Christine Milne delivers the Greens Budget Reply speech 2012

speeches-in-parliament
10 May 2012 | Christine Milne

Senator MILNE (Tasmania—Leader of the Australian Greens) (20:00):  

I rise to respond to the federal budget 2012-13 and, in so doing, I pose the question: what is the role of a federal budget?

Is the budget just a spreadsheet of numbers, dollar figures, where some allocations go up and down? Have we come to the view that the federal budget is only an event where we gather to find out who are the winners and who are the losers, who will receive the cheques in the mail? Is it now a reflection of the massive ideological shift described by Eva Cox as a shift 'from the politics of social change to the veneration of the market that focused on an economy of individuals', rather than a society working together for better outcomes for all of us collectively? Is it an occasion for a managerial report on our economic credit card and its status on the debt-to-surplus trajectory, reporting that it is in the black while hiding behind our backs the ecological and social credit cards that we have put into debt to achieve that black line?

The federal budget is the most value laden document a government produces. It is the economic tool that underpins and enables the government's hopes, aspirations and priorities for the nation. Through the numbers, we should be able to see what the government think about our place in the world; about the global and national challenges facing our people, our society and our environment now and into the future; and about how to respond to those challenges immediately, over the forward estimates and beyond. Unless the numbers tell a strong, clear, consistent story, people are left wondering what the government stands for: where is the nation heading?

In Tuesday's budget, we saw from the government a fundamentally confused and internally conflicted picture. Having said that, what we just saw from the Leader of the Opposition's reply to the budget was a picture of irritating static and no ideas for the future. On Tuesday night, we saw a government that wants to make Australia the country of the fair go by handing out cost-of-living payments while at the same time cutting benefits to single parents and saying it cannot afford to increase support to our poorest, most vulnerable people to help lift them out of the cycle of debt and unemployment.

We see a government that wants Australians to be healthier, working with the Greens-at the Greens' instigation-to get a serious downpayment towards a national universal dental care scheme. But, at the same time, the government could not find $340,000 to support the successful Bsafe domestic violence program to assist women and children who are at risk of domestic violence to remain safely living in their communities.

We see a government moving to tackle accelerating global warming-that huge, overarching challenge that confronts us this century-by introducing, as a result of the agreement with the Greens, a legislative package that will for the first time ever see polluters paying for the damage they do and investing revenue in clean renewable energy, helping householders and businesses to cut wasteful energy use, and supporting Australians to meet rising costs. It is the first time we are seeing a shift in the taxation system to shift responsibility for pollution and inefficient resource use and take it off personal income. That is the 21st century way in which we are going to address the sustainability crisis. At the same time, however, this budget allocates yet more billions to the fossil fuel companies, causing the problem in handouts to make diesel cheaper, to make mining cheaper and to help them export more and more polluting coal, every tonne of which comes back to us in the form of worse floods, more intense fires, cyclones and drought. We are on track for an increase of at least four degrees of global warming because of what we are doing.

We see a government that wants to invest in building a better future for us all; but, in the middle of a boom, holding the purse strings of the most robust economy in the world, it is saying, 'Sorry, we can't afford long-term investment in nation-building right now.' That long-term investment is needed to prepare the nation and get it moving away from the resource based economy it is dependent on and towards a creative, brain based, service and information based economy.

There is a better way, and it is about understanding that we live in a society, not an economy. It is about appreciating that the economy is a tool for the benefit of our society, for the health of our community and for guiding our relationship with the environment that sustains us. If we sacrifice our welfare, our health and our future on the altar of one economic measure, we have fundamentally misunderstood why we humans created this idea that we call 'the economy' in the first place.

This is especially so if the economic tools actually measure the wrong thing. For instance, this budget contains forecasts for gross domestic product; that is the metric by which the government's success in managing the economy is currently judged. But the GDP is quite inadequate for this task. It covers only market activities, excluding work done in the home and by community volunteer groups. GDP makes no allowance for how income is distributed across society. It does not capture the health or happiness of our people or the quality of our environment. As Robert Kennedy put it:

... it measures everything in short, except that which makes life worthwhile.

