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February 28, 2012

Mr CHESTER (Gippsland) (16:40):  There would not be another electorate in Australia that would be more interested than mine in the topic of this afternoon’s matter of public importance debate. There is a crisis of confidence in my electorate, and it is directly linked to the uncertainty that this government has created through its reckless decision to legislate for the world’s biggest carbon tax. The government like to claim that the job losses we have seen in the manufacturing sector have all been caused by external factors—that is, the high dollar at work and a range of other excuses—and that it is simply not their fault. My simple answer to that is: why make it harder? Why make it tougher for Australian manufacturers and other businesses, including the agricultural sector, to compete on world markets? People are losing their jobs today as a direct result of the lack of confidence in the future and the cost implications of the carbon tax.

The fundamental flaw in this Prime Minister’s whole strategy lies in the fact that she still has not dealt with the breach of trust with the Australian people in relation to the carbon tax. Every other problem that has been put in front of this Prime Minister stems from that fundamental breach of trust with the Australian people where she famously ruled out a carbon tax before the election and has now set about implementing it without getting a mandate from the people.

This week the Australian people have had a very close look at the internal machinations of the Australian Labor Party and, I must say, they have been repulsed by the ugly sight that they have seen. We have seen bullying, threatening behaviour and intimidation. The previous speaker chastised the member for Casey and the member for North Sydney for allegedly indulging in personal abuse of members of the other side, but if we want to see personal abuse all we need to do is turn on the television and listen to Labor ministers talking about their colleagues. It has been an appalling example of how this government is dysfunctional at its very heart. I would actually not be able to use in this place some of the phrases and descriptions that those ministers have used, Mr Deputy Speaker. You would pull me up because it would be unparliamentary to use those sorts of phrases. But they are the phrases that ministers have felt free to use to describe each other. That dysfunction, that ugly side of the Australian Labor Party, has torn away at the confidence of the Australian people. They expect so much more from our elected leaders. What we are experiencing now is a deterioration in confidence as a direct result of the dysfunction which starts in the Prime Minister’s office.

That dysfunction has lead to an erosion of confidence in communities like mine in Gippsland. I meet with the owners of small businesses all the time, and what they are telling me, particularly in relation to the carbon tax, is that the job losses have started already. Small engineering firms are now reporting back to me that the major power stations are doing only the absolute minimum they have to do in their maintenance programs. Any discretionary expenditure has been wound back and the jobs have been reduced. A small engineering firm that may have been getting $10,000 or $20,000 per week in jobs through the power stations is now looking at $1,000 or $2,000 per week. They are saying, ‘One job is lost over here and another one over there.’ They are not the headline-grabbing job losses we have seen with some of the major losses around the state; they are happening on a smaller scale—and this is before the carbon tax has even been introduced.

I have a practical local example. I have a letter here from a major engineering company which in the middle of last year was in the throes of, well advanced in, its plan to purchase a smaller engineering firm in the Latrobe Valley.

The plan was to take all the six staff from the small engineering firm. The firm had progressed as far as receiving planning approval, expanding their workshop and negotiating the final terms and conditions. I will not name the firm, but I will quote what they said in relation to their planned purchase. Their letter states:

‘The announcements by the federal government yesterday with regard to a carbon tax and the ensuing power station closure discussions have caused our board of directors to require more time in order to develop a strategy for the group companies within the Latrobe Valley.’

In the time that has passed subsequent to that letter they have pulled out of the sale, because they have no confidence in the future of power stations in the Latrobe Valley under this government’s carbon tax regime.

It is not just this side of the House which recognises this lack of confidence in the business community. I have a quote here from the member for Griffith. A lot of people have given some free character assessments of him in the past week. In a statement from Washington last week, the member for Griffith said:

I also believe it is affecting the business community and I agree with recent statements by peak bodies to this effect.

It is important that business confidence is maintained in Australia—the economy and jobs are core to what any responsible government is about.

The member for Griffith is referring there specifically to the dysfunction at the very highest levels of this government. The minister for industry and resources said in relation to the carbon tax:

I think there’s a lot of concern in industry at the moment about the price we’ve locked in given where Europe is at the moment in terms of price of carbon—whether we’ve locked in a price that’s to our disadvantage as a nation.

