Home - Claire Moore - Labor Senator for Queensland

The Opposition and The Budget

I am a bit worried looking across at the opposition because they were all wearing their R U OK? badges earlier in the day but now they seem to have disappeared. It would be a real worry to me if we are to fall into a process of excoriation this afternoon. We need to have a debate around the issues and we are more than keen to have the debate, but I think we should be looking to see that everybody in the chamber are feeling well, positive and moving well into the debate. Senator Fifield, I am worried that the badge has gone. I hope that does not mean that the spirit is lacking on this day.

However, in question time this afternoon we heard the preliminary part of this debate with the series of questions across the chamber to Senator Wong. The opposition started with quite clear assertions about and confirmation of the figures that prove the great blow-out in the budget. Yet again, we have the litany from those opposite-if you say something often enough and loud enough, it automatically becomes truthful. We know where the figures come from that the opposition are using. They come from the Australian Financial Review. With great deference to the Australian Financial Review, a newspaper that is read vigorously by people on a weekly basis to find out what is happening in the economy, it seems that, yet again, the opposition's work is being done through other sources, the media and the AFR's report on the budget. That is worrying because in this place we have processes which work effectively.

As you know, Mr Acting Deputy President, because you sometimes sit with me on the Finance and Public Administration Legislation Committee during estimates, we look at the Treasury figures and the budget process, and line by line the Senate is able to examine exactly what the determinations are across all expenditure in the budget. It is clear through that process that you can identify in the budget exactly what is happening with the forward spending and what the methodologies are and have been for many, many years. There is no new way of calculating the budget. We have not created a new budget process. We have not created a new Treasury. We have not created a new department of finance. Those processes and systems have existed. We work within that infrastructure and we continue to do so.

I looked at the AFR'sfigures-which I actually found in the media release from the opposition that claims the attribution to black hole, to which they love to refer-and it was clearly listed on the basis of an eight-year forward plan for the budget. I immediately turned to my little book on how the budget process operates to see what we do during Senate estimates. I found that we look at the forward budget and at the way calculations are made, and I picked up almost immediately that the forward budget does not cover an eight-year period. The data and the arguments put forward by the opposition-and I know they will continue to use them next week, because why start with a new line when you already have a good one-were the inflated figures around an eight-year outlying process. That is a technique. It is a proposition into the future but it is not an examination of budget figures; it is a guesstimate. Anyone can have an argument using guesstimates.

The comments made by Senator Fifield we have heard many times before. I knew the way his comments were going to flow and I knew what was going to come next. He waxes lyrical that we must be very unlucky, that we have all sorts of things happening to us and that we hide behind what is happening in our budget figures. It is as though the government have not gone through the process of putting out a budget every year and reviewing the figures midterm-all of which is publicly available-as well as sitting through three weeks of intensive Senate estimates. There is a view in the rhetoric of the opposition that we have not known, or not noticed, that we have run budget deficits over the first years of our government. We have known that. We have planned it. The reasons that those budget deficits have occurred have been put out into the public arena, as well as what we are planning to do as a government to respond. We have been told by the opposition that our government's plan to have a budget surplus going into the next financial year is somehow an unworthy affirmation, that it is something that might or might not happen. What we have said as a government is that we will bring in a surplus, and we are working through the process to ensure that happens. Every time there is an examination of our figures, that is brought into an account. But that is not good enough; somehow it has to be some kind of manipulation or conspiracy or hiding that the government is doing. That is not true. The job of government is to put forward our figures, to justify those figures and to put evidence as to what we are going to do, how we have done it and what factors are impacting on our budget.

I heard Senator Fifield today draw a comparison between the Asian financial crisis and the global financial crisis. That argument has been made. At the time of the Asian financial crisis I was in this place, and at no time did the then opposition say that there was no such thing as an Asian financial crisis. There was debate about whether the methodologies and responses being put forward by Costello at that time were appropriate, but at no time was there any suggestion by the opposition that it was somehow a made-up exercise and that Australia would be completely immune from everything that was going on. In contrast, from the time that the global financial crisis was identified, to the horror of the world's economies, there has been a view by those now on the opposition benches that it was not having any impact on Australia, that we would be able to sail through without impact and that any good thing that came out was somehow a legacy of the good financial management of the previous government. The view was that there was nothing untoward, nothing major and nothing troubling that would cause the government to make the really strong financial decisions, publicise them and explain why they were being done, which resulted in the economic stimulus processes we put in place, particularly in the first three years of our government.

They were decisions that have been respected and held up by international economists as not just appropriate action but action which could be held up to show the rest of the world's economies a way to make the best response to a significant threat to our financial security. But, no, again that was not good enough for the opposition, who said the government was lucky or unlucky, it fell into decisions, it did not know what it was doing. Many leading economists, including at that stage, I have to say, economists in the Australian Financial Review, said that the Australian economy had pulled itself through the global financial crisis in a very effective way. There has been pain, and we continue to see pain from businesses that were caught up in that process, particularly those involved in international markets. But the economic decisions that were made by this Labor government, using figures prepared by Treasury and the department of finance that are public, have protected to a large extent the integrity of our economy. I think that should be acknowledged. It has been acknowledged by most organisations, most governments and most economic theorists, with the major exception being those in the opposition at the moment. I do not consider it is a matter of luck. I believe it was a series of strategic decisions based on economic theory that led us to the position we are in today.

