Matter of Public Importance - Five Tests for the Opposition Leader's Budget Reply

Statement on Matters of Significance, House of Representatives
Wednesday, 16 May 2023

If you want to know what the coalition really believe in, let's go back to the most unpopular budget of the past generation, a budget that commemorated its 10-year anniversary this year, the 2014 budget. The 2014 budget was preceded by then Prime Minister Abbott saying there would be ‘no cuts to education, no cuts to health, no cuts to pensions, no changes to the GST and no cuts to the ABC and SBS’. He vowed to avoid these things and he embraced every single one of them.

 In that 2014 budget, the Liberal Party and the National Party said that under-30s would get no unemployment support for six months. In fierce discussions about the right level of JobSeeker, they thought the right level for young Australians should be zero. They said that pensions would no longer be indexed to wages but would only be indexed to prices, essentially saying to Australia's fixed-income retirees that they could no longer share in productivity growth in the economy. They said that HECS-HELP debts would be indexed at a faster rate, a strong contrast to what we said in this budget, which was that the indexation of those debts would be lower.

 The 2014 budget, which commemorates its 10-year anniversary this week, had a $43 million cut to ABC and SBS. It had a $114 million cut to the CSIRO. It had deficits as far as the eye could see from a party that had promised before the election that they would deliver a surplus in their first year and in every year after that. And the 2014 budget ended bulk billing. I wonder who was the health minister who presided over that decision? Hey, that's right: it's none other than the Leader of the Opposition, the man who, when he was health minister, was voted by doctors the worst health minister in living memory.

What you saw last night from Labor was something very different: a budget that reduced Australia's debt burden, which under the former government was forecast to peak at 45 per cent of GDP and is now forecast to peak at 35 per cent of GDP, saving Australians billions of dollars in interest payments that no longer need to be made. We've delivered the second back-to-back surplus. This is something that those opposite hoped for and made the mugs for, but in the end they were the ones who looked like mugs, unable to deliver a single surplus in their time in office.

Since our coming to office, 780,000 jobs have been created in the Australian economy, and the unemployment rate is 3.8 per cent—full employment by anyone's definition. Our budget locked in a tax cut for every Australian taxpayer, meaning that four out of five Australian taxpayers get a bigger tax cut under us than they would have gotten under the former government. All Australian households receive a $300 energy rebate, the maximum cost of PBS prescriptions is frozen, and we're making important changes in the competition regime, strengthening the merger regime, reforming non-compete clauses and taking steps to make the Food and Grocery Code of Conduct mandatory. We understand that productivity is at the heart of living standards growth, and productivity and our investments in our people and infrastructure are at the heart of last night's budget.

Tomorrow night the Australian people will get to hear something a little different: they will get to hear the budget reply. When Malcolm Turnbull was shadow Treasurer, apparently he made a pitch to then opposition leader Brendan Nelson that it ought to be the shadow Treasurer who gave the budget reply, and I'm sure that the shadow Treasurer, Mr Taylor, has popped off to the Leader of the Opposition's office to make the very same pitch, because he would know, as so many Australians know, how little interest the Leader of the Opposition has in economics. I'm indebted to 'Bad cop: Peter Dutton's strongman politics', the latest Quarterly Essay, by Lech Blaine, which includes the following quote:

Dutton is the paperback version of Howard: the same message but less weight. Economics is not his emotional priority, beyond a tribal allegiance to tax loopholes for the rich; penalties for the poor; and hostility to trade unions. This is why he spends most of the time fighting culture wars. His grievances are well practised and sincerely held. But the moment he moves off his preferred turf, Dutton becomes clumsy and unconvincing.

Lech Blaine has gone and interviewed former Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, who says:

"Peter is not an original thinker … I cannot recall him ever having a positive idea in the times when I was with him in government."

Indeed, the former Prime Minister goes on to say:

"Peter wants to be Prime Minister … So he will say and do what he needs to get there. But he is not the sharpest tool in the shed."

The former Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull isn't the only one with some choice words for the Leader of the Opposition. The member for Bass is quoted as saying:

"When I go to Canberra and sit in the party room with Peter Dutton, Tony Pasin and Alex Antic, I think: who are these people?"

She says:

 "The Liberal Party has become One Nation lite."

Lech Blaine also includes a discussion of a point which is quite relevant given the points the shadow Treasurer has been making about billionaires. He recounts a moment when:

"Dutton boards a chartered flight to Western Australia … Australia's richest billionaire is hosting a "neon bush doof" at her Roy Hill Mine in the Pilbara. Dutton is flown to the shindig by WA billionaire Tim Roberts. The Opposition leader dons a high-vis pink vest for a happy snap with Rinehart … Pauline Hanson is also in attendance. But Dutton is the undisputed guest of honour.…A smoking ceremony is performed for the traditional owner of the Coalition: Gina Rinehart … This is Dutton in a nutshell. He kisses up and punches down"

And there's much more which I'd recommend to viewers in Lech Blaine's Quarterly Essay.

So the real question for the Leader of the Opposition tomorrow night is: what will it cost? I want to outline for the Leader of the Opposition five tests which ought to be simple for any opposition leader to clear in their budget reply—tests which could easily be cleared by the now Prime Minister, the former Leader of the Opposition, Anthony Albanese.

First, what will it cost? If you're going to announce policies, show us how much they're going to cost. That's what the Parliamentary Budget Office is there for. Their resources are available. Don't give us uncosted thought bubbles; give us costed policies.

Second, what are you going to cut? The opposition was out there today talking about hundreds of billions of dollars of new spending—new spending which includes indexation of the age pension. So, if they're against these hundreds of billions of dollars of new spending, do they intend to reduce the level of the age pension? Do they intend to reheat the proposal for the 2014 budget, which would have become law were it not for the Labor opposition? Their proposal back in 2014 was that pensions be indexed to prices and not to wages.

Third, who will you take the energy bill relief away from? They're all out there saying that this energy bill relief shouldn't go to billionaires—despite the fact that the Leader of the Opposition's signature economic promise when he was running for leader of the Liberal Party was that the GST be taken off electricity bills, including the electricity bills of billionaires. So, if they plan to take away energy bill relief, who will they take it away from?

Fourth, what are you going to do for productivity growth and for wage growth? For all the conniptions of the shadow Treasurer, he simply needs to look at the Australian Bureau of Statistics website today, where he will see the wage price index, at 4.1 per cent, is higher than the consumer price index, at 3.6 per cent. Real wages are growing under us. Real wages were falling under them. Are we going to get any answers? I doubt it.

Fifth, where will those nuclear power plants be? We saw the promise from the Leader of the Opposition that he would announce before the budget where those nuclear power plants would be, but we've now got members of his own party room saying that they don't want it in their own electorate. The member for Gippsland says that his community wouldn't accept a site unless it was handed a significant economic package, and free energy wouldn't be enough. The Leader of the Nationals has expressed similar doubt about what's going to happen here. We know that the Liberal leaders in New South Wales, Victoria and Queensland wouldn't lift their state bans on nuclear.

The coalition's policy on nuclear is falling apart before their eyes. The Australian people deserve certainty and clarity tomorrow night.

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  • Georgia Thompson
    published this page in What's New 2024-05-16 09:28:59 +1000

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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.