbon tax bill.

We want to put in place world-beating health policy on cigarettes - those opposite think that smoking is ‘fun’, and say things like, 'life kills'.

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Cnr Gungahlin Pl and Efkarpidis Street, Gungahlin ACT 2912 | 02 6247 4396 | [email protected] | Authorised by A. Leigh MP, Australian Labor Party (ACT Branch), Canberra.