Wednesday, 20 June 2012
Appropriation Bill (No. 1) 2012-2013; Consideration in Detail
The fact is that there is no clearer sign of a strong economy than a surplus. I know that the shadow minister standing opposite me would be well aware of that.
Mr Deputy Speaker, I rise on a point of order. The consideration in detail is an opportunity for the opposition to further examine the budget. If the minister is simply going to make a rhetorical statement to the chamber—
The procedure in this place is that the minister makes an opening statement and then we open up for the different calls. That is the pattern that has been happening in this place and I will—
Mr Pyne interjecting—
Order! The member for Sturt will sit in silence and wait for his call.
As I was saying before I was interrupted by the shadow minister, there is no clearer sign of a strong economy than a surplus. This government delivered a surplus in the budget and, not only that, it means that we have a buffer in case the global economy gets worse. It means that we can protect jobs. It builds on the successful economic management of this government in steering the country through the global final crisis, without Australia going into recession and without the really significant and very serious job losses that many other nations have faced.
In particular in this budget we have secured our key education spending areas while making responsible savings wherever possible. The fact is that the Gillard Labor government continues to make record investments in school education and in early childhood—and my colleague Minister Kate Ellis is here as well—in comparison to the previous Howard government, of which the shadow minister was a member. The fact is that in this budget, in this financial year, the government will investment $13.6 billion in our schools compared to the $8.5 billion spent by the Howard government in its last budget. Over the next four years we will spend an estimated $59.9 billion on our schools. Nearly $60 billion will be spent by the Labor government because we recognise that substantial investment in education is absolutely central to our prospects as a nation in the future and we are prepared to show by the decisions we have made in this budget—by this financial commitment—how important education is for the Labor government. Of course, over the next four years we will spend about $22.3 billion on early childhood education and care measures as well, again highlighting the fact that this Labor government has a specific understanding of the need to invest right across the learning years from early childhood into primary school, high school and beyond.
In particular, I draw your attention to some of the commitments that were specifically made in the budget when it came through earlier this year. In Indigenous education, some $583 million will be provided in the Northern Territory's through the Stronger Futures package—a really significant commitment on our part. There will be significant additional investments for maths and science in schools as part of an overall $54 million joint announcement that I made with Minister Evans. As well as that, there will be two other further measures which I think are particularly important: $55.7 million will be provided to expand the HIPPY program, which was a joint announcement with my colleague Minister Ellis; and, of course, we will be continuing the critical funding for literacy and numeracy schemes which we announced on 5 May. A commitment of some $243 million has been made to literacy and numeracy. This recognises that literacy and numeracy are the building blocks of any child's school education and, in particular, it recognises the existing investment that we have made in national partnerships in the states not only in literacy and numeracy but in teacher quality and low SES communities as well. There are significant commitments to education in this budget as part of our overall recognition of how central education is to the future of the nation. (Time expired)
It is no wonder that the minister would rather talk about the nonexistent surplus—the dodgy surplus—than about education, because the government's record in education, and his as a minister in particular, is so shallow. Unfortunately, in the sector they know that education is no longer at the centre of government policy as it was when Julia Gillard, as the Deputy Prime Minister, was also the Minister for Education. Unfortunately, this minister now holds the portfolio and as a consequence education has moved to the outer reaches of the government—and doesn't it show.
In this consideration in detail stage, I would like to ask a number of questions about the budget papers. The first of those goes to the issue of computers in schools. The minister would know that, at page 58 of the 2011-2012 Budget Paper No. 3, $200 million per year was provided across the forward estimates as payments for the states for the Digital Education Revolution—the computers in schools program. The government previously advised that the $200 million for maintenance and upgrades was to support the states maintain and upgrade the new computers. This year, Budget Paper No. 3 2012-2013 at page 55 now provides $200 million for 2012-2013 only, rather than for each year of the so-called Digital Education Revolution. So across the forward estimates there has been a significant cut to that $200 million a year that was promised last year.
Can the minister explain why the $200 million is no longer provided across the forward estimates annually after 2012-2013? Is this the end of the Commonwealth's involvement in the Digital Education Revolution program? Doesn't this mean that the program now amounts to a one-off investment in computers by the government with the states now left with the cost of maintaining the one-for-one ratio of computers in schools when we know that the states are severely cash-strapped—except for Western Australia—and therefore are highly unlikely to be able to find the resources to maintain the laptops in schools program? They have also, of course, struggled already over the last few years to find the resources necessary to install and maintain the laptops program, leading to very long delays in the computers in schools program and, of course, the significant cost blowout that we have already seen in the laptops program. Turning to the response of the government to the Gonski review, Budget Paper No. 2 also suggested the government is currently working through the reform proposals in consultation with the states and the territories and other education stakeholders. It is also understood that modelling has been released to the sector for the years 2009 and 2010. TheSydney Morning Herald reported on 22 May:
But the first year-on-year comparison—between 2009 and 2010 funding—generated by the Gonski model, shows indexation in secondary schools falling to only 2.9 per cent and 3.8 per cent for primary schools. The executive director of the association, Geoff Newcombe, said the minister's promise that no school would lose a dollar now looked 'hollow'.
Can the minister confirm that indexation levels under the new model are as low as 2.9 per cent? Have further details been released to the sector on indexations since 22 May? How can the government assure all schools that they will now not lose a dollar under this model, if adopted, when indexation is in the range of two to four per cent rather than the approximately six per cent as is the current funding model—in other words, can the minister assure schools that they will not lose dollars in real terms over the next quadrennium of funding rather than his hollow promise at the moment that they will not lose one dollar. We know it would be a $4.2 billion cut to non-government schools if the indexation is not at six per cent but as low as zero. Will the minister make the policy and technical work being undertaken publicly available to all schools?
Finally, there are other issues I would like to raise about literacy and numeracy, the Australian National Audit Office report and the paltry response of the government to the Gonski review. If I get another opportunity, Mr Deputy Speaker, I will do that. As you would know, it is a five-minute opportunity to question the minister and then others will seek to have an opportunity. Should I get another opportunity, I would like to question the minister about the Australian National Audit Office report which found that the $540 million Smarter Schools National Partnership for Literacy has been a complete failure— (Time expired)
I wish that the shadow spokesperson for education in the coalition was better informed about education matters and policies. In putting this question to me, he has conveniently ignored the fact that the coalition has on the record some $2.8 billion of cuts to education funding. That $2.8 billion cut to education funding is something that the shadow minister himself has confirmed. On Meet the Presson 14 August last year he was asked by Paul Bongiorno:
To be clear, you'll look for savings in your portfolio of education?
And Mr Pyne responded:
Well, we need to have savings across the budget.
I do not think it can be any clearer that it is specifically the goal of the coalition, in order to meet their savings target of some $70 billion, that nearly $3 billion of that will come from education, and the shadow minster is now on the record on that very matter.
On a point of order: the minister is talking about cuts to the education budget, but I specifically asked him about cuts to the Computers in Schools program.
This particular issue of cuts that have been promised by the coalition is germane to the Digital Education Revolution because the coalition themselves have a commitment to cut over $600 million from that program. The government is very proud of the delivery of Computers in Schools. Not only did we set ourselves the goal of a one to one ratio of delivery for students between years 9 to 12 but we have achieved that goal. More than 950,000 devices are being supplied to students, which is well above the national target of some 786,000.
The fact is that we promised we would bring schools into the digital age by providing enough computers for every senior high school student in the country and we have delivered on that promise. The current agreements end on 30 June, as the shadow minister should know, and we have made provisions in the budget to support new arrangements following consultations with states and territories and the non-government sector. That is entirely appropriate and the right way for us to go about managing the ongoing issues of computer access for kids in schools around Australia. I think the fact is that we have achieved a historic goal. We have put a computer in the hands of every Australian senior high school student. It is important now to recognise that the scheme was not intended to replace existing investments that were made by education authorities in new technologies; it was to provide a significant funding injection to level the playing field and bring all Australian schools into the 21st century and it is up to those who run the schools to keep them there.
I have established the Digital Education Advisory Group, a group of leading education and IT experts. They will provide us with advice on the next steps towards transforming teaching and learning through technology and I expect their strategy soon.
The shadow minister asked me about the Gonski review and the government's approach to the recommendations of Mr Gonski. We have said consistently that no school will lose a single dollar as a consequence of any recommendations that emerge from Mr Gonski and also that indexation will be part of any future model. I will make just one point to the shadow minister and the opposition: they have walked away from this important review. For the first time in nearly 40 years we have had an eminent panel consider closely the extremely critical question of funding for school education, and Mr Pyne, the shadow education spokesman, has completely walked away from it.
I am pleased to say that the remaining stakeholders in the education community have not walked away from it. We have participation by state governments and their officials, by the independent school sector and by a range of organisations with a genuine interest in the potential for funding reform in education, including the Australian Education Union, the Independent Education Union, the principals' councils and the parent councils. All of these organisations recognise it is in the best interests of our students that we have a funding model in this country that is fair, effective, transparent and does the job it is intended to do. We will continue to pursue the work that is underway on Gonski and there will be more to say about this later. (Time expired)
Minister, with regard to funding for education in the budget, I am interested in building on the great work that the federal Labor government has done over the last four budgets. In my electorate of Deakin and also across Australia the federal Labor government has made a significant investment in local schools. Of course, by far the bulk of this investment has been in primary schools. Every primary school has had the opportunity to add a new building or refurbish their facilities to make them better places to teach and learn.
Every single member of the opposition voted against any of our schools getting money under the Building the Education Revolution program. They did not want it to happen. But in my electorate of Deakin every single school I have been to thinks it is a fantastic program. I would invite anyone who is listening to contact those schools and come out and talk to them about what they have got from the program. And it is still going on; they are not quite finished yet; there are more to be opened next year. These are especially the ones that have taken time to consult and to argue the point and actually get what they want out of the program. We have had some fantastic results with funding for our schools locally, particularly schools that broke out of the state government template and decided they wanted to do something different—and in the end they did. They got bigger and better buildings and, in many cases, had money left over to do extra building or extra refurbishments at the end of the job. We still have some of those going on right now. Schools such as Warranwood Primary, just out of my electorate, Heathmont East Primary and Antonio Park Primary got two major projects instead of one and that is great for them.
As I said, there is still more to come on stream but many of these schools in the electorate, although they now have great buildings and are great places to teach, also need ongoing investment because there is no point in just putting money into capital and then not being able to use the new learning spaces and the new technology that comes with them. Many of these schools have not seen a new building since the 1950s and when you go out there today the contrast is huge. Throughout the process I worked closely with schools. As I said, that is the way it worked best. Rather than just having the state government direct how federal government funds were spent, the local member was involved right down to that level. And it certainly shows. I congratulate each and every member of the Labor side of the House who went out and did that during the rollout. It shows now and it will show for decades to come.
Secondary schools, of course, have been the beneficiaries of the Digital Education Revolution, which the member for Sturt does not seem impressed with. Again, I invite people to come out to secondary schools in my electorate and ask them what they think of the 4,000 computers that have gone into secondary schools in the electorate of Deakin. They are very happy because they had nothing but they now have a lot. There are some problems getting data out of the Victorian state government with regard to this, so the best thing to do is go and talk to the schools.
Minister, I am interested in the $54 million you announced in May this year in response to the Chief Scientist's Mathematics, engineering and science in the national interest report. In particular, I am interested in the $16.9 million of the $54 million to deliver programs for Australian students. I note that that included $6½ million for CSIRO to expand the Scientist and Mathematicians in Schools program, taking interesting maths and science lessons to schools across Australia, particularly rural and regional schools. There was $5 million for Science Connections, to support the Science by Doing and Primary Connections projects, providing extra online teaching resources with leadership from the Australian Academy of Science. There was $3 million to fund National Support and Advice for Teachers, a new service for maths and science teachers to help them deliver stimulating and safe lessons. There was also an amount of $2.4 million to support the participation of Australia's most talented science and maths secondary students in the International Mathematics and Science Olympiad.
As I said, the important part about providing funding to schools is not only what is done on the outside but what we keep doing on the inside. Minister, can you provide me with further advice on the implementation of these programs and how they will improve the teaching of maths and science not only at schools in Deakin but right across Australia?
I thank the member for Deakin for his question and also for his role as chair of the caucus education and skills committee. It is a very good question because it comes about at a time when we recognise there are additional needs in education to ensure that we have enough kids at school in maths and science and enough people to teach maths and science as well. But I just want to address one matter before I answer his question. Regrettably, the coalition spokesperson for education, the member for Sturt, has now fled the Federation Chamber. He is nowhere to be seen. He came in here and asked one question and had a typical spray and now he has departed again. If anything says to the public how seriously this shadow minister takes education it is the fact that he can only turn up to the Federation Chamber for 10 minutes and ask one question of me, the Minister for School Education, when he has the opportunity to be here for a full hour. The best that Mr Pyne could manage was 10 minutes and one question. It reminds me of his contribution when the Gonski report was released. Within 15 minutes of the report being released, the member for Sturt had condemned it. Apparently he was able to speed read the work that Mr Gonski and his eminent panel had undertaken. There were hundreds of pages of findings and recommendations in that report—deliberations in which the public and the education community had been involved—but the shadow minister for education, the member for Sturt, spent about 15 minutes musing and then dismissed it out of hand.
I want to respond to a question that the member for Sturt put as he fled the Federation Chamber, and that concerns the Literacy and Numeracy National Partnership. The fact is that the Literacy and Numeracy National Partnership is making a difference for the students it was intended to benefit. Yes, the ANAO report came out, but it compared the average results of all students in those schools to the average results in other schools. But the focus of this national partnership was on the students struggling in literacy and numeracy, those students who were below the national minimum standard. The fact is that we have seen improvements in moving those kids who are at that level. For example, between 2008 and 2011, 70 per cent of schools in this national partnership have reduced the proportion of their students who were below the minimum standard for year 3 reading and, between 2008 and 2011, 80 per cent of schools reduced the proportion of students who were below the minimum standard for year 5 maths. It is very important to get that on the record. It is regrettable that the member for Sturt did not hang around long enough to understand what a difference this government's investment is making in relation to this issue.
The member for Deakin asks me a very important question about the budget commitment to the specific issue of increasing the opportunity for the delivery of improved maths and science teaching in schools. What I can say is this: the chief scientist was asked to investigate this matter by the Prime Minister. When the chief scientist investigated that matter, he came to the view that it was important that we were able to provide additional support across a range of program areas that had already been underway, including the ones that the member for Deakin mentions such as Science by Doing, and we were able to bring forward additional investment of some $54 million in the budget. Around that particular commitment nearly $11 million went to improving the quality of teacher training, especially for prospective teachers. That work now to be considered and under way will lift the opportunity for young students who are interested in graduating and teaching maths and science to have additional support and input, particularly through professional development provision of teaching instruction and the like. There is $3 million for national support and advice for teachers, including a national advisory and linking service. There are online videos, which I think are a particularly useful device to illustrate new funding standards for practical activities for school science laboratories. And, of course, there is the $3 million that the member mentioned for science connections programs. This investment that the Gillard Labor government is making is an especially important one, not only for the teachers and the students in the electorate of the member for Deakin but Australia-wide. We recognise that having high levels of proficiency in maths and science is absolutely central to enabling us to lead in technological advances to continue to build prosperity in the future—something that this government is fully committed to.
