4 February 2009

Rudd seeks permission to go $200 billion into red

If Rudd was an economic conservative as he claims to be, he wouldn't attempt to ram a $42 billion package through parliament within 48 hours of its announcement. That allows for little more than an hour of scrutiny for each billion of one of the largest spending packages in Australia's history. Worryingly, the government is already seeking approval from Parliament to increase its borrowing limit from $75 billion to $200 billion.

Let's not be naive: notwithstanding the urgency of the financial crisis, the motivation for seeking to have the Bill passed through Parliament by Thursday night was to avoid close scrutiny of the package. There is no justification for not giving the public adequate time to examine the stimulus package in detail.

Rudd miscalculated and displayed his arrogance in expecting that he could bully the Coalition into supporting the Bill because opposing it would not be politically popular. His plan has backfired; the events of today will now draw attention to a strength of economic conservatism, an ideology he has railed against: prudence with the use of taxpayer's money.

Here is the speech that Malcolm Turnbull gave today in Parliament:

Mr TURNBULL (Wentworth—Leader of the Opposition) (9.59 am)—Every time I meet a school group visiting this place I tell them that every member and senator is working hard to make Australia a better place for them to grow up in. I say that we often disagree but that everybody is focussed on them and I tell those children that this parliament belongs to them, that everyone is committed to a better future for them. I wonder today if I can say that to them again, because every billion dollars that we spend, every billion dollars of debt that we incur will have to be repaid by those children.

In government, we sought to take financial burdens off the next generation, and we did so. The Future Fund did just that, relieving those schoolchildren of the burden of over $100 billion of future payments for public sector pensions, and now a Labor government is piling those burdens on those children once again. In four years, net debt will be $70 billion, around $3,300 for every man, woman and child, and the government has asked for the right, just a moment ago, to borrow up to $200 billion—$9,500 for every man, woman and child in Australia.

The plan we were presented with by the Prime Minister yesterday reeks of nothing more than panic. Far from a steady hand at the tiller we have a government led by a man who lurches from one ill-considered, ill-thought-out economic decision to another. We have seen the catastrophic unlimited bank deposit guarantee develop without even speaking to the Reserve Bank. We have seen the enormous harm that it did through the community—the hundreds of thousands of Australians whose savings were frozen as a consequence, the finance companies who could not raise money and the motor dealers who could not get finance. All of that flowed from an ill- considered decision. But there have been so many others. We saw the cash splash just before Christmas. We have the incredible proposal of the Ruddbank to prop up commercial property values for the benefit of the big banks and their profits.

In the light of all of that, all of those errors—acknowledged errors, not in dispute; even the Prime Minister’s defenders acknowledge that he has made mistakes but hope that he will make fewer in the future— instead of carefully compiling a comprehensive response to this crisis over the summer, the Prime Minister spent his time writing a bizarre ideological treatise. It was as though he stepped into another world, a parallel summer fantasy dimension where Australia’s economy has been wrecked by lack of regulation by Liberal governments. Anybody reading his treatise could reach no other assumption and yet we see his own deputy, the Deputy Prime Minister, saying that Australia’s financial and prudential regulatory system was better than world-class and we see his small business minister writing in the Australian today ‘that Australia’s financial regulation is the envy of the rest of the world’. His own ministers are boasting of the stability of a financial system and its prudential and financial regulation that were put in place by the very men and women that their leader denounces as neoliberal extremists committed to letting the market rip and opposed to any form of regulation. It says a lot about the delusional nature of the Prime Minister at this time that not even his own ministers are prepared to sign up to his rantings.

We have said again and again that we are prepared to sit down and discuss with the Prime Minister the form of the responses to this economic situation. All of those offers have been rejected. Yesterday the government presented Australia with its package at 12 noon. We were briefed by a handful of bureaucrats who were not able to answer even basic questions about the details of the package. They are still coming back to us on some of those issues. At 2.30 pm the Prime Minister read his statement, which we had been given at 1 pm. The government then went on the attack. It was irresponsible of the opposition not to immediately endorse the $42 billion package. Moreover, it had to be passed through the House and the Senate by Thursday. In other words, the Parliament of Australia would be given about 48 hours to consider and approve the expenditure of $42 billion.

We support the Senate coming back next week, deferring estimates, to go through this plan in the greatest detail. It is vital that we do so. One can well imagine those schoolchildren of today who, as adults years hence, are paying high taxes to pay off the debt. When they complain about the high taxes they will be told by governments, by ministers, ‘Well, we’ve got this big debt. You’ve got to pay higher taxes to pay it off.’ They will ask us, ‘What were you thinking when you spent all that money? Why did you do that?’ We will have to answer, ‘Well, we didn’t have much time to think about it at all really.’

