Appropriation Bill - Consideration in detail

19 October 2016

Dr CHALMERS (Rankin) (12:30): I have two points. It speaks volumes about those opposite that one member—I hate to single people out—considers the steepest and sharpest synchronised downturn in the global economy since the global depression in the 1930s, the biggest downturn in eight decades, to be an excuse—some piece of trivia to be ignored. That is why they have a credibility problem over there.

The second point I would like to make is to highlight, for the purposes of Hansard, the minister's big claim about the unemployment rate. Because she had not read her note before she started speaking, she said 'Look, we have gone so well that the unemployment rate is currently what we inherited from Labor in September 2013.' So her grand claim is: 'Look how well we have done; we have done as well as we inherited from Labor.' She really should read her stuff before she reads it out publicly. How embarrassing that the minister does not have a sense in her own mind—from her own community or from around the country—that we have a substantial underemployment problem in this country. Her Treasury officials understand this. They said at estimates, two hours ago, that the underemployment rate is the highest it has ever been—in my lifetime—since 1978. Since 1978, it has never been lower. It speaks volumes that the minister does not understand or appreciate this not just in a numerical sense but in a community sense. She does not understand that people are struggling to get the hours that they want. She then stands up and says, 'Hey, but our big defence is'—wait for it!—'the unemployment rate is so good, it's what Labor handed to us'. What a fizzer.

We have spent a lot of time in the last week—not as much time as her colleagues—laughing about a minister who cannot vote for the right team in the parliament. That is one thing, and we have all had our fun—her own colleagues have had more fun with it than we have, frankly, with the whispered conversations on her side of the parliament. That is one thing, and people make mistakes. But it is another thing to really not understand the underemployment challenge and to quote back at us as if it were some great big policy achievement, with all the slogans about jobs and growth, that the unemployment rate—her chosen stat—is around the level that it was in the immediate aftermath of the GFC. That just speaks volumes. For a Treasury minister to not understand these basic things, to not have even a skerrick of a clue about underemployment or unemployment in this country—it is very troubling. If you take the politics out of it, I think most people on the street would like their cabinet ministers to have some understanding of the pressures that are in the labour market. That is my first set of points.

My second point was ignored before—and I really am seeking information here, because this is a very important challenge for the country. If these blowouts in deficit and debt, which are in the government's own budget papers—they are not my opinion; they are the facts in the final budget outcome which were released. They are the facts in the budget papers that the Treasurer and the finance minister released. We know that at least one of the ratings agencies has said that they are concerned about the trajectory of the budget. In July, Standard & Poor's warned the government that there was a one-in-three chance our rating would be downgraded. Moody's said that, without revenue measures to help fix the budget, there would be a credit negative for Australia. There are a whole range of alarm bells ringing from the ratings agencies.

I do not want to make a political point about this; there is an actual issue here with the ratings agencies because, as the minister would understand, I am sure, there are corresponding impacts. If the sovereign rating is downgraded then, in all likelihood, the banks will get downgraded as well. There are implications for borrowing costs. There are big implications, of course, for confidence in the economy. There are a range of implications. If one of those triple A credit ratings, which were won for the first time in our history from all three agencies under Labor—not under Peter Costello but actually under Wayne Swan—is downgraded, I would be very interested to know, as are the Australian people, what the consequences would be for our economy. Do you agree with the Treasury secretary, who said that there is no chance of a downgrade in the next 12 months?