I have two questions for the minister—they are unrelated but, given the difficulties of this process, I am going to ask them both and I ask also that the minister undertakes, if he cannot answer me directly here and now, to come back to me with the answers to these two questions. Firstly, Minister, your department commissioned a number of reports from Access Economics on workforce modelling and the cost of child care. The reports I specifically refer to are Access Economics's Early childhood education and care modelling unpublished report for the Department of Education, Employment and Workplace Relations in July 2009 and Access Economics's Early childhood education and care workforce study unpublished report for the Department of Education, Employment and Workplace Relations in October 2009. Minister, I ask why these reports have not been made public and I also ask you to undertake to provide me with copies of these Access Economics reports. Secondly, is the government considering directly subsidising the wages of child-care workers?
I thank the shadow spokesperson for her questions. On that first question, I am happy to take it on notice and we will provide an appropriate answer once we have sought advice from the department. On the second question, what I would say is this: again, as I was saying in response to the question of the member for Sturt before he fled the Federation Chamber having been in here for all of 10 minutes instead of the one hour that we spend in here for this important consideration in detail, the level of investment that the government has made in early childhood education and care is substantial. In fact, if we look back we can see that there has never been a time when a federal government has provided so much policy rigour, so much lift in terms of effort and so much specific support in terms of ensuring that young children get the appropriate care and sometimes instruction that best suits them before they enter the school years. This is an investment of $22 billion by this government—triple what was spent by the previous government. Attached to that is a National Quality Framework making sure that as a nation we recognise the importance of the quality components of early child care, professionalisation of the workforce and lifting of standards in childcare centres. All of these things are absolutely central to the approach that this government has taken and a great deal of the very good work that has been done by my colleague Minister Ellis.
We are also working very closely with the states in terms of the delivery of a commitment for universal access for kids in the year before school through the delivery of some $990 million to ensure that universal access, the goal we have set ourselves, can be reached.
I do wish that those opposite would let sink in the significant scope and reach of the investments that this government has been making in early child care and education. It is a case that there have been people coming into the parliament—and certainly we had United Voice and others in the parliament earlier this week—raising issues around the wages and conditions of those who work in early childhood in the early childhood centres and more broadly. We understand that that is a significant commitment that these people make. But we understand and know that the professionalisation of this workforce means that for everybody who has made a commitment to work in early childhood care and education we have provided the opportunity for them by way of HECS and HELP relief. We have provided the opportunities for them by the recognition of prior learning. We have provided opportunities for them by making sure that the National Quality Framework and those measures that are identified in that framework are fully understood and communicated to them. We acknowledge that there are issues for them and respect the fact that they are able to come into the parliament and put their views to the members on both sides of the House.
What was disappointing to me, though, I have to say, as I respond to the question of the member opposite is that I do not hear anything from the opposition about our commitment to the National Quality Framework. I do not hear anything from the opposition about providing a substantial level of support for early childhood care and education. I do not hear anything from the opposition about encouraging their states, and particularly states that now have a coalition perspective, to get behind this reform and recognise what a profound difference it can make to the lives of kids in early childhood, particularly in that transition period as they go into school.
Minister Ellis and I are constantly visiting these centres and we recognise that these reforms are already starting to bear fruit. We can see the tremendous enthusiasm and support that many in the sector have not only for the National Quality Framework but for making sure that the young people under their care are appropriately and well looked after but additionally are provided with that level of care and some learning that equips them well as they enter school. For parents, this is one of the most significant things that their children can do. We understand how important it is and will continue with this work. (Time expired)
I am very glad to have the opportunity today to make some inquiries of the minister in relation to matters concerning education in the budget. There is a considerable amount of interest in my electorate in education and recognition of the investments made by this government which have delivered great educational outcomes through great capital investments and display the ongoing commitment of this government to education at a very local and very practical level in the electorate of La Trobe. I take this opportunity to convey to the minister something that was passed on to me with great emphasis last week at Belgrave Heights Christian College. It is pertinent in light of the comments made by the member for Sturt earlier today in relation to computers in schools. I was asked very clearly to convey the thanks of that particular school for the significant investment in computers that have assisted it in delivering education to its students. I have had the opportunity to see at that school some robotics education and other things being provided there that would not have been possible without the computers that we, the government, have committed to that one school in a very large electorate.
I should also say that they were very appreciative of the other considerable capital investments that have been made by this government in the school, not only through the BER program, which has delivered to them a really marvellous stadium, for which they are very appreciative, but also the construction of additional learning centres and a VCE study centre, through a capital grant. Also, there was a commitment to a discovery centre, which I was at the opening of last week. They are also to be the beneficiary of a trades training centre. So that one school alone demonstrates the wealth of commitments in education that we have made, and they are certainly very grateful for it.
Likewise, I was very pleased to be at one of the most recent openings of a BER building, this one in Narre Warren North Primary School. It is one of the oldest schools in my electorate. The school has not had a significant amount of capital expenditure on it in the past and certainly would not have been the beneficiary of capital expenditure had our colleagues opposite been in office. They were most appreciative of the school building, which has enabled them to come together as a school and continue on after more than a century in the local area.
Less positively, Minister—and I am sure it brings some pressure to bear in the context of the appropriations we are considering today—you will no doubt be aware of the Baillieu government's actions in education, which have seen a significant amount of money torn away from the education budget in Victoria, and it is from some of our most disadvantaged schools, it has to be said. For instance, some schools in Victoria will lose up to around $80,000 as a result of the Baillieu government's decision to cut the education maintenance allowance, combined with the scrapping of the $300 School Start Bonus, which has contributed to a $19 million saving for Ted Baillieu and the Victorian government. It is most unfortunate that while we are contributing significant amounts to education, and have done since we came to office, as has been the tradition of Labor, in Victoria we simply see Ted Baillieu not only skimping on education but in fact cutting away at the things that have been delivered. It is a neat contrast that we have been providing a Schoolkids Bonus at the same time as the Baillieu government is pulling away money from schools and from families.
In addition to this, some of my schools have particularly raised with me the issue of the Baillieu government effectively taking away $7 million in federal funding promised to state schools under the National Literacy and Numeracy Partnerships. That has been specifically raised by Kambrya College with me. They are also very appreciative of the significant investments that this federal government has made in education. They contrast it with the actions of the state government.
A number of schools in my electorate have an interest in and a connection with remote communities and Indigenous communities, and have a particular interest in closing the gap in education, and across the board. Upwey High School, St Josephs in Ferntree Gully and Mater Christi have all expressed an interest in those issues, and I am sure there are more schools in the area that take an interest in those issues. I would be grateful, Minister, for some further information about what the budget delivers and what we have delivered overall since coming to office in relation to closing the gap in Indigenous education.
I thank the member for La Trobe for that question. It certainly is the case that, for Labor members of parliament, one of the most important things they do is maintain close contact with their school community, because there is such a great deal that has happened in education since we came into government. The fact is that there has never been a period of time when the level of investment by a federal government in education has been so significant and far reaching and the level of attention to policy reform has been so specific and the delivery of support into every school in the country has been so evident. I am absolutely thrilled to hear from the member for La Trobe that, for example, the trades training centre investment this government is making is appreciated in her electorate. Before the member for Sturt, the shadow minister for education, fled the Federation Chamber, having been in here for all of ten minutes and having asked one question, I was making the point that the coalition has on record cuts of $2.8 billion in education—the spirit of which was confirmed by the shadow minister in his interview with Paul Bongiorno last year—including a commitment that would have seen over a billion dollars cut out of the trades training centre program. It is extraordinary when you think about it, because those trades training centres are making an incredible difference in schools that have access to them right around the country.
I know that for members—the member for La Trobe in particular—this is even more important when you consider some of the really difficult issues that are emerging as the Baillieu government starts to make cuts in education, including cuts to TAFE training in Victoria—which, I have to say, I think has always been one of the best TAFE systems in the country. Victoria's economy in the past, under the stewardship of Premier Bracks and Premier Brumby, was in a position to capitalise on the need for well-trained, well-skilled people to come through the school system and into TAFE. Now, of course, that is jeopardised as well. I am particularly concerned to hear that there are threats to the investment that this Commonwealth government—this Labor government—is making across areas like the literacy and numeracy national partnership. I have always said to the states that we want to provide that extra support and investment that we think can make a difference in school systems. It is not intended that states should simply take advantage of the fact that we have a profound commitment to education and seek to defray or reduce their investment as a consequence.
The member for La Trobe asked me a question that would be of interest to her and to some of the schools and her constituents, including St Joseph's in Ferntree Gully, about the commitment to Indigenous education. This is something that I know that everybody in the House recognises as an important and ongoing issue and a challenge for governments, including for the federal government. I am extremely pleased to say that we are starting to see signs of progress in Indigenous communities, including in the areas of education. Even this morning we saw a report in the Australian about the kind of uptake that we are seeing both in employment and last week, under Minister Macklin, in terms of the provision of housing. We are genuinely making progress there, and the budget was very clear that we were going to continue to provide that level of investment.
I was particularly keen that we were able to have substantial delivery through the budget in Stronger Futures in the Northern Territory—some $3.4 billion in the 10-year package—and that goes across a range of areas: primary health care, food security, making sure that we have got access to quality education for Aboriginal kids, and nearly $20 million for 50 additional Working on Country ranger positions. I know that in my previous portfolio I was particularly keen to see that happen, and in the budget we have provided the opportunity for Indigenous ranger cadetships to be applied in pilots around the country as well, and I announced that last week.
In particular, I want to draw attention to two things of importance. Teach Remote is another investment to attract and retain high calibre teachers in remote areas—some $14 million that we have invested there. That is something that I think students and potential teachers in the member for La Trobe's electorate would be interested in. There is more we can do, but we have already— (Time expired)
I will be brief so that others can have an opportunity to ask questions. My questions are regarding the BER and, specifically, the collapse of the building company Reed Construction. Minister, are you aware that the company Reed Construction went into liquidation last week and that builders across northern New South Wales are owed approximately, to my understanding, $12 million? I would like a response for my constituents, particularly Chris Catterall, a builder in Moree who is owed $642,000; Lachlan Hall from Warialda, who is owed approximately $80,000; and Bill Crawford from Moree, who is owed just over $9,000. Minister, I would like your understanding as to the fact that this was a Commonwealth-funded program and as to what response you will be making to these builders. Also, Minister, I would like you to comment on the fact that a program that was designed to stimulate the economy during the global financial crisis will ultimately lead to the financial ruination of building companies right throughout the north-west—on top of the collapse of TCT Constructions, who were doing work for Laing O'Rourke in Dubbo a couple of years ago, which left subcontractors in Dubbo in my electorate out of pocket by about $2 million.
Earlier this year the new childcare ratios for zero to 24-month-old children were implemented. This has seen childcare fees increased by an estimated 11 per cent across the board this year, according to surveys undertaken. I know in my electorate increases of these levels have occurred and it has put enormous strains on the budgets of local families. Over the next few years lower ratios for older children will also be introduced. My question, for either Minister Garrett or Minister Ellis, is: what do you estimate will be the further increase in the costs of operating childcare centres once these new ratios are introduced? It is a very specific question.
To the member for Parkes, I am aware that Reed Constructions have entered voluntary administration. I should point out to the member that in fact responsibility for the BER is in Minister Shorten's hands and I will certainly direct your question to his office for an additional answer. What I can say is that we know that Ferrier Hodgson have been appointed as the administrator. We recognise, as I know everybody here would, that it does impose significant and considerable difficulties on builders such as the builder in your electorate that you referred to when a building company of this size enters into these difficulties. We do know that any claims for subcontractors for unpaid moneys are now managed as appropriate by the insolvency practitioner.
But I would make the point in concluding this answer and before I hand over to Minister Ellis that this is a matter that Barry O'Farrell as Premier of New South Wales cannot ignore. These are issues, as I understand it, that in part go to the delivery of projects to the New South Wales government. On that basis, as the New South Wales government has effective on-ground responsibility for the delivery of those projects, it is entirely appropriate that the New South Wales government be held to account for the delivery of the investment that the Commonwealth provided, through the states, for Building the Education Revolution.
Mr Coulton interjecting—
There is an interjection from the member opposite, but the fact of the matter is simply this: it is up to those state authorities who are in receipt of the investment that is provided by the Commonwealth to ensure that it is appropriately and properly given effect to. That is what has to happen. If there is a reason why a particular builder finds itself going into liquidation on a matter of delivery through the state entities then clearly it is a responsibility of the state government to be able to answer that question as well. I will conclude my answer there, because I think Minister Ellis is going to take up a question from the member for Aston.
Thank you for the question with regard to the government's national quality framework, which we have been pursuing in partnership with every state and territory government of all different political persuasions. The member for Aston asked some questions about affordability in particular. I would like to point out that there is nobody who is more concerned about the affordability of child care than the Gillard government. We do not just talk about that; we showed that we believe it by investing some $19.9 billion over the next four years in directly assisting Australian families with the cost of their child care. That is some triple the amount that the Howard government was investing. So when we talk about affordability I think is very important that we actually recognise that we have increased the childcare rebate from 30 per cent to 50 per cent. We have increased the cap on that rebate from $4,354 per child per year to $7,500, and that has had a very real impact on the affordability of child care. We know the analysis shows that a family in 2004 who were spending 13 per cent of their disposable income are now spending 7.5 per cent of that income. That is not to say that this is an ongoing issue. We know that Australian families are struggling with cost of living. That is exactly why we are investing this additional funding, and that is exactly why we have committed to continuing to work to ensure that child care is both affordable and quality.
I would say the figure that the member for Aston referred to, which has been in the media, is not an accurate figure in regard to increases. If we want to have a look at the figures we have, we know that the new national quality standards came into effect from 1 January this year. The only official figures that we have seen since then were the CPI figures. I would say that the CPI increase for child care for the first quarter of 2012 under the National Quality Framework was less than in the same quarter of each of the last two years of the Howard government, when they were doing absolutely nothing to improve the quality of care. So, I think we need to get the facts on the table.
The other thing that I would just like to address is why it is that we are pursuing these changes, because I know the member that asked the question has made some statements which are not accurate in the House.
I am answering the question. The member opposite might be interested, and I think the families of Aston deserve to have the very best start for their children. The member has stood in the chamber and said that there is no discernible benefit from increasing the quality of care, which is rubbish, frankly. That is absolute rubbish. We now have a body of evidence which shows us that we have more children in care than we have ever had before in this nation's history. We have over 1,321,00 children who will be using care in the next year. We also have all of the evidence that shows that this is when 90 per cent of brain development occurs. What happens in the critical early years will affect children right throughout the course of their lives. It will affect their educational outcomes, it will affect their social outcomes and it will affect their development outcomes. All of the research shows that the best way we can foster the best start in life for these children is by ensuring that they have well-trained and qualified staff who know how to get the best out of their learning and who have the ability to give them supervision and attention. That is why we are proud of these reforms. That is why every government, including his state Liberal government, has signed up because we know it is important to Australia's future that we give kids the best chance.