The opposition will vote against this package in the House and in the Senate. We know that this is not going to be a popular decision, but it is the right decision. The Prime Minister has made one easy decision after another. He has not made a hard decision since he took up that high office. But somebody has to stand up for what is right. Somebody has to stand up for fiscal discipline. Somebody has to stand up for the taxpayers of Australia and ensure that we do not impose staggering levels of debt on future generations. We will make that stand and we will make it knowing it is unpopular but recognising that the Australian people expect us to do what is right, and we will do that.

This stimulus represents about four per cent of GDP, almost all of which is spent over the next two years, following up on the one per cent of GDP cash splash in December last year. Despite the protests of the Treasurer, the fact that this stimulus follows so hard on the heels of the earlier one indicates that the December cash splash did not work. The general view among economists is that at least two-thirds of it was in fact saved. I am sure that most of the balance was well spent but not all of it was, as poker machine and hotel takings demonstrate. The fundamental problem, which the government refuses in its arrogance and in its blindness to acknowledge, is that, if you give people one-off windfall lump sums in uncertain times, they are more likely to save it than to spend it. That is a perfectly rational and prudent response. Indeed, the Prime Minister’s call at the end of last year on Australians to ‘spend, spend, spend’ is jarring. It was a jarring statement because most Australians—all of us, I am sure—know full well that at the core and instigation of this global recession was too much debt. In other words, whether governments like to hear it or not, a good old-fashioned conservative value of thrift and saving is going to come back into fashion, it is coming back into fashion and it ought to come back into fashion.

We do not reject the need for a stimulus at this time. The first question is: how big should the stimulus be today? Our judgement is that $42 billion is more than is appropriate right now. The government is looking increasingly like a frightened soldier who fires off all his ammunition in a panic in the first minutes of an engagement. This downturn may be very long lasting and we cannot possibly afford to spend larger and larger sums like this every quarter. Just think about it. If this package goes through, the government will have spent about one per cent of GDP in a cash splash in the December quarter and then there will be, just in the cash payments alone, another one per cent or somewhat more spent in the March quarter. It should not be overlooked by anybody that, just as the government times its announcements to coincide with Newspoll, so it is timing its handouts on a quarterly basis to avoid, no doubt, a quarter of negative growth. But where is that going to lead us? If we look at the cash handouts alone that the government is proposing to give away in March and that it gave away in December, what are we to expect in the budget and beyond? Are we going to rack up $40 billion or $50 billion a year in cash handouts alone?

We do not have access to any more financial information than that contained in the government’s Updated Economic and Fiscal Outlook which, as I said, we were given yesterday afternoon. But if the Prime Minister wants our support to a fiscal stimulus then he must be prepared to sit down and talk with us, he must be prepared to put the cards on the table and he must be prepared to negotiate. His current political hero, President Obama, probably the most popular political leader in the world, sits down with his political opponents. He is prepared to negotiate. He is prepared to engage the members of his legislature. This Prime Minister is so vain, so arrogant and so convinced that he and he alone is right that he is not prepared to do any more to his political opponents than hold a gun to their head and say, ‘Stand and deliver and you’ve got two days to do it’.

Unlike the Prime Minister, we do not contend that the approaches we favour are the only way to go. There is an infinite range of policy options available at this time and all of them have detractors and supporters. None of them are certain of success. Let me give the House an indication of our views of the particular elements in this package and the elements that we believe would be more appropriate. This is a basis for negotiation with the government. First, as I said a moment ago, we believe the package is too big. We do not rule out supporting further stimuluses in the future depending on the economic circumstances and their composition. We need to keep a few shots in the locker. Our judgement is that a more appropriate level of stimulus is in the order of 1½ to two per cent of GDP, or between $15 billion and $20 billion dollars. That is a matter of judgement. There is no mathematical formula that gives you the right answer here, but our judgement is that that is the band within which the stimulus should be. If people believe that we are more prudent, more conservative in spending taxpayers’ money and we err on spending less than more then they are absolutely right. That is our philosophical approach to these issues. It is not a question of letting the market rip; it is a question of taking other people’s money seriously, guarding it, protecting it and ensuring that it is spent wisely and well. That is our commitment.

