SPEECH: The Coalition’s Appalling Economic Record

May 29, 2017

Mr Conroy: (Shortland) (12:31): I am pleased to make a contribution on Appropriation Bill (No. 1) 2017-2018 and related bills and draw to the attention of the House the coalition’s appalling economic management and their complete neglect of the region and electorate that I represent. The Labor Party have publicly committed to supporting supply to ensure the continuation of vital government services. Whenever I speak on the appropriation bills, I always draw to the attention of the House that it is a historical fact that the coalition are Australia’s constitutional vandals. The party that seek to portray themselves as the great protectors of the Westminster convention’s provisions are in fact the ones who are prepared to savage the whole concept of responsible government. The party with the majority in the lower house, which the Whitlam government had, is entitled to govern. For blatant political purposes, the coalition parties block supply. I will always remind my colleagues who sit on the benches opposite of this important historical fact. When they talk about our Westminster inheritance and the constitutional monarchy, they need to be called out on the history of the political party that they represent.

I now want to update the House on the coalition’s appalling economic record since coming to office in 2013. There is a very misguided narrative in some parts of the media that the coalition are superior economic managers. Nothing could be further from the truth, and the economic indicators for the Turnbull and Abbott governments speak for themselves. Economic growth is down, wages growth is down and, in fact, wages are going backwards and unemployment is up. The gross debt equates to $20,000 for every Australian man, woman and child. One of the most startling facts is the budget deficit. The coalition won office in 2013 saying there was a debt and deficit crisis and only they could fix it. The member for Warringah and the now Ambassador to the United States said to the people, ‘Elect the coalition and everything will be fine.’ In fact, they promised a budget surplus in their first year and every year thereafter. Well, the deficit today is 10 times bigger than they projected it would be when they delivered their first budget. It totally dispels the notion that the coalition are better economic managers. These appropriation bills provide $21 billion in tax increases. Every Australian is paying for the coalition’s fiscal failures.

We all know the coalition have recently discovered that the fair go is fundamentally important to Australians. They found this out from commissioning a focus group to tell them. The Australian Labor Party and the wider Labor movement do not need a focus group to tell us this. It is our abiding aim to ensure economic and social justice for all Australians.

The most striking point about the budget is that the Prime Minister and Treasurer declared it as ‘fair’, and yet it is not. That is a blatant untruth. It is a budget that increases the Medicare levy for nearly all taxpayers and gives a tax cut to millionaires. It is a budget that increases the pension age to 70. It is a budget that cuts $366 a year from new pensioners, and it is a budget that cuts $22 billion from schools and makes it more expensive to get a tertiary education. One any measure, this is not a fair budget.

The government should not just take my word on the complete lack of fairness in this budget. I recently held a series of budget forums around my electorate, and I want to take this opportunity to thank all those who attended. In the question-and-answer sessions, there was a clear consensus that this budget fails the fairness test. I was asked questions relating to a variety of different policies, ranging from investment in schools and universities, support for renewable energy and action on climate change, and support for jobs and vocational education. Those opposite should know that none of my constituents who attended the forums indicated that they supported the government’s budget.

Parents and grandparents want their children and grandchildren to get the best start in life, with a world-class education. They believe in needs based funding for schools and were outraged that the Liberals are cutting $22 billion from schools. In Shortland, public schools will lose over $17 million in the next two years alone. People understand that this will have an impact on our schools and communities. My constituents also noted that tertiary education is so important for so many in our rapidly changing economy and that the substantial increases in fees will deter many from study. This is incredibly significant in my home region. The University of Newcastle is a world-class educational institution. We have the best engineering faculties in the entire nation. We train more Indigenous doctors than the rest of the university system put together. Approximately 50 per cent of our students are mature age. Studies both here and internationally have shown that an increase in fees deters mature-age and part-time students more than most. So my region, with its higher level of mature-age students, will be deterred greater than most by this attack on our university system, which will be worsened by the $3.8 billion in cuts to universities.

The Hunter region has a proud history of mining and manufacturing. The people I represent know the fundamental importance of government support for vocational education and are very aware that the Liberals at both federal and state levels have completely gutted this sector since coming to government. My constituents want young people to have the opportunity to learn a trade at TAFE. They know that conservatives do not care about vocational education and training. This year alone they are cutting a further $600 million from TAFE. This builds on the $1½ billion they have ripped away from this sector since coming to power in 2013.

On this point of support for manufacturing, I want to join with my state Labor colleagues in condemning the New South Wales state government for awarding the contract for the next intercity train fleet to a Korean company, when these trains could have been built in the Hunter. If the Liberals were really serious about jobs and growth, they would not be awarding these contracts to overseas manufacturing plants. You only have to look at what is happening in Victoria, where the Andrews Labor government is reinvigorating its train-manufacturing sector by awarding contracts to local firms.

At the budget forums, I was also asked about government support for renewable energy. Again, parents and grandparents know that decisive action on climate change is vital for the future of their children and grandchildren not just in making sure that the environment is as of good quality in the future as it is now. It is also about making sure that there are jobs for our kids and grandkids. Unfortunately, I had to advise attendees that the government completely ignored renewable energy and action on climate change in the budget. There was not one mention of climate change in the Treasurer’s speech, shamefully, and, in fact, there was no additional funding for the centrepiece of the government’s laughable climate change policy, the Emissions Reduction Fund, which is due to run out of funding very shortly. We know the reason for this is that the Prime Minister is beholden to the flat-earthers in the radical right wing of the coalition, whose support is necessary for his tenuous grip on the leadership. Again, I want to thank all of those who attended the budget forums. I really enjoyed receiving feedback from my constituents about their concerns and priorities in the week after the budget. I intend to make sure these forums are an annual event.

