Monday, 28 May 2007
Appropriation Bill (No. 1) 2007-2008
There is not much in this place less uplifting than 20 minutes of doom and gloom from the member for Fremantle. I have a different view. I have a view that this country has a bright future. I have a view that, because of the strong economic management of this government, we are taking this country forward. I do not want to destroy the illusion of the alternative Treasurer of this country, the member for Lilley, but economic management is not found in a cornflakes packet. You cannot just take some sort of ‘me too’ policy and believe that somehow economic management will magically take care of itself—because it will not.
Economic management takes a lot of hard work. Economic management is not any one budget. Economic management is all the things that government does to drive this country forward, to create opportunity, to reform. It is quite amazing that the member for Lalor, the Deputy Leader of the Opposition, is now saying that today economic policy in this country is bipartisan. They have opposed every measure we have put forward to reform this country—they opposed reform of the waterfront, they opposed tax reform and they opposed reform of industrial relations—yet somehow, magically, economic management is bipartisan. Perhaps I have in my mind a different meaning of bipartisanship than the Deputy Leader of the Opposition does.
The Deputy Leader of the Opposition’s idea of a small business policy is to trash small business—to trash the owners of the Lilac City Motel, to destroy their business. That is how she helps—she opens the phone book, picks a business and trashes it. I am sure the employees of that establishment are not overly pleased with her efforts. I have to say also that economic management is not only not found in a cornflakes packet, as the alternative Treasurer might think; it is not found at an ACTU meeting or among union delegates. Economic management takes hard work. Economic management takes commitment. Economic management takes decisions that are not always popular but are for the good of the country.
Some many years ago in the early nineties, before I came into this place, on the streets of my electorate—in Coffs Harbour, for example—the young people felt despair. There were no jobs. There were few opportunities. There were virtually no apprenticeships. The plight of the youth was very bleak in those days. What chances did they have? One option was to leave town to find a job in the city. That is changing: we are creating jobs, creating opportunities and creating apprenticeships. We had 20 per cent unemployment in those days and it is now less than half of that.
Small business likes the sorts of measures we have put in place. Small business likes the removal of the job-destroying unfair dismissal laws. Small business now has the confidence to employ. Small business now has the confidence to take a chance with an employee who might not work out, because they know that, if it does not work out, they have some redress. They know they are not going to be hauled down before some tribunal and forced to spend a day in the tribunal wasting time and effort. They know that they will not have to pay $5,000 in ‘go away’ money, because this government has taken decisions in the interests of the wider economy, in the interests of employees and in the interests of employers. It is very important that we get the settings right, and this government is doing that.
The Leader of the Opposition and the Deputy Leader of the Opposition are saying that economic policy is bipartisan. If you believe that, you would have to believe in the tooth fairy. This government has created jobs; this government has reduced the unemployment rate. It has created opportunities. It has created an environment of lower interest rates. It has created economic growth. It has created prosperity. People out there know that. They realise that this government has a strong suite of economic measures and it is very strong in the area of economic management.
Members opposite opposed the introduction of the workplace relations legislation; yet 320,000 jobs have been created in a little over a year. It is really a spectacular performance. Members opposite are opposed to AWAs, the very instrument that provides employers with the flexibility to enter into the sorts of arrangements that make their businesses grow and make this economy grow. Economic growth occurs very much through a marginal process, and you cannot tie the economy in a knot and somehow expect it to grow. We have to get the settings right to allow the economy to grow, and this government does that. Members opposite claim to be a party of the future, but they are very much a party of the past.
I certainly welcome the opportunity to speak on these appropriation bills. This budget forms part of an ongoing process of strong economic management, part of an ongoing process of reform and part of an ongoing process of creating opportunities. Through the growth that has occurred in this country, through the opportunities that have been created and through the jobs that have been created we are now able to hand back to the people of Australia the benefits and the dividends of that growth and prosperity. This budget is doing that.
This is a surplus budget, which is better than a balanced budget, that is handing back to the people what they very much deserve—a share in the prosperity of this nation. It does this in a number of ways. The first that I would like to comment on is tax cuts. In the budget the Treasurer announced tax cuts worth $31.5 billion over four years. This builds on the $36.7 billion of cuts in previous budgets. More than 80 per cent of taxpayers will continue to face a top marginal rate of 30 per cent or less. The increases to the 30 per cent tax threshold and the low income tax offset will create an effective tax-free threshold of $11,000. That is great news because it encourages people to get into the workforce, and it makes it more worthwhile for them to go out and get a job because they can keep a greater proportion of what they earn, and that is what we want to see. That is what this government is about: it is about creating opportunities, it is about encouraging people to help themselves and it is helping them to do that. I think that is a very important point.
This budget also gives an extra $2 billion for increased childcare assistance. Spending on childcare assistance will be 2½ times the amount spent in 1996-97. We are encouraging stay-at-home parents to get out into the workforce by assisting them with child care—a most important factor. This government also aims to assist the elderly and our senior Australians. My electorate of Cowper has a high proportion of elderly residents, and this government recognises that they should share in the dividends that have been achieved through strong economic management.
