Christine Milne delivers the Greens' 2014 Budget-in-reply Speech
In my 25 years in politics I have seen governments and budgets come and go-governments like that of Tasmanian Liberal Premier Robin Gray, who cooked the books; governments like that of John Howard, who engaged in gross populism. Remember his 'rivers of gold', manna from heaven, as he squandered the benefits of the last mining boom with tax cuts not to mention his previous decision to freeze the fuel excise to win an election.
I have seen governments ignore the challenges ahead, refuse to even mention climate change or the environment, just as this Abbott government is doing, and play instead to comfort zones, promising that if they continue to do what they have always done everything will be okay, in spite of Einstein's great observation that you cannot solve problems with the same mentality that created them. Frankly, that is our problem in this parliament.
But the Abbott government's first budget is in a category of its own. The nation is reeling as people come to terms with the extent to which the Prime Minister has shafted and lied to people and lead those who believed in him like lambs to the slaughter. Before the recent Western Australian Senate election I said at the Press Club that people were frightened by the Prime Minister because they didn't know what he would do next or who he really is, what he really believes in. But now the real nature of the chameleon has been revealed.
Frankly, I have never witnessed such a brazen attempt by any Prime Minister to ruthlessly and so quickly impose such a vindictive, hard, right, cruel and ideological agenda on the Australian people and our environment and then try to justify it by deliberately concocting a fake national budget emergency.
It is breathtaking to watch the Prime Minister and his cigar-smoking Treasurer, together with their hand-picked commissioners of audit, aided and abetted by the Murdoch press, try to con the community into believing that everyone has a moral obligation to share the burden of a confected crisis, arguing that the burden is being shared fairly whilst making absolutely sure that the full weight is carried by those who have no power to fight back-the young, the sick, pensioners, students and those least able to shoulder it, not to mention the natural environment and future generations. If you are privileged, the Liberals will protect that privilege; if you are already struggling, they will stamp you down and make your life harder. Prime Minister Abbott, your heroes, Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan, would have been proud of you.
But we live in a democracy. The people wisely did not give the Abbott government absolute power. They did not give Prime Minister Abbott absolute control of both houses of parliament. So I stand here tonight to commit the Australian Greens to taking you on.
The Greens will stand up to Prime Minister Abbott every step of the way and we will block these cruel budget cuts. Prime Minister Abbott has threatened to go to a double dissolution election if the Senate does not give him what he wants. Well, the Greens say: 'Bring it on! Bring it on, Mr Abbott!'
We couldn't be more passionate or more committed to kicking your mob out and stopping the damage you are trying to inflict on people, on the environment and our global standing.
We will block the attacks on universal health care and vote against the $7 GP co-payment.
We will block the cruel changes to the living and studying allowances for young people and students. We will block the unfair and regressive user pays model proposed for our universities.
Why? Not only because it is wrong but because there is no budget emergency and there is no burden to share. What there is is a need to recognise that the world has changed and that national priorities must reflect the global emergency of climate change with its myriad of consequences for societies and economies. We need to identify other major constraints and opportunities facing us as a nation and to offer leadership to genuinely take the action now that will protect people and make life better for everyone, including our children, their children and generations to come.
We need to work out where as a nation we are going, how much it will cost to get there, how we are going to raise the money to do it whilst reducing our debt over time. Instead, Australia's social contract, our commitment to recognition of Indigenous people in the Constitution, our commitment to equality of opportunity in everything from education to access to justice, our universal health care system, our notion of a fair go for everyone, our federal system of checks and balances, environmental protection right down to our ABC and SBS are being torn up in this budget. It is a backward looking budget delivered by Prime Minister Abbott but written by big business, for big business, for the big miners, big polluters and big banks-the vested interests of the old economy determined to stamp out anything or anyone that threatens their profit will power.
This is not about the future of the country or making life better for our children; it is about making life harder for people now, and our children, and condemns us all to a dog-eat-dog existence in a rust-bucket economy pitching on the rough seas of a world struggling with climate change, environmental degradation and inequality. It is entirely without vision.