We do not support a further round of cash handouts. That is a very unpopular thing to say and I acknowledge that, but it is the right thing to say. I think most Australians will recognise in their hearts that it is the right thing to say. It is extraordinary that the government would embark on this when there is no basis for concluding that the cash splash of December was effective. At the very least, the impact of the December payments needs to be taken on board. We need to know precisely what it is. Bear in mind that these handouts were paid two weeks before Christmas, and I said at the time that this was an interesting economic experiment. If ever a one-off handout, a one-off cash payment, was going to be largely spent it would be this one because the timing, being just before Christmas, was perfect for those people who wanted that outcome. Nonetheless, it appears that it was largely not spent, and bear in mind, the recipients in December were, for the most part, on low incomes—pensioners and others.

The beneficiaries of the payments in the government’s package today will include many Australians at middle income levels. Furthermore, the economic climate is much more uncertain—or more uncertain, at least—than it was in December. The incentives to save rather than to spend are therefore a lot greater. So we would support as an alternative the bringing forward of the 1 July 2010 tax cuts to 1 January this year. This will have a budgetary cost. It is obviously spread over time and it is not as much as the cash payments in the Prime Minister’s plan, but it is temporary. It is a timing difference. It will benefit all taxpayers, but it will benefit most significantly those on low and middle incomes. It is therefore very well targeted. It does not put $950 in everybody’s pocket today, but that is the point. It increases permanent income and it therefore provides a greater incentive to work and to invest. And by the middle of next year, households will have more money in their pocket and the prospects of more money to come. They will have more money in their pocket immediately, of course.

The Prime Minister and the Treasurer have tried to portray anybody who doubts their analysis of quick cash handouts as some kind of economic quack. That just underlines both their lack of reading in this area and their incredible arrogance. There are many voices all around the world questioning whether the immense scale and scope of the fiscal measures being hastily implemented by many governments are the appropriate response. There are many reputable economists who wonder whether those measures will be effective and whether they represent the best use of taxpayers’ money. The Treasurer yesterday derided the views of the Stanford economist John Taylor as irrelevant and extreme. It is very interesting that the Treasurer of the Commonwealth of Australia would so personally and viciously attack one of the most distinguished economists in the world. Given the influence Taylor has had on central bank thinking around the world, this is simply outrageous. But, more importantly, there are plenty of other economists who are similarly sceptical over the headlong rush to huge deficits and heavy debt. They include Robert Lucas and Ed Prescott—both past winners of the Nobel Prize for Economics—Robert Barro, Eugene Fama and Gregory Mankiw among many others. These are not quacks. These are not extremists. These are not irrelevant. These are great economic thinkers who have a view that is respected around the world but not, apparently, by the all knowing Treasurer that we have on the other side of the House.

Nor is it right to portray as ignorant extremism the coalition’s stance that tax cuts often provide a larger boost to the economy than public spending. Indeed, one of the most powerful and persuasive empirical studies in the United States, which has been much quoted in the financial media, saying that tax cuts have a high multiplier—that is they provide a larger bang for the buck to the economy than outlays—comes from none other than Christina Romer, now a senior economic official in the Obama White House. Now, clearly these are very difficult times and there are a range of economic opinions and interpretations. Nobody has all the answers. So it is the height of arrogance and intolerance for the Prime Minister and the Treasurer to declare that the only way is their way. It just indicates a lack of willingness to engage in a constructive way both with the wider community and a wide range of views, not to speak of the views of other members of this parliament.

The next large element in the plan is an investment in schools. In government, we very heavily invested in schools. Indeed, one of our most successful and, I would say, popular programs was the Investing in Our Schools Program which the Rudd government has terminated. The $14 billion schools investment component of this package seems to have been selected largely because the government believes this building can be undertaken quickly. Experience suggests this will not be the case. The plan to work hand in glove with state governments reinforces everybody’s scepticism about that. We would welcome a renewal, indeed acceleration, of the Investing in Our Schools Program. However, we have to ask this question: is the most urgent infrastructure deficiency requirement in Australia primary school assembly halls and libraries? What about hospitals? What about nursing homes and aged care? What indeed about the National Broadband Network? What about water infrastructure, and what about expanding, and above all maintaining, our National Transmission Network? Labor’s response to this, of course, will be that there is more money to come for these measures, but there is the point. The finances of the Commonwealth are not a magic pudding. Everything has to be paid for at some time. Think of the faces and look into the eyes of those schoolchildren that come to parliament every day and remember that as these debts are piled up, billion upon billion, it is they who will have to pay them off.