In terms of what we believe the increase will be, we have done extensive modelling on this. We know that we expect the national average peak increase to be $8.67 per week. Of course we recognise that that varies from centre to centre and it varies from state to state, but that is the best independent economic modelling advice that we have on what the cost of these changes will be. I believe that the children of Aston are worthy of this. I believe that the government has invested triple the investment of the Howard government to ensure that child care can become more affordable. We have committed to continuing to do that, and we have been upfront about the costs of it.
There is a case in terms of child development, there is a case in terms of child safety, but there is also a case in terms of national productivity. We know that if we want the best developed workforce of the future and the best educated children coming through we need to invest early and save money later on, and we are very, very proud to be working in partnership with our states and territories to be delivering just that. I would say that it is about time the member for Aston stood up and told his electorate the truth and also stood up for the families— (Time expired)
Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker. I have become aware the longer I am the member for Parramatta that how profoundly different the experience of children can be as they approach school years and get in to school. There are almost two completely different worlds. There is the world of Westmead Public School which is one of my best schools. It is a centre for excellence, it has a great cohort of parents who are mainly double professional career families, it has a lot of skilled migrants and a strong commitment to education. You will find it is an incredibly good school with a very active P&C. The children are engaged in extracurricular activity in fine arts and high-level sport as well as their educational activities. These are kids that are in every way being given what they need to fly, regardless of what their capacity is.
There is a child I met a number of years ago when I was up at Telopea Railway Station. She first started wandering down across the train line which, at that point, did not have a gate. She would wander across that train line and across Adderton Road, which is a main road, to get a carton of milk every morning and then go back. She was about four. As the years progressed she started bringing down her younger brother, who was still in nappies, and they would wander across the train line and head down to get a carton of milk every morning. It was in a very short time that, in the only way I can describe it, they started to get the mark of poverty; that slightly grey skin and wariness in their eyes. I watched them over those two years and thought: 'This is a remarkable young girl. She has everything in her that she needs to do well in life: she's committed, she's loyal, she's making things happen, she clearly gets herself out of bed and into school uniform. She does that.' I asked her one day and she said her mum was still asleep. She was a remarkable young girl, but you know that when she reached school age she probably would not have had the parental assistance in learning to read, learning to count and all the things that parents do for you. They walk up the stairs and count and they read to you and show you, before you get to school, how to learn.
These are two completely different experiences of school, and I am well aware that we need to be working at both ends. We need to make sure that a person can stand. We also need to make sure that person can fly if they can. There has been a considerable investment in education by this government—a doubling of investment in education and some great programs that have been rolled out in Parramatta—but I would like to hear from both ministers how we are addressing the needs of both of those groups of children.
I thank the member for Parramatta. She is absolutely right. One of the key things about the findings and recommendations of the Gonski review was that where we have concentrated disadvantage existing within schools then, no matter what a student's capacity might be, they will be prevented from realising their full potential unless we ensure that we are providing the necessary support to them in those school years, including early childhood, primary and secondary. I am pleased to know that when it comes to that level of investment this government has invested some $2.5 billion in the Smarter Schools National Partnerships, and that includes investing in schools which are described as having low socioeconomic communities. In particular, in Parramatta there has been a significant investment in those national partnerships that I am particularly pleased to be able to identify for the member.
It is especially pleasing for me to see that we have provided a great deal of support for schools. Catherine McAuley Westmead has received $2 million of support for learning areas and technical applied studies facilities and the like. Schools like Mother Teresa Primary School under the BER received significant investment. In low socioeconomic areas of investment we have provided investment into schools like Arthur Phillip High School, Maryland Public School and Rydalmere Public School. All of these schools have received additional support and investment for their students and over time we expect to continue to see the fruits of this investment start to emerge. We recognise that the high level of support and the great priority that the Gillard government has placed on education is intended to do just that: help these students, including the students that the member for Parramatta referred to.
Remember the context: more transparency than ever for parents in the community with the My School website; a national curriculum, with the implementation now underway around Australia in English, maths, science and history; for the first time, national professional qualifications and standards for teachers; national partnerships, including the ones I have mentioned, on teacher quality and supporting low SES communities; and a national Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Education Action Plan to make sure that Indigenous kids around Australia get the support that they need as well. We are absolutely committed to making sure that these students and these schools continue to get the support that they need within the context of understanding what makes a difference, including teacher quality and early intervention for students, particularly those who may have learning difficulties or a disability or who may come from a low socioeconomic background. I was so pleased to visit the Macarthur Girls High School in the member for Parramatta's electorate—we had a fantastic session at that high school—and I could see how well the Macarthur girls were doing. Yes, they have received some support from the federal government; but, when I go to the My School website and look at their NAPLAN tests, I can see that they are achieving a great deal.
I will not ask the minister to jump up for the last minute, unless she is keen to take the call—
I might then provide an additional answer to a question that was put by the member for Farrer. With regard to early childhood education and childcare reports, I am advised that the Productivity Commission report and interim response is on the DEEWR website, and the Access Economics report is on the COAG website. So I think that is evidence enough of the delivery of transparency for these reports—to those who take the time to listen.
During this consideration in detail of the budget appropriation before us, the member for Sturt, the shadow spokesperson for education, came in here for all of 10 minutes, asked one question and then fled the Federation Chamber. All that he said about education was that he wants to cut $2.8 billion out of the sector. All he said about the Gonski review and the important reforms that lie within it—one of the most important and significant pieces of policy discussion that we have had before us as a parliament—was that he has ruled that out of court all together, and he has confirmed that there would be further cuts to education funding. This Labor government is fully committed to continuing its support for education, as evidenced by the appropriations in this budget. (Time expired)
) ( The Gillard government are committed to supporting jobs, and the 2012-13 budget continues to build our investment in skills training and assistance. Last year, the government announced the Building Australia's Future Workforce Package, and members of the House will be pleased to know it is already benefiting more than 230,000 people. Protecting jobs has been the No. 1 priority of the Gillard government from day one, and our measures reflect that commitment. Today there are more Australians in work than ever before. This budget delivers on the broader economic goals of the government, delivering on our commitment to return the budget to surplus and with surpluses growing over the forward estimates. We also want to spread the benefits of the resources boom to help families on low and middle incomes make ends meet, with the cost of living.
With regard to employment and workplace relations specifically, the 2012-13 budget delivers on a number of important measures in the Employment and Workplace Relations portfolio. And I must acknowledge the work of the Minister for Employment Participation in developing this package. We recognise that in order to maintain a strong economy we need to have highly skilled and experienced Australians in our workplaces. With a lifetime of work experience, older Australians have skills that make them extremely valuable assets to the workforce. The government will invest over $55 million over four years in additional assistance to harness the potential of mature-age workers. The jobs bonus will help challenge employers to recruit older job seekers, with corporate champions to help employers implement age-friendly work practices. The Mature Age Participation—Job Seeker Assistance Program is extending experience and career advice.
We are going to encourage parents to participate in work. We are also providing more childcare assistance, making it easier for parents of young children in receipt of income support to return to work, by extending the reach of the popular Jobs, Education and Training Child Care Fee Assistance program. An extra $225 million over four years will enable 130,000 families to access this assistance. We have new employer initiatives for disadvantaged job seekers, including Wage Connect and the Disability Employment Broker Program. We also have employment advice services for vulnerable workers.
In conclusion, the government are committed to supporting jobs, and the 2012-13 budget continues to build on our investment in skills training and a range of assistance for Australian job seekers.
Proceedings suspended from 11:05 to 12:17
Proceedings will resume on consideration of expenditure in the Education, Employment and Workplace Relations portfolio. The question is that the proposed expenditure be agreed to.
Proposed expenditure agreed to.
Foreign Affairs and Trade Portfolio
Proposed expenditure, $6,378,024,000
I have a series of questions for the minister. I will go through those questions and those you cannot answer we will put on notice. In relation to the department's incoming government brief, the red book, it states:
The department is already badly resourced.
According to the department's calculations, by what percentage is the department underfunded in the wake of the most recent cuts to the operating budget? How much additional funding will be cut in dollar terms? Did the department advise the government against further funding cuts? Which areas of departmental operations will have the largest redundancies and what will be the reduction across the various levels of seniority within the department?
On the issue of expenses, I ask the minister: what will be the impact of further funding cuts to consular services? Are more Australians travelling overseas and by what amount, and is there an increased consular case workload as a result? Is there sufficient capacity within the department to deal with a major crisis involving large numbers of Australians needing consular support overseas? Is that capacity similar to the past or less? Are Austrade officers in posts being seconded to provide consular support? If so, in which posts and what percentage of their time is being taken up by consular support?
Regarding AusAID, I have a number of questions about the independent review of aid effectiveness. Recommendation 39 of the Australian government's Independent Review of Aid Effectiveness says:
The scale–up of the aid program to 0.5 per cent of GNI should be subject to the progressive achievement of predetermined hurdles.
Have these hurdles been determined? If so, are they publicly available? If the hurdles or benchmarks have not been imposed, why not? How will AusAID be measured against these benchmarks and who will undertake the assessment?
In relation to salary supplements, does AusAID recruit nationals of the countries in which it operates? How does AusAID determine salaries for nationals so recruited? Does AusAID supplement or top up salaries for some foreign nationals who work for their governments? Does AusAID supplement or top up salaries of public servants in other countries? If so, what measures does AusAID put in place to prevent a conflict of interest? How many public servants are in receipt of AusAID top-up payments? What is the level of the top-up payments as a percentage of their government salary? Is the government of each country notified of all employees in receipt of top-up payments?
On the question of domestic lobbying in the aid budget, how much of taxpayer funds are diverted to domestic awareness raising or lobbying activities? Are organisations in receipt of AusAID funding allowed to use taxpayer funding to lobby for increased funding from AusAID? How does this ban on lobbying for increases reconcile with the vocal and high-profile campaign for an increase in the aid budget to 0.5 per cent or 0.7 per cent of GNI, depending upon the organisation? How does AusAID prevent development organisations from using taxpayer funding to support this lobbying?
I have a number of questions on the campaigns on sexually transmitted diseases. Has Caritas been successful in winning tenders to promote awareness of STI? In particular, is Caritas actively promoting the use of condoms as part of that campaign? If not, was AusAID aware of the fact that Caritas would not promote the use of condoms and why was it awarded that tender?
What is the acceptable level of cost transfer back to headquarters of organisations involved in delivering the aid program? What percentage of a given program is attributed to offshore costs by World Vision, Oxfam and Save the Children, for example?
Is AusAID aware of reports that its funding of PNG police officers has created a virtual private security force that largely protects Malaysian logging interests? What steps has AusAID taken to ensure that its funding is not being used for such purposes?
How much money has been spent to date on the Australian Civilian Corps? How many people have been deployed? How many people have registered to be part of the Civilian Corps? How many of these are Australian public servants? How many people are involved in managing the program in Canberra? What is the cost of administering the program compared with the cost of deployment?
In respect of the first set of questions relating to the resourcing of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, I will seek to provide answers where we reasonably can. But a number of these matters may well be cabinet-in-confidence and we, like all governments of whatever political persuasion, will not breach that confidentiality. Yes, efficiency dividends have been applied to agencies and the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade is not exempt from those efficiency dividends, nor would it expect to be. In the context of bringing the budget back to surplus, the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade was able to announce the establishment of a consulate in Chengdu in western China, a city of some eight million people. The establishment of this consulate is a very important part of the Australia in the Asia Century white paper endeavour. We want to increase our presence in China. We already have a presence in Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou. Here is a fourth presence. We will continue to look at our consular presence around the world. But we need to do so understanding the budget constraints that apply as we return the budget to surplus. I can also confirm that we are establishing a presence in Senegal in French-speaking Africa. A lot of Australian mining companies have interests and prospective interests in that part of the world. Even in the context of what is a tough budgetary situation for all, we are able to announce meaningful new policies in that area.
Are more Australians travelling overseas? Yes, they are. That is a reflection, in part, of the strength of the Australian dollar, which is a vote of confidence in the management of this economy. Armed with valuable Australian dollars more people are travelling overseas; therefore, on occasions extra consular assistance is sought. I know in Phuket, Thailand, for example, a lot of work is done by our post to provide consular assistance to tourists there. I will seek to provide information, where we possibly can, to satisfy the questioning of the Deputy Leader of the Opposition.
In relation to AusAID and recommendation 39 of the review about predetermined hurdles and GNI, it is now well known that we have pushed out by one year the achievement of 0.5 per cent of GNI. I understood that this did have the support of the coalition. I am able to give the assurance that, where we are reasonably able to do so, we will provide further information to the Deputy Leader of the Opposition.
In relation to domestic lobbying by non-government organisations, I make the general point that any expenditure by AusAID in order to qualify as overseas development assistance must be what is called 'ODA-able'. You cannot simply generate spending proposals and then expect that to qualify, otherwise we would be in the situation where all sorts of activities are lumped into the foreign aid budget, and we want to avoid that where it is not warranted. But, again, I will get information. In relation to the broader issue of lobbying for increases in ODA as a proportion of gross national income, of course, non-government organisations have done that and will continue to do so.
On Caritas, yes, we will get information about any contracts with them and the issue of sexually transmitted diseases and the use of condoms. I must say the suggestions or implications by the Deputy Leader of the Opposition that AusAID is funding the PNG Police Force in order to protect the illegal lobbying is a long way out there, just the other side of the Milky Way. I will seek to get information on that, but I think that there is a pretty serious allegation there. We will seek to do the right thing and provide information where we reasonably can but within the context of both reasonableness when it come to the burdens of the department and cabinet confidentiality.
My question to the minister is: can the minister update the House on the progress of the China FTA and on any new developments in the negotiations? What steps is the minister taking to try and bring the negotiations to a successful conclusion? Is the minister aware of any risks to the negotiations, and what would this mean for the negotiations?
I thank the member for Banks for the questions. This is a negotiation that was initiated by the previous government in 2005. Having come to the portfolio of trade in September or so of 2010, it came to my attention that no progress had been made during the period of the previous government from 2005 through to November 2007. A whole series of negotiations or meetings had occurred, but, in fact, no progress had been made.
We have continued to press China on this. There are some terribly vexed issues in any negotiation of this sort between countries such as Australia and China, which has 1.32 billion people. Frankly, in order for this to be progressed successfully it would need a level of bipartisanship, and it does not enjoy that. This is a fundamental problem because the coalition, having initiated these negotiations, is now saying in respect of foreign investment by China in agricultural land that it wants to drop the threshold for private foreign investment from $244 million to as little as $30 million. That would be the end of any discussion on a free trade agreement between Australia and China because China would see that as very discriminatory against it. The Deputy Leader of the Opposition, on 19 October last year, had urged that we accelerate negotiations for the successful completion of an Australia-China free trade agreement and the very next day her leader said no, that it should be put on the backburner and Japan should be prioritised. In order for this agreement ever to materialise, we cannot have Senator Barnaby Joyce and others running around with anti-China rants and then, with the prospect of a discussion paper coming out, suggesting that we drop that threshold, which I am quite sure from discussions with my Chinese counterparts would mean the end of any possibility of a free trade agreement.
