Wednesday, 30 May 2007
Appropriation Bill (No. 1) 2007-2008; Appropriation Bill (No. 2) 2007-2008; Appropriation (Parliamentary Departments) Bill (No. 1) 2007-2008; Appropriation Bill (No. 5) 2006-2007; Appropriation Bill (No. 6) 2006-2007
Debate resumed from 28 May, on motion by Mr Costello:
That this bill be now read a second time.
upon which Mr Tanner moved by way of amendment:
That all words after “That” be omitted with a view to substituting the following words:“whilst not declining to give the bill a second reading, the House is of the view that:
- despite record high commodity prices from surging demand from India and China and rising levels of taxation, the Government has failed to secure Australia’s long term economic fundamentals and should be condemned for its failure to:
- address Australia’s flagging productivity growth;
- stem the widening current account deficit and trade deficits;
- attend to the long term relative decline in education and training investment undercutting workplace productivity;
- provide national leadership on infrastructure including a high speed national broadband network for the whole country;
- expand and encourage research and development to move Australian industry and exports up the value-chain; and
- reform our health system to equip it for a future focused on prevention, early intervention and an ageing population;
- the Government’s failure to address the damaging consequences of climate change is endangering Australia’s future economic prosperity;
- the Government’s extreme industrial relations laws will lower wages and conditions for many workers and do nothing to enhance productivity, participation or economic growth; and
- the Government’s Budget documents fail the test of transparency and accountability”.
Before the debate is resumed on Appropriation Bill (No. 1) 2007-2008, I remind the committee that it has been agreed that a general debate be allowed covering this bill and orders of the day Nos 2, 3, 4 and 5. The original question was that this bill be now read a second time. To this the member for Melbourne has moved as an amendment that all words after ‘That’ be omitted with a view to substituting other words. The immediate question is that the words proposed to be omitted stand part of the question.
... kept in mind the Yes, Minister definition of gratitude in politics. As ... Sir Humphrey ... put it, “gratitude is merely a lively expectation of favours to come”.
Those favours will come over the coming months as the government dips into its magic pudding, a revenue stream born of a minerals boom the like of which this country has never seen, except perhaps in the gold rushes of the 1800s and the boom times of the sixties. The government is including in this largesse the inappropriate use of funds like Regional Partnerships again, as we saw in the last campaign.
But it is likely to be a false boom, a boom of fool’s gold, unless we recognise that the very extraction of minerals, especially coal, that is feeding the accelerating GDP of China and India in particular could also fuel, in the possible absence of a geosequestration solution, the demise of the modern economy as we know it. We must reinvest that income in truly clean, green energy alternatives that will eventually replace the fossil fuel addiction of the Western world and now, to such a degree, the eastern world. The Treasurer said in his budget speech:
If we lock in the achievements of the past this will help us with the challenges of the future.
However, if the achievements of the past include our almost total dependency on the revenue from the fossil fuel industry then there is no way we can meet the challenges of the future. The government will soon make an announcement on its policy approach to global warming, as it examines the prospects for carbon trading. This budget sadly lacks any serious addressing of global warming apart from an advertising campaign to promote so-called clean coal and, no doubt, nuclear energy.
The doubling of rebates to install solar panels to $8,000 only restores the subsidy that was in place to 2005. Grants of $12,000 for solar in schools should have been expanded to solar panels for every air conditioner installed in homes and public buildings, along with a requirement that they be installed in commercial premises to offset air conditioning energy use—one use that will increase substantially with the warmer summers expected.
Where is the incentive to invest in solar thermal and geothermal technology which have been shown by CSIRO scientists to be capable of providing baseload power if seriously developed? To do this we need to put a price on carbon emissions. Carbon trading will not achieve that in my book. Few believe it offers the incentives needed for the cutbacks required over the next decade. A carbon tax would create that incentive and be far more transparent in its application and understanding by both the polluter and the wider community. On top of this we should have a meaningful mandatory renewable energy target that will act as a true incentive for investment in alternatives, especially wind, solar thermal, geothermal and wave. Recent news of a proposed geosequestration plant in Western Australia sounds good but the technology is in its infancy and is yet to be proven, despite some encouraging results from a similar plant off Norway.
The transferral from dirty electricity to clean renewables is attracting investment and providing new jobs around the world. In 2005 global investment in renewable energy was $US38 billion and growing. It has accelerated way beyond that in the past 18 months. A European Union report predicted an extra 900,000 new jobs in the sector in Europe by 2020. There were already 25,000 jobs in Germany’s wind energy sector alone in 2002. California is leading the way, welcoming Australian-developed solar thermal technology with open arms as it generates around 20 per cent of power in Los Angeles from solar thermal, among other proactive clean, green energy industries. Yes, it has nuclear, but even Arnold Schwarzenegger cannot answer the question of where to bury American nuclear waste. Yucca Mountain waits as the preferred option, but the technology is just not available. Renewables contribute 11 per cent of California’s energy needs and this is growing rapidly, while nuclear provides about 12 per cent—not 27 per cent, as the Prime Minister indicated yesterday—and remains a hugely expensive and socially divisive option that cannot, in its full cycle, be remotely described as clean.
Elsewhere in this budget, the recognition of the need for more dentists trained in this country is welcome, with the announcement of the dental school for Charles Sturt University. Credit for this must go to the Rural Dental Action Group, led by Marj Bollinger and Dr Cath Errey, who have headed up the lobby in the central west for some years. It is a lobby that resulted in over 1,000 signatures on a petition being presented to this chamber by me in 2005 calling for urgent attention to the lack of dental services and training of dentists. The combined pensioners and superannuants in Bathurst and Orange, along with the Australian Dental Association, can also take credit for this outcome.
The other side of the dental equation—the treatment of public patients now under Medicare—has been boosted with up to $2,000 a year now available for chronic dental needs. However, the limited Medicare cover first introduced two years ago by the government has had very little impact on the 650,000 low-income people on waiting lists for public dental care in this country. Because the $200 worth of care on offer was so minimal it seems no-one reckoned it worth their while to seek help. It certainly does not cover root canal therapy or other complicated dental procedures. It seems strange that, while people are lining up to claim the very welcome mental health Medicare cover, for some reason the dental care subsidy, limited as it was, had largely failed to be accessed—and I have that on excellent authority. I hope that the increase from $77 to $125 for the initial consultation and the $2,000 per annum increase per patient will boost that usage.
The tax cuts of $14 a week for incomes up to $30,000 and $28 a week for incomes up to $75,000 are welcome but are rapidly disappearing—into the petrol tanks of the family car—before they have even arrived. This only underlines the fact that the vast majority of people want services before tax cuts—services like dental care, aged care and more allied health professionals such as counsellors and therapists. People like Julie Ridley from Caragabal, near Young, in New South Wales wonder whether there is any commitment to anywhere near sufficient specialist disability funding for people like her husband, who is suffering motor neurone disease.
The use of one-off bonuses is a crude political device that is all about vote-buying, but I doubt it will convince most recipients. Whether it is $1,000 for carers or $500 for pensioners, it is little compensation for the unmet needs of disability carers, disability pensioners or other pensioners never fully compensated for the GST or cost of living increases. The tax cuts for the well paid will significantly widen the gap between the winners and the needy in our society. Just over 10 per cent of taxpayers at the top end of the scale received more than 40 per cent of the $31 billion on offer from across-the-board tax cuts to salaried employees in this year’s budget.
I now turn to spending on Indigenous programs. This budget distributes $236 billion that has been generated by arguably the most prosperous time in our history, but it is a false prosperity—a prosperity that is favouring the already richly endowed in our society, a prosperity that delivers $33 million salaries to some and no dentures to others. An Aboriginal child in Australia is likely to die before his or her counterpart in Bangladesh. The difference in life span between an Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal person is almost 20 years. Last week, the National Heart Foundation of Australia released figures showing why it is so appalling that a mere $30 million extra dollars has been found this year for Indigenous health programs. A prosperity that is born largely of mining, often on Indigenous lands, can find but $30 million extra dollars. As the Heart Foundation points out, when Indigenous Australians are admitted to hospital with coronary heart disease, they have a 40 per cent lower rate of being investigated by angiography, a 40 per cent lower rate of coronary angioplasty or stent procedures and a 20 per cent lower rate of coronary bypass surgery, and they are missing out on lifesaving medications for cardiovascular disease. What is going wrong here? Is our health system ranking clients according to socioeconomic status? What prejudice is at work?
Twenty years ago I saw how Aboriginal mothers were reluctant to take their kids in Orange, many with serious inner ear and other infections, to a baby health centre because of an understandable reluctance to deal with a non-Indigenous health system, however committed the workers were. Indeed, just last week Tyrone Toomey, project officer at the Centre for Rural and Remote Mental Health at Bloomfield, in Orange, called for public health staff to receive training in Aboriginal cultural awareness and for Aboriginal representatives to be available at consultations. Mr Toomey has made recommendations as a way of overcoming a fear among Aboriginal people about using health services. This is in the year 2007, not 1977 or 1967. Why, for heaven’s sake, has it taken so long for this most basic and obvious training and these service requirements to be put into a report, let alone to be taken seriously enough to be widely acted upon?
Several years ago, I watched an SBS program on which Indigenous communities in the Top End of Australia would not accept advice on better hygiene needs for children around dogs and the relentless worm infestation cycle that was prevalent in these communities. The advice was coming from non-Indigenous doctors. However, hygiene practices changed only after they were explained by specially trained Indigenous workers, who handled the situation in a more culturally appropriate and understandable manner. So, too, has the training of assistant nurses and enrolled nurses through distance education within their communities been recognised as a more appropriate way of training. I realise that culturally appropriate training and service delivery is a part of the policy mix in some instances, as with the changes made in that program in the Top End, but it seems that many communities, especially in less remote and regional areas, are automatically regarded as mainstream. Mainstreaming services is not the answer. Specific training delivered by communities and a properly funded Aboriginal health service would seem the only way forward in beginning to address these terrible statistics.
To this end, the extra 1,000 Indigenous scholarships and the extra budget for Abstudy are very welcome. The parlous state of Aboriginal cardiovascular health comes on top of the well-documented poor mental health and drug and alcohol treatment outcomes for these people. Indeed, the Urbis Keys Young report, established by the minister, into the mental health outcomes of the Link-Up and stolen generation programs and counselling services, showed that there were up to 80 clients for each counsellor, compared with the mainstream of 25. The report listed the real health and social consequences of removal policies: ‘Loss, trauma, grief, offending behaviour, adverse life outcomes, substance abuse, higher rates of mental health problems, suicide and violence, parenting problems and poor physical health.’ These are the outcomes and the end results of processes that I believe have failed over many years to address the mental health and social consequences that still stem from the stolen generation shame.
While the mental health outcomes are good in some cases, where sufficient support is available, the Urbis Keys Young report says the program has been poorly coordinated and insufficiently targeted. The minister has promised an extra 22 workers, but New South Wales Link-Up tells me this week that they have up to 200 clients per case worker. I wonder if state or federal governments have really done a proper audit on the extent of the need in this area. On top of this, the AMA’s Indigenous health report card released last week shows that the life expectancy in Indigenous communities remains at the overall national average of 1920—that is, 59 for men and 65 for women, compared with 77 for non-Indigenous males now and 82 for non-Indigenous women.
I will move to education now. While the government centrepiece Higher Education Endowment Fund is prima facie very welcome, it does not disguise the fact that education funding as a proportion of government expenditure has been decreasing every year while other OECD nations have increased their funding. The policy also does not spell out the micromanagement of university policy that access to such funding will entail. There is a reported $1.2 billion maintenance and infrastructure backlog in the universities, and $300 million to $400 million per year funding for approved capital expenditure will obviously be welcome. Extra money for research will also be welcome, but this government has slashed public research funding from 0.4 to 0.29 per cent of GDP in the past 11 years.
Given a worsening skills shortage, the funding of up to five per cent overenrolment in HECS places is a positive turnaround. Increased funding for HECS places in a number of key areas is also welcome, especially in mathematics and statistics. (Quorum formed) Whilst I agree that students should contribute to part of the cost of their education, I do not believe in saddling students with frightening debts of between $50,000 and $200,000 at the beginning of their working lives. An educational advantage should not be a factor of having well-off parents.
The increasing flow of the federal public education dollar to the private sector is highlighted by the fact that nearly 70 per cent of Commonwealth school funding goes to 13 per cent of the nation’s school students, in non-government schools, which now also outstrips public investment in higher education. Thus, while Commonwealth school funding is rising, it is going to the private and, in many cases, the most privileged schools. This is courtesy of the SES, socioeconomic status, formula based on the postcode where the student comes from. It does not take much imagination to see how a child from a privileged background could benefit from the low socioeconomic status of a region from which he comes.
It stands to reason that the most effective way of measuring school needs would be for all schools to use a bar code, if you like, containing the agreed criteria to measure a school’s basic requirements, and for a proper audit to run over each and every school’s bar code. When a red light shines in any category, until and unless that red light is turned to green, there should be no further funding on a general basis until that school is brought up to a level of basic requirements. That should be part of an audit of all schools, but we lack that sort of objective measurement that would satisfy parents and the general community that we have a fair education funding system in place.
The Fairfax press’s Ross Gittins simply suggests that, at the moment, the bias in federal funding is anti public and pro private. I recognise the states and territories are largely responsible for the funding of government schools, but, as Gittins points out, the states still spend three times more than the Commonwealth on schools, despite the Commonwealth holding most of the money by raising 80 per cent of taxes.
The Commonwealth’s refusal to truly support public schooling is complemented by its ill-informed intrusion into the micromanagement of public schools, with performance pay a condition of funding for the next quadrennium. This is ideological nonsense; it is tampering in a process that is becoming divisive. Paying teachers bonus payments is mistargeted. Surely this sort of money should be going to the schools to provide the necessary facilities in line with that objective bar code measure, if you like, of schools having facilities and resources at the standard required.
The government’s contribution to the states and territories for TAFE has actually declined by about seven per cent over recent years, and yet TAFE trains 1.6 million students annually. We see not a cent specifically earmarked for TAFE. What we see is another $83 million for three new Australian technical colleges. And the end result of this $25,000 per ATC student each year? With a 200,000-person skills shortage, the outcome will be 8,400 students by 2009. This is duplication and waste. The $1,000 direct payment to young first- and second-year apprentices is welcome, but the overall funding and targeting of our TAFE sector is quite deplorable and is again driven by some sort of ideological bent and is about usurping the control of tertiary education at a TAFE level by the states.
Elsewhere, spending in regional areas is marked by a proper response to the drought by way of farm support. The $280 million over three years for EC and the interim support pending EC status is very welcome. The additional financial counselling is welcome, but I would suggest that mental counselling is something that needs to be boosted significantly in the bush. I note the bitter disappointment of Regional Arts Australia at the rejection of its request for a four-year $60 million allocation. In all, it was a budget aimed largely at buying votes, not one generally investing in our areas of greatest need. (Time expired)
Mr Deputy Speaker, no doubt you are aware of my announcement last Friday that I will not be contesting the next election. This is an entirely personal decision, arrived at after much discussion with family and friends. I have been very conflicted. Being a woman of conservative values, I want to soldier on for the Liberal Party, but those very values are the reasons I feel I need to spend more time with my family, so it is with mixed feelings of both sadness and excitement that I discuss Appropriation Bill (No. 1) 2007-2008 and the related bills, this government’s 12th budget and our 10th budget with a surplus.
When I returned from Asia in 1992 after serving with the RAAF at Butterworth in Malaysia, I was appalled at the predicament this country was in. We had 18 per cent interest rates and 20 per cent to 30 per cent youth unemployment. It was a nation of welfare-dependent families with little hope for a brighter future. I was even more appalled by the apathy shown by many Australians with regard to the state of this nation and even more dismayed when they re-elected a Labor government under Keating in 1993—a government whose track record of governance was and still is appalling.
The very people responsible for those six consecutive deficit budgets leading up to 1996—the expenditure blow-outs, the mismanagement of taxpayer dollars and the mismanagement of the economy—remain on the opposition benches waiting for another chance to raid the taxpayers’ coffers, to hollow out the Future Fund and the endowment fund and every other stash of money that we have been putting away for any future call on superannuation by our military personnel or other public servants. It was that government that took the DFRDB—the fund soldiers had been putting into—and rolled it into consolidated revenue to be paid some time in the future. We have reversed that decision. We know our expenses, we have put aside for our future expenses and we have saved for future unexpected shocks—such as the seven-year drought that has rocked the farm exports of this nation. Does anyone really believe that the Leader of the Opposition is an economic conservative when he has Wayne Swan as shadow Treasurer? Mr Rudd is barely across the detail of his own party policy, and he has not been tested by devastating events such as terrorist attacks and tsunamis. How do we know that he will not be absent if there is another tsunami, for example, as his predecessor Mark Latham was absent last time—absent at a time of national crisis? Where is the testing of this inexperienced leader with a team of has-beens from the previous government?
The last 12 years have been an exciting period in my life, allowing me to be a part of what I am sure history will record as one of the golden periods of Australian political history. The legacy of this government will secure the future of both present Australians and many future generations to come and it would be irresponsible to change jockeys now.
I note that this budget also provides for our veterans, who have a special place in my and my husband’s hearts after our service in the RAAF, where we met. I have maintained my RAAF Reserve membership. Although I have been grossly inefficient—you must do 11 days a year to be considered efficient—I do intend to make up for that in retirement. I also intend to fully return to my favourite sports of hockey, as a player—and, who knows, I might even make a veterans’ carnival finally—and rowing, for which I have unfortunately allowed my coaching accreditation to slip. So I will be starting from scratch. But my new home on the banks of the Nepean River is ideally placed for my return to the sport of my youth, probably not as a rower but more in a coaching role.
I have re-read my maiden speech in the last few days and I will quote from it. It says:
I know the pomp and ceremony here in Parliament House is overwhelming. There is the danger of getting too used to the Comcars, the room service, the flash offices, the guttered roads and all the mod cons that insulate you from the failing small businesses, unemployment, bankruptcy, soup kitchens and the despair and depression of our youth. But eventually you must go back to the real world. If you have not looked after your real world in your electorate as you should have, then this prospect may frighten you. ...
I have given up my career for the people of Lindsay. There is no going back. I will fight for their interests because in the end I must return to live amongst them and I will do that with my head held high.
I think I have vindicated my maiden speech. I am thrilled with this budget, which is yet another instalment of this government’s good economic management. Obviously, I will return to whatever employment opportunities await me in the future, but I will always have a significant interest in the media and the interpretation of what goes on in the media. I will probably be a very prolific writer of letters to the editor. It is a luxury I have never indulged in as a member of parliament, but it is certainly one I am going to enjoy in retirement.
I noticed in the Daily Telegraph today there is a report on the ETU secretary, Dean Mighell. He describes employers as greedy ‘expletives’ and compares workplace inspectors with paedophiles, which I believe is probably as a result of their ability to stand up to the thuggish intimidation employed by the ETU. I know that from very personal experience because the ETU has established one of their Work Choices offices in my electorate, from which these thugs operate. I have been intimidated and my family has been intimidated by the ETU—particularly my husband, as an owner-builder of our own home site. They arrived with A Current Affair camera crew in tow making all sorts of allegations, which the workplace inspectors dealt with in an appropriate fashion—much to the chagrin of the ETU, which was seeking to score political points. So full credit to the workplace inspectors. I can see why the ETU has such a disparaging view of them.
Such intrusions into people’s homes are actually standard for the ETU and yet Mr Mighell says in the Daily Telegraph article:
... they’re not allowed to enter your home, which is pretty good because you just can’t be too sure of their orientation in terms of certain things—you wouldn’t want them near your home, wouldn’t want them near your children.
They do not want you near their homes and yet the unions are quite happy to enter yours. If the Labor Party and the unions—the ETU, the ACTU, the NUW and every other U—get their way at the next election, they will enter your workplaces. They do not like you doing it to them, but they will do it to you. Dean Mighell uses incredibly foul language and intimidation. He admits to using strikes to get rewards from employers that unions do not deserve. I quote again from the article. He says:
Now we have kept that 4 per cent agreement across our industry and I’d like to know how many millions of dollars they’ve paid workers that we’ve racked up through that little bulls ... stunt ... it was good fun and it’s still there, so that’s a couple of pots [of beer]—Just remember, a little bit of bulls ... put it aside every week, have a little smile when you have a beer because some d...head’s paid for that that shouldn’t have.
This is a return to the future. The unions are expending an enormous amount of money, effort and energy in trying to defeat this government at the next election because they know it is all on the line. We will not tolerate this intimidation. We will stand up to it and we will liberate the workplace and homes from that type of thuggery. Yet they are smiling all the way to the bank because they think: ‘Wow, it’s upon us. We’re looking good.’ It is a return to the bad old days of union intimidation. They did not like it when we reformed the waterfront. They did not like it when we reformed the tax system under the GST. They did not like it when we brought in workplace reform and unfair dismissals reform, and yet they turn around, after reaping the benefits of that prosperity, and say, ‘Oh, by the way, we’re economic conservatives.’ I do not think anyone will believe them for a minute on that score. People know that, once elected, they will spend that largesse unwisely and very quickly run to deficits.
Such political tactics are part and parcel of the ALP campaign and their union mates. I have seen it and experienced it. I have been subjected to it, as have my husband, my children, my home and my friends—Jim Aitken and local councillors. We have constantly been intimidated, particularly by the ETU. I am fairly saddened by their lowly actions and cowardly tactics. I just wish more Australians could be witnesses to the way in which they operate, so that they could know how insecure our great nation will be if it is governed by the ALP, under union control. We have a number of unionists entering parliament, such as Dougie Cameron and Greg Combet, who are very fed up with the way in which the ALP has been dealing with their issues, so they are entering parliament to make sure that things are done right, and they would then hold office in all three tiers of government. It would be a very sad day indeed.
They are certainly coming at all of our candidates in our marginal seats. If you look at the Your Rights at Work website, you will see that they have targeted 19 seats. They have a very explicit campaign regarding what they are going to do in those seats, and it makes very interesting reading, in line with the leadership displayed by the secretary of the ETU in the Daily Telegraph today.
I congratulate local ALP branches for at least preselecting David Bradbury in preference to Mark Ptolemy—another ETU member—who was hoping to be the candidate in Lindsay. David Bradbury works for Blake Dawson Waldron, which designed the Work Choices legislation, and he is very supportive of our amendments to the fairness test introduced yesterday by the Minister for Employment and Workplace Relations.
I would like to acknowledge my husband. He has been a significant contributor to my political success. We have, together with Therese Rein and a number of other Australians, benefited enormously from the prosperity under this government over the last 10 years. He has been a significant contributor both financially and emotionally to my political success. I love him dearly and plan to give his career and direction sway for the next 10 years, as he has given me for the last 10 years. After that, all bets are off. His ability to cut to the heart of a matter, to feed back popular opinion and to sculpt political strategies to get across our arguments and to articulate our values versus those of the ALP have been an incredible support for me. Both he and the many staff I have worked with, along with our dedicated supporters and the voters of Lindsay, have been the wind in my sails to achieve what I have achieved over my political career.
I would like to thank my first employee, Peta Demery, who helped me to select my original team of Margaret Connor, Christie Bickley and Nick Berman, and all of the other staff I have had since then until my current staff of Christine, Karen, Emily, Michael, Morghan, Anne and my volunteers, Irene, Trevor, Diane and Angie. They have been fantastic supporters. I hate to name people because I always leave someone out, which is always unfortunate.
My esteemed colleague Bruce Baird should be on my list, along with everyone else in this parliament. To my colleagues on both sides of the parliament—more particularly, I suppose, on our side: I will miss you. You have been a great part of my life. I will leave it at that.
I would also like to acknowledge my children, who, for their total lives, have only known a mother in parliament. I like to think I have been doing great things down here, and I think this budget demonstrates that it was worth while. The debt is finally paid; we are able to save for our future. I would like to thank John Howard for the opportunities afforded me in my various roles in this government, but in the end it was the 20 weeks a year, or 100 nights a year, away from home which led to my decision.
We have a challenge ahead of us. I think the community thinks that a good economy is something that is a fluke, that it is uninfluenced by the government’s ability, that it is just something that happens and that any political leader can achieve it. I would like to reassure those who have only started voting in the last 10 years that this is not necessarily the case. Look at your political history; look at your economic history. Although people are looking with interest at the leadership team of Rudd and Gillard, I say they should look behind them to the number of Keating members who are still there, such as Swan, Smith, Tanner, McMullan and the rest.
As for the future, we saw on Friday another instalment in infrastructure for our area, with the M2 extension to Dubbo. That is a vital piece of infrastructure which the local Labor representatives in the area oppose. The Iemma government oppose it. If they continue with that course, it will end up being a gaping hole like the Pennant Hills Road, to the north in Sydney, which is an absolute state disgrace. Get on board with the M2 extension to Dubbo now, build the infrastructure that our state needs now and do not leave future generations with the enormous cost of fixing that Pennant Hills logjam with a tunnel when you could have acquired the land at much less cost by resumption over the top many years ago.
I will still be around the Liberal Party in Western Sydney. I will be always reminding the voters of Western Sydney that responsible economic policy, low unemployment and a secure nation just do not happen by luck. They happen by good governance and the ability to make tough decisions, such as introducing the GST. That was opposed by the ALP, but when the ALP were in government they had six deficits and, by stealth, increased various taxes, such as the wholesale sales tax, by over 40 per cent. So, although people were getting the odd tax break—one in particular was never paid out—their taxes were continually increasing, reducing their real wages. Under this government we have seen a 20 per cent increase in average real wages, compared to one per cent under the previous government.
I think Badgerys Creek was the first huge issue that I ever had to deal with in politics. It was something where I had to turn around the internal party policy for the interests of my local area, and I did that very successfully. The Liberal-National government now has no plans for a second airport. The only party with a plan for a second airport is the ALP. I have maintained my interest in fast rail, and I am sure a fast rail link between Sydney and Canberra will solve any infrastructure or crowding at Mascot into the future. The logical second airports for Sydney are obviously Brisbane, Melbourne and Canberra.
Child care has tripled under this government, and there is yet another instalment in this budget. I always want more in child care, but that is just a reflection of where I am in my life. I would like to see employers taking a greater role in child care and being more involved in their employees’ decisions regarding this. I do not think Labor’s policy of a childcare centre in every school is very viable. It would see the annihilation of the very healthy and profitable private sector, and for what—for a very uncompetitive, unresponsive government-run system. The opposition have a childcare policy of degree-trained teachers for four-year-olds. Coming from Queensland, their leadership would say that, because pretty much every other state has it. It is called ‘kindy’, and, to really make a difference, you do not need a degree. If you started putting in degreed childcare workers, the costs would just escalate enormously and we would be faced with even more challenges to keep child care affordable. I would caution the voters of Lindsay about what may sound like great a childcare policy from the Labor Party. This government have a track record of tripling expenditure on child care in the last 10 years. There has been an instalment on child care in every budget. So it is not something that will ever go away. It is something that we are continually making affordable down payments on.
Our investment in education: I have air-conditioned over 70 per cent of the schools in Lindsay, and the other 25 per cent have not actually applied for air conditioning. It is my goal in public life to see that all of the schools in Lindsay are air-conditioned. Our modern buildings are designed for air conditioning. Very little thought is put into the planning of them to keep them cool, and they are far hotter than the schools that we attended. It is something that is quite a modern necessity.
The black spot funding in my local area has seen an enormous improvement in the roads in my area, which have been neglected completely by the state governments. The trade school which I fought so hard for in the last round of the Australian technical colleges has been successful. I kept that alive. I kept pushing for that, and this budget delivered that trade school for the people of Penrith. We are an area that has a tremendous number of tradespeople. We have their offspring, who are very interested to be in their uncle’s business, their father’s business, or some other trade. It is an opportunity that will be taken up with alacrity by the young people of Western Sydney.
