House debates

Monday, 28 May 2007

Appropriation Bill (No. 1) 2007-2008

Second Reading

8:51 pm

Photo of Bruce BillsonBruce Billson (Dunkley, Liberal Party, Minister Assisting the Minister for Defence) Share this | Hansard source

There are no mines in Dunkley, but you see the economy of Dunkley delivering some wonderful benefits and supporting improved living standards in our community. You see small business with a spring in its step and an optimism about the future. You see reports, even in the Financial Review, about how the heart of Dunkley at Frankston is attracting a great deal of investment and how it is a source of great optimism for the Greater Melbourne area. But there are no mines in Dunkley—and this is what makes a lot of Labor’s rhetoric so unbelievable. In this debate on the appropriation bills we have heard about the extent to which the mining industry contributes to the Australian economy. Its contribution is important and it is welcomed, but to glibly reduce this more than decade-long period of sound economic management to some good fortune linked to the mining industry shows just how little understanding the Labor Party has about the way economies work, the way individuals invest and the choices that businesses and individuals make about their lives and their futures.

Mr Deputy Speaker, I commend to you and the House a key statistic in the Dunkley area. We have a generational low level of unemployment. For the first time in as long as anybody can remember the unemployment rate in Dunkley is 4.4 per cent. It is actually below the national average. This is quite remarkable. When I was first elected to represent the terrific communities that comprise Dunkley, one of our greatest exports was young people leaving to find a job somewhere else. There was a sense of despair amongst many as they finished their education and a sense of foreboding about what the future held. Now those times are behind us because of careful economic management—no fluke, no fortuitous good fortune that the opposition would seek to have, but sound economic management that recognises that outer metropolitan economies like that of Dunkley can be very sensitive to an adverse economic climate.

It was often that said if Melbourne got a sniffle the Mornington Peninsula got the flu. When economies are not in this sustained period of growth and investment and are not forward-looking about opportunities, the contraction of opportunities starts from the periphery of broader metropolitan areas and you see the more extended areas away from the capital city suffering disproportionately to what might have been the challenges that the broader metropolitan area faced. That was Dunkley’s story. The previous Labor government confessed that they took the Dunkley community for granted. Our undertaking was to do all we could to restore the prospects for a brighter future—but to do the work. Even though we have just listened to an opposition spokesperson, you would swear that we were at a branch meeting of the Labor Party—he was prattling on about a very selected range of figures without showing any great understanding about the context in which this time of economic good fortune has been developed and can be sustained. You heard a cobbled-together account about why it was bad for governments to reduce government debt. I think that was the implication. It is a government’s responsibility to manage government affairs, and one of the terrific success stories is that the Howard government, despite the opposition from the Labor Party, has actually paid off $96 billion of debt.

The statement by the member for Oxley was, ‘Who cares that the government has no debt.’ The electors of Dunkley care because of the $8½ billion to $9 billion of interest that would be payable each year on a debt of that size. They are resources that would not be deployed to improving the living standards, infrastructure, essential services and prospects of the nation. That is about the government taking responsibility for its own choices.

You heard a conversation about what household debt looks like. Again, it was free of a discussion about what the household asset base looks like and it was free of a discussion about the fact that families and individuals are making decisions for themselves—in the context of this improved prosperity—to extend and improve their circumstances and to invest in more valuable real estate. These are decisions for the individual. They are decisions that individuals are making—taking account of their economic circumstances—because they are optimistic and confident about the future.

You also heard another line that the Labor Party runs out about productivity trends. There is one sure-fire way of having optimised productivity improvement, and that is to provide only for the highly skilled in the economy. If you have people who have been out of the workforce for some time or have low skills or skills that need updating to meet the challenges of the contemporary workplace, the easiest way to optimise productivity is not to have those people in the workforce. Is that really what was behind Labor’s million people unemployed? If you had a million people unemployed, a decade later you could actually talk about productivity growth. We recognise that less productive people, if given half a chance and some support and confidence by employers, can actually be very valuable contributors to the economy. So again, it is a matter of some pride that we are seeing the long-term unemployed—people with low and limited skills and those who have been out of the workforce for some time—now being able to re-engage in the workforce.

But if you listen to what the opposition has to say, you would think this was a bad thing. I just wonder what the Australian public must think. Is this the kind of arrogance and complacency that we are seeing around this parliament amongst Labor members and senators, and particularly their staffers? They are convinced that they are just going to slide on into office at the next federal election. Is this the early sign of that hubris? I think it is.

What we are looking at are the achievements over 11 years of the Howard government—the achievements that have built that prosperity and the improved opportunities for the community that I represent. All those reforms have been opposed every step of the way by the Labor opposition, yet they come into this parliament and they distribute to the media a nice superficial story so far out from the election. They want to benefit from the bounty that has been produced from the hard work of others—they now claim a right to inherit it.

For the people of greater Frankston—the Mornington Peninsula—the budget again delivers for them. There are tax cuts—more in a succession of tax cuts—which were achieved in this budget because of sound economic management. The budget returns to the taxpayers the bounty of their hard work and of the government’s sound economic management.

