2015 Budget Reply speech in Parliament

I rise tonight to speak on Appropriation Bill (No. 1) 2015-2016 and related bills. At the core of this budget is a gaping emptiness of purpose. It is all about the politics of yesterday—not facing up to the challenges of our future. This budget does not set a path to a better life for Australians. It does not even have regard to what that might look like. This is a budget by a government that has no faith in the Australian people. It does not share their aspirations for themselves, their families, their neighbours—our future. This is its most egregious failing. A budget should set out clearly the direction of a government and for a country. But here we have to sift through incoherence and inconsistency to find these threads. We have come a long way from the budget emergency of last year and still further away from the promised surpluses. This is a budget of political calculation, but it is underpinned by ideology as soon as you scratch the surface.

Make no mistake, this is a government determined to lead us to a more unequal society. We see this in the government's attempts to turn Australians on one another. The lifters-and-leaners rhetoric has been reframed, but the obsession with dividing Australians remains. This is a crucial point in understanding this budget. It is essentially a rebadging job of the previous budget. Let us not forget that the only concession the Abbott government was prepared to make on last year's disastrous and divisive budget was that there had been a poor sales job—the selling, not the substance; not its devastating effect on communities and the state of the national economy. We see this in the fact that so many of the spending measures in this budget are predicated on the cuts in last year's budget being passed by the Senate. The $80 billion worth of cuts to health and education are still there, $100,000 degrees are still there and the GP tax by stealth lurks menacingly in the background of every visit to a primary health care service.

Labor acknowledges, of course, that our economy faces significant challenges—as we did when Labor were in government. The Leader of the Opposition's budget reply spoke to jobs of the future, innovation, the challenges of education and the importance of our cities. The Abbott government could and should have risen to this challenge too, but instead we see in this budget, the subject of these bills, an opportunity missed to make the most of Australia's opportunities to confront the challenges we face—rising inequality most especially. As the economy deteriorates under the government's watch, inequality is becoming more acute. However, instead of trying to stem this flow, the government seem determined to exacerbate the problem. With the release of NATSEM modelling, we have seen the true impact of the government's budget on Australian families. Of course, this is modelling that should have been set out in the budget itself. This is a telling omission and it is easy to see why they are hiding it. For the second year in a row, the government's budget consolidation is being made at the expense of the less well off. NATSEM has found that the poorest 20 per cent of households with children will lose up to 7.1 per cent of their total disposable income over the next four years after all budget measures have been taken into account. This amounts to over $6,000 a year by 2018-19. In contrast, high-income families will actually see their disposable incomes increase slightly over the next four years. It is a deja vu budget all over again: the least well off are doing all the lifting while the most well off are being lifted. Dave Oliver from the ACTU nailed it today: 'Trickle up.'

It is also telling that the Abbott government, rather than engaging on the substance of the NATSEM report, sought to attack the organisation and even went so low as to attack a member of the opposition's staff. This shows the level of desperation and deceit from this government. We saw earlier this week the government seek to besmirch those who rely on family payments as being somehow hopelessly welfare dependent. The Minister for Social Services remarked:

The NATSEM model takes no account of those impacts of people being able to earn a wage rather than earn welfare.

When unemployment, and particularly youth unemployment, is rising, surely this is a perfectly reasonable assumption to make—when the government has no plan for jobs. While he and his colleagues spent plenty of time before the budget talking up fairness, these were clearly just empty words. This was reinforced yesterday in the parliament. The Prime Minister was so unconcerned about the unfair impact of his decisions on families in Page that he pivoted straightaway, shamelessly, to the rhetoric of 'Stop the boats', while the minister, heedless of projections of increasing unemployment, hubristically boasted of the 'choices' opened up into work. It is no surprise that ReachTEL polling today shows voters unconvinced of the government's efforts on jobs and job security, but it would appear that with this government secure work only matters in relation to the tenure of the Prime Minister and his Treasurer.

The only difference between this year's budget and the last is that this time the cuts are buried in the fine print. When the government was talking about needing to do a better sales job, this is clearly what it meant. Nowhere are these cuts owned up to by ministers or the Treasurer. It should not have to take separate independent analysis by the likes of NATSEM to uncover the true nature and hidden intent of a budget. I suspect that the post-budget bluster and bravado that has been on show will fade, as it did last year, as people work out that they have been sold a lemon, yet again, by this government. Not only that but this government is so bereft of vision and values that it simply does not deserve to be in power; it does not deserve the stewardship of the Australian nation and the Australian economy.

A division having been called in the House of Representatives—

Sitting suspended from 20:24 to 20:36

Mr GILES: As far as vision went, the best the government could come up with was another three-word slogan: 'Have a go.' As the Leader of the Opposition pointed out, all this budget does is to have a go at schools, hospitals and families. It has a go at those out of work, or those in insecure work. The conflicted and inconsistent economic policies are truly baffling. At one point the Treasurer indicated he wished to engage in bipartisan discussion around closing superannuation loopholes. Indeed, the Assistant Treasurer stated on Sky News:

… you can't look at any of these individual issues in isolation. You have to look at the broader system, and how the superannuation system impacts upon the pension and is affected by the tax system.

