Monday, 28 May 2007
Appropriation Bill (No. 1) 2007-2008
Debate resumed from 24 May, on motion by Mr Costello:
That this bill be now read a second time.
upon which Mr Tanner moved by way of amendment:
That all words after “That” be omitted with a view to substituting the following words: “whilst not declining to give the bill a second reading, the House is of the view that:
- despite record high commodity prices from surging demand from India and China and rising levels of taxation, the Government has failed to secure Australia’s long term economic fundamentals and should be condemned for its failure to:
- address Australia’s flagging productivity growth;
- stem the widening current account deficit and trade deficits;
- attend to the long term relative decline in education and training investment undercutting workplace productivity;
- provide national leadership on infrastructure including a high speed national broadband network for the whole country;
- expand and encourage research and development to move Australian industry and exports up the value-chain; and
- reform our health system to equip it for a future focused on prevention, early intervention and an ageing population;
- the Government’s failure to address the damaging consequences of climate change is endangering Australia’s future economic prosperity;
- the Government’s extreme industrial relations laws will lower wages and conditions for many workers and do nothing to enhance productivity, participation or economic growth; and
- the Government’s Budget documents fail the test of transparency and accountability”.
These businesses have struggled under the burdens of higher taxation and ridiculously onerous industrial relations systems under previous Labor regimes. These businesses, such as those in the light industrial area in Willetton, are benefiting from the reduction in small business taxes and compliance costs. They will be even better placed to expand and improve their businesses, feeding into the overall national economic wellbeing of the nation. There is only one thing that could destroy all this hard work: a future Labor government.
These small businesses will also benefit from the Skills for the Future package. When I have been speaking to both managers and business owners, and young people seeking training, this initiative has been very well received. As well as reducing unemployment, how else have families benefited? Tax cuts, again. Members opposite might need subtitles for this message as it is a foreign language to them. The Labor Party has a long history of raising existing taxes and imposing new ones without the balance of reducing income and company taxes.
Taxpayers in Tangney who earn $80,000 or less will now have an income tax rate of 30 per cent. Families in Tangney will also benefit from the additional support for child care; more than 2½ times the amount spent when we came to office. From the next financial year, childcare benefits will increase by 10 per cent, as well as families receiving the childcare tax rebate as a direct payment. There are around 20 childcare centres in Tangney plus many playgroups. On a recent visit to the Rossmoyne Community Playgroup, I met with grants coordinator Louise van den Einden and saw the excellent work she and her group are doing. The budget will provide more funding for community groups such as this, through the Local Answers program. These projects will help local communities in Tangney by funding local, small-scale projects that identify opportunities to develop skills and support children and families. All the playgroups and other eligible community groups in Tangney will benefit from this initiative.
Health is an extremely vexed subject, especially in Western Australia. We have a state government and a health minister who are in denial about the state of health in WA. Tangney is the supposed location of a new major hospital, which is supposed to replace the hospitals Labor is currently running down or closing outright. The date of completion of this hospital in Murdoch has been put back and back by a Labor government either unwilling or unable to come to grips with responsible economic management in providing the necessary services for people.
What a contrast to the Howard coalition government. The federal budget is helping bail out these incompetent state governments: firstly, by continuing the excellent vaccination program to ensure fewer people need hospitalisation; secondly, by tax rebates for Tangney residents who have private health insurance, again lessening the pressure on the public health system; and, thirdly, by providing a risk assessment and treatment program for those at risk of developing diabetes. I drew attention to this insidious condition in my winter 2006 newsletter, so I am particularly pleased that the constituents whom I spoke with who have diabetes will know that, in future, suffering should be reduced by early detection and treatment.
A large percentage of my constituents are retired. There are more than 20 nursing homes and aged care and retirement complexes in the Tangney electorate. When I visited Regents Gardens in Bateman for a tour and morning tea, I was extremely impressed with the level of care. This budget is especially good for the residents of this complex and others in Tangney. There is a bonus payment for all my constituents who are receiving the utilities allowance or the seniors concession allowance. Tangney seniors living in aged-care facilities such as the Howard Solomon Hostel in Ferndale, Joseph Cooke Hostel in Rossmoyne and Bull Creek Village will also benefit from the commitment to increase the Medicare rebate for GPs attending aged-care facilities.
My electorate contains the RAAF Association Estate in Bull Creek and some very active RSL branches, which are all to be congratulated for the differing work they do with ex-service men and women. Tangney has a significant number of veterans and their families, of whom over 3,000 are DVA pensioners or treatment card holders. Those who are disabled will benefit greatly from higher fortnightly payments and better support services when coming home from hospital. The continuing defence medals program, which has been very well received by all the veterans to whom I have presented medals, is most worthy and highlights this government’s appreciation of our ex-service men and women.