 

What we need are genuine progress indicators. We need a significant shift in how we measure and report to the nation. The Treasury actually has a wellbeing framework-not that anyone in Australia would know that- which looks not just at consumption possibilities but also at the distribution of opportunities. It looks at sustainability, it looks at the risks being borne by the community and also it looks at the complexity of life. The government should put more resources into constructing broader measures of economic wellbeing which capture these measures.

A summary measure of social progress that tells us whether quality of life is improving would be very welcome in the Australian community. We already have a national balance sheet, but it should publish an adjusted GDP, for example, which allows for a reduction in the value of our natural resources from mining as well as counting the value of our mining exports. Environmental degradation should also be brought into account. European Commission President José Manuel Barroso expressed the problem when he was calling for relevant measures and said:

We cannot face the challenges of the future with the tools of the past.

Our bank balance as a country, our surplus or our deficit, is important. We can borrow money to invest in a better future, we can put money away for big costs which we know are coming our way, but it is not an end in itself; it is a means to an end. If reaching the surplus this year is going to hurt people who are struggling now, if it has the potential to drive South-Eastern Australia into recession, throwing people out of jobs, if it means we do not make the kinds of investments in health, education and a clean environment which we know we need to make urgently, then now is not the time to reach a surplus. It is not just the Greens saying that; the former Treasury Secretary and Reserve Bank Governor Bernie Fraser described the commitment to deliver a budget surplus next year, irrespective of the economic circumstances, as 'a dud policy'. ANU professor and former Reserve Bank Board member Warwick McKibbin called it 'purely a political decision which could be very dangerous' and Professor John Quiggin described the commitment as 'ill-advised'. Economic journalists have called it 'risky 'and 'reckless', as have bank economists, and business spokespeople have made the same comment, including even the CEO of the Chamber of Commerce and Industry, who has said that there is 'no point in pursuing a surplus at all costs'.

There are many paths to a budget surplus, but the Gillard government has no straight path. Its budget is a contradiction that is great for teeth but bad for brains. It sets up some big reforms and ignores others in its drive for the surplus. The surplus is not a vision for the nation; it is not an end in itself.

Having said that, the Leader of the Opposition, Tony Abbott, has suggested his path this evening, and it would be a disaster for Australia. It is a straight path to environmental degradation and wreckage of the economy, since he intends to keep all of the benefits but has not said how he would raise the revenue or the extent to which he would cut the Public Service.

The Greens have a vision for Australia. Ours is a vision for a fairer, cleverer society, a society which understands itself and its place in the world, a society that is truly living within its means. We have a vision of a budget that can make this a reality, paying for vital investment in our future by making our tax base fairer, healthier and more sustainable in all senses of the word.

Looking at the budget delivered on Tuesday night, the first question which comes to mind is: what does it reflect of our place in the world in terms of Australia's place in the Asian century? The Treasurer, Mr Swan, said that Australia's place in the world is being closer than ever to the epicentre of global growth as the weight of activity moves to Asia. Yet as one of the richest nations in the region we have reneged on a global commitment to 0.5 per cent of gross national income in overseas aid by 2015, leaving our nearest neighbours in 18 developing countries, including PNG, East Timor and West Papua, wondering what sort of neighbour we really are in this Asian century in taking $3 billion away from them and, as the peak body for overseeing overseas aid and all the groups associated with it has said, not saving the lives of 800,000 people.

The Greens are opposed to the overseas aid cuts in the budget. As a wealthy nation and one of the few nations within reach of a budget surplus, we have an obligation to meet our international commitments on aid. Having said that, the Leader of the Opposition has also indicated that the opposition will not meet its obligations on overseas aid, and a commitment that has been made by the Leader of the Opposition to 0.5 per cent without a time frame is a completely meaningless and disingenuous statement.

