MATTERS OF PUBLIC IMPORTANCE;Turnbull Government – 23 Nov 2016

Speaking of the Turnbull government being very, very mediocre, I have to say that the previous performance by Senator McGrath was one of the most bizarre and off-topic performances we have had. I am not quite sure what he was rehearsing for, or what he thought he was interviewing for. Maybe it was part of that McGrath government he mentioned. I presume that will come after the Abbot-Turnbull-Joyce government. It is going to be the McGrath government. I do wish you could just sort out which one it is.

Senator Williams interjecting

 Senator BILYK: He said ‘the McGrath government’—’my’ government. I do wish that you could sort that out. Even that much would help us. When Senator Brandis described the Queensland LNP’s performance as ‘very, very mediocre’ I had no doubt that what he said was sincere and correct. It is not often that I agree with Senator Brandis, as people in this place know, but I do think it was sincere and correct. I will be interested to hear if Senator Williams—I notice he is next on the speakers list—actually takes it up to Senator Brandis over this. That would be interesting to watch too. Having said that, I do think that Senator Brandis should look in a mirror sometimes, because when he talks about mediocre performances, given his own performance and that of the government he represents, a phrase about pots and kettles springs to mind.

It was Senator Brandis, as Minister for the Arts, who was the author of the disastrous ‘Catalyst’ arts ministerial slush fund, which caused a wave of devastation to sweep through Australia’s arts industry, and it was Senator Brandis, in his current position, who launched an all-out assault on the independence of legal advice to government, forcing the resignation of one of the most prominent constitutional lawyers in this country. This was a crisis of Senator Brandis’s own making—in fact, both crises were of Senator Brandis’s own making—and it is he, not Mr Gleeson, who should have resigned. Let’s also not forget the long-lasting damage Senator Brandis has inflicted on legal assistance in Australia through his cuts to legal aid. All of this obviously explains why the LNP member for Ryan, Jane Prentice, encouraged journalists to ask Queensland MPs what they thought of Senator Brandis’s own performance.

But when it comes to this government’s performance, the word mediocre is, as Senator Di Natale said—and I agree with Senator Di Natale in this respect—just a bit too kind; it is a bit too complimentary. This is a government at war with itself. It is obsessed with the myopia of its own internal squabbles and it is trapped in a quagmire, with no plan to deal with slow economic growth and a budget deficit which is deteriorating on a daily basis. After waxing lyrical about jobs and growth and after all the talk about being innovative and agile, what has this government put forward as a policy agenda in the last year?

The government has put forward: a couple of bills to give effect to their ideological war against the trade union movement—which took about three years to get up anyway; a bill to give effect to a wasteful and expensive $170 million opinion poll on marriage equality; a thought bubble on states and territories raising income taxes; and an inquiry into changes to section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act, which is designed to appease the conservatives on Mr Turnbull’s backbench. On that last matter, we know that the conservatives are the ones who are actually in power. Time and time and time again Mr Turnbull has been forced to cave in to the extreme Right in the Liberal Party.

We know Mr Turnbull is the leader in name only, while right-wing ideologues like Mr Christensen and Senator Bernardi call the shots. Senator Bernardi, even from as far away as New York, where he is at the moment, is able to pull the strings of the puppet Prime Minister. Not only are there factional divisions within the Liberal Party; there are divisions between the Liberals and the Nationals, as we heard from the comments Senator Brandis made and as was shown by the recent vote over the Adler shotgun. It was this government’s infighting that led to a former Treasurer, Peter Costello—one of their own—to declare that Mr Turnbull is ‘in government but not in power.’

Mr Costello also observed, when he spoke to the ABC’s Four Corners, that the former Prime Minister, Mr Abbott, did not plan ‘to be a backbencher for the rest of his life’ and questioned what the government could possibly achieve with a razor-thin majority and its own internal divisions. It is no wonder that those opposite are in disarray in this place—with members who head home early and miss crucial votes, or, when they do turn up, actually vote to condemn themselves!