The attitude of the WA Labor government to our public schools is a scandal. Not only is the Carpenter government not providing this much needed funding; it is also siphoning off federal funding before the schools even receive it. On this issue and others, such as road funding, I am told by state colleagues that federal funding is covering up for the disgraceful inadequacies of a state Labor government which is awash with taxpayers’ money but which is hoarding it until the next state election. This is exactly the opposite of the Howard government’s careful financial management, the strategic expenditure adhering to well understood, coherent and longstanding philosophical positions. And excellent programs are able to be funded as a result. (Time expired)
I think that a measure of any government or society is the way that it treats the most vulnerable of its citizens. We can see what a government thinks of various groups of people by the way it responds financially and in policy. Perhaps similarly, the measure of a man or woman is at least in part how he or she responds to and considers the needs of those experiencing disadvantage, regardless of the obligation to do so or indeed of the rewards for such behaviour. The Christians in our midst might think of the parable of the good Samaritan.
The key test of decent leadership, in my view, is whether leaders appear to consider and care for people who have disabilities which adversely affect their ability to function and participate in our society, and whether they put energy and thought into devising policies which reduce disadvantage and the impact of disability. These are critical questions that we can ask of any government.
I was curious about the Prime Minister. What had he said over his more than 30 years in politics about peoplewith disabilities and government responsibilities for such people? I searched the Hansard record for any indication that the Prime Minister had previously shown an interest in people with disabilities, and I have to say that I turned up a very sorry record. He has often talked about disabilities in the economy as people with disabilities. In fact, if you look at the record, in 1982 he mentioned veteran disability pensions in his budget speech. In 1983, in a debate on an income tax bill, he mentioned exemptions for foreign pensioners with a war related disability. There was then a big gap until 1997, when, in a condolence motion, he referred to the fact that Lance Barnard had sustained permanent disabilities in war service. In 2002, when opposing a bill on embryo stem cell research, he mentioned disability as one of the roles of a committee to which he referred. In 2004 he referred to Betty Cuthbert’s ‘cheerful disposition in the face of that disability’—referring to multiple sclerosis. In 2005, in a ministerial statement on the Fair Pay Commission, he referred to their role in adjusting junior, training and disability wages. And that is really about it. He has never once spoken about policy or programs for people with disabilities in this parliament in all of those 30 years, let alone the discrimination that such people might face or the quality of their lives. To me, that says a lot.
Perhaps it is not surprising then that successive budgets tell a story of neglect for people with disabilities and their carers. I have spoken on previous occasions about the especially scandalous neglect of Indigenous people with disabilities. But I think it is important that we recognise, despite all the rhetoric about this budget, that if the Commonwealth had matched the states, whose performance is not perfect by any means, over the life of the last agreement with the states, for instance, on the average rate of indexation, we would have seen an additional $86 million available to maintain existing services. If it had matched them in percentage growth, there would have been an additional $232 million for services across Australia. If it had matched them in growth dollars, there would have been an additional $1 billion in funding for disability services in Australia.
I think we have seen a disturbing willingness on the part of this government to use people, particularly in negotiations with the states—people with disabilities—as pawns in disputes with the states about program responsibilities and funding. Despite the Senate inquiry recommending additional funding to meet unmet need, the government pre-empted consideration of the report and said point blank that there would be no additional funding, and they have been true to their word in this budget. The provision in the budget in comparison to the need is, frankly, scandalous. We have seen minor increases to partially reflect service cost inflation—not adequately—and growth in the cohort, in the number of people needing services, but there has been a dismal failure to grapple with unmet need, either in this budget or in the negotiations with the states. That unmet need is very visible to anyone who has worked in this sector or talked to a parent or, indeed, to a person with a disability—in accommodation, respite and day services, appropriate employment and occupational services.
I am told that the latest Australian Institute of Health and Welfare report—a draft version is yet unpublished—indicates that in 2005 unmet demand for accommodation and respite services was estimated at 23,800 people being without those services. They estimate further that the demand for accommodation and respite services is expected to increase by 34,600 people between 2006 and 2010—the life of the next agreement—and yet the government has said that there will be no growth in funding to meet that unmet demand.
The budget does virtually nothing to address the critical unmet need in the disability sector overall. Only 48 of every 1,000 people under 65 with a severe or profound disability get accommodation support of any kind under the current agreement and we are told that is not going to improve. Indeed, if we look at those figures, it is only going to get worse.
The budget also failed to indicate any real support for critical new Commonwealth-state disability funding, as I say, to be part of that agreement due to be finalised by 30 June 2007. As one disability advocate put it:
Despite the Senate Committee report released February 2007 showing massive shortcomings in previous funding arrangements and 29 key recommendations, Costello—
and he might have said Howard, the Prime Minister—
has snubbed the 200,000 Australians with serious and multiple disabilities depending on the new CSTDA agreement for quality of life.