I heard tonight the Leader of the Opposition saying that Asian languages are how he would position Australia in an Asian century. Nobody should believe that, because I can inform the Senate that in 2002 it was Prime Minister Howard who cancelled all the national Asian languages programs in Australian schools. I will say that again: the centrepiece of the Leader of the Opposition's, Tony Abbott's, reply to the budget tonight was an investment in Asian languages. He was here when former Prime Minister John Howard did not see Australia's place in the world as being part of an Asian century and cancelled that. While it is true that many people in Australia do not speak Asian languages, you can point the finger back to the person who cancelled the programs in Australian schools a decade ago.

This budget has also seen the biggest increase to our permanent migration intake since the Second World War, yet the government has again failed to give a fair go to some of the world's most vulnerable people. With the humanitarian intake capped at 13,750 places for the fourth year in a row, it makes up only six per cent of the total migration places compared to 18 per cent under both the Keating and Howard governments. Our reputation in the region is further undermined by our mandatory detention system for asylum seekers, which is so far from the fair go the Treasurer talked about in his budget speech. And we heard tonight from the coalition leader that his vision for Australia in the Asian century is people speaking Asian languages, while they turn the boats back.

 

The government continues to spend billions on offshore processing rather than allowing vulnerable people to live in the community. In fact, there is a billion dollar blowout in immigration detention centre costs. The average cost of a community release program is $10,400 per person compared to more than $137,000 if an asylum seeker is kept indefinitely in a detention centre. How does this fit with our place in the region? How does it fit with Australia's sudden new commitment of an American base on Australian soil? Having said that, we do welcome the cuts to the defence budget. It is a bold decision by the government and a good decision, even though we would like to see some of deferred projects scrapped or rethought entirely.

What are the challenges in this century? The overwhelming one, as I mentioned before, is climate change and the fact that the planet is reaching its ecological limits in terms of being able to provide natural resources or absorb wastes. The Treasurer referred in his budget speech to Australia needing to live within its means. We agree, but this means living within our ecological means as well. Our fate as a society is intrinsically linked to the health of our environment, including our productive land and biodiversity. I am very pleased that this budget delivers on the Biodiversity Fund and the Carbon Farming Initiative that the Greens negotiated as part of the Clean Energy Package. Last Friday $271 million was announced as being dispersed across the country from the Biodiversity Fund, much of that money going to NRM groups, other community groups and landholders to steward the country. I am also pleased that the second phase of Caring for our Country has been funded, but I am very disappointed that there has been an effective cut to the program by the inclusion of the Tasmanian Forests Intergovernmental Agreement, which ought to have been a one-off on top of that money, and there are other cuts through biosecurity and other measures that have been left in to come out of the Caring for our Country funds.

If we accept that climate change is the major issue that it is, then the budget must demonstrate consistency in addressing the challenges alongside the implementation of the carbon price, and that is missing. There is more than 12 times more spending on roads than rail in this budget. If you are serious about climate change, you have to act on it and you have to take into account peak oil. This is a ridiculous figure. While we welcome the funding for a national transport planning and high speed rail unit-for which the Greens have achieved a $20 million investment-where is the plan for funding the implementation of high-speed rail? You can keep on planning things for years, but where is the money going to come from to deliver it?

There has also been a deferral of funding to upgrade the grid for renewables, and that is out on the never-never. You cannot roll out renewables and energy efficiency if you do not have the money. There has also been the scrapping of the green buildings program. It is quite wrong of the government to think that the carbon price will be enough to drive the greening of commercial buildings, when evidence around the world highlights the array of non-price barriers to this action. We need to provide better incentives. It is also bad faith when an industry which agreed to defer this measure because they wanted to get it right are now being punished for due diligence. This is one aspect of the budget that we are very unhappy with and that we will continue to press the government to address.

