Senator BERNARDI (South Australia) (22:07): It’s always wonderful to hear about the hopes and dreams of other senators. I’d like to share with you a couple of my own. I’m prompted to make this contribution because, in 11 days, it will be the ‘ 10-year anniversary of what I call the death of good government in this country. It may rankle and contradict some other opinions here but, however we examine the metrics and what has happened over the last 10 years in political life, Australia is diminished as a result. No-one—least of all many on the other side—would say that the Howard government was perfect but, my goodness, its stability, strength of purpose and sense of commitment to the nation stand it in pretty good stead compared to what we’ve had since.
It was 24 November 2007 that marked the ascendancy of the first Rudd government. If I recall accurately, Mr Rudd said there was not a sliver, not a cigarette paper, between the economic management and competence of the Howard government and what he would be producing under his government. We know that was a complete furphy, because Mr Rudd, in his wisdom—or lack of wisdom—and in his sense of always seeming to be doing something, made mess after mess after mess. We could go through the cheques that he sent out, in response to the global financial crisis, to people living overseas and to dead people, to simulate our economy, and the Rudd government’s defence of people spending those cheques on flat screen TVs, to prop up the Chinese television manufacturing industry. We could talk about the billions and tens of billions of dollars that Mr Rudd accumulated in debt as a consequence of that, and how the Treasurer of the year—or Treasurer of the century or whatever he was anointed—Mr Wayne Swan, promised us a surplus in 2009, 2010, 2011; it just was never happening.
It was the start of the great falsehoods in politics. Politicians have always been held in relatively low regard, but it marked the start of a new low for politics. The new low culminated in the bloody coup launched against the elected Prime Minister in his first term, Kevin Rudd, by his deputy, Ms Gillard, who promised there would be no carbon tax under a government she led, until she did lead a government and tried to introduce—and did introduce, actually—a carbon tax. In latter terms, we had the ascendancy of Mr Rudd coming back again after his relentless undermining of Ms Gillard and his leaks through his emissaries in the Gillard cabinet to members of the media. It marked a very low point. I was—as was my former party, the Liberal Party—quite rightly very critical of the coming and going and toing and froing of the Labor administrations over two government cycles. They delivered what was then a record debt. They delivered the Building the Education Revolution scheme, which squandered billions more than it needed to. They delivered the cheques to dead people, as I said. They also delivered the pink batts scheme, which not only ruined a market but resulted in the deaths of four people. Of course, no-one was held accountable for that, because of the protection racket that saw former Minister Garrett take the rap for it—on the condition that he could stay in cabinet if he didn’t blame Mr Rudd. It was an unedifying spectacle.
People, quite rightly, thought that with the election of the Abbott government things would change. For right or wrong, some mistakes were made there, but none more so than to convey the same sense of despondency to the Australian people and take out a first-term, duly elected Prime Minister. I said at the time it would have consequences and that the transaction costs would be greater than what was immediately apparent. I think that’s been born out.
There’s a crisis of confidence in politics in this country. As I said, if it’s the behaviour of politicians by which we’re measuring it, I think there’s a reason for that. But if it’s about the Australian people, there’s an even greater reason why we should examine the collective behaviour of what’s going on in this place. However you want to measure it, we’re not delivering the results. I say that in a crossbench, partisan manner: we’re not delivering results for the Australian people. In the last 10 years we have accumulated over $500 billion of debt. We continually promise there’s a surplus around the corner. It’s not eventuating, and no-one in this place who I have spoken to privately really believes that we’re going to deliver a surplus. They believe we are going to deliver on the $750-odd billion worth of debt by 2021, but no-one believes a surplus is going to be around the corner. And if it is, at the measly rate that they’re projecting it might only take 100 years to pay back the debt that we’ve accumulated in the last 10 years.
You can look at our educational standards. They’re pumping more and more money into education—we’ve had the debate in this place about that—and yet our kids are less literate and less numerate. The education system is failing them. What is the answer? To throw more money into it. In recent times we saw the government make an $18 billion injection into education, but they had no measurable outcomes to say, ‘What are we going to get for our money?’ That wasn’t good enough. Some of the populists on the crossbench, who always want to put their stamp of authority on government legislation—but never want to save money—insisted that another $5 billion go in, so it became a $23 billion education funding package that had no measurable outcomes. There was no pre-empted desire to improve literacy or numeracy: just allocate the money and we’ll work out what to do with it later. It’s absolutely wrong.
We can look at ministerial standards and how they have declined over the years. We know that no government is perfect, but we had the protection rackets for ministers: if ministers had done something wrong or they knew where the skeletons were buried, they remained in cabinet. We saw that with the Labor Party and former Minister Garrett. We have seen that with ministers from the other side, who were taking notes during the cabinet meetings and then releasing them as part of their books. Somehow, that was okay for cabinet solidarity. We have seen the brutal betrayal within the coalition of some longstanding policies.
It really doesn’t matter to me whether you’re on the ‘yes’ side or the ‘no’ side of the same-sex marriage debate—you’re entitled to your opinion—but the coalition’s longest held position was always going to be that marriage was between a man and a woman. It had never changed that position, and yet it was being absolutely undermined and flouted by members of the cabinet. Members of the cabinet were openly out there undermining and speaking against the party’s position. I found that reprehensible at the time. It diminished cabinet solidarity and it diminished and undermined the position of the coalition. I raised that with Prime Minister Tony Abbott, but of course he wasn’t prepared at the time to take on Malcolm Turnbull, Christopher Pyne and George Brandis and their acolytes in the outer ministry, in the case of Simon Birmingham and others.
Ministerial standards and ministerial accountability have fallen. The Westminster system has fallen. The Australian people have less faith and confidence in the system. We know the intergenerational debt, which is the true moral challenge of our time, is growing exponentially, and there is no end in sight. I say to the Australian people: if you really want to have a look at how governments are impacting your life in a negative fashion, examine the electricity industry. It’s full of well-meaning green dreams—let’s subsidise this; let’s foster that; let’s blow this up. It has all resulted in the most expensive and unreliable electricity anywhere in the world in places like South Australia and Queensland. It’s a Third World electricity system in a First World country. That’s why we don’t have manufacturing here. We can’t afford to manufacture anything, because we need electricity to do it. That’s why you can’t get people to invest in states like South Australia—because they’ve got the green dream of a 50 per cent renewable energy target, supported by many in this place, that will cost us tens of billions of dollars over decades, and we’re not going to have reliable power.
Rather than admit that and say, ‘We got it wrong; let’s fix it by getting the government out of the system and providing some certainty to it,’ they’re doubling down by pledging $100 million for batteries here, there and elsewhere. And, if it wasn’t bad enough under the Labor administration in South Australia and the previous administration, where they fell in love with the green rhetoric from the United Nations, they’re doing it with this government too—throwing $30 million here and tens of billions of dollars’ worth of subsidies for stuff that doesn’t work. Why are the Australian people having to pay the price of experimental politics?
The last 10 years has seen this place diminish. I’ve been here for it. I’ve been tearing my hair out over it. Sometimes I may have played some role in it. We are mad if we think we can continue going down this path and not diminish this place further. November 24 marks the 10th anniversary of the death of good government. I hope it marks the revitalisation and the start of good government again.
Chamber Senate on 13/11/2017 Item ADJOURNMENT – Federal Government Speaker: Bernardi, Sen Cory/ Parliment of Australia Transcript used for Reporting News