The Commonwealth’s budget forecast of funding indexation at just 1.8 per cent, with no additional funding for enhanced CSTDA, I have to say, left the disability sector in shock at what appeared to be a callous lack of compassion and fairness by this government. It is interesting that on talkback radio, the day following the budget, the PM got a call from Robert, a 47-year-old disability support pensioner. This budget, which supposedly had something for everyone, as Robert said, ‘had nothing for me’—a position the Prime Minister confirmed in that radio interview.
Sadly, that neglect by the government is actually mirrored in the media coverage. It was pretty hard to see anyone in the media picking up this point. There was practically no mention of the government’s performance in this area. Apparently, most of the newspapers, radios and television were dazzled with all the giveaways. I think we should look at the situation of people with disabilities—that so many of them were overlooked. People like a woman who contacted me—I will not use her name, although she gave permission to do so, because I think it is better not to—after I gave a speech some months ago about the whole need for the CSTDA to be completed before the election and properly done, following the budget. She said she has two disabled adult children, one with schizophrenia and the other with autism and a mild intellectual disability. She said something that so many of these people tell me:
I am exhausted from the continuous battle to get appropriate assistance for them. I am 62 and I hoped I would have a few years retirement of peace to pursue activities of my choice. Last year my daughter found an appropriate form of accommodation but she hasn’t been able to find anything at all for her son who is 37. I have been serving on committees in the area for the past 20 years. I have also worked four days a week to subsidise my children and I am separated ...
That is something that often happens to families with disabilities: they are blown apart. Life is physically and emotionally exhausting for many of these people and I give credit to the West Australian for covering the fate of two young retirees—if you can be a young retiree—Rosalie and Tony Sexton, whose story is very public so I feel I can mention their names. They are Mount Lawley residents, 64 and 65, who should be enjoying their new free time, but they are actually struggling to cope with caring for their son, Peter, who has Down syndrome, while sharing the responsibility of ageing parents and helping their daughter, a first-time mother. They are self-funded retirees on a pretty modest budget and they had hoped for increased funding, especially for disability services. They said:
We would like funding so we can find independent sustainable supported accommodation for Peter.
That is their son. The Sextons said they would then provide recreational and social support for their son but would be relieved of the exhausting primary care. But instead, as they found:
There’s no recognition of the unmet needs identified by the recent Senate inquiry. Extra dollars to families do not provide services, only band-aids and sweeteners as vote-pullers. In other words, we are disgusted.
They are not alone in that regard. There are a great many others. Mrs Sexton knows what she is talking about because she is a former registered nurse who worked for the Cerebral Palsy Association, and they wanted more support from the federal government after years of paying taxes. As they said, on the carer allowance, they will get the $600 one-off payment but they were bitterly disappointed. As Mrs Sexton said:
It shows utter contempt and disdain and a complete lack of understanding of the most marginalised in our community. We have both given our life to service—me at work and Tony fighting in Vietnam—and we just want help to more adequately support Peter’s needs.
That is what she said in that newspaper report. I have heard stories like that over and over again. As the Senate committee said when looking at the CSTDA, the weight of responsibility on countless families is a crushing and unreasonable one, and much greater community assistance in that task is urgently called for. What does the government say? No more funding, nothing in this budget, nothing in the CSTDA. In that negotiation, they have shown a belligerent attitude, the classic tactic of issuing ultimatums and refusing to negotiate sensibly. They offer, for instance, dollar for dollar matching with the states for accommodation needs but refuse to take account of recent expenditure by the states, which has grown much faster, by the way, than expenditure by the Commonwealth. And there have been reports in recent days that if the states do not respond to the current offer by the Commonwealth by 8 June there will be unspecified consequences, including the possibility that the very limited offer they have made will actually be withdrawn.
I remind members that the purpose of this agreement, the CSTDA, is to enable the states and the Commonwealth to work collaboratively—to work together, in other words—to develop and implement strategies to improve the social and economic participation by people with disabilities in the community and to provide access to appropriate support which best meets their needs and abilities. Instead, the Commonwealth is trying to negotiate one by one with the states and break up the CSTDA. The Senate committee, amongst other things, recommended: equitable funding on a per capita basis; indexation that was actually in line with increases in the cost of service delivery—something the Commonwealth will not deliver; they want outcomes based reporting; we all agree about that—and, importantly, growth funds for unmet needs and specialist services, to which I have already referred, particularly those in accommodation and support.
The Commonwealth appears determined at the moment to reinterpret the original intention of the CSTDA, which was to share administrative responsibility between the Commonwealth and the states and share financial responsibility for funding services and to work towards equality of funding between the states—something which has not yet happened. I think it is clear to anyone who fairly looks at this field that people with disabilities and their carers are not getting a decent deal. The government should heed the calls of the national CSTDA Community Alliance, which is a coalition of provider and advocacy groups, that, as they put it, are taking a stand for people with disabilities and their families, and they want cooperation between the governments, not stalemate.
