Dean Smith

In Parliament

ADJOURNMENT Labor Party

December 03, 2014

We are now into the first week of December, and this is our final scheduled parliamentary sitting week for 2014. If you look around the building, you will see Christmas trees and lights decorating some offices, and no doubt there are Christmas functions happening in the building even as I speak. Christmas is traditionally a time of goodwill and for many a time to relax. For some—most particularly young Australians—it is a time of year that takes on magical properties; sometimes miracles even seem possible. Of course, as we grow older the Christmas period becomes increasingly important as a period of reflection to think about the year past and consider how we can be better in the year ahead.

We are now into the first week of December, and this is our final scheduled parliamentary sitting week for 2014. If you look around the building, you will see Christmas trees and lights decorating some offices, and no doubt there are Christmas functions happening in the building even as I speak. Christmas is traditionally a time of goodwill and for many a time to relax. For some—most particularly young Australians—it is a time of year that takes on magical properties; sometimes miracles even seem possible. Of course, as we grow older the Christmas period becomes increasingly important as a period of reflection to think about the year past and consider how we can be better in the year ahead.

Along with many other Australians I have a Christmas wish this year. My Christmas wish is that the Labor Party will use the Christmas period this year to reflect upon their approach in this Senate chamber and to finally listen to the many voices, including some on their own side, that are calling on them to put the nation's interests ahead of their own political interests and actually get serious about dealing with the budget crisis.

I know there are some—chiefly Senator Dastyari—who greatly enjoy it when I mention this next gentleman during my contributions in this chamber, but I would like to spend a moment talking about Paul Keating. Paul Keating is not someone I have ever held great affection for in the past; but, this being the season of goodwill, I must confess that I have developed a real respect for him this year on a number of fronts. It seems that Mr Keating is also filled with the charitable spirit of Christmas this year. Just last Friday Mr Keating was asked for his appraisal of the way New South Wales Premier Mike Baird is performing in his role. His response:

I think exceptionally well... there's only one reward in public life and that's public progress and the test of the relevance of leaders is can they get the job done? Can the state and the country be better? And I think in this case we are seeing a lot of positive changes.

The Christmas cheer kept flowing as the former Labor Prime Minister warmly endorsed the New South Wales coalition government's infrastructure plan in stark contradiction to the Labor Party's stubborn opposition. Mr Keating's remark was:

I support the Premier's view about this. There are still some obscurantists in the Labor party... there's still some there.

Mr Keating's contributions can sometimes send people scrambling for a dictionary; but, for those listening who may be unfamiliar with the term, an 'obscurantist' is someone opposing or hindering the spread of new ideas and new social or political developments. They are dogmatists. The thesaurus actually lists the word as an antonym for 'progressive', which is ironic for a political party that likes to think of itself as the progressive one. When I read Mr Keating's comments I was immediately struck by their relevance not just to the New South Wales Labor Party but to the prevailing attitudes displayed by members of the Labor Party in this Senate chamber.

It is fitting that we are talking about Paul Keating as the year draws to a close, because the year quite literally began with Paul Keating urging this government to act swiftly to repair the budget. The Australian newspaper of 1 January this year, under the banner 'Old foes unite on economy', described comments from both Paul Keating and Labor's most successful ever leader, Bob Hawke, noting the similarities between the situation they faced in the mid-1980s and the situation inherited by the Abbott government. In that article Mr Keating said:

The broad lesson is to inform the public of the problem and then earnestly pursue the remedies. When you're cutting outlays like we were, we had outlays growing at less than the inflation rate for a number of years, you've really got to want to do this. You've really got to have the skills.

All of that is true, of course, and the other thing you really have to have is a responsible opposition that is prepared to work constructively with the government of the day to deal with the budget challenge in the national interest. That is something Bob Hawke and Paul Keating had in the mid-1980s when John Howard, no less, put the fiscal and national interest ahead of opportunistic politics in supporting much of the Hawke-Keating reform agenda. Sadly, it seems Labor leaders today are made of smaller stuff.

In January Bob Hawke indicated that what was needed to deal decisively with the budget challenge was leaders who are 'prepared to make hard decisions'. In May the government brought forward its first budget. Whatever else people may say about it, no-one can accuse the government of lacking the will to make difficult decisions. This has not been an experience any of us have particularly enjoyed. It would be much easier, of course—much easier politically—for the government to say everything is fine, to go on spending, to pursue a Rudd-Gillard approach to governing. But I will say that, when presented with a choice of two approaches to economic management, the Hawke-Keating model on one side and the Rudd-Gillard model on the other, who in their right mind would opt for the Rudd-Gillard model? Yet, bizarrely, that is exactly what today's Labor Party is doing: ignoring the lessons of their own history and sticking with the Rudd-Gillard approach—an approach which significant Labor figures admit was a disaster.

Less than a month ago another former Labor leader, Bill Hayden, in seeming despair at the attitude his old party has adopted, urged Labor to 'build economic credibility' because the budget in the future will require 'meticulous management'. Bill Hayden went on to say:

Any opposition wanting to take government must demonstrate credibility on economic management. I actually felt that Julia Gillard may have been overextending herself fiscally on program commitments.

There have, of course, been others who have tried to warn the Labor Party over the course of the year. During Senate estimates the Treasury secretary summed up the frustration that many feel over Labor's stubborn refusal to even recognise, let alone help to repair the debt and deficit mess they left. He said:

I've been saying this, the governor of the Reserve Bank has been saying this, the head of the independent Parliamentary Budget Office has most recently said this last week. If the two most senior economic bureaucrats in the country are saying 'people we have a challenge and it's about time we had a serious community discussion' and the independent head of the Parliamentary Budget Office says the same thing, it's actually in the hands of the political class.

Dr Parkinson, who was actually appointed by the former Labor government, has also criticised those who 'invoke vague notions of fairness' to oppose all budget repair. There is no prize for guessing to whom he might have been referring, because that is exactly what those opposite have been doing now for over six months. It seems they are yet to realise that 'complaint' and 'opposition' are not the same thing. Can anyone in this place or listening outside this evening think of a single, solid proposal for budget repair that has come from those opposite, who are actually the begetters of the budget mess this government must now fix? I can think of a great many complaints and promises to reverse savings this government has implemented but I honestly cannot think of a single policy idea the Labor Party have put forward this year that would actually improve our budget position.

I do not mind honest disagreement—politics is after all about competing values and priorities—but the problem at the moment is that we do not know what Labor's values and priorities are. A grab bag of cliches about fairness and a vague promise that they will make things better somehow just does not cut it. That approach is no longer good enough. If those opposite are not prepared to support the government's savings measures, then let them bring forward their own savings measures. Let us hear your ideas. Is there anything in your Santa sack other than—and apologies to the Greens—just a lump of coal?

So my Christmas wish for this year is that, in the period of reflection available to the Labor Party over the Christmas break, they heed Paul Keating's advice about showing themselves to be leaders who can get the job done, they listen to Bill Hayden's urging for them to build economic credibility and they come back to this place in February next year prepared to behave rationally, as have oppositions in our past, and actually work with the government in the national interest to deal decisively with the budget challenge.

In conclusion I extend my Christmas best wishes to those men and women of the Australian Defence Force serving our country overseas, particularly those in peacekeeping roles. I also extend my Christmas best wishes to the men and women on Operation Slipper in the Middle East area of operation who I had the great pleasure to meet in May this year on the Australian Parliamentary Defence Force Program. Merry Christmas.

The DEPUTY PRESIDENT: I understand there is agreement across the chamber with speaking times. I will ask the clerk to set the clock accordingly.