Appropriation Bills 19/2/19

19 February 2019

DR CHALMERS (Rankin) (13:16): In many ways these bills are routine bills. They make provisions and appropriations for the ordinary functions of government for the rest of this financial year. They facilitate a number of measures in the midyear update, and the numbers themselves are already incorporated into the budget bottom line of that MYEFO which was handed down in December last year. Obviously, as always, Labor won't be standing in the way of supply.

We do take the opportunity to make some broader points about this government's management, or mismanagement, of the nation's finances. I had to replay it and listen to it again; I thought my ears were deceiving me last week when I heard the Prime Minister at the Press Club say that nobody can say the Liberals have mismanaged the finances or mismanaged the budget or the economy, because the hard, cold facts, in black and white in the government's own budgets and midyear updates, tell a very different story to that story being told by the Prime Minister and the Treasurer.

Just consider a few of these numbers. On the Liberals' watch our net debt has more than doubled. It's now at an all-time record of $360 billion. Those opposite inherited $175 billion worth of net debt. It's now $360 billion. It's more than doubled in the five or so years that they've been in office. Similarly, gross debt has now crashed through half a trillion dollars for the first time ever in the history of this country. It's well over half a trillion dollars. It's now $543.3 billion and growing. It's almost double the $280 billion in gross debt that those opposite inherited from the former government. Since the member for Cook has become the latest Prime Minister in the Liberals' game of musical chairs, gross debt has actually grown by almost $11 billion. That means since the member for Cook has been Prime Minister he's piled on $64 million a day in debt, and that's a far cry from the so-called responsible budget management that he likes to bang on about.

I think what's more surprising to many people than the amount of debt, the quantum of debt, that those opposite have racked up is just how quickly that they've done it. Inevitably, those opposite will say, 'The government beforehand racked up some debt too.' And during the global financial crisis we did take responsible action to deal with that big substantial threat, the sharpest synchronised downturn in the global economy since the Great Depression 80 years earlier, and, yes, that meant public debt.

Mr Rick Wilson: Best terms of trade in a century!

Dr CHALMERS: But what those opposite don't understand, including those interjecting, is that debt is actually being accumulated at a faster rate now than it was under the former government, which had that global financial crisis to deal with, and despite the fact that the last five years have seen very rosy global conditions.

So let's think about these numbers. Those opposite have racked up gross debt that is $831 million a month quicker than their predecessors, $185 million a week quicker and $26 million a day quicker. That's gross debt. On net debt, they've racked up $132 million a month quicker, $29 million a week quicker and $4 million a day quicker. They're racking up debt faster than their predecessors, despite rosy global economic conditions. They have not been able to point to any reasonable global factors which have contributed to the mess that they've made of the budget.

In his National Press Club speech earlier this month, the Governor of the Reserve Bank, Philip Lowe, noted that there had been a shift in momentum in the global economy. But he was also quick to emphasise:

It is worth recalling that 2018 was a good year for the world economy. Growth in the advanced economies was above trend in the first half of the year, unemployment rates reached their lowest levels in many decades, inflation was low and financial systems were stable …

Others—the IMF and other respected international bodies—have talked about how strong the global economy has been in recent years, and that should have been a positive influence on the budget. We've seen some tens of billions of dollars returned to the budget, but still we have this record debt; we have a gross debt of more than half a trillion dollars and net debt which has doubled on the government's watch. They have nobody but themselves to blame on that side for that record debt and that growing debt.

And it's more serious now because, as the RBA governor pointed out, there are storm clouds on the horizon of the global economy. All we've had from those opposite after the last five years of rosy global conditions are the cuts, the chaos, the division and the dysfunction. That's all we have to show for these rosy global conditions. And now that things may be taking a turn for the worse we don't have those budget buffers that we need in case things get substantially worse in the global economy and impact here on the Australian economy as well.

The other reason for those numbers that I read out—pretty stark numbers, really, about record debt under those opposite—is because of the warped priorities that they've attempted to impose on the Australian population. We're familiar with all the cuts and we're familiar with all the handouts for the top end of town. But something that I think has come to light recently in the Australian community—certainly, in my community and around the country in places that I've been in the last little while—is the thing that makes people really angry: to learn that while we have this record debt those opposite are spending $200 million of taxpayer money on political ads to distract from their cuts, chaos, division and dysfunction. That's making people very angry.