What the Chinese have done is approached us about a free trade agreement but with a real emphasis on agriculture. Again, you would think that the coalition would support that, at least the National Party side, because China did give access to New Zealand to the agricultural demand of a massive country and have said to us, 'We would contemplate giving you New Zealand style access.' That would be a huge boost to Australian farmers, particularly beef and dairy farmers.
There are great prospects here, but then we have part of the coalition actually working in the opposite direction. To the credit of the Deputy Leader of the Opposition, she has been quite consistent on this, saying, 'Let's do it. It's an important deal.' But other parts of the coalition to which the Leader of the Opposition listens every day—and that includes Senator Barnaby Joyce—are saying, 'We're not very happy about China. We're very anxious about it. We don't necessarily think bringing a free trade agreement to a successful conclusion is a good idea.' So that bipartisanship is lost.
It is not lost upon the Chinese, I must say. They know that there is an alternative government in Australia that is saying that they are not sure about the wisdom of completing free trade negotiations. It would not just be in agriculture, I say to the member for Banks. It would be the diversification that we are seeking in services. We have so many Australian companies looking to diversify. A hundred of them accompanied me to China in August of last year on the biggest delegation to leave Australia's shores, I think. There is no better time, I say to the member for Banks, who has a very great fondness for Gough Whitlam, than the 40th anniversary of the official recognition of the People's Republic of China. It was one of the first steps that Gough Whitlam took when he was elected. He was elected in early December and by 21 December we had recognised officially the People's Republic of China.
Mr Melham interjecting—
That is right. There is now this sense that we should use this opportunity. Let's use the fondness that exists between our two countries to complete those negotiations. But I have to say it would be very difficult to complete them when we have a divided coalition. I would urge the Deputy Leader of the Opposition to use her authority within the coalition to bring to heel the Barnaby Joyces, the anti-China rants, and see if we cannot actually get a true level of bipartisanship instead of people of good intent, such as the Deputy Leader of the Opposition, saying the right thing but her leader and the aspiring Prime Minister of Australia saying exactly the opposite.
Minister, I now turn to the issue of the United Nations Security Council campaign for a temporary seat for 2013-14. What has been the total expenditure on the campaign, including staff seconded to the UNSC campaign? How many staff are working on the campaign? How many countries have pledged their votes in writing to Australia and how many have given verbal pledges? How many have indicated that they will not be voting for Australia? How many have said that they are undecided? Has there been an increase in the number of invitations to Australia to the leaders of other nations? What is the average cost of each visit? Typically what costs are borne by the Australian taxpayer of each visit? Has the department assessed the level of additional resources that will be needed if Australia is successful in its bid for a temporary seat? If so, how much will be required?
I refer the minister to Australia's promotion of its candidature for the UN Security Council. Has the department updated this big booklet or website to reflect the government's revised time frame for expanding overseas development aid? It still says that you are going to deliver five per cent of GNI by 2015. I also note that the member for Griffith is still described as the foreign minister in the booklet. Has this been updated? If not, why not? How much did it cost to produce the booklets? How many booklets were produced? How much would it cost to reprint all the booklets, if that has been done? Will the department remove the booklets with the factual errors from website and from broader circulation?
Was the foreign minister advised by the department to threaten Papua New Guinea that Australia would organise the world to isolate and condemn Papua New Guinea and impose sanctions if elections in Papua New Guinea were delayed?
Has the live cattle trade to Indonesia recovered to its pre-suspension levels? What has been the cost to Australia's cattle industry from the lesser demand from Indonesia for our livestock? Was there any understanding between the Australian government and the Indonesian government to secure a reduction in Schapelle Corby's sentence after the release of Indonesian minors from Australian jails? Was the possibility of juvenile detention for the Indonesian minors considered? Was the Prime Minister advised by the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade to personally telephone the so-called Bali boy after his arrest?
I note that the minister made mention of the new consulate in China. Did the department recommend a number of possible locations for a new consulate in China? What was the department's preferred location? Did the former foreign minister ever express his preference for the new consulate to be situated in Chongqing? If so, what were his reasons for selecting Chongqing as opposed to Chengdu or other locations?
Has the Australian government implemented all United Nations sanctions on Iran? Are the Australian government's actions in relation to the implementation of UN sanctions consistent with the actions of, for example, the United States and the European Union? What is the Australian government's official position towards Iran? Does the government believe that military action should be 'taken off the table'?
Has the United States embassy or the United States government and its officials raised the question of cuts to the Australian defence budget? If so, when and where did this take place and at what level did this representation occur?
Going to the minister's own portfolio, could the minister provide the current status of the Australia-Gulf Cooperation Council Free Trade Agreement negotiations and the Indonesia-Australia Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement? When was the last pre-negotiation consultation with Indonesia held? Have any pre-negotiation consultations been held since the Australian government announced its ban on live cattle exports to Indonesia? Could the minister also provide details of the Australia-Japan Free Trade Agreement, the Australia-South Korea Free Trade Agreement, PACER Plus and the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement? What positions has Australian taken during trade negotiations in relation to tariff reductions? Has Australia sought tariff reductions? What are the scale of those reductions? Has Australia sought zero tariffs during some negotiations? If so, for which commodities, and which countries have been asked to consider zero tariffs on Australian exports?
In relation to the UN Security Council bid, within the bounds of reasonableness we will seek to provide relevant information. I am not by any means persuaded that it is in Australia's national interest to start articulating to the opposition and, through that process, to the Australian people and the public more generally exactly who has pledged what to whom. I am not sure that those countries would necessarily think that was a good idea. If you want to prejudice the Security Council bid—and maybe the coalition does—that would be a pretty good way of going about it. I imagine that some of these consultations and discussions about arrangements would be fairly confidential. So I am not going to commit that we will provide information about conversations that have been held with each and every country in relation to the UN Security Council bid. I would be interested—I have not caught up with the latest—in knowing whether the coalition has an official position of opposing that bid. Certainly, the request for information that is being sought seems to me to be designed to prejudice it.
I was asked whether Australia issues invitations to leaders of other nations to come to this country. Yes, things have moved on; Fortress Australia has been dismantled. That was through the fifties and sixties, when we in this country were very fearful of foreigners. People like Pauline Hanson still are, but I would hope that the coalition is not. Of course, we invite people from other countries to come to Australia.
The deputy opposition leader says, 'You are better than this, Craig.' It is fascinating, when we are in the second decade of the 21st century, that the best question she is able to think up is: 'Do we invite leaders of other countries to this country?'
I am not sure that we keep records of the number of people we have asked to visit Australia over the last 20 or 30 years as a basis for providing this information. But I can tell you that if there were an increase it would be a good thing. I actually think it is great that we engage with countries. The coalition seems to have the view that international trade is fine, so long as it does not involve foreigners. We are actually quite keen to continue the internationalisation of the Australian economy.
Mr Deputy Speaker, I seek to intervene. I find that an offensive point by the minister. I am asking a very serious question about whether over the last 12 months there has been an increase in invitations to leaders of other nations. I am asking about the cost of each visit and what costs are borne by the Australian taxpayer. That is a perfectly respectable question to ask. The minister should take it seriously and not be so offensive.
I accept the question, and I am responding to it in the spirit in which it was asked. I find it one of the most extraordinary questions that I would expect to hear from a Deputy Leader of the Opposition; as if inviting leaders of other countries to this country is a bad thing and that somehow it will be exposed that, yes, we have been at it again—inviting leaders of other countries to this country and then paying some of their expenses. I am quite happy to provide the information wherever we can. I look forward to the comments of the coalition as to whether they think is a good idea of a bad idea to invite leaders, one by one, to this country.
I will now move on. In relation to Papua New Guinea, I cannot cover all of the questions that were raised. Obviously, there are going to be elections—I think they start next week and they will continue for some time—and that is a good thing. That is what Senator Carr wanted; he wanted those elections and they going to happen. I see that as an achievement rather than as a basis of criticism. On the live cattle trade, we are constantly in touch with the Indonesian authorities— (Time expired)
We now have the capacity for me to be able to give a full answer on this, rather than jam it in with numerous questions. The answer is that, in the last couple of days, two new countries have been admitted into the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement negotiations: they are Mexico and Canada. With the addition of Mexico and Canada, there are now 11 parties to the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement negotiations.
The concept here, I say to the member for Banks, is a very worthy one. The Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum was established by Australia on the initiative of, originally, Bob Hawke at the ministerial level, and then Paul Keating elevated it to the leadership level. It has been a very successful forum for trade liberalisation and economic policy cooperation across the Asia-Pacific. The aspiration is a free-trade area for Asia and the Pacific at some stage. Each of the nine parties to the trans-Pacific partnership negotiations is a member of APEC. So nine of the 21 economies are now involved in negotiation, which obviously is going to be a tough one in some areas, as every country has sensitive issues. If we can land this Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement, we then have a very solid stepping stone towards a free-trade area for Asia and the Pacific. The addition of Canada and Mexico means that between them the TPP parties constitute 30 per cent of the world's gross domestic product, which is a big number.
The negotiations are going well in relation to what is called the text—that is, all of the legal work that needs to go in. But there will be very challenging negotiations about increased market access to each other's countries. I might even add, as the Deputy Leader of the Opposition asked if we were requesting duty-free access to markets, that we ask for duty-free access to markets wherever we can possibly achieve it. My view is that, even if that involves phasing down tariffs over time, getting to zero is a very worthy objective. That is set out in the trade ministers' trans-Pacific partnership declaration that was issued in Honolulu last year: we are looking for duty-free access to markets.
We are pragmatic about phasing down tariffs. Why wouldn't we be? In Australia that is exactly what we did previously. We had very high tariffs in the mid- to late-1980s which were inherited from previous coalition governments. Instead of going cold turkey and taking auto industry tariffs, for example, from 57.5 per cent to zero in one fell swoop, we phased them down. Whenever we have been involved in negotiations, such as in the ASEAN-Australia-New Zealand Free Trade Agreement, we have offered duty-free access to the Australian market. In the Australia-United States Free Trade Agreement we offered duty-free access to the Australian market. We also have done it with other free trade agreements.
Our tariffs generally are around zero or five per cent. It is something we have done unilaterally over the years. Other countries have reduced their tariffs, and APEC has been a very effective forum, not so much for negotiations but for a sense of kindred spirit—that we know this is a community whose future path to prosperity and to a more decent society for people in poverty, so that they can be liberated from poverty, is to give them jobs through market access. Over the years, what has happened in APEC is that countries have voluntarily reduced their tariffs, not through negotiations but in the knowledge that other countries in the region were doing the same thing. So in regard to the Bogor goals, which were set out in 1994—there was a review recently—it is true that we not quite at zero, but tariffs have come down and, as a result, a lot of people who would not otherwise have jobs, including on the land, now have jobs. It has been a great success story. The Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement can take that further by providing this important stepping stone to a free-trade area for Asia and the Pacific.
Minister, it has been well documented that the government is proposing to save $2.9 billion by deferring by one year the foreign aid target of 0.5 per cent of GNI. Can the minister advise the Committee of the process or criteria that were used to determine which regions or program line items that were previously projected across have been reduced or deferred? The reason I ask this is that it is not an across-the-board deferral of aid spending on countries and regions; some have been deferred but some have actually had an increase in the appropriation above what was projected in last year's budget. In the context of deferring increases in aid spending, why has this year been chosen as the year in which we need to join the Asia Development Bank?
I want to also refer to scholarships, particularly those scholarships funded by AusAID that are offered to overseas students in developing countries to study. Can the minister advise whether there is a requirement that these students have to study at Australian universities or educational institutions? If not, why not? Is there a requirement for the students to return and work in their country of origin once they have finished their degree or their qualification? The minister may have to take this on notice, but can he provide a breakdown of intended countries of origin by student for these programs in 2012-13 and the degree courses and a breakdown of the Australian universities and institutions that they attend? Can he also explain the process that AusAID uses for determining which countries and students will be selected? What will the level of scholarships provided to the Palestinian authority be in 2012 and 2013?
On general aid, what will be the total amount of foreign aid funding provided to Libya for 2012-13? Minister Carr recently announced on his trip to Burma that there would be an increase in foreign aid spending in Burma. Will there also be an increase in the current staffing levels in the foreign aid area and, if so, what will those levels be?
Moving onto the $5 million donation that AusAID has given to the Queen's Diamond Jubilee Trust, can the minister advise what measures AusAID will take to ensure that all funds are administered to the trust and that they will be spent according to the AusAID charter?
On the ongoing issue of AusAID funding going to organisations with links to terrorists, even though it appears that nothing illegal has occurred, AusAID admitted during evidence that it is undisputed fact that persons on the board of the UWAC, which receives funding through an NGO from AusAID, are formerly convicted terrorists who have served time in jail for terrorism and have links to the PFLP, which is a well-known terror group. There are also other persons with links to terrorism on the UWAC board. Can the minister advise whether it is the Australian government's view that this situation is acceptable? Has the minister had any concerns raised with him by Labor backbenchers on this specific issue, in particular the member for Melbourne Ports? What does the government consider to be a link to a terrorist organisation? Just because it might be legal does not mean that there is not a link.
I want to also ask about an article that appeared in the Australian yesterday. It refers to an independent review obtained under FOI commissioned by AusAID—and I have that report with me now—into the child protection policy that was implemented in 2008. The article alleges that there has been a surge in abuse complaints. There were 11 last year compared to only four in the first year and authorities expect this trend to continue. Minister, can you advise whether this is correct? The article also states that of the 20 complaints made over the last four years, eight were substantiated—all last year—involving staff of a non-government organisation working with AusAID in another country while five were found to be outside the scope of the policy. Minister, can you advise whether all of the eight complaints were about one single NGO and what investigations the department has initiated? The article alleges that the report also questions why the department appears to put concerns of negative publicity ahead of concerns for alleged victims. This is a very serious allegation, Minister. Can you indicate whether you will release the report publicly? Will you commit to implementing all of the recommendations of the review and indicate a time frame? Will the government be providing an official response to the report and, if so, when?
It is important that I respond to the last set of questions first. Then I will see if I can get to the others within the five minutes that I have. Without wishing to be unduly combative, the suggestion that the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade might put concerns about negative publicity ahead of ensuring that it does everything to wipe out child abuse is an appalling suggestion. I am not saying that the member for Brisbane is making that allegation. I have hardworking and decent departmental officials here, as are AusAID people more generally, who would be mortified at such a suggestion. They are not in a position to answer these questions, so I will answer them on their behalf. It is an appalling question. There is no circumstance in which—
Mr Deputy Speaker, I was just asking the minister to respond to the report. I was not casting any aspersions on the hardworking members of the department, whom I have had great privilege to work with in the past.
I understand that, but it is most unfortunate that in the time that is available the member for Brisbane has decided to transmit that allegation into the chamber. There is every discretion on the part of the member for Brisbane to simply not repeat that allegation or that suggestion. You have not done that. I am not suggesting that you are making it, but I would have put a red line through it, if I were you.