It is not just members on this side who are raising concerns about the carbon tax and the impact it is having on confidence in the economy; it is also members on the other side when they feel free to finally speak their mind. As long as this carbon tax hangs over the heads of Australian businesses and industries, it is hard to see that confidence being restored.

The issue of the carbon tax is one that is being followed very closely in my community. Naturally, because we have the brown coal-fired power stations, we are very much at the pointy end of the debate. For people in this community, it is about their jobs; it is about the lives that they can lead today; it is about the future that their children may have and whether they can obtain a trade and get to stay and work in the Latrobe Valley; and it is about what role they can play in the future economic growth of our great nation. From the moment the government broke its promise in relation to the carbon tax, there has been a crisis of confidence in the Latrobe Valley.

In addition to those engineering firms which I have referred to and the larger power stations, the business community hate the uncertainty that has been created by this circumstance. All of this is coming from a Prime Minister who was quoted in the media quite recently as saying that she wants to run the economy ‘in the interests of working people’.

Mr McCormack:  Humph.

Mr CHESTER:  I hear the member for Riverina scoff, with good cause. The Prime Minister’s comment will come as a huge surprise to the people in my electorate. It will also come as a huge surprise to the power station workers in my electorate. The Prime Minister and every member of the government has voted to kick them out of their jobs. There are hundreds of power station workers in the Latrobe Valley today who will lose their jobs under the carbon tax Contract for Closure scheme. There can be no greater blow to the confidence of a regional economy than unemployment. This government and every member of it has voted to sack blue-collar workers in the Latrobe Valley, and now they sit there silently—not a word. Members opposite are sitting there silently, just as they sat silently during this debate on the carbon tax. Not one of them stood up for the workers in the Latrobe Valley; not one of them had the guts to stand up for the blue-collar workers in the Latrobe Valley who will lose their jobs under this government’s carbon tax. Those jobs are in the hands of Labor MPs. The future of those families in the Latrobe Valley is up to those opposite.

I just question whatever happened to that grand old party, the grand old Australian Labor Party, that proudly claimed to stand up for the workers of this nation. The workers that I speak to do not want Labor’s household assistance package. They do not want Labor’s transition plan. They do not want Labor’s promise of new green jobs. They want the security of the job they have got today.

Ms Grierson:  You’ll take them back to the fifties.

Mr CHESTER:  Finally, someone has spoken up and referenced the fifties. In the fifties, the power station workers in the Latrobe Valley had a job, and you are going to take it away from them. Your government is prepared to take away the power station workers’ jobs in the Latrobe Valley under its Contract for Closure scheme. I invite the member opposite to stand up and explain to me how she is going to stop that. Quite clearly, there is no interest among members opposite to actually stop the carbon tax and the Contract for Closure scheme and the way that it will cascade through regional economies like a toxic waterfall.

This carbon tax will take money out of households, which means there will be less money available to be spent in regional businesses. In essence, it is a blight on the Australian community that this government is inflicting upon households, businesses and heavy industry at a time when we can least afford it.

Just after the Prime Minister’s treacherous disposal of the member for Griffith in 2010, she fronted the Australian public and said, ‘There will be some days I delight you and there may be some days I disappoint you.’ I have a tremendous view of the Labor party backbench from where I sit, and I am not seeing a lot of smiling faces. I am not seeing a lot of delight. In fact, I see a lot of disappointment written all over their faces. But this carbon tax is not about them. It is about the power station workers I just spoke about. It is about honest, hardworking men and women who just want to earn a reasonable pay and look after their families. It is about businesses and industry leaders who want to stay competitive and export their products around the world without being handicapped in the race by a tax that none of their competitors will pay.

I say to the Prime Minister: all we have seen is disappointment. You have not delighted anyone in the Latrobe Valley. So why won’t you not dump this tax before Australians really start to get hurt? The question that the people of the Latrobe Valley are asking this Prime Minister is: why are you making it harder for businesses to make a quid? Why are you making it harder for businesses to compete on world markets? And why are you making it harder for businesses to employ people, develop new skills and invest in the future of the our nation? It is no wonder that the Australian people have lost confidence in this Prime Minister.

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