Some members would have been visited in recent weeks by many families with members who have disabilities, although I noticed that some were rebuffed by their local MPs, including the Treasurer. I want to draw attention briefly to a number of other additional failures before I move to another matter. I am very disappointed, for instance, that the ABC is axing Talking Books, which means that thousands of people with visual impairment will lose access to recreational reading. The ABC says it is not profitable and, since the board members are mostly friends of government, I assume that reflects the priorities of the government.
We have also seen a failure by the government to develop a comprehensive response to the HREOC report on employment for people with disabilities. They are just ignoring the recommendations. We have also seen a failure to table draft standards for access to premises for people with disabilities, and we have seen the recent notorious example of people with restricted mobility being unable to gain access to job capacity assessment centres, part of the so-called Welfare to Work requirements. And of course we have got no indication yet of the government’s intention to ratify the UN disability convention, which would put it on the spot in relation to a lot of these failures.
I want to turn briefly now to another area which is often overlooked by this government—that is, the protection of heritage in Australia. There is a very important site on the coast of Western Australia which I have spoken about before in this parliament, the Burrup, the Dampier Archipelago. At least two areas have been nominated for inclusion on the National Heritage List. It is a fascinating area and without precedent both in terms of its prehistory and in terms of its significance for Indigenous people. It is of world significance, as indicated by the fact that globally now there is a campaign called Stand Up For the Burrup. People outside Australia appear to know more about the Burrup than Australians do, and certainly they seem to care more than this government appears to care, as indicated by people standing up outside world monuments to indicate their support to protect this very important site. They have demonstrated their support in Seville, in Spain, outside the Opera House, outside Carnegie Hall, outside the university campus festival in Grenoble, in Amsterdam, in Lyons, in Brussels, in Cape Town, and so on. Yet this government still cannot move itself to list this very important site. Indeed, the minister refused a request for emergency listing and has continued to delay the decision to list. More damage, unfortunately, is done to the site every day. There are alternatives, as many people have pointed out, particularly at Onslow. We do not have to further damage this very important site.
The reason I wanted to mention it again today is that I have had the good fortune to get access to a further report to the minister and to the department from one of the consultants, Jo McDonald Cultural Heritage Management. I hasten to add that the report did not come from her. It has not yet been publicised, but it certainly should be because it reinforces the strong advice that has already been given to the government that the archipelago in its entirety is of extremely high significance. Amongst other things, the report says that ‘no one area of the archipelago can necessarily be considered to be representative of the whole’. Successive governments, state and federal, have tried to carve out bits, saying that there is a whole lot more left, but the point about this site is that ‘no one area is representative. It is highly varied and it is cumulative’.
The other point that I think is worth making, and that is made in this report, is that only a portion of the archipelago has been intensively surveyed. We are destroying this without knowing what we are doing. The report also points out that industrial development has affected approximately 14 per cent of the entire landmass so far.
This research report undertook some very extensive additional work which had never before been done. Part of the problem here, as I have indicated, is that too little of this site has been properly surveyed. I want to read into Hansard some of the conclusions of that extended research program and the use of existing data. The report looks at each of the National Heritage List criteria and presents the data that support them. For instance, one of the criteria is that the place has outstanding heritage value to the nation because of its importance in the course or pattern of Australia’s natural or cultural history. The conclusion here is that the archaeology of the Damper Archipelago provides an outstanding and arguably unique example of long-term Aboriginal occupation of an arid littoral landscape for Northern Australia and that the art provides unique evidence of Aboriginal occupation and persistence within a desert landscape, including the transition to a maritime landscape.
On the second criterion, that the place has outstanding heritage value because of its possession of uncommon, rare or endangered aspects of Australia’s natural or cultural history, I think it is very important to recognise the conclusions here. The report states:
The cultural heritage values of the place are endangered.
… … …
It is estimated that there are well over one million engraved motifs on the Dampier Archipelago.
They are without peer. If you have not been there, you should. The report continues:
A significant number of valleys and foreshore pavement complexes contain many tens of thousands of individually executed motifs. There is a significant superimpositioning of motifs. The density of stone arrangements is also at the highest end recorded within Australia for such site types—
That is well in advance of anywhere else. It goes on to say:
... the area has operated as an aggregation locale for groups from widely dispersed areas over a long time period.
We are talking tens of thousands of years here being destroyed, apparently without regret. The report goes on to say:
The current footprint of industry on the Burrup Peninsula, and its anticipated spread, present both direct and indirect impacts which place cultural heritage—and the art of the Archipelago—at high-risk of being endangered.
The government needs to know that when it moves to list this site, as it now must, and it should not delay longer.
There are other criteria which the data clearly indicate that this site meets. For instance, the spectacular rock art of the archipelago is said to be as well known at the local, regional, national and international levels. Rock art specialists have either visited or worked on the archipelago and they have been unanimous in declaring it is one of the most aesthetically spectacular and information-rich art provinces they have ever witnessed—and yet we are busily chopping it up. The researchers were also asked to comment on the value of the place in its creative and technical achievement over a particular period of time, and again these are exceptional recommendations. The report says:
The rock art of the Dampier Archipelago demonstrates extremely high diversity in theme, style, mode of execution, dynamism, level of naturalism and abstraction and depiction of recognisable economic and social behaviours.
