Thursday, 11 February 2010
Appropriation Bill (No. 3) 2009-2010; Appropriation Bill (No. 4) 2009-2010
12:00:16 I am very pleased to have the opportunity to speak today on Appropriation Bill (No. 3) 2009-2010 and Appropriation Bill (No. 4) 2009-2010. These bills will provide funding to further the work of the Rudd government in a range of areas, including environmental programs, enhancements to the work of Centrelink, and further development of the infrastructure and stimulus programs throughout our communities—amongst other items. When the global financial crisis—or the GFC, as it is known—threatened Australia’s economy, the government responded very quickly and decisively, stimulating the economy and doing everything possible to protect the employment base from the worst effects that the GFC was offering. These bills continue that work through the Nation Building Economic Stimulus Plan. The government has drawn on the support of Australia’s state and local governments, businesses, unions and community organisations to work together to protect Australia and its people from the threat of a potential recession caused by the GFC.
The Nation Building Economic Stimulus Plan progress report for December 2009 indicates that the plan has done what the Rudd government intended: to protect Australia in economic terms. The report indicates that Australia is now the third fastest growing economy of the 33 International Monetary Fund, or IMF, advanced economies. It tells us that we are one of three economies not to fall into technical recession and that also we have the lowest level of government debt—approximately 10 per cent of GDP. This compares with an average of around 93 per cent of gross domestic product, GDP, for major advanced economies.
Without the government’s plan, the report estimates that the Australian economy would have contracted and the unemployment rate may have risen to 8¼ per cent or more, meaning hundreds of thousands of Australians were at risk of losing their jobs. I do not like seeing anyone lose their employment, any more than any other of us does, but I realise, of course, that some people have had that happen to them through this period, and we are doing what we can, obviously, to support them through that. 12:02:22 However, when we think about the alternative outcome, the predicted high numbers of jobs that could have been lost, this is still a very welcome outcome. The report also tells us that the economy would have contracted in each of the past four quarters, shrinking by two per cent over the past year. 12:02:38 Treasury has estimated that unemployment is expected to peak at a point around 1½ per cent less than it would have done in the absence of the stimulus. Treasury estimates that, overall, the government’s stimulus, through its Nation Building Economic Stimulus Plan, will support around 200,000 jobs in itself. The avoidance of a recession is due to those early and decisive actions of this government, despite the opposition from the other side.
The government continues to work to protect Australia’s environment, particularly from the threat posed by the effect of carbon emissions on climate change. Its commitments in relation to carbon emissions reductions have been planned for and implemented from the very early days of the government taking office. The opposition, on the other hand, appears to be at sixes and sevens over this whole debate, and we continue to watch with a great deal of interest as they attempt to find a way out of the situation they have gotten themselves into. Coming up with a new plan—though I have to ask: is it a new plan?—that has no funding attached to it is, frankly, just not good enough. This is far too important a matter to be made a political plaything. The Minister for Climate Change and Water, Senator Penny Wong, announced in January this year that Australia will formally submit its existing 2020 target range for reducing emissions to the Copenhagen accord: five per cent unconditional, with up to 15 per cent and 25 per cent both conditional on the extent of action by others, as set out in May 2009. I believe that the increased use of renewable energy production and carbon emissions reduction technologies is essential to Australia playing its part in reducing the effects of climate change brought about by carbon emissions. Australia simply must be at the forefront of developing and using technologies that reduce our carbon footprint and the impact that footprint has on Australia’s and the world’s environment.
The Australian government’s further investment in the Solar Credits Scheme of $580 million will assist more Australians to install renewable energy production technologies to produce energy not only for their own households and businesses but for Australia’s electrical production system. This increased use and production will inevitably encourage research, development and implementation of new renewable energy technologies which will not just bring environmental benefits but also contribute to Australia’s continued economic development and the generation of new industries’ employment prospects. The solar credits rebate program is working to utilise Australia’s abundance of sunlight and, in places, wind energy. The increased use by the wider Australian community of power generated by the sun and the wind is just one way that Australia can play its part in reducing carbon emissions. Assisting Australia’s electricity consumers to purchase the technologies that will allow them to generate their own power but still reduce their carbon emissions and then be able to sell it back to the electricity system will impact on climate change as well as assist householders to reduce their energy bills. The success of the uptake of this scheme shows not only that Australians want the government to take action on climate change but that Australians themselves are prepared to take action.