There is also support for those most in need—the seniors in our community and the carers—all of whom make an incredibly valuable contribution. The tax cuts are substantial and will make a very practical and positive difference to people’s lives. These are substantial personal income tax cuts that are worth over $31 billion over four years. They put spending power and opportunity back into the pockets of people in our area. The tax tables have been canvassed, but in the time available to me I will not dwell on those, other than to say that right across the income scales there will be tax cuts and improved opportunities for people from their work and their enterprise.

There have also been improvements in the childcare benefit. It is increasing as well and it will provide extra support for families. This is a strong budget for families. In an area where families are strongly represented—in Dunkley—this is very important. It builds on a combination of new and existing concessions providing even more support and encouragement for families. There are more than 2,500 recipients of carer allowance in the Dunkley electorate and they will benefit from the $600 one-off bonus. In addition, 580 recipients of the carer payment will receive a $1,000 bonus which will be paid by 30 June this year. Carers make a significant contribution. Their selfless dedication to those that are near and dear to them needs to be recognised and I am pleased that that has been achieved in this budget. Older Australians are also benefiting from the budget with the bonuses that have been made possible by sound economic management. It will be an opportunity to return the benefits of that prosperity to those people who have made a significant contribution to the wellbeing of our nation and our economic prosperity over such a long period.

It is interesting to look at the story of real wages growth. Often in my area of work people reflect on the movement in real wages on things like comparative value of benefits and the like. This is not a challenge that the former Labor government had to contend with because you saw a net reduction in real wages on their watch. Contrast that with the more than 20 per cent increase in real wages since the Howard government was elected and you see why household wealth has improved. You have seen how tax cuts have delivered additional benefits to people on higher incomes that are being rewarded for their own enterprise and their own work. And you are also seeing, with this record low unemployment, more people with the opportunity to earn higher incomes, to pay lower levels of tax and to see real wages increase.

I want to talk about our community, which, as I mentioned earlier, is in the fringe metropolitan area of the great city of Melbourne. I will not digress for too long to correct the member for Kingston, who was quite unfortunate in comparing the two sides of parliament to, I think, the Adelaide Crows and the Tigers. I felt my footy team was defamed, so I will not spend too much time on that—only to suggest that the Tigers in Melbourne are a great team that have not peaked early this year, but I am looking for improved prospects. In our community, though, one of the things that helps our performance is important infrastructure, and that is why you see the Roads to Recovery program being so welcomed by Frankston Council and the Mornington Peninsula Shire Council. We have got growing demands on our roads, not only from an increase in the size and extent of housing but, even on the Mornington Peninsula, from a less obvious trend where what may have once been tourist accommodation, holiday homes, is now becoming permanent residences. So whilst you do not see as rapid a build-up of housing in some of those coastal communities you are seeing a conversion of the housing use and more permanent residents moving into our area. That refurbishment opportunity for key local roads is therefore very much valued and appreciated. Road safety benefits have come from the improvements to a number of roadways in the electorate of Dunkley, including the Nepean Highway, McClelland Drive, Overport Road, Foot Street, Kars Street, Warrandyte Road, Bungower Road and many smaller roads, as well as some pedestrian safety improvements. So these are demonstrable improvements to the infrastructure that supports our growing and more mobile community.

We have also seen the Howard government’s strong commitment to key transport infrastructure. I have long campaigned for the Scoresby Freeway and still lament the fact that it is being built but with a toll, which, sadly, is completely unnecessary and will disadvantage our community. Beyond that, we are seeing that road work and the growth in activity in our area creating very particular traffic congestion at the end of the existing Frankston Freeway and where it intersects with the Frankston-Cranbourne Road. I have argued vigorously that there is a need for a bypass that would connect to the Eastlink toll road to take those people who do not wish to enter into the centre of Frankston around the outside of Frankston so as not to cause added congestion to that already clogged intersection. The Howard government did provide $50,000 for an environmental impact study to support the development of that idea. Something interesting has happened, though. Since that time the state government, perhaps recognising that some leadership was required, has followed the lead of the Howard government and come forward with its own funding, putting $5 million on the table for an environmental effects statement in addition to the environment management work that the Howard government recognised needed to be undertaken. That is interesting, somewhat belated, but welcome. I am hopeful that that is not simply a stalling tactic to delay the necessary decision to get on with that project, and I will continue to campaign for that.