It has been a very great honour and privilege for me to represent the people of Lindsay in this place. This budget is further evidence of the great work that has been done by this government over the last 10 years. I am very, very proud to have had a role in it, and I endorse this package of legislation.
I would like to add my thoughts as well. I think the member for Lindsay will be a missed asset in this place, I would have to say. In debating the Appropriation Bill (No. 1) 2007-2008 and cognate bills, I want to start by focusing on the Howard government’s economic performance and how its failure to address issues of infrastructure, investment, climate change and skills shortages, and their failure to lay down a future foundation for economic growth, reflect a government that has run out of ideas—a government that expects to get re-elected on its past performance, not on what it is planning to do for the future of Australia.
The government has wasted an opportunity with this budget to lay down the foundations for future economic prosperity. As with last year’s budget, the government has focused on fixing its political problems, not on fixing Australia’s long-term economic prosperity. It is a budget stuck in the past: following the same old, tired formula of picking off a few groups to reward with one-off payments but failing to address the underlying problems.
Australian families are worried about their future. Those of us who live in regional Australia are particularly worried because we are often the first to bear the brunt of governments getting things wrong. Those of us who rely heavily on manufacturing jobs are particularly vulnerable when we have a government which has failed to invest in promoting future productivity in that sector. In regional Australia, we can see our manufacturing jobs disappearing around us, and we can see what rising petrol prices are doing to our local industries. We see the decline of our infrastructure, with much of what is needed well beyond the means of our local councils to repair. The government has always been more about spin than substance.
Over the coming months Australians will be bombarded by political propaganda the likes of which they have never seen before in this country. It has already started: coming to a TV set, cinema, newspaper and radio near you, courtesy of the Australian taxpayer, is the government’s $112 million, so far, 18-campaign media blitz. This budget and the accompanying advertising campaign are all about the Howard government positioning itself for the election at the end of the year rather than positioning Australia for the next 20 years. Australians know that the resources boom will not last and they are asking the government: ‘What is next? What are you doing to build our future prosperity? What are you doing to boost workforce participation and productivity? What are you doing to help us compete against India and China? What are you doing to make sure that we get a chance to get a better job, higher pay and better opportunities for our kids, not lower wages and worse conditions?’ They were looking for a government prepared to roll up its sleeves and get stuck in on these issues.
The lack of vision and the complacency of the Howard government are starting to reveal themselves in the Australian economy, and this is absolutely true when we come to the critical challenge of the level of our foreign debt. It is true that the government’s net debt has been paid down, but it is also true that our net foreign debt was $521 billion in December 2006 and is growing by nearly $50 billion a year. Foreign liabilities have risen to 60 per cent of GDP. HSBC Chief Economist John Edwards has warned that the cost of servicing that debt will grow faster than national income unless the trade performance is turned around. As it stands, Australia’s higher debt places upward pressure on interest rates as the perceived risk of lending to Australia increases. Australia has the second highest interest rates in the OECD. Australia’s current account deficit is the highest in the OECD despite record commodity prices. The government tries to argue that foreign debt is private debt, implying that it has nothing to do with the government and, by extension, that it will have no impact on the economy. That is simply not true. As the IMF has said, the build-up of external debt, although mainly held by the private financial sector, could leave Australia potentially vulnerable to shifts in market sentiment. It is our capacity to compete in the global economy and the pressure that foreign debt places on interest rates that are the problem. Add to this the burden that is placed on future generations to service foreign debt and the government should be extremely worried about it.
Just as worrying is our trade deficit. As of March 2007 Australia’s trade deficit is $1.6 billion, the 60th consecutive increase in a row. In the context of the greatest resource boom in 50 years, which has seen resource prices double over the past three years, Australia still cannot get our trade balance into surplus. In the past five years, manufactured exports have recorded growth of 0.4 per cent a year, compared to 16 per cent under Labor. Again, there is nothing in the budget to assist our manufacturing sector. Content to ride on the productivity gains generated by Labor’s comprehensive economic reform program of the 1980s and early nineties, the government has failed to position Australia to generate the next phase of productivity growth. That failure is hurting regional economies.
Regional economies are also feeling the brunt of the Howard government’s failure to address the skills shortage. It is one of the most serious issues facing our economy. Across industries and across the nation, the consequences of the government’s failure and skills policy inertia are being felt. It is not as if the current circumstances are a surprise to anyone; employers have been shouting for some time now that they cannot access skilled labour. But what has the government done about it during its term in office? It has restricted, not expanded, training opportunities for Australians, turning some 300,000 Australians away from TAFE alone since 1998. The government’s only solution has been the Australian technical colleges—and they are failing. Australian technical colleges will only produce their first qualified tradesperson in another three years, and even then will produce fewer than 10,000 by 2010. We need 200,000 skilled tradespeople today. The government has announced three more of these colleges in the budget. The Howard government’s Australian technical colleges are simply too little too late, after a decade of underinvestment which has resulted in the current skills crisis.
In his budget in reply, Kevin Rudd announced that a Labor government will implement a $2.5 billion trades in schools program over 10 years to build new trades training centres and upgrade existing facilities and equipment in all of Australia’s 2,650 secondary schools—whether they be government or non-government schools. Each secondary school in Australia will be eligible for capital funding of between $500,000 to $1.5 million to build trade workshops, computer laboratories and other facilities to expand vocational education and training opportunities. Schools will be able to apply to build metal workshops, commercial kitchens, automotive workshops, plumbing workshops, graphic design labs as well as ICT laboratories. And they will be able to purchase equipment, including drills, grinders, wood and metal turning lathes, ovens, soldering and welding equipment and computers. Instead of the government’s failed piecemeal Australian technical colleges approach—an approach, I might add, that has been of zero benefit to young people in Ballarat—Labor’s policy provides for first-class technical training in every secondary school in the country.
In other areas of education, Commonwealth recurrent funding to universities has fallen by a third from 0.9 per cent of GDP in 1996 to just 0.6 per cent today. Over the last 11 years, Commonwealth government investment in education has fallen from two per cent of GDP in 1995-96 to 1.6 per cent of GDP—including the measures announced in the budget. The budget papers disclose that education spending as a proportion of total government expenditure will fall from 7.7 per cent in 2005-06 to 7.4 per cent in 2010-11. This reduction in education investment is not set to change. Despite the government’s grandstanding over the endowment fund, the fund is not $5 billion to universities; it is the annual income stream of only $300 million that has to be distributed over Australia’s 38 universities. This means that each university would receive, on average, an annual payment of $8 million. Considering that some universities have spent over $100 million on one research facility alone I am just not convinced that the University of Ballarat is going to be a major beneficiary of the endowment fund. The budget also increased HECS fees for 50,000 students studying accounting, economics or commerce. With HECS debts blowing out to over $75 million in the Ballarat electorate alone, it is hard to argue that increased fees are not a major disincentive for prospective students in my district.
The cold reality is that the Howard government has, as a proportion of total revenue, reduced its contribution to our universities. Commonwealth grants to the University of Ballarat have decreased from 59 per cent of its revenue in 1996 to 34 per cent in 2004. That shortfall in funding—the decline in Commonwealth funding—is being made up by individual students and their families. This budget is clearly not being driven by any government plan for an education future when the government’s investment in education as a proportion of total spending falls over the next four years.
I have also spoken previously in this place about the need for infrastructure investment to boost regional economies. We all have projects in our electorates that could assist us. In my electorate, it is improvements to the Western Highway and particularly Anthony’s Cutting. The upgrades would bring great benefits to the local community, businesses and any motorists that travel along the Western Highway. The upgrades to Anthony’s Cutting will save travel time, reduce accidents, reduce greenhouse gas emissions and save money. VicRoads economic modelling has indicated a benefit of $5.50 for each $1.00 spent on capital maintenance over 30 years. DOTARS, in a draft strategy for the Melbourne-Adelaide corridor, earmarked the upgrades to Anthony’s Cutting as one of the short-term priority works that should be completed along the corridor. The number of accidents that occur along Anthony’s Cutting is double the state average. It is estimated that work at Anthony’s Cutting will result in 197 fewer accidents, including a reduction of one fatality and 11 serious injury accidents. Anthony’s Cutting remains one of my greatest priorities and I will continue to lobby alongside the Western Highway Action Committee to secure the funding for this project. We were disappointed that it was not funded under AusLink in this budget. I only hope that the Howard government looks at this project on its merits rather than through the political prism that it used for the Strategic Regional Roads Funding Program.
I and four local government areas in my electorate were extremely disappointed when the Howard government was caught red-handed pork-barrelling marginal coalition electorates while vital infrastructure projects in Labor electorates were ignored. The City of Ballarat, Moorabool Shire and Golden Plains Shire all had funding for vital infrastructure projects knocked back. Coalition electorates received $119 million of the Strategic Regional Roads Funding Program while Labor electorates only received $57 million. In Victoria, there was only one Labor electorate that received any funding at all, while eight coalition electorates were flooded with funding. The Howard government has ceased to govern in the interests of all Australians. They are now only governing in their own interests.
The pork-barrelling of coalition seats is systematic of a desperate government willing to say and do anything to stay in power. It is outrageous that not one cent of the additional $250 million for the Strategic Regional Roads Funding Program has gone to Labor electorates in regional Victoria. The City of Ballarat, Moorabool Shire and Golden Plains Shire all had vital upgrades knocked back. The City of Ballarat had funding knocked back for Gillies Road and Bells Road, the Moorabool Shire had funding knocked back for Yankee Flat Road and Golden Plains Shire had funding knocked back for the Mount Mercer Road. All of these projects would have greatly improved the standard and safety of these roads and would have been of great economic benefit to our region. It is extremely disappointing that the Howard government has yet again overlooked key infrastructure projects in our district.
Ballarat needs a government that assesses infrastructure projects on their merits, not on whether they can get votes out of it. This blatant pork-barrelling shows a complete disregard for due process and for our local motorists. Labor want to take the politics out of infrastructure funding. In my community, we are happy to have our infrastructure projects stand on their cost-benefit merits, but in the past we have been overlooked and have had our projects bypassed while projects with less cost-benefit merit in Liberal and National Party held seats have been funded. We want to establish a body, Infrastructure Australia, to take the politics out of infrastructure decisions.
I turn now to talk about the important infrastructure area of broadband. We are faced with the ridiculous situation in country Victoria where every time a community or small regional town wants to access ADSL they have to petition Telstra through its expression of interest system to try to get enough people to signal that they want ADSL before Telstra will even listen. Telstra sets arbitrarily high targets and, even when a community manages to get enough signatures, they have to wait until government subsidies are provided to Telstra before Telstra will do anything. Now we are caught up in the fight between Telstra and the government over its regulatory regime and the amount of financial assistance the government is prepared to chip in to improve regional broadband.
High-speed broadband should be available as a matter of course. We are excited in country Victoria if we get relatively slow ADSL, but we should expect even better speeds than that. When it comes to high-speed broadband, Australia’s performance is woeful. The government’s answer is to go cap in hand to Telstra to try to reach agreement over funding for what, frankly, will be an entirely inadequate service that is only available in capital cities. The government is vulnerable on this issue and there is a very real danger that it will give in to Telstra’s demands, potentially setting us back decades when it comes to having a national broadband network as opposed to the patchwork solution we have currently.
Last year, Labor announced that we would step up to the plate and show national leadership by investing $757 million over three years and applying the equity from the $2 billion Communications Fund in a joint venture with telecommunications companies to bring high-speed broadband to 98 per cent of Australian businesses and households. This is not via a patchwork of ADSL, ISDN and satellite but via a high-speed, fibre to the node broadband network across the country.
As an area in regional Victoria, Ballarat has felt the social and economic effects of the drought particularly hard. You cannot talk about the drought without reflecting on the failure of this government to seriously tackle climate change. The Howard government’s climate change policy is a farce. There is no national climate change agenda and there are no time lines, no targets and no real policies to significantly reduce greenhouse gas pollution or to slow energy demand. The government’s renewable energy policy is a joke and cannot even be described as a token commitment. Having spent the last 11 years as climate change sceptics, the Howard government would now have us believe that they have had a road to Damascus conversion three months out from the election. This government has been part of the problem and is a significant barrier to Australia dealing with climate change.
In our own district, the effects of climate change are evident. Ballarat’s water supply is down to 10 per cent. It is astonishing that this government continues to play politics with the one infrastructure project that will secure Ballarat’s water supply. Federal Labor has already announced $115 million towards the construction of the Goldfields Superpipe project to provide Ballarat and Bendigo with a reliable and secure water supply. Without the Goldfields Superpipe, and if the low flows of recent years and prolonged drought continue, Ballarat will dry up and run out of water. It is time for the federal government to deliver on the superpipe.
The fight for Ballarat’s future water supply is currently receiving no help from the self-appointed Liberal duty senator for Ballarat, Julian McGauran, who called the idea whacky. Nor is it receiving support from the Liberal candidate for Ballarat, who called the idea half-baked and ridiculous. Having damaged Ballarat’s chances of securing federal funding for the superpipe, the Liberal candidate has been quick to resort to the old favourite of the Howard government—the blame game. Having scuttled our chances of receiving federal funding and despite the fact that the state government and Cental Highlands Water have already put substantial funds into the project, the Liberal candidate is on the record as saying that it would only be out of the goodness of their hearts that the federal government would fund the project and that it should be funded entirely by the states. What the self-appointed duty senator and the Liberal candidate do not seem to understand is that the Australian water fund—
What the self-appointed duty senator and the Liberal candidate do not understand is that the Australian water fund was set up to fund projects exactly like this, as it has already done so with the Bendigo section of the superpipe. Why does the Liberal candidate think that it is all right for the federal government to support the residents of Bendigo and fund their vital infrastructure but it is not okay for the federal government to support Ballarat residents? It is extraordinary that, since the $2 billion Australian water fund was set up in 2004, more than half of the funds remain unallocated. A federal Labor government has already committed to securing Ballarat’s future water supply and I again call on the federal government to ignore the Liberal candidate’s unhelpful intervention and to do the same.
These are just a few of the areas where the government has failed to demonstrate that it has a plan for the future prosperity of the nation. There are many others. Today, again, in the news—but it has been around for a long time—is the issue of housing affordability. There is the issue of real assistance and incentives to move people to participate in the workforce, instead of the Welfare to Work reforms that are currently hurting many of the people in my district who are already working part time and trying to get ahead and do the right thing. The government’s failure over the last 11 years to effectively address the health needs and the social participation needs of our Indigenous Australians also calls them into question.
It is with great pleasure that I rise to speak on the benefits of this year’s budget, or the appropriation bills, for the residents of my electorate of Flinders. In particular I want to look at three areas: the economic benefits, the environmental benefits and the social benefits which have come out of the budget.
Firstly, in looking at the economic benefits, the most important thing to understand is that there has been a drop in unemployment from the period of 1996 to now from 9.4 per cent to 4.2 per cent. So a 5.2 per cent increase in the number of—
I have already accepted the question. As to why Ballarat is different from the trends that the rest of the nation is facing, I suspect that the local residents would want to ask that of their representative, because across the country there has been a dramatic drop in unemployment. In the seat of Flinders there has been a 5.2 per cent drop in unemployment. If, under the member for Ballarat’s stewardship, there has been a failure to deal with this question then she ought to explain to her residents why that is the case.
I will continue if the Committee pleases. The second point in relation to the economic benefits of the budget is that while the rest of the country has been experiencing a great decrease in unemployment and an increase in employment and real and profound benefits to families as a result of this change, there has also been a change in the real income which is being taken home by families. That real income has increased by 20 per cent over the last decade. But more than that, in the middle-income brackets we have seen a dramatic change in the amount of tax paid on that income and great reductions.
For over 15,000 families, for 60 per cent plus of the population of the electorate of Flinders in the adult ages that are engaged in the workforce, this budget decreases the amount of tax they have to pay. Firstly, it will affect those in the middle brackets, from 1 July this year—when the threshold for the 30 per cent range will increase from $25,000 to $30,000. That is important and will provide critical relief to families at the lower- to middle-income levels and is something which will have a profound effect on their capacity. It is part of the ongoing process of tax reform. It is good for them as families, it is good for the economy as a whole and it is all about providing people with reward for work and incentives to participate in the work process.
The second of the economic reforms contained in this budget is backing for small business. We have over 6,000 small businesses in the electorate of Flinders. What they have been able to receive here is a proportionate part of $540 million of tax relief for small business with, perhaps most importantly to them, compliance costs reduced. That is an eternal bugbear. Whether it is farmers, bakers, shopkeepers or any of the small businesses, they are always seeking—and rightly so—to reduce the time they spend on compliance and to reduce any costs associated with compliance. In addition to that, they will benefit from the lower personal income tax rates and will also have the opportunity to participate in the quite large industry assistance plan to help build global markets and improve productivity. For the number of export firms that are developing in high-tech areas such as hovercraft or others, I think that is an extremely important economic reform.
An additional economic reform which has a very real human dividend is the skills package. We have over 3,300 apprentices in the Flinders electorate, and a significant proportion of them will benefit from a tax exempt payment of $1,000 and a $500 voucher to help pay course fees, depending on where they are. For local plumbers, electricians, carpenters and the many other tradies who are working and training in the electorate of Flinders it is a great step forward, and I am very pleased about that.
In addition, there is the economic and social benefit which comes from the investment in local roads. Immediately following the budget we had an announcement of $860,000 for the completion and sealing of Clyde Road and an announcement of $500,000 for the completion and sealing of Dalmore Road. These roads will help the residents of Tooradin, Dalmore and Clyde. In particular, they will help the farmers transport their goods to market. It is an extremely important step forward.
I respectfully say to the City of Casey that you made a very clear statement in your application to the Commonwealth that no additional funds would be sought from any other stakeholders. The Commonwealth rightly read that as a statement that the City of Casey would not be seeking, in addition to the $800,000 from the Commonwealth for Manks Road, to impose a levy on the residents of Manks Road. I am now told that the City of Casey is seeking to charge residents over $8,000, with no choice. These are poor or struggling farmers in many cases. They are not a group of people who are extremely wealthy. Let me be absolutely clear before the Parliament of Australia that this would represent a fundamental lack of faith with the application, which said that no extra money would be sought. I hope that the council will reverse its current position. It would be a breach of a very clear undertaking to the Australian government, to the people of Australia and to the Parliament of Australia. It would be viewed with great circumspection and with enormous disapproval from the parliament, as well as being a breach of faith with the local residents.
This is a unique situation. This road is different from any others. It is a main road which has been falsely and wrongly categorised as a local road. It is a main road which should have been completed probably two decades ago. The council application was absolutely clear that it is a road which should be treated as a main road. It made no reference to the benefit to residents and it made an express, clear and absolute undertaking to the Commonwealth that no extra dollars would be charged. This would be a breach, and I urge the City of Casey to reconsider. I have raised this with the CEO and the mayor, both of whom are honourable men, and I hope that they will uphold the express and clear undertaking to the Commonwealth.
Moving beyond the question of the economic benefits to the region—to the families and others of Flinders—I want to focus on the environmental benefits contained in the budget. Of all the measures in the budget, the one on which my office has had the most feedback is the doubling of the rebate for solar panels on homes. There will now be a rebate of up to $8,000 available for those who install solar panels on their roof. I think this is an admirable chance to allow families to participate in national greenhouse gas savings. I also urge families to consider the possibility of signing up to green or renewable power. At present only three per cent of Australians do this. It is available to every Australian, and many of the people who are most critical about greenhouse, when I ask them whether or not they have signed up to green power, drop their eyes and note that they have not. For those who, rightly, believe that this is an important issue, there is no excuse for not contributing. It is our time, it is our responsibility, it is our task and so I urge people to take up that opportunity, particularly those who are critical of others for not taking steps. These solar rebates will also be extended to schools, with grants of up to $12,000 available for installing solar panels. I know there is great interest amongst the schools of the Mornington Peninsula.
I turn now to the social benefits. Perhaps the most important single item in the budget for the electorate of Flinders is the fact that over 22,000 pensioners and healthcare card holders will receive a benefit of $500 each prior to 30 June. This is a pensioner’ bonus, which reflects their contribution to Australia and the specific needs which they have. I am proud to say that locals from the electorate of Flinders may have played a very important part in securing this bonus. Representations were made to me, and I spoke at length with the Prime Minister directly about precisely this initiative. I hope that in some small way that contributed to the outcome. It is a direct case of people from our electorate being able to communicate immediately with the Prime Minister through their representative. It is how democracy should work and it is a great thing to see. I thank the Prime Minister for listening and acting, and I thank the members of the electorate of Flinders for making those representations. For our pensioners, for our seniors, for our self-funded retirees, it is a welcome and much-appreciated recognition of their great contribution.
In addition to that outcome, other social benefits include the fact that 15,000 families, in the towns of Hastings, Somerville, Rosebud, Mount Martha, Cowes on Phillip Island, Lang Lang, Koo Wee Rup and many others, will be able to access the $700 tuition voucher for children who do not achieve national literacy and numeracy benchmarks at different years. They will be able to benefit from the 13 per cent increase in the childcare benefit. Hopefully there will be more than 700 local recipients of the carer rebate who will receive a $1,000 payment, and 2,500 local recipients of the carer allowance who will receive a $600 payment. Of great importance to the electorate is the fact that those who suffer from poor dental health which may have a chronic impact on their broader health will now for the first time be able to claim up to $2,000 in annual benefits from Medicare. That is a very important benefit for our electorate. Altogether, this has been a very good result for the electorate of Flinders.
I am also pleased that, in terms of both our national security and our local community and economy, there is $14 million for an upgrade of HMAS Cerberus at Crib Point. That upgrade will go to assisting with training in the schools of gunnery, engineering, communication, seamanship, health and catering. I think that there is a long-term, 30-year vision for HMAS Cerberus. It is an integral part of the Australia’s defence network. It is a wonderful part of the Mornington Peninsula community. The fact that that now has been guaranteed is a tremendous thing and I thank the defence minister for that. Above all else, I am delighted by outcomes such as tax relief, the pensioner bonus, the increased solar rebate, the increase in funding for veterans, such as the ex gratia payment of $25,000 for Australian prisoners of war held in Europe or fortnightly increases of $50 for veterans with a disability. All of those things are good outcomes for our electorate. I commend the budget and I commend the appropriations bill.
Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker. You pre-empted my opening remarks. Yes, it is my 15th and last budget reply speech. I can honestly say that, from the very first one in 1993, where I think I criticised the John Dawkins budget and was accused of being a rebel, to the 2007-08 budget, I would like to think that every time I have stood up and made my budget reply speech I have tried to highlight the gaps where the punters, as I lovingly call them, are promised the world but quite often miss out.
I do acknowledge that there are lots and lots of positive things in the budget. The previous speaker mentioned the $25,000 allocated to European prisoners of war. That was one of the things that I have been nibbling away at for years and years. As I said in a speech here a couple of days ago, it was in lots of cases too late to acknowledge the Japanese and Korean POWs. To totally ignore the Europeans I think was a retrograde step by not only this government but by our government when we were in power.
If you believe all of the hype, we have never had it so good. You look at the television ads by the major retail chains and it is basically buy, buy, buy—just put it on the plastic card. But, if you look beyond the hype and turn the stones over, there are some disconcerting things that confront us. First of all, there is the fact that Australians owe $38 billion on credit cards. I think there is an average of close to $3,000 per person and there are lots of people who do not have them—they have given them away.
We see a growth in personal insolvencies which has doubled over the past nine months. This was revealed in the Senate estimates the other day. Bankruptcies grew by 12½ per cent in the nine months to March this year. Debt agreements, which are binding arrangements for people who cannot pay their debts, have jumped a massive 32 per cent in the nine months to March this year. These are frightening statistics. Land repossession claims in New South Wales have jumped a hefty 75 per cent since 2004 and in Victoria they doubled between 2003 and 2006. There are lots of positives, but there are lots and lots of negatives and people are falling through the cracks. So, despite the McDonalds mansions that are out there and the gloss that is Australian society, when you have a closer look there are some serious problems.
One group of people that I think were really ignored in the budget were the people with disabilities. There do not seem to be many votes in the disability sector, unfortunately. To their credit, the government have sought to iron out this vexatious problem with state health ministers. That phrase ‘the blame game’ does exist and the fault lies, in my mind, on both sides. Ministers of all political persuasions are trying to grind out the extra dollars to ensure that they can then go out and pork-barrel in their electorates or their states and say, ‘It’s somebody else’s fault because we cannot deliver the services.’
I know Minister Mal Brough has recently met with state ministers to indicate that the federal government would like to see dollar for dollar additional funding to address unmet needs, particularly in the desperately-needed areas of disability, supported accommodation and respite. You would know, Mr Deputy Speaker Kerr, that in Tasmania we face a real shortage of respite care places for families who have not only children but grown adults. It is a 24/7 occupation and you do need respite. The children need respite as well as the families. Sadly, I noticed in the Hobart Mercury today that government disability workers in Tasmania are going to strike today in protest over the state government’s refusal to guarantee about 140 staff permanent jobs and employment security. The Lennon government is preparing to hand over to the private sector another of the nine homes for disabled Tasmanians that it operates. There is this growing trend right across Australia where governments are getting out of looking after disabled people, especially those in group homes.
This was brought to my attention by a wonderful friend of mine, Julie Hayes, who works as a carer in a wonderful group home—in fact, it is the first group home in Tasmania—which is situated in your electorate, Mr Deputy Speaker, just off Tolosa Street in Glenorchy: the Sunlea home. I received a letter from them. They are a small non-profit organisation that support four young people with severe disabilities, both in their home and in the community. They are funded through the state Department of Health and Human Services. They wrote about one of the people, young Rachel. She is 37, which is young in my terms. She needs a new wheelchair. Her present chair is 12 years old. It is made of a firm compound moulded to fit Rachel’s unique shape. It has only a thin film of foam covering it as padding. Due to the change in Rachel’s shape over time, the chair no longer fits and it is becoming increasingly uncomfortable for her to be in. The physiotherapist at the specialised seating clinic has recommended that she have a new custom-built electric chair. Sadly, Rachel is eligible for only $6,000 from the community equipment scheme, leaving a shortfall of $11,167. The letter says:
Over the past several months we have submitted requests for the funding to the State government through the appropriate channels but have been told repeatedly that there is no funding to allocate.
Rachel is only 37 years old and has strong social networks in the community. Her present chair will become increasingly uncomfortable for her and it is quite possible that she may not be able to use it at all. This has huge implications for all areas of Rachel’s life. ‘We do not have the money,’ the state says. ‘We are doing our share.’ It is going to take a year to build the new chair—assuming the money is there. So where do we go? It is not a Commonwealth responsibility because they are only interested in disabilities when it comes to work. The states are responsible but they do not have the money. Here is a 37-year-old in a chair that is 12 years too old for her. It is like asking my children to wear the same pair of shoes for 12 years as they grow. Luckily, Norske Skog, the wonderful pulp and paper manufacturer at New Norfolk, looks like coming to the party—to the shame of the state government.
Another area of concern is the aid budget. Most of us in this place are interested in and involved in the millennium goals. We are working to ensure that, when Australia does allocate its aid budget, people in the developing world are able to maximise the opportunities presented to them. One area that does worry me when it comes to aid is the considerable amount of money we spend in Laos demining UXOs, unexploded ordnances. I had the privilege of visiting Laos recently and seeing the wonderful work that Australia is doing. Yet, on the other hand, I noticed the Age on 27 May said:
The Federal Government wants to narrow the terms of a proposed international treaty banning cluster bombs, to exclude new weapons being sought by the Australian Defence Force.
While the Government says it wants to drastically reduce the number of cluster bombs in world arsenals, it has used international talks to argue that the weapons being obtained by the ADF should not be included in the ban.