This budget is so last century in its focus that one journalist described it as an 'asphalt budget'. It represents a massive opportunity cost to our nation. Where are the jobs for the people whom the Prime Minister orders to earn or learn? Where are the economic platforms from which we can take off in new directions with new technologies and innovation? Road-building driving congestion, coal ports as stranded assets, and shovels in motion hardly represent a platform for economic prosperity.
The Abbott government has ignored and failed to address the global trends likely to hit our nation hard in coming decades and constrain our ability to provide jobs and services for our people. We are facing global warming and extreme weather events; divestment from fossil fuels; environmental degradation; water crises; volatile food markets; dislocation of millions of people in our region; as well as growing health care, education and training costs. We are facing an ageing population needing to be supported by pensions, a growing gap between rich and poor, and a mining industry transitioning from construction to production.
Leading global economist Michael Molitor has recently commented:
History tells us that a great approach to lifting growth comes from investing in infrastructure, as this has the double effect of creating jobs and the new platform from which future growth can take off. Of all the large infrastructure projects one could imagine, nothing comes close to the scale of opportunity represented by a rapid de-carbonisation of the global energy system.
He goes on to identify investment in new, low-carbon energy assets; energy efficiency; more capital into technologies that exist at scale, like solar and wind; and more capital in proven technologies that do not yet exist at full commercial scale like energy storage, smart grids, and battery electric vehicles-and I would add public transport and high speed rail. He argues for investment in game-changing technologies like graphene or quantum computers.
He asks where the capital will come from and identifies the same large institutional investors who financed all the existing low-efficiency, high-carbon-emitting activities in the past. Why? Because pension funds and insurance companies are moving to invest in infrastructure to secure higher financial returns. Hence the fastest-growing new asset class are green bonds and climate bonds. Yet this government wants to deny that to our nation.
What is required is the policy framework to make it happen, and we have it with the clean energy package, the carbon price, the Australian Renewable Energy Agency, the Clean Energy Finance Corporation and the renewable energy target. But despite the success of this package in driving investment and jobs and reducing emissions, the Abbott government is determined to tear it down-to abandon one million solar roofs-in favour of roads and coal. This is vindictive, constitutes environmental vandalism and can only be seen as spite.
As for direct action and the Emissions Reduction Fund, forget it. Treasury has already forgotten about it. It has cut its forecasts of take-up and is spreading direct action over 10 years. The fig leaf has completely disappeared. Not even the government expects to be able to deliver a five per cent cut in emission by 2020. How irresponsible it is to abandon a multi-billion-dollar, polluter-pays scheme in favour of paying Gina Rinehart, Twiggy Forrest, BHP Billiton and Rio Tinto fuel tax credits, and charging people to go to the doctor to pay for it.
Worse still, this government have become medieval in their attack on science, research and evidence based policy to the extent that the CSIRO, the Bureau of Meteorology and its environmental science programs have lost $142 million. But compare this with the funding of $250 million which has been directed to the school chaplaincy program, with the added restriction of requiring it to be delivered by a religious provider with no option for secular welfare providers.
Our natural environment will suffer a vicious assault as environmental powers are to be transferred from the Commonwealth to the states, or even local government, or anyone for that matter. Decades of environmental protection and the legal work of environmental defenders offices has been trashed. Our national parks-those precious places-are to be subject to guns, resorts, four-wheel drives, and grazing. Anything goes.
Even the new medical research fund is a smoke-and-mirrors investment. We need medical research but to blackmail the parliament by saying it will not be delivered unless the co-payments to visit the doctor or fill a prescription or get a blood test or X-ray are passed is wrong. It is a Sophie's choice and plain wrong. We will block the co-payments proposition. Research must be funded but it must not come from the pockets of the sick.
That brings me to the question of who will pay-where will the money come from? Well, Mr Abbott, instead of looking after your mates let's admit that revenue is there to be had; you just choose the backs of the young, the sick and the vulnerable rather than Gina Rinehart and her ilk. We, the people, own the iron ore; it is time that we were paid a fair return for it. That is what a mining tax is supposed to do, rather than have the profit from our resources go offshore to foreign shareholders. Why should Australians miss out so that our kids sit for six months at a time with nothing-not one cent. How do you expect young adults to live?
