Jul 22, 2019

Consideration of Legislation – Monday, 22 July 2019

What we’ve seen with this quite extraordinary reaction by the government is an attempt to play politics, not just on the policy outcomes but now on the procedures as well. I’ve been in this place for 23 years. I can’t recall any time in which a government had a sitting week—just a couple of weeks ago—where they introduced some 26 bills into the House of Representatives and then a couple of weeks later they said, ‘We need to introduce legislation on Monday and have a debate and conclusion of that on that very day.’ The reason those processes exist is to get good governance, to get good outcomes and to enable appropriate processes, including caucus processes, to take place. It’s about respect, it’s about a bit of decency for those processes, and the government is trashing it. It’s trashing it so that it can try and play a little wedge game about drought. That’s why it’s doing it. The minister knows it’s wrong. This minister, the Leader of the House, might know it’s wrong—I’m not sure—but the minister knows it’s wrong. I’ll tell you why it’s wrong also on policy outcomes. When the legislation was debated in the House of Representatives, the truth is that it was improved by proper processes. There was greater accountability put around the scheme that was originally proposed—good governance. Amendments worked out by the cross-benchers with the opposition—eventually, reluctantly, agreed to by the government—led to a better outcome. That’s a good thing. That’s why we have proper processes: you get better outcomes. You would on this issue as well.

The problem with measures like this is that what goes around comes around and bad behaviour creates other bad behaviour. We formerly had a member here who lost his seat to the member for Warringah at the last election, in part because of a perception amongst people in his own constituency about negative politics and just saying no to everything. Don’t tell me, like the Prime Minister did today, about oppositional politics, because I went to that drought summit and I offered to support any level of funding under the system designed, now by this legislation, and put up by the government and to put it straight through the parliament, with proper processes. That was just last Thursday. The Prime Minister, before the Bush Summit, gave no notice that he was going to make that request of me. It was not one-on-one, when we were having a chat beforehand, but from the lectern. That is how that was done. That’s okay. I’ll cop that. It’s the right of someone who’s the Prime Minister of the country to occasionally play those cards. I responded. I didn’t complain about that process; I responded. Then there was a briefing to TheDaily Telegraph and others the next day that somehow we were opposed to drought funding. We had said precisely the opposite—that we not only supported it but would support it at any level the government wanted.

What’s the difference in terms of the impact on the budget of abolishing the Building Australia Fund in order to fund this drought fund? There is zero fiscal difference because the Building Australia Fund only has an impact on the budget bottom line when it’s expended. At the moment, it’s just there. There’s no difference to the fiscal position of the government whatsoever, which is why this is so dishonest. Just like when the government put forward legislation seeking to abolish the Building Australia Fund in order to fund the National Disability Insurance Scheme, it’s just a ruse to avoid having the Building Australia Fund, which is an essential component of Infrastructure Australia. Infrastructure Australia was microeconomic reform that made a difference. It was reform allegedly supported by both sides, after they opposed it when it was passed in 2008.

The whole model was that Infrastructure Australia would make assessments of projects, including water infrastructure projects, and prioritise them and then governments would fund them through the Building Australia Fund. That’s the model, to increase transparency, to stop people just saying, ‘Well, I want to fund this because it’s in a marginal seat.’ Because of that rigour, there were projects like the Pacific Highway, $1.3 billion under the Howard government, $7.6 billion—under half the time—under the Rudd and Gillard governments. You know what? The Pacific Highway didn’t run through a single electorate or voter who had a Labor member of the House of Representatives. The Nats did nothing about it. They were in safe National Party seats so they didn’t worry about it. They didn’t worry about Cowper or Lyne. It took a Labor government to fix it.

The Hunter Expressway is funded in the member for Hunter’s electorate. I’ll tell you the difference it makes to people in the agricultural sector. If you’re a banana grower in the mid-North Coast you need to get your products to market. Road projects that involve freight, whether in the Hunter Valley connecting up with the New England Highway or the Pacific Highway, stack up. What you’re saying, in doing this, is, ‘Because it was a Labor government initiative, we will just seek to get rid of it.’ It’s out of—I’m not quite sure what the motivation is. You may as well get rid of Infrastructure Australia. There’s no point in having an independent advisory body to the government, of which projects to fund, if you haven’t got a funding mechanism for it.

That’s why this is bad policy. It’s just like you tried to say, ‘If you don’t support abolishing the BAF you don’t support people with disabilities.’ Now you’re saying, ‘If you don’t support abolishing the BAF you don’t support people in need of drought funding.’ Neither of them are true. We have supported people with disabilities and supported the NDIS, but this is just a farce. To go through this process of playing politics just shows that this is a government without an agenda. You don’t have an agenda, so you seek to come in here and—your backgrounding to journalists is the giveaway— seek to wedge Labor: ‘We’re going to make it a test for Labor.’

I’ll tell you what, to those opposite: the test is on you. You just got elected for your third term in office. You’d better get an agenda that’s a bit bigger than, ‘We’re going to sit down and work out ways to wedge Labor,’ because it won’t be good enough. They’ll be onto you, because that is all you’re on about at the moment. All of the legislation before the parliament this week is about trying to play political games. Here’s an idea for you: why don’t you just try and govern properly? There’s an idea. Just govern. Do what the people want you to do.

Now you say this is urgent. It doesn’t begin funding—$100 million; forget $5 billion. That’s the other trick, these ridiculous figures. It’s $100 million next July and $100 million the year after. That is all that will happen this term: $200 million. We’re prepared to back that but we think you should do more. Bring it forward. Have a proper debate. Get some outcomes instead of some arguments.