The language is perhaps a little off-putting, but the important thing here is that this is a site without peer. This deserves World Heritage listing; do not worry about National Heritage listing. I would say, frankly, that it perhaps deserves priority over the Flemington racecourse, which has already been listed.
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.
I am surprised that the member for Cowper did not use all his time to comment on the so-called positive matters that were dealt with in the budget. I want to say before he leaves that economic management does take a lot of hard work, but I noticed in his contribution he failed to mention at all any of the remarkable changes to the economy undertaken in the years of Hawke and Keating, because they were certainly fundamentals that this government has been able to build on. But it never fully appreciates that it was under a Labor government that we were able to break the back of inflation, that we were able to move from a highly centralised system of wage-fixing to an enterprise based system of bargaining based on productivity outcomes. None of that, of course, is mentioned.
Nor did the member for Cowper mention that his government has been incredibly lucky to be presiding over international economic good fortune. I think the outcomes that we saw in this year’s budget owe much to that. A lot of it was very welcome—the one-off payments to a range of groups and people are well deserved. The carers and the pensioners are very thankful that the largesse in this year’s budget did extend to many people facing very bleak times in terms of the financial pressure on their household budgets. The tax relief and the one-off payments were to be welcomed.
But I think the budget is marked by a very obvious failure to put in place the underpinnings that we need to meet some very important challenges in the decade ahead. In the Leader of the Opposition’s reply to the budget this year there were a couple of statements that I want to repeat because I think they set the context for the remarks that I want to make on this debate about appropriations. The Leader of the Opposition, the member for Griffith, made it clear in his budget response that budgets should not be just about the next election but about the next decade and the decades beyond that. One could certainly characterise this year’s budget as one that was very carefully marketed and targeted to groups that the government saw as important vote changers potentially in the coming election. The Leader of the Opposition went on to say that we could anticipate many challenges and that we should act on those challenges while there is still time, or we would fritter away the opportunities before the nation and squander the opportunities in meeting those challenges. Now is as good a time as ever, as he said, to fix the roof while the sun is shining.
I think the budget really relied on the good fortune and the good luck that comes with a huge resource and mining boom that is not just evident in Australia but evident internationally. It relied, I think, on a lot of that good fortune rather than painstaking work to ensure that the future constraints on economic growth were adequately dealt with. Our economic growth path owes much to the economic reforms of the Hawke-Keating era, but we have known for at least a decade—the time that this government has been in power—that the Australian economy would come up against capacity constraints, that it would come up against infrastructure backlogs and that there would be a day of reckoning about the skills crisis and shortages which are so endemic in our economic system. Despite knowing of these capacity constraints and other challenges, complacency has been the order of the day under this government. We needed to see in the budget economic policies that were directed to the supply side of the economy because the supply side constraints are important in helping to build the nation’s productive potential. Unless we address the supply side of the economy, a lot of the good fortune that we are relying on will slowly come to a grinding halt once the boom years are over.
The budget papers concede that the world economy is enjoying the fastest rate of growth for over 30 years, but there are few countries benefiting as much from the boom as Australia because of our traditional reliance on high volumes of mineral commodity exports. At present, we are enjoying the highest prices for our commodity exports on record and the highest terms of trade in 50 years—although, as each monthly figure shows, we are not capitalising on the terms of trade because we still have very high levels of imports, which are not being matched by any coherent import replacement policies or any long-term views about how you underpin the necessity for even higher volumes of manufactured exports into the future once the days of the mining boom are over.
There is no doubt that, particularly in the last five years, changes to budget parameters have been driven by the soaring terms of trade that come as a result of the mining boom, which has added over $300 billion to the budget and, in a very short space of time, a $53 billion increase since mid-year budget forecasts. The budget papers describe an economy which is being driven by a tidal wave of revenue from the mining boom.
If you look at the papers carefully, you see the analysis contained within them in fact pours cold water on the government’s claim that it is their extreme industrial relations agenda and their legislation that have positive outcomes for employment. They are back-pedalling on the name of the legislation—which as of today has no name, even though the community at large understands the name and the impact of the words Work Choices very clearly. Just weeks ago they were claiming in the parliament that the positive employment growth outcomes were directly attributable to the impact of the Work Choices legislation. The Treasurer should look at his own papers, because they confirm a quite different picture and the papers say that the employment growth has in fact been driven by the mining boom and not by the IR legislation.
We can see that with employment growth of 7.6 per cent in the construction and mining sectors in the year to March 2007. The budget papers confirm that the mining boom is driving growth across the whole economy, highlighting:
... continued stimulus to household income and wealth from high commodity prices.