People must be really be feeling conned that they went along with 'axing the tax' without realising that if the big miners did not pay, then they would do so instead. The Greens remain committed to restoring the mining tax to its full potential and keeping the price on pollution-and contributing $48 billion to budget. That is how much could be had.
The G20, the International Monetary Fund, the OECD and the World Bank are all urging governments to stop providing subsidies for fossil fuel use. These are the institutions that define what the economic orthodoxy is. But it seems that the Prime Minister and Treasurer only heed their advice when it matches their ideology.
For an industry that is 150 or more years old to still require subsidies paid for by taxpayers is a blatant rort. While they are cutting from the most vulnerable in our society, this budget has seen another $720 million over the forward estimates directed to the big miners, courtesy of the taxpayer, bumping their subsidies up from $13 billion to close to $14 billion. And there is a new one-another $100 million subsidy for digging holes in the ground. If you want real money from the miners, ending the fuel tax credit is the way to go. There is no industry development justification; it is purely about bloating the profits of old, outdated and harmful industries while at the same time stalling economic progress and holding back a new technological frontier that is already available to us.
So the lie of budget emergency is pretty plain to see. The revenue is there; the political will to collect it is not. As Treasurer Hockey himself said, 'As a result of decisions made since coming to office, the government is collecting less taxation than otherwise would be the case'. It is their choice. So do not believe for a single minute that there is a burden to share. What there is, however, is a need for structural adjustment so that revenue streams match expenditures into the future.
Prime Minister Abbott has shielded the rich from any lasting burden in this budget. He has lacked the courage to take on corporate Australia and has instead acted like a bully, targeting the weak rather than those most able to afford it. Don't believe the nonsense of the temporary and phony repair levy. It is a trick. You would only have a repair levy if there was a crisis to repair, and if the levy was real and not token. But there is not a crisis. If you accept the need for a temporary repair levy, you are accepting there is a budget emergency when there is not one. It is an attempt to justify vicious, permanent cuts to the poor with a forgone coffee for the rich, and we reject that embedded deceit absolutely.
There is no need for the poor and vulnerable to sacrifice anything; in fact, Newstart needs to be increased. But there is every need for permanent structural changes that ensure the rich pay a permanent new marginal tax rate, and that is what the Greens will pursue in this budget.
We will not have a bar of the nonsense around their whole budget repair story.
But what the Greens will do is stand up for a fundamental principle in Australia and that is: no matter where you are born or who you are, if you have a disability we will take care of you and your carer. No matter what your parents' financial position or where you live, you should have access to equal and high-quality education and support. If you need medical care our universal healthcare system will look after you. We will not stand for the US system where the rich have everything they need and the poor go without. This is where Tony Abbott, our Prime Minister, is taking us with his system of co-payments and deregulation of university fees, increasing costs and debt levels.
The architect of the Higher Education Contribution Scheme, economist Bruce Chapman, has labelled the changes as unfair and said they would 'unduly impact on poorer students.' To put it in perspective, it is estimated that the fee increases from deregulation would increase a nursing degree from $18,000 to-wait for it-$89,000 and an engineering degree from $26,000 to $106,800. Under this deregulation proposal, a teacher will graduate with a HECS debt estimated at $90,000. It will take them 43 years to pay off their debt and their interest bill-compared to an average of 10 years currently. On top of this, new interest rates for loan repayments are on their way. What message about the value of education is this sending to our younger generation?
Now let's move to schools. It is appalling that the fifth and sixth years of the Gonski reforms have been abandoned. I cannot tell you, Madam Acting Deputy President, how heartfelt the sadness, frustration and anger will be in the education community around Australia to see that fifth and sixth year funding not there. How can Treasurer Hockey talk of leaving a better future for our kids whilst abandoning help for the most disadvantaged kids in our schools? It is just disgraceful. But the real bullying and the true revelation of character for the Prime Minister and his cabinet is his treatment of young people and people who cannot fight back. All young people under 30 will need to either work at least part-time or study to receive a government payment. If you find yourself unemployed there will be a waiting period of up to six months-six months with nothing-and once the waiting period for benefits is over, you will be eligible for Work for the Dole for six months and you will need to work 25 hours a week. After six months the income support ceases and on the cycle goes until you find a job, begin studying or turn 30.