There is the $500 bonus for those receiving the utilities allowance or the seniors concession allowance. There is the $1,000 bonus for those receiving carers payment and a $600 bonus for those receiving the carers allowance. I would like to take this opportunity to commend the great work that carers do in our local communities right around the country. I think carers are very much the unsung heroes. Carers are climbing mountains every day to look after their loved ones. They do it with very little recognition, if any recognition at all, and I am pleased that these payments in some small way can be at least some recognition for the great work that they do.
Those eligible for the senior Australians tax offset will pay no tax on income up to $25,867 for singles and $43,360 for couples. There will be an extra 7,200 community aged-care packages to help older Australians who wish to continue living at home. There will be $93 million for better medical treatment in aged-care facilities and an improved income test for self-funded retirees going into aged care. Some 45 per cent should pay less as a result. These are great measures that are ensuring that our older Australians share in the economic growth and prosperity that this nation currently enjoys.
Infrastructure is vitally important. I know that in my electorate the Pacific Highway is of great concern. It needs to be upgraded to dual carriageway standard for its entire length as quickly as possible. We have certainly been investing in the highway to date. Some $1.3 billion is invested through AusLink by the federal and state governments until 2008-09. These latest budget announcements of $22.3 billion allow that process to continue and allow for a further concentration on the upgrade of the Pacific Highway. But we are not just focusing on the highway system; we are also focusing on rail. It is very important, if the road system is not to become clogged, that we aim to move as much freight from road onto rail as possible. This AusLink package makes that possible. It continues the great work that is already underway with a substantial boost in investment. These are huge sums that are being poured into much-needed infrastructure and much-needed highway systems which will be very much appreciated by the people in my electorate. Many small businesses depend on the Pacific Highway as their lifeline not only for receiving goods and shipping out the goods that they produce but also because there is the very important tourism industry which depends on the free and safe flow of traffic in order to prosper. It is vitally important infrastructure.
Education is another very important area. In my electorate we have a campus of the Southern Cross University in Coffs Harbour. It has been doing a great job in training our young people. We have got some very specialised courses in aged care, nursing, teaching and hospitality. The university is doing a great job. I know that the university will benefit very much from the very visionary $5 billion Higher Education Endowment Fund—a visionary idea put forward by this government that is leading the way in education. It is not just about rhetoric and hot air; it is actually leading the way and is providing the sort of education system that this country needs in order to lead the way in the 21st century.
In Coffs Harbour we also have the Rural Clinical School, another visionary idea—education in regional and rural areas, training our local doctors in the region. Not only do we get a better healthcare outcome by these doctors training and then hopefully living in regional and rural areas but we have the opportunity of an education facility that is providing economic and educational benefits to the region.
Education is so vitally important. I would also like to turn to some of the measures in a little bit more detail. In doing so, I would like to comment on just a few: $556 million for the increase in university funding, which will simplify university funding structures and provide additional funding for key disciplines, particularly in the area of skills needs; $211.2 million over four years for the Allowing More Responsive Universities program, which will give universities the ability to adjust student numbers and course mixes to respond to student demand and address skill needs; $208 million for the diversity and structural adjustment fund; and $77 million for increased funding for practical experience for teaching, a vitally important area. As Chair of the Standing Committee on Education and Vocational Training, I note that we did an inquiry into teacher training and one of the findings of that inquiry was that we need to invest more in practicum, in giving our teachers practical training in the schools. This budget provides $77 million to do that. And there is $220 million for Commonwealth scholarships. These are great measures—great measures indeed.
With regard to schools, there is $457 million for the National Literacy and Numeracy Vouchers program and $101.7 million over four years for the Australian government summer school for teachers program. That is a great program indeed, giving our teachers ongoing professional learning. One of the things that is vitally important if we are going to turn out great teachers is that we have to keep training them. Teacher training does not end at university graduation. It is an ongoing, lifelong project and this program will go a long way towards providing an incentive to teachers to conduct or participate in further training and it will provide them with a financial reward for that. It is vitally important that we reward quality teachers in our schools.
There is $53.2 million for rewarding schools to improve literacy and numeracy outcomes—a great program—and $127 million for intensive English as a second language tuition for students entering Australia under a range of visa categories. There are a range of measures in this budget which strengthen education and it is all made possible because of the economic strength of this country, an economic strength that occurs largely because of the strong economic management of a government that takes the lead, a government that takes the tough decisions, a government that is willing to go that extra yard to make this country more efficient and put the right settings in place.
I would like to also comment on some community measures. Volunteer Small Equipment Grants is a very well received program in my electorate and I am pleased to see that this will be further extended to sporting clubs under this budget. Great measures—I know they will be really welcomed by the community and by the people of Australia.
As I said, this budget is part of an ongoing process of economic management. Economic management is basically a marathon. It is not something that you can do on budget night. It is a much bigger picture than that. As I said, it takes hard work. We need to keep striving to make this country more efficient. This budget is part of that. It is offering incentive. It is looking at education. It is improving infrastructure. It is a very good budget. It has been very well received out in the electorate and I know that the people of Cowper will certainly welcome the measures as implemented.