On another matter covered in these bills, the Rudd government’s response to the H1N1 virus pandemic continues to be world leading as it prepares Australia for any future outbreaks of the virus. While the impact of last year’s pandemic outbreak in Australia was, in the majority of cases, milder than anticipated, it was unfortunately severe in thousands of cases, including in the cases of many young people and people who had previously been thought not to have known contributing factors to influenza susceptibility. The Rudd government continues its proactive approach to preparing for the possibility of future outbreaks in Australia by providing a further $45.2 million in funding to ensure that Australia is able to effectively manage any future pandemics. Funding will go to the storage, compounding and distribution of antivirals and personal protective equipment; the production, processing and distribution of immunisation consent forms; and, importantly, an immunisation awareness campaign. The government focus is on ensuring that the H1N1 vaccine is available to protect all Australians and that Australians are aware of its availability and the need to vaccinate themselves and their families. The awareness campaign will also ensure that those most vulnerable to the virus—pregnant women, those who are chronically ill, Indigenous Australians and healthcare workers—are aware of the availability of the vaccine and the risks presented by the virus.
The government will also provide the Department of Health and Ageing with $26 million in capital funding in response to the H1N1 influenza virus pandemic to purchase H1N1 influenza vaccine and fund the associated clinical trials. Through this further funding, the government continues to deal proactively with the threat of the H1N1 virus. This proactive approach has been reinforced by Australia’s Chief Medical Officer, Professor Jim Bishop, who recently reminded all Australians of the importance of being vaccinated against the H1N1 virus, as a second wave could be expected to hit Australia soon.
I am also pleased to see, in a related health and ageing issue, the flow of $12.4 million via the Department of Health and Ageing for the Zero Real Interest Loans program, which will enable capital funding to build and expand residential aged-care and respite facilities in areas of high need. I know, from my own electorate, that there are a number of building constructions underway right now in the residential aged-care and respite world. But I also know that there are pockets around the country with very high levels of need, where this program could have an effect, and I am very pleased to see this money flowing through for that particular reason.
I would also like to use this opportunity this morning to acknowledge the dedication and commitment to service of people who work in Centrelink offices throughout Australia and in particular, if I may, those Centrelink officers who serve within my electorate. My staff and I have always had, and continue to have, a good working relationship with this raft of public servants. We all know in this place the number of times a constituent or family may need some particular advice or help in negotiating their way through Centrelink processes, and I have always appreciated the advice and guidance of these hardworking public servants.
The Rudd government is going to provide $12.4 million to reduce Centrelink’s use of paper based claim forms and correspondence by increasing the use of document scanning and enhancing systems. From 1 July this year, all forms received by Centrelink will be electronically scanned as close to the point of receipt as possible. The efficiency initiative will deliver substantial savings over the next four years as electronic form scanning reduces storage and transfer costs. It will also cut the demand for paper and allow for greater time efficiencies in decision making. As well, from 1 July, fortnightly income-reporting requirements will be able to be met over the internet or by telephone using voice recognition software. This will bring greater efficiencies in assessing job seeker entitlements. These initiatives again demonstrate not only the government’s commitment to providing better services for those Australians who need Centrelink assistance but its approach of delivering services to the Australian people through innovative and environmentally sustainable strategies.
I chair the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Family, Community, Housing and Youth, which worked last year on the carers report. I know from the evidence we took from an enormous number of personal carers and people looking after family members in their own homes about the frustration, the delay and the difficulties that the outmoded methodology of Centrelink was causing them. I know that they are going to be very, very pleased to see these new initiatives come around, particularly the ability to report by telephone. I would like to think that some of these decisions come from the sorts of work that that committee and other committees do in this place. I know that we will be very happy to see that happen.