The Prime Minister is completely out of touch with people trying to live on payments like Newstart or Youth Allowance. What does the Prime Minister think people will eat? Where does he think they will live? They cannot afford to rent; where are they going to live? And where does he think they will get a job? Youth unemployment is already high in so many places around the country, but I can tell you that in north-west Tasmania, for example, there are very few jobs to have. My office has been inundated, as have many of my colleagues, with desperate messages from young people around the country, petrified of what these changes will mean to them. I will read a couple of examples for the benefit of government senators. I quote:
I'm on a 12-month traineeship and I'm terrified of not having a job to go to once my contract is up. I go to the doctors often for check-ups on my anti-depressants, so not only will I have to pay that but for my prescription, which will be going up too. I'm 22 and I feel helpless.
What about that, Prime Minister? Here is another one:
I live rurally and already I was planning to take a gap year in 2015, not out of want but out of necessity to save up for university and earn enough to be considered 'independent' in the government's eyes. Now I'm not so sure that uni will ever be a possibility. The fee deregulation scares me how high will they rise? Already many can't afford them and now? Living rurally is a challenge when it comes to uni, as rarely can rural kids stay at home whilst attending uni. Instead, they face an expensive move to the city or campus they are studying at. This puts them (us) at a significant disadvantage already compared to city-living uni students. Getting a job now in order to begin saving for university is out of the question. Well, I'm out of ideas as to how I'm supposed to go about things now. How do you move to the city for university when you have no money?
These are just two examples of what the cuts will mean for young Australians. It is actually devastating for them. But it is not just the young this budget will hit; it will hit families and it will hit the sick and it will, at some point, hit every Australian.
The budget raises the spectre of sick Australians having to choose between a doctor's visit and the necessities of life. Universal accessible health care is to be done away with. This budget puts us on the path of a US style, two-tier, underfunded health system where your credit card is more important than your Medicare care card. The announcement that bulk-billing is to be abolished and replaced with a raft of co-payments for seeing a doctor, for blood tests, for imaging and for medicines signals the end of Medicare. It means an explosion in out-of-pocket costs for Australian health consumers. Elderly Australians will simply be unable to afford to go to the doctor. Parents will have to say no to medicines for their kids. Combined with billions ripped out of hospitals, it signals a drastic drop in the quality of health care that we can now expect from this government.
This budget is a vicious attack on the fabric of our society. It abandons the environment and it jeopardises our future. It will leave a legacy of environmental and social damage, a legacy of lost opportunity and a legacy of shame when it comes to our engagement with our region, with a massive hit on overseas aid. It is a massive hit on our budget that we choose to spend billions being cruel to people being held in detention centres. But this budget will also widen gap between the rich and the poor in Australia. Our country deserves better than a cruel budget written for big business, big miners, big polluters and big banks, who are all completely let off the hook.
The Greens will stand with university students, with schoolkids, with families, with pensioners, with carers and with the sick. We will stand with environmental campaigners, with children not yet born, with our precious threatened species and with the places we love, from our magnificent rivers to our great forests to our national parks and to our Great Barrier Reef.
We will stand against the Abbott government. We will stand for a decent life in a country that can afford to have not only decent quality of life and health and education but a great and optimistic future if we have a vision to move quickly in the face of climate change. But, tragically, we are trapped with a government without vision, a government with such a narrow focus that it chooses to let those who can afford to pay off the hook and put the entire burden on those who cannot. The ideological dimension cannot be overlooked here. This is being driven from the Institute of Public Affairs, from Rupert Murdoch, from a whole perspective with a hundred asks. In this budget, the IPA is getting delivered for it exactly what it has campaigned for and what it has asked for.
But I want to reassure the Australian people that the Greens will stand with you.
We will stand with you against the Abbott government.
We will stand with you to kick this mob out.
We will do that now and we will do it right up to the next election, whenever that is.
The Greens have a strong commitment to democracy, to fairness, to ecological sustainability and to a good life for everyone. That is what we commit to do and to campaign for, and to stand against the Abbott government's cruel cuts in this budget.
We will not be supporting them.