The ADF says the new weapons have a self-destruct capability, minimising the risk to civilians from unexploded cluster munitions.
If you visit these countries and look at their history, you will see that they do not all explode once they have been dropped. I know in Laos that up to 150 innocent civilians each year are killed by these cluster bombs.
My daughter, Sarah, who is interested in the millennium goals, faxed me a copy of an article that appeared in the Guardian Weekly on 11 May this year. The article highlights the global school report, which names and shames the best and worst donors when it comes to keeping their promise of every person having the chance of an education by 2015. Britain, which gets a B, is bettered only by the Netherlands, Norway and Denmark. The bottom of the class are Australia, the US, Greece and Austria. It says:
The donors are very good at promising and doing events on the issue ... but we haven’t seen the money.
Hopefully, that area of our aid budget will be looked at.
I know later today the Parliamentary Group on Population and Development are issuing an excellent report. I will not pre-empt it—it is embargoed till four o’clock this afternoon—but it raises as an issue the fact that Australia and the USA are the only two donor countries planning restrictions on the use of aid funds. It says that our AusAID family-planning guidelines limit contraceptive choice and ban access to information and services about abortion. These restrictions deny women in our region the same access to reproductive health choices, education and services we give ourselves, even in countries where it is legal to do so. Having visited many countries, especially the Philippines, I know for a fact that this overseas aid restriction has a detrimental effect.
I spoke at the outset about things looking a bit wonderful, but when you turn the stones over you see there are some problems. I have been proud to serve for the last 15 years on the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Family and Human Services. We are currently looking at the impact of substance abuse on families. We were given the other day two excellent reports: ANCD research paper No. 13, Drug use in the family: impacts and implications for children, and Grandparents parenting grandchildren because of alcohol and other drugs. In the evidence we were given were some frightening statistics: 10 per cent of children live in households where there is parental alcohol abuse or dependence and/or substance abuse; close on 230,000 children are at risk of exposure to binge drinking in the household by at least one adult; another 40,500 live in a household containing at least one daily cannabis user; and another 14,000 live in a household with an adult who uses methamphetamines at least monthly.
In the grandparents report it says that grandparents are increasingly taking on full-time caring responsibilities in response to concerns for the welfare of their grandchildren, and 31,100 children aged between zero and 17 are being raised by grandparents. This is an issue that confronts Australian society. Those grandparents have explained to us the problems they have when it comes to Medicare, Centrelink payments, education and their relationship with the police.
I think it would be remiss of me in this my last budget reply speech not to mention the war—something that I have been totally—
I also add my welcome, Sir. As I said, I think it would be remiss of me in this my last budget speech not to mention the war, something that I have been totally opposed to. We see daily the reports of the deaths of soldiers from most of the countries that are there—and thank God we have not as yet experienced the loss of life that many of our coalition colleagues have experienced. I would like to read into Hansard in my last 4½ minutes a letter from a person who teaches history and international relations at Boston University. His son died on 13 May this year after a suicide bomb explosion. It is headed: ‘I Lost My Son to a War I Oppose. We Were Both Doing Our Duty.’ It says:
Parents who lose children, whether through accident or illness, inevitably wonder what they could have done to prevent their loss. When my son was killed in Iraq earlier this month at age 27, I found myself pondering my responsibility for his death.
Among the hundreds of messages that my wife and I have received, two bore directly on this question. Both held me personally culpable, insisting that my public opposition to the war had provided aid and comfort to the enemy. Each said that my son’s death came as a direct result of my antiwar writings.
This may seem a vile accusation to lay against a grieving father. But in fact, it has become a staple of American political discourse, repeated endlessly by those keen to allow President Bush a free hand in waging his war. By encouraging “the terrorists,” opponents of the Iraq conflict increase the risk to U.S. troops. Although the First Amendment protects antiwar critics from being tried for treason, it provides no protection for the hardly less serious charge of failing to support the troops—today’s civic equivalent of dereliction of duty.
What exactly is a father’s duty when his son is sent into harm’s way?
Among the many ways to answer that question, mine was this one: As my son was doing his utmost to be a good soldier, I strove to be a good citizen.
As a citizen, I have tried since Sept. 11, 2001, to promote a critical understanding of U.S. foreign policy. I know that even now, people of good will find much to admire in Bush’s response to that awful day. They applaud his doctrine of preventive war. They endorse his crusade to spread democracy across the Muslim world and to eliminate tyranny from the face of the Earth. They insist not only that his decision to invade Iraq in 2003 was correct but that the war there can still be won. Some—the members of the “the-surge-is-already-working” school of thought—even profess to see victory just over the horizon.
I believe that such notions are dead wrong and doomed to fail. In books, articles and op-ed pieces, in talks to audiences large and small, I have said as much. “The long war is an unwinnable one,” I wrote in this section of The Washington Post in August 2005. “The United States needs to liquidate its presence in Iraq, placing the onus on Iraqis to decide their fate and creating the space for other regional powers to assist in brokering a political settlement. We’ve done all that we can do.”
Not for a second did I expect my own efforts to make a difference. But I did nurse the hope that my voice might combine with those of others—teachers, writers, activists and ordinary folks—to educate the public about the folly of the course on which the nation has embarked. I hoped that those efforts might produce a political climate conducive to change. I genuinely believed that if the people spoke, our leaders in Washington would listen and respond.
This, I can now see, was an illusion.
It goes on for several more pages. I would urge people to google, as most of us do, and look at some of the other sides of this war—the human tragedies and the dilemma that parents face when they are opposed to a war that results in the death of their sons and daughters.
I thank the honourable member for Franklin and I again acknowledge that this is the last occasion on which you will be addressing the House or the Committee of the House on the appropriation bills. I am certain that in a bipartisan way all members would wish you well in your future.
I am very honoured to speak on the Appropriation (Parliamentary Departments) Bill (No. 1) 2007-2008 and cognate bills today. The federal budget brought down on 8 May provides many practical support measures for all Australians. It is a budget which again demonstrates the Howard government’s credentials as responsible economic managers. The budget has tax cuts for a fifth year in a row. These tax changes will ensure that 80 per cent of taxpayers will pay no more than the 30 per cent rate. We have created a budget surplus of $10.6 billion. We commit to funding greater childcare assistance, providing more investment in health and transport infrastructure, reducing taxes and costs for small business, giving an unprecedented boost to education funding and providing more money to raise teaching and education standards to deliver the workforce that Australia needs into the future. For the Northern Territory, the budget delivers more money for roads, transport, infrastructure, health and education.
Just as importantly, the 2007-08 budget builds on the Howard government’s commitment to strengthening Australia’s defence capabilities, and that is what I want to talk about in some detail today. The decision taken a decade ago to shift defence resources from the back room to the front line has increased the importance of the Northern Territory as a staging post in our strategic defence plan. The defence funding for my electorate of Solomon will total $318.5 million in 2007-08. The strong defence presence in Solomon includes HMAS Coonawarra, the Darwin Naval Base, Robertson Barracks, Larrakeyah Barracks and RAAF Base Darwin. The current defence capability plan outlines $51 billion of new acquisitions over 10 years. This year the commitment to defence will total $22 billion—an increase of 47 per cent in real terms since 1995-96. The Australian Strategic Policy Institute in its Defence budget brief 2007-08, says the defence budget has risen from $12.6 billion in 2000-01 to a projected $29.8 billion in 2016-17. Accounting for inflation, this amounts to a 58 per cent real rise over the next 16 years.
Much of this funding will benefit my electorate of Solomon. The Northern Territory has a proud tradition of being a home to Australia’s defence forces. The Territory has shown itself to be an essential part of Australia’s military strategy in the region. Northern Australia is the only part of mainland Australia to have been attacked repeatedly during a time of war. So Territorians have a unique perspective on the importance of a strong local military presence. We are also significant as a regional access point for Asia and a training location for exercises. The Northern Territory has also served as an essential staging post for Australia’s operations in South-East Asia in recent times. The Bali bombings in 2002 and the Boxing Day tsunami in 2004 saw Darwin as a focal point for emergency assistance, with troops deployed out of Darwin. The Howard government, through defence, will continue its strong support of the economy of Solomon based on a continuing significant military presence.
The current military population of the electorate includes over 5,600 ADF members, Defence civilians and ADF cadets. Defence families also form an integral part of the Solomon community. As I have mentioned, the government will continue to make an extensive financial contribution of around $318.5 million in 2007-08 to the funding of both defence facilities and personnel serving in Solomon. In addition, this year a further $3.5 million will be allocated for funding facilities. As part of the ongoing commitment to supporting and valuing our ADF personnel and their families, the following improvements will be made. There will be a modern and more flexible pay structure. There will be a new home loans assistance package, with higher subsidies and greater choice, to encourage homeownership and provide for benefits as members serve on for longer periods. A transition and career advice function will be created within Defence Force Recruiting to assist those who might be considering alternative careers. There will also be investment in the professional development of defence medical officers.
Further improvements include better marketing to showcase the Navy, Army and Air Force as employers of choice. A new Defence Apprenticeship scheme will be introduced to assist 16- and 17-year-olds commence an apprenticeship and then join the ADF. There will also be a boost to the Royal Australian Navy Sea Change program. Local cadets will benefit from an expansion and enhancement of the Defence Force Cadets scheme, giving our young people the life, leadership and employability skills valued by employers and community leaders.
Defence facilities in the Northern Territory will also benefit from $52.5 million in funding this year. Of this, a total of $14.6 million has been allocated to approved defence facilities projects. A further $37.9 million will be spent on Defence estate upkeep works. Estate upkeep works provide the ongoing maintenance of Defence’s extensive existing base infrastructure, including airfields, naval bases, barracks, training, cadet facilities and fuel farms. The rolling maintenance program is developed and revised each year, focusing on areas of the highest priority.
During 2007-08 Defence will spend approximately $37.9 million on estate upkeep in the Northern Territory. Examples of work to be undertaken in Solomon include termite-proofing of buildings at Robertson Barracks, OH&S repairs at Larrakeyah Barracks, repairs to vehicle-loading ramps in Darwin, the maintenance of fixed plant and equipment and the management of field areas, firing ranges and roads. The capital facilities investments in Solomon will also support the new Armidale class patrol boats and, in Lingiari, will provide an additional training area for 1st Brigade.
Darwin Naval Base patrol boat facilities will provide upgraded facilities at the Darwin Naval Base for the new Armidale class patrol boats. Construction commenced in early 2005 and is being completed in stages to allow the continued operation of the Naval base and to support the staged introduction into service of the Armidale class patrol boat. The schedule for completion is late 2007. Significant additional expenditure is expected to be announced during the year as further projects are considered for approval.
Bradshaw Field Training Area infrastructure at Timber Creek is a project which provides engineering services and infrastructure to allow the use of Bradshaw as a field training area for 1st Brigade. Works there include roads, training force maintenance areas, base camp, range control and caretaker facilities. This work is also scheduled for completion by late this year. Significant additional expenditure is expected to be announced during the year as further projects are considered for approval in Solomon. They include: RAAF Darwin redevelopment stage 2; Robertson Barracks redevelopment, including facilities for the LAND 907 and the Hardened and Networked Army projects; and control facilities and the Single Living Environment and Accommodation Precinct phase 2 proposals for Robertson Barracks and HMAS Coonawarra.
The Northern Territory has also received new funding for RAAF Tindal redevelopment stage 5, RAAF Tindal airborne early warning and control facilities, and facilities to support the introduction of the C17 heavy airlift capability. All the new funding that I have outlined will boost capital works and infrastructure and will provide state-of-the-art equipment for our armed forces. I am sure many Territory businesses will benefit from this work.
But the greatest resource that we have is our people, and I salute the service men and women of the Australian defence forces for their service and commitment and for their contribution to peace and freedom both in our region and throughout the world. Around 3,000 ADF personnel are deployed on operations overseas, from Iraq to the Solomon Islands, to protect Australia and its national interests. Darwin based soldiers currently involved in operations in the Middle East include 500 soldiers serving in the Overwatch Battle Group in Iraq and another 120 soldiers in the Force Level Logistics Asset in the Middle East. It was only recently that the final members of the 370-strong first reconstruction task force arrived home to Darwin after spending six months in the Oruzgan province in Afghanistan where they were conducting reconstruction projects. We owe a great debt to our men and women who have served overseas. Today I take this opportunity in our national parliament to honour them, both past and present, for their service and to let them know that it is remembered and appreciated.
The wonderful role that spouses and families play in supporting Defence personnel should also not be forgotten. Families provide a pivotal level of support for personnel who are serving overseas by giving them a base at home that they can look forward to on their return. I pay tribute to the spouses as well. Territorians love the fact that we have Defence personnel in Darwin. They have fully integrated into the community. In fact, the community would not be the same without them. They add to our laid-back and often unique lifestyle in the Northern Territory. It is a great honour to have them there, and I pay tribute to all those people connected with Defence in the Northern Territory.
This will be my last address-in-reply, the 20th, on an appropriation bill. It is interesting that this is the budget that has anaesthetised the Australian electorate, and the very fact that so many government members do not recognise it is bewildering to say the least. Ross Gittins described this budget as a set of jam jars, with a new endowment in education funds as simply another jam jar for another Future Fund. He was right. In fact, one of the few redeeming features of Appropriation Bill (No. 1) 2006-2007 and cognate bills is that, for the first time in many years, there is apparently a genuine focus on education—that it is misplaced is another story, but I will come to that later. At least the issues are being recognised—and about time too. Being my 20th year in this parliament I can, without fear of contradiction, state that the quality of debate on education has been pretty ordinary in this place.
This country dropped the ball on education 30 years ago. Since that time, neither the Commonwealth nor the state governments have bothered to take a serious analytical approach to education. It is worth a brief trip back to 1977 to establish when education in this country went off the rails. In 1977, education was in far better shape than was ever acknowledged. Without interference by politicians, state education bureaucrats wisely balanced up the quality of educational programs in Australian schools from the very boy-friendly content and competitive programs of the fifties and sixties. It is a tragedy that certain events, reports, ideologies and political interference contributed and conspired both unintentionally and intentionally to seriously weaken what was an extremely well-balanced public and private education system in Australia, which, importantly, was recognised internationally as one of the education beacons of the world.
Bipartisan support for education has diminished. When the well-received and well-intentioned education reports were implemented, they impacted very badly on the public education system. The failure to realise the strength and diversity of primary and secondary public education, which was supported by the wider community, was indeed a tragedy. Integrating technical schools, girls schools, boys schools, area schools and agricultural schools into a comprehensive high school system has been an unmitigated disaster. Replacing primary and junior primary educational directorates, who had the most progressive bureaucrats in education in the country, and integrating education into a single bureaucracy crushed and crunched much of the innovation found in our junior and primary schools, as well as starving those sectors of funding. The administrators of education became more and more the lap-dogs of state politicians and ever more distanced from the core business of improving the quality of leadership, education programs, teaching and learning in our schools, and this again impacted negatively on the morale of teachers. Teachers were then undervalued. They are today and they know it.
Ideological nonsense pervaded the education system big-time. Political correctness and victimhood that the system did not need gained more and more prominence. Competition was frowned upon. Collaboration was revered. Analysis was replaced with synthesis. Examinations and testings were dropped in favour of continuous assessment. Style was favoured over substance, expression over organisation and structure, passivity over activity, intuition over insight, safety over risk taking, description over comprehension, nurture over nature and so on. If truth and common sense prevailed, all of the above would be included in a balanced educational program. But half of the education experience was removed from too many by the misguided.
The introduction of all the ideological nonsense was based on just that—ideology—and flawed, inadequate or no research whatsoever. It confused, angered, divided and sidelined teachers and parents and was the basis for the coalition introducing apartheid-style policies for public and private education. But the outcome is there for all to see: Australia has slipped down the educational ladder to be part of the pack rather than the leader it ought to be.
Last Wednesday, Justine Ferrari of the Australian wrote a very interesting article on how ideology has ruled the classroom rather than rigorous scientific research to establish the most effective techniques in the classroom. The article stated that too many educational establishments rejected research in favour of individual opinions. Dr Kerry Hempenstall, a former teacher and now an educational psychologist at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology, said many current arguments—like ‘Learning is a natural process for children and you should interfere as little as possible; learning to read is like learning to walk or talk; it is more important to teach higher level thinking skills than facts and content’—are just plain wrong. Although arrant nonsense, those beliefs have been very ‘in’ during the last 30 years. The article goes on to say that research tells us that learning to read is an acquired skill that has to be specifically taught, that high-level thinking skills and concepts cannot be directly taught in a content-free context and what distinguishes the expert from the novice is how much they know, not how well they think. Of course that is correct. Why was it ever doubted?
In other words, it is not one or the other. It is both. It is theory and practice. It is research and practice. It is competition and collaboration, analysis and synthesis, activity and passivity, insight and intuition, expression and self-reliance and so on. The key is balance. The key is inclusion. The key is common sense. The direction comes from evidence, from proven practice and not from selective ideological political correctness or social engineering.
For about 18 of the last 19 years I have spent in the parliament I have been a member or the deputy chair of the House of Representatives education committee in its various formats. During that time I have had the opportunity to introduce, personally or jointly with colleagues, matters that deal with early intervention, literacy, numeracy, technical and vocational education, the need for more rigorous mathematics and science teaching, violence in schools, boys’ education, national curriculum, teacher education, income support for tertiary students, examinations and testing and so on. The best efforts of members of that committee on both sides of the parliament and the production of many quality reports have, in an evolutionary rather than a revolutionary sense, now become front and centre in the national education debate. That is some progress from my first caucus committee, when I could not get a seconder to highlight early intervention and literacy and numeracy failings in 1988.
However, having the issues front and centre is no guarantee of sensible implementation or success. The current government recognised literacy and numeracy deficiencies. In fact, my crafted words in the Crawford report on literacy and numeracy were used over and over again by the former minister Dr David Kemp. But the implementation was more about a blame game than a genuine tackling of the problem.
A similar story has emerged about technical and vocational education and the flawed set-up of technical colleges. At fault is a common human failing: everybody has an opinion on education. The direction of education initiatives should be based on research—qualitative, quantitative, longitudinal—and proven practice. If all the areas that are now mentioned as being front and centre in education are to be successful, the methodology, ideology and divisiveness of the last 30 years need to be rejected. Guessing what should happen and listening to opinions, rather than evidence from legitimate research and practice, will lead to another 30 years of a mediocre education system. A plan for education should be like a plan for building a house: you begin with the foundations, not the roof. Education in this country begins with a roof, according to this government. International and local research, reaffirmed time and time again, explains that the most significant education occurs with children between the ages of seven and 11 and that the quality of education received by children in those years overwhelmingly decides the future success or otherwise of every individual. In Finland they take that very seriously and that is the age when kids begin school. In Australia, this sector receives the least resources and attention. When I say ‘early intervention’, I say it in an educational sense and I too refer to the seven- to 11-year-old age group. Early intervention as it applies to children from the age zero to seven is not an educational imperative. That does not mean that social, technological, manipulative or play skills and mobility gained by children at this age are not important—they are—but the education should be informal.
For children in the age zero to five group we invented the lovely term ‘child care’. How dishonest. It was never about child care; it is not about child care now. It is about parent respite, to allow parents, usually women, to re-enter the workforce. There is nothing intrinsically wrong with that. It makes perfect economic sense to have a high proportion of women in the workforce, but it comes at a cost. Children aged from zero to five monitored and parented largely by their parents, their grandparents or other family members do far better than the equivalent child in a childcare centre. That fact is not always welcome; it is true, nevertheless. The two years of school from ages five to seven prepare the ground for formal education. That is why we should plan for a high-skill, high-remuneration future for our workforce, rather than the intent of the current government of low skill and low remuneration. Most families in Australia do not have the choice of not using child care. However, the cost can be far greater than the monetary costs. The next government should, as Kevin Rudd has pointed out, begin an education revolution, but it needs to start at the beginning—and that beginning is with the seven- to 11-year-olds.
I have tried to encourage the House of Representatives committee on education to take on a particular research inquiry for 18 years. No minister of education has ever had the courage to do it. The inquiry should be: what is the current allocation of resources from public and private means to fund primary, secondary, TAFE and tertiary institutions, whether public or private? If there are differentials, what is the justification in educational, historical and traditional terms? In beginning the education revolution, what resources are necessary to make both the public and private education systems in Australia the best in the world? In other words, stop guessing about where education is and find out by research where it is.
I remind the House that successful primary education in our schools—despite family difficulties caused by socioeconomic status, culture, gender, race or religion—is most likely to deliver a successful student at a secondary and post secondary level. If everybody opened their eyes and looked around them, they would see dysfunctional behaviour on the roads, at sporting venues, in families and at shopping centres everywhere. It is not a given that people should behave in that way. Getting it right when it counts would save this country billions of dollars and create the opportunity for real and sustainable long-term wealth and societal cohesion.
I gave a speech in this place in the early 1990s on the positive value to the economy of environmental technology and I predicted that water and power would be the big issues at the beginning of the 21st century. So when I heard the Prime Minister’s national water plan in February, I thought: fair enough, that is a good idea. But it was not a plan; it was a bucket of money—a whole $10 billion. It was bereft of detail and purely political in its conceptualisation. But money talks even louder than state premiers and those words led the Sydney Morning Herald’s editorial on the Prime Minister’s $10 billion national water plan.
The editorial went on to further point out that the states have made a real mess of the Murray-Darling Basin. As we were dropping the ball on education 30 years ago, the ball was dropped on water over the same period. It was all ineffective because each state could exercise a veto power. The national interest was the first casualty. The Commonwealth was planning to buy back licences from irrigators to reduce demand, increase water use efficiency and cut water usage by improving the infrastructure of irrigators—not a perfect plan by any analysis, but a sort of a plan nevertheless. New South Wales agreed immediately. It could not afford to buy back the licences and the overallocation of water this state had allowed. South Australia, Queensland and the ACT arrived at the same view, albeit with some grandstanding. However, to the credit of the leaders of those administrations, some sensible concessions were gained from the Commonwealth without compromising the national management of the rivers. A panel of five experts to be appointed for their expertise rather than their state localities is a sensible move, and Mike Rann from South Australia should be congratulated on putting that idea forward and having it accepted. Not having the Victorians on board is a weakness, and Steve Bracks has brought no credit to his state with his uncooperative and parochial stance.
However, when I step back and I reflect on what has happened, I am again struck by the same weakness that has applied to education: a lack of analysis, a lack of reason, a lack of research, a failed appreciation of the change in circumstances in population, agriculture and industry, craven ineptness, negligence and intellectual shallowness. Take population as an indicator. In 1977 the population in Australia was 14.2 million; today it is almost 21 million. So how could the state governments in the last 30 years be so slack—with a population growth of 50 per cent, multiplied by the required use of water in agriculture and industry to meet the needs of the increased population—as to ignore increasing the supply of water? But they did, and the current drought has caught them out.
It is all very well in a drought period to encourage constituents to reduce their demand—but that is not a long-term answer; it is not any answer. Increasing the supply of water is the challenge. Recognising the four ways to do that does not require too much brain power, yet no state government or the Commonwealth government has recognised that. Obviously the damming of catchment areas has limited options; however, recycling of water has to occur, as does the preservation of stormwater. The other option of course is expensive desalination, as the Western Australians are to discover. Where are the significant recycling of water initiatives in this budget? Where are the significant stormwater conservation initiatives in this budget? Silence. They are not there, are they?
In the western suburbs of my electorate, the last significant piece of open space will be sold with the approval of state government and local government. A public campaign I organised forced the government to save 40.6 per cent of the land—a figure that could be reduced to 35 per cent because of the dysfunctional Charles Sturt Council and the negligence of the state government. A national water plan of substance would not allow this land to be sold. I have written to the federal government requesting their urgent intervention. I received an acknowledgement from the Prime Minister’s office but not a substantive reply. Should I hold my breath? Will the federal government be dinkum on water and stop the folly of the sale of this land? The wider electorate has turned off the political process. It no longer believes the government. It no longer believes the media. It is holding the power of its vote until election day and refusing to seriously indicate what it is really thinking.
On the topic of governance, leadership and the ineffective media in this country, I would like to put on the public record a view of what I believe is happening in my own state. I have said some of these words in the Main Committee previously, but they are worth repeating in the context of this address-in-reply. No matter where you look in South Australia, politics, business, unions, education, health, public transport infrastructure, governance and leadership are all too often seriously compromised. It is a dynamic that has dogged my state for the last 30 years—and it has dogged Victoria too. The tripartite relationships between the top end of town—and the corporate world—the media, particularly the commercial media, and the executive government are too often clouded in questionable goings-on. State governments in South Australia have had a far too comfortable and accommodating relationship with the top end of town. Who could forget the State Bank fiasco of the late 1980s which shamed all political parties and the media?
During the Liberal term from1993 to 2002 we endured the folly of waste of taxpayers’ money on a national wine centre, overspending on the Hindmarsh Stadium and the botched sale of the TAB. During the current government’s term it is going to happen again. A sum of $55 million—mostly taxpayers’ money—has been allocated to build a grandstand in Adelaide’s parklands to be used for car racing and horseracing. The grandstand—or ‘the stand for the grand’—was originally planned to be four storeys high, 248 metres long and 10.8 metres wide. Despite taxpayers paying for this monstrosity, there will not be one public seat. It is a facility for government and the corporate world. The cost of the project will just grow and grow. The arrogance and the contempt for the taxpayer so implicit in this funding beggar belief. Any government should realise that getting into bed with the car racing fraternity is not what it is cracked up to be. Adelaide once had a formula one grand prix. Claims of its so-called economic benefits were always greatly exaggerated. This very fact has been stated by the Victorian independent watchdog, which has said that the cost of holding the grand prix in Melbourne is $6.7 million. The Victorian state Auditor-General, Des Pearson, released a report on 23 May that found many studies justifying the use of taxpayers’ dollars for major events are inadequate. You bet they are. South Australia is no exception. The Clipsal V8 car race in South Australia will eventually tell a similar story.
Another matter is the all too comfortable, ‘nudge, nudge, wink, wink’, cosy relationships that state governments have had with the media. Although wrong, it is at least understandable that the media would protect its income stream and the people who provide the advertising revenue. Nevertheless, it far too often compromises the fourth estate in South Australia and it shows. In fact, respected journalists over the years have told me of their frustration at the lack of resources for investigative journalism and overzealous editorial control. The national media’s complaints about the prohibition on information release are largely correct. However, you cannot think that the very same media would be as selective in what it chose to make available. The next question to ask is: would it be done on an ethical basis? Governments protect themselves. High-profile business and media personnel are strategically appointed to government boards and paid handsomely for their time, participation and support of government. Whether these individuals recognise it or not, they are badly compromised.
I have always believed that the sale of the TAB in South Australia demanded a royal commission. I think the same about Cheltenham Racecourse and the Victoria Park development—a parklands monstrosity. However, the likelihood of that happening is probably pretty small. Have a listen to this: the lobbyist for the South Australian Jockey Club, promoting the sale of the Cheltenham Racecourse—the best stormwater retention site in the western suburbs—and the Victoria Park development is appointed by the government to give advice on stormwater management. South Australia, like Tasmania and Victoria, needs the establishment of an anticorruption and crime commission to be monitored by the federal government and— (Time expired)
I rise to speak in support of Appropriation Bill (No. 1) 2007-2008 and related bills. This is the government’s 12th budget and, as with each of the preceding 11, it is a well-measured document based on fundamental and successful economic principles. It is underpinned by a strong surplus and there is considerable new expenditure directed towards key policy priorities. If anyone had predicted back in 1996 that a budget could be described in these terms, they would not have been believed. But today Australia is a more prosperous and stable place than it was a decade ago. Unemployment is at generational lows. The government is free of net debt. Economic growth consistently exceeds three per cent a year. Inflation is tightly controlled. Interest rates move incrementally within a narrow band. All this has become the norm over the last decade; it has become a custom. The reality is that we should become accustomed to these things but it is also important to reflect on the fact that the state of the Australian economy is the product of over a decade of hard decisions and progressive reforms. It is a product of the coalition government.