In the area of the local environment, our coastal community is very focused on the health of its natural systems. I am pleased that through the Howard government’s leadership we have seen improved use of water and improved water infrastructure. The community water grants have seen many local communities and many schools lead by example through improving their harvesting and recycling of rainwater. There are other projects available that I am keen to support, including efforts to drought proof a large part of Frankston, bringing forward some infrastructure that is partly there but can be readily connected into the outfall pipeline that currently discharges excessive amounts of water down at Gunnamatta. These are projects we will continue to work on, as well as those in the Mornington area, where we did have resources to make grey water available for the Mornington racing club and a number of reserves and facilities. Interestingly, we had to give that money back because, notwithstanding the Commonwealth funding the entire cost of the infrastructure—the pipeline to connect to the outfall, the storage infrastructure, the sprinkler systems and all the treatment that was required—it still was not economic because the state government at that time, through Southeast Water, were operating a ‘take or pay’ contract. So even though we were doing the right thing—displacing the use of potable drinking water with grey water, reused and recovered from the Eastern Treatment Plant—it still was not economic because the pricing structure did not support this kind of enterprise. Thankfully, despite the fact that this pricing arrangement and the policy arrangements put in place by state governments can make or break these wastewater reuse projects, you are actually seeing some changes occurring.

We have heard others speak about higher education. I again want to point to what is a terrific success story, the Peninsula campus of Monash University. It sees opportunity in the new perpetual Higher Education Endowment Fund that the government has announced—that $5 billion commitment that will generate earnings available for capital works and research facilities. The Peninsula campus of Monash is very focused on its health and wellness agenda—an agenda we have been able to support with additional HECS funded places in key disciplines of health and allied health that have seen the campus grow and prosper. In addition to our work to revitalise and re-energise the campus, and our parallel efforts to establish a regional aquatic health and wellness centre, we have to carry out some work to make sure that the site can accommodate this nice problem to have, and that is the revitalisation of the campus with increased students and course offers and the facilities needed to present Monash Peninsula not as a second choice but as a first choice for education in our community.

I am delighted that the Howard government has put $5 million on the table for this truly remarkable collaborative undertaking of a regional aquatic health and wellness centre. We need to make sure that the councils, state governments and the university itself bring forward their best contribution to see that that project can move forward. I am confident that will happen. This is a bold and ambitious project, and when it comes to full bloom all the partners in the broader community and the Monash University community will see it is a terrific outcome. We are within reach of it. We need to do some site planning to make sure that this project can be accommodated and that the improved prospects of the campus with its student and course offer can be supported in addition to this improved infrastructure. It is a nice problem to have. It is not one we thought we would have, where the popularity, the revitalisation and, in fact, the renaissance of the Peninsula campus have caused us to make sure that the campus and its strategic plans for the future can accommodate this improved university in the Dunkley electorate as well as the major collaborative facilities that support not only the academic endeavours on that campus but also broader community and social goals.

The veterans’ affairs budget is obviously very dear to my heart. I am delighted that, for the first time, the budget totals over $11 billion this year. This is at a time of declining numbers, with, sadly, a number of older veterans moving to a more peaceful place. The Howard government’s increasing budget contribution is part of the government’s sustained recognition. When the Howard government was first elected, the veterans’ affairs budget was $6.5 billion. It is now $11 billion. We have some challenges in the way we respond to the needs of an ageing veterans community as well the needs of newer veterans that are coming forward from more recent conflicts. There is a demonstration of that in the budget, with additional benefits for the more than 4,000 members of the veterans community, some of which are very direct and very obvious. These include additional support for special rate and intermediate rate pensioners; improvements to the funeral benefit paid under the Veterans’ Entitlements Act; the very important ex gratia payment to ex-prisoners of war in Europe from World War II; improvements to the time available for war widows to make their claim and then be able to backdate the basis of that claim; and improved health care, medication management and continuum of care when people leave hospitals all the way through to respite care. They are very important initiatives.

In the moment that is left to me, I again urge all sides of parliament to focus in a positive and constructive way on the needs of veterans. Earlier tonight, the member for Cowan turned a policy discussion into a personal attack on me. It is very disappointing and it is what we have come to expect when one tries to canvass these very significant and carefully considered issues around the development of policy for our veterans community that responds in a principled way to their existing and future needs and that maintains the foundations of our repatriation system. That, frankly, requires the best of all of us.

Care for our veterans and our veterans community is a collaboration led largely by the Department of Veterans’ Affairs and the federal government, with these resources, in partnership with the health professionals, the ex-service organisations, the men and women who have served our country in the past, their dependants and those who are serving at the present time. It requires the best of all of us. I always aim to bring a positive and generous outlook to our work, but I always anticipate a personal attack. This just seems to be the way things happen when one questions what is put forward as fact when it is not fact, when it is incomplete; when one raises examples of something that is being asserted by whomever to be the truth when there is actually more to the subject than they care to canvass, or when one tries to highlight some shortcomings in policy development.

I anticipate that there will be further personal attacks. I anticipate that, sadly, whenever a discussion about policy comes forward and you happen to disagree with somebody, or you identify an area of potential improvement, rather than embracing that input as constructive and helpful—which I aim to do even from most vitriolic critique that runs around the internet from those who spend a lot of their time shopping around toxic emails and the like—there will be personal attacks. I still look for some positive insight or something constructive. It is not always there, but I encourage the Labor Party to think about whether provoking grievance and politicking about every veterans affairs issue is in the best interests of our veterans. I will continue to apply my best efforts and enterprise to extending the decade of support the Howard government has provided for our veterans community. (Time expired)

Debate adjourned.


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