But a week or so later the Prime Minister shot them both down and refused to engage in any such discussion. However, I note in last week's Financial Review that there are still some in the coalition who seem to be pushing for changes to be made. Who knows how successful they will be? Is this another signature policy of the Prime Minister signed with his notorious magic ink? The Prime Minister was adamant earlier this week during question time that there would be no further changes, but frankly he has been just as adamant on so many issues before and then backflipped. It is impossible to say for certain. The one pattern, though, is that if the cuts make those on low and middle incomes worse off then this government will persist in that move.

What it will not do—what it is incapable of doing, it seems—is to tackle the lurks and perks of the well off. On this basis I am inclined to believe that the Prime Minister will carry the day and protect those most well-off superannuants, as he has always done, at a great cost to our budget, as well as to equity and our sense of social justice. I note that recent modelling has shown that in four years superannuation concessions will outstrip the cost to government of the age pension—within four years. It beggars belief that this government would attack those on low and middle incomes but not lift a finger to slightly adjust these concessions enjoyed by the wealthy. I am proud that the Australian Labor Party has shown leadership in this area. It is important that all the burden of reducing the deficit does not fall on those least able to carry it.

Under this government we have seen unemployment go up and consumer confidence go down. Bizarrely, the Prime Minister has stated that consumer confidence had in fact gone up. But, of course, the figures do not lie. At the 2013 federal election, consumer confidence was recorded by Westpac at 110.6. It is now 102.4

At the 2013 federal election, consumer confidence was recorded by the ANZ at 122.3. It is now 111.3. A minor up-tick in the sugar hit of the budget has not turned this around. It is little wonder that consumers have so little confidence. They can have no confidence in this government to protect their interests or indeed in its budget projections, beyond demonising those who cannot find work when unemployment is forecast in the budget to continue to rise, to rise to unacceptable levels beyond the 800,000 Australians presently out of work and looking for work.

We also see very curious numbers in respect of forecast for household consumption, which sit of course very uncomfortably, to be most generous, with the unemployment figures and more so with the record low wages growth. And, of course, the budget projections of a sustainable path to surplus are founded on, amongst other things, growth projections that seem little more than wishful thinking, as some very helpful articles by Michael Pascoe and Greg Jericho have set out in the past week.

The small business package in the budget, which has been highlighted as something of a centrepiece, does contain some suitable and appropriate measures. Indeed, it is pleasing to see a return to Labor's instant asset write-off—unfortunately, a policy abandoned by this government when it came into office. So it is pleasing to see this policy adopted belatedly. But its implementation and, indeed, wider priorities raise some additional issues. A $20,000 write-off for tradies and other small business people is one thing. But what about that tradie and that small business person when their youngest child turns six and the impact of the horrendous cuts to family payments? What about the partner of that tradie or that small business person when she wishes to access the maternity leave that she bargained for with her employer which complements the government scheme that exists, the Labor scheme as it was intended to operate? What happens to that small business person and that tradie when he or she wants to visit the GP and has to pay for that privilege, as government members would apparently see it?

What about that small business person who does not want to spend most of his or her time stuck in traffic? Where is this government's cities and urban policy, another notable omission from the government and another stark contrast with Labor, which is concerned with the circumstances of the four in five Australians who live in our cities and the 80 per cent of our gross domestic product which is generated in those cities?

Here we have a central oddity. We have a self-described infrastructure Prime Minister in Prime Minister Abbott, who says that he is leading an infrastructure government. But declining spending on infrastructure over the forward estimates tells a very different story, a very different story in raw numbers about this government's priorities in terms of productive investment and a very different story in terms of the priorities to which those investments are applied. Instead of really having an infrastructure government, this Abbott government is hamstrung by both politics and ideology, and blind to the realities of modern Australia, an Australia which is the most urbanised country in the world where 80 per cent of Australians live and work in cities. Yet again and again, this government fails them not just in this budget, which pretends our cities do not exist, but every day.

As a Melburnian and a Victorian, I feel this most acutely. The Abbott government has slashed Victoria's infrastructure grants by $3 billion and this contempt for Victorians is compounded by the Treasurer's sleight of hand through his so-called locked box of moneys, apparently to go towards a toll road that Victorians voted against in the state election in November last year—an election described by the Prime Minister as a referendum on this toll road. It is extraordinary.

This government, having made this issue a signature issue, continues to defy the will of the Victorian people, but also to defy the views of the experts and to defy the views of Infrastructure Australia, who saw the Melbourne Metro project as the No. 1 project on the list. It is a critical project to change the way the people in Melbourne live and how they work. It is critical to unlocking the productivity of this great city that I live in. It is also critical to its sustainability and it is critical to its livability, particularly to people in the outer northern suburbs of Melbourne, the people whom I am privileged to represent in this place.

I have to say that no area of policymaking sums up the incoherence and inconsistency of this government more than its approach to paid parental leave and child care, two extraordinarily important challenges for our country. The Prime Minister has, of course, had a kaleidoscopic array of positions on these policy areas. After attacking mothers for legitimately using a scheme he was previously in favour of, the Prime Minister is now seeking to pull the rug out from underneath thousands of mothers who simply want to spend as much time with their newborn babies as possible. Even worse, adding insult to injury, is the Abbott government holding childcare funding ransom to his attacks on these mothers, dividing mothers against one another. That is not what Australians should have to put up with from their own government.

In closing, this budget discloses that this government has no vision for Australia's future. It is also a budget which is filled with contempt for Victorians and does nothing for the people of Melbourne's northern suburbs.

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