The Australian government has made fundamental progress over the last decade. That progress has not been matched by the Labor Party when you look at the decisions it has made and the reforms it has fought against. Labor has long opposed moving the budget into surplus. It has opposed the payment of $96 billion in debt, yet the removal of this debt has saved Australia $8 billion in interest payments per year. Labor has opposed taxation reform, the most obvious being the introduction of the GST. This reform has delivered significant levels of additional revenue to strengthen and improve services to our communities. The introduction of the GST has also led to the abolition of other taxes and duties, which has benefited many people but not as many as the federal government would have liked.
Labor has opposed industrial reforms that have created more flexible workplaces and have generated economic growth. This is evidenced by the 320,000 full-time jobs created in just the last 13 months. In addition to Labor’s continual opposition to policies of economic reform, the inadequacy of Labor’s economic performance cannot be overstated. We should reflect on the legacy of a $10 billion deficit, the desperation of Labor’s asset sales, the 17 per cent interest rate and the 11 per cent unemployment rate. We should reflect on Labor’s negative economic growth, spiralling inflation and the general cynicism felt by people about their own positions.
The Leader of the Opposition thinks he can skirt around these facts by playing his cleanskin card and presenting a small target for the government to attack. I have to say that it is not a bad strategy and, indeed, I might have advocated it myself once or twice over the past few years. However, there is small, there is tiny and there is minute. The vision and creativity of the Leader of the Opposition’s budget reply were positively minute. Faster Commonwealth government bill paying, a standard disclosure form for financial services products, a superannuation clearing house, small capital grants for schools to build metal workshops, graphic design labs and the like are not big ideas, and they certainly do not count as nation building. They are incremental public policy measures of which there are literally hundreds in the government’s budget.
Let me give you just a sample of these government measures. The government will provide up to $103.5 million over four years as its contribution to a cost-shared initiative with state and territory governments to address the growth in type 2 diabetes by focusing on people aged 40 to 49. This initiative will encourage people to take a tick test when they attend a general practice surgery. Support of $3 million is being provided over two years to manage the orderly entry and stay of the 135,000 international pilgrims expected to visit Australia for World Youth Day 2008. Funding of $56.6 million is being provided over four years to support the design, development and building of the Australian Square Kilometre Array Pathfinder telescope. This will be a world-class radio telescope that will add to Australia’s role in exploring scientific and technological square kilometre array designs. It will also support possible participation in the generation of an international SKA radio telescope facility.
Additional funding of $10.3 million will be directed towards the cost of eradicating the imported red fire ants in Queensland. A further $4 million over four years will help expand control efforts for the yellow crazy ant infestation on Christmas Island. From July 2007 the government will relax the beneficial ownership provisions of the premium 175 per cent R&D tax concession. This measure will allow Australian subsidiaries of multinational enterprises to claim deductions under the concession for their incremental R&D expenditure where the resulting intellectual property is held overseas. The National Portrait Gallery will receive funding of $21.2 million to ensure that the new gallery building will be fully operational when it is due to open. The government will provide $55.6 million over four years to develop two new counselling services to assist separated parents and their children. This is just a sample of the hundreds of important policy initiatives contained in the budget, but even this sample makes the Leader of the Opposition’s offering look very small indeed.
As with every budget in recent times, all attention is turned towards who gains from the budget and how this will impact on opinion polls in the coming election. The Financial Review, behind its wallpaper front page, produced 28 pages of budget analysis and commentary—and that was just the Financial Review. The government’s own website is a veritable goldmine of budget information. Every industry association and interest group worth its salt has produced its own analysis for its membership. In one sense, this attention is a very good thing, but at times, however, I believe that the focus on the detail can distract from the main game.
I believe that the great majority of the Australian people know, deep down, that they will benefit more from steady economic and employment growth, from increased real wages and from continued low inflation than they will ever do from an individual budget measure. So, as I have argued several times before, the first and most important test should be: will the budget deliver these key outcomes? Again, the answer is yes.
Next year we are expecting economic growth of 3¾ per cent, inflation of 2½ per cent and unemployment of around five per cent. The government’s financial position will remain strong, with a surplus of $10.6 billion forecast for the next year. All of the $96 billion of debt the government inherited when it came to office has been repaid. We no longer need to fork out $8 billion in interest payments every year. Indeed, we are now actively saving for the future and, by the end of the financial year, more than $50 billion will have been invested in the Future Fund to support long-term, sustainable government finances.
Another $5 billion will have been invested in the newly established Higher Education Endowment Fund to help finance future capital works and research facilities in our universities. These achievements are the result of the sensible management of government finances and the strong sustainable economic growth this has encouraged and assisted. With continued good management, there is no reason why these favourable conditions should not continue.
With the government in a strong financial position and the economic outlook favourable, there is considerable scope for new initiatives which address important areas of community need. First and foremost amongst these is a comprehensive package of reforms across the university, vocational education and training and schools sector. The centrepiece of this package is the $5 billion investment in higher education. But there are many other important elements of the plan, including measures to address the shortage of skilled tradespeople, the establishment of a further three Australian technical colleges, $700 tutorial vouchers for parents of children who do not meet the national literacy and numeracy benchmarks and a $5,000 bonus for teachers who undertake professional development through a new summer school program.
The government is also making a strong commitment to addressing climate change while maintaining a strong and competitive economy. Since 1996, we have invested $2 billion to develop practical responses to climate change. For example, the $500 million Low Emissions Technology Demonstration Fund is assisting the development of solar and clean coal technologies, and we are active participants in the Asia-Pacific Partnership on Clean Development and Climate.
But there is a universal recognition that still more needs to be done. The budget provides for important new initiatives, including the cost of establishing qualifying carbon sink forests being made tax deductible. The rebate to encourage homeowners to install solar panels will be doubled to $8,000. A $126 million Australian Centre for Climate Change Adaptation will be established. The CSIRO will be allocated $103 million for climate change and energy research. Over five years, $197 million will be provided for the Global Initiative on Forests and Climate to assist developing countries to maintain and manage their precious tropical forests. These measures are in addition to the recently announced $10 billion, 10-year national plan to safeguard the sustainable use of Australia’s scarce water resources, and they are a prelude to the government’s response to the report of the task force on emissions trading.
In the area of transport, a second phase of the hugely successful AusLink program will be commenced, at a cost of $19.1 billion, from 2009-10. The government will also increase funding for current AusLink initiatives by $695 million to assist in bringing those projects to completion. This program reflects true nation building. It encompasses important projects like the Pacific Highway, the Deer Park bypass and the Caboolture Motorway, and it will greatly improve the efficiency, adequacy and safety of the national land transport system.
I will now turn to defence. The government is spending $6.6 billion over 13 years to purchase and operate 24 FA18F Super Hornet aircraft in order to secure air combat capability, to maintain air superiority in our region and to ensure a smooth transition of service of the F35 Joint Strike Fighter. A further investment of $1.4 billion over 10 years is also being provided to operate and maintain four new C17 heavy lift aircraft.
Budgets are about big projects and visionary ideas. They are also about people, particularly those who have worked hard and sacrificed so much to make Australia the place it is today. In recognition of the role which senior Australians have played in creating our economic growth and to ensure they share in the benefits of this growth, the government is again providing a bonus of $500. This will go to those who are eligible for either the utilities allowance or the seniors concession allowance.
In recognition of the special contribution of carers to Australian society, the government will once again provide a $1,000 bonus to recipients of the carer payment and a $600 bonus for recipients of the carer allowance. As with previous bonuses, these will be paid before 30 June. They will be tax-free and will not affect social security entitlements.
To provide Australia’s most disabled veterans with greater financial support, from July 2007 the fortnightly payment of the special rate disability pension will increase by $50 and the intermediate rate pension will increase by $25. In what I think is a long overdue recognition of the tremendous sacrifices made by Australians who were prisoners of war in Europe, the government will provide a one-off payment of $25,000 to either the former prisoner of war or their surviving widow.
Some years ago the Treasurer outlined a very sensible and measured budget doctrine: once the budget was balanced, outstanding debt repaid or allocation provided for future financial obligations and important new services funded, consideration should be given to cutting taxes. Over the last few years this doctrine has delivered substantial tax relief for all Australians. Again this year, there will be personal income tax cuts for most Australian income earners. From 1 July this year, the 30 per cent threshold will rise to $30,000. The low-income tax offset will also rise from $600 to $750 and begin to phase out later. From 1 July 2008, the 40 per cent tax threshold will increase to $80,000 and the 45 per cent threshold to $180,000. These changes build on the tax cuts announced in previous years and will ensure that more than 80 per cent of taxpayers face a top marginal tax rate of 30 per cent or less. They will improve Australia’s international competitiveness and enhance incentives for participation.
I have spoken some length today about the new programs and initiatives outlined in this year’s budget. These incremental changes should not be allowed to overwhelm the total picture painted by the budget. The simple fact is that next year the Commonwealth will spend $96.5 billion on social security and welfare, $43 billion on health, almost $18 billion on education and nearly $20 billion on defence. These are key priority areas and the programs funded within them are all vital to Australian society. But funding these programs on an ongoing basis requires maintaining an environment conducive to growth and prosperity. This is what the government has done and, given its re-election, what it will continue to do in the future. There will be no wild tax incentives and spending. There will be commitment to stable economic management and sensible funding of key programs addressing both current needs and long-term goals. I commend the bills to the chamber.
I rise to speak on Appropriation Bill (No. 1) 2007-2008 and related bills. In particular, I want to raise the matter of the demise of pricing surveillance at Sydney airport following a sequence of decisions by the Howard government. I raise this issue because of the ongoing practical implications for both passengers who purchase services from Sydney as well as corporate tenants who hold retail leases on Sydney airport land. Both airport tenants and passengers are subject to the decisions of this chamber—in particular, the price people pay for airline tickets and other airside and landside fees and charges. Everything we pay for from the moment we park our car at Sydney airport—from the airline ticket to the cup of coffee or newspaper we buy—is affected by this chamber’s decisions concerning pricing surveillance. There are two issues of critical importance to all Australians—and particularly to Sydney residents and to the people I represent who rely so heavily on our only airport—that bring me to raise this within the context of the appropriation bills. Both these issues are closely connected. These issues concern access to travel. The first issue is financial access and the second issue is geographic access.
I will not speak today about the geographic issue because there is not sufficient time, but that is connected insofar as Macquarie Bank has bought all the motorways that access Sydney airport. From the petrol bowsers to the aircraft seats, consumers pay Macquarie Bank and its affiliates and subsidiaries many times over, which is why I raise the matter of pricing surveillance at Sydney airport in this debate today. On 6 April 2006, the Howard government asked the Productivity Commission to review the existing arrangements of airport pricing regulation. In September 2006, the Productivity Commission issued a draft report titled Review of price regulation of airport services. At page 12, that review said:
... it is still too early to judge whether price monitoring, in conjunction with the Part IIIA national access regime, will:
- provide a reasonable constraint on misuse of market power by airports as the influence of the previous regulatory regime recedes; and
- foster the attitudes, trust and commercial relationships between the parties that could, at some stage in the future, obviate the need for prices oversight.
Thus, neither reversion to stricter price controls, nor dispensing with price monitoring and relying solely on Part IIIA, would be justified.
To fully appreciate the Productivity Commission’s conclusion it is necessary to review the history of pricing surveillance at Sydney airport. It is further necessary to understand how this so-called price monitoring has worked relative to the recent history of operational manipulation being attempted by the Sydney Airport Corporation Ltd. I will explain this point later in this debate in light of the recent decision of the ACCC in the Virgin Blue matter.
I note that the conclusion of the Productivity Commission report that I have just cited was published in September 2006. It is now May 2007, some eight months since the date of that conclusion. For this reason I believe it is important to revisit the issue of pricing surveillance today, particularly in light of the recent developments in the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission in the Virgin Blue decision that I referred to earlier. I will speak on this decision and its significance to pricing surveillance of Sydney airport, but first I wish to remind members of the House of the history leading to the debacle between Sydney Airports Corporation Ltd and Virgin Blue as a clear example of this government’s flawed aviation and pricing surveillance policy concerning Sydney airport.
Members of the House and the general public are aware that Sydney airport is a designated airport within the meaning of the Airports Act 1996. As noted in the 2003 annual report of Southern Cross Airports Corporation Holdings Ltd:
On 25 June 2002, the Commonwealth Government announced the sale of Sydney Airport to the Southern Cross Airports Consortium for $5.6 billion. The sale transaction was completed on 28 June 2002, at which time Sydney Airport Corporation Limited (SACL) was acquired by Southern Cross Airports Corporation Pty Limited.
This means that Southern Cross Airports Corporation is the parent of SACL. Sydney Airport is one of 17 major airports, all of which have been privatised. Between 1997 and 1998, the Howard government introduced transitional price regulation, which included a five-year cap on prices for what are called ‘aeronautical services’ at 11 of the largest of the 17 major airports. This pricing was to be capped against what is known as the CPI-X index. It is significant to note that, at that time, Sydney airport was not subject to this price capping. Instead, Sydney airport was subject to what was known as ‘pricing notification’ and ‘price monitoring’. I quote from page 248 of an inquiry report of the Productivity Commission, titled Price regulation of airport services, Report No. 19, published on 23 January 2002. It states:
Since it took over the operation of Sydney Airport, SACL has been subject to prices notification for aeronautical services and monitoring for aeronautical-related services under the PS Act for the same groups of services as the privatised airports (chapter 3). It has not had a price cap imposed but, like all declared companies, it must inform the ACCC of proposed price increases for notified aeronautical services … Additional elements include the introduction of price monitoring for some services, the inclusion of necessary new investment as a justification for price increases and the monitoring of service quality under the Airports Act.
In 2000 the Productivity Commission was asked by the government to inquire whether price regulation was required at private airports. In response, the Productivity Commission drafted the Price regulation of airport services report, which I have referred to. This report recommended what was to become known as the ‘light handed’ regulatory regime. I quote from page 46 of that report, where it states:
For Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane and Perth airports, price caps and prices notification arrangements should be replaced by mandatory price monitoring arrangements for a probationary five-year period …
On 13 May 2002, the government announced that it had accepted the recommendation that price monitoring will be carried out for five years, commencing from 1 July 2002, and an independent review will be carried out towards the end of the five-year period to ascertain the need for future airport price regulation. It is significant to note that, in 2002, these price monitoring arrangements were not to impact on so-called regional services into and out of Sydney airport. It is equally significant to note that the Productivity Commission defines ‘aeronautical services’ as services provided by infrastructure that facilitate aircraft movements—for example, runways—and passenger processing facilities.
The current regime of pricing regulation, loosely defined, may thus be described as (1) the monitoring of charges for aeronautical and aeronautical related services; (2) notification for regional air services; (3) service quality is monitored at Sydney airport; and (4) price notification is made under the Prices Surveillance Act. Members of the House will know that the major tenants of airports are the major airline carriers, such as Qantas, and domestic carriers, including Virgin Blue Airlines. Commencing in 2003, a major commercial dispute arose between the Sydney airport lessee company, Sydney Airports Corporation Ltd, and Virgin Blue on the basis upon which landing fees, an aeronautical fee, related to the use of aeronautical or airside services—in this case landing fees.
In September 2003 Virgin Blue tabled its application for declaration of the airside service at Sydney airport in response to the issues raised in submissions on the NCC’s draft recommendation. The dispute is best described in the Virgin Blue media statement released only seven days ago:
After four and a half years of commercial conflict, Virgin Blue and Sydney Airport Corporation have reached an amicable agreement regarding domestic runway landing and take off charges at Sydney Airport.
… … …
We simply sought an independent view—
via application to the ACCC for declarations—
of a unilaterally imposed pricing regime which was applied to and impacted our business without the right to a normal negotiation process. Airports have the ability to dictate pricing terms and conditions upon airlines and many have.
SACL’s change to aircraft landing and take off charges from calculation on aircraft maximum take-off weight (MTOW) to calculation on per passenger basis, severely disadvantaged our business increasing our landing fees by approximately 53 percent.
I put it to this chamber that this recent example of the manner in which SACL is ‘dictating pricing terms’ with a ‘unilaterally imposed pricing regime’ is self-evident of a pricing regime that is manifestly monopolistic and shows flagrant disregard for basic regulatory safeguards that are in place to prevent exactly what the media statement notes with much authority—that is, airport lessee companies indeed have ‘the ability to dictate pricing terms and conditions upon airlines and many have’.
This brings us to the independent review of 6 April 2006, which I have mentioned, and its draft report. We are now eight months into these famous last words. Here we are, in the debate on the appropriation bills, discussing the question of how well the government has faired in responding to the question, posed by the Productivity Commission’s draft report of 6 April 2006, of whether we are now in a position:
... to judge whether price monitoring, in conjunction with part IIIA—
the national access regime—
will provide a reasonable constraint on misuse of market power by airports as the influence of the previous regulatory regime recedes ... and foster the attitudes, trust and commercial relationships between the parties that could, at some stage in the future, obviate the need for prices oversight.
I put to this House that, but for binding declarations by the ACCC in a formal dispute process, Virgin Blue would be out of pocket with up to 53 per cent increases in landing fees—fees which inevitably would have been forced onto the passenger. I further put to this House that on the contrary, thanks to this government’s laissez faire attitude towards giving Macquarie Bank carte blanche on pricing and the way it charges for landing and other fees, an attitude of manifest distrust has emerged where SACL has done everything in its power to drain moneys from both tenant and passenger in the most underhanded way. The result is self-evident in the Virgin Blue debacle. It ought not come down to all-out litigation and quasi-judicial determinations of the kind seen in the ACCC that place an entire industry in jeopardy, including the servicing of our domestic fight services for Australia. The Virgin Blue case is evidence enough that we are certainly now in a position to judge whether price monitoring alone is sufficient. The answer is a resounding no. I therefore call upon the Howard government, in light of the demonstrated failure of price monitoring and its so-called light-handed approach, to rediscover and implement true pricing surveillance for Sydney airport.
I was elected to federal parliament on the issue of aircraft noise. I have a keen interest on behalf of my constituents in relation to the operations of Sydney airport, particularly since it has been privatised and bought by Southern Cross consortium and bankrolled by Macquarie Bank, who, I have said many times in this chamber, are only interested in seeing Sydney airport operate as a car park and a shopping centre, to the detriment of people living in the inner west particularly.
I would like to raise the Australian National Audit Office report No. 29 2006-07: Implementation of the Sydney Airport Demand Management Act 1997. On page 17 of that report, paragraph 15, it says:
The SADM established a system of penalties for unauthorised aircraft movements so as to protect the integrity of the movement limit, and establish clear guides for airport users as to the range of sanctions that may be levied in the form of an infringement notice or civil prosecution.
At paragraph 16 it goes on:
There is evidence of a high number of unauthorised aircraft movements (movements without a slot and movements outside the slot tolerances) having occurred at Sydney Airport. However, since the scheme commenced in 1998, no infringement notices have been issued to operators or other penalties applied.
At paragraph 18 it says:
Further, the SADM Act requires Airservices Australia to monitor and report breaches of the movement limit to the Parliament through its Minister. However, reliable and accurate records do not exist to evidence past monitoring of compliance with the movement limit, and support the reports made to Parliament.
Here, again, Airservices Australia, which is responsible for this, is not doing its job. I take this opportunity this afternoon to call on the minister to require Airservices Australia to provide information in relation to these breaches so that the parliament, principally the Howard government, can do something to redress the breaches that are occurring every day at Sydney airport.
I have been speaking for years on behalf of my constituents about the failures also of Airservices Australia to fully implement the long-term operating plan at Sydney airport. The plan was introduced by the Howard government to alleviate noise for people living around the airport—particularly those people who live to the north of Sydney airport—and we were promised that, under the long-term operating plan, constituents in my electorate immediately to the north of Sydney airport would receive 17 per cent of all air traffic movements to and from Sydney airport.
It is with profound regret that I report today that the very latest statistics for March available from Airservices Australia indicate that we are receiving 31.5 per cent of all air traffic movements to and from Sydney airport. So my constituents and all the people of the inner west of Sydney airport are being bombarded with dirty, noisy planes flying over homes, schools, child-care centres and nursing homes when, more appropriately, the planes should be flying over the water and cow paddocks, and they would be if the government did something about giving Sydney a second airport to give some relief from Sydney airport. It is disgraceful that under the master plan for Sydney airport, which the government has signed off on and which has been readily embraced by Southern Cross and Macquarie Bank, there is going to be massive expansion of Sydney airport over the next 20 years. We are going to receive double the number of air traffic movements and we are going to receive within the foreseeable future up to 500,000 air traffic movements in and out of Sydney airport.
That is a disgrace. After all the questions I have asked exposing the fact that the long-term operating plan for Sydney airport has not been properly implemented and that the people that I represent are at the moment unfairly carrying the burden of something like double the air traffic movements promised and getting close to a third of all the air traffic movements in and out of Sydney airport, it is a disgrace that all the transport ministers I have pursued have given up. That is disgraceful and it betrays the very people who elected the Howard government in relation to air traffic noise. I take the government back to its original policy that the coalition produced before the 1996 election. It was called Soaring into Tomorrow, and they promised that they would fix aircraft noise and that Sydney airport would not be sold until the problems associated with aircraft noise at Sydney airport were fixed.
The government has failed on both counts because we continue to receive twice the amount of noise that we were promised in the inner west of Sydney. Worse, the government has announced that there will be no requirement for a second airport in the next 20 years, and has flogged off the airport, which has been used by Macquarie Bank as a milking cow. It is little wonder that we had the unedifying spectacle last week of learning that the Chief Executive Officer of Macquarie Bank, Mr Allan Moss, is on a salary of about $34 million; it is because Sydney airport, amongst other funds, is operating so well— (Time expired)
It is my pleasure to speak in this debate on the appropriation bills because this is the best budget that I have seen in my 18 years in this place. This budget is responsible, cleverly crafted and carefully targeted by the Treasurer. This again demonstrates that the Howard government is a compassionate government. It is a caring government which is unashamedly pro-family and pro-small business. Every budget is remembered for two aspects: firstly, its macroeconomic effect—whether the budget is expansionary, contractionary or neutral, and whether the fiscal outcome will have an influence on monetary policy—and, secondly, whether there are new policy initiatives, ideas and directions that will be significant enough to make the budget a memorable one. In that regard I do not mean the cliches that have dominated past Labor budgets like those under former Treasurer Keating, when he referred to the recession we had to have and the budget that brought home the bacon and nonsense like that. When I say that this budget is cleverly crafted and carefully targeted by the Treasurer, I mean that the government is continuing to nation build.
Successive budgets have established and built on national savings. Anyone who has been involved with the budget process will know that the two aspects I have mentioned do not give a true indication of how much work really goes into the more mundane or less controversial—but no less important—parts of the budget process. I am specifically referring to the expenditure side of the budget: the interaction between Treasury and finance portfolio departments. It is hard work to achieve the fiscal discipline demonstrated by the Howard government over the past 11½ years, and I know that from personal experience in my time as a minister in the first Howard government. Every dollar of expenditure in every program of every department is revisited over and over again by our dedicated and competent officials in these departments. There is much negotiation and some good old-fashioned horse trading involved in delivering a good budget which is fiscally responsible.
Under the Howard government, there are no smoke and mirrors involved in our financial management. Other speakers on this side have referred to the $96 billion debt we inherited from the Keating government in 1996. The $96 billion debt came about as a legacy of successive budget deficits under Hawke and Keating Labor governments. A budget deficit has to be financed. It has to be financed by loans or by printing money, as the Whitlam government did. Loans have to be repaid, and they have to be repaid with interest. The interest bill in Labor’s last year of office was $8.5 billion, yet they plunged the government further into debt and they hid the debt from the Australian people. Labor were borrowing money to pay their interest bill. In the week before the election in 1996, the then Minister for Finance, the current member for Brand, told the nation that the budget was in balance. The week after the election, when we had won, Treasury officials revealed to the new Treasurer, the Hon. Peter Costello, what we, in opposition, had really suspected—that the budget was in deficit. But we had never suspected that it was in deficit to the tune of $11 billion, further adding to federal government debt. Labor equals deficit and debt. It is in their DNA.
I was on the JCPA, the Joint Committee of Public Accounts, when it recommended to the Keating government that it adopt the fiscal responsibility model operating in New Zealand. That was under the chairmanship of Les Scott, who was a member of that government. This recommendation was not accepted because, as it turned out, the last thing that the Keating government wanted to be required to do was to tell the truth about the state of Labor’s financial mismanagement.
One thing we did in government was introduce the Treasurer’s Charter of Budget Honesty. Together with the Financial Management and Accountability Act and the Auditor-General’s Act, we reformed the finances of the Commonwealth. I was Chair of the Joint Committee of Public Accounts that examined and recommended these financial reforms. Why did we introduce that Charter of Budget Honesty when the Labor Party refused to? It was not because we did not trust ourselves to tell the truth about the nation’s finances. We do trust ourselves. It was because we did not trust Labor. We did not trust Labor then, nor would we in the future. In 1996-97 that was fresh in our minds. Under the charter, at election times, governments are forced to tell the truth about the books. We never want to see a new government forced to face the financial mess that the Keating government left the Howard government. People voted in 1996 believing that the Keating government had a balanced budget. They threw the government out in a landslide. It was ‘annihilation’—to coin a phrase. Imagine what the result would have been if people had known how broke the nation was, with it being $11 billion in deficit.
It is an empirical fact that the Labor Party cannot handle money. Labor cannot run away from it. It is a historical fact. If we look at the current situation in the states, the Labor state governments have a cumulative debt. That is the Labor way; as I said before, it is in its DNA. We have enjoyed the results of strong economic management by the Howard government for so long that we have forgotten what Australia was like under the management of Labor—debt, high deficits, high inflation, high unemployment and recession.
This budget builds on the prudent management of the economy over the past 11½ years. It builds on the surpluses of previous budgets and adds to the stock of savings in the Future Fund and now in the Higher Education Endowment Fund, which provides capital funding for the future expansion of our universities. It enables us to help those in need with welfare. It enables us to help refugees, pensioners and the disabled. It enables us to encourage new industries, which provide new employment. This government is about economic stability, which enables us to be in a position to help people help themselves and to support those who cannot.
Even as we suffer the worst drought in 100 years, this budget assists farmers who are struggling in these trying times. That is what prudent budget planning is all about. The fact that we have paid off Labor’s $96 billion debt frees up revenue to use in a more positive way. The Treasurer has grasped that opportunity to deliver a very positive budget. I believe that the Treasurer in this budget has encapsulated what being an Australian is all about. As a society, we strive to create wealth and share that wealth with those in our community who are unable to support themselves. We must balance care for our community with care for the environment, while not forgetting to plan for the future welfare of our people, our economy and our environment. We are able to help Australians achieve their aspirations; that is what this budget is all about. I welcome all its positive, sensible initiatives—the education support for students and staff, the measures to address trade skill shortages, the income tax changes, the childcare changes and the bonus payments for pensioners, seniors and carers.
I am particularly delighted by the initiative in the area of dental health. I am Chair of the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Health and Ageing. We tabled a report on the financing of health services last year in which we recommended that the government should address the question of dental health care. That is something I have been advocating and working towards for some time. This budget provides funding for the establishment of a new regional dental school and for encouraging city students to undertake their dental training in regional settings. These are positive and important initiatives for future dental care. It is a proven fact with the medical profession and health professionals that, if you train a doctor or a dentist in the bush, it is more likely that they will stay in the bush. So, if we want doctors, dentists and other health professionals to work in the regions, training them in the regions is very important.