In thinking about where our nation will be in another 10 years, consideration of our water resources is essential. Protecting and preserving our precious water is another long-term challenge that we have little faith this government is committed to addressing in a sustainable way. The Greens will continue to ensure that at least 4,000 gigalitres is returned to the Murray-Darling system. This leads me to mention rural and regional Australia.

The greatest challenge for rural and regional Australia is to lift productivity without access to more land and without access to more water. That means massive investment in research and development. I am pleased there is money for the Beale review but disappointed there is not more R&D money, particularly for the apple and pear industries, which are now having to respond to competition from New Zealand apples. More generally, people in rural and regional Australia need money spent on R&D to lift productivity. They also need an investment in mental health services, because there are huge consequences for individuals and communities in rural and regional Australia, who have very limited access to mental health services, and they are entitled to their fair share.

Any vision for Australia that respects its place in the world has to start with a true reconciliation with our first people. As a nation we were proud of the apology to the stolen generation. We have been proud of the recognition in the Constitution that we are working on for Indigenous people. But the government has outlined a 10-year funding plan for its extension of the Northern Territory intervention and, while long-term funding for community based service provision for Aboriginal communities in the Northern Territory is welcome, it is very troubling that much of that money seems to have been cut from Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander programs for the rest of the country. Furthermore, the government's funding commitments are made in the context of extending the intervention, particularly income management regimes, and we will continue to strongly oppose those. There is no clarity in this budget on how the government intends to move on reconciliation when there is no new money for Indigenous languages, for example. If we are not addressing one of the fundamental causes of the loss of cultural identity and the ability of people to actively engage through education, how do we as a nation reconcile?

I do want to mention the additional funding for SBS at this point, because this is something that the Greens fought hard for and we welcome, in particular the funding for SBS to establish a free-to-air Indigenous television service with national coverage. SBS has a vital role to play in creating a more coherent and inclusive society. Another incredibly important part of building a society which is confident of its place in the world is investing appropriately in the arts and cultural institutions.

The arts tell our story as a nation and I am very pleased that in the budget we have been able to secure $40 million to offset the efficiency dividend so that the National Gallery, the National Museum, the National Library, the Film and Sound Archive and other cultural institutions have been protected from ongoing cuts.

How do we pay for nation building if we are going to invest for the longer term? A fair country ensures sufficient revenue through progressive taxation that benefits the whole community. In this budget the government took notice of the Greens and abandoned its tax cuts for big business, but we would like to have seen that money invested in long-term, permanent, systemic change, not just the old solutions of cash handouts and funding the surplus through cuts to social services and to service delivery.

 

Big reformist investment in education, innovation, clean energy and infrastructure needs to be made and we have to raise money, and the Greens are the only party in here with a revenue-raising proposal. We have sought that from the coalition and they have failed very badly. We would have supported a company tax cut for small business and we still will. We will have a good look at the loss carry-back scheme proposed in place of the tax cuts, and we want to talk to small business about how that might work.

We also support the National Disability Insurance Scheme and we welcome the billion-dollar investment in the first stage, but we ask the government and the coalition: where is the money coming from to roll it out in full? That is why you have to be prepared to raise money. The Greens would have supported a properly applied and developed mining tax. We would have abolished the diesel fuel rebate and other concessions for the mining industry. We would have introduced a millionaires tax similar to that supported by President Obama and championed by the new President of France but rejected by the government.

The Greens want a fairer society and we are worried by the increasing inequality in our community. We were pleased to be able to secure from the government the new dental reform, a reform that actually addresses the waiting lists. The $345 million for a public dental waiting list blitz that will help 400,000 Australians is extremely welcome and we look forward to working with the government to bring permanent change, because permanent Denticare, like Medicare, is something this nation needs if it is going to offer equal access to good health to all.