This is not just from jobs growth but also from record share prices being led by mining companies, and you see that every night if you stay up and watch the Lateline program and beyond, which shows the mining sector reaping windfall profits as share prices go through the roof.
The budget falls short of comprehending the scale of the challenges that face Australia in preparing for improved living standards beyond the mining boom, and it is some of those issues that I want to deal with in the comments tonight. I think the biggest failure of this year’s budget was the failure to put in place measures that would secure and build long-term economic prosperity beyond the years of the mining boom. As we all know—and that is why we put such a singular importance on the issue of productivity—it is only by continuing productivity growth that we can bring about long-term economic prosperity through sustained economic growth, through more jobs and higher living standards without unleashing inflation. That is why I made the point earlier that it was under a Labor government that this country in fact moved to a system of enterprise bargaining centred on productivity outcomes that has provided the underpinnings for the good fortune that the Howard government has been able to capitalise on.
But the trends of productivity growth are very worrying and our recent record has been very poor. From averages of around three per cent, to 3.2 per cent productivity growth in the mid-1990s, to about 2.2 per cent at the turn of the decade, the current estimate for the current decade is just 1½ per cent productivity growth. In fact, even this figure is very much under challenge by independent analysis. I refer to a recent article by the economics correspondent for the Australian in which he argues:
Treasury is counting on the best productivity performance in seven years to lift economic growth in the year ahead.
However, an analysis of the budget by the Parliamentary Library shows Treasury does not expect any productivity growth at all in 2006-07, and says the poor performance makes the target—
that is, a lifting of economic growth in the year ahead—
a tall order.
The report from the library says:
Poor recent productivity performance, and the limit it may place on growth, remains an area of risk in relation to forecasts of improved growth in the coming year.
In 2007-08, Treasury expects productivity to rise again to 2.25per cent. This assumes that the spectacular rate of jobs growth comes to an end, while economic growth accelerates.
The report goes on:
Given the recent poor productivity performance in Australia, these growth rates are likely to be more of a challenge than they might once have been … Treasury then expects productivity to slip back to an annual growth rate of 1.75 per cent. One of the problems with poor productivity is that any wage increases flows directly to inflation … If productivity languished at recent levels, such pay rises into the future would threaten the Reserve Bank’s target for inflation, bringing the prospect of further interest rate rises.
I want to state that point again. I think the budget fails to understand the importance of productivity growth as an essential component in ensuring our long-term economic prosperity beyond the days of the mining boom. That is why the Leader of the Opposition and our party have placed such importance on lifting productivity in this country. One of the ways we can do that is by placing substantial importance, as we have, on investment in the education, skills and training of our people. We see that reflected in a number of the major policy announcements that have been made by the shadow minister outlining our vision for an education revolution. All of that vision is predicated on investment in education, skills and training of our people as an essential component in lifting productivity in this nation. We believe that Australia must aspire to becoming the most highly educated and skilled nation, and investment in public education—which continues to cater for almost 70 per cent of our students—and that increased investment in vocational and TAFE training are critical issues that we need to address as we look at the challenges of the decades ahead.
Alongside the importance of productivity growth, beyond the stalling that we have seen in recent years, there needs to be an emphasis on workforce participation. In my view, the measures outlined in the budget this year do not adequately target those groups that are currently not participating in the workforce. We need to remind ourselves that our participation rates in key areas are low in comparison with other OECD nations. What do the budget papers themselves reveal? They show that after 11 years of Howard government complacency Australia is ranked 25th out of 30 OECD countries for prime-aged male workforce participation. Our ratings are incredibly poor for the participation of women of child-bearing age, where again we rank 25th out of 30. We rank only 13th in workforce participation rates for people nearing retirement age and 10th in overall rates of participation. So there is a huge participation challenge facing our nation and we need to address the areas of shortfall. Those groups not currently participating in the workforce need to be targeted to reach the levels of participation that we see in comparable OECD countries.
There is little effort made in this budget on tackling the major reasons for joblessness. One of those reasons is, of course, a lack of relevant skills among jobless Australians. By the government’s own admission, Australia faces a shortage of 200,000 skilled workers over the next five years. At best, all the budget does is add another three Australian technical colleges to the previous list of 25. When you look at the outcomes you see that through the Australian technical colleges initiative we will see fewer than 10,000 trained students and apprentices graduating by 2010. It is a drop in the ocean when you consider the magnitude of the skills shortage that exists and that will grow in years to come. The Howard government’s Australian technical colleges are simply too little too late after a decade of underinvestment, which has resulted in the current skills crisis. Could you believe that this same government, knowing of the impending crisis, slashed its investment in vocational education by 13 per cent in the three years to 2000 and, between 2000 and 2004, increased its investment by only one per cent in real terms? It is no wonder there was so much unmet demand in the TAFE and vocational training sector, and it is no wonder that the government’s response to the growing skills crisis has been totally inadequate.
