MATTERS OF PUBLIC IMPORTANCE;National Commission of Audit: Interim Report – 17 Mar 2014

I rise today to speak on this matter of public importance: the failure of the Abbott government to release the interim report of the Commission of Audit. Labor said, prior to the 2013 federal election, that the coalition had a secret cuts agenda, and that has been proven to be true. It is an agenda that was hidden to avoid a backlash against the Liberals and Nationals at the Tasmanian and South Australian elections held last weekend. It is an agenda that remains hidden to avoid a backlash at the Western Australian Senate election. The Prime Minister, Mr Abbott, did his utmost before the election to reassure Australians. He promised a government of no surprises. Yet, since the election of an Abbott coalition government, there have been nasty surprises at every turn, and the Australian people are coming to realise that the government we have now is not the government they thought they were voting for.

You see, Mr Abbott is one of Australia’s most talented magicians. I do not often have very nice things to say about Mr Abbott, but I will give him this: he is one of Australia’s most talented magicians. If you speak to a professional magician, they will tell you that the art of magic is distraction. It is encouraging your audience to focus on some colour and movement elsewhere while the trick is performed away from the gaze. Mr Abbott’s magic trick was to announce a few cuts here and there—the Schoolkids Bonus, foreign aid, tax concessions for small business—while hoping his audience would be distracted from the deeper cuts that were to follow. The initial cuts were the distraction; the Commission of Audit was the sleight of hand. The commission was Mr Abbott’s way of hiding the more severe cuts until after the election. It is a trick we have seen practised before with great skill.

Premier Campbell Newman, in Queensland, also announced a Commission of Audit, but he did not reveal his plans to sack 20,000 public servants until after the Queensland election. If you think the Newman government’s cuts are savage, they are just the warm-up act, whereas the Abbott government’s cuts are the main show. But the Abbott government are not ready to reveal their plans just yet, and that is why they are refusing to release the Commission of Audit’s interim report. They were worried about how revealing their secret cuts agenda would affect their performance in last year’s federal election. They were worried about how their secret-cuts agenda might impact on their state colleagues in the Tasmania and South Australia elections. Now they are worried about how their secret-cuts agenda will impact on the Senate election in Western Australia.

It has been revealed time and again that the modus operandi of this Abbott coalition government is to wait until people have voted before they reveal their true plans. Here is a case in point. On SBS news, the day before the election, Mr Abbott promised no cuts to education, no cuts to health, no change to pensions, no change to the GST and no cuts to the ABC or SBS. Yet at a doorstop in Perth, only six days ago, he said that—apart from Defence—health and medical research was the only area of government funding quarantined from savings pre-election. After ruling out cuts to education, pensions and Australia’s public broadcaster, Mr Abbott has backflipped spectacularly on all these areas. We know that a belated attempt was made by the Abbott government to walk away from its commitment to the first four years of Better Schools or Gonski funding, and now that Mr Abbott has let slip that cuts to education are on the cards I have no doubt that this issue will rear its ugly head again.

We know this government backed away from the full fibre-to-the-premises rollout of the National Broadband Network in Tasmania, despite promising before the election to honour all existing contracts. We also see the government announcing an efficiency review of the ABC—suspiciously the day after Mr Abbott accused the public broadcaster of being un-Australian—and they have not ruled out cuts to the ABC’s funding, following that review. While the government did reveal, prior to the election, plans to scrap the instant asset write-off for small business, they did not publicise the limited time businesses have to claim the concession. I suppose they were hoping they could pinch a few more pennies by having business make as few claims as possible. This is from a government that claims to care about and support small business.

Those opposite also scrapped the climate change commission and attempted to close down the Climate Change Authority and the Clean Energy Finance Corporation. They made the pathetic excuse that these moves would lead to the removal of the carbon price. I and other senators who spoke previously in this place outlined very clearly why these bodies play such an important role in climate change advice and clean energy development, with or without a carbon price. The Abbott government’s list of casualties from its cuts so far includes the Home Energy Saver Scheme, which provides energy savings to low-income households—quite hypocritical, given what the government has had to say about electricity prices; the AusAID graduate program, at a cost of 38 jobs; Indigenous legal services and domestic-violence support services; the 46-year-old Alcohol and Other Drugs Council of Australia; and 600 jobs at the CSIRO, including some of Australia’s best scientists.

The recent change of name of the National Disability Insurance Scheme’s ‘launch’ site to a ‘trial’ site has led to the disability sector wondering whether the axe might fall on disability support. When those opposite try to justify their harsh cuts, we will hear them wax lyrical—they will put on theatre, like Senator Mason did earlier. They will yell, as life is so stressful on that side, and get all uptight and have to take their blood pressure tablets. They will talk about debt and deficit and the government having to live within its means, and they will try to tell Australians that savage cuts are necessary because the previous government was wasteful and inefficient.

 Senator Smith: In the previous six years; I agree. There’s more debt now.

 Senator BILYK: This is absolutely predictable rhetoric from government senators who stick their fingers in their ears and sing ‘la, la, la’ or try to interject whenever someone mentions the biggest global economic downturn since the Great Depression. It is not only predictable but also the height of hypocrisy from a government that sought permission from the parliament for a 67 per cent increase in government debt—and then sought permission for unlimited debt. It is hypocritical coming from a government that has, this financial year, added $17 billion to the budget deficit. And it is hypocritical coming from a government that is telling pensioners, school children and families they will have to make sacrifices so that millionaires can get paid $75,000 to have children, so the same millionaires can get a tax break on their superannuation; so the government can hand over $8 billion to the Reserve Bank, against the advice of Treasury; so the government can subsidise polluters through its inefficient and expensive Direct Action Plan; so the government can tell polluters they do not have to pay for their pollution; and so the government can cut taxes for billionaire miners who make superprofits.

Those pensioners, families and school children who are now making sacrifices will have to wait to find out the worst of these cuts. The commission’s report is kept hidden, because the government does not want Australians to know what it has in store. They refuse to reveal how much funding they will cut to schools, how much they will cut pensions and how much they will slash the budget of the ABC—all to fund tax breaks and parental leave for millionaires and billionaires. This government has its priorities very wrong. Schools, pensions and disability care are not waste. Tax breaks and subsidies for millionaires are.

It is time for those opposite to come clean and reveal to the Australian public where the axe will fall. They did not tell Australians before the weekend’s state elections. They should at least tell Western Australians before they go to the polls to elect six senators. Western Australians have the right to know—before they vote—whether the Abbott axe will fall on their pensions, schools or essential public services. If they do not know the Liberal-National coalition’s secret-cuts agenda, if they do not know how it will affect them, then they should not vote for them. It is time for voters in Western Australia, South Australia and Tasmania, and across the country, to be treated with honesty and with some integrity by this government. Honesty is in short supply when it comes to those opposite and their coalition colleagues in the House.

Despite the deficit of honesty on the other side, I will give Mr Abbott credit for telling the truth about one thing. He said before the election that he wanted to lead a government that will ‘under promise, and over deliver’. When it comes to Mr Abbott’s agenda of savage cuts, he has achieved exactly that. He has delivered far more cuts than he promised. And there are more to come.