Why the ATM Governments Were Like the Useless Machine - Speech, House of Representatives


In 1952 Marvin Minsky invented the 'useless machine'. It was a little machine with a box with one switch on it, in the off position. If you turned it on then a little hand came out of the machine to turn it back off again. That was its only purpose. As Arthur C Clarke put it:

There is something unspeakably sinister about a machine that does nothing—absolutely nothing—except switch itself off.

And that's what Australians are saying about the last nine years. As the Economist has noted of the British conservative government, the Liberals were, when they were in government, the political equivalent of a useless machine: they know what they're against, they know what they want to turn off, but they have no idea what they are for.

I turn 50 tomorrow, and I'm pleased to be celebrating my birthday in government. But it is a moment to reflect on the fact that I spent the larger part of the last decade going through the Abbott-Turnbull-Morrison government. Let me just take the House through a few of the lowlights of that period. This is the government that introduced a religious discrimination bill, then, when it was amended in the House, voted against its own bill. It was a government that promised an Integrity Commission then failed to deliver one. It was a government that gave $20 billion of JobKeeper to firms with rising revenues, many of which then paid it to their millionaire CEOs or their billionaire offshore shareholders. It was government which, when the pandemic hit, failed to provide personal protective equipment to aged-care centres. It was a government where at Christmas last year you couldn't get a rapid antigen test, and where approximately a year ago Australia was running dead last in the OECD for our vaccine rollout. Their failures in aged care led to a royal commission report titled Neglect. Under the Liberals Australia slipped to 59th in world in average broadband speed rankings. And maybe if they hadn't stuffed up the National Broadband Network then the member who moved this Matter of Public Importance wouldn't have had to pay $2,000 a month for his home internet bill. The Liberals had 22 energy policies and they failed to land one.

They had a Prime Minister who attended a Trump rally, lied to Emmanuel Macron and left our international reputation in tatters. They had Prime Minister who was described by the member for New England as 'a hypocrite and a liar', by Gladys Berejiklian as 'a horrible person', by former Senator Fierravanti-Wells as 'a bully who has no moral compass'. This was not a government; it was a cage fight. By the end they had left us in a situation where the Morrison government's reputation was so bad it made the Abbott government's reintroduction of knights and dames look positively futuristic and visionary. Nine years and so little to show for it. What was the point of the Abbott, Turnbull and Morrison governments? They were the political equivalent of Seinfeld, a government about nothing.

Now this government is getting on with the job. The Treasurer and the finance minister are instituting a waste and rorts audit, which is absolutely essential when we look back over some of the waste and the rorts of the last government. We had the Department of Home Affairs give a $423 million contract to Paladin, a company with its headquarters as a shack on a beach. We had the environment department give $444 million of taxpayer money to the Great Barrier Reef Foundation, which only had six full-time staff and had never managed more than $10 million. The money, not surprisingly for that government, was given without a tender process.

They paid $80 million—at least twice the fair value—for water entitlements, to Eastern Australia Agriculture, a firm that was founded by the shadow Treasurer and located in the Cayman Islands. They allocated money through sports rorts, using colour-coded spreadsheets—a scandal so egregious that, even by the low standards of the former government, the minister was forced to resign.

They handed out money through the Urban Congestion Fund, 83 per cent of which went to coalition or marginal seats; through the Community Development Grants, which saw over 75 per cent go to coalition seats; and through the Building Better Regions Fund, which, as the minister has just noted, led to an Australian National Audit Office report which showed that you were more likely to get funded the lower your score was, and in which it is very clear that the government just wanted the department to stop making recommendations so they could get on with political pork-barrelling.

Australia today faces serious challenges. We face a cost-of-living crisis, the roots of which are primarily global but which has been worsened by a range of supply-side blockages left in place by the former government—by the failure to invest in skills, by the visa backlog that has led to so many firms needing key employees. This cost-of-living crisis is toughest on low-income families.

Labor is committed to acting. One of our first actions in government was to make a recommendation to the Fair Work Commission for minimum wage workers to get a pay rise. That led to a 5.2 per cent pay rise for minimum wage workers. Our childcare plan will provide cheaper childcare for 1.26 million Australian families—again, dealing with a core cost-of-living issue for many Australians.

We're getting more renewables into the grid after the nine years of wasted time in which Australia has failed to make sufficient investment in renewables. We still have people sitting on the other side of the House who say, 'Well, you can't invest in solar and wind because the sun doesn't always shine and the wind doesn't always blow'—members who must be flabbergasted on days when it's not raining and they turn on the tap and water comes out of it. Extraordinarily, it turns out there's a technology called batteries. There are innovations such as joining up the grid, through Labor's Rewiring the Nation plan, that allow us to make the best use of renewables to reduce emissions and take pressure off household power bills.

We're investing in boosting productivity and increasing the number of university places and TAFE places. The Minister for Education is tackling that core issue of teacher quality to make sure we increase not just the quantity of education but the quality of education too. We're engaging in competition reform, and I'm pleased to have the small business minister here in the House and to be working with her on things like making unfair contract terms illegal so small business aren't put at a competitive disadvantage by large firms. The minister for immigration is hard at work clearing the visa backlog. The Jobs and Skills Summit, inspired by Curtin's full employment white paper, will bring together business, unions and the community sector to focus on the core skills and jobs challenges facing the Australian economy.

What do the opposition want? Well, they'd like us to cancel the event and for them to come along as well, I guess, so they can sit in an empty room and talk about jobs and skills. That's where the opposition is at when it comes to the core challenges facing the nation.

We're acting on multinational tax, not just to return money to the budget bottom line through cracking down on debt deduction and misuse of royalty payments but because it's just not fair for small firms to be placed at a competitive disadvantage by large firms that are using a ‘Double Irish with a Dutch Sandwich’, or ‘Leprechaun Economics’, or stashing profits in an offshore tax haven. These are the sort of lurks and perks that are available to multinationals but that are unavailable to small business. Labor stands on the side of fairness. We want a level playing field in the economy. That's a core reason why we're setting about swiftly implementing the OECD/G20 two-pillar agreement and closing debt deduction and royalty repayment loopholes in order to improve fairness.

Australia faces significant inflation challenges with our 6.1 per cent inflation, as do other countries like the US with 9.1 per cent inflation, the UK with 9.4 per cent, the Euro area with its 8.6 per cent inflation and New Zealand with 7.3 per cent inflation. Inflation is forecast by Treasury to come back into the target band by 2024. In the meantime, the Reserve Bank is focusing on the demand side and the government is focusing on the supply side. We're working with the monetary policy regulator to make sure that everything we do goes directly to the cost-of-living challenges.

I started talking about the useless machine, but the members of the opposition really want another machine. They need the Neuralyzer that the Men in Black used to wipe the minds of everyone watching. They want to wipe the Australian people's minds of the nine wasted years that we've seen.


Authorised by Paul Erickson, ALP, Canberra.

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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.