30 November 2020
As we know, budgets come and go in this place. Some are of great consequence and some less so. Some budgets serve to illustrate a bold vision for our nation’s future, whereas others might instead seek to reinforce our progression down a path already decided. Regardless of what type of budget any budget might be, each one gives us an insight into the character of the government which presents it. Each one tells us a great deal about what the government sees as important.
There is no doubt that this is a budget with some big numbers in it, such as the $213 billion deficit this financial year, with a cumulative deficit of $480 billion over the forward estimates. Net debt will blow out to $703 billion this year alone, growing to $966 billion before too long. Gross debt, on the other hand, is forecast to reach $1.7 trillion over the decade. With numbers this large, Australians have a right to wonder and to know where the money is going. What does this government see as important?
We know that this budget falls flat in the areas that really matter most. We know that it doesn’t go far enough to either protect or create jobs; nor does it illustrate a bold vision that our country desperately needs or form part of a comprehensive plan to secure our nation’s future economic prosperity.
Last week, I had the pleasure of joining Labor’s shadow minister for agriculture and resources, the member for Chifley, out in Gippsland in Victoria. For those who may never have had the pleasure of visiting Gippsland, it was quite an enjoyable road trip, I must say. It is described by many as ‘God’s country’. The region is famed for the quality of its agricultural products, brimming with lush fields of green where vegetables are grown and cows wander.
As part of our travels with the member for Chifley, we met Sallie Jones, an owner of a local dairy farm, Gippsland Jersey. Gippsland Jersey is a small dairy producer with multiple farms across the Gippsland region. It was founded by Sallie with the mission of supporting smaller family farms by paying them a fairer farm price for their milk, sidestepping the major processors.
From humble beginnings the business has grown to produce not just milk but cream, butter, yoghurt and other value-added products—and, I would also like to add, ice cream! Sallie even has plans to produce many other fantastic products in the future. I guess this is a great example of small business doing great things for the local community and for the region. I would like to see governments of both political persuasions support businesses like this, especially in the regions. Gippsland Jersey is a quintessential Australian success story. Sallie and her team should be very proud of themselves; they have much to offer. We in this place ought to be supporting businesses like Sallie’s. Businesses like hers should be able to count on the Australian government for support, especially in the middle of a recession.
There is so much opportunity in Gippsland and for primary producers. They need to be encouraged to add value to what they produce, to keep the farmland in the hands of Australians and to keep profits in the pockets of regional Australia. Unfortunately, this budget leaves far too many people behind. As I mentioned earlier, budgets speak to the character of the government’s that deliver them. We shouldn’t be surprised to see a budget that leads people behind; this government, unfortunately, has always left people behind.
If you need more proof of this, go and speak to the many timber workers in my home state—in particular, those who have been impacted by the uncertainty surrounding the Central Highlands Regional Forestry Agreement. I’ve spoken to these timber workers, I’ve visited them and I’ve had a lot to say. Last week, the member for Chifley and I visited Australian Sustainable Hardwoods in Heyfield, a world-class sustainable timber mill. ASH, as it is better known, is a mighty business—world-class, in fact. The scale and sophistication of its operations is something we should all be impressed about. Any Australian who might have the opportunity should go down there and pay a visit. While ASH has worked hard to build itself into the successful business it is today, it has often had to struggle as a result of a lack of support from this government and that also from my home state of Victoria. After all, it is on the watch of this government that their economic future has been thrown into some doubt—whether it is through the lack of work, to shore up the regional forestry agreements, or the bungling of the relationship with one of our most important trading countries, which has seen quality Australian timber turned away on the tarmac.
One is left to wonder what the folks at Gippsland Jersey and Australian Sustainable Hardwoods get out of the biggest budget blowout in our time. What money is heading their way to support them and to grow their future? Heaven knows this government likes to talk about its economic credentials. As we heard earlier from Senator Watt, even today the government carries on as if there is nothing wrong. Don’t we know how they like to tell us they are good economic managers! Tell that to the additional 160,000 people who are going to join the jobless queues by Christmas. Tell that to the 2,000 Qantas workers who are about to lose their jobs. Tell that to the thousands who are going to have their JobKeeper ripped out from under them or the thousands who are going to find their bills hard to meet as JobSeeker is slashed.
What little support Australians were able to rely on over the course of this year as we experienced a once-in-a century economic downturn! Far too many have already suffered. We know that this government did not want to implement a wage subsidy and we know they never wanted to raise Newstart to the rate of a livable wage. It was pressure from the community and pressure from Labor and others in this place that eventually brought them to the table. What is the plan for the recovery? That is the question we have all been asking. What’s the next step? How exactly is this government going to help Australia bounce back?
Well, we know we can count on them for one thing—we can count on them to be there for the announcements. This government relies on these announcements for the headlines. They relish the photo opportunity, the media release, the quick interview and the social media post. What they don’t relish is the delivery. What they can’t be counted on for is to do the actual things that matter to most Australians—the doing. Take the shortages in our horticulture industry as one example. There is the government—those opposite, both National and Liberal—unveiling a new pot of money and a half-page plan. Day 1, all is well; the announcement is a success, the media mention locked in. Go back on Day 2, day 20, day 200—all the flashy subsidies are still there, as shiny as the day they were unveiled, because they have been barely used. The thousands of new workers that were promised turn out to number only in the dozens. But, by the time the roadshow has moved on to the next announcement and the one after, the problems still persist, with the hard work of service delivery left undone. But don’t take my word for it. Go and speak to the many farmers in my home state—the broccoli farmers in South Gippsland, the strawberry farmers in Queensland. They’ll tell you. Good luck finding the solutions, though, because they can’t, and they are desperately needing people to pick the harvest as we enter the next period in summer. You won’t find it, because these are Australians that have been left behind. They have a problem that is too hard, one that government would rather be forgotten. And they’re not alone. They’re not the only ones that the government has left behind. At a time when so many Australians are in need and so many industries need a leg up, this government is missing in action.
Last week, I also met with representatives of Gippsland Food & Fibre and visited a local business in Loch, the Loch Brewery & Distillery. The folks there have created a fine local business, set in a very picturesque regional village. And they’re a success, starting with a still you could fit on this desk, now having one just about as big as your living room. No-one can say that they’re not having a go. They are having a go. They’ve gone from making beer to making whisky to making gins, and even their own Negroni. But are they getting a go? They are the kinds of people that we ought to be backing, and yet the government can often make their lives harder, with taxation obligations and other measures that get in the way of them doing what they do best. Sure, they’ve been grateful to have JobKeeper, and many businesses have—a scheme of merit that we, on this side, also supported.
But, now, what is the plan beyond JobKeeper? What is the plan beyond JobSeeker? What is the plan for jobs and getting this country back on track, getting our economy moving again? What is the plan for regional Australia? We need a road map going forward, a government with vision and one that isn’t afraid to put in the hard yards to get the outcomes our country desperately needs. Sadly, all that’s going right now is a shiny media release and a whole bunch of debt. At the end of the day, Australians deserve better, and they really do need a government that’s going to be on their side.