In an indication of the specific responses we would bring to this plan, we would support a renewed Investing in Our Schools Program. Based on our experience, we believe that $3 billion over three years could be, and would be, well spent and, depending on demand, and of course on the economic conditions, consideration can always be given to allocating more funding. That is a very important point. The parliament is not going into perpetual recess. The parliament is always here. We can come back and if circumstances require a greater stimulus of a different kind and a different time, we can do that. The Prime Minister is in a panic. He is firing off all his ammunition at once. We need to keep more in reserve—prudence demands that.

The biggest gap in this package by far is jobs. The three top priorities this year must be jobs, jobs, jobs. Where is the assistance for small business in keeping employment high? The government will say that the insulators and the builders will be supported by these programs, and so they will. But most small businesses will not benefit from these spending measures. Fiscal stimulus should aim to invest in the Australian economy in a way that makes the whole economy more productive, efficient and competitive. Picking off one sector after another will always result in dislocations and discrimination against the sectors that are not privileged. That of course is why tax cuts are so effective, because every business and household benefits.

We believe an element of a stimulus package should that it lowers the cost of employing Australians. A key focus should be making it easier to keep Australians in their jobs, especially for small business. The accelerated investment allowance proposed has some merit, but a small- business which is struggling with declining revenues would be better off with additional cash flow that it can deploy as it sees fit. We want to discuss practical measures with the government that will put cash into the hands of small businesses. One proposal which we have seen and which has considerable merit would be for the Commonwealth to cover, for a period, a portion of the superannuation guarantee levy. Appropriately costed within the framework of a more prudent stimulus, this would provide support for small business, lower the cost of employment and provide an incentive across the board to every small business.

We welcome the government paying attention to the value of insulation. It is a great disappointment, as I noted in my speech a few weeks back, that the government’s election policy on insulation was left in complete abeyance. Nothing was done on it at all. Indeed, as of 20 January the government’s website dismally told anyone who was interested that the program details had not yet been developed—so much for efficiency. Insulation, however, is an energy efficiency measure that pays for itself, and government subsidies for insulation should recognise that. The $1,600 subsidy will, according to Mr Peter Ruz of Fletcher Insulation, who is quoted in the newspapers today, mean that over 90 per cent of jobs would be completed at no cost to the owner. The subsidy is not means tested. We would support an insulation subsidy of a lower amount and I would suggest for the government’s consideration one that is, for example, $500 for all houses, increasing to $1,000 subject to a means test. That would reduce the cost of the measure considerably but remain a very significant incentive to the insulation industry. A similar approach could be taken to solar hot water.

This stimulus has to provide the appropriate level of economic stimulus, so it has to be directed in a way that is effective. While the cash handouts will be popular, we do not believe they will be an effective economic stimulus. We believe that bringing forward the 2010 tax cuts would cost less and have much greater economic effect. They would benefit households and small businesses right across the board. We believe that the key issue for the government is the scale of this stimulus, the size of it. We believe it is too large and not composed of sufficiently effective measures. I have given some indication of ways in which the measures could be more effective. Above all, the government must ask itself as it looks at this and no doubt other measures it will bring forward: are they going to provide a benefit across the board? Are they going to make Australia’s economy more efficient, more productive and more competitive? If they do not do that, the money will not be well spent. The reality is that while these times call for governments to invest more than they normally would—and we recognise that—the investment and spending decisions must be of the highest quality. We should not be investing in measures or programs which do not stand on their own merits. They have to be measures that we would invest in in good times or bad. Otherwise, we are literally wasting taxpayers’ money at a time when, depending on the development of this global recession, we may find ourselves in greater need of those resources in the years to come.

I recognise that much of what I have said will not be popular, but it is right. We must stand up for prudent financial management. Every dollar that this parliament approves to be spent belongs to somebody else. We are dealing with other people’s money. More significantly than that, we are dealing with the future of the young Australians who come here to visit this parliament. I do not want to have to look into their eyes and say: ‘When you grow up you will be paying higher and higher taxes because of the debt your parents’ generation racked up today.’ We recognise these times call for investment and action by government. But it must be the right action, and governments must be prepared to take tough decisions, be prepared to take the right decisions and have the courage of discipline. The Prime Minister has shown none of that. He has wanted to be Santa Claus—everybody gets a prize. The problem with everybody getting a prize today is that the children of today will be carrying a very heavy penalty in the years to come. We are committed on our side of the House to ensure, insofar as we can, that every dollar that is spent this year and in the years to come is spent wisely and always remembering those children, because it is those children who will have to pay off Labor’s debt.

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