While this government fights a war with itself, its budget continues to deteriorate to an even worse position than when Mr Abbott declared a so-called budget emergency. The Treasurer’s promise of a budget surplus by 2020-21 has become an absolute joke. In 2015-16, the Treasurer, Mr Morrison, delivered a budget deficit eight times bigger than those opposite inherited. The 2016-17 deficit has tripled and net debt for this year has blown out by more than $100 billion. Just this week we have had warnings from Deloitte Access Economics that Australia’s AAA credit rating is at risk. It begs the question, after more than three years of a Liberal-National government: how long do we have to wait for those opposite to start taking responsibility for their own poor fiscal management and stop pointing the finger at Labor? In fact, I am still waiting for good government to start.

The closest thing this government has to an economic plan is a $50 billion tax cut to big business—a tax cut which is overwhelmingly going to benefit shareholders overseas, and a tax cut which Treasury itself says will only deliver a 0.1 per cent benefit to Australia’s economy. That is $1 of benefit for every $1,000 this government spends on its tax cuts. It defies logic that the government would continue to pursue a wasteful $50 billion tax cut at a time when the budget position continues to deteriorate.

In pursuit of budget repair, those opposite have continually tried to target the most vulnerable and disadvantaged in our community all the time failing to take real action on the waste of multinational tax avoidance or negative gearing. While I am pleased to finally see some real action on the blowout in VET loans and generous superannuation concessions, Labor has been calling for these issues to be addressed for years while the government has been sitting on its hands. Despite all the talk of budget repair, through budget estimates we keep revealing examples of waste and mismanagement, like the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Ms Bishop, who sent 23 public servants to Paris at a cost of $200,000 to talk to each other about how to save money. How bizarre is that? That is not very, very mediocre; that is just very, very stupid.

The task of budget repair certainly has not been helped by Mr Turnbull’s disastrous management—first as communications minister and then as Prime Minister—of Australia’s largest infrastructure project, the NBN. We know that Mr Turnbull and Mr Abbott’s decision to roll out a second-rate copper network has caused delays and cost blowouts. Despite insisting that the government would only invest $29.5 billion equity in the project, the cost blowouts and lack of revenue from Mr Turnbull’s second-rate NBN have prompted the government to invest a further $19.5 billion. At the same time, there has been an almost 150 per cent increase in NBN-related complaints to the Telecommunications Industry Ombudsman compared to last financial year. NBN issues now account for almost 12 per cent of all TIO complaints, even though the NBN only comprises less than four per cent of fixed and mobile internet services. As a result of Mr Turnbull’s second-rate NBN, Australia has fallen from 30th to 60th in global rankings on broadband speed. That is also less than very, very mediocre.

Not only has the government mismanaged the budget, but it has been lacklustre on the issue of economic growth. The self-proclaimed government of jobs and growth—that is what we kept hearing—is one of the worst performing in Australia’s history according to recent research by the Australia Institute. The research examines the performance of governments since Menzies across a range of indicators including GDP per capita, the unemployment rate, employment growth and the growth of real business investment and intellectual property investment. In fact, the economy under the former Gillard Labor government, which those opposite continue to criticise for supposed poor economic management, actually performed better on 10 out of the 12 indicators than under Mr Abbott and Mr Turnbull—and they did not have to steer Australia through the global financial crisis.

The Australian economy certainly has not been helped by this government’s backpacker tax fiasco. This process has been bungled from the beginning and, because of the uncertainty, accommodation, agriculture and tourism businesses in my home state of Tasmania are reporting huge drops in applications, putting agricultural production across the state at risk. I am sure it is not only in Tasmania that that is happening. I attended the inquiry in Tasmania, but I know from the report that that is not just happening in Tasmania.

Also putting Australia’s economy at risk has been the government’s intransigence on climate change and renewable energy. Australia’s ratification of the Paris climate agreement is welcome but is meaningless without a commitment to strong targets. Bloomberg New Energy Finance recently reported:

Australia’s current climate policy framework is insufficient to meet the current targets, let alone deeper commitments.

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