The DEPUTY PRESIDENT-The President has received a letter from Senator Fifield proposing that a definite matter of public importance be submitted to the Senate for discussion, namely:
The Rudd Labor government’s record level of debt.
I call upon those senators who approve of the proposed discussion to rise in their places.
More than the number of senators required by the standing orders having risen in their places-
The DEPUTY PRESIDENT-I understand that informal arrangements have been made to allocate specific times to each of the speakers in today’s debate. With the concurrence of the Senate, I shall ask the
clerks to set the clock accordingly.
Senator FIFIELD (Victoria) (3.53 pm)-The Treasurer, Mr Swan, promised that this would be a very Labor budget. Mr Swan was right. He was good to his word. This budget is indeed built on two great and enduring Labor principles-debt and lies. I think we all recall the great indignation which was provoked before the last election whenever the coalition suggested that there was a continuity between Rudd Labor and old Labor. But, ‘no’ said Mr Rudd, and we were told in television advertisements that Mr Rudd had often been accused of being an economic conservative. It was, he said, a badge he wore with pride. That is a paraphrase, and I am always very careful not to verbal Mr Rudd, so I went back and I got the transcript of the TV advertisement. As I said before, what the TV transcript, the script, said was:
“A number of people have described me as an economic conservative.”
But Mr Rudd was actually very careful. He was very specific. He wanted to narrow down and be very precise about what that definition of being an economic conservative actually meant. What he went on to say in that ad was:
“When it comes to public finance, it’s a badge I wear with pride.”
He specifically defined economic conservatism in terms of public finance. All I can say to that is, ‘Some mothers do have ’em’-that’s for sure.
And how the coalition were at times ridiculed at the last election for suggesting that Mr Rudd and Mr Swan were not what they seemed! We were accused of running a scare campaign. The big-spending, debt bingeing Labor Party was supposedly a mythical beast, for this was Rudd Labor, almost indistinguishable from Howard-Costello Liberals. Only a mother could tell them apart.
Australian politics, the electorate was led to believe, had entered some post-ideological budget nirvana. But, on this side of the chamber, we said ‘no’. On this side of the chamber we maintained that the best predictor of future behaviour was past behaviour, something any first-year psychology student will tell you.
What do I mean about the best predictor of future behaviour being past behaviour? Let me refresh your memory, Mr Deputy President. In 1996 Labor bequeathed to the Australian people a $96 billion debt.
How those look like the good old days today-only $96 billion! But, back then, we did not know that Labor could do worse. They exceeded all expectations.
That situation in 1996, of course, was not of our making, but we took responsibility to fix it. Over the next 10 years we paid that debt down with no help from the Labor Party, who opposed each and every measure we put forward to bring the budget back into balance. In 2007 we held the very unfashionable view at that time that Labor would revert to form. We still held this view when the 2008 budget was delivered, a budget which forecast a surplus. I read from last year’s budget speech, where Mr Swan said:
We are budgeting for a surplus of $21.7 billion in 2008 09, 1.8 per cent of GDP, the largest budget surplus as a share of GDP in nearly a decade. This honours and exceeds the 1.5 per cent target we set in January …
I do not need to say any more on that particular quote. It speaks for itself. We did not believe Labor then. We did not believe them, because we know them all too well. We know that Labor have only ever viewed balanced budgets and budget surpluses as some kind of a political strategy at best-a political virtue but never a policy virtue. Labor always have and always will see the true sign of economic virtue as debt. The greater the debt, the greater the virtue. Does anyone who thinks to themselves, ‘Look, I am really committed to economic responsibility; I am committed to balanced budgets,’ also think, ‘I should go and join the ALP to pursue those objectives’? I don’t think so. And I do not think any senator opposite would have thought to themselves, ‘I have got to join the ALP; I have got to run for preselection, because I want to champion fiscal responsibility and surplus budgets.’ That just does not happen. That is why, in November 2007, we knew that Labor would never, ever deliver a surplus budget.
Last night’s budget confirmed that this is the most reckless, ill disciplined government in Australian history. What a performance by Mr Swan last night. He was lacking in all courage. He could not bring himself to utter the budget bottom line-the $58 billion budget deficit. Can you imagine the state that this budget would be in had the coalition not handed the ALP a $22 billion surplus? Can you imagine the state of the Commonwealth finances had this government not been bequeathed no net government debt by the coalition? But somehow, according to Mr Swan, his deficit and his debt are the fault of the previous government-hello?
When we clocked off, the budget was in surplus and there was no net government debt. Eighteen months later there is a $58 billion budget deficit and a debt heading towards $188 billion. Clearly, no honest observer believes that the current budgetary situation is the fault of the coalition. In fact, if not for our responsible management, it would have been far worse. The other defence Labor cite for the budget situation is that falling revenues are due to a slowing economy.
No-one would contend for a moment that a slower economy does not impact revenues. But Labor would have us believe that this is the full story of the budget situation. It is rubbish. Two-thirds of the debt owed by taxpayers in 2012-13 will be due to spending decisions taken by Labor over the last 18 months. Labor have announced measures since November 2007 totalling $124 billion. That is an average of $225 million per day. Labor pretend that the trashing of the budget is all due to the global recession and nothing to do with Mr Rudd and Mr Swan; they just stumbled across the scene. It is Forrest Gump meets Chauncey Gardiner-just a pair of disengaged observers. But Labor, as we know, have made a challenging situation far worse.
They have lost control of the nation’s finances; there is record spending, a record deficit and rising unemployment. Labor have made the task of recovery that much harder. Labor will, we know, inflict unnecessary pain on Australians who have to pay off that debt. If you want to know how it could have been different, well, that would have required us to have managed the economy over the last 18 months. If those opposite want to know how we would have conducted ourselves, they only need look back over the preceding 11½ years. But it is always the Australian people who have to pay and who have to foot the bill.
It took the coalition the best part of a decade to repay Labor’s $96 billion debt. It will probably take 20 years for us to repay that debt again. One thing I know for sure is that Labor will never deliver a surplus budget; they will never repay this debt. I see a time after the next election when a Liberal Treasurer will again go to the dispatch box and repeat the words of Mr Costello in 1996 and say, ‘Although this problem was not of our creation, we will fix it.’