The Budget is a Time for Choices

I spoke on the Matter of Public Importance debate today about the strong Australian economy, and the choices that Mr Abbott faces with his budget reply.
Matter of Public Importance - Australian Budget, 15 May 2013

Dr LEIGH (Fraser—Parliamentary Secretary to the Prime Minister) (16:12):  It is my pleasure to rise on this matter of public importance to speak about the strength of the Australian economy and the important choices that this budget makes. The Australian economy is performing strongly by international standards. As previous speakers have noted, we have grown 13 per cent since 2007. It is a period when the United States has only grown a couple of per cent and when all of Europe has actually shrunk. The European economy is smaller now than it was then. Australia's economy has moved up the rankings from being the 15th largest to the 12th largest in the world. We have seen faster productivity growth over recent years than we saw under Work Choices, giving the lie to the notion that all that stands between Australia and stellar productivity performance is cutting back workers' entitlements. We have seen the sharemarket up. In fact the sharemarket is up more than 10 per cent just this year.

You do not have to take my word that. As former Prime Minister John Howard has noted, ‘our debt to GDP ratio, the amount of money we owe to the strength of our economy, is still a lot better than most other countries’. Former Prime Minister Howard has been willing to speak the truth on this. While the member for North Sydney used question time to fearmonger about debt, former Prime Minister John Howard has acknowledged that Australian debt levels are low. In fact the Leader of the Opposition himself has a debt-to-income ratio well over 200 per cent, so it is hard to see why he would envisage a debt-to-income ratio of 11 per cent as being unsustainable.

If we go back to 2009, we had the Leader of the Opposition telling Lateline that Labor's stimulus package was 'not going to stop the recession being long and deep'. He was of course completely wrong about that. Thanks to the stimulus package, Australia avoided going into recession entirely. We did not cut back on government spending when the private sector turned bad. Two-thirds of the debt that Australia took on was due to revenue write-downs with just one-third being due to the stimulus spending we put in place. So when you hear those opposite fear-mongering about debt, they are really saying that the Australian government should have cut back when the private sector was cutting back. That would have led to a long and deep recession of the kind the Leader of the Opposition forecast incorrectly in 2009.

Mr Deputy Speaker, if you believe those opposite, you would believe that coalition governments spend more, tax less and have less debt than this government. Indeed, I even heard a voice from one of those opposite. 'Yes, we can do that,' they said. The problem is it is mathematically impossible. You have got to make choices. You actually have to make choices—and our budget does that. We make difficult choices but they are responsible savings measures: $43 billion in savings adding up to $180 billion in savings under this government. We understand those trade-offs. It is not sure those opposite do. Those opposite have a fiscal crater which was $70 billion before the revenue write-downs and now, with nearly $20 billion of revenue write-downs, it must surely be in the order of $90 billion.

Part of the reason they have that is their unfair paid parental leave scheme, which gives the most to those who have the most. Of course, you do not need to hear my criticisms of this scheme, which may cost between $12 million and $17 million over four years, as you can simply go to those opposite. The member for Mitchell said it did 'not pass the fair-go test'. The member for Tangney said he was 'aware of a number of colleagues that have similar concerns on this policy'. The member for Moore said, 'The Labor Party scheme is quite good.' He said he was not sure 'why it is necessary to go to this level and how it will assist productivity.' The member for Wentworth said he was 'not going to comment on whether it should be reviewed or not'. Senator Cormann said that he is yet to announce how they will fund it, and they have not released the costings yet. Peter Reith goes further. He just says 'it is obviously bad policy'. Nick Minchin: 'I have been on the record many, many times as saying that I'm not a supporter of the paid parental leave scheme of the opposition.' He says, 'I think Tony and the opposition should now put that in the aspirational category.' And Peter Costello says, 'My view is that it is a very generous scheme.' Well, yes, it is generous but it is generous to the most affluent; it is not generous to the neediest.

The opposition leader claims that he can pay for paid parental leave with a 1.5 per cent impost on Coles and Woolies customers. The trouble is that was predicated on company tax revenues being up and we have seen company tax revenues being written down, so 1½ per cent likely does not cover the cost of the opposition's unfair paid parental leave scheme. It is likely they would have to increase company taxes and therefore increase grocery prices by even more.

They have claimed that the tax increase combined with parental leave could even save the affected businesses money. But, unfortunately, business leaders have quickly come out to say that this did not fit the mathematical test—again similar to the claim that they can increase spending, cut taxes and pay down the debt faster. The opposition leader could not name a single business that would be better off under his parental leave scheme, because there is not one. It is no wonder that former Liberal leader John Hewson said the opposition leader has no interest in economics and called him 'innumerate'.

That brings me to the opposition's soil magic plan, a direct action plan which they originally said would cost $3 billion over four years and now will cost $2 billion over three years. But that is at odds with the costings of independent experts. The Grattan Institute say that it will cost $100 billion to achieve the coalition's emissions reduction target via soil magic, with $1,300 in new taxes because the opposition will not deal with foreigners in order to combat climate change and that again drives up the cost. If they were serious about this policy, they would submit it to the Parliamentary Budget Office for scrutiny. They would come clean with the Australian people. They would not go around making statements like the Leader of the Opposition has made that 'we will spend no more and no less on reducing emissions than we allocate'. The fact is that something has to give. Clearly the opposition cannot both meet its budgetary targets and meet its emissions reductions targets. It will have to do one or the other.

Then there is the coalition's $30 billion policy to construct dams. That shows the priorities of the coalition: $30 billion on a very odd dam scheme which seems to bear a curious resemblance to a major coalition backer's plans to develop the north. But there are no plans for investing in the education of Australia's children and no plans for paying for disability care. The opposition want to spend $1½ billion on drones, another thought bubble. When I first heard of this policy I thought we should just remind them that their coalition with the Nationals still remains strong. So there is $1½ billion on drones apparently and there is $10 million for upgrades to the opposition leader's football club, Manly-Warringah Sea Eagles, and there is $400 million for a green army.

I could go on all day but the coalition's fiscal woes are the result of saying yes to every special interest and no to every sensible revenue-raising measure. What the opposition leader must do tomorrow night is come into this place and back Labor's responsible saves. He must come into this place and he must say that he backs our revenue measures, because if he does not all he has done is dig deeper into his $70 billion crater. As the advice goes, when you are down deep the best thing you can do is stop digging. The opposition leader could stop digging by backing Labor' measures to get rid of the baby bonus and replace it with a targeted $2,000 for those on Family Tax Benefit Part A. He could back our company tax changes which see a fairer and more responsible company tax system being put into place. He could back the series of these measures but then he would still have to make swingeing cuts. When he is asked about his cuts he likes to speak about the cuts that he will make in my electorate of Fraser and the 20,000 Canberra public servants that he will get rid of. But that is only a small drop in the ocean compared to the budget gap that the coalition leader finds himself in. He wants to give tax cuts to big miners and big polluters. They have been guaranteed. But he does not want to provide tax cuts to the Australians who are at the bottom of the income spectrum. He is going to reverse Labor's cuts to superannuation taxation for low-income earners. He is going to reverse our tripling of the tax-free threshold. Both are policies that will disproportionately hit women. Budgets are about priorities and values. It is time for the opposition leader to show tomorrow night where his are.

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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.