What really gave me personal satisfaction was the immediate help offered to people who are suffering while on dental waiting lists. For the first time the budget, through Medicare, recognises that oral health is linked to primary health care. The amount of $378 million has been allocated over four years for additional Medicare funding for patients whose dental health is impacting on a chronic medical condition. If they are referred by a doctor, a Medicare benefit of up to $2,125 per person per year will now be available for dental treatment in the private sector. Not only will this private sector care provide fast and efficient relief for those patients; it will also take pressure off the public waiting lists.
Dental health is not a federal issue; it is the responsibility of state governments. However, as I have said, as Chair of the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Health and Ageing, I have seen how the states have neglected dental health. I have seen the misery and the escalation of problems caused by this neglect. I know that the waiting lists in my seat of Fairfax on the Sunshine Coast are totally unacceptable. It is not acceptable for someone who is in need of dental attention to have to wait not weeks, not months but years for an appointment under our state health system. It really begs the question as to why we need state governments, when we see them failing to accept their core responsibilities in health and education. That is a big thing for me to say. When I entered this House, I was an absolute ‘states’ righter’, but I have changed my view over time.
I have a lot of contact with schools in my electorate and I am constantly impressed by both the students and their teachers, but I believe that state government is again failing them in the areas of curriculum training, support and opportunities. I am anxious to make sure that the Sunshine Coast, my electorate, gains maximum benefit from the new budget initiatives. The Minister for Education, Science and Training, Julie Bishop, has agreed to come to my electorate in the winter recess to explain to education authorities the budget changes, particularly education authorities at the University of the Sunshine Coast.
The plan to assist parents with a primary school child who needs extra tutoring to reach national literacy and numeracy benchmarks is a wise move because it will catch learning problems early, before the child slips too far behind and becomes demoralised. A little help with literacy and numeracy at the primary school age can prevent major problems from occurring in secondary schools and can affect future life opportunities for those children. It benefits the children and their teachers and parents and, in the long run, our society. I am also happy to see that teachers in schools will be recognised and rewarded for achievement in professional development. I have to ask again what the states have been doing. How did they let the standards in our schools deteriorate so much that the Commonwealth has had to step in to rectify the situation?
There are so many more great initiatives in this budget. There are the Higher Education Endowment Fund, the tax cuts, the bonus payments to seniors and recipients of carer payment and carer allowance, investment in transport infrastructure in rural areas and water and the environment. Australians have had all this good news in the budget, but what have we had from the Labor Party and sections of the media, who seem to have their own agenda? We have had only negatives.
I must say that the Sunshine Coast Daily, the daily newspaper in my electorate, was fixated on finding negatives in the budget. The media across Australia accepted the budget pretty well, but the local media in my electorate did not want to publish any good news. It was only interested in trying to find stories about people who, it believed, did not benefit directly from the budget. It only wanted to do stories on people who had missed out. It was determined to find losers in the budget. However, I think it will be looking for a long time, because there are no losers in this budget.
When budgets were delivered many years ago, people would read the documents anxiously in order to find out what charges, fees and taxes had gone up and how they themselves would be negatively affected. The expectation of the community now is that people should get a dividend out of the budget—and that is exactly what Treasurer Costello has delivered. The budget should not be seen in the microsense of ‘what benefit do I get?’ It should be seen as good, stable economic management that allows jobs, productivity and the economy to grow, because in the long run that provides opportunities and benefits for all of us. It takes more than compassion to help the disadvantaged and needy in our society. Certainly, you need heart and compassion to recognise and understand the needs of others, but you also need the resources of a strong, stable economy to pay for whatever help is required. I commend the Treasurer for his work in building such an economy. This budget continues to nation build and I commend it.
Sitting suspended from 1.02 pm to 4.00 pm
I am pleased to be speaking in this appropriation debate before the Main Committee today. For 11 long years we have been waiting for the Howard government to show some leadership by detailing a vision for this country, a comprehensive vision of what they are going to achieve for all Australians and how they are going to achieve it. The wealth generated by the mining boom has given the Howard government a golden opportunity to invest in the long-term future of this country by investing in infrastructure, addressing the challenges of climate change and taking measures to boost our national innovation and productivity. But this year’s budget failed the future test dismally. This year’s budget should have been about the next 10 years. This year’s budget should have been about nation building. Instead it was about short-term electoral advantage in shoring up the Howard government’s chances at this year’s election, which means it and the Howard government have failed all Australians.
My constituency in Chisholm are concerned about the issues that affect their daily lives, in particular, higher education, water, climate change, health, child care and industrial relations. You would think that after 11 long years we would be going forward in all these areas. Instead, we have gone backwards. My constituents know that our education system is crumbling while the Howard government has stood idly by watching it happen—indeed, making much of it happen. Their children and grandchildren cannot get a place at university. They cannot afford to pay the skyrocketing fees and they cannot afford to pay for all the services that used to be free or low cost before the government disbanded student unions. They cannot afford to get a place at a TAFE—indeed, most of the TAFE places seem to be going off into these weird and wonderful things called ATCs. They see how the 11-year drought, combined with denial and inaction by the Howard government, has crippled our water supplies. Dam levels are at all-time lows, severe water restrictions are in place, gardens are dying and fruit and vegetables are expensive to buy. My constituents read daily in the newspaper about the effects of climate change and how the world that we are leaving our children is going to be a much hotter, drier and more inhospitable place. Indeed, we are the only generation alive who will actually leave a worse environment to their children than the one we had ourselves. This is not something to be proud of. The Howard government knows that it needs to take urgent action, but it has done nothing—and it is worried. It is worried because the polls are telling it so, not because it believes it needs to do something.
As many of my constituents are getting older, health is a very important issue for them. But instead of having a genuine universal healthcare system, the Howard government has created a less efficient healthcare system that delivers less and is propped up with a safety net. The Howard government agenda is to get as many people onto private health insurance as possible, whether they can afford it or not, and with rising private health insurance premiums many cannot afford it. If the Howard government wins the election and sells Medibank Private, all health fund fees will go up. Private health care is becoming unaffordable. Many in my electorate of Chisholm have private health insurance and struggle to maintain their private health insurance as self-funded retirees or as pensioners. Many are now faced with the unenviable choice of having to give it up because they simply cannot afford to keep paying those premiums. In addition, many of my constituents are waiting years to access public dental care because the Howard government has slashed funding and blamed the states.
People in Chisholm are also concerned about Work Choices and the Howard government’s attack on their employment and their children’s and their grandchildren’s ability to secure well-paid employment with good working conditions. They are struggling with mortgage repayments, rising interest rates and a high cost of living. They are finding it difficult to understand why, at a time when the country is awash with profits from the mineral boom, they are fighting to hold onto hard-fought-for working conditions. The budget did precious little to address these issues and it made no attempt to deliver a national vision. Therefore, it failed my constituency—the very people it was supposed to help.
Higher education is a big issue in my electorate of Chisholm and it is an issue close to my heart. Two of Australia’s largest universities are housed in Chisholm. Monash University’s Clayton campus, the largest campus in Australia, and Deakin city campus in Burwood are in my electorate, together with a large proportion of students and academics who also live in the seat. On top of that, we have a world-class TAFE at Box Hill. There are also a lot of families with children in high school who aspire to a university education and their parents and grandparents who want them to get one.
They all worry that a university education is becoming more and more out of reach, and for good reason: it is. Ten years of underinvestment by the Howard government means government recurrent funding to universities has fallen by 0.9 per cent of GDP in 1996 to just 0.6 per cent in 2007. The Howard government’s investment in education has declined as a proportion of GDP during its term in office. Australia’s overall investment in education is 5.8 per cent of GDP. This puts us behind 17 other OECD economies, including Poland, Hungary and New Zealand. This is a disgrace. That means fewer university places, less funding for courses, fewer teaching staff, less equipment and less student financial support. It means more of the financial burden falls unfairly on students and their families.
The government’s Higher Education Endowment Fund will go some of the way towards addressing this, but it is not enough—not by a long shot. The $300 million per year to upgrade university facilities will be divided up between each of our 38 universities. That is not even $8 million per university per year. How many of them have outstanding repair bills worth much more than that? To put it in perspective, the outstanding maintenance bill at Australian universities for just one year was $1.2 billion in 2005 and growing. At ANU alone, the capital and maintenance backlog exceeded $500 million.
Each university will be required to buy into the endowment fund by providing matching funds to increase their chances of getting a grant. Where does that leave the smaller, poorer and regional universities, I ask? Although the Howard government has committed to providing additional Commonwealth recurrent funding in a range of priority courses, it just does not go far enough. HECS fees for over 50,000 students studying accounting, economics or commerce will increase by more than $3,500 over an average three-year degree. This means students will pay nearly $25,000 for a degree in these disciplines. This is the thin end of the wedge. The cost of getting a degree is becoming prohibitive, shackling students with ridiculous amounts of debt for years to come.
This year’s budget also saw the Howard government remove the limits on the number of full-fee paying university places. Increasing the number of full-fee paying places is another example of the Howard government shirking its responsibility to properly fund our universities. Full-fee places are inequitable, and a Rudd Labor government will get rid of them, as I have said on numerous occasions in this place. One of the constituents in my electorate, two years ago, got a 95.5 TER score, which is pretty amazing. She is the ninth child of an Italian family. She got the Monash Law Prize and she applied for law at Monash. Funnily enough, she got 95.5 and the cut-off at that time was 95.7. She missed out by 0.2. Had her parents been able to pay the full fee, she would have required only an 89 TER score. Where is the equity in that? You tell me. The members on the other side do not get that. They do not get that it is inequitable to be able to buy your way into a university. You should get there by your ability, by your own endeavours.
Currently there are an increasing number of students living in poverty, struggling to study and pay their bills and working too many hours to pay the rent rather than concentrating on their studies. While student income support received a modest increase in the budget, considering the decline in student financial assistance under the Howard government, even the increase means students will not keep pace with the cost of living. The fact remains that our higher education system has gone backwards under this government.
Unfortunately, in my electorate we have seen a number of scandals recently with students living in substandard housing. People are exploiting students in this way. A lot of them are foreign students, but also country kids moving into the area are living in appalling conditions. They are being forced to because they literally cannot afford to go to university and survive.
The budget was a great opportunity for the Howard government to address the dual challenges of water and climate change to make up for their complete inaction on water and climate change over the last 11 years. I was really surprised recently when the Prime Minister said that there might not be an allocation out of the Murray-Darling this year. I found it a bit naive that, after 11 years of being in government and not having had rain for 10, he was a little surprised that there might not be water in our system. It shows their complete lack of vision in this area. This year the budget failed the climate change test and showed the Howard government’s complacency over water.
The budget announced a spending commitment of less than half of one per cent of the $10 billion national water plan in the next financial year. On top of that, the budget highlighted an extraordinary lack of detail and programs for water. The first real spending on water does not come until 2009-10, and after three years the government will have only spent 11 per cent of the $10 billion. We need action now, not in three years. Action is needed now to deal with the problem of overallocated water licences. The budget also does not contain a single new program for urban water. How can the government call its water policy a national water plan when 17 million Australians living in coastal areas are not part of the plan?
Action on climate change is as vitally important for our environment, our economy and our future. But true to the government’s lack of form on water, I see the budget also fails the all-important climate change test. The Prime Minister and the Treasurer have once again failed to acknowledge that the magnitude of the climate change challenge will ultimately cost Australian jobs and hurt the Australian economy. The climate change budget is less than 0.1 per cent of GDP and declines over the forecast period. What an appalling indictment of this government.
Three major UN reports this year have broadcast loud and clear the risk climate change poses to our environment, our economy and our way of life, but the message still has not got through to the Howard government. There were no initiatives announced to help stop our greenhouse gas pollution from rising to dangerous levels—27 per cent by 2020. The budget will not create any new Australian clean coal jobs. Clean energy has been ignored in the budget. There is no emission-trading scheme, no long-term targets for emission reductions, no increase to the mandatory renewable energy targets and now no new substantial funding initiatives outside the solar rebate program. The only glimmer of hope was the government’s decision to join Labor in increasing support for the solar rebate program, and that was only after originally planning to abolish the scheme and slash the size of the rebate.
It would be nice if the Howard government chose to take some decisive action on climate change. But the only decision they seem to have made is to spend around $23 million of taxpayers’ money on a direct mail and advertising campaign to shore up their prospects in the next election. The only other action they seem to be taking—committing Australia to a nuclear future—flies in the face of what Australians want. In today’s papers we read the Howard government is seeking advice on whether it can override state governments to impose 25 or perhaps 40 nuclear reactors on communities around the coast of Australia. That is funny; I don’t remember Australians voting in favour of nuclear power at the last election, just as I do not remember them giving the Howard government a mandate at the last election to slash their wages and working conditions. If this is the Prime Minister’s version of acting on climate change then it is a sad indictment of the Howard government. This year’s budget proved one thing: that only a Rudd Labor government has the vision and courage to act decisively on climate change.
There were big gaps in this year’s health budget—actually I am not sure that there really was a health budget this year at all. One of them was the failure to seriously address dental health. The public dental health waiting list in this country currently numbers 650,000 people. This budget achieved nothing for these people. In a First World country awash with the proceeds of a resources boom, this is a disgrace. People are waiting years to have basic dental work done. Left untreated, poor dental health leads to myriad other medical problems. Under this budget the Howard government will continue to pour more money into its failed scheme to supply dental care to people with chronic diseases. This scheme does not apply to the 650,000 people on the dental public waiting list. It also has complex referrals and involves patients paying very high out-of-pocket costs. In 1996 the Howard government scrapped the successful $100 million a year Commonwealth Dental Program and left public dental patients on the scrap heap and then blamed the states for huge public dental waiting lists. I thought the Prime Minister was supposed to stand up for the battlers.
Preventive health care was also ignored in this budget. We have a national epidemic of diabetes, obesity and heart disease, yet little is being done by the Howard government in this area. We need a health minister who is willing to show leadership in taking preventive measures to tackle this public health time bomb we are sitting on. We need a comprehensive approach, including in the areas of public health, the economy, taxation, education, advertising, marketing, research, communications, regulations, prohibitions, persuasions, planning, construction and transport. And what have we got? Nothing; absolutely nothing. We are sitting on a time bomb of diabetes and cardiovascular disease. The World Health Organisation predicts this, and we are doing nothing. We are sitting on a time bomb of depression. Very little is going towards preventing these diseases. If there were targeted, affordable, cost-effective programs, we could avoid these issues. We are not doing so.
Affordable child care is a big issue for families in Chisholm. Every time I go out there and speak to somebody, every time someone walks through the door, this is one of the issues that comes through loud and clear. It is expensive and hard to find. Over the last four years, childcare fees have increased by more than 12 per cent every year, which is more than five times the increase in the cost of living for a family. That is a huge impost on a family budget. The budget provided families with some relief on child care but not nearly enough. Funnily enough, action to help families with childcare costs only seems to have happened in an election year. The one-off budget measure of a 13 per cent increase in the childcare benefit will cover only one of the 12 per cent annual increases in childcare fees. Families will continue to shoulder the burden of annual childcare cost increases, and most families will not receive anywhere near the $8,000 trumpeted by the Treasurer. In fact, the average payment under the childcare tax rebate is closer to $813 per family per year.
The childcare tax rebate changes in the budget will not deliver any extra funding to help families with the cost of child care. Bringing forward the childcare rebate was just the Howard government finally delivering on a promise made at the last election. Parents have already waited for up to two years to get their rebate. This year’s budget announcement simply delivers on the Howard government’s original promise to pay the rebate immediately after the financial year when childcare expenses are incurred rather than leaving them in limbo for up to two years.
The Howard government has failed to deliver for families. What families really need is a Rudd Labor government, which will deliver. Parents will have a right to flexible working arrangements until their child goes to school; parents will have the right to request an extra 12 months unpaid leave; there will be an improvement in the quality and affordability of child care with minimal cost increases; there will be investment in preschool, primary and secondary schools; and there will be a fair and balanced industrial relations system.
Of course, the Treasurer did not mention Work Choices in his budget speech. We dare not mention that name—not even once. Work Choices, that great showpiece of the Howard government’s fourth term in office, was not mentioned once. Funnily enough, it is not mentioned in the Howard government’s new $75 million advertising campaign to rebadge Work Choices either—$4.1 million of which was spent in one week alone—because Work Choices has shown itself to be a complete and utter dud of a policy. People in my electorate know that, because it is cutting back their wages, crippling their working conditions and ruining their and their families’ lives. A constituent of mine, Sherine, came into my office recently. She is 60, she is on an AWA and it has expired. But an AWA can just keep going on indefinitely. Even though it has expired, there is no way that she can go to her boss and say, ‘Look, I really would like to negotiate a new one.’ She can fill in a form to go back to the award; but, if she does that, she reneges on getting any pay rises in the future. So she is left with this AWA that she cannot get out of. If she is on an AWA she cannot get any of the increases under the aptly named Fair Pay Commission, but if she goes back to the award she loses the minimal benefits that she got in the AWA—which were the pay rises in that time frame. So she can go back to the award as it was four years ago or she can stay on an AWA and never get a pay rise again. Sherine said, ‘What do I do? Where do I go?’ She is now leading a campaign in her workplace, not for herself—as she said, ‘I’m 60, I work casually and I can tell the boss what to do because I am beyond caring now’—but for all the young women in that workplace. She is fighting for them, because they do not have the option to stand up to the boss like she does. For them, it is the only income coming into their family home. I do not think we should be leaving people in that sort of ‘money or the gun’ situation. In this situation there is no money, and the gun is self-inflicted.
The government knows that Work Choices is a dud, and that is why it is working hard to try to sell the unsellable, using taxpayers’ dollars, of course—not Liberal Party coffers but taxpayers’ dollars. Why would people vote in favour of laws cutting their penalty rates, shift loading and holiday pay, putting even more pressure on the family budget? The government did not take this to the last election, funnily enough. The only thing the budget did show up about Work Choices was that there is no economic case for it. The budget forecast confirms that, under Work Choices, employment growth will decline slightly to 1.5 per cent and unemployment will increase slightly to around five per cent. Australia’s productivity growth went backwards for the first six months following the implementation of Work Choices, and it is presently only 1.5 per cent compared to a historic average of 2.3 per cent. Australian productivity growth will decline from the end of the next financial year. It is strong commodity prices and demand for our resources that are largely responsible for our strong employment performance. If Work Choices is such a great success, why don’t all the economic indicators show it?
There is every indication that the Howard government is using tax cuts to buy back voters disenfranchised by Work Choices. I welcome the tax relief for low- and middle-income earners delivered in this year’s budget. Labor has been calling for it for a long time. In fact, Labor has been campaigning for the last two years for these tax cuts, and they were well and truly overdue. But the tax cuts do not come close to handing back the extra tax that the government is collecting due to the mining boom. The Treasurer will collect a hefty $10 billion more in income taxes over the next three years than he anticipated just a few months ago. The tax cuts will not go anywhere near compensating those families who have lost wages and conditions through Work Choices. But these long overdue tax cuts will be welcomed by many local families in my electorate who are struggling with rising health and childcare costs as well as four interest rate rises since the Prime Minister promised to keep rates at record lows. The Prime Minister’s four rate rises have squeezed an extra $240 on average per month out of Australia’s household budgets. Australian families are now losing a higher proportion of their disposable income to mortgage repayments than ever before; higher than under Paul Keating. The great myth of the Howard government is that they are great economic managers. Australians and my constituents in Chisholm deserve a whole lot better. Our circumstances demand decisive action and only a Rudd Labor government has the vision and the courage to deliver it. There are no other options any more.
It is a great pleasure to rise today to speak on the Appropriation Bill (No. 1) 2007-2008 and the related budget bills. Today, I want to take the opportunity to highlight many of the outstanding initiatives that are in this year’s budget. In doing that, I want to particularly point out some of those initiatives that are not only important for Australians across our entire nation but particularly important for the wonderful people who live in my electorate of Aston. It is important to put the 2007-08 budget into some context. This budget provides for an underlying cash surplus of just under $11 billion, and it is this government’s 10th surplus budget. Since being elected in 1996, the Howard-Costello government has delivered 10 surplus budgets, an unparalleled record. The point behind this is that a strong budget allows for continuing investment to improve our overall economic prosperity and growth and our options for helping Australians achieve their desired objectives in life.
The Australian economy is enjoying one of its longest growth periods in our history. That has not happened by accident; it has happened as a result of dedicated, proven, diligent and prudent hard work by this government over the last 11 years. That is what has resulted in the economic prosperity that we have been enjoying. It is insightful to reflect that since 1996 two million people have gotten jobs. Real wages are up by 20 per cent. It is important to highlight the fact that real wages are up some 20 per cent since we came to office in March 1996 because Labor’s record is that between March 1983 and March 1996 real wages went backwards. Under our government, real wages increased by 20 per cent; under Labor, they went backwards by almost two per cent. The unemployment rate, as we know, is at a record 30-year low at around 4.4 per cent. If we have a look at what unemployment was when we came to office in March 1996, it was not at 30-year lows; it was at 8.2 per cent. There were 8.2 per cent of Australians unemployed. At that time in my electorate of Aston unemployment was just on six per cent, and—I am proud to say—today it is below four per cent; 3.7 per cent in Aston. In that time, real household wealth has more than doubled.
Let me now turn to some of the initiatives which I think are very important to the good people of Aston. In this budget there are personal income tax cuts. This is a continuation of this government’s commitment to giving back to Australians and rewarding Australians for their hard work. What is important to note about the tax cuts in this year’s budget is that it is the fifth time that this government has reduced personal income tax. The personal income tax cuts in this budget are worth $31.5 billion over four years. This is $31.5 billion above and beyond the almost $37 billion of tax cuts that were announced in last year’s budget. It is because of the continuation of this government’s proven economic management that we are in the position to be able to reward Australians in this way.
From 1 July this year, the 30 per cent threshold will rise from $25,001 to $30,001. From 1 July next year, the 40 per cent threshold will rise from just over $75,000 to just over $80,000, and the 45 per cent threshold will rise from just over $150,000 to $180,000. The tax cuts will increase disposable incomes for all Australian taxpayers. This provides much-needed incentives, especially for lower income earners, to participate in the workforce, which will further enhance our overall international competitiveness. Over 80 per cent of taxpayers will face a top marginal rate of no more than 30 per cent. With these changes, over 80 per cent of all of the taxpayers in Australia will now be paying no more than 30 per cent over the forward estimates periods, with taxpayers needing to earn around $134,000 to pay an average tax rate of 30 per cent by the time we get to 2008-09.
Another important fact is that in 2008-09 the top marginal tax rate will in fact only apply to around two per cent of all taxpayers. That means that these cuts are particularly designed to benefit low- and middle-income earners. It is low- and middle-income earners that receive the highest percentage of tax cuts overall. It is interesting to provide some examples of how this might work. Taxpayers earning $30,000 used to pay tax of $6,222 prior to the new tax system and excluding the Medicare levy that we introduced. From 1 July this year, those taxpayers that used to pay $6,222 in income tax will now be paying $2,850, a reduction of around 54 per cent in tax. I will give another example. Taxpayers on $60,000 used to pay income tax of $18,802 prior to the new tax system that this government implemented. From 1 July this year, instead of paying that $18,802, these taxpayers will now pay around $12,600, which is a reduction of 33 per cent. Taxpayers on $100,000 used to pay $37,602. From July next year, they will be paying $26,660, a reduction of around 29 per cent. Taxpayers on $180,000, instead of paying over $75,000 in tax, from July next year will pay over $58,000 tax, a reduction of around 22 per cent. This shows that this government is all about giving back to the Australian people and particularly looking after the low- and middle-income earners. Those examples I have just given demonstrate how it is that the low- and middle-income earners are the greatest beneficiaries of this government’s income tax cuts in the budget.
Another important area of interest in the budget to the people of Aston is child care. The budget builds on this government’s very longstanding commitment to help families meet their childcare needs. This government introduced the childcare benefit in 2000 and the childcare tax rebate in 2004. We will all remember that in last year’s budget we expanded childcare places. From 1 July this year, the childcare benefit will increase and the timing of the childcare tax rebate will be brought forward.
What does this do? It provides more timely and increased childcare assistance for all Australian families, particularly those in my electorate of Aston. As a result, out-of-pocket childcare costs as a share of disposable income will be reduced for all families. These changes will cost just under $2 billion in child care over the next five years. In 2007-08 the government will spend $3 billion on childcare assistance. It is important to highlight that $3 billion, because that is nearly three times the amount that was spent on child care in 1996-97 when we came to office.
It is important to highlight the areas of childcare benefit. From 1 July 2007, the rates of childcare benefit will increase by 10 per cent on top of annual indexation, which is around 3.3 per cent. A family on the maximum rate of $118.40 a week with one child using 40 hours of care per week in a long day care centre will receive just under $135 per week—an increase of just over $16 a week to help them with their childcare costs. Of course, the childcare tax rebate that I talked about covers 30 per cent of out-of-pocket childcare costs up to a maximum of $4,211. From 1 July, the childcare tax rebate will be able to be claimed through Centrelink shortly after the end of the financial year in which the costs are incurred. This is significantly earlier than the current arrangements.
What is important about that is that, as a result of this change, families who incur out-of-pocket costs in 2005-06 together with this year, 2006-07, will receive two rebates in the next financial year. From 2008-09, the childcare tax rebate will be delivered entirely through Centrelink and not through the tax system. Again, this is a wonderful initiative that is designed in the budget by this government to help Australian families. This is an example of how this budget significantly supports the families of Australia.
Another area that I want to touch on in the budget is education. This budget really has delivered an amazing amount of support to our schools and universities. It is all encompassed in a package called Realising Our Potential, a comprehensive package which invests an additional $3½ billion over four years in higher and vocational education and, importantly, in our schools. It is important to highlight that this $3½ billion—regrettably, those on the other side of the House like to lead people astray on this matter—is on top of the $5 billion investment in our new Higher Education Endowment Fund.
I want to talk about some elements of education, because education is an important issue for all of us and it is particularly important for those of us who live in Aston. Firstly, the $5 billion Higher Education Endowment Fund broadly doubles the existing financial assets and the endowments that have currently been accumulated by all of our universities across Australia. The interest and the income that are received from the endowment fund will be distributed annually to universities, and they can use this income for capital works improvements and research facilities.
endorsed by one of my parliamentary colleagues. The government has indicated that it does not plan to cap the endowment fund at $5 billion; it plans to make further capital contributions from further budget surpluses. What is important about that is that there need to be budget surpluses to be able to do that. If you do not have a surplus, you do not have the facility to be able to top up a fund like this, and I do not need to tell you, Mr Deputy Speaker, that the Labor Party operated budget deficits. Instead of topping up a fund like this, the Labor Party’s practice and its track record is to have deficits. It wants to go into these types of funds and take money out. That is the Australian Labor Party’s stated policy on a fund that is similar to this: the Future Fund.
Another important initiative of the education package is in regard to higher education initiatives—$768 million over four years to increase the capacity of universities to respond in a more flexible way to student demands. This is by allowing funding to more closely match student enrolments and by reducing the number of Commonwealth grant schemes funding-clusters from 12 to seven. There is also another $209 million over four years, including new funding of $67 million for the Diversity and Structural Adjustment Fund for universities. This is to allow them to promote greater specialisation, diversity and responsiveness to local labour market needs.
There is funding in the budget for vocational education and training, a critically important area for the people of Aston and for young people; $549 million over four years to first- and second-year apprentices in skills shortage trades for an additional tax-exempt payment of $1,000 as wage top-ups for those under 30 years of age and, regardless of age, a $500 fee voucher to help offset fees. There is money in the budget for student assistance initiatives and, most importantly, money in the budget to assist our schools.
