This government has barely begun and yet today it has already proved to be a sad, shallow disappointment. It is certainly not a reforming government. It has no clear policy agenda for improving our nation for the benefit of all Australians. It does not seek to drastically improve education funding or provide appropriate care and support for those with disability, like the previous Labor government strove to do. It is not a government with a clear vision—just hollow, three-word sound bites which are increasingly becoming meaningless. Its most disappointing feature, though, so far is its utter lack of transparency.
Just a couple of months after being trusted by the Australian people to form a new government, those opposite do not trust the Australian people enough to tell them what they are doing. Its ministers are in hiding, its members are in hiding, the Prime Minister is in hiding and the minister for immigration is in hiding. Sorry, I should say the Minister for Immigration and Border Protection is in hiding. The new title is meant to show, I presume, how tough he is, like some form of poorly dubbed animated superhero. Mr Morrison is reduced to making a once-a-week appearance to the media to ignore questions and spin the latest diplomatic disaster with Indonesia. If the government truly thought that talking about boats that arrived increased the number of arrivals, why did they constantly talk about that when they were in opposition? Day after day after day in this place when those over there were in opposition they constantly talked about boats arriving. Why didn’t they suggest then that the Labor government only hold weekly press conferences? And should we have tried that, what would their response have been?
The weekly press conferences are designed to hide the issues from the Australian people. They are designed to hide what we saw earlier in the week where Tony Abbott’s ‘turn back the boats’ policy failed miserably and Indonesia refused to accept 65 asylum seekers Mr Abbott wanted to force on them. They are designed to hide the embarrassing gaffes, where Mr Morrison criticised senior Indonesian officials by saying about their policy, ‘There is no real rhyme or reason to it.’ They are designed to hide the bizarre ‘buy back the boats’ policy that Indonesia objected to so strongly and that has now fallen off the radar. And they are designed to hide the fact that Tony Abbott spent much of his time on his first trip to Indonesia apologising for things he said during the election campaign and came back empty-handed on both his ‘turn back the boats’ policy and his ‘buy back the boats’ policy.
The government does not trust the Australian people and certainly did not trust them enough before the election to explain the government’s plan to privatise HECS-HELP debt for university students, creating American-style student loans to keep people indebted for decades. Sorry, it isn’t a plan. To quote education minister Christopher Pyne:
It’s been floated as an idea …
It wouldn’t be insensible for us to do so. Why would you rule anything like that out?
Well, a good reason to rule it out, Mr Pyne, is that Australia’s $23 billion worth of HECS-HELP debt would only fetch between $11 billion and $16 billion, as reported, if it were to be privatised, meaning a handy profit for the government’s mates in whatever banking organisation picks it up at the loss to the Australian taxpayer. It would also mean that commercial rates or above commercial rates of interest would apply to HECS-HELP debt rather than the current indexation at the rate of inflation as occurs at the moment. This would leave students with more debt and higher interest payments. It would increase the overall costs and of course it would take longer to pay off. It is a bad idea, because these changes will obviously make it more difficult for people from low-income families who cannot afford to pay full fees up-front to afford to go to university. It is a bad idea because it acts as a massive deterrent for students to study for professions that are vitally important for Australian society but may not pay graduates terribly well. The latest Graduates careers Australia report released in July revealed that pharmacy graduates are the lowest paid of all university leavers, with an average salary of just $37,000 a year. I think we would all be in great trouble if all the people studying pharmacy decided it was now no longer feasible for them to do so and moved into a career with a better graduate salary.
Australia needs to encourage higher education to make us a smarter country capable of providing the high-level services and products of the 21st century. Privatising higher education debts would do the reverse, and it is disturbing we have not heard of these plans until recently. It is something that many of the around four million university graduates should be terrified of.
The Abbott government is also being less than forthcoming on what it plans to do on infrastructure grants allocated to local communities under the Regional Development Australia Fund, or RDAF, round 5. In my home state of Tasmania that is 34 projects with almost $3 million worth of allocated federal funding for total project expenditure over $5 million at risk. These include projects like the tourist information bays in the Central Highlands, erosion control measures at the New Norfolk esplanade, outdoor gym equipment at Scottsdale and Bridport, redevelopment at the Northern Tasmanian Cricket Association facilities at Launceston and the Wynyard waterfront, and the Cam River reserve recreation facilities project, just to name a few.
