May 27, 2014

Appropriation Bills 2014-2015 – Second Reading

Mr ALBANESE (Grayndler) (12:52): The coalition had a plan to get into government, but no plan to govern. In opposition the current Prime Minister’s only aim was to say no to anything that was proposed by the then Labor government. Knowing that Labor faced the difficult circumstance of a minority government, Mr Abbott sought only to create the impression of chaos by rejecting any government initiative. But during this period, as he wandered around declaring that the sky was falling, the now Prime Minister failed to prepare for government by crafting alternative policies. The first Abbott budget is the result of this extraordinary policy lethargy, this absolute preference for putting politics first and policy second. This is a government budget of ideology. This is not the budget of a government with a well thought out program to build a better nation; it is a mean-spirited budget of cuts and broken promises. It is an attack on fairness; it is an attack on economic growth. It is notable for its lack of any policy narrative beyond scorching the political earth of any trace of the previous Labor government. It is a reactionary budget from a reactionary Prime Minister who lives in the past, in an age of knights and dames.

The real problem is that he wants the rest of the nation to go back there and keep him company. This budget asks us to return to a bygone era where people’s access to opportunity, security and even good health depended on their parents’ bank balance or what school they attended. The budget smashes the universality of Medicare by adding a $7 co-payment for people to see their doctor. It abandons the Gonski education reforms, which were explicitly designed to ensure equity of opportunity. It cuts $80 billion in Commonwealth grants to states for health and education. It walks away from federal investment in public transport, despite the fact that Commonwealth leadership to deliver an integrated approach to urban transport can significantly boost the nation’s economic productivity. While encouraging motor vehicle use instead of public transport, it places even more of a burden on Australian families by increasing fuel prices. It slows down the implementation of the National Disability Insurance Scheme and limits future access to the age pension. Yet before the election the Prime Minister told the voters of Australia there will be no cuts to health, education, pensions or the ABC. His promises were worthless.

The starting point for any examination of this budget is its economic context. When this government took office it inherited a growing economy with low inflation, low interest rates, low unemployment and with AAA credit ratings from all three of the nation’s top agencies. But, despite this, the government has justified its cuts and broken promises with the claim that the nation faces a budget emergency. Let us look at the facts. The latest budget update shows that net government debt for 2013-14 is $191.5 billion, the equivalent of 12.1 per cent of GDP. According to the IMF, the average debt level in advanced nations is 74.7 per cent. It is also claimed that the budget is burdened by unsustainable spending. The budget deficit peaked in 2009-10 at $54.5 billion, or 4.2 per cent of GDP—less than half the average among advanced nations. In Labor’s final year in office, the deficit was $18.8 billion or 1.2 per cent of GDP.

The use of the term ‘budget emergency’ to describe our budget dates from Mr Abbott’s relentless campaign of negativity when he was Leader of the Opposition. Having been too lazy and cynical to create a policy program, the now Prime Minister chanted three-word slogans so loudly that people began to believe them. Anyone prepared to be honest about recent Australian history knows that our spending and debt levels increased in the past few years because the previous Labor government borrowed money to fund an economic stimulus package that protected our economy during the global financial crisis. In 2009 the Rudd government was grappling with a crisis—a global crisis, not a pretend crisis of the type confected by the current Prime Minister so that he could impose these mean-spirited cuts. Our stimulus package saved Australia from the recession that enveloped the rest of the developed world and we chartered a path back to budget surplus. Treasury analysis says that our package saved 200,000 Australian jobs. We did not create a crisis, we dealt with the crisis.

The real deficit problem in this country is the honesty deficit in the Prime Minister’s office. The only crisis in Australian politics today is the integrity crisis of those opposite and the fact that people were misled by a party that said one thing before the election and another thing afterwards. And if the government had any serious ability to put forward its position in a consistent way, it would not be proposing to deliver an unaffordable paid parental leave scheme. While families struggle to get their children to the doctor, the Prime Minister will give millionaires up to $50,000 to have a baby.

This budget exposes this government’s true colours. It attacks the weak, but favours the top end of town. I am all for business prosperity—it creates jobs—however, like most Australians, I expect that prosperity should be shared. Take as an example the proposed $7 co-payment that will apply to visits to the family doctor. It will not affect people like parliamentarians, but it will affect many in my electorate who will choose to go to a public hospital emergency room because they cannot afford to take their kid to the doctor. Labor believes that Australians have a right to the same level of health care regardless of their income, and we will defend Medicare and its universality, which is at the point of its principles.