In relation to AusAID more generally, of course, this organisation has zero tolerance for child abuse. It is a pervasive problem—there is no doubt about it—and AusAID is tackling it proactively in setting the international benchmarks for accountability and transparency here. Indeed, Australia was the first international donor government and Commonwealth agency to implement a policy to protect children from abuse. The aid program has no higher priority than the protection of children from any form of abuse. The aid program works every day to promote and protect children's rights, in particular, by increasing children's access to education and to health services.
The 2011 Independent Child Protection Policy Review, commissioned by this government, describes AusAID's commitment to child protection and the work done to date to develop, implement, support and resource the policy as impressive. AusAID agrees with the 23 substantive recommendations, with four already implemented and the remainder are underway. AusAID's partners are responding and appropriately managing child protection notifications better than ever before. Since the policy was introduced, all complaints made related to personnel of organisations funded by AusAID, not AusAID staff. The increase in notifications is evidence that the policy is working. It required mandatory reporting. Mandatory child protection standards have created safer organisations and awareness of the policy has increased through training NGOs, contractors and AusAID staff.
There is strong evidence that supports the fact that, when mandatory compliance is introduced and awareness increases, there will be an increase in notifications.
Going directly to the question, AusAID has received a total of 20 child protection notifications in the three years between March 2008 and December 2011. Of the total reports, eight were substantiated or resulted in dismissal, seven were unsubstantiated and five were outside the scope of the policy—that is, they were not related to Australian aid programs—and each of these cases were referred to the relevant authorities. Since the policy commenced, AusAID has not received any child protection notifications against any of its staff. I will seek to get back to the member for Brisbane on other questions where, again, we reasonably can within the resources of the department in relation to the decisions made on overseas development, assistance and the various scholarships. I am quite sure that AusAID and this government do not go around funding terrorist organisations legally or illegally. That is not the sort of thing that we see as a priority. I think that both sides of the parliament have a policy of doing everything they can to combat terrorism.
The minister has been asked a number of questions and I would ask that the minister take them on notice and respond, as he has indicated he would, with answers to those questions as best as he is able. I ask whether he would be able to do that by the end of this parliamentary sitting period—that is, by the winter break. I also have a couple of questions on the Australia Network. Have any department officials been interviewed by the Australian Federal Police in its investigation of the leaks related to the Australia Network tender? Has the department undertaken any market research on, or surveys of, the Australia Network as to its coverage? If so, does the department know how many people are actually watching the network; how many are Australian citizens and how many are foreign nationals, and have those watching the network been asked to rate the quality of the current service delivery? And, if this information is not available, why not?
I cannot reasonably give a commitment that, by the end of this parliamentary session, answers to all questions will be provided. There are constraints here on the available resources of the department. I have said in good faith that we would seek to provide answers where it is reasonable. Where there are questions that involve matters of cabinet-in-confidence or that cannot be answered for reasons of national security and such, answers will not be provided—and that would be the response that I would get if the coalition were in government.
In relation to the Australia Network, again, I will seek to provide some information on that. I would be surprised if the Australia Network were spending a lot of money working out how many people watch the network, but if they happen to have that information I will provide it to you.
There are some other unanswered questions that I would like to deal with. The Deputy Leader of the Opposition, in the previous bracket of questions, asked about trade negotiations with Japan, Indonesia and so on. What is happening in Indonesia—and I think it is quite a good idea—is that they are, to use their term, 'socialising the idea'. So we have the business communities of both Indonesia and Australia working collaboratively, identifying the opportunities through the negotiations and going to other stakeholders, including members of parliament in Indonesia of all political persuasions, to argue directly to them that this is a good idea. Rather than us negotiating an agreement and then unveiling it to the business community, we actually have the business communities of both countries being champions of the agreement. I think that is a model that is worth considering for the development of trade agreements between countries.
In relation to Japan, the most recent document that our trade relations are based on is the 1957 Australia-Japan Agreement on Commerce—and I give credit to the coalition at that time; Menzies and McEwen negotiated that agreement. But it is now a little dated! I think we can do better than that. The Japanese have shown renewed interest in a free trade agreement with Australia and, obviously, we have been pushing that for a long time. They have a lot on their plate, including the reopening of nuclear power stations and trying to get an increase in the consumption tax through the parliament. However, during my recent visit—and I thank the Deputy Leader of the Opposition, with whom I was paired—the Japanese themselves, voluntarily, before I could even begin to speak about the desirability of completing negotiations for a free trade deal, said that to me. So that is a good development. They see that there is real merit in their engaging more in the region, looking outward. Again, Australia is a top priority for Japan, as it is for China.
So we continue to work hard and to invest in these agreements. The earlier part of the visit to seven countries over 19 days that I just completed included the actual signing of our free trade agreement with Malaysia. We got very strong support from industry generally and—of interest to you, Mr Deputy Speaker Scott—from rural industries in particular.
We are in the business of opening up markets. The 'Asian century' can provide enormous opportunities not only to our traditional minerals and energy exports; I think we can also make agriculture a new economy. With an expansion in the number of people on earth from seven billion to nine billion by 2030 and the rising middle classes of Asia, I think our beef producers, our dairy producers and our horticultural producers have great prospects.
I can also confirm that, just yesterday, it was announced that Australian horticultural produce will continue to flow through Tanjung Priok, which is the main port in Jakarta. There was an announcement of a suspension and a termination that would come into effect on 19 June; that does not apply to Australia because we negotiated hard and well with the Indonesian government. We have a country recognition agreement in place and as a result Australia will be exempt from that suspension, which is good news for our horticultural producers. It is an example of the good personal relationships between ministers and a good, warm relationship between Indonesia and Australia.
Proposed expenditure agreed to.
Sitting suspended from 13:05 to 16:00
Proposed expenditure, $655,902,000
Before making remarks specifically on this appropriation bill, I think it is worth reflecting in general on a budget that returns to surplus at a time when global markets are in a doubtful condition and a time when caution and prudence in our budget management are important parts and hallmarks of the Australian way of managing budgets. But it is also important that we look at our budget in detail and see that spending as a share of GDP falls to 23.5 per cent in 2012-13 and remains below 24 per cent over the forward estimates. It is the longest sustained period below 24 per cent since the 1980s. The tax to GDP ratio in 2012-13 is 22.1 per cent and forecast to remain below 23 per cent across the forward estimates—again, sustainably low and substantially below the rates of the former government.
You cannot achieve this without a fantastic finance department. I thank the Department of Finance and Deregulation and in particular Secretary David Tune for the outstanding work that they have done in helping to support ministers and to frame this budget.
In 2012-13, the Finance and Deregulation portfolio will receive appropriations of $655.9 million from Appropriation Bill (No. 1) for the ordinary annual services of the government. This will include departmental capital budget funding of $18.9 million, $7.6 million in departmental supplementation and administered capital funding of $3.2 million. A number of new measures were announced in the 2012-13 budget for the finance portfolio. Further information on these is, of course, contained in Budget Paper No. 2. The government will provide $4 million over two years for finance to develop a second-pass business case for the remediation of sections 32, 34 and 41 of the Cox Peninsula in the Northern Territory and, in so doing, assist the Northern Territory in the resolution of a long-outstanding land claim and provide a fantastic business opportunity for the Larrakia people in developing that land outside of Darwin.
The government will also provide $6.9 million over four years to support the government's deregulation agenda, including oversight of the Seamless National Economy reforms and establishing and supporting COAG cross-jurisdictional task forces. Importantly, the government is delivering again on cross-jurisdictional issues, making life simpler, making cross-jurisdictional accreditations simpler and, of course, dealing with complex matters such as occupational health and safety.
The government will provide savings from a reduction to the fire services levy payments made to state and territory governments. Savings from this measure will be directed to support substantial other government priorities. The government will also find an additional $8 million over two years to undertake work related to the transfer of parts of the Malabar Headland to the government of New South Wales for the creation of a permanent national park in Malabar Head for the benefit of the people of Sydney, New South Wales and Australia. The government will provide $7.4 million in 2011-12 to meet legal and other costs associated with the Commonwealth's legislation against the stamp duty assessment issued by the New South Wales Office of State Revenue on the sale of the Commonwealth share of Sydney Airport Corporation Ltd.
The Commonwealth will provide $26.4 over five years to allow the Moorebank Project Office to progress the development of the Moorebank site as an intermodal terminal. This is a particularly substantial measure, as it will provide a logistics hub at Moorebank for container traffic flow from Port Botany through Sydney, creating an interstate connection but also better managing traffic and container flows through the greater Sydney area, benefiting the East Coast in general, Sydney specifically and delivering substantial productivity benefits for Australia.
The government will provide $559.4 million over four years to the Department of Finance and Deregulation for the relocation of the Department of Defence facilities at the Moorebank site to a modern and purpose-built facility through the development of the Holsworthy Barracks site. That is important to creating the land opportunity at Moorebank in order to create the terminal for the intermodal capacity at Moorebank. The government will also provide $339 million over seven years to construct a new Commonwealth operated post-entry quarantine facility.
The government will also provide nearly $1 million over four years to establish a whole-of-Australian government information management system for parliamentary workflow. I know the shadow minister appreciates the complexity that comes from differential systems operating across different ministers' offices and portfolios. This workflow program is designed to improve that. (Time expired)
I think both sides of the House agree that productivity improvements are critical in realising opportunities in the years ahead and in weatherproofing the Australian economy as best we can against overseas events over which we have no control. Within this budget there are many measures which go to the issue of productivity. One that the minister himself referred to in his opening comments is the intermodal terminal at Moorebank in western Sydney. Given the importance of living within our means and ensuring the productivity opportunities are realised from this intermodal terminal—and the opposition supports this initiative—I would like to refer the minister to the Department of Finance and Deregulation capital measures outlined in Budget Paper No. 2 on pages 301 and 302.
I have a number of questions and I would be very grateful if the minister could shed some light on these issues. Firstly, what is the rationale for establishing a GBE to develop the Moorebank site, considering that there is a strong private sector willingness, through Qube Logistics which has undoubted capability in this area, to deliver the same outcome on adjacent privately owned land? The land is currently owned by the Sydney Intermodal Terminal Alliance and developing that site would be at no cost to taxpayers. The land has open access, a port shuttle and an interstate rail terminal, as is planned by the government. As I understand it, the process will cost the Commonwealth nearly $1 billion, as spelt out in the budget papers: $559.4 million outlined on pages 302 as well as $332 million from the defence department.
Secondly, Minister, how pressing is the need for the relocation of the defence engineering facilities at Moorebank to Holsworthy? Thirdly, can you confirm that the interstate rail component may not be required until 2029? Would it be possible to spend a more modest sum of money on upgrading the defence facilities, which we do accept are in poor shape? Finally, considering the Commonwealth's very tight fiscal position, can you advise whether this proposal has been subjected to a cost-benefit study? Has comparative analysis been conducted between the government proposal and the private sector options, especially considering the very strong support from many quarters for the private sector proposal—the New South Wales government, the Business Council of Australia and many other groups, and financial reporters including editorials in the Australian FinancialReview?
Has it been assessed by Infrastructure Australia as a key priority? Is it true that the private sector proposal could be up and running three years sooner than the government proposal?
I thank the shadow minister for his question and his focus on this critical issue. This is not simply a matter of an alternative use for a Commonwealth site; this is a matter of the construction of a significant piece of east coast infrastructure whose impact will be felt throughout the greater Sydney area and New South Wales as well as in freight movements into, around and out of our country.
The government formed the view that its broader national policy objectives can be best achieved through the development of an intermodal terminal on the site at Moorebank. It did that through a long consideration. It did seek the advice, the support and the constructive contribution of Infrastructure Australia, and there was a detailed business case which has been reviewed by Greenhill Caliburn. They advised the government that there was a significant uncertainty about the capacity of SIMTA to deliver the first stage of its intermodal terminal in 2014 as published as well as about its capacity to deliver the full intermodal terminal within its published time limits.
I think that all sides of our parliament, and certainly the government of New South Wales, share the concern that we all have to make freight movements in Sydney and New South Wales as efficient as possible. I think it is reasonable to say that everyone has a focus on the specific time lines that are established in the government's proposal. But in coming to the conclusion to spend the very large amounts of money that have been alluded to and enumerated by the shadow minister—the $559 million for the relocation of the defence units to Holsworthy, $332 million for major capital facilities, an additional $2 million for lease and land management and then $26 million to the project development office—we know that we are committing very substantial amounts of money to deliver what the analysis shows to be a very substantial productivity dividend to the people of Australia.
That productivity dividend manifests itself both in more efficient transport movements and more efficient transit movements of containers through the Moorebank facility. Importantly,, the judgement on the private sector involvement is that it will be optimised through the financing development operation of the project through an open tender process run by a commercially-operated government business enterprise. This is a matter that was announced, from recollection, on 23 April—just before Anzac Day. It was announced in the context of the substantial infrastructure investment which the Commonwealth believes needs to be made in a full holistic consideration of the use of the site at Moorebank and then the consequent movement of defence assets and facilities out to Holsworthy. I am very happy to take on notice those questions from the shadow minister that I may not have dealt with in sufficient detail and to come back to him in detail with specific answers. But, in general, the reason we concluded as we did is that we believe that it is the most efficient use of Commonwealth funds to create the most efficient terminal to produce the best possible dividends for the people of New South Wales, Sydney and Australia.
My electorate office is located alongside the Australian Electoral Commission office for the division of Makin, and has been for as long as I can recall. I say from the outset that my office certainly over the years that I have been the member for Makin, has had considerable interaction with that office. In saying that I place on record my gratitude to the staff of that office, who have, I believe, done an exceptional job in looking after the needs, inquiries and interests of the people in the general area. My experience with that office, in fact, goes back to before I was the member for Makin, when I was the mayor of the City of Salisbury. Even in that period in public life, the office oversaw some of the local government elections and, again, I had some interaction with the office. I can say that the service from the staff over all of that time was exemplary.
Almost on a daily basis we go into that office for one reason or another. The office is also particularly well used by elderly people who might be leaving the area for several months at a time and make inquiries about the processes they need to put in place in respect of their absence should an election be called. Those are legitimate queries which we all confront on a regular basis. Most importantly, the office is used during election periods when I can say without a doubt it is inundated with inquiries from people seeking information about how they should enrol in order to vote or how they should vote if they happen to be out of the electorate at the time of the election. I know they are inundated because many of the inquiries initially come through my office and we redirect them next door.
I understand the office will be closing in the near future. Can you advise what arrangements are being put in place to assist people who have relied on the services of the office, being located in the north-eastern suburbs for so long, and in particular what arrangements are being put in place to help people during those critical times when an election is being held?
