Thursday, 14 May 2009
Questions without Notice
My question is to the Prime Minister. Does the Prime Minister agree with his very respected and successful predecessor Bob Hawke, who, when speaking at an event at Old Parliament House only last weekend, said:
The deficit will be temporary, just like this place was temporary for 61 years.
You can see when we are getting down to the end of question time: those opposite are so well prepared that the member for North Sydney has had to run the last two off the cuff, with no preparation by the tactics committee! You can understand that if you have a tactics committee of 40 you cannot get agreement. Secondly, I say to those opposite, particularly the member for North Sydney, whom I have known for some years, that his performance in question time today on the question of debt has been remarkable. He decided again to, shall we say, ‘stray from the thematic’—which was about net debt—and open up what was from our point of view a welcome debate on foreign debt, given the unique contribution to foreign debt by the former Treasurer Mr Costello, who will soon be the Leader of the Opposition.
What we are engaged in in this debate, in this parliament and in other parliaments and other governments right across the world, is a fundamentally serious challenge: how do you deal with the global recession? And there has been a complete abandonment of truth on the part of those opposite in any real debate or exchange about what you do. In fact, what is going on here is one huge smokescreen. The smokescreen led by the member for North Sydney, led by the member for Higgins before he moves up the front here, led by the Leader of the Opposition, is that those opposite would not engage in temporary borrowing and temporary deficit and temporary debt in the face of this recession. That is what they are actually arguing. That is the pretence which exists on the part of those opposite. Everybody knows in this country, all those who follow the economic debate in this country know, that those opposite are simply trading in an absolute falsehood, an absolute pretence. It is completely disconnected from reality. It is as if they are engaging in one huge bubble-like activity here in Canberra, unconnected with what is going on in the real economy, with real families, with real communities and with other countries around the world.
Even on this question—that is, the reality of net debt and how to deal with it over time—we had the member for North Sydney go out there yesterday into no-man’s-land, and what did he do? He confirmed the Liberal Party’s debt position is $275 billion. The member for North Sydney said it would be $25 billion less. He confirmed therefore it is a $275 billion debt strategy by the Liberal Party. Yet they will seek to come in here tonight through the Leader of the Opposition and pretend that it is not like that.
I would say to those opposite that, given the gravity of the challenges faced by the nation and by those facing unemployment today, it is about time we had a bit of truth in this debate, a bit of honesty on the part of those opposite. If the Leader of the Opposition is being honest about the proposition put forward, that he does not support the level of debt and the level of deficit which the government has advanced in the budget papers, he has one responsibility, and that is to name his debt target, to name the savings that he would make as well and, through that, to demonstrate how in fact it is different from what the member for North Sydney said yesterday. It is a very simple and straightforward challenge. If he fails to do that, he sinks a stake through the heart of his own credibility and through this extraordinary fear campaign on debt, which is being mounted by those opposite, because in their heads—and, I dare say, in the hearts of those on the other side of the chamber who are a little bit honest—they know it to be an absolute falsehood as well.
I would like to thank the member for Werriwa for his question. He is very well aware that first home buyer activity in his own electorate has been very strong since the introduction of the first home owner boost. He has told me about it. In fact, one of the Landcom developments out his way, One Minto, had to release extra land to cope with the extra demand that they have seen from first home buyers in the electorate of Werriwa.
On Tuesday the Treasurer announced the government will extend the highly successful first home owner boost as part of our commitment to building the nation for recovery. The first home owner boost was introduced as a temporary stimulus measure to support housing construction and also to help young Australians into homes of their own. It has been very successful in supporting jobs. In fact, it has been one of the very important measures in both the stimulus packages and in the budget that will help support 210,000 fewer Australians ending up on the unemployment queues.
To the end of March this year, 59,000 Australians have claimed the boost and, of course, many more have bought homes. Many more have signed contracts to build homes and will claim the boost once their homes are complete. There were 17,700 new loans written to first home buyers in March, compared with 8,800 in August 2008, so we see almost a doubling in the number of loans written to first home buyers. Loans for construction rose by almost 14 per cent in March, compared with in the previous month. That means that, in seasonally adjusted terms, housing loans have risen for six consecutive months, following eight months of decline prior to the introduction of the first home owner boost. The proportion of first home buyers is at record levels: over 27 per cent of new loans written are going to first home buyers. Building approvals have risen for the previous three months, after a major decline last year.
In order to ensure the responsible phasing-out of the first home owner boost, it will be continued at existing levels for three months and then stepped down. So, until 30 September, first home buyers will be eligible for $21,000 from the federal government for newly built homes and $14,000 for existing homes. Between 1 October and the end of the year, 31 December, first home buyers will be eligible for $14,000 on newly constructed homes and $10,500 on existing homes.
The reaction from people in the housing construction area and related fields has been, predictably, enormously positive. They know how important this measure is to support jobs in their industries. David Airey, the new President of the Real Estate Institute of Australia, says that this measure will have:
… tremendous flow-on effects … to those in the business of servicing the property industry, such as solicitors, conveyancers, financiers, valuers, removalists, furniture suppliers and a range of tradespeople.
Ron Silberberg of the Housing Industry Association says that this measure:
… means thousands of jobs will be secure and frenetic buying will be avoided. The proposal provides a transition to the cutting in of the investment in housing under the Nation Building Plan.
