Before I start talking about the committee issues, I would like to pass my condolences to the people of Victoria who have suffered through the horrific bushfires over the past few days. I am old enough to remember the terrible bushfires of 7 February 1967 in Hobart. In fact, members of my family lost everything in that fire. So my heartfelt sympathies go out to everybody involved and my sincere thanks go to those emergency services personnel and volunteers who have been working amazingly hard for the last week or so.
It is with pleasure that I rise to make my contribution to the committee debate today. Listening to the debate yesterday I was amazed that, even though Senator Abetz had suggested the debate, opposition senators contended that we on this side are filibustering. Prior to the Senate inquiries, many opposition members voiced outright opposition to the stimulus package, and now they want to imply that we are treating this issue with less than the seriousness it deserves. All this, and they have nothing productive to offer, as far as I can see. This is a very important debate. Some of the world’s largest economies—the United States, Japan, Germany and the United Kingdom—are in recession. China’s growth has halved. Although Australia is better placed than most countries, the opposition’s ad hoc comments—such as ‘Let’s wait and see,’ or ‘It’ll be right, mate’—clearly show they do not have a plan or a better option. We live in a time of global economic uncertainty the likes of which has not been seen since the end of World War II and the postwar internationalisation of industrialised economies in subsequent decades.
The raft of legislation we are considering provides the basis for the implementation of the economic stimulus package announced by the Rudd government on 3 February 2009. While we live in a global economy and share in the many economic benefits that this brings to our country through exports and foreign investment, we must be alert to the impact of a downturn in global economic conditions beyond our geographical borders. Considering that many of the major economies, including the United States, Germany and Japan, are now in recession it is little wonder that the International Monetary Fund has seen fit to mark down its forecast for global economic growth some three times in the past four months. Let me emphasise once again that we are in the midst of a global economic crisis.
Mr Turnbull and his colleagues know there is a need for the stimulus package. His crocodile tears about ‘mortgaging the future of our children and grandchildren’ is a ploy to tug at the heart strings of ordinary, hardworking Australians. Once again he is taking the divisive line. He is not prepared to work with us but wants to argue for the sake of it. Faced with an economic crisis, governments may choose to take decisive action to hopefully alleviate the worst impact of the global downturn, or take a reactive stance and allow the free market to allocate resources. The Rudd Labor government has decided to take decisive action, and it is imperative that we act in a timely manner. The Rudd Labor government makes no apology for choosing the path of decisive action. This approach commenced last December with the rollout of the $10.4 billion Economic Security Strategy, a package which the opposition says has failed to have any impact on the domestic economy.
We now have evidence, in the form of the latest retail trade figures, that disproves the coalition’s stance. In releasing the figure of 3.8 per cent for December 2008, the Australian Bureau of Statistics commented that ‘the package implemented in December 2008 has impacted on Australia’s retail turnover’. Unfortunately, despite the success of this measure, global economic conditions have continued to worsen and further decisive action is now required. The Rudd Labor government is prepared to meet this challenge.
The stimulus package provides for a $42 billion injection into the domestic economy, with the bulk of the spending in the areas of infrastructure and education—two most important areas. Both of these policy areas are viewed as priorities because they each will provide a long-term return on investment, in the form of an increase in productive capacity, in addition to a short-term stimulatory impact on the economy. It is also notable that both of these areas were neglected by the previous Howard government in favour of short-term policy commitments dictated to a large degree by the electoral cycle. Once again the folly of this approach is highlighted, and it is a Labor government that must govern in a time of crisis.
Public investment in infrastructure was largely ignored by the previous government, which took the view that the market will provide a public good in the absence of any incentives. As a result, vital infrastructure such as roads, electricity grids, ports and railways—indeed, the very arteries of our economy—were ignored and fell into a state of disrepair. Let us get to the heart of this matter: not only did the previous government not have a heart, but they ignored the wellbeing of the arteries of Australia as well. This package will provide around $30 billion for infrastructure such as housing, schools and roads over the next three financial years. A large portion of this expenditure will take place in the first year, consistent with the goal of providing a boost to the economy through the provision of jobs and a healthy level of domestic demand. I have heard members of the opposition say that they do not think many jobs will be created as a result of the package, and they are trying to get numbers qualified. I am a member of the Senate Standing Committee on Community Affairs, which met last week to discuss the housing section of this package. I would like to quote from evidence given to the committee by Mr Bill Harnisch, the Chief Executive Officer of Master Builders Australia. He said:
… as part of the economic stimulus package, this will very much generate economic activity, particularly through the multiplier effects, through manufacturing, obviously through the construction phase and then through the retail phase. All this will provide much-needed jobs in this industry. We agree with the HIA that the housing sector is very sluggish at the moment, so this stimulus package will certainly be a welcome boost—not only, obviously, to the social housing sector but, more importantly, to the economy and therefore to jobs, which is very important in the current economic climate.
So the housing sector part of this package is a win-win situation because, yes, there is a demand for more social housing. I have listened very carefully to the debate and to the questions put by Senator Ludlam. We will create jobs and employment by building varying forms of housing. To me that is a win-win situation, and why anyone would want to hold that up and play politics over it is beyond belief.
