MATTERS OF PUBLIC IMPORTANCE;Abbott Government – 11 Feb 2015

This Abbott government’s infighting, chaos and dysfunction not only is hurting the increasingly embattled Prime Minister and his hapless Treasurer but has also destroyed business and consumer confidence in Australia. This confusion grips the government on so many fronts that it is hard for business to be able to grow and to have any faith in them. And for businesses to grow and keep Australians employed they need strong consumer confidence. It is a measure by which they themselves can be confident that consumers will buy their products and services. However, this shambolic, dysfunctional government has lurched from policy crisis to policy crisis, giving no-one confidence it knows what it is doing. So much for Australia being ‘open for business’ under this government.

All of us in this place know that damage to consumer and business confidence means damaging our economy, leading to job cuts and the ensuing suffering that that brings. Australian families do not deserve to suffer because of division and dysfunction by this government. Australian mums and dads do not deserve to lose their jobs, have their hours of work cut or be unable to afford health care for their children because this government just wants to help the big end of town rather than supporting jobs and growth for all.

Consumer confidence and business confidence have crashed since leaks about last May’s budget emerged. Consumers and businesses know this government is dysfunctional, and it is making everyone very nervous. According to the Westpac Consumer Sentiment Index, consumer confidence was at a level of 99.73 in April 2014 before crashing to just 91.1 in December 2014. That drop in consumer confidence is because of the actions of this chaotic government, whose policies have attacked those on pensions, students, public servants and the unemployed, amongst others. How do they expect consumer confidence to stay high when they produce policies that make sections of the community fearful for their futures? Similarly, business confidence has crashed from plus 10 in July 2014 to a level of plus two in December 2014, rebounding slightly to plus three in January 2015. It is likely that big business confidence will crash further in the next index, as they are fuming about this Prime Minister’s plan to axe his promised Paid Parental Leave scheme for millionaire mums but keep the tax that was meant to pay for it. Business leaders have very publicly shown how upset they are about the Prime Minister’s decision to keep the PPL tax.

Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry Chief Executive Officer Kate Carnell said

If he didn’t ditch the levy and wanted to keep it, we’d be horrified … If that is the case it is just a tax.

It does not matter what they might want to call it; it is just a tax. I seem to remember from the 2013 election campaign that Mr Abbott promised ‘no new taxes’—just one of very many broken promises from this inept, dysfunctional government.

The Abbott government are so dysfunctional they are unable to keep a policy position for two days running, let alone keep a promise made before the election. There is still lack of clarity on their position on building subs at ASC. It was quite unequivocal before the election. They said that they would build at ASC in South Australia. The government then reversed that policy after the election. Just yesterday, Minister Andrews was joined at ASC by Liberal MPs Andrew Southcott, Matt Williams and Rowan Ramsey and Senators Sean Edwards and David Fawcett to announce—I might say—a rather confused position on the matter. They left parliament to fly to Adelaide—at a cost of who knows what, but thousands of dollars—for a press conference that did not really clarify the government’s position and that in fact, I would say, added further to the confusion. It would have been better for them if they had not had that conference at all.

Last night I met with Australian shipbuilders and submarine builders in this place. They were extremely concerned that this government refuses to support Australian shipbuilding and submarine building. They were extremely disappointed that this government refuses to protect Australian jobs in an industry that develops important skills in the wider community. As an aside and as a senator who comes from a state that has a shipbuilding industry, I call upon this government to look to Australian shipbuilders before going overseas. Tasmanian-built ships have been used by both the Australian and US defence forces and I hope they, too, have a part to play in the future of Australia’s Navy. But back to the matter in hand.

The low consumer and business confidence has forced the Reserve Bank of Australia to cut interest rates to stimulate the economy. After staying on hold for the longest period since 1990, the Reserve Bank has had to act for the first time since August 2013. AMP chief economist, Shane Oliver, outlined some of the reasons why the RBA needed to make the cut, saying:

Growth is too low, confidence is subdued, prices for key commodities like iron ore and energy have collapsed resulting in a much bigger hit to national income than expected a year ago …

I am astounded at how the Treasurer, Mr Hockey, appears to have done a backflip on the meaning of a rate cut.

In May 2012, the then shadow Treasurer, Joe Hockey, said the rate cut was a sign that the government had lost control of the economy. He also said:

So of course, interest rates on average should be lower but if interest rates come down today, it is because the economy is struggling, not because it’s doing well.

However, this week Mr Hockey has been saying:

This is good news for Australian families and it’s good news for Australian business …

There does seem to be some hypocrisy and some conflict in these two positions. Interest rate cuts under Labor, bad; interest rate cuts under the coalition, good!

Under the watch of the government, unemployment hit a 12-year high in December 2014. Before the election of the dysfunctional government, they promised two million jobs over a decade. They are not off to a good start.

Unfortunately, tens of thousands of extra people have joined the unemployment queue since the last budget. While those opposite have been busy infighting and while they spent the first 520 days of their government in a dress rehearsal, waiting for the real show to begin—which I thought was going to begin on Monday, but I am still waiting for evidence of that—thousands of Australian families have lost their primary source of income. And young people are finding it harder and harder to find work as well. The Reserve Bank said in their rate cut decision:

Youth unemployment, which tends to be particularly sensitive to the business cycle, has increased notably; 270,000 people aged between 15 and 24 years are now unemployed, 20,000 more than a year ago.

This dysfunctional government has failed young people, whether they are unemployed or students. It really needs to get its act together. It has no plan to create jobs for young people, just cut pay and conditions, saddle them with higher university debt and make it harder for them to enter the property market.

I have spoken to a number of small businesses in Tasmania and they are extremely concerned about the slowing economy. Some people are unable to sell their businesses. They are just closing them and walking away from them—and that is happening just near my office. Small towns are becoming concerned about their viability.

Public servant job cuts by the Tasmanian state government has also depressed business and consumer confidence in my home state.

As can be seen from consumer confidence figures, Tasmanians are concerned about the future of the economy and are saving more and trying to write down debt. As can also be seen from consumer confidence figures, they do not believe that this government’s cruel, heartless budget is the solution to the budget’s woes. They reject the assertion that this government’s vicious attacks on pensioners, the sick, the unemployed and students will lead to a better economy and a more prosperous future. And, as we saw from Monday’s leadership vote, a large proportion of the Liberal caucus agrees.

This government is a bad government for Australia. Its own Prime Minister admitted as much when, on Monday, he said, ‘Good government starts today.’ I think the Australian people would be extremely disappointed to hear that good government was to start last Monday because, as I said before, Mr Abbott and his Liberal Party have been in power for 520 days. I ask again: what have they been doing in those 520 days? How come it has taken them so long to realise what a terrible government they have been, when the Australian people have been saying it for so long and when Labor, the crossbenchers, charities, NGOs and doctor groups, to name a few, have all criticised the government’s policies? They obviously have not been listening, even though they say they do. The problems with their policies at heart are caused by their own incompetence and ineptitude. The instability of this government is evident. They are divided, dysfunctional and chaotic. Unfortunately, this dysfunction has led to a weaker economy, high unemployment and the destruction of business and consumer confidence. No wonder the Liberal backbenchers want to get rid of the dysfunctional Prime Minister and incompetent Treasurer.