What I have not heard from the new federal Liberal members for Bass, Braddon and Lyons has been them out there pushing to get these projects underway. In fact, they have been remarkably quiet on the future of all these projects and the others that make up the 34 projects I mentioned. Of course, these projects that Labor promised would drive jobs and growth in regional Tasmania. They would provide new facilities to increase the health and wellbeing of Tasmanians and they will improve facilities for tourism and regional communities. Communities in regional Tasmania need to know with certainty that these projects will go ahead rather than them being left in limbo while the government decides behind closed doors what they are going to cut. Mr Abbott himself has said that Tasmania is a special case—that Tasmania needs jobs and development. That is a statement that Labor agrees with. That is why Labor agreed to fund those positions. So why hasn’t the funding for the RDAF 5 projects been guaranteed? This funding will create jobs in regional Tasmania, as I said.
And while we talk about projects in regional Tasmania, there are tens of thousands of Tasmanian premises that will no longer receive fibre to the premises, despite the contracts having been previously signed. The government promised that they would honour all contracts signed. Now, looking at the NBN Co. interactive rollout maps, I find large swathes of Tasmania that were set to receive fibre to the premises no longer there. There is no detail about when or if these suburbs will get fibre to the premises, or even when they will get the government’s outdated, inefficient and ineffective fibre-to-the-node fraudband alternative. We will end up with two classes of Tasmanians, with many Tasmanian suburbs and towns missing out. Those Tasmanians in the Hobart suburbs of New Town, North Hobart, Mount Stuart, Lenah Valley, Risdon, Geilston Bay, Rose Bay, Lindisfarne, Claremont, Granton, Austins Ferry, Montrose, Rosetta, Glenorchy, Chigwell and Berriedale, who were all expecting to receive NBN fibre to the premises within the next year or so, now have no idea what their future internet connections will be. Tasmanians in the Launceston suburbs of Prospect, South Launceston, Summerhill, Kings Meadows, Prospect Vale, West Launceston, Norwood, Punchbowl, Kings Meadows, Mowbray, Newnham, Mayfield, Riverside and Rocherlea are also being kept in the dark about what the government plans for their suburbs. Many towns across regional Tasmania, including Legana, Rosevears, Grindelwald, South Arm, Opossum Bay, Bell Bay and Low Head, will no longer receive fibretothepremises. They will be looking at a two-tiered system, where neighbours on the even-numbered side—for example, of Elphinstone Road in North Hobart—will have NBN fibre, while the odd-numbered side will have the government’s fraudband. Neighbours in one part of Cambridge street in West Launceston will receive NBN fibre, while next door will have fraudband.
The government did announce that they would scrap the low-income superannuation tax offset linked to the mining tax, which shows they were honest in that regard. However, it is extremely disappointing that generous tax breaks for around 16,000 wealthier Australians are maintained while at the same time concessions of $500 per year for 3.6 million workers on lower incomes are cut. The removal of the low-income superannuation contribution hits women particularly hard, with 2.1 million women affected. A significant percentage of these are mothers working part-time, and they are also looking after young children. This is exactly the part of a woman’s career where an additional $500 a year going into superannuation will be of most benefit for building savings for their retirement. It is short sighted to cut superannuation contributions for those on the lowest wages, as these are the people who will be most likely to require support in their aged life. Every dollar invested into the superannuation funds of these people now will reduce by several times their need for the age pension.
Before the election, Mr Abbott told us he was committed to the NDIS. Since then, we have seen reports in The Australian that the government is looking to overhaul the independent National Disability Insurance Agency. I am very concerned that the government is preparing to do what many in the community have feared. Many spoke to me about this before the election—they were concerned that, if an Abbott government came to power, it would make savage financial cuts and delay the full rollout of the NDIS. The National Disability Insurance Scheme is, for the first time in our country’s history, providing people with disability with the care and support they need to live a better life. Labor will fight any attempt by this government to make savage cuts to the National Disability Insurance Scheme.
Mr Abbott and the senators opposite must rule out any cuts to the NDIS and give people with disability, their carers and families the certainty that it will be delivered in full and on time, as they promised. They must immediately reaffirm their commitment to the National Disability Insurance Scheme, including the financial commitment and schedule for the full rollout developed by the Labor government. Overwhelmingly, people with disability need certainty—certainty that the scheme they have been tirelessly campaigning for will not face cuts or delays; certainty that the financial commitment that was made by federal Labor will be maintained; and certainty that they will be allowed the support to live life with equality and with dignity. Any cuts or delays will be a betrayal of people with disability and a broken promise to the Australian people.