There seems to be a viral process happening around the country where Liberal-National governments have been elected by the population-and that is the joy of our democratic process: we do not always enjoy the results but we enjoy that democratic process that we have. The process I am referring to where you get into government and you have an independent review, which is run of course by people that you know and appoint, that brings out the astounding finding that there are budget issues and problems from the outgoing government. What a surprise-that has never happened before in history! Nonetheless, we have seen it happen now in Victoria, in New South Wales and, most recently, in Queensland-my own state and yours, Mr Acting Deputy President Furner. What we have is a battle of the black holes, an argument over whose black hole is bigger than whose. What we have now in Queensland is an independent review which has had a responsive independent review. It points out that the figures used in the first independent review, which was chaired by Mr Peter Costello, whilst following economic methodology, were blown out and exaggerated to respond to the worst possible scenario that could occur. I do not think it took into account nuclear destruction, but it almost did.

Various figures have been thrown around in the Queensland parliament and in this place which claim to be the deficit that the Queensland government is facing. Subsequent inquiries and opinions have been sought which say that those figures are not absolutely accurate, that there are other ways to calculate the figures and that that could make a difference. It is much the same as the basis of the debate we have had in this place, where the opposition are claiming significant blow-outs, that the deficit is going to be $120 billion. Again, this has been done using data and a process which the government does not agree with. What a surprise!

As I said earlier, what we have is a battle where if you say something and then I say it is not right, and yell louder and louder, somehow at the end we are going to reach some kind of agreement. It never happens. It does not happen in any form of debate and it particularly does not happen in financial debates. What we have seen is a clear disagreement from the government, from the Treasury and from the Treasurer with the premise that was put forward in the $120 billion figure.

What we do have is a process where the government releases its figures every month, and the scrutiny takes place through the Senate estimates process and in the midyear figures. We now all know that the building is being done in the government for the next year's budget. It is an important budget. Our government has said that it is going to have a surplus in the next financial year budget. That is not some kind of wishy-washy goal; that is the government's statement. What will happen is all the figures will lead into that-taking into account what Senator Fifield seems to put as some unusual process of policy decision-which is the basis of what we do as a government: develop a policy, develop the financial figures around that and then crunch the figures into a budget which will fund that policy which has been put out. Governments have to make decisions about what they can afford to do and not do. That seems to me to be standard financial management. There is nothing unusual about that. There is no conspiracy about that as is being put forward by people in the opposition. That is how policy is developed and policy is funded through budgets.

Senator Fifield made statements about a number of key areas: the NDIS, the dental scheme and other key policy areas such as the Gonski review into education. One of the things that disappointed me most when I was looking at the Australian Financial Review figures was the way in which in a couple of these key areas there was no differentiation about what was going to be a state funding responsibility and what was going to be a federal funding responsibility. That to me would be quite a basic arrangement because the government has said consistently that, particularly around the areas of education and health and most particularly around the area of the National Disability Insurance Scheme, there is an expectation from this government that they are going to be shared responsibilities between state and federal governments, as indeed always; this is not a new policy. In the areas of disability, health and education, which are three of the very large policy areas about which the opposition has been speaking and to which this government has a commitment, there has always been shared responsibility between the states and the federal government. It is not always an easy relationship. In fact, I am not sure it has ever been an easy relationship and we have lots of great quotes from the past about the terms used by various premiers and various federal leaders to refer to each other in that process. Rather than an attack on state governments by the federal government in developing the budget parameters around which the NDIS scheme would be introduced, there was a clear discussion about what amount, what percentages, what areas the states would be responsible for and what areas the federal government would be responsible for.

At this stage we are not into the core aspects of the NDIS. There has been a policy decision, an agreement to move forward and an agreement to have a series of trials to set the basis on which further action would be taken. All this is public knowledge. Just by saying that you do not agree with it does not mean that it is not true and is not publicly acknowledged. It would seem to me that there should be a clear understanding about who is responsible for what and what expectation there is for budget agreement. However, in the Australian Financial Review figures-the eight-year-into-the-future figures, which have never been a known economic model in Australia-it seems that all the financial responsibility on those figures falls back to the federal government. That is just not true.

It is a standard process for governments to consult on what their policies are going to be. It is the expectation that governments will develop budgets around that and then put that out to the community and show them what has happened. Then it is the responsibility of the parliament to review those budgets to ensure that the money is being appropriately spent. That is standard process. So any view that there is something particularly wrong or different about the way this government is working is just not true. It may suit a political purpose and it does. Throwing figures around this place, throwing figures around the community and throwing figures around the media do not constitute economic argument. They may make really good one-liners and I reckon if you just keep saying billions and trillions and squillions often enough and have a whole lot of zeros in the figures and then accuse them of being wrong then that may give you a couple of moments in the sun or a couple of moments of newsprint. That does not constitute economic argument. And it certainly does not mean that the current government is not effectively planning and working through a budget process.

It seems to me that if the best way to argue is just to consistently say that the others are wrong and not put forward your own case, it will not get you very far. I think it is a sad point that when we get into 'whose black hole is bigger than the other's', we throw up figures about other figures that are incorrect and fall into the same trap. I do not think that is an effective way of moving forward either. I can remember sitting across on the other side of this chamber and being constantly asked by people on this side of the chamber, 'Give us your policies and give us your budget figures. Don't talk to us until you put your own budgets up and show us what you are going to do.' So, with respect, you can make these statements about what this government is doing with our budget; that is what you do. It would be useful if you would justify them. It would be useful if you did not rely on other people to do the calculations, particularly those in the media. It would be useful if when you are talking about policy areas such as the NDIS, the dental scheme and education into the future-those things which are so important to all of us-and as you are making allegations even to the extent of excoriating people on this side of the chamber, you could provide the details of the budgets in opposition that you are wanting to bring in to ensure that once again that battle over the black hole size could be justified and we could see exactly where people are moving into the future-with budgets across the board.