There is $457 million to provide national literacy and numeracy vouchers worth $700 to parents whose children do not meet the national literacy and numeracy benchmarks, and these vouchers will be available for parents of children in years 3, 5 and 7 from 2008, and for those with children in year 9 from 2009. There is $102 million to establish summer schools for teachers to provide additional training and $77 million to improve the practical component of teacher education. So, again, it is a budget that is full of practical measures to help our young people in our schools and to help our teachers in professional development to help our young people who are wanting to get technical and trade expertise and skills—and of course there is money there to help our important higher education system.
There is also a whole range of budget measures in support of our senior Australians. I do not need to tell you, Mr Deputy Speaker, that senior Australians are wonderful people who have made Australia what it is today. There are tax cuts for senior Australians who qualify for the senior Australians tax offset. There are also one-off tax-free bonuses for all self-funded retirees who are eligible for the seniors concession allowance. As I mentioned, that is a $500 one-off tax-free bonus. This will benefit over 300,000 self-funded retirees. There is also a $500 one-off tax-free bonus to all seniors who receive the utilities allowance as of 8 May 2007. This will benefit over two million seniors.
Importantly, there are also wonderful support initiatives to help carers who look after people that need help. Carer payment recipients will receive a $1,000 bonus payment while those who receive the carer allowance will receive a $600 bonus payment. Again, the budget has wonderful supports for our senior Australians and for those who are caring for people.
In the time I have left I also want to mention one of the wonderful budget initiatives in and around caring for our environment—the solar technology funding. This is where we are doubling the rebate for solar panels on homes. The rebate will increase from the current $4 per watt up to a maximum of $4,000 to $8 per watt up to a maximum of $8,000. This is all about supporting Australians, particularly those who live in Aston, to be able to care for our environment, to be environmentally friendly, and about supporting them in many ways.
This initiative does not stand alone. The government have been providing initiatives in the area of environment and climate change in many budgets. In fact, we have spent more money on direct funding for the environment than any other government in Australia’s history. This year we will spend around $2 billion on direct funding for the environment. I think it is interesting to contrast that with the Labor Party in 1995 and 1996, when we came to office, which spent less than $380 million.
In summary, what is this budget about? I think it is true to say that this budget is all about encouraging Australians who work hard. I think it is about investing in education and skills. I think it is, importantly, about supporting our families. I think it is about securing our water and the environment. I think it is, most importantly, about saving for our future. There are initiatives in the budget to build important infrastructure and to support our critically important small business sector and our stronger defence and national security. (Time expired)
There are a number of issues I would like to raise on the appropriation bills. Firstly, in a tactical sense, I congratulate the government on the surplus budget. I think it is always healthy if you are in surplus rather than in deficit. I will make a few comments later in my speech about some of the other positives of the budget.
There are a number of issues that I think need to be highlighted in this place. I made a speech in the other place only a few moments ago where I highlighted a number of examples where I believe the coalition government is not addressing the issues that a lot of people would like addressed. I think that demonstrates some of the slippage that they have been experiencing in the polls of recent months. I made mention of the member for Macarthur and the member for Lindsay and a number of comments that they have made in recent days. I suggest to the government that it sits down and listens to what those people are talking about.
One of the big issues that is raised in this place from time to time is fuel. I was disappointed that the last speaker, the member for Aston, did not go to the issue of fuel. Fuel pricing is an issue that is affecting people on the ground. It is affecting real people who have budgetary constraints to deal with, real people who are raising families. If you ask anybody in the street, they know the impact that fuel pricing has. It is not reflected through the indexation processes for pensioners, for instance. It is not reflected in a lot of the cost rises to small business and other activities in the economy.
I keep hearing this incessant message from the Prime Minister, and I heard it again today from the Assistant Treasurer, who made the comment again that fuel pricing in Australia is all because of international factors. He may believe that, the Prime Minister may believe that and there may be other people in this parliament who believe that, but people in the street do not believe it. They do not believe it because they know what the facts are: 38c a litre excise tax or fuel tax. Road tax, it used to be called. How much of that goes back on to road and rail and bus shelters et cetera? About 12c a litre. Every cent that is raised in fuel taxation raises about $368 million.
When we see an extension to Roads to Recovery of $307 million, or whatever the number happens to be, out of the last budget, people go weak at the knees in gratitude. But it is not even a cent a litre in terms of the bowser price. We pay 38c a litre in tax. I note some of the community college people coming into the room—people who are very concerned. I am sure if they were to have a vote at the moment they would put fuel prices as a major issue in their daily lives. We pay 38c a litre in fuel excise. As I said, we get about 12c of that back through road, rail, bus stations et cetera. Another 11c approximately, depending on where you are—it is more in the country and less in some of the city areas—is goods and services tax. So for the Assistant Treasurer, and the Prime Minister for that matter, to consistently say that the price of fuel in Australia is all about international factors is a nonsense. And people know that in the community. If the coalition are looking for reasons why they are slipping in the polls, I would suggest that running that sort of farcical message out there is probably one of the underlying reasons. A lot can be done in terms of fuel taxation. As I said at the start, I congratulate the government on developing a surplus budget, but we have a situation where we are raising excess money from fuel taxation from all Australians, from small business, from big business and from regional people, because they do not have the advantage of public transport and other options in the country—and the member for Gilmore, for whom I have a tremendous amount of time, would be fully aware of some of these issues.
It is time that the government really addressed that issue. To achieve that sort of taxation level—and I think it is running to nearly $14 billion a year—to give something like $3 billion or $3½ billion back to the road and rail system, to come out with all these bonus payments for people, $500 here and $500 there, and then to argue that to create a productive economy you have to be prudent in terms of cost outlays et cetera makes a mockery of the debate. When you are taking that amount of money from fuel taxation, returning a small proportion of it and then lauding the fact that there is a surplus budget, I think there are some contradictions that need to be addressed.
There are some other issues that I will address, too. There is the issue of homeownership and the price of housing at the moment. Even in communities such as Tamworth and Armidale the price of homes has escalated, though nothing like the extent to which it is happening in Sydney, for instance. We have had discussions in the parliament in recent days and there are allocations in the budget in relation to drought funding—the money for rural counsellors et cetera—and that is all very welcome, for I think the drought has been running for about five years now. But we hear constant noise that there is a massive amount of money allocated to the farm sector through drought funding, the exceptional circumstances assistance et cetera. When you actually break that down over a period of time, you get a different picture.
There was some conflict in the parliament yesterday as to whether $1 billion or $1½ billion had been spent and then the minister said, ‘Well, say $2 billion,’ and then someone else said $3 billion. But the reality is that it is probably about $1½ billion. Most of it has been spent, essentially, on Work for the Dole payments—social security payments. Somewhere between $350 million and $500 million has been expended on interest rate assistance through the exceptional circumstances arrangements. So when the government says there has been a massive amount of money poured out to the farming community over five years, we need to understand what that entails. Anybody who is unemployed or not collecting an income—such as farmers in this particular time of drought—is entitled to some household support, and to bracket that together with the interest rate assistance and exceptional circumstances arrangements is, in my view, not telling the truth in terms of the total expenditures. If we assume for the moment that about $500 million has been spent on interest rate subsidies to the farming industry over the last five years, that comes out at about $100 million a year.
What are other communities doing? Take the building industry, for instance, and the GST. When the goods and services tax came in, I think, in 2000 or 2001—it has been in existence a little bit longer than the drought—the First Home Owners Scheme was put together at the time to address the explosion that the building industry said they would have to deal with of a 10 per cent increase in the price of housing and the impact that would have on the cost of housing and employment levels et cetera. The government, coming into an election period, decided that that was potentially a political problem and put in place the First Home Owners Scheme, allegedly to encourage young people to buy their own homes. In fact, it has escalated the price of housing and in some cases, particularly in the cities, has put people into a debt situation that they can ill afford.
If you look at that subsidy to the building industry—which is essentially what it is—in that period of time it has totalled $6.2 billion, or a bit more now. Drought subsidy to the farming industry—a massive contributor in terms of export income—has been about $1.5 billion. If you take away the household support, which is unemployment benefits, it is back to about half-a-billion dollars. So when people say—and the Treasurer says this—‘If you cannot compete in the world, you should get out,’ there is industry support going on under this government as much as under any other government. I am not suggesting there should not be, but this argument in which the farm sector is occasionally singled out to be some sort of poverty trap where there is an endless supply of money going in is in my view not the truth.
There are some other issues that I would like to raise. In terms of housing and the problems that young people are having, it is a tragedy in this large nation that we now have young people who are paying $3,000 a month to afford their first home. I cannot believe it. I know the state government has some problems there in terms of some of the cost issues as well. But one of the other issues is that neither the state government nor the Commonwealth government have any effective regional development policy. We have an economy that is based on big cities and we have a house price economy that is based on continued pressure on those big cities. We do not have a regional development policy under which, if you were paying $500,000 for a $150,000 home in a city, you could go somewhere else.
The government policy message that we are giving is wrong. And I know why it is based that way: the western suburbs of Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane are where elections are determined. I can understand the logic of that, but I continually hear rhetoric in this place about us doing everything we can in terms of regional development. What we have is what I call a ‘feedlot economy’ in which the most cost-effective way to house the largest number of people in a nation is to put them in a ‘feedlot’. If that feedlot is a high-rise in which you can use gravity to some advantage, it is a more productive housing arrangement than having people on small blocks. I do not agree with that, but that is what the policy message is: the most effective way to house as many people as possible is to put them in a ‘feedlot’. I think that is a disgraceful policy message to be sending in a country of this size with all the advantages that many of our rural towns have.
Telecommunications is always an issue, and it is mentioned in the budget papers in a number of areas. One of the problems at present is a great concern about the change over from CDMA to the Next G network. I raised that issue with the Prime Minister yesterday in question time—and you might be aware of this, Deputy Speaker Somlyay, because I know you pay a lot of attention in the parliament—and asked him about what he believes equivalence of service to be. I asked him that not only in relation to equity of access to services for country people but also—and this phrase has been used by the minister and the Australian Communications and Media Authority—about when you switch one off and turn the other one on. The arrangements that are currently in place are that the CDMA system will not be turned off until there is equivalence of service. I know that the member for Riverina is also very concerned about the equivalence of service issue.
As I understand it, there is going to be a truck running around Australia—and, according to the Senate estimates papers the other day, that truck will not bother to go to the western half of Australia; it is going to run around the eastern half of Australia—to assess the CDMA network randomly. So not every site will be assessed. Later on in the year, that same truck, which apparently will be running around on secret roads, will go around the same area and test the Next G reception and make reference back to the minister and the government as to whether there is some form of equivalence of service.
There are a lot of bullet holes in that. I refer members, particularly country members, to the Senate estimates Hansard, because there are some very important points being made there that could impact particularly on country consumers. I have one of these Next G phones at the moment, and I cry at night for my old CDMA phone. I will not do a live radio interview on this phone, irrespective of where I am, because it just falls out. Even in this building there are bad spots in the Next G network. I believe that some people in the government—and I congratulate them—are questioning the advertisements that Telstra are running that Next G is everywhere you want it. I know where I would like to put it occasionally! It is not everywhere you want it, and that, in my view, is misleading advertising, at the least.
I call upon the Prime Minister again to look very closely at this issue, because there is political damage in it if he does not. I would rather see our consumers get equity of access. If you remember back to the sale of Telstra, equity of access to broadband and phone services was paramount. I remember the leader of the National Farmers Federation supposedly had a document which was a guarantee from the government or the minister that there would be equality of access to broadband and basic phone services for country people. No-one has ever sighted that document, but that document was the basis of Senator Joyce’s changing his vote in the Senate. That document has not been sighted, but I think the government has an obligation to make sure of this issue. The future-proofing arrangements are supposedly in place and a massive amount of money was supposedly being allocated to future-proofing telecommunications, and the government has an obligation to make sure. This is the first test, because Next G was not around when the sale took place. This is the new technology, and the government gave a guarantee that country people would not be disadvantaged by new technology and that new technology would be future-proofed.
I have an absurd situation in my electorate, in a little place called Yetman on the Queensland border, where a lot of professional people have come back to the area wanting to run international and national businesses using broadband services. Telstra Country Wide said to them—and I went to the meeting: ‘If you are prepared to find a block of land, build a road, put the tower up and maintain all of those things, we might look at putting an aerial on top of that tower so that can you have basic mobile phone service.’ That is atrocious. They have this formula which says that if you cannot return the capital outlay within three years you are non-viable.
That is not what the government said on sale day. Someone has to stand up on this issue; otherwise we are going to have a two-class system. Telecommunications in this century are the road and rail network. Telecommunications infrastructure is what negates distances being a disadvantage of living in the country. Telecommunications can turn this concentration of city dwelling back on itself so that it is more cost-effective, more productive, to live in the country than in the city. So this government has to start to address a number of policy initiatives. You cannot keep sending these pro city messages. You are sending people into the city supposedly to find jobs, when you have all these other advantages sitting out there. The telecommunication arrangements are a classic case where the message is not being delivered.
If we based our society on viability of basic services, Bourke would never have seen an electricity pole. Some people would suggest: who cares? Well, I care. We are talking about infrastructure almost daily in this place, and there is a role for government to be much more positive about those sorts of infrastructure needs, not only about road and rail. There are about 15 other items that I wanted to speak about, Mr Deputy Speaker—water policy, coal and the various AusLink arrangements—but, seeing that time has expired, I will have to bore you another day.
Today I rise to speak on the Appropriation Bill (No. 1) 2007-2008 and related bills for the 2007-08 budget, a budget which has a surplus of $10.6 billion. I am proud to be part of a government which has delivered its 10th budget surplus and has cut tax for the fifth consecutive year. All Australian families will benefit from the $31.5 billion in tax cuts. I have to emphasise the point of one of the key aspects in the 2007-08 budget which affects my electorate, and that is the issue of road funding. The additional $73 million funded to continue stages 2 and 3 of the Karuah to Bulahdelah upgrade will be welcome not only to local residents but also to thousands of holiday-makers and transport drivers who use this stretch of road each year. The total cost of the 23-kilometre upgrade will be $262 million and will be completed by mid-2009.
The Howard government will also contribute $5.4 million in 2007-08 for preliminary work towards the 8.6 kilometre Bulahdelah bypass. When the bypass is complete, Bulahdelah will have a flyover to the north and a flyover to the south. This will be the missing link between Hexham and Port Macquarie once the Karuah to Bulahdelah and the Coopernook to Herons Creek upgrades are opened in 2009.
There are just over 1,000 people of driving age living in Bulahdelah, and the town is set to receive two bypasses, yet, just down the road in the Tea Gardens-Hawks Nest area, there are nearly 2½ thousand people over the age of 18—of driving age. When you add North Arm Cove there are another 327 who are over 18. The state government has again refused to fund the cost of a flyover on the Myall Way intersection on the Pacific Highway, which would benefit the people of the Tea Gardens area and motorists using the Pacific Highway.
The Howard government has not forgotten these people. In fact, when the Prime Minister came to my electorate last month, he promised $10 million towards the flyover for Tea Gardens and it was confirmed in the federal budget. Yet the flyover cannot go ahead without the contribution of funding or prioritisation from the state government of New South Wales. The New South Wales Minister for Roads, Mr Eric Roozendaal, has refused to acknowledge this flyover as a priority; in fact, he opposes it. In state parliament on Thursday, 10 May 2007, Mr Roozendaal told state parliament that he believes that ‘other more important parts of the Pacific Highway need upgrading’.
The New South Wales Labor government has again let down the people of the Hunter with the Weakley’s Drive project. Many people from my electorate use this section of road. Weakley’s Drive has become a pivotal point in the AusLink national land transport network. The project involves an overpass to take the New England Highway over Weakley’s Drive as well as a new link road connecting the interchange to Glenwood Drive between Thornton and Beresfield. Together with the link road, the new interchange will eliminate three intersections on the New England Highway controlled by traffic signals.
Two years ago, the federal government gave $3 million out of $25 million in project funding for Weakley’s Drive. At the time the member for Hunter complained that was not enough. You can imagine his embarrassment when it was discovered that it was all the RTA had actually asked for. Last year the RTA only asked for $10 million, so of course that was not enough for the project to be completed. In fact, the RTA failed to conduct appropriate planning for this flyover to be built at the end of the F3 freeway where it connects to the New England Highway. So we, the federal government, have had to come to the rescue of the state Labor government and the RTA, and we have agreed to fund the entire $51.8 million for this interchange. The federal government has had to pick up the financial mess of the state Labor government. The cost has blown out from $12 million to $52 million. Interestingly, the contract that has been let to the works only amounts to $30 million, so $22 million has been pocketed by the state government in planning and contingency sums.
I am proud to announce that I have secured over $2 million from the federal budget through the AusLink strategic regional program for roads in my electorate. The Australian government is spending an additional $250 million in 2006-07 on this program. The Gloucester Shire Council will benefit from this funding. Over $500,000 will be spent on the Bucketts Way for a bridge replacement at Broad Gully, $850,000 will be spent on the Bucketts Way for road rehabilitation at Deep Creek and $640,000 will also be spent on the Bucketts Way for road rehabilitation at Krambach. The Australian government is funding the entire cost of each of these projects on the Bucketts Way. But enough is enough. I now call on the New South Wales state Labor government to put some money on the table for the Bucketts Way. The Iemma government is too busy focusing on spending billions of dollars in Sydney on tollways and tunnels, and is spending nothing on the Bucketts Way or other local regional roads.
The reality is that people are dying on the roads in the bush, and we need to do something about it. Last year, a man and two women were seriously injured in a two-car collision at Gloucester. The 19-year-old man was a passenger in a Nissan sedan travelling west on the Bucketts Way at Belbora which collided with another car on Sunday, 23 July. As the local federal member, I will continue to fight for funding for the Bucketts Way. We have come a long way over the last four years, but I will not stop until we see passing lanes introduced on this road—passing lanes that will save lives. After many discussions with the local mayor, Barry Ryan, I know that this road will continue to be dangerous until these passing lanes are created. Last year in the federal budget the council received $350,000 in additional Roads to Recovery funding and, on 17 May last year, Mayor Barry Ryan told the Gloucester Advocate:
It’s a fairy god mother’s wish, Santa Claus’s present and the tooth fairy too.
He noted on our program:
Roads to Recovery has to be the best lot of financial assistance given to local government in all my years on council.
The federal Labor Party would never have come up with the Roads to Recovery program like this government has. In fact, I take the opportunity to remind the House that it was the federal Labor government that abolished the black spot road funding.
The government will also invest an extra $300 million in the AusLink strategic regional program under AusLink 2, which means councils will be able to submit new applications. In the Paterson electorate, this means that the Port Stephens, Dungog, Great Lakes, Gloucester and Maitland councils will have the security of knowing funding will continue. They can be assured that they can plan for roads and have a guaranteed income stream. The money for roads just keeps on flowing. The Roads to Recovery program was scheduled to finish in June 2009. The Australian government will now extend the program until June 2014. Funding will also be increased from $307.5 million a year to $350 million a year from 2009-10. This is road funding put into local roads that should be primarily the responsibility of the New South Wales government. We are doing the right thing putting money into these roads, expecting the state government to match it at least fifty-fifty.
There are other initiatives announced in the budget which will benefit my electorate. I welcome the Australian government’s initiative to give all first- and second-year apprentices under 30 a tax-free $1,000 wage top-up to boost their apprenticeship wages in trades facing skill shortages. Apprentices will also receive up to $500 each year, without an age restriction, towards their TAFE or other training fees. I understand that the first and second year of apprenticeships can be particularly tough for those entering the workforce for the first time. Up to 2,600 apprentices in Paterson may benefit from this wage top-up. Increasing the take home pay of apprentices means that young men and women will be better placed to pursue their career in a trade. These measures, which commence on 1 July 2007, are part of initiatives to further tackle Australia’s skill shortages and will increase the government’s commitment to skills training to $2.9 billion a year.
I am also pleased to see funding for RAAF Base Williamtown in the federal budget. There is $13.7 million allocated for construction of ordnance loading aprons. This project has provided a range of new and redeveloped facilities and infrastructure necessary to upgrade the base and necessary for the introduction into services of the airborne early warning and control capability at RAAF Base Williamtown. The remaining project element, construction of an ordnance loading complex, will commence in mid 2007, with completion anticipated by mid 2008. Overall, Defence facilities will benefit from an injection totalling some $916.9 million in 2007-08.
Defence families form an integral part of the Paterson community, which has a strong Defence presence centred on RAAF Base Williamtown. The current military population of the electorate includes over 3,000 ADF members, Defence civilians and ADF cadets. As part of an ongoing commitment to supporting and valuing our Australian Defence Force personnel and their families, the following improvements will be introduced: a modern and more flexible pay structure for other ranks; new home loans assistance packages, with higher subsidies and greater choice, to encourage homeownership and provide for higher benefits as members serve for longer periods; the creation of a transition and career advice function within Defence Force Recruiting to assist those who might be considering alternative careers; investment in professional development of Defence medical officers; better marketing to showcase Navy, Army and Air Force as employers of choice; and the introduction of new Defence apprenticeship schemes to assist 16- to 17-year-olds commence an apprenticeship and then join the ADF. It has been a privilege to serve the people of RAAF Base Williamtown as their local member on and off for the past 11 years. These are people for whom I hold the highest esteem. These are the people who go overseas to defend not only the freedoms of this nation but the democracies of others.
Our strong economy means that we as a government are able to provide additional measures in the budget to support our war veterans, and I welcome these. They include increasing payments to veterans with a disability on the special rate pension by $50 a fortnight and increasing payments to those on the intermediate rate pension by $25 a fortnight, and increasing access to support services for eligible veterans when they leave hospital. After referral from a GP, community pharmacies will provide veterans with written medication management plans and additional medication management strategies. The measures also include doubling the funeral benefit paid under the Veterans’ Entitlement Act 1986 from $1,000 to $2,000 and an extra three months for war widows and widowers to claim war widow/widowers pensions.
In Paterson, around 4,119 people from my electorate will benefit from this government’s superannuation co-contribution scheme. Low- and middle-income earners in Paterson will receive up to $3,000 from the Howard government as a superannuation co-contribution for personal contributions of up to $1,000 made in the 2005-06 financial year. Under the superannuation co-contribution scheme, the government contributes $1.50 for every $1 of after tax superannuation contributions made by employees earning up to $28,000, up to a maximum co-contribution of $1,500 per year. To reward people for preparing for their own future, the Treasurer announced as a part of the 2007-08 federal budget that the government will pay an additional one-off sum to double the contribution in respect of the 2005-06 year. This means an eligible person who contributed $1,000 during the 2005-06 year will receive a co-contribution of up to $3,000 from the federal government for that year. That will be paid before 30 June this year. This is practical help for low- and middle-income earners in Paterson by directly boosting their retirement savings.
Around 25,000 people in my electorate will also benefit from contributions made to older Australians in this budget. These include no tax on incomes up to $25,867 for singles or up to $43,360 for couples for those eligible for the senior Australian tax offset and a one-off $500 bonus to seniors concession card holders or those receiving the utilities allowances. Both eligible members of a couple will receive this bonus. There will be a one-off $1,000 bonus to those receiving the carers payment and a one-off $600 bonus for those receiving the carers allowance to recognise their dedication in helping those who suffer from a disability. There will also be better access to hearing services for 350,000 hearing impaired Australians through a $70.7 million investment and additional community care packages to assist older Australians who want to continue living at home, as well as more community based respite care. There is also a $377.6 million package to increase access to dental health services for over 200,000 patients. This will provide help for those with a chronic medical condition. A Medicare benefit of up to $2,125 per year will be made available for their dental treatment in the private sector when they are referred by a doctor.
Finally, I wish to talk about the volunteers in our community. The Volunteer Small Equipment Grants program is one of the most popular programs under the government’s Stronger Families and Community Strategy. In the last round my electorate received a large chunk of the funding available. Grants were provided, for example, for gardening, land care tools, equipment for Forster Keys Progress and Ratepayers Association; kitchen utensils, equipment, microwaves and urns for Pacific Palms Surf Life Saving Club; computer and overhead projectors for the Great Lakes Environment Association; new audio equipment for Great Lakes FM; computer software for the Great Lakes Arts Society; a new PA system for Nelson Bay Town Management; computers for Medowie Public School; ride-on mowers for Nelson Bay Junior Cricket Club; cameras for Port Stephens Historical Society; air conditioners for Irrawang Public School; chairs for Medowie Rural Fire Brigade; computers for Karuah Progress Association; new cupboards for the Myall Coast Historical Society; laptop computers for Tea Gardens RSL sub-branch; barbecues, digital cameras and accessories for the North Arm Cove rural fire services. These volunteers in my community deserve recognition.
The $66 million boost announced in the federal budget takes to $81.1 million the total funding available under Volunteer Small Equipment Grants over this and the next four years, and demonstrates a commitment by the Howard government to the volunteer organisations across Australia. I say, with reference to a speech I gave this morning, that there is no bias—we do not exclude seats that are held by Labor members, as Premier Iemma did to those with volunteer certificates who happened to come from non-Labor held seats in New South Wales.
All of the funding to my electorate in the federal budget will no doubt benefit a region which is thriving. Tourism levels have been boosted. Last year there were 3,113,000 overnight domestic trips to the north coast region, which encompassed Port Stephens, which is up 3.4 per cent compared with the previous year. Visitors are spending more. Last year domestic visitors’ expenditure in the north coast region increased almost 15 per cent to $1.497 million. There was also an increase in day trips to the north coast area last year—3,426,000 day trips were made to the region, an increase of 15.4 per cent since 2005. Again, visitors are spending more, with an increase in expenditure of 17.2 per cent to $354 million in 2006. There are more international visitors visiting our region, an increase of some 8.4 per cent last year to 154,000 people.
But of course Port Stephens is host to some very special visitors each year, and those special visitors are the whales. Right now the first humpback whale sightings are occurring around Port Stephens in places such as Tomaree, Fisherman’s Bay and Stockton beach. According to a report by the International Fund for Animal Welfare, Port Stephens is one of the world’s premier whale spotting locations. An advantage for Port Stephens is the extensive range of vessels that conduct whale watching cruises and the close proximity of the whales to the foreshore, as we are one of the most easterly point in New South Wales. The whales and dolphins attract thousands of visitors to Port Stephens each year, and of course that brings millions of dollars in tourism revenue each year. Local tourism operators in Port Stephens like Moonshadow Cruises, Imagine and MV Spirit are thriving from the boost in tourist numbers. These local charter boats take groups of people out into the blue waters for a close encounter with the whales. This year I am honoured to have been asked to officially launch the start of the whale watching season which will take place this Friday on the Nelson Bay foreshore. It is a major drawcard for tourism in my region. I have every bit of confidence that the increase in visitor numbers is because of the good work of this federal government.
The Howard government is supporting growth in regional Australia. The federal budget has just committed an additional $34.9 million over four years to extend and enhance the Australian Tourism Development Program. In my electorate this government is building better roads, promoting better education and training, recognising volunteers, rewarding Defence Force personnel and paying tribute to war veterans, encouraging superannuation schemes and encouraging apprentices. This federal budget has delivered tax cuts to families and is taking steps to providing better medical services. We have done this. We can do this because we made the tough decisions very early in the piece. We started making the tough decisions 11 years ago when we were left with a $96 billion deficit, high unemployment, high interest rates. With the progress of the last 11 years we have been able to achieve benefits for all Australians. We are able to make these contributions back to the taxpayers of Australia because we have done the hard yards and now we can lock in the benefits. Once again, I am proud to be a part of this government and I look forward to seeing further funding for my electorate so I can watch my electorate grow and prosper into the one that everybody wants to move into.
I too rise to speak on the Appropriation Bill (No. 1) 2007-2008 and cognate bills. I would like to commence by reflecting somewhat broadly on this government and this government’s actions, its policies and practices, its convictions and its sometimes frightening extremism, which are, to varying extents, evident in the bills before us, just as they have been evident throughout the last decade.