I thank the member for Makin for his question. The Australian Electoral Commission has nearly for 20 years worked on a program of amalgamating regional AEC offices where it sees fit and it is appropriate, in order to create more efficient work environments and to carry out its work, most importantly, as effectively as it can to enrol people and to maintain the roll. With that in mind, in particular in South Australia and with the coincidental timing of leases in the number of AEC offices in individual electorates, the commissioner saw an opportunity to amalgamate the offices in South Australia to create one substantial superoffice in the CBD, one office in the northern regional part of South Australia at Port Augusta and one in the south-eastern regional part of South Australia at Mt Gambier. The purpose of doing this was to create a more efficient and effective AEC, getting people on the roll and managing the roll. It is certainly a requirement that, come an election, the AEC will have a physical presence in every federal division. That physical presence will allow for ballot draws, for nominations and for voting support advice and activity within the division.
I know the member will realise that in a seat like Makin internal transport routes and the capacity to get to a physical location are much easier than, say, in the electorate of Gray, which includes areas as remote as Port Augusta, Port Lincoln and Ceduna. An office in Port Augusta would struggle to support people in Ceduna.
As a consequence of these sorts of practicalities, the commissioner has seen fit to continue a process of electoral office rationalisation in order to create a more efficient and effective Electoral Commission. I stress the commission is independent and comes to these decisions based on his view of what an efficient structure can best look like for all states and all jurisdictions. The new office in South Australia, I can inform the member for Makin, is due to be opened in coming weeks. And I can inform the member for Makin that it is absolutely the intention of the government, and the stated intention of the Electoral Commission, to carry out these amalgamations in a way that produces the best jobs and the best work environment to create the most productive Electoral Commission to do the fundamental work which that commission needs to do.
It is necessarily the case that your constituents, if they wish to talk face to face with an official of the Australian Electoral Commission, will need to travel into the CBD to do that. I believe the new office is in King William Street. I believe that that is an accessible location. The commission themselves have worked particularly hard in recent years to make themselves accessible both through telephonic communication and, importantly, through the internet for enrolment purposes and for enrolment advice updates. So I am confident both that the servicing of the needs of your constituents and those of South Australia and all other states where these amalgamations are taking place will be improved and that the jobs and retention of skilled staff at the AEC will be improved as we build an AEC that can better cope with the challenges that a changing society will throw at them in future years.
My questions are to the Special Minister of State. I want to ask a few questions concerning the appropriations for the Australian Electoral Commission. I note that the additional sum of $58 million over four years has the stated purpose of maintaining operating capacity and supporting electoral participation. The first question I ask is: would you confirm that the words 'supporting electoral participation' mean that the extra funding is to support the Labor-Greens policy of automatic enrolment? I say it is their policy because we have opposed it very strenuously as corrupting the integrity of the roll. Could you also tell me how many electors the AEC expect to enrol under this program of automatic enrolment and how long the process is likely to take? Is it true that the AEC has begun in the marginal seat of Petrie, currently held by the Labor Party? What is the estimated total cost of enrolling people from these extraneous rolls?
Does the AEC have a preference for which data sources it uses outside the ones that have been stated already, those mainly being the equivalent of the RTA, school leaver rolls and one other? It is a completely unfettered power that the AEC has—it can choose anything it likes? What safeguards—this is very important—if any, has the government put in place, or the AEC put in place for that matter, to ensure that people are not added to the roll who are not entitled to be there? The reason I ask that question so specifically is that in New South Wales the result of automatic enrolment was that, whereas the normal turnout rate for properly enrolled electors is 92 per cent, from the people added from the automatic enrolment it was only 64 per cent. Also, we had advice in evidence at JSCEM that, of those who were added to the New South Wales roll, the AEC's success rate in getting them to transfer to the federal roll under the old law—not automatic enrolment—was only 20 per cent. That tends to make me think that there were people there who ought not to be there.
Also, having made those comments, I also ask whether or not the AEC has estimated what the error rate will be, what mechanism they have used to measure what they think that error rate will be and whether or not they can at any time hope that they could give a guarantee that 100 per cent of people added to the roll are actually entitled to be there—that the system they put in place would guarantee 100 per cent?
I thank the shadow minister for her many questions—and, if there are any questions that I do not deal with here, I will deal with them in detail in writing and get back to you.
The first point is that the bills are currently before the Senate and I would expect their passage to occur some time in the current session. The second point to make is that the bills form part of the advice given to the government through the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters, advice which accepts the ABS statistics that there are 15.7 million eligible voters, or Australians eligible to be enrolled, in our country but only 14.2 million are on the electoral roll.
I understand that. I understand that the JSCEM report on the 2007 election also contained a number of recommendations to which there were a number of objections. I am not aware of any objection by the coalition at that time to these electoral roll measures.
Importantly, the shadow minister made the suggestion that perhaps the additional funding to the AEC is in order to support this particular policy. The short answer is: no, it is not. The long version is that these particular measures are designed to harmonise the Commonwealth roll with the rolls of the most populous states. The most populous states now have enrolment technologies being actively deployed which, if we do not match them at the Commonwealth level, will create a serious mismatch between our Commonwealth roll and our state rolls. These measures will bring onto the Commonwealth roll about 100,000 electors in New South Wales but only about 10,000 in Victoria because of a differential system operating there which has also been operating over a different time line.
The sources to which we would expect the AEC to turn—bearing in mind, of course, that the AEC is independent and will independently determine the appropriate lists to go to—are the Australian Taxation Office and, yes, RTAs, and some school-leaver rolls have been considered. But, importantly, it will look to rolls that have integrity and that are approved by state electoral commissions. So we are not simply going out to any old list of people. In order to add to the integrity of the roll, the commission is creating a system to track and to support voter enrolments that is consistent with those used in the largest jurisdictions.
The Electoral Commissioner has made clear his intention to pursue this enrolment methodology in a way that is consistent with best possible practice and the highest integrity of the roll. We all agree with that. We all agree that, at those times when our country is required to elect a parliament that is representative of the people, we need an electoral roll that is as accurate as possible. We have to concede, in a modern world, that increasing numbers of Australians are not enrolling, and as a parliament we believe we need to respond to that challenge. We need to make our roll as complete as possible so that we have a situation where, as much as possible, a person from Sydney who believes that they are enrolled and entitled to vote in New South Wales ought to be able to reasonably assume that they are eligible to vote in a federal election—and likewise for people in Victoria, Queensland, the Northern Territory, Tasmania, South Australia and my home state of Western Australia. Where that is not the case, we ought to be putting in place the best possible systems to harmonise our rolls.
You had substantial additional questions, Shadow Minister, which I know I have not responded to in my commentary here. I will get back to you in writing on the specific details of those questions you asked.
My question also relates to the Australian Electoral Commission. I note the comment you made, Minister Gray, that there are about 1.5 million Australians who are not enrolled to vote. With 150 members in the House of Representatives, we are talking about 10,000 people per electorate, on average, who are not eligible to vote. All of us would have experienced checking the enrolment of people who contact us. Often the people who contact us, particularly if they are transient or if they have to come into a job or who recently have not bothered to vote, are not registered.
My electorate is named after Harold Blair, who was an Aboriginal activist and tenor. He is a very famous person. He grew up in the Purga Mission south of Ipswich. There are a number of important Indigenous institutions in Ipswich. There is an Indigenous school called Hymba Yumba in Springfield. Just before the census, I urged the people there to make sure that their mums, dads and carers fill out census forms. The biggest high school in Ipswich, Bremer State High School, has about 1,500 students. About 30 per cent of those are Indigenous or Polynesian, with most of that 30 per cent being Indigenous. One of the busiest medical centres in Ipswich is Kambu Medical Centre. It has tens of thousands of patients. It is an Indigenous centre.
There are about 86,500 people on the electoral roll in Blair. We are celebrating this year 50 years since Indigenous people achieved the right to vote in federal elections. I understand that it was not compulsory to enrol but once you were enrolled it was compulsory to vote. In 1967, the Constitution was changed to give power to count Indigenous people in the census and for the Commonwealth to be given the power to make special laws for their benefit.
My question relates to the Electoral Commission. I have stood at polling booths in Ipswich for about 30 years handing out Labor Party pamphlets—the opposition side would call them propaganda but I would call them pamphlets—encouraging people to vote for the Australian Labor Party candidate. I recently stood all day at Raceview State School—the biggest state primary school in my electorate in Ipswich—and one of the things that struck me about this suburb, which is fairly typical of Ipswich, was how few Indigenous people came to the polling booth to cast a vote. What steps are the AEC taking to encourage Indigenous people to vote? What are the budgetary implications? Does the AEC require any additional funding to get all Australians, Indigenous and non-Indigenous, to participate in the political process?
I think the member for Blair for his question. He has a great commitment to ensuring that the rights of Indigenous Australians are translated effectively into electoral action. Indigenous Australians are significantly less likely to enrol to vote than any other Australians. They are less likely to vote and they are more likely to vote informally than non-Indigenous Australians. The AEC has long-established programs to try to deal with this challenge. In 2009-10, to close the gap in Indigenous disadvantage in electoral participation the commission was allocated an additional $13.2 million to establish its Indigenous electoral participation program. There are 25 field officers across the country, with 18 of them being Indigenous Australians. I have one operating out of Mandurah. They particularly operate around schools to ensure that Indigenous people become enrolled. But it is not as easy as that.
Some of the measures that the shadow minister has interrogated me upon in a previous question are measures that become troublesome in terms of encouraging and maintaining Indigenous voters. Among the lists that will be considered are road transport department lists—lists of people with drivers' licences. Indigenous people are less likely to have a driver's licence and so are less likely to be accurately identified through that mechanism. Then there is the ATO system. To be in the ATO system, it is likely that you will need to be in a period of full-time employment. As such, some of the lists that we will try to use to maintain enrolments will not work effectively in Indigenous communities. The AEC needs to continually apply itself to the task of ensuring that Indigenous electoral participation is what we as a parliament and we as a country aspire to.
There was a fantastic effort when the AEC sponsored its National Indigenous Youth Parliament to be in Canberra over the weekend of the last sitting. Members from all sides of the parliament attended a fantastic lunch and a series of events attached to the youth parliament. It was an event put on by the AEC designed to encourage real time, real life, active participation in our political process in order to get a willing and supporting cadre of Indigenous people who understand the importance of getting members of their community on the roll and getting them out to vote.
We see through our IEPP processes the continuing growth of enrolments of Indigenous citizens—but it is not happening quickly enough. We are seeing the strengthening of the integrity of the roll particularly in remote communities, but we can do a lot more. We are seeing an increase in the number of Indigenous people working as polling officials on mobile and static polling facilities in Indigenous communities, but we can always do better. We are seeing an increased number in requests for fee-for-service elections by Indigenous organisations. That is building a strong culture of familiarity with our electoral processes—processes of getting on the roll and getting out to vote.
Can we do more? Yes, we can. Should we do more? Yes, we should. Is it expensive? Yes, it is. I will get back to the member for Blair with a specific set of answers from the electoral commission to those issues that he has raised which I have not addressed in my answer.
I have a series of further questions if the minister would please respond. The government took a step yesterday on one of the measures—that is, the departure tax, which is now known as the people movement charge for some reason—in the budget. The government chose to remove the proposed indexation of the people movement charge at a cost to the budget over four years of an estimated $157 million. In addition to that, this morning we saw the government withdraw a major bill which had proposed to increase the tax on proceeds of investments in managed investment funds from 7½ per cent to 15 per cent. This measure was estimated in the budget papers to deliver savings of around $256 million.
I ask the minister: how does the government intend to meet its budget commitment to a budget surplus of $1.5 billion by 30 June 2013 given that these two measures alone over the last 24 hours come at a total cost of $413 million? Or has the government, alternatively, decided to revise downwards its budget surplus forecast to $1 billion and $77 million?
The second area of questioning concerns the Clean Energy Finance Corporation. Currently the government plans to allocate $2 billion per year over five years commencing in the 2013-14 financial year. Minister, can you guarantee that under no circumstances this funding profile will change? For example, will we possibly find that as an election approaches these borrowed funds are not brought forward to enable costly contracts to be locked in prior to the next election? Can you explain why there is a funding program almost identical in purpose to the CEFC which is both outlined as a budget measure and factored into the budget bottom line where, as you know, the Clean Energy Finance Corporation is off-budget and the expenditure associated with it does not go to the bottom line?
That existing program, the Renewable Energy Venture Capital Fund, is in the 2011-12 budget, page 304, budget paper No. 2. In explaining it, the paper says:
The Government will provide $108.7 million over 14 years to support the development and commercialisation of renewable energy technologies by making early-stage equity investments that leverage private funds.
Minister, this would seem to us to provide a clear precedent and I ask you: does it not provide a clear precedent as to why the CEFC and its $10 billion in funding should be treated on budget. I cannot distinguish any feature between the Renewable Energy Venture Capital Fund and the Clean Energy Finance Corporation which separates the purpose, in many ways the execution, and one is treated on budget and the other one is treated off budget. Finally can you provide any information about planned staffing arrangements for the CEFC, and can you confirm that key senior appointments will not be made by multiple-year contract, whether they be two, three or four? Finally, can the minister may please explain a matter in today's Financial Review report of the RBA minutes. One of the key claims of the government has been that its budget management, including its commitment to bring back the budget to surplus, has somehow been a factor in interest rate reductions, yet we have seen in the paper today the minutes of the RBA. I ask the Minister how can they be reconciled with what the RBA have said at their recent board meeting? (Time expired)
I thank the shadow minister for his question. He has asked me questions about the departure tax and about the management of investment funds. I will seek advice from my department and get back to the shadow minister with answers. He has asked me about the staffing of the Clean Energy Finance Corporation. Again, I will come back to him specifically on those measures. He has asked me about minutes of the last RBA meeting and the references made to budget surpluses and the necessary interaction between budget surpluses and interest rate levels. It is undeniably the case that prudent budget management, as we see from the Commonwealth government, will deliver a budget surplus not in the current financial year, for which this budget is constructed, but in out years as well. There is no doubt that, in taking pressure off financial markets by delivering a budget surplus, the government is more than doing its part in helping deliver an environment conducive to low interest rates, conducive to supporting families who are under their own domestic budget pressures, but also, importantly, continuing to deliver a budget and a fiscal environment envied by the world, supported by good public policy.
I say this about the conversations around the departure tax and the managed investment funds measures. The Commonwealth put in place a budget which had been carefully thought through, supported by expert advice and consideration from the Department of Finance and Deregulation. One of the fundamental things that an opposition can do at a time of global financial market uncertainty is to support the Commonwealth budget and to support the government in its measures, both on the revenue side and on the expenditure side. But we are realists; we operate in the real world. I will come back to the shadow minister with specific answers to the questions he has asked which I have not answered specifically here now.
My questions to the minister involve the earlier question I asked him in the parliament today in question time—how amendments to the Commonwealth Electoral Act, which are currently before the Senate, would improve participation by Australians in our electoral system. I note the member for Warringah earlier labelled them as Labor-Green amendments, as if there was a conspiracy by the Labor and the Greens in relation to the legislation. In his earlier answer, he indicated that part of the mindset of the Commonwealth was to have uniform systems and that these systems currently operate in New South Wales and Victoria. Can the minister confirm that the Liberal administrations of New South Wales and Victoria have not moved towards repealing automatic enrolment legislation that currently exists in their states, that they have accepted it? Indeed, that is the basis upon which the Commonwealth is proceeding, that in effect they are going to be long-term provisions in those states? The nub of it is that Liberal administrations in those two states are not seeking to wind back automatic enrolment that currently exists.