I note already that this government is following a pattern. The government does not explicitly state what it plans to do. It uses weasel phrases like ‘it’s been floated as an idea’ and ‘we won’t rule anything out’ to prevent it from actually owning up to these nasty, petty little policies and to these nasty, petty little cuts. It uses inflated language and rhetoric without shame. Before the election, Mr Abbott said there was a budget emergency. An emergency? A crisis? Then why has it taken 10 weeks for us to return to this place to discuss remedies to this so-called emergency? Why has there not been a minibudget to rectify this so called emergency? Why have we not seen his MYEFO? Is it because there was never an emergency? Is it because we in fact have a AAA-rated economy, six years of unbroken economic growth, low rates of inflation, increases in per capita GDP and one of the lowest debts as a percentage of GDP in the developed world? Guess what? We got all those under a Labor government.
Why has Mr Hockey given almost $9 billion dollars to the Reserve Bank that it does not need? Is it merely to make the 2013-14 budget bottom line look worse than it actually is and blame Labor for the blowout? Of course it is. On this side, we know that game. We know what those opposite are up to, and the people of Australia know as well. At the cost of hundreds of millions of dollars of extra interest repayments, they are just trying to score a political point. How pathetic is that? The government constantly shouts, ‘Debt is bad, debt is bad’. Then why does the government want to lift the debt ceiling to a ridiculous $500 billion? That is an increase of $200 billion on the current limit; an extraordinary $200 billion, or 66 per cent, increase in the current amount. It is an utterly ridiculous policy that they wish to rush through this place and the other place by Thursday.
While the coalition announced before the election—two days before the election to be precise—that they would cut the foreign aid budget by $4.5 billion, they did not tell the Australian people that they would close down the entire AusAID agency. It was announced by Mr Abbott a few hours after he was sworn in as Prime Minister. Would it not have been appropriate to tell Australians before the election that he planned to destroy an agency that had existed almost 40 years, through Labor and Liberal governments—an agency that had served the nation with distinction over its history? It is insulting to the people that have worked there over the decades that their work no longer warrants an agency—that it can be thrown away on a petty, nasty whim.
Another agency that has been axed that the Australian people were not informed of before the election is the Climate Commission. Just one day into the new Abbott government the agency was razed to the ground—a body designed to make clear the science and economics of climate change. I would just like to take a moment to mention two of the recommendations from the Climate Commission’s report The critical decade that those in government now may have found inconvenient. These are:
We are already seeing the social, economic and environmental consequences of a changing climate. Many of the risks scientists warned us about in the past are now happening—
Three years into the Critical Decade it is clear: substantial progress is being made globally to reduce emissions. However, far more will need to be done to stabilise the climate.
This decision demonstrates to the Australian public that the government is not interested in talking to them about climate change science or climate change action. It is not serious about getting frank and fearless advice from its agencies—only advice that fits its ideological world view. I guess it is not surprising from a Prime Minister that believes climate change is ‘absolute crap’. If you actually allow an independent body to explain the science and economics of climate change to the Australian people, they might decide that Tony Abbott’s ‘direct action’ policy is ‘absolute crap’ as well.
Unfortunately, the Climate Commission is not the only victim of the Abbott government’s antiscience agenda. For the first time since the science portfolio was created in 1931, it has been abolished. Mr Abbott certainly did not announce to the Australian people before the election that he would cut the science portfolio. He did not tell the Australian people that Australia would be a nation that no longer cared about science and no longer had a vision of Australia as a major player in the scientific world. He did not say that his cuts to ‘public servants’ would include sacking hundreds of scientists from CSIRO, an organisation whose achievements Australians are so proud of.
This government has indicated a trend to hide things from the Australian people and the Australian media that it would find politically uncomfortable. It has a reluctance to be free and open with its future plans. But this chamber will hold it to account, as it is designed to do. This chamber will not simply be a rubber stamp for whatever thought-bubble idea the government comes up with to help its mates in the banking sector, the mining sector or the business sector to increase their profits. It will not be bullied or threatened. It will not roll over and accept policy that discards scientific wisdom. It will not roll over and accept policy that was written by right-wing think tanks and that helps the rich at the expense of the poor. Australia is a nation that has always helped those less fortunate. The new Abbott government may have forgotten that, but the Labor Party and this chamber will constantly remind it.