I would also like to take the opportunity briefly to talk about the initiatives through the stimulus program that I am seeing in schools in my electorate. Whether it be a small Catholic school, a public school or a private school of another kind, I have not seen one word of complaint from any of those school communities, teachers, principals or students about the sorts of improvements that they are seeing on their own school campuses as a result of the range of investments that this government is putting into our school communities. In fact, they are welcoming them. They see the sense in them. They understand the economic connection to them. They understand what that work is doing for our local employment base and small business economy. I am extremely pleased every time I have an opportunity—it happens often, and I am very pleased about that—to see the outcome or the planning that is underway in all of these school communities. It is a really good thing.
At the other end of the scale when we talk about the education revolution is the ANU. The Australian National University, here in Canberra, has also, through the budget of this government, seen a very large investment at the top research end in a variety of ways. I cannot go into them all here this morning, but I have talked about them before in this place. There is a very strong, sincere and worthwhile investment going on at both ends of our education system.
The other thing that I would like to talk about quickly is the My School website. I do not think my office has received one phone call of complaint about the My School website. In fact, the word going around my community is that the parents and the schools are very welcoming of the information and the detail on that site. I was particularly pleased, just a few days ago, to see the first announcement by the Minister for Education, the Deputy Prime Minister, of money going as a result of the information on that website to schools that need to have that investment made in them. That is why that website is there. That is why it is being done. It is not a name-and-shame process at all; it is a process of seeing where the use should be put and where the investment should go and then making it. To see the first tranche of money go through in that way is evidence of that. I know from my own community that we will be very pleased to be able to see how those schools that need improvement will in fact be able to access the program’s reach.
The last thing I want to talk about before winding up is another program of the government which I have also seen very strong evidence of, and that is within the housing area. Other members have talked about housing affordability and so on. What I want to talk about is the programs that have gone through to state and territory governments—in my case, a territory government—to allow the refurbishment of housing that would otherwise be called ‘no longer useful’. For welfare housing in the city of Canberra where there has been an old home desperately in need of refurbishment at a very basic level, the money has not been there to do that in an economically viable way. I have seen more than one tenant move back into an old welfare house which has been able to be refurbished on behalf of the federal government and be resumed as welfare housing. That is a very good thing too. It helps with the list of people who need to get into that sort of housing. It assists the small business economy in this town which is carrying out the work required. While I do not have the numbers at my fingertips, I know that it is making a dramatic difference in Canberra, in my electorate, to the availability of welfare housing. We all know how important that is.
I want to make an observation about the opposition. They continue to accuse us of setting targets and not meeting them: ‘You haven’t done enough computers. You haven’t done enough schools. You haven’t done enough.’ On the other hand, they accuse us at the same time of spending too much money. I do not really think they can have it both ways. We have a very sincere and strong program in education, housing and a range of other areas. All this investment in our people, our communities and our families, has a good, strong economic reason. I would like those opposite to think a bit about this before they start throwing around casual words and accusing us of either not doing anything or not doing enough when, in fact, our whole target is to lift the economy of this country, make it viable, longstanding and strong, ensure that we can handle any threat of a GFC or anything else coming our way and make sure that our individuals, families, schools and small businesses all prosper.
Australia has always been a country of generosity and of hope. We need, however, to ensure that people out there who try to enter Australia are treated humanely and with dignity. Within these appropriation bills the government is continuing to contribute to the international protection of refugees and ensuring that support services are available to meet their specific needs. To that end, the government is providing $63 million to meet the cost of increased irregular maritime arrivals, with a further $11.2 million proposed to expand the Christmas Island accommodation and capacity in response to increased irregular maritime arrivals. On that subject I also want to say to the opposition: please do not use short-term, cheap political labels when we talk about refugees and when we talk about things like the ‘push-pull factor’. Just cast your eyes around the globe on which we live and look at what is going on. Look at the numbers of people fleeing from desperate times and think carefully about why they may be seeking refuge. It is a question about which we all consciously need to think very seriously.
In my opinion, these two appropriation bills continue the government’s work on behalf of our whole community. The work is being undertaken in difficult and challenging global times. It is my pleasure to commend the bills to the House.