In relation to the Electoral Commission's financial position, I understand there has been an additional $58 million over four years to maintain the commission's operating capacity in support of electoral participation. In terms of departmental resourcing over forward estimates, it goes from $125.1 million in 2012-13 to $239.6 million in 2013-14, which I assume is as a result of an anticipated electoral event occurring in that year. Can the minister outline to the House strategies that he is aware of that the commission is undertaking in relation to improving electoral participation as a result of funding that has been provided? Are there any figures that he can enlighten the parliament on and are there any targets that have been set or any benchmarking?
Finally, Senator Carol Brown and I met with representatives from Blind Citizens Australia and Vision Australia yesterday. That was a very fruitful meeting. As I understand it, there has been collaboration with those groups and the Australian Electoral Commission to build on improvements to the electoral system that would assist those groups. I understand that there are some differences of opinion. I am interested as to the cost, because in their submission to me they say that the iVote system that was used in the last New South Wales election is one that they were very happy with. They are not particularly happy with going back to a human call centre operation. I wonder what the funding implications would be, if the minister has figures, in relation to that, if the Commonwealth were to adopt an iVote system, which would pick up blind and visually impaired but I assume could be extended to other people.
I thank the member for Banks for his question. I will answer the last part first which is in the context of the blind voting and initiatives that were in place for the last federal election and are being considered for the future. It is the case that the Electoral Commissioner is substantially of the view that the Commonwealth systems can be improved and that support for people with disabilities can be extended. One of the great values of the extension of that voting facility for blind or visually impaired voters is that it can also be used to assist mobility impaired voters. That agenda of encouraging and supporting people with disabilities to exercise their rights in our electoral process is alive and is being considered.
In the context of the particular New South Wales iVote initiative, I will need to get advice from the commissioner. I am aware of the iVote system. I think Linda Hornsey from the particular association involved is in the building this week. I look forward to catching up with her, I think tomorrow, to discuss this matter further. But I look forward to getting back to the member on the detail of the commissioner's view of iVote and the extension of those measures which are designed to improve voter participation amongst people with disabilities. The additional funding for the Electoral Commission is, of course, funding that presumes an electoral event in 2013. It presumes an electoral event at some point in the third quarter of 2013, but the funding is not created explicitly in the expectation that that is the only time at which an electoral event can take place. So prudent measures have been put in place by the commission to ensure that it can support the needs of our parliamentary democracy should that be required at any time.
The Commonwealth Electoral Act amendments that are currently before the Senate effectively work to harmonise elector data management systems in the Commonwealth roll with those of our two most popular states. I cannot understate the importance of harmonising the Commonwealth roll with the state jurisdictions. The member for Banks specifically asked the view of the New South Wales government on these measures. The New South Wales government and the New South Wales Electoral Commission are significantly in advance of the rest of the country on these measures. That commission has, we believe, in the order of 100,000 New South Wales electors alone that it can bring into the Commonwealth roll as a consequence of these measures. To simply try to extrapolate that across the rest of the country with the successful operation of these techniques might mean that we could be looking at repairing the enrolments of up to half a million people. What a fantastic thing that would be. But, importantly, I am not aware of any moves by either the New South Wales government, the New South Wales commission, the New South Wales parliament or the Victorian commission, government or parliament to wind back those measures which are directed towards electoral roll maintenance.
In our Commonwealth system we, of course, do not refer to it as 'automatic enrolment'. This is an automated system of maintaining enrolment. We maintain the integrity of the system by requiring that new enrollees properly complete documentation, properly sign documentation and properly lodge that documentation. The methodologies that we seek to introduce through these amendments are methodologies to better track individuals as they become mobile through the course of their life cycle and allow them to exercise their right and their obligation to vote wherever they are domiciled, where we can confirm through high-integrity sources and data matches that that is the person who has been identified as owning the enrolment.
I want to revert for a moment to the answers that the minister gave me previously relating to automatic enrolment. I confirm the opposition's opposition as it was expressed in the dissenting report. It was a very political report. It was a bit down party lines, with Labor and Greens on one side and opposition members on the other. I just wanted to mention specifically the minister's reference to the AEC using ATO information.
I think it is relevant to go back and look at various reports. For instance, a 1999 report of the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Economics, Finance and Public Administration found that tax file numbers that had been issued were 3.2 million more than there were people in Australia. I do not think those records are very good for utilising to put people on the roll. It found that there were 185,000 potential duplicate tax records of individuals and it found that 62 per cent of deceased clients were not recorded as deceased in a sample match.
A further report on the integrity of Medicare enrolment data found that up to half a million active Medicare enrolment records were probably for people who were deceased. In other words, rolls that are created for another purpose are not a valid or safe source of information for the electoral roll. The fact that it is so vital that the integrity of the roll is maintained is highlighted by the judgment in the case of Perkins v Cusack, where the judge refused to go behind the roll, saying that the roll is a total acceptance that those people who are on the roll are entitled to vote. Quite clearly, by utilising lists from sources other than people who are honouring their obligation under the Electoral Act, it is the obligation of every citizen, once they turn 18 or become a citizen, to enrol to vote. That is compulsory, it is strict liability and there is a fine, yet the Electoral Commission have not imposed or attempted to have imposed one fine—not one. They do not pursue people for multiple voting. They send out letters to people saying, 'It appears there was multiple voting in your name. Did you do it?' The people say, 'No,' and that is the end of it. In other words, there is not too much scrutiny going on with the Electoral Commission, so I am doubly concerned about the carte blanche that the commission has been given to choose any list it likes. I know you said in your answer that there is an undertaking that they will stick only to these three, but there is nothing in the law, anywhere, to prevent any list being chosen at any time. I know you said that you are trying to harmonise the biggest states, Victoria and New South Wales. The information to me is that the commission has started in the electorate of Petrie. I would like you to answer that question.
Also, harmonising state rolls with the federal roll is a major target that has been formed. I do not think it should be; I think the integrity of the roll must always take precedence. Secondly, it is not a very sensible argument because there is no harmonisation between the states and the Commonwealth as to the method of voting. The reason we get such a high percentage of informal votes is that in Queensland and New South Wales we have first-past-the-post voting or, rather, optional preferential voting, which is the closest thing we have to that, whereas in other states it is full preferential voting. That does not follow either.
The last point I would like you to respond to is on the legislation which allows the Auditor-General to automatically audit private contractors with the Commonwealth and yet will protect the NBN from the Auditor-General's automatic right to audit government business enterprises. I ask: was it simply done because the original legislation was to give the Auditor-General that power? It was taken away at the last moment. Mr Oakeshott, the person who introduced it, said he was given no good reason but, as is his wont, he simply agreed with the government at the time. Was it done deliberately to protect the NBN or is there some other reason?
I can assure the shadow minister that those questions which I do not answer in my remarks to follow will be answered directly to her in a documentary form. Specifically, you asked about the use of the electoral roll update mechanisms in Petrie. I am not aware of that. The bills are yet to go through the Senate and may not pass through the Senate, so I cannot see how the Electoral Commission would have done that, but I am certainly prepared to seek that advice because, as I say, I expect that debate to be brought on this evening and dealt with in the course of the next few days of Senate sitting time.
Specifically, you asked about the integrity of lists and referred to the tax file numbers. The issue which the Electoral Commissioner grapples with is the identified fact that there are, we believe, 1.5 million or thereabouts Australians not on the roll who should be on the roll. We would have a simple difference of opinion, I believe. My view and, I hope, the parliament's view is an inclusive view that means we should use all of those methods available to us as a parliament to support people getting onto the roll. I accept the view which the coalition has that those people who are on the roll should be those who enrol specifically by electorate and at the time when they reach the qualifying points. It is a simple difference of opinion. But the philosophical difference which the government has is a difference which is fundamentally about inclusion and fundamentally about ensuring that our roll best represents those Australians who are eligible to vote. That difference of opinion will play itself out in the parliament in the course of the next few days and weeks.
We are, of course, hoping for a system that will deliver as best it can a harmonised enrolment system across our two most populous states, and encourage the smaller states to opt into that better, more developed system. We hope that will place our Electoral Commission on a track to deal with the 1.5 million, although I accept that that task is more complex than the measures that we put in place—if we do get them in place through the parliament in the course of the next few days.
Proposed expenditure agreed to.
Prime Minister and Cabinet Portfolio
Proposed expenditure, $313,473,000
The government is returning the budget to surplus in 2012-13, and we will build growing surpluses over the forward estimates while also spreading the benefits of the mining boom to help families on lower and middle incomes and small business.
A return to surplus, which will be achieved ahead of any major advanced economy, will sustain confidence in the strength of Australia's public finances by demonstrating the government's commitment to fiscal discipline and by providing a buffer at a time when the global economy remains fragile. A return to surplus is appropriate, given domestic economic conditions, and will provide ongoing scope for monetary policy to respond to economic developments. The economy is forecast to grow around trend over the next two years, with low unemployment, contained inflation and record levels of mining investment.
The Australian economy continues to be affected by the fragile and changing nature of the global economy. However, Australia's success in supporting the economy and jobs during the global financial crisis means that the economy faces these transitions from a position of strength. Strong growth in the resources sector will directly and indirectly support growth in other parts of the economy. However, conditions in some parts of the economy are likely to remain challenging, with unsettled global conditions, a high Australian dollar, ongoing consumer caution and changes in expenditure patterns all expected to weigh heavily on some sectors. While these forces are placing considerable pressures on some businesses, many are successfully adapting to the changing economic landscape and identifying and exploiting opportunities to grow and to prosper.
I now turn to some of the key initiatives of the 2012-13 budget. This budget spreads the benefits of the mining boom to help families on low and middle incomes with the cost of living, and provides much-needed help to small business while still returning the budget to surplus, as is appropriate given domestic and global economic conditions. Support to families on low and middle incomes is being provided through measures including increases to family payments, more timely and accessible education payments and a new supplementary allowance for eligible income support recipients.
Key initiatives announced in this year's budget include returning the budget to surplus on time and as promised; spreading the benefits of the mining boom; the first steps towards a National Disability Insurance Scheme; helping business to invest by allowing companies to carry back tax losses and delivering tax breaks for small business; investing in key health services; building an aged care system for the future; building a more productive workforce by investing in jobs, education and training; and building productivity by investing in nation-building infrastructure—by investing in roads, rail and ports.
The government's fiscal strategy is designed to ensure fiscal sustainability while providing the necessary flexibility for the budget position to vary in line with economic conditions. The medium-term fiscal strategy, which has remained unchanged since the government's first budget in 2008-09, is to achieve budget surpluses on average over the medium term; to keep taxation as a share of GDP on average below the level for 2007-08—that was 23.7 per cent; and to improve the government's net financial worth over the medium term.
To ensure a timely return to surplus and recovery in the fiscal position, since the beginning of the global financial crisis the government has further committed to allowing the level of tax receipts to recover naturally as the economy improves, while maintaining the government's commitment to keep taxation as a share of GDP below the 2007-08 level on average and building growing surpluses by holding real growth in spending to two per cent a year on average until the budget surplus is at least one per cent of GDP and while the economy is growing at or above trend.
Returning the budget to surplus in 2012-13 remains appropriate given domestic economic conditions. The economy is forecast to grow around trend over the next two years, the unemployment rate is expected to remain low and mining investment is expected to reach record highs. A return to surplus also recognises that fiscal policy should be set in a medium-term framework. In normal circumstances, monetary policy should play the primary role in managing demand to keep the economy growing at close to capacity, consistent with achieving its medium-term inflation target.
I have some questions following up questions I asked you on the last occasion concerning the appointment and work program of Dr Ken Henry. I notice that since you and I had questions and answers that there has been information given to the Senate estimates committee. Mr Leon said that at the moment—
In that case Ms Leon has informed the Senate that Dr Henry is now employed on the basis of 2½ days a week, but it has not been 2½ days a week for the entire time since he commenced work. I think I flagged with you at the last estimates that it was expected that the nature of the Asian century task force would have some ebbs and flows, with peak periods in the middle and probably slower periods at the end. And this has been the experience. Could the parliamentary secretary provide the Federation Chamber with a complete week-by-week breakdown of the number of days worked by Dr Ken Henry, showing which weeks if he ever worked 40 hours a week whereby he would be paid at the full rate. I do not think I have ever met a departmental secretary who has only worked 40 hours a week. But if Dr Henry works 40 hours a week, he gets paid at the full rate. I also notice that since we last met in this chamber there has been about $100,000 increase for the position of head of Treasury. It is now up to some $615,000 a year—the rate that Dr Henry is to be paid—and it will go up a further $100,000, I think. Dr Henry under the terms under which he was appointed will enjoy those rises. I am sorry; it goes up to $653,000 on 1 July 2012.
We would like to know for that sort of money precisely what Dr Henry is doing. I know he has been doing the Asian paper, which is due to be delivered in the middle of the year, and that Dr de Brouwer has confirmed that there are discussions with Dr Henry that he will be continuing after that, but he describes that as a 'live' discussion. I wonder if the parliamentary secretary could tell us what precisely Dr Henry might be doing for either the full amount of $615,000 a year or pro rata on whatever number of days he is doing and what that work might be. I think we need to know a little more than it being a 'live' discussion. It was confirmed again that Dr Henry will continue as a special adviser, but there has been a project to which there has not been an agreement yet. Could you confirm that to date there is no agreement as to what his future work might be?
There were a lot of questions last year in the consideration in detail of the appropriations for the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet about Dr Henry's work for the Commonwealth. I am pleased that since last year some information has been provided to the member for Mackellar. It is apparent from the material that the member for Mackellar just read that this matter has been raised in Senate estimates and that a range of further information has been provided about some of the excellent work that Dr Henry has been carrying out on behalf of the Commonwealth since this was raised in this very place in this same session in relation to the appropriations for the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet last year.
I can confirm that Dr Henry has been working on the Australia in the Asian century white paper, providing advice in that context and assisting with the drafting of that white paper. Indeed, he has travelled to consult with people and governments in a range of our Asian neighbouring countries, as is appropriate. As the member for Mackellar has indicated, the Australia in the Asian century white paper is going to be published in the middle of 2012.
Her further questioning went to what further projects Dr Henry may be working on after the work on the Australia in the Asian century white paper is completed. I am happy to take on notice the request. I obviously do not have with me the details of Dr Henry's employment—I do not mean by that the salary rates, which were canvassed last year. Rather, these questions go to the actual work that has been performed by Dr Henry since last year, since his appointment and since the commencement of the Australia in the Asian century white paper process. We will provide such details as are possible in due course.
The parliamentary secretary did not confirm that he would provide the House with the details of precisely how many days or hours Dr Henry has worked each week since 5 January 2012, which was confirmed in the Senate as the day on which he began to be paid as a special adviser. We are entitled to know precisely how many days he has worked each week and whether or not at any time he has worked 40 hours. I would also like to know what safeguards have been put in place to prevent there being a conflict of interest between Dr Henry's position as special adviser to the Prime Minister on these matters and his position as a director of the NAB. This is a matter which is of grave concern to many people and I would like to know what provisions have been taken—what chinese walls have been erected—to prevent those conflict of interest situations arising.