Caryn Kakas, the Executive Director of the Residential Development Council, says:
The timing for the boost to wrap up dovetails well into the ramp up of Government spending on the public housing front which will guarantee that jobs across the construction sector are secure.
And Wilhelm Harnisch from Master Builders Australia says:
… these measures will be effective in lifting activity in the building and construction industry at a time when the global financial crisis is having its worst impacts …
The first home owner boost is supporting the jobs of today and helping thousands of Australians into homes of their own—homes that will give them lifelong financial, social and emotional benefits. The Australian government is supporting the jobs of today by helping Australians into homes of their own.
My question is to the Treasurer. I refer to the Treasurer’s pledge in the budget papers to keep real spending growth to just two per cent per year. Given that he is expecting the defence budget to increase by double that amount over the forward estimates, to pay for growing defence expenditure, which portfolios are going to have the massive spending cuts to meet his pledge, after the election?
They have certainly run out of questions, Mr Speaker. They are now asking me to deliver next year’s budget today! It is just extraordinary. It is absolutely extraordinary. But the member for North Sydney does correctly point to our commitment to put a spending cap on once growth returns to trend. He correctly points to it. I was talking about it before. It is the fiscal rule that we will operate by, and we put it out there for a very good reason. We do not apologise for providing funding to the Defence Force, for giving them certainty and for meeting our election commitments to fund the Defence Force. We do not apologise for the white paper. We do not apologise for our commitment to future capability. We do not apologise for any of it. We do acknowledge that we have to have fiscal rules, going forward. We have outlined them in great detail. I will talk to you next year!
I thank the member for Wakefield for the question and for his strong engagement with the farmers in his electorate. The budget, as it has been described, is about nation building for recovery. It is about supporting jobs today by building the infrastructure Australia needs for the future. It is also about tough savings to deliver the lowest net debt of all major advanced economies. And there are savings within the department of agriculture; there is no doubt about that, and the government has been upfront about that.
I was interested to hear among the interjections that came from the member for Murray that she asked why we got rid of the dairy money that was there, when the only way of keeping that was to continue to charge consumers 11c a litre every time they wanted milk. If it is the position of the opposition that that should be brought back in, that 11c a litre should continue on milk, then perhaps we will hear that in the speech tonight. It clearly has support from one of the rural members of the Liberal Party.
But what was more extraordinary was the claim from the National Party that there had been a $1 billion cut—a $1 billion cut—to agriculture, fisheries and forestry. Now, there have been cuts, and those cuts are real: $13 million from Land and Water Australia, a $3 million reduction in the rural issues program from the Rural Industries RDC and a $3.4 million reduction in funding for DAFF. But only the National Party could say $13 million plus $3 million plus $3.4 million equals $1 billion! National Party mathematics have created this extraordinary situation where they can get those figures and then run around regional radio across the country claiming that there have been $1 billion in cuts. It is not surprising they have come up with their own form of mathematics; they are only used to counting to nine in this room! We then also had the shadow minister for agriculture describing it as—
Mr Speaker, on a point of order: it was a very tightly crafted question asking the minister for the reaction in rural Australia and by farmers, and I invite you to ask the minister to come back to the question.
And, if it is a position of the opposition that they are irrelevant to farmers, then they can say that tonight too. The shadow minister for agriculture put out the position that this was a ‘horror budget’ for agriculture. He always makes a thing about his background with the New South Wales Farmers Association, so I thought: well, what did the New South Wales Farmers Association say about the budget in their media release? ‘Budget winners: infrastructure, water and drought assistance’. That was the headline on their media release, which I am very happy to table. I am very happy to table that, Mr Speaker.
The National Party have developed this concept of the bush where they just go looking for gloom—looking for gloom and looking for misery wherever they can find it. We saw it earlier with the question that was asked by the Leader of the Nationals, where he complained about the method of forward estimates on drought funding when it is identical to how it was done when he was the minister for agriculture. At first I thought, ‘How outrageous for him to do that; he would have known.’ Then I thought: ‘Well, he’s the leader of the Nats; maybe he never knew. Maybe he never understood that that’s how they work it.’ The way they go around looking for gloom, it is like they have become the political equivalent of the bogong moth that just wants to hug the mozzie zapper. They just want to keep going out there and looking to the most miserable stories they can find.
But we have a budget that is good to the bush. We have a budget that delivers infrastructure nationwide, that is community based and that goes all the way down to the farm—infrastructure for roads, rail, ports and broadband, all of it bringing farmers closer to their markets and closer to each other. There is community based infrastructure through local councils and local schools supporting rural communities, support for rural health including incentives to get GPs to the bush and infrastructure all the way back to the farm. There is the $300 million to provide on-farm irrigation—infrastructure on the farm. There is the increase in the small business tax break from 30 per cent to 50 per cent so that farmers can make their own choices about their own infrastructure on-farm.
The opposition need to detail which of these programs they would cut, which savings they would make or which measures they would abandon. We have got no idea what their direction is going to be on this, given the Leader of the Opposition has only asked four questions since budget night, keeping him off TV during that time. How long would it be since a Leader of the Opposition has asked so few questions following the budget? I thought it might be decades, but it was pretty similar to what we saw from Brendan towards the end.