Senator Abetz —Not the way you’re doing with your filibuster!
Senator BILYK —We are not filibustering. I mentioned before that we are entitled to have a debate. Would you rather that we did not debate? We have the right to put our points and to debate. As I said, this package will provide around $30 billion for infrastructure such as housing, schools and roads over the next three financial years. A large portion of this expenditure will take place in the first year, consistent with the goal of providing a boost to the economy through the provision of jobs and healthy levels of domestic demand. The leader of the opposition claims that it is unreasonable to expect future generations to pay for this expenditure, yet it is a fact that public infrastructure built today will provide ongoing community benefit available to future generations. Over the term of the preceding government, I constantly thought that this was an area in which they were not taking enough interest or action. They may have had a surplus to hand over, but at what expense?
Investment in the area of education could be considered the highest form of investment in future generations. Human capital lies at the heart of a nation’s productive capacity. The ability to work smarter and to foster innovation in all its facets is critical to ongoing success in the global economy. Investing in schools is the most important infrastructure investment that a government can make. It will provide the opportunity for our schools to engage in urgent upgrades and to develop learning environments that are modern and will improve education outcomes for our students—a point that is clearly not important to Mr Turnbull and the members of the opposition. I wonder which schools Mr Turnbull would have miss out under his inadequate response to the government’s stimulus package. His plan is for an 80 per cent reduction in education funding. His suggestion that $3 billion over three years would be adequate is surely, at best, a joke and, at worst, an insult.
So the Rudd Labor government will deliver a $14.7 billion boost to the education revolution over the next three financial years. Building the Education Revolution will commence in 2008-09 and will provide new facilities and refurbishments in schools to meet the needs of today’s students and teachers. Each of Australia’s 9,540 schools will benefit from immediate funding for major and minor infrastructure projects. The program is built on the Rudd government’s commitment to all Australian schools by targeting primary and secondary school infrastructure requirements in both the government and the non-government sectors.
The three key elements of Building the Education Revolution are Primary Schools for the 21st Century, Science and Language Centres for 21st Century Secondary Schools and Renewing Australia’s Schools. Under Primary Schools for the 21st Century there is $12.4 billion to build or refurbish large-scale infrastructure in primary schools, kindergarten to year 12s and special schools, including libraries and multipurpose halls. Under Science and Language Centres for 21st Century Secondary Schools there is $1 billion to build up to 500 science laboratories or language learning centres in our secondary schools, based on assessed need. There will be a competitive process for proposals, and funding will be allocated to schools that demonstrate need, readiness and capacity to complete construction by 30 June 2010. Under Renewing Australia’s Schools there is $1.3 billion to refurbish and renew existing infrastructure and to build minor infrastructure in all schools.
Recognising the negative impact that the slowdown in economic growth has had on lower and middle-income earners, the Rudd Labor government is providing as part of this package $12.7 billion in financial assistance to working Australians. Household financial assistance is being provided through immediate tax relief and transfer payments to ensure timely assistance to households to stimulate consumption and support private demand. It is necessary to provide households immediate assistance to kick-start stimulatory activity until direct government investment measures take effect. The package is a significant economic measure to deal with extraordinary times and is in addition to the Economic Security Strategy delivered in December 2008 to support as many households as possible.
The package of measures includes a tax bonus for working Australians of up to $950 for eligible taxpayers, depending on income thresholds, and a single-income family bonus of $950 to provide additional assistance for families that have one main income earner and may otherwise receive less assistance from the package than dual-income families with similar household income. I have had numerous calls and people actually coming into my electorate office asking: ‘When will this money begin? When will I be able to access this money? How do I access it?’ For members of the opposition to claim that people don’t want it suggests they may well be talking to the wrong people. I have not had to go and ask people; they have come to me. There is a farmers hardship bonus, of course, of $950, which will be paid to farmers and others receiving exceptional circumstances related income support; a training and learning bonus of $950 to assist students, those returning to study or training, and some income support recipients; and there is a back-to-school bonus of $950 per child to assist low- and middle-income families eligible for family tax benefit A with school-age children.
These payments will be especially welcomed by members of the Tasmanian community, which has a larger proportion of citizens earning less than $100,000 per annum than other states. So I am quite surprised that Tasmanian opposition senators feel that they cannot support the Rudd Labor government’s initiative.
The Energy Efficient Homes program is a key component of this stimulus package. It represents an investment of $3.9 billion as a response to the joint threats of worldwide recession and climate change. This innovative policy response delivers on the government’s household energy efficiency commitments contained in the Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme white paper. The government’s new investments in energy efficiency will modernise Australia’s existing housing stock, thus creating jobs, while contributing to a potential reduction in greenhouse gas emissions of up to 49.4 million tonnes by 2020. This time-limited program of initiatives will have three key components. First, eligible Australian owner-occupiers will be able to access free installation and supply of ceiling insulation up to $1,600 through this program, saving a possible $200 per year on their energy bills. Second, there will be support for tenants in rental accommodation, with landlords able to access an increased rebate of up to $1,000 to install insulation in their rental properties. Let us not forget that a number of rental properties— (Time expired)