This budget contains other elements of fairness but they are undercut by a lack of consistent vision. For example, we welcome the additional support for families, but it is delivered on the back of cuts to support for single parents, which we will oppose. With its measly $210 allowance, the government gives the perception of caring for those people on income support, but what is needed is a $50 a week increase in Newstart and increases in other payments to help people get out of poverty.

The Greens remain committed to a vision of Australia that includes addressing and relieving poverty. It is unclear to the Greens from this budget whether the government actually shares that vision of addressing poverty.

It is my view that Australians are anxious that they are not keeping up with the demands of modern life. I do not believe people are aspiring to be wealthy; they just want a better quality of life and they want to be confident that they are not being left behind.

Cash handouts do not relieve that anxiety. They actually increase and entrench it by cementing the feeling people have that they are struggling but only being given temporary, one-off relief. And it plays straight into the fear campaign of the Leader of the Opposition, Tony Abbott, which is responsible for so much of the nervousness and discomfort in Australian society. What is needed is system-wide, long-term change which guarantees high-quality education and health services for all, adequate support for the unemployed and for people with disabilities, no matter how acquired. It is for this reason we are disappointed the government has not embraced the Gonski review and committed to the education reform and funding needed to ensure that all students everywhere can access high-quality public education.

We are disappointed that, at a time when we need innovation in our economy, the government is doubling the fees-taking $316 million out of the pockets of students around the country-for maths and science students in universities. We worked hard to secure $54 million for maths and science education. We are pleased we did that, but where is the incentive when university fees are doubled? The fact is that you cannot be a clever country, you cannot be an innovative country and you cannot change from exporting things you dig up to exporting the product of brain and human capacity unless you invest in education, and that is seriously missing from this year's budget.

I wanted to mention some specific measures. The Greens were pleased to see the doubling of the liquid assets test for people on Newstart. It is something we have advocated for a long time and it is a good, fair initiative from the government. We also welcome the announcement of a National Children's Commissioner to operate under the Australian Human Rights Commission, which my colleague Senator Hanson-Young has been calling for for a number of years. We also welcome the lowering by four-fifths of the number of cigarettes that can be bought duty-free. It is a positive revenue and health measure.

My colleague Adam Bandt, the member for Melbourne, has worked hard with the Greens to ensure that people benefit from the $20 million investment for the restoration and redevelopment of the Royal Exhibition Building in Carlton and $1½ million over four years to roll JobWatch out nationally, giving it a future beyond just supporting Melbourne's workers. This is the type of systemic change that the Greens try to bring about. This is not just about one place; this is about enhancing the environmental and social capital for the nation.

On Tuesday night, Treasurer Swan told Australians:

A surplus provides our best defence against dramatic changes in the global economy.

But my question is: is it a defence against changes in the global environment from which you cannot hide? With respect, this statement is one of the greatest and clearest demonstrations that the Labor Party has its priorities wrong. At the beginning of this century we are in the critical decade for addressing the biggest challenge facing us-that is, how we are going to address climate change in the time frame.

The Greens believe that our best defence against, our best preparation for, dramatic changes in the global environment as well as the global economy is to invest in a healthy, well-educated, fair society. We envisage a society trained and working in a clean economy, transitioned out of fossil fuels to zero net carbon, understanding and valuing our place in the world and accelerating our transition away from a dig-it-up, cut-it-down economy to one which aspires to be a highly productive nation and a socially just, compassionate nation driving substantial social change in the region, assisting with capacity building in the region and driving peace and cooperation in the region-instead of driving climate change, which will lead to so much conflict and movement of people.

I conclude by saying that the economy is a tool for the benefit of our society. Only when we embrace that fact will we begin to build the kind of country that we want to live in. The Greens have a very clear vision for that country that we want to live in. We are prepared to work for it, we are prepared to raise the money to deliver it and we are prepared to make long-term investments in nation building as well as long-term investments in moving away, as I said in my opening remarks, from the politics of the veneration of the market that focuses on an economy of individuals, and moving to a society that works together for better outcomes for all of us collectively.