The first matter would seem to be a request for confirmation of the level of detail that we will be able to provide. I can confirm to the member for Mackellar that we will provide such detail as is available. I cannot not say exactly what the precise terms and the fine details of the arrangement with Dr Henry are. I can say as Cabinet Secretary that I know of his work on the Australia in the Asian century white paper process. He had quite a gruelling schedule of travel in the two-week period that he travelled to a number of Asian countries. Then there was the work that he did on the discussion paper, which was published early in the process for this white paper. I do not think the member for Mackellar would be surprised to hear that Dr Henry, as one might expect from one of Australia's more eminent economists and longstanding, hardworking public servants, has worked exceptionally hard and put in some very long hours on the Australia in the Asian Century white paper process, but we will endeavour to provide detail of the hours worked, if indeed that detail is available—because that is what is being sought—or at least some detail that gives the member for Mackellar some indication of the work that is being done not just in general sense but in a detailed sense by Dr Henry.
The other point raised by the member for Mackellar went to the suggestion that there might be some conflict of interest between Dr Henry's position as a director of the National Australia Bank and the work that he is doing for the Commonwealth of Australia. As the member for Mackellar would be aware, it is quite common for service to be provided to the Commonwealth by people who hold directorships, who hold a range of positions with other bodies. They are not of course in the same position as ministers; nor are they in the same position as secretaries of departments or full-time Australian public servants. I think the nation would be the poorer if it were decided that the mere holding of a directorship in a listed corporation meant that such a person could not provide services to the Commonwealth.
In general terms, conflicts of interest are very often dealt with in Australia by declaration—by the disclosure of an apprehended conflict. That gets over a large part of the problem, in so far as there are particular arrangements that parties have come to. In the case of Dr Henry, formal arrangements have been struck in relation to the conflict that could arise, potentially, between his work as a director of the National Australia Bank and the work that he is doing for the Commonwealth. I am happy to provide that also to the member for Mackellar.
Perhaps I can assist the Parliamentary Secretary by reading to him the terms of Dr Henry's employment as Special Adviser. Of course, it is the most unusual appointment under section 67 of the Constitution—by Her Excellency's command, signed by the Governor-General and the Prime Minister—and I do not accept that it is usual practice to have directors of public companies, who are also appointed under section 67 of the Constitution, working directly to the Prime Minister. It says in this agreement, under clause (c):
iii. for any period that the Special Adviser performs the duties of that office on a full-time basis (40 hours per week), the remuneration and other terms and conditions of employment for the Special Adviser be the same as those that apply to the person who holds the position of Secretary of the Department of the Treasury at the relevant time—
who, I am sure, works more than 40 hours a week. It continues:
iv. t he Prime Minister may agree that the duties of the Special Adviser are to be performed on a part-time basis …
We have never seen any evidence that the Prime Minister has so agreed. Finally, it says:
v. f or any period that the Special Adviser per forms the duties on a part-time basis, the remuneration referred to in clause (c)(iii) above be payable, and other entitlements accrue, on a pro-rata basis.
However, I take it from the answer that you previously gave me that, if Dr Henry is travelling overseas and is away for a week, then that presumably will be deemed to be 40 hours a week and he will be paid a week's salary from the $615,000 a year that is attracted by this agreement because that is now the salary paid. I would like those things confirmed.
You mentioned that you thought the conflict-of-interest situation could be dealt with by declaration. I would like you to inform the parliament whether or not there have been any such declarations made or, indeed, any such declarations sought.
I go back to the question of the actual time that Dr Henry has spent on the white paper. I do not think it is unreasonable, when dealing with the amounts of money we are talking about, to ask that the parliament be informed of precisely the number of days per week that have been worked by Dr Henry since 5 January.
I also note from other answers given that work on the white paper was only one of a number of vague discussions that took place, and then suddenly this was the job of work. But I am really quite alarmed that we are now coming up to 30 June—the reporting time for the Asian century white paper is the middle of the year—but there has been confirmation that Dr Henry's position will continue at this hugely expensive salary, yet there is no apparent work for him. So, I again ask the parliamentary secretary if he could tell the House precisely what discussions have taken place on what work he may or may not be doing and whether there is a break in the period between finishing this job and beginning a next assignment, and will he continue to be paid? It would seem that under this agreement he will be. But I would think that the people of Australia would think that was totally unreasonable.
Thirdly—I do not know the answer to this—does a section 67 appointment affect Dr Henry's entitlement to draw his pension, which from memory I think would be two-thirds of his previous salary, or of the current salary? If it is not affected, that means he would be getting his retirement pay, a pension, plus his entitlement to whatever proportion of $615,000, plus his NAB director's salary. He is indeed a very well-endowed former public servant. I would be pleased if you would answer the specific question: does an appointment under section 67 disqualify him from taking his pension that is payable under the defined scheme?
I am happy to take that fairly technical question on notice, but I would resist the suggestion that seems to be being made by the member for Mackellar, at least by implication, that there is anything in the slightest out of the ordinary about this appointment under section 67 of the Constitution. The member for Mackellar would be well aware that all governments since Federation have used section 67 of the Constitution, perhaps sparingly—
I would invite her to examine the history of section 67 appointments by both the former government, which used the provision quite frequently, and previous governments since Federation that have also used this as an appropriate method of providing services, often at a very high level, to the Commonwealth. There is nothing inappropriate about the way in which section 67 is being used to secure the continuing services to the Commonwealth, to the great benefit of the Commonwealth, of Dr Henry.
I can make it clear to the member for Mackellar that we will provide such details of the work done by Dr Henry under the terms of this employment arrangement under section 67. I and the government accept wholly that the parliament is entitled to some details, as it is entitled to the details of work done by other servants on behalf of the Commonwealth. But I will have to take on notice the particular question, which probably turns on Dr Henry's individual circumstances—that is, as to the question of whether or not the appointment under 67 has some bearing on such retirement benefits as he is receiving from the Commonwealth. I do not accept the correctness of the characterisation of what are Dr Henry's superannuation, pension or retirement benefits from the Commonwealth. The suggestion has been made by the member for Mackellar, but I do not know what basis there is for it and I certainly would not want to be taken to be confirming in any way that the member for Mackellar has correctly described Dr Henry's retirement benefits from the Commonwealth.
To assist the parliament secretary, Dr Henry is under the scheme, which has been a closed scheme for some years, where if he retires at under 54 years and 11 months of age he maximises that pension entitlement under the scheme, which has now closed. I think it is very important to know what the implications of that section 67 appointment are on his pension entitlements to be paid now.
Also, to assist the parliamentary secretary, believe me, I have done a thorough analysis of all appointments made pursuant to section 67 and there are none—not one—that is analogous to this one. It is one that is extraordinarily generous, it is one that is unique, and it is one concerning someone who obviously the government regarded as a valued servant to the government of the day. He has had a very successful appointment for him, and I think we are entitled to know the details.
I wish to ask a question about the Ombudsman's task now that there are so many illegal boat arrivals. The Ombudsman was charged originally with responsibility for looking into many of those issues. When the funding was provided for the Ombudsman for the irregular maritime arrivals, as they are euphemistically called—it was agreed in 2008—there were expected to be 100 arrivals a year. Currently, there are 4,762 arrivals in immigration detention and more than 3,200 of those detainees have been in immigration detention for more than six months, making a case-by-case assessment increasingly impossible. The budget has really not been increased. I know we went through the procedures when a previous Ombudsman went to a Greens senator to complain and subsequently had his services terminated. Nonetheless, the current Ombudsman is still operating under the same funding arrangements, and I want to know why there has been no increase in that funding.
The Ombudsman has a broad range of activities. He is charged with receiving complaints and investigating various matters, and he has certain functions conferred on him by a range of different Commonwealth statutes. In so far as the question is directed to the sufficiency of the resources as a whole that the Commonwealth Ombudsman has been given to carry out the various roles that he is currently charged with in his activities generally and his discretionary activities in particular, the Ombudsman's brief is to look at various matters on a self-starting basis and he has been given overall supervisory responsibility for a range of areas in the Commonwealth's jurisdiction. In so far as those discretionary activities are conducted by him, they must be done in a way that can be managed within the budget that his office has been given. There is a degree of discretion available to him as to what tasks he decides to undertake and there is a degree of discretion vested in him as to what resources and funding he devotes to particular activities.
In so far as this question is directed to the particular role that the Commonwealth Ombudsman has in relation to immigration detainees—I took the question to be particularly referring to that—questions about specific measures affecting those immigration detainees need to be raised with the Department of Immigration and Citizenship.
Just to help the parliamentary secretary, the Ombudsman comes from PM&C. In the 2011-12 budget, $900,000 over two years was set aside for the Commonwealth Ombudsman to monitor irregular maritime arrivals. This was to be met through the existing resources of the office of the Ombudsman. But, unfortunately for him, in the 2012-13 budget there has been a cut in his funding. His budget has gone from $27,286,000 down to $26,952,000. Does that indicate that you do not expect any more boat arrivals? Is the Ombudsman simply to forget about this task that he was given or does the government stand by the $900,000 over two years to be utilised for that purpose?
I am not sure that the member for Mackellar has fully understood what the budget papers say about the funding of the Ombudsman. The total revenue of the Ombudsman is set out in the forward estimates. The budget papers in fact have figures for the total revenue of the Ombudsman. His revenue consists of both appropriations from the government and income that he receives from the sale of services.
To look at this, in 2007-08 the total revenue of the Ombudsman was $19,394,000, continuing to rise through to 2012. I will just read out the figures. In 2008-09 it was $20,756,000, in 2009-10 it was $20,309,000, in 2010-11 it was $21,277,000, and in 2011-12 it was $21,766,000. In the current year there is a drop to $20,115,000, but projections for the remaining three years of the forward estimates all have the Ombudsman's revenue remaining in the vicinity of $20 million. So it is projected to be $20,183,000 next year, $19,885,000 the following year and $19,930,000 in 2015-16.
The Commonwealth Ombudsman's staffing has been reduced. There has been a reduction in the estimated average staffing level from around 159 for 2011-12 down to 136 for 2012-13. Part of the reason for the reduction is the termination of measures relating to the oversight role that the Ombudsman was given in relation to the Northern Territory emergency response. There has also been something of a reduction specifically in the oversight role that the Ombudsman plays for Christmas Island processing. There is also a reduction because of the efficiency dividend that has been required of Commonwealth government agencies across the board.
I think it is important when one is looking at the functions of the Ombudsman to reflect upon the very broad range of functions that the Ombudsman is given, not only by the Ombudsman's own legislation but by other government programs and sometimes by other legislation. It is not really appropriate just to pick out one part of what might have been the Commonwealth Ombudsman's activities in part of some previous year and suggest that an overall conclusion can be drawn about the current year's activities. I would repeat: the Commonwealth Ombudsman has a very independent role. He has a very large discretion, and appropriately so, to determine how he would best use the resources that are provided to him by the government.
The implication in the member for Mackellar's question, that he must devote a certain level of resources to any particular thing, is wrong. It is a discretionary matter for him and I have identified, at least in part, that the reduction in role—notably in the oversight role that he had for the Northern Territory emergency response—is the reason why there has been some reduction in the Ombudsman's staffing.
The reduction from $27,286,000 to $26,952,000, and going south in the parliamentary secretary's answer, brings me to the fact that the Ombudsman is not a government department but is an independent statutory officer set up by an act. This has been described by a previous Ombudsman—a very fine Australian, Dennis Pearce—as being both a blessing and a curse. Whilst it frees him from undue pressures of government, it also means that there is no ready access to departmental or ministerial support. I know there is a practice whereby people are seconded from government departments to the Ombudsman's service for the purposes of a particular investigation, but that too can have its downside. So I wanted to ask whether or not there was any consideration of what ombudsmen have said over time about either creating a parliamentary committee to have oversight of the Ombudsman's office, which would give it a direct connection to the parliament, or making the Ombudsman an officer of the parliament so that there is greater recognition of the way in which he can be answerable to the parliament and, indeed, can seek direct access to departments when he needs it—so the issue is twofold.
I hear that the main reason for the drop in funding for the office is that they have been relieved of responsibility in the Territory, but we still have not come to the nub of the question about the rising numbers of illegal boat people coming to Australia and the fact that a policy of having $900,000 over two years was set aside to look into the questions that arose from that—yet the number is so large that it seems an impossible task. So has the government abandoned that policy?
I think it is very important that the parliament focus on what the role of the Ombudsman actually is. As the member for Mackellar has pointed out, the Ombudsman is charged with a review role. He is a statutory officer with quite a high degree of independence; as such, and under the terms of his legislation, he is able to report directly to the parliament and indeed has done so on occasion. He also of course has an annual report in which he describes the work that he has engaged in over the previous year.
The Commonwealth has many dozens of statutory officers—obviously, all in roles different from the role the Ombudsman performs—but not all of those officers, many of whom have a statutory degree of independence conferred on them, have their own parliamentary committee. I do not think it would be workable for every statutory officer to have their own parliamentary committee. The member for Mackellar, quoting Dennis Pearce, made the point that the Ombudsman has for many years proved the value of having an Ombudsman—having independence, review processes and somewhere that members of the public can go to make their complaints, and indeed having someone who has a general oversight role and a discretion to go and look at various matters on his own motion, without waiting to be charged with an inquiry, without waiting even for a complaint to be made.
The nature of the Ombudsman's work means that it is difficult to forecast demand. Resourcing from year to year, to some extent, is going to on a best-guess basis. Just looking at the number of complaints received over the last four years might give you some indication of the degree of difficulty involved in making estimates in advance. For instance—and this is just the number of complaints and approaches to the jurisdiction of the Ombudsman; he has this other, separate, self-starting jurisdiction altogether—we read in the Ombudsman's reports that there were a total of 39,932 in 2007-08, but they leapt to 45,719 in 2008-09, went down again to 37,468 in 2009-10 and then rose slightly in 2010-11. That gives you an idea of the elasticity of the numbers of complaints, and the irregularity of the numbers gives you an indication of the difficulty of forecasting year-on-year what work the Ombudsman will have to carry out, what he is going to have to do. Obviously, where there is an increase in demand that can be estimated and clearly linked to some particular initiative or some new jurisdiction that has been conferred on the Ombudsman, then consideration of resourcing is possible. But, at a very general level, the Ombudsman's is one of those statutory offices where it is fairly difficult to make an accurate estimate from year to year as to what the work is going to be. I have no doubt that the Ombudsman will draw it to the government's attention if the staffing level as presently estimated for 2012-13, of 136 officers, is found to be inadequate. That is what the Ombudsman has done in the past, and I have no doubt that the present occupant of this statutory office will do that in the future.
Proposed expenditure agreed to.
Remainder of bill taken as a whole and agreed to.
Ordered that this bill be reported to the House without amendment.