This government is happy to be remembered for what it has been seen to do and thereby what it is known to be. We have seen the Howard government actively support industrial warfare, complete with attack dogs and balaclavas, on the waterfront in 1998; maliciously demonise drowning refugees escaping a sinking ship as inhumane blackmailers and terrorists; and oversee a scandal of $300 million that went to a dictator’s war chest just months before our troops were sent into battle. It has taken our nation to war but left its justification for that—to be selected from multiple options as needed—until after the fact. We are still waiting for those weapons of mass destruction to be found. I have yet to hear if any have been found.
We have also seen this government deprive Australians of our rights—physically deporting Australian citizens, throwing out of this country people who, like you and me, were citizens and had every right to be here. Not that long ago, 200-odd people were detained unlawfully, and 26 of those people were Australian citizens. We have heard nothing on this because hush money was offered—an out-of-court settlement—and it has not become a big scandal. But they are the facts. The other big issue is the Work Choices regime, which has made this nation the only one in the world to legislate against citizens’ internationally recognised rights to collectively bargain and associate freely. That is a human right, one of the internationally recognised rights all around the world.
This is a repressive government. It represses the rights of ordinary working Australians. It did it in 1998, just as it is doing it now. It is repressing their rights just as it has repressed the proper function of democratic expression of views and debate within this parliament. We saw the gagging of debate only this morning. With the government’s gagging of debate in the parliament on selling Telstra, the mandateless and extreme Work Choices, or any of the many other bills on which debate has been guillotined over the last three years since it assumed total power through its majority in the Senate, no-one can say that this government has stood up for the democratic principles to which governments usually aspire—quite the contrary.
Just as the Howard government is uninterested in notions of democratic government within this place, it is contemptuous of by far the majority of the Australian public. Just look at its current advertising binge and the justification for it. Is that value for taxpayers’ money? I do not think so, and no-one would agree that it is. The government has shovelled over $10 million into the slot machine called political desperation, and it will waste twice that before the year is out. Today at question time we saw that there will be another advertising blitz to try and convince all Australians how great nuclear power stations are going to be in our suburbs.
Then the government wonder why people are questioning their future regarding running the country. They are questioning what is happening out there, what people think. They honestly do not have a clue. In the past, of course, they have gotten out of political trouble each and every time. That is quite an achievement, considering. After saying no Australian worker would be worse off under the Howard government, they sent in the Rottweilers and the balaclavas in 1998. After they said there would ‘never, ever’ be a GST, we have definitely copped the GST. There was the ‘no university degree over $100,000’ pledge. The government ignored David Hicks for years and years and then brought him home only when the polls demanded it. They expressed outrage at Labor’s proposal of a broadband rollout with the use of the Future Fund, but now they want to bleed its proceeds for university building maintenance.
The government has been fraudulently talking up this year’s budget initiative on an issue that is very close to my heart: dental care. On inspection it is clear that that initiative will do nothing to relieve the pain and suffering of 650,000 Australians waiting for dental care today. The average waiting list is three to four years and most of those people waiting are elderly and frail and they deserve the care they need. In one of its first acts in 1996 this government abolished the Commonwealth dental scheme. We saw some window-dressing about people with chronic illnesses with dental problems that might have an impact on that chronic illness. That will do nothing for an 80-year-old who is waiting for dentures but does not have a chronic illness. They will still be waiting next year and the year after. Or most probably they will pass away before they get to the top of the list. These people, as I have said many times, have worked all their lives. They have paid their taxes and they deserve better in their twilight years. That is what a government’s job is: to ensure that we look after those people that have built the foundation of this nation. But, instead of giving them some relief in those twilight years, we are making life harder for them.
Again, I go back to the half-completed Work Choices regime. Perhaps it is not extreme enough for this government. So what will happen if they form government again? Will we see stage 2? That will come, believe me. Then there is their global warming scepticism, carbon trading white-anting, and decreasing the proportion of renewable energy generation. But now they are on board as self-described realists. The community reaction has been correct in saying, ‘Not good enough and we do not believe you.’ For whatever selection of reasons, the community has substantially lost the ability to take anything this government says seriously. When the Prime Minister announced his notional or partial retreat from his extreme Work Choices agenda, he wanted the community to believe that it was only the people’s impression of Work Choices that he was addressing. He stated that Work Choices was fine and that people in the marginal electorates around the country were wrong in finding it frightening. It was those big, bad, nasty unions that were frightening them. The Australian public was right, and they are right in finding Work Choices frightening.
This government alleviates people’s fears by discounting their concern and then assuring them that their fears are without foundation. But then it flags a Clayton’s legislative retreat, as we saw on Work Choices, matching unfounded fear with ineffective symbolism. The PM says it is only in the people’s minds, but then proposes legislation to notionally fix a problem he says he knows does not exist, as we saw with Work Choices. With this government, it is only the impression that counts. Facts only get in the way of ideological zeal, so it is better not to know, not even to ask.
When it comes to the cost of not decreasing carbon emissions within Australia, they do not want to know, they do not ask the question. They appear more than happy that our emissions are set to soar by 27 per cent by 2020. They refuse to consider the cost of action within the context that is relative to the cost of inaction. This makes all of their projections of economic fire and brimstone baseless and meaningless, because we all know the cost to the economy of inaction on climate change will be far worse than action.
The Howard government heap contempt on Labor’s concern with global warming and our concern for our nation, our rivers and farms, our fisheries and tourist attractions. The government are not concerned. They say that reducing greenhouse gases will destroy the country, but they do not for a moment consider the destruction of our agricultural industry, for instance, in a future with very different rainfall and weather patterns. When it comes to their back-of-the-envelope plan on the survival of the Murray-Darling Basin, they do not even ask Treasury for an assessment, guidance or an opinion. They promise a certain amount of money over a decade and then think people will consider them great leaders and visionaries, and a hardworking productive government. But they do not bother with the detail because it is only the impression, the smoke and mirrors, that counts with this government. They are not concerned with value-adding on any plan because they are satisfied with only making the statement that they have a plan followed by a number with a lot of zeroes after it. And the zeroes are meaningless, of course, as the money is not spent.
The government said that the Living Murray Initiative tender had $200 million for purchasing water from on-farm efficiency savings, delivering 200 gigalitres, but they have spent only $765,000—around one-third of one per cent—delivering about one-fifth of one per cent of the desired water. It is time and opportunity wasted but they are happy that it sounded good at the time. On the $10 billion promise to the national water irrigation plan, less than half of one per cent of that $10 billion will be spent in the next financial year. After three years, the government will have spent only 11 per cent of the funds allocated. With the way things are looking, they may never even get that far. They soon may not even have a plan to talk about. So we will be left with this government on our hands—a government that do not believe the reality of scientific global warming and who are only marginally implementing the National Water Initiative. We will be left with a deteriorating agricultural sector, even worse export performances, impoverished regional communities and worsening weather and water flows for decades to come.
Maybe the government should ask those who were put on AWAs in the first month of the regime—those who, almost to a person, lost at least one protected award condition—about their concerns—or the 64 per cent who lost leave loadings, the 63 per cent who lost penalty rates, the 52 per cent who lost shiftwork loadings or the 16 per cent who lost every single award condition. Perhaps these people could inform the government that their concerns are real. They are not illusionary. But the Prime Minister’s mind-reading trick no longer entertains and no longer brings home or saves his bacon. The figures were a mistake by the government. The figures are not inaccurate, but the very idea of having any figure on the negative impact of Work Choices on Australian families is clearly against this government’s policy. This government’s policy is not to know and certainly not to ask, so they stopped collecting evidence of Work Choices ripping away award conditions—problem solved. Without recent evidence, public concern can be written off as a union-invoked illusion.
Paying Saddam Hussein $300-plus million right before sending in our troops is, again, the same illusion, the same reasoning. ‘We didn’t know,’ the government say, ‘It’s got nothing to do with us.’ Another example is the torture at Abu Ghraib prison. The government say, ‘We’ve heard nothing; we see nothing; we know nothing,’ even with Colonel Mike Kelly of the Australian Army sending back reports.
With such attention to detail, such regard for the facts and such effort on implementation, it is little wonder that we have come to the point where we are ranked 20th out of the OECD countries for our investment in public infrastructure as a proportion of GDP and our exports have fallen to an all-time low as a share of GDP. We are ranked 18th within the OECD on overall education investment and, since 1995, public investment in tertiary education has gone backwards by seven per cent, while other OECD countries have, on average, increased their funding by 48 per cent. Australian productivity growth averaging 3.2 per cent in the mid-1990s fell to 2.2 per cent at the turn of the decade. It is forecast by the government to be just 1.5 per cent for the current decade but is now expected to come in at a whopping big zero in 2006-07. We are ranked 25th within the OECD for prime age male participation in our workforce and 23rd for the participation of women of child-bearing age. Bringing all this home, Australian families are paying a record proportion of their disposable incomes on mortgage interest repayments—53 per cent more than when interest rates peaked in September 1989—and this government says that the Australian public relies on them for future prosperity!
They also say that the next federal Labor government will do this and that, threatening more fire and brimstone. We do not know, however, that another term in office with the likes of Mr Howard, Mr Abbott and Mr Costello, irrespective of which of these will be leader, will clearly result in over one million Australians awaiting dental care, with rotting gums, broken teeth and painful dentures; Australian troops remaining in Iraq for another half a decade, with no solutions; a great number of kids never developing a long-term, skilled career; and decreasing living standards amongst an increasing number and proportion of low- to middle-income families. Even further, we will see the relegation of the Australian dream of homeownership for the next generation to the realm of fantasy. Of course, there will be a nuclear industry with a nuclear power station in every neighbourhood.
One thing I want to focus on is the budget’s attention to the developing situation of global warming or, more specifically, the Prime Minister’s peculiar view of the benefits of setting targets in relation to greenhouse gas emission reductions. The government seem very happy to use numbers and projections regarding many areas of national activity, be it Australian technical colleges, numbers of skilled people entering Australia per year or the hardware and capacity of our defence forces. While the Prime Minister and the government are happy to entertain projections of the number of nuclear reactors they have already concluded they intend to see operating around the country—and this was well before they even considered investigating the prospect of a national carbon trading scheme that will be essential to making nuclear power generation even notionally cost-effective—they refuse to consider targets for greenhouse gas emissions. They also refuse to consider raising the mandatory renewable energy target above its token level set for the next 13 years. They refuse to consider an Australian future that has any real share of energy generation produced by sources other than those of coal fired power stations and nuclear power.
The Prime Minister says that it would be economically irresponsible to set any target in relation to greenhouse gas emissions. But is it irresponsible for the thousands of jobs which rely on the health and attractiveness of the Great Barrier Reef, the tens of thousands of jobs which rely on our fishing industry, and the hundreds of thousands of jobs that rely on the productive capacity of our agricultural lands? The Prime Minister says that to have a target in relation to greenhouse gases is economically irresponsible. I say not to have a target is economically irresponsible. The truth of the matter is that the Prime Minister does have a target in relation to greenhouse gases. Mr Howard’s target regarding greenhouse gases is that of current projections: a 27 per cent increase in greenhouse gas emissions by 2020. He professes that this target—a target based on no action, no responsibility and no concern whatsoever for the hundreds of thousands of jobs at risk from climate change and changing weather patterns—is the only target that can be considered economically responsible.
This government is hoping to hoodwink the Australian public, posing as an administration that shares the community’s concerns regarding global warming and dangerous climate change but refusing to establish any position on the desirability or otherwise of any concentration of carbon dioxide equivalent gases in our atmosphere, refusing to establish a position that will invoke responsibility for action against the scourge they simply refuse to acknowledge as reality.
Their reluctance to become positively involved in the global response to climate change—and we cannot include here their prior presence on international panels—betrays this government as belonging well and truly to a different age. They are out of date, out of relevance and out of time. The Prime Minister and his government have developed a mantra that they are continually using in defence of their obsession with coal and nuclear power generation, and that is ‘renewable energy sources cannot be used for base load power’. He even says that it is based on broad scientific consensus. Mr Howard said in this place on 28 February this year:
... there are really only two workable sources of energy for power stations for baseload power in this country: one of them is fossil fuels; the other is nuclear power. That is a fact. It is scientific knowledge; it is unarguable scientific knowledge.
While this government and their most vocal supporters ridicule science offered up regarding global warming, and go so far as to discount the considered and highly conservative opinions of thousands of scientists from around the world in saying that climate change is the biggest con in recent history, they seem almost desperate to defer to scientific opinion that they say discredits renewable energy as able to offer only a marginal contribution to our power needs at best.
The Prime Minister does, I would hope, acknowledge that total power generation is likely to be a mix of power sources, including hydro—as it has for many years; wind—as it currently is, increasingly; and solar—again increasingly. Toward the baseload debate, I would like to add perspectives offered by Australian scientists and columnists who address the myths that underlie Mr Howard’s refusal to consider renewable energy as a valuable and potentially highly significant proportion of our total future energy mix. The selection of myths include: (1) since wind power is an intermittent source, it cannot replace coal fired power unless it has expensive dedicated long-term storage; (2) because of wind power’s intermittency it has no value in meeting peak demands; and (3) to maintain a steady state of voltage and frequency requires much additional expense.
Some 25 years ago, CSIRO and ANU scientists used Monte Carlo computer simulations, numerical models and mathematical models of electricity grids containing various amounts of wind power capacity. Their conclusions have been subsequently confirmed and built upon by several overseas authors. They concluded that any given quantity of wind power generating capacity can be factored into baseload power capacity, whether it be one per cent, 10 per cent or 70 per cent—as is currently happening in Western Australia and other places around the world. Coal fired power stations, wind turbines or hydro systems are not all running at all times. The Australian national electricity grid network mandate— (Time expired)
In speaking to Appropriation Bill (No. 1) 2007-2008 and the related bills, I would like to begin with a quote from Treasurer Costello’s 1996 budget night speech which described the challenges that Labor left us. The Treasurer said:
Our predecessors had Australia on a path of deficit and debt to the next century.
Our Government could not stand back and ignore the problem. Although we did not create it, we will take the responsibility to fix it.
The problem that was left by Labor was successive huge government deficits, an unemployment rate at eight per cent, almost three-quarters of a million Australians out of work, over 800,000 working aged Australians dependent on debilitating welfare and a 10.5 per cent interest rate in March 1996. That was the interest rate we inherited, but not all that long before it had been running nearer 20 per cent, and many farmers will never forget what it felt like to lose their farm. Labor left $96 billion worth of debt to us. We had to deal with these problems so that we could set up a future for our great nation that was not a narrow, constrained future, which was the one left by Labor. The uncertainty created by Labor weakened families and businesses but Labor continued to mismanage the economy, digging themselves further and further into debt and fudging figures about real levels of unemployment by transferring people into non-vocational Mickey Mouse courses that led nowhere except to a further erosion of self-esteem and despair.
This budget announced this year by our Treasurer after his superb development and management of the economy demonstrates the benefits to the nation that sound and experienced financial management brings. This budget showed what is possible when, despite international and domestic shocks, you are able to manage a surplus. Only then is a government in the position to make investments in key services that address some of the most critical challenges of our times—for example, the ageing population, and welfare dependency.
As I have said, when elected, the coalition government took up the responsibility and challenge to fix Labor’s legacy. Let us look at what the Howard government has achieved since 1996-97. Economic growth has averaged 3.5 per cent per year over the last 11 years. Full-time employment is up by 1,177,500, or 18.8 per cent. Part-time employment is up by 863,400, or 41.8 per cent. Female employment is up by 1,040,900, or 28.9 per cent. The female participation rate has increased by 3.8 percentage points to 57.5 per cent, a near record high for participation for women. Since March 1996, the working age employment rate has increased by 4.7 percentage points to 72.5 per cent in March 2007. However, despite the overall workforce participation rates being at the highest levels ever, despite the creation of 1.9 million new jobs since 1996, despite over 10 million Australians now being in work, despite unemployment at over 30-year lows and despite our productivity being impressively up, the Australian government still aims to further increase the supply of labour. This is necessary because our ageing population and declining fertility are projected to have negative impacts on workforce participation and productivity in the future. As a nation we must deal with this. Like all developed nations we are now faced with the consequences of this ageing population. The proportion of the population over 65 is projected to nearly double from 13 per cent in 2004 to 24.5 per cent by 2045. Almost one-quarter of the Australian population will be over 65—up from only 2½ million over 65s in 2006, to some seven million senior citizens in 2045.
Despite the workforce shortages and the predicted shortfall of 195,000 workers within five years, we have around two million people of working age receiving welfare payments in Australia, a legacy of the previous welfare policies of Labor and times before. For example, supporting parents could remain on payments until their youngest turned 16, by which time they were so long out of the workforce their own skills had become rusty and their self-esteem shattered. People with a disability remained on the DSP, or disability support pension, until an age pension rolled around. Even if the individual had a part-time work capacity or could have been rehabilitated, they were left on the disability support pension. Now we say that if a person has at least 15 hours work capacity a week we will help that person with a disability into a job to give them a new life and the freedoms that come with their own income.
The balance between taxpayers and working age welfare claimants has shifted from the 1960s when three per cent of the working-age population was on welfare. Today it is around 17 per cent. In the 1960s there were 22 taxpayers supporting one person on welfare. Today this ratio had collapsed to five taxpayers for every one on working age welfare. Quite clearly, our government had to act, and we did. We acted precisely and carefully, protecting those who needed welfare as an income, like every caring nation should, but we have introduced Welfare to Work reforms which have created a better chance, a real chance, for our two million or so working-age people on welfare, who have a capacity to work.
As the Minister for Workforce Participation, I listened to the Leader of the Opposition Kevin Rudd’s budget reply very carefully. Naturally, I and other listening Australians wanted to hear Labor’s policy or plans to ameliorate the critical problem of our changing demographics—the ageing population. I wanted to hear how Labor intended to further increase workforce participation, as we must, and especially how Labor intended to create more jobs and so reduce the reliance of working-age Australians on welfare. Unfortunately, I, like so many others, came away extremely disappointed. Not once in his headline speech, when he knew Australia was listening, did Mr Rudd, the Leader of the Opposition, mention any plan to create employment or a strategy to help unemployed Australians to take advantage of the best labour market conditions in a generation—conditions which of course the John Howard government has created and maintained.
We are currently experiencing a once in a generation chance to break the cycle of intergenerational unemployment which blights so many Indigenous and other Australian families. However, the Labor Party failed to even acknowledge the problem or endorse our highly successful Welfare to Work strategy or come up with any alternative. Fortunately, the John Howard government is not about to rest on its laurels, having created over two million new jobs and dropping unemployment rates to a 33-year low. The Howard government is determined to help disadvantaged Australians—single parents and unemployed youth, mature age, Indigenous people and people with a disability—continue to take advantage of these times when workforce shortages are creating real opportunities for employment, opportunities like never before.
On budget night this year I announced an additional $76 million in funding for a number of measures in my portfolio to further help unemployed Australians find a job. This is in addition to the $3.6 billion announced in previous budgets to resource the new Welfare to Work reforms. These additional measures just announced include another 987 places in the Disability Employment Network and 1,480 vocational rehabilitation service places at a cost of $39.8 million over four years. These services will help the disabled to upskill and improve their job prospects. These newly employed people will then be mentored in the workplace. In the last 12 months, nearly 20,000 people with a disability have been placed into work through the Job Network and the Disability Employment Network. This has been an extraordinary achievement and I congratulate all those people with a disability who have wanted so much to stay in the workforce or move into a job or keep their job.
The second measure involves an extra $11.4 million over four years so that community work coordinators will be eligible for a $500 fee for each person on the Work for the Dole program who commences and completes an approved accredited training course either during or after their placement. Work for the Dole participants receive an $800 training credit and those on Drought Force—a specially created program to help unemployed in our drought ravaged areas—receive $1,600 in training credits. This additional incentive will ensure that even more Work for the Dole participants receive accredited training as well as on-the-job experience as they look for work.
I also announced an extension of the highly successful worker relocation program. There will be an additional over half a million dollars to help people move from regions of high unemployment to a job in an area where there is a workforce shortage. The pilot for this program saw job seekers in the Coffs Harbour, Shoalhaven and Nowra districts of New South Wales relocated to the construction industry and mine services sector in Perth. The program has been hugely successful. The demand for it has been overwhelming. The pilot provides up to $5,000 towards relocation costs per job seeker, who also continue to have access to the job seeker account for other costs associated with starting a job. There are also an additional 2,000 personal support program places provided at a cost of $15.8 million over four years. The personal support program helps some of Australia’s most disadvantaged who, for example, may be homeless, illiterate, drug or alcohol dependent or abused. We help these individuals to stabilise their lives and deal with their dilemmas so that they can get a job and remain independent and self-fulfilled. The Labor Party seems to have forgotten these people—perhaps it never cared.
We have also committed an extra $1.3 million over four years to expand our prisoner support program to help offenders with a disability who have access to a prison pre-release program and a program that allows them to work. We will help them get work on a part-time or full-time basis, and our Disability Employment Network and vocational rehabilitation service programs will help provide this special assistance. We know that the recidivism rates for ex-offenders is very high when there is no work to go to and no prospect of work once the offender is released. We intend to make a difference because we represent a caring nation. We do have the statistical evidence that shows our Welfare to Work reforms are making a difference not just for people like the ex-offenders but right across the board for those who have been unemployed, either long term or short term.
Between December 2004 and December 2006 there has been, on average, a 7.5 per cent decrease in the number of working-age people on income support, parenting payment, youth allowance and Newstart allowance. Since the introduction of the revolutionary Welfare to Work reforms, the number of welfare recipients has fallen from 2.48 million to 2.38 million, a reduction of 3.9 per cent. But this is not just about the budget bottom line or the fact that the pre-existing welfare trends were not sustainable in the near term or the long term, as the numbers reaching old age needing support increase exponentially. Most importantly, a long time on welfare is not a benign experience. Frederic S Mishken, a US Federal Reserve governor, accurately described in a recent speech the situation created by unemployment. He said:
... high unemployment—is associated with human misery, including lower living standards and increases in poverty as well as social pathologies such as loss of self-esteem, a higher incidence of divorce, increased rates of violent crime, and even suicide.
Yes, we intend to make a difference, and our Welfare to Work reforms in fact have.
Unfortunately, we have not had the support or the endorsement of the opposition. There was deafening silence from the Leader of the Opposition in his budget reply speech and that has to be very worrying for our unemployed in Australia, especially those who are of working age and are welfare dependent. Does the Labor Party not understand the need to give all Australians a fair go? Or, again, I ask: doesn’t it care? Why does Labor ignore some of the most disadvantaged in Australian society—the long-term and the short-term unemployed, Indigenous people, mature age people, disabled youth and single mums on pensions? And there has not just been total silence from the Labor Party’s hierarchy, or its leaders or deputy leaders.
This is what opposition members said about the Howard government Welfare to Work reforms in the debate of 30 November 2005 when they were first introduced. They were ‘put together by very mean people’ said Craig Emerson, member for Rankin. They were ‘all about punishment and not about reform’ and were ‘notoriously cruel, severe and uncompromising’ said Tanya Plibersek, member for Sydney. This ‘clearly shows that the Howard government is treating the most disadvantaged Australians with all the compassion of the Third Reich’ said Steve Gibbons, member for Bendigo—quite extraordinary. And then we had the crowning statement, from Julie Owens, member for Parramatta:
Will these welfare changes reduce the number of Australians already on welfare? The short answer is: absolutely not.
Well, I have just given the statistics to show that for the first time in the history of Australia, welfare-dependency trends for working age people have gone down. We have thousands of Australians, both young and mature age Australians, who can now give themselves and their children a chance to earn, to save, to lead financially independent lives and to have choices.
The John Howard government has put together a world-first innovative and highly successful strategy to create a network of private employment service providers who are paid on outcomes: if they do not get someone a job, they simply do not get paid. They have helped to achieve the lowest unemployment rates in Australia in 33 years and some of the highest workforce participation rates that Australia has seen. In the last six months our Job Network providers have placed more people in work than was achieved in the last six years of the Labor government before 1996, when it simply relied on the tired and moribund Commonwealth Employment Service. Given we are approaching an election later this year, the public has the right to know what Labor intends to do for working age people who are on welfare and cannot find work without special support, the sort of support our $3.6 billion program provides. How is the Labor Party going to address the ageing population issues, the destiny of our demographics? The silence from Labor on these very critical issues is deafening.
The 2006-07 Howard government budget not only delivered for the nation; there were also outstanding measures for the people of my electorate of Murray, where we are staggering under the worst drought on record, where families are looking each day to see whether they now sell up the remaining cattle in their dairy herds, what they will do with dying fruit trees, where they will buy fodder at the exorbitant rates it is now attracting, how they will survive this worst drought on record. I am very grateful that since 2003 over $100 million in exceptional circumstances drought assistance has come into the pockets of drought affected farmers in the Murray electorate, and more recently these funds have also flowed to small businesses who have equally shared the distress of the worst drought on record. In this year’s budget the Treasurer announced a further $688 million in drought assistance for the next financial year. Only an economy as well managed as this one can afford such an investment, and perhaps only a coalition government cares enough, because, again, Mr Rudd has remained silent in relation to supporting exceptional circumstances payments to farmers—or any other drought strategy, for that matter.
Also announced in the budget were a whole series of measures for rural and regional Australia which included an environmental stewardship program, which I have long advocated for. This recognises that 70 per cent of Australia’s private land is managed by farmers, who sustain the quality and integrity of everything from water to soil, to the air we breathe, to biodiversity. By our recognising this through this budget initiative, farmers will be able to both produce food and fibre and uphold the environmental values that the whole of our society depends on.
The budget that was produced by this government was a caring but also a highly rational and responsible budget, one that looked both to the next 12 months and to the long-term future of this nation. We do face extraordinary challenges, in particular the destiny of our demographics. We share that same challenge with other developed nations. At least now we understand how we can make sure that our industries are not constrained and constricted by workforce shortages. Already the Reserve Bank receive regular responses to their surveys from businesses saying they need extra workforce, and those shortages are the constraining factor in their expansion. The Australian government is meeting the challenge. We have literally two million Australians who now have the prospect of a job because this government cares and has made a difference.
I rise to speak on the debate on the Appropriation Bill (No. 1) 2007-2008 and cognate bills. I would like to take this opportunity to speak about some important issues central to the economic prosperity and wellbeing of the people of Australia and of my electorate of Swan. I will begin by sharing my overview of the budget.
The budget handed down by the Treasurer almost two weeks ago reminds me of a tepid cappuccino: all froth and very little substance—and, may I add, even the chocolate is spread pretty thinly on top. The government portrays itself as a good economic manager, but this facade is wearing thin. The reality is that this budget fails the future test because it does not deliver the necessary reform and investment in infrastructure, education and aged care that is required to build Australia’s future productivity and prosperity. It is a budget of a government that has run out of ideas and is content to sleepwalk into the future, squandering the proceeds of a once in a generation mining boom.
My colleague the shadow Treasurer explained the impact of the mining boom on the budget when he said that the current mining boom has injected $55 billion into our economy over the last year and more than $300 billion over the last five years. This massive injection of cash is masking the fact that Australia’s productivity growth is so low. This government has failed to responsibly invest the extraordinary bounty brought about by the mining boom. Every aspect of this budget is about buying votes instead of expanding the economy’s long-term economic capacity by investing in infrastructure. As a Western Australian I am critically aware of the important role that export infrastructure plays in driving economic growth. The export sector of our economy requires expenditure on infrastructure to remove bottlenecks and to ensure that our export industries can compete effectively in world markets.