I will go now to the broader issues around commitment to the Hunter. Labor’s commitment to the Hunter is deep, historical and demonstrated, whereas the coalition’s complete disregard for the region is also on display. During the last two terms of the last Labor government, there was massive Commonwealth investment in the Hunter region. Labor funded the $1.2 billion Hunter Expressway, a fantastic piece of infrastructure so important to the region’s productivity and growth. Labor invested hundreds of millions of dollars in school infrastructure at the time of the global financial crisis. The Liberals always attack this investment, but the reality is that this investment not only provided schools in Shortland and the Hunter region with fantastic new facilities but also kept tens of thousands of people in my region in jobs at the time of the global recession. The response of the Labor government during the GFC is held out globally as world’s best practice. It kept 800,000 people from losing their jobs and it massively added to the infrastructure of my region. Many schools in my area had not received new infrastructure since the 1950s. They received great pieces of infrastructure at the time of the GFC.

The last Labor government also provided $40 million for the Newcastle Institute for Energy and Resources, a great institution doing world’s best research into energy and resources. We also provided $30 million to build a new economics and law campus for the University of Newcastle in town, which is almost due to open. Labor also provided $50 million to the Hunter Medical Research Institute for their fantastic new headquarters. The HMRI are world leaders in medical research, and I am proud that we supported the important work they do. We also provided $13 million to Lake Macquarie City Council to begin the first stage of construction for the Lake Macquarie Transport Interchange.

These investments are clear examples of Labor’s commitment to and belief in the Hunter Region, and they also stand in stark contrast to the coalition’s approach. The Liberals have completely neglected my electorate in the Hunter since coming to office. Not only have they refused to further support the construction of the next stage of the Lake Macquarie Transport Interchange; they in fact cut funding to the first stage. They cut funding by $1 million and have also made it harder for local governments to fund necessary infrastructure by freezing the indexation of the financial assistance grants, a $13 million cut to my local councils.

The Liberals’ approach the Hunter Region is summed up well by the former and much unlamented Liberal member for Paterson. At a previous election, in discussing why the Newcastle Knights were overlooked for funding for an upgrade to their stadium, he blatantly stated in the media that if more people voted for the Liberals then the Hunter Region would benefit more. He was effectively holding the region to ransom: ‘Either vote Liberals or do not receive any funding.’ This is the complete opposite to the principles of good governance, where you fund based on need and policy justification, not on blatant pork-barrelling. Unfortunately, this approach remains the case today for the Liberal Party in both federal and state politics.

A great test for that will be the upcoming New South Wales state budget, where I fear again that the Liberal government will ignore the vital need to invest in the Lake Macquarie Transport Interchange. This project is the most important project for the entire region. All 11 Hunter councils have agreed this is the most important project, and getting 11 councils to agree on anything is a formidable achievement, especially when the project is located solely in one council area. This project will unlock massive growth in my region. For a comparatively low level of government investment, it will generate, for every dollar of government investment, $94 of private sector investment. It will lead to the creation of 10,000 private sector jobs and it really will open up the region. The fact that Liberal governments, both state and federal, continue to ignore its need is a crime, and I do not say that lightly. It is a crime. It is neglecting my region. They continue to waste money on pork-barrelling, including $1 million for a billy cart track further up the coast, but they will not fund the Glendale transport interchange, which would have such a massive benefit for my region.

I want to return to schools, very briefly. The power of the needs based funding reforms are already having a massive impact on my region. I think of schools like Lake Munmorah Public School, which talks about the early additional funding providing quality training for teachers so that they can provide great education for students. I think of Warners Bay High School, where they are using the additional money to put on extra tutors to lift the literacy and numeracy skills of the 25 per cent of students who are performing the worst so that they do not fall behind. Once you fall behind in years 7 and 8, it is enormously hard to catch up by year 12. St Pius X Primary School in Windale is the poorest school in the entire state. The poorest school in the entire state exists in my electorate. It is a Catholic school, and it is benefiting enormously from the early years of needs based funding. For a school of only 50 students it was able to put on two additional teachers to give those kids the best start in life. That is at stake with this government’s $22 billion of cuts to education funds. This is at stake because of the coalition’s lies before the 2013 election and their continuing mistruths about how they support needs based funding. But all we have seen is them cut $30 billion in 2014. Now they say it is only going to be a $22 billion cut, but it demonstrates a complete lack of commitment to education not just in my region but in the entire country.

So it is very important that we are debating these appropriation bills. We have so many priorities for this nation. Unfortunately, this budget fails all of them. If we look at infrastructure, it is a budget of smoke and mirrors. It is a budget that cuts $7½ billion from infrastructure funding against a 10-year average—not just against Labor’s funding—for infrastructure financing this budget cuts $7½ billion. This budget committed to not a single new project. The much vaunted $10 billion rail fund has zero details behind it. It has zero information about how state governments can access it. If this was an infrastructure budget I would hate to see one that was not focused on that, because it is a horrible budget for infrastructure.

Even today, we have seen startling revelations that in spite of the so-called unfreeze of the Medicare rebate indexation most of the services will still remain frozen. That will place even more pressure on our health system. This budget fails the economic test and it fails the fairness test. Yet again we have seen a budget deficit blow out by 10 times compared to what the projections were in 2014. This government are woeful economic managers despite all their myth telling. This budget yet again cements the place of this government as the most incompetent government and as the most incompetent economic managers since the Billy McMahon era.

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