On education, before the election the Prime Minister said he was on a ‘unity ticket’ to implement the Gonski education reforms. These were designed to deliver a needs-based funding model to schools and ensure equality of opportunity—and to end the decades-old debate that has occurred around schools funding in this country. But he has walked away from this undertaking. The same goes for university funding, with the government proposing a US-style deregulated system where money matters more than a student’s potential. Education is not just about the individual; the nation benefits by being a smarter, more skilled country.

Let me turn to the budget as it affects my own shadow portfolios of infrastructure, transport and tourism. Before the budget the government inflated expectations about infrastructure to divert attention away from cuts to services and broken promises. Under examination their claims collapse. The majority of the government’s infrastructure spend was not new but a collection of re-announcements of projects funded by the previous government. Anything new in this budget was funded by cuts to existing rail and road projects: cutting all public transport funding not currently under construction; cutting existing road projects, including the M80 in Melbourne and Tasmania’s Midland Highway upgrade; and cutting nearly $1 billion to financial assistance grants for roads through an end to indexation, which will hurt councils in rural and regional communities more than any others. The government has taken the axe to existing projects so that it can falsely claim it has new money for different projects. Indeed, in its glossy, when you look at projects like the Pacific Highway in New South Wales, it is exactly the same graphic that was produced by the former government, with the same projects listed with funding there.

The fact is that Mr Abbott also said that a full cost-benefit analysis would occur for every infrastructure project worth more than $100 million. But none of that has occurred. There is not one single project that has been recommended by Infrastructure Australia as a priority project funded in this budget—not one. In the case of the East West Link in Melbourne, the Senate budget estimates committee heard yesterday, extraordinarily, that the government will give the Napthine government $1 billion in the next month that will sit in a bank account because stage 2 is not due to commence until not this year, not next financial year, but the financial year after that! They say they have issues with finances but they are giving a billion dollars in the next month for something that is not due to commence for another two financial years. Today they say they will ask the Victorian government to pay back some of the interest that they get from that billion dollars—absolutely absurd! It is clearly a favour to help their mates in the Victorian government prop up their budget.

If the fiscal situation is so dire in the national government, why are they propping up their mates in the Victorian state government through this billion dollars for stage 2, for which there are no traffic projections, for which there is no business case, for which there is no forecast, and for which there has been no assessment made whatsoever? Absolutely extraordinary.

In March the assistant infrastructure minister, Mr Truss’s errand boy, the member for Mayo, attacked these payments. The errand boy said this:

This represents a massive abuse of taxpayer dollars, with money lying around in state government accounts collecting interest, scandalously underutilised at a time of scarce public funds.

He said that should never happen. And let me tell you that nothing like that happened under the previous administration and, to be fair to the Howard government, I have not heard of any such circumstance occurring like this ever in the whole time that I have been in parliament.

At the same time, of course, Minister Briggs, Assistant Minister Briggs to give him his correct title, the errand boy for the actual minister, spent some $70,000 in public money attempting to kid Australians into believing its infrastructure spend was new.

Mr Chester interjecting—

The DEPUTY SPEAKER ( Mr Vasta ): Order!

Mr ALBANESE: I withdraw. He actually breached a budget embargo, releasing the presentation well before the budget speech. Yesterday we heard that 2½ thousand people have looked at that video, so it cost almost $40 per viewing. There is value for taxpayers!

The budget also created a $5 billion incentive fund. But the problem with that is that it wasn’t new money either. The $5 billion came from the Building Australia Fund and the education infrastructure fund. Paying someone else to do the heavy lifting does not constitute investing in infrastructure. The fact is that the infrastructure package in this budget is a con—a collection of already funded projects and cuts to fund other projects, which have not even been tested by experts to verify that they represent value for money. There are other cuts in there as well, such as the upgrading of remote and regional airports—gone, that program, from the next financial year. The previous government, of course, was concerned about addressing funding in our cities for public transport as well as for roads. The fact is that this government has walked away from those commitments.

I have heard the Treasurer say before that the core of his approach to economics is the idea that if you increase the tide all boats rise. I was reminded of the words of Indian politician Rahul Gandhi, who once said: ‘A rising tide doesn’t raise people who don’t have a boat. We have to build the boat for them. We have to give them the basic infrastructure to rise with the tide.’

That is the problem with this budget. It is a budget which helps those who have and punishes those who have not. It puts in place policies that expose all the prejudices of the existing government. My message to the government is that it is not the fault of the Labor Party that the Prime Minister was too lazy to frame genuine policy when he was the Leader of the Opposition. Nor is it the fault of the poor, the disabled, the sick, state premiers or young people—all of whom are bearing the brunt of the budget decisions. As opposition leader, Mr Abbott clearly took a conscious decision to turn the coalition into the noalition.(Time expired)