In response to that fundamental challenge, the Leader of the Opposition announced in his budget reply that Labor was committed to a 10-year $2.5 billion trades training centres plan, aimed at the one million students in years 9, 10, 11 and 12 in Australian secondary schools. Unlike the meagre response through the Australian technical colleges program, Labor’s plan will provide all secondary schools with up to $1.5 million to build or upgrade their VET facilities in order to keep students at school. It will enhance the profile and quality of VET in Schools and provide ongoing real career paths in the trades and apprenticeships for our students. By making VET a viable option for all secondary students, Labor’s plan will make a real and significant dent in the current skills shortage. The longer the government minister pretends that a few technical colleges will make up for more than 11 years of complacency and neglect, the more damage this will do to the prospects of our children in the future and our economic wellbeing. As I said earlier, the government’s plan is a mere drop in the ocean when it comes to addressing the skills crisis. The government’s own figures estimate that we will face a shortfall of 200,000 skilled workers over the next five years.
Infrastructure is another major challenge which the budget did little to address. We have known about our infrastructure shortfalls and bottlenecks for a long time, but what did we see? We saw very little by way of improvement to our roads, ports, transport systems, water supplies and broadband speeds. The BCA estimates our infrastructure shortfall to be to the value of about $90 billion. After the budget, the business community, through the BCA, said:
. . . the key issue still appears to be the lack of long-term integrated planning to drive investment to address ongoing bottlenecks.
They are the words of the business community, not the words of people on the opposition benches. Hear what the business community is saying.
It is amazing that the government has, 18 months after its tabling, failed to respond to the recommendations of the bipartisan committee report on sustainable cities. It is amazing that this government has no national infrastructure coordinating body. It is amazing that its AusLink transport policy neglects city transport infrastructure. It is amazing that its so-called National Plan for Water Security is restricted to rural water issues and does nothing to address the crisis for many of our cities in terms of security of water supply. And it is not surprising, but it is amazing, that the Howard government has no plan for a modern national broadband network. I could go on, but I think I have made my point, and my point is this: the government has relied on the good fortune that has come with the mining boom, but it has done little in the budget to underpin the challenges that this nation faces into the future. (Time expired)
I am very proud to be able to speak on the Appropriation Bill (No. 1) 2007-2008 and cognate bills and to say that Treasurer Peter Costello’s 2007-08 budget is very good news for Australia and very good news for Northern Tasmania and the people I am proud to represent—the people of Bass. The budget provides benefits for diverse groups of people, including working families, seniors and veterans. I note that every taxpayer in Australia will receive a tax cut. The budget is also about being able to afford to fund projects in regional Australia because of the government’s ability to properly manage the economy.
I was listening just now to the contribution from the member for Throsby, in which the comment at the tail end seemed to imply that the government was able to fund what I interpret to be positive initiatives from her point of view only because of ‘good fortune’. A little luck goes a long way, but hard decisions go a lot further. When one reflects on the challenges the Australian economy has faced over the last 11 years and some of the reforms that have had to be made, one would have to say that this budget is not about good fortune but about the government in the past making very difficult decisions and setting up the Australian economy in such a fashion that it was able to afford good initiatives in the future.
One need only be reminded of the state of the economy when the Labor Party was kicked out of office in 1996. I remember well that the national debt—that is, the debt carried by the government—was $96 billion. The ledger showed $96 billion in debt, borrowings from the Keating years which at some point had to be repaid. For every year that debt was carried, an interest payment on top of the principal had to be found. That has been calculated at some $8 billion every year from the annual recurrent budget just to meet the payments owing on that debt. It is also worth noting that in 1996 the Howard government found—surprisingly, because this had not been disclosed—that its budget was in deficit by $10 billion. That does not sound like good fortune to me. The first Costello budget had to be the hardest and had to confront some difficult challenges. Yes, as the member for Throsby acknowledges, we are enjoying good times and a strong economy—an economy where more people than ever feel as though they are part of it and feel as though they are being recognised. So many people, a record number, are able to enjoy the dignity of work, in many cases for the first time. So it is a good budget—it is not about good luck at all—and I compliment the Treasurer for the excellent work that he has undertaken.
One of the highlights of this budget for the regional community of Northern Tasmania is a $13 million contribution to the upgrade of Launceston’s flood protection system. I have been saying for a very long time now that, because of the importance of addressing this issue and because of the cost of the repair bill for this project, there has been a case for federal government assistance. This has been primarily a matter of state government responsibility, which for many years has been fobbed off, but due to the persistence of the council, in particular our mayor, Alderman Ivan Dean, it has been raised as a matter of priority. Having spoken about the flood levees for a long time with both the Minister for Local Government, Territories and Roads, Jim Lloyd, and the Prime Minister, I am very pleased with this outcome. While the dishonesty and manipulation from the Labor Party in Tasmania in order to play politics on this issue has been very disappointing, it did not distract me from fighting for the interests of the people of Invermay and, indeed, the wider community. It is well known that, if a flood of the dimensions of the 1929 flood revisited our city, the flood levees are not in sufficiently good repair to hold back that flood. It would devastate our community and it would paralyse the city.