Mr Deputy Speaker Haase, as you would know, Western Australia is the engine of Australia’s current economic prosperity. Government coffers are overflowing with billions of dollars in revenue, thanks largely to the mining boom in Western Australia, from your own electorate of Kalgoorlie. But during this time of economic prosperity the government has returned only a pittance of these resource dividends back to Western Australia to meet its infrastructure needs. Prudent economic management dictates that this budget should have seen funds invested in infrastructure to pave the way for a higher rate of economic growth in the future. Why has this government ignored infrastructure investment? In my address in reply last year I posed the same question and reminded the House of the fact that the business sector, the OECD and the Reserve Bank have all identified infrastructure investment as a priority. One year on and unfortunately nothing has changed.
I have drawn the House’s attention many times to the fact that the Great Eastern Highway, which runs through my electorate, is a vital link in the national highway network. It is the major arterial road which links Perth to the eastern states and carries much of Perth’s industrial traffic, along with airline passengers entering or departing the state or who work in fly-in fly-out positions in our mines. The widening of the section of highway between Kooyong Road and the Great Eastern Highway bypass is critical for meeting the demands of a growing city, and the inadequate condition of the road places pedestrians and drivers at risk. It is a key piece of road infrastructure that deserves the attention of the federal government.
Although this part of the highway is clearly part of the national network, the federal government claims that this is a matter for the Western Australian state government to resolve alone. Such buck-passing clearly shows that the federal government does not understand the importance of infrastructure in building Australia’s future prosperity. This is particularly galling given that thousands of these road users are accessing the airport because they work in fly-in fly-out positions in the mining industry, again in the electorate of Kalgoorlie—the very industry that is generating the rivers of tax revenue that flow east but, unfortunately, it seems not in similar proportions back west. Contrast the government’s failure to invest in vital national infrastructure with their drunken-sailor spending on political advertising—$200 million of taxpayers’ money spent in a desperate attempt to get re-elected. This is a national disgrace and one for which the Australian people will not forgive the coalition.
The Prime Minister’s hypocrisy on this issue is breathtaking. Consider the history. On 6 September 1995, the Canberra Times published a report by Ross Peake, which stated:
Mr Howard complained that the Government was spending money on advertising campaigns for superannuation and the job creation programs in the Working Nation statement. Mr Howard says: ‘In a desperate attempt to find an election life raft, the Prime Minister—
is beginning an unprecedented propaganda blitz using taxpayers’ money.
In a report in the Sydney Morning Herald on 6 September 1995, Mick Millet reported that the Leader of the Opposition, Mr Howard, attacked the Keating government for spending millions of dollars of taxpayers’ money on advertising and approved a move to give the Auditor-General the power to veto such ads if Mr Howard became Prime Minister. And on and on it goes.
The current Leader of the Opposition asked the Prime Minister during question time last Wednesday whether the Prime Minister regarded the government’s taxpayer funded $200 million advertising campaign as ‘sound, and economically prudent’. The Prime Minister said that he did not regard the government’s Work Choices and superannuation campaigns as being politically motivated. Such statements beggar belief and are testimony to the fact that this government is mean, tricky and out of touch. Remember that the phrase ‘mean, tricky and out of touch’ was not made by the Labor Party; it was made by, I think, the National President of the Liberal Party or someone in a very senior position in the Liberal Party. So ‘mean, tricky and out of touch’ was from the mouths of the government themselves.
The bottom line is that, rather than investing in the upgrade of the Great Eastern Highway, the government has chosen to invest $200 million of taxpayers’ money in political advertising in an attempt to save their own jobs. This road project would cost, in total, $160 million if funded entirely by one body alone. What we are not asking for is $160 million. What I want to see out of the federal government is $80 million—half the money, a fraction of the amount they are using in advertising—so that we can then get the state government to commit to half the money themselves. It is pathetic that the government is spending $200 million of our money on advertising but it cannot give us a measly $80 million to start doing this vital work in my electorate. Why has the government failed to invest in this important piece of national infrastructure? It is because residents living in the marginal federal electorate of Swan do not even make a blip on the Treasurer’s economic radar. Many of the local residents I speak to are outraged at the government’s lack of urgency in dealing with this matter. Their repeated calls for funding have gone unheeded time and time again. I call on the government to stop the buck-passing and ensure that the Great Eastern Highway upgrade project receives the funding it requires.
Western Australia is leading the nation in terms of economic growth and job creation. Therefore, it would be fair and reasonable to assume that the government would ensure that Western Australia is endowed with the very latest in telecommunications technology. Sadly, this is not the case. The fact of the matter is that Australia is a dinosaur in telecommunications, and this federal budget has done nothing to drag us out of the broadband Stone Age. In this world of globalisation and economic interdependence, it is demoralising that Australia continues to lag behind countries such as Korea, Japan, Canada and the US as a consequence of the government’s neglect of telecommunications policy.
The government has been asleep at the wheel on this issue. They have failed to recognise that a world-class broadband network will underpin the next stage in Australia’s economic expansion when the mining boom inevitably wanes. The government is so out of touch, it refuses to admit there is even a problem.
Take the Minister for Communications, Information Technology and the Arts, Helen Coonan, who says that our levels of broadband access are ‘okay’. She also says that no-one is complaining about the speeds of broadband in metropolitan areas. The member opposite, Mr Ciobo, said a minute ago that these problems are fabricated, that they are not real. I can tell the chamber that these problems are real and that the minister is demonstrating she is out of touch because of the countless people who have contacted my office and complained about their inability to access broadband or the woeful speed provided by the current provider.
The name Peter Bull may not mean anything to the minister for communications or the member opposite, but he is one of my constituents living in the suburb of East Cannington. He and many more like him have been appallingly affected by the government’s failure on broadband policy. Mr Bull is a small business owner who works from home and relies on the internet as a vital business tool. He and his partner recently moved to East Cannington after they received an assurance from Optus that broadband would be available at their new address, but it was not. What should have been a simple procedure for a small business owner like Mr Bull turned into a drama of endless phone calls and misleading information. On further investigation, Mr Bull discovered that the problem is due to insufficient copper wires between his house and the telephone exchange. Telstra said it has no plans to upgrade the cabling any time in the future. What Mr Bull and so many other Australians want to know is this: when will they have access to world class broadband services? I can tell them that a Labor government, in partnership with private enterprise, will deliver a national fibre-to-the-node broadband network that will deliver the level of service necessary for Australia’s future economic growth.
A second example of the effect of this government’s broadband policy is that of another of my constituents, Kewdale resident Ainslee Arnott. On 29 December 2006, Mr Arnott requested a broadband connection from his internet service provider, Amcom. He writes:
All I want is ADSL Broadband in Kewdale. I am a hardworking taxpayer who wants a fair go and some answers. We live eight minutes from the heart of the city and cannot get ADSL because we are too far from the Ascot exchange.
The response which Mr Arnott received from Amcom was not good reading. It states:
Ainslee, in regards to your query as to whether you can get broadband, I have performed a check and it is not possible to get broadband in your area due to transmission loss being too high. Regrettably, there is nothing we can do about this, as we do not hold the authority over the cables that the connections run through, so it is not possible to provide you with an ADSL service.
Australians deserve better than this. If Australia is to remain a competitive player in the 21st century, this sorry state of affairs cannot continue. Under a Rudd Labor government it will not. Under a Rudd Labor government, the people of Swan will no longer be forced to relocate their homes and businesses simply for the privilege of decent access to a broadband network. We are determined to deliver a better broadband network for Australia and we are determined to lay out the policies that will create Australia’s future prosperity.
I would now like to discuss another matter of urgent economic importance and that is aged care. Aged care is a matter of paramount concern to me, given that senior Australians make up 20 per cent of the constituents of my electorate of Swan. I welcome the $500 one-off bonus for those senior Australians on pensions and the $1,000 one-off carers bonus. However, budget expenditure from this government has always been far less than what has been needed to address aged care issues. This government has failed dismally in providing a sustainable funding model for residential aged care and in keeping up with the real costs of providing aged care.
According to the aged care council, there are now 160,000 Australians living in residential care and this figure is set to grow by 215 per cent to 504,000 by 2045. Many of our senior residents are missing out on receiving aged care services and those who do get them find those services are rationed. There is an increasing gap between aged care costs and government funding that has resulted in declining levels of aged care services. We need to ensure that our senior residents receive the proper measures of care that will enable them to live out their remaining years in comfort and with the dignity that they deserve.
The housing crisis has had a particularly harsh impact upon senior Australians and pensioners. Here, again, the Treasurer has left pensioners, particularly those living in rental accommodation, well and truly out in the cold. I outline here the details of two cases that demonstrate this government’s failure to support the housing needs of senior Australians. A constituent in my electorate, an 81-year-old pensioner from East Victoria Park, has lived at the same address for seven years. In May last year he renegotiated his rental agreement with his agent at $120 a week. In November last year his rent was increased to $170 a week. In March 2007 his agent notified him that rent was to be increased a further $20 a week, effective from 22 May, making his total rent $190. As of 4 April this man’s total pension, including rent assistance, will be $634 a fortnight, of which $380 he has paid in rent. This leaves him a meagre $264 with which to support himself.
A second example is that of an elderly constituent from the suburb of Como who receives an Australian age pension and has recently been advised of her landlord’s intention to sell the property. Four hundred and eighty dollars of her fortnightly pension is paid on rent. Naturally she is very concerned for her future and fears that given the escalating rental and property market in Western Australia her pension will not sustain her in her subsequent dwelling.
These examples highlight the woeful inadequacy of the government’s rent assistance policies, in particular the plight of elderly pensioners who find themselves at the mercy of unforgiving market forces. It is unfair to expect Western Australian pensioners and low-income earners to survive on the government’s one-size-fits-all rent assistance policy given the escalating property and rental markets in Perth. Senior Australians deserve better. This budget fails to meet the basic needs of senior Australians for quality affordable aged care and affordable housing.
The failures on infrastructure, broadband and aged care that I have outlined here exemplify how this government has dropped the ball on economic reform. Instead, we see evidence of a government full of complacency and contempt that has abandoned the principles of good policy making. I refer to Ken Henry’s speech on 13 March when he tossed a political hand grenade which demolished the government’s economic credentials and exposed their economic policies for what they really are: a sham. Here we have one of our top public servants, the country’s most senior economic bureaucrat, embarrassing the government by making unprecedented comments on how Treasury’s policy approach to tackling climate change and water reform would be far superior to that hastily cobbled together by cabinet over summer without input from Treasury or the finance department. Ken Henry reveals the reality of a government no longer concerned with economic reform or productivity growth or preparing Australia for the challenges of the future. Instead of reform, the Treasurer merely delivers repackaged spending from previous years.
George Megalogenis in the Weekend Australian hit the nail on the head in his article on 12 May. He likened the government’s budget to the Seinfeld episode in which Elaine catches out her dentist ‘regifting’ a present she has given him by recycling it to someone else. Megalogenis wrote:
Every pre-election budget contains an element of regifting, in which money that was supposed to pay for an old policy is pinched to fund a new one.
This budgetary sleight-of-hand is the work of a mean and tricky Treasurer. He has given up on economic reform. He is only concerned with his own party’s re-election. As Dr Henry argued, measures to increase productivity are urgently needed, yet what does the Treasurer deliver: merely another budget of clever election year handouts and political spending.
Education is the best example of how this budget is comprised of clever or tricky policies designed only to get the government re-elected. Under this government national investment in education will have declined from two per cent of GDP in 1995-96 to 1.6 per cent of GDP in 2007-08, and indications are that Australia’s productivity growth will decline from the end of the next financial year. The Treasurer’s smirking self-congratulation over the creation of the endowment fund for higher education cannot hide the black mark of shame that this government wears for presiding over a decade of decline in federal investment in education. The government’s belated discovery of the value of education investment is a decade too late. While the endowment fund is a welcome support for our beleaguered university sector, it does not address the fundamental deficiencies in university funding. It does not provide the real increases to recurrent funding that our universities require. It does nothing to address student-teacher ratios and overcrowded university lectures. It does nothing to address the fact that university students are forced to take on more paid employment and more debt to support themselves through university. It does nothing to address the funding shortfall that has resulted in $100,000 degrees for Australian students.
The government’s answer to these problems is not to invest in universities, not to invest in an education revolution, but rather to deregulate fees so that the cost of a university education rises even higher. Budget measures reveal the true intentions of the government in their failure to invest in our universities. The Prime Minister who said that Australia would never see a $100,000 degree has instead presided over an ever-growing number of full-fee degrees for Australian students, many that cost much more than $100,000. It is only the Labor Party that has a commitment to implement an education revolution which will underpin Australia’s future prosperity and restore the fair go to our schools, colleges and universities. What Australia needs is fresh thinking and a fresh commitment to making the economic reforms that will lay the foundations for Australia’s next stage of economic prosperity.
What does this budget offer? Nothing more than the stale ideas of a government that has passed its use by date. It is only Labor that has a plan to build Australia’s future economic prosperity, a plan based on investing in vital national infrastructure, building a world-class broadband network, investing in aged care and implementing an education revolution— (Time expired).
Running any business operation is demanding and requires a balance of virtues to make sure your investment yields the dividends that you want. You cannot afford to be frivolous; you cannot afford to be free spending; you cannot afford to take your eye off the ball for one minute. You need to draw on qualities such as prudence, responsibility, vision, discipline and hard work. You need to have a plan. Running a business on behalf of other people needs to be mixed with compassion, honesty, understanding, and of course patience. Every business has to work to a carefully considered plan to make sure it grows. There have to be contingency plans for the unexpected and a buffer for those times when things do not go quite according to plan.
The Australian economy has the same dynamics, albeit on a grander scale. A $3 trillion economy requires those attributes to a very high degree and, to continue my metaphor, those running the business have to work hard to retain customer loyalty. In the ebb and flow of business, customers come and go and it takes a lot of personal effort and sacrifice to retain their loyalty. Customers are fickle creatures and the axiom in business, caveat emptor—let the buyer beware—holds true in politics. The Treasurer has delivered yet another outstanding budget, which shares the wealth that has been created over the last decade. But this has not come about by accident. Like any other prudent business manager, the Liberal-National government took over a run-down business and turned it around. It was a business that was in debt to the tune of $96 billion, and we all know what it costs if just our credit card is in the red. The government paid off the debts Labor had accrued, releasing much needed funding—some $9 billion each year—that was servicing the debt and directed those savings into profitable yields that went back to the community in various forms.
It rejuvenated confidence, giving its customers a much needed boost, and insulated the Australian economy from waves of economic recessions that impacted on other countries. It value-added to the service delivery for its customers and it gave its private sector business the stability needed to grow and prosper. And thriving we are, so it is even more galling to listen to the opposition talking about schemes that they would introduce that would fritter away our hard worked for advantage. This is tantamount to someone saying that they are going to knock down all the little shops in your homely little town and build a huge concrete shopping centre that has all the personality of a rock. It leaves a sickening taste in your mouth.
This budget has built on the gains of previous budgets and has set the scene for further growth and stability. It incorporates the thread of providing for a secure future and anticipating contingencies that we always have to prepare for. But we can only confidently prepare for them from a position of affordability, and if those gains are frittered away the only thing that we will be able to contribute is empty rhetoric. That very same affordability will determine how far and how fast we can continue to grow. I note that in the media major businesses are talking about ‘the Rudd factor’, which is the contingency for having to deal with wall to wall Labor governments across the nation should Labor win. Talk about a closed shop. What they are saying is that they are anticipating an added cost to their businesses. They expect to eventually go backwards under a Labor administration because that is Labor’s historical track record.
You only have to look at the New South Wales government today to see the future. This discredited government is dragging the rest of the nation down, and the light at the end of the tunnel is dim indeed. Despite the mammoth growth in state revenues, New South Wales is literally labouring under the weight of ineptitude and procrastination. In my electorate alone the spectre of delay for approvals for projects that would yield growth, jobs and security is all too real. One of the major projects that was initiated during my first term—going back to 1998—was the construction of main road 92. Yet here it is, 2007, and, following years of delay, horse trading and ideological conflict, less than half of the project is complete.
I am grateful for what has been achieved so far, but imagine if the New South Wales government was proactive, forward thinking and genuinely had the interest of all the people of Gilmore at heart. This road would have been finished four years ago and the local economy would have been booming both for residents and business, as both are interdependent. Instead, the frustrations brought about by unreasonable delays from the New South Wales government has resulted in Gilmore suffering under the weight of opportunity denied. The unemployment rate is high, business confidence is lagging and everyone is waiting for the New South Wales government to take responsible action. The building industry, which underpins the local economy, is languishing. It needs a boost from the state government in the form of development opportunities to jump-start the economy. But we are not alone. Anecdotal evidence from all over the state reflects the lament of how quiet the state commercial economy is. And when business is quiet, jobs are under threat. Even Sydney is doing it tough, but have we seen any sign that would give us hope that the New South Wales government are prepared to stimulate activity? I do not think so. Yet they continue to rail against the federal government with seemingly oblivious indifference to their own role in matters.
Is it acceptable to the people of New South Wales if the RTA procrastinates over roadworks, if Frank Sartor takes eons to make a decision on developments, if the New South Wales health minister is in denial about the state of his health system, if the New South Wales Minister for Housing—whose own electorate overlaps mine—does not want to address the issue of the rental crisis, and if the New South Wales minister responsible for the rail system is accepting of a Third World standard? I will mention a case in point. Three years ago, the federal government gave the New South Wales government $15 million to upgrade a major traffic black spot death area in Gilmore. The money is still sitting there and not a sod has been turned. The Princes Highway continues to kill and maim. It is a roadway under the direct and clear responsibility given to the New South Wales government. There is overwhelming pressure from the community to have it upgraded, but the New South Wales government continue their tactic of deflecting the need to take any action by saying that the feds have not given them enough money. How can we? They have not spent the last lot yet. Another $10 million was given two months ago—and there is no sign of when work will start on the Mount Conjola bends.
For my part, I can more than adequately demonstrate that the government of which I am a member has listened, is listening and continues to act. Let me point to some of the manifest funding initiatives delivered to Gilmore over recent years. The local council and the federal government saw the economic benefits that the construction of a highway between Nowra and Canberra would bring—and the Prime Minister put his money down, as did the local Shoalhaven City Council. Two elections later, six years ago, the New South Wales government came on side with their share. Can you imagine the extra cost of building the road years later? But I will get back to what we are achieving in Gilmore thanks to this government. These projects set the groundwork upon which we are building, and I certainly do not want to see our people jeopardised by an opposition that have already said that they will raid the Future Fund to pay for their election promises. Again, that smacks of increased taxes, wealth tax and perhaps even the reintroduction of death duties—all things this government got rid of by paying back Labor’s huge debt.
I am grateful for the support our government has extended to the seat of Gilmore, but there is always more to be done, especially with having to suffer under a lacklustre state government. Obviously high on my list of priorities is the question of the Princes Highway. An opportunity has arisen with the announcement of AusLink 2. We announced in the 2007-08 budget that we will invest $22.3 billion on Australia’s land transport system from 2009 to 2014—the second stage of the AusLink national land transport plan. I will continue pursuing funding for traffic black spots, building on the success of road funding projects that have been delivered directly to councils for specific projects and have been received with much enthusiasm and relief. They are projects such as the Roads to Recovery program, which saw the sealing of the much used dirt road, Forest Road, which runs from the villages of Callala Bay, Callala Beach and Currarong to the Princes Highway. Then there is the Kiama bypass—where, at every turn, the state government failed to acknowledge the over $34 million in contributions by the Australian government and the many millions in black spot funding.
Our schools, 56 of them, received millions of dollars through the Investing in Our Schools program, as well as capital funding for Kiama High School, Milton Public School, Ulladulla High School, Nowra High School and Sussex Inlet Public School, to name but a few. The Shoalhaven campus of the University of Wollongong and the Moss Vale campus have benefited through large injections of capital funding. Other highlights include the recently opened medical school and, soon to be added, nurses centre; 2½ thousand extra aged-care beds; skate parks; and many heritage and environmental projects—not to mention the huge upgrade of HMAS Albatross and HMAS Creswell. In fact, Mr Deputy Speaker, since 1996, over $2.2 billion of federal funding has been invested in Gilmore.
I will continue pursuing funding under the Regional Partnerships program. It has delivered highly successful projects with substantial benefits to many community organisations that are extremely grateful for this support. I cannot understate the role of the Shoalhaven Area Consultative Committee in securing these funds on behalf of the community. They have been a vital influence in the success of the projects that have seen the light of day thanks largely to their efforts and determination. Among some of the bigger ticket items are the Shoalhaven City Arts Gallery, which received $150,000, with another $246,000 to the same art gallery for a music sound study which will be attached to the Shoalhaven City Arts Centre, and the Sealab research facility, which is attached to the Shoalhaven university campus. Shoalhaven City Council has benefited from a $3 million contribution towards the construction of their Civic Centre, which will embellish the image of the city. The Dunn Lewis Youth Development Foundation that was set up as a memorial to two local youngsters killed in the Bali bombings was assisted with a grant of half a million dollars. The Wingecarribee Community Services Centre got a much needed boost with a contribution of over $600,000. The Cancer Outpatients Appeal of Milton Ulladulla also was invigorated through a supporting contribution of over $450,000. The Milton Ulladulla Tennis Association was able to expand their complex for the benefit of the local community with a contribution of $220,000 and the Huskisson community was able to construct an amenities building for the local volunteer coastal patrol. The Nowra Rugby Club benefited from an infusion of $200,000 to bring their grounds up to a prime competition facility—and the list goes on.
I can proudly say that all I listed as my objectives for the community in my maiden speech to parliament have been realised. I am proud of these achievements, but the project which has a special place in my heart is the civilian cadet scheme that was piloted in the Shoalhaven and hailed by the Governor-General, who recently visited the Shoalhaven. The Prime Minister saw the benefits of this concept and lent his support to it, so much so that now the scheme will be expanded to other areas. As a result, our young people have been able to participate as volunteers in community services such as lifesaving, policing, emergency services, bushfire brigades and involve themselves in national park activities. Almost in parallel is the Gilmore Youth Leadership Forum, which is now in its third year. The potential of future leaders that has been demonstrated through this vehicle never ceases to amaze me. I am also proud of our initiative, in company with my colleagues the members for Cowper and Kalgoorlie, for a scheme to relocate our willing unemployed to the booming industrial activity in Western Australia. What greater compliment than to see this scheme also expanded.
I need to reiterate the benefits that a surplus budget brings—not just one budget but a string of budgets that have delivered the confidence necessary for the private sector to invest for growth. Much of the credit for these successful initiatives can be attributed to the close working relationship that has been built up over the years with the councils of Kiama, the Shoalhaven and Wingecarribee. Now we will be working equally hard to build a similar cooperative working relationship with the newly attached Eurobodalla Shire Council at Batemans Bay.
What would happen if these working relationships came to a close? Already the signs are there with Labor flagging that they are prepared to raid the Future Fund. They tried to raid the superannuation fund when they were in power and perhaps the funds we have been able to put away over the years for our rainy days may become too tempting a target for the union bosses dominating the opposition’s front benches. It may be just too tempting to go on a big project spending spree as soon as they take over the reins of government. They may talk about fiscal possibility but the track record of the Labor Party suggests otherwise. I think the temptation will become too great, and the best example I can point to, if people need to see how Labor thinks, is the Labor government in New South Wales. Imagine the likes of Morris Iemma and his team mates in control of the nation’s purse strings.
On the horizon are many challenges for the nation: the spectre of ever increasing energy costs, global warming, economic uncertainty and the ability to deal with these challenges as they arise. Our credentials are on the table and our preparedness to place and keep Australia where it deserves to be is clear. I am confident that Gilmore will continue to benefit from the proactive policies of the federal government and I will certainly be doing all I can to ensure that we get a fair share. Getting the job done is always a work in progress, and among the plans for the future is a way of addressing our unemployment problem. Last year we saw the writing on the wall with a number of our local industries announcing that they would be closing or winding back their activities. We were looking at the loss of over 700 direct jobs and many more through the multiplier effect. There is no value in blame laying or crying over spilt milk. What was needed was an action plan to create other opportunities. Because this was a matter affecting the whole community, it was to them I turned to get things going. As a result of this cooperative approach, Blueprint Shoalhaven was born. Blueprint Shoalhaven is a collective of community leaders and businesses who shared the belief that the solution was largely in their hands. We worked together to put it into place. It is an action plan that I feel very positive about—positive and uplifted—because it shows that we can work together for the common good.
Blueprint Shoalhaven holds the promise of better things not only for the Shoalhaven but also for the remainder of Gilmore, because it serves as a model for the way things can be done by a willing community. My aspiration for the next term continues to build on what has been created. What I will be pursuing will contribute to the amenity and benefit of the community. These include: identifying and acquiring $1 million in funding for a linear accelerator; a nursing school at the University of Wollongong Shoalhaven campus, with 30 places to be offered in 2007; the revamping of the old Chesalon Nursing Home into a respite centre for the disabled; and an early intervention centre of excellence.
I am grateful this budget included an improved delivery of dental health services, even though this is largely the domain of the state government. Similarly with mental health: again we, the Liberal-National government, gave the extra funding, but where is it in Gilmore? The state government needs to address the poor services available to those who are affected by mental disease.
We now have junior sports grounds to assist talented youngsters to realise their potential in the sporting field. Kiama Showground is in need of upgrade, especially the pavilion. Perhaps some of the necessary funding can be sourced through the Regional Partnerships program. Ulladulla harbour is another high priority, especially after the diminishment of the fishing fleet following the licence buy-out scheme. Ulladulla is a small town located between two regional centres, and as such needs our help to maintain its viability because there are few opportunities there for employment.
The boat harbour at Huskisson has been in limbo for over a decade and is worthy of pursuing, because I have no doubt it will add value to the local economy and welfare of the community around Jervis Bay. We are also looking at an ecovillage concept in the region and, given the widespread concerns over the way the environment seems to be heading, it is an entirely appropriate initiative to explore. Kangaroo Valley comes to mind, especially when main road 92 is completed, thereby eliminating trucks and heavy vehicles from the area.
I am looking at expanding the University of Wollongong Batemans Bay campus to offer more opportunities for the community to pursue tertiary education, such as the Grad Dip. Ed. places. I would also like to see the Korean veterans gifted with a favourable response for their cause of recognising 17 of their comrades who died after the armistice in Korea.
The Princes Highway must be included in the AusLink program because I see no evidence of any enthusiasm on the part of the state government to fulfil its responsibilities towards those who regularly drive that highway. More Centrelink positions are needed, especially given the high unemployment rate in Gilmore and our large demographic of welfare dependent residents.
I am also looking at the establishment of Kiama Hospital transitional beds for those who need care after a stay in hospital, prior to going home for self-care. Our high demographic of aged persons makes such a proposal almost mandatory.
A helicopter training facility at HMAS Albatross is a natural progression to capitalise on the defence assets already in place. We have already put in our bid for that facility. Gilmore has a comprehensive avionics support industry base for naval helicopters and makes for an ideal setting for expanding into allied areas. And soon to be added is an Australian technical college to allow students to complete their special skills.
All these aspirations can only occur as a result of a community which is prepared to work together and a government which has shown a preparedness to support them in that ideal. Until the coalition came into power in 1996, the region only experienced the token gesture from the then Labor government. They were given crumbs, and I suspect that if Labor come back to power the region will again go backwards, with the focus shifting to Labor’s power base in Wollongong and away from the Shoalhaven. Most people in the Gilmore electorate have seen for themselves where the state Labor government have directed the lion’s share of revenue since 1995. No better example is the lack of funding for the Princes Highway and the reluctance with which they approach funding for main road 92.
Since 1995, we have witnessed project after project being stymied or ignored to the eventual detriment of residents. The consequence of this recalcitrance is today’s high unemployment rate but thankfully, with the Liberal-National government at the national level, the neglect of the state Labor government can be offset to some degree. Without this balance, there is no safety valve. I commend the budget to the House.