And then, on top of that, consider that the government currently spends $100 million every single week on cash refunds for excess franking credits. Now, in anybody's language $100 million, borrowed, to give a tax refund for tax not paid is an unsustainable loophole, especially when you consider that 96 per cent of Australians don't even access that particular loophole. We can see the warped priorities right throughout the budget of those opposite.

We see those warped priorities as well in their two big economic policies of the last five years. One of them they've implemented and the other one, thankfully, they've been unable to. They are two big economic policies: pay people less to work on the weekend and shower tens of billions of dollars on the big banks and foreign multinationals in the form of tax cuts.

Now, the budget is a mess because of the government's twisted priorities, including those unsustainable tax loopholes and including spraying around hundreds of millions of dollars on political ads—all of these sorts of things—and it's a mess because of their obsession with the top end of town, their obsession with cracking down on the people who work and struggle in this country and with showering their largesse on those who need it least.

But I think that today, in particular, we've seen that there's another reason for why the budget is a mess under the Liberal government. Amidst all of the division and all of the dysfunction, this dumpster fire of personal recrimination and leadership turnstiles on that side of the House in the last little while, in the time that we've had three Prime Ministers and three Treasurers, we have only had one finance minister. The only pillar of stability in this dumpster fire that is the Liberal government has been the finance minister. The finance minister has been at the scene of the crime for all of the budget atrocities, all of the cuts and chaos, all of the record debt that I've described today. In fact, no finance minister in the history of this country has overseen more debt that Senator Cormann oversees today. No finance minister has ever had to admit, as he did, that he can't count to 43 votes in the party room. We have a finance minister who can't count to 43, a finance minister who said he was convinced that there were 43 votes in that week where he was supporting Malcolm Turnbull on the Wednesday, the member for Dickson on the Thursday and the member for Cook by the Friday. This is the record of the finance minister over the last five years or so.

And no finance minister, I think it's fair to say, certainly in the modern history of that position, has been in more strife than the current finance minister finds himself in today. No finance minister has been in more strife than Mathias Cormann is in today. He wants the Australian people to believe that he didn't notice when a $3,000 travel bill was paid for by somebody else. This is a guy who handles the nation's credit card, and he doesn't notice when a $3,000 bill that was supposed to come off his credit card was fixed up by somebody else. That's what he wants the Australian people to believe. He has serious questions to answer today, very serious question, about free flights which were accepted around the time that a company run by the treasurer of the Liberal Party, a big donor to the Liberal Party, won a $1 billion contract for travel services with the Commonwealth. These are incredibly serious matters that the finance minister has to give a better set of answers to than he has been able to give so far in Senate estimates around the corner and upstairs today.

In the alternative universe that the Liberal Party inhabits, they want us to believe that it is entirely normal, when you want to book a trip for your family, to ring the CEO of the company and get your travel booking done by the CEO of a large company in this country. He's in there in Senate estimates expressing shock, expressing surprise, that the rest of us don't do it that way. What, you don't ring the CEO of a company to get on the 3.30 flight out of Perth? It's absurd, and it just shows how horrendously out of touch those opposite have become when they think that is normal practice.

This is a very Liberal scandal. These are very serious issues, and this scandal won't go away anytime soon. The finance minister is in serious strife. He's been caught not declaring free flights, he's been caught trying to pretend that he didn't notice that somebody else paid a $3,000 bill for him around the same time that a company run by the Liberal Party treasurer, and a big donor to the Liberal Party, won a $1 billion Commonwealth contract for travel services. I think the Australian people are right to be deeply sceptical, angry even, about the finance minister's inability to account for this and explain this, and I think the sooner that he does that, the better.

It's no wonder, with all of this going on, all of the scandal engulfing the finance minister, all of the cuts and chaos and all the division and dysfunction of three Prime Ministers and three Treasurers, all of this dumpster fire of personal recrimination, which is eating the government alive on that side of the House, that they've dropped the ball on the budget and also on the economy. It's true, I think, that the economy isn't delivering for ordinary people in this country. Everything is going up, except their wages. Wages growth is the slowest on record; childcare costs are up 24 per cent; power bills are up 15 per cent; private healthcare costs are up 30 per cent; 1.8 million Australians are underemployed, meaning they can't find enough hours at work; consumer confidence has weakened; business investment is falling; living standards are stagnating; household saving rates are falling and household debt is at record highs. And while all his is going on, company profits—and we want our companies to be profitable—are growing six time faster than wages in the last 12 months alone, and that, for this side of the House, indicates that there is a problem with the way this economy—