I am also pleased to note that the budget contains $10 million of funding for the Scottsdale Industry and Community Development Fund, of which $6 million relates specifically to a merit based grants program and $4 million is a contribution to the $9 million bill for the upgrade of the roads leading to Musselroe Bay. Organisations with a project that can create or retain long-term employment opportunities can apply for grants from the Industry and Community Development Fund. This, of course, is in response to the crisis that we faced in the north-east community when two softwood sawmills, which were the major employers in that community, were facing shutdown because they were not able to secure softwood resource in the longer term. That is very gratifying for me—we have worked very hard for this fund—and I look forward to taking part in announcing the successful recipients of that fund. Our agenda is quite simple: it is about creating and retaining employment in that community in a way that helps it to survive probably the hardest time in its history.
Also I draw the attention of the House to the provision of the remaining $1.1 million to complete the Australian government’s $10 million contribution toward upgrading the Scottsdale to Lilydale Road. Northern Tasmania is a grateful recipient of road funding from the Commonwealth, and I would like to note that in 2005-06 the Australian government paid a total of $135.2 million to Tasmania. This included the one-off payment of $60 million for the AusLink listed East Tamar Highway and $10 million for improving local roads. Coupling that with the Commonwealth’s contribution in 2006-07 of $74.9 million, I believe I can quite rightly say that the Australian government invests more in roads in Tasmania than the Tasmanian government does. I am advised that this is the only state of Australia where this occurs.
The merger of the Australian Maritime College and the University of Tasmania will go ahead. This will see the federal government gifting the AMC’s assets, which are valued at $61 million, to the university to facilitate integration of the AMC into the university. The merger will be effective from 1 January 2008. It will be necessary for legislation to come before the parliament to give effect to that transfer. The college was established in 1978 as Australia’s national institution for maritime education and training. It is one of the world’s best-equipped maritime training institutions. It had 740 full-time equivalent students last year, and the merger will ensure the viability of that institution as Australia’s national centre for maritime education, research and training. I pay tribute to Malek Pourzanjani, the President of the AMC, as well as the Vice-Chancellor of the University of Tasmania, Professor Le Grew, for the wonderful way in which they have been able to work together for the benefit of all of Tasmania. The AMC is a world-class organisation and the merger will ensure that it can continue to lead the way in maritime training, education and research.
There has been another challenge locally in Northern Tasmania. One of our industries, the ACL Bearing Company in Launceston, has been facing an enormous challenge. It is part of the automotive components manufacturing industry, and times are tough. Times are very tough, and it has been forced to move to make redundant 90 of its workers. I am very pleased to have been able to lobby successfully for assistance to the ACL Bearing Company’s workers—not to the company but to the workers themselves—who face retrenchment. The assistance package which is funded in this budget will be directed at the workers of ACL to help them to retrain or to move into new jobs. When news of the ACL redundancies was announced, I coordinated consideration by three Commonwealth ministers and the Prime Minister’s office of this issue. As part of this package, the Australian government has provided up to $1,000 per worker to assist with costs associated with looking for work, such as training, job interview clothing, equipment, travel or moving house, depending on the individual’s circumstances. This is provided through our Job Network.
Northern Tasmanians, in particular, will benefit in a very important way, in their weekly budgets, from the decision to provide tax cuts to every Australian taxpayer. The federal budget is a clear demonstration of the, I think, now proven fact that only a Liberal government can deliver responsible economic management for the nation, which results in a better standard of living. That is what this is all about. It is not about spending the surplus. It is not about a federal budget which does nothing other than to spend in some areas which have been designated as politically useful. We can bellyache about this all we like, but a federal budget is not just about spending the winnings. It is about making the decisions which allow us to have winnings at all. It is about balancing the budget. It is about paying off debt. It is about treating the budget much as you would treat your household budget. You make sometimes difficult decisions. You do it for the longer term interest. This budget, Mr Costello’s 11th budget, does just that. Despite what the Labor Party would have us believe, this is about much more than just spending a surplus. It is about planning for our future as a nation. It is about rewarding initiative, which history has shown us is something that Labor has been unable to do.
Any current poll will tell us that the Australian people are currently flirting with the idea of a federal Labor government. I would say to the House today that if the Australian people would like to go out on a date with Labor, they will end up paying for the meal. A decision like that would have dire consequences for the Australian economy. It would have dire consequences for the federal budget and those consequences would flow into every household in our country. As we reflect back on the last two Labor governments that were replaced by coalition governments, in both cases it was like a bad room mate, as the Treasurer put forward. In every case, it was the coalition that had to come in and mop up the mess. I say again to the House that only a Liberal government is in a position to make the hard decisions, to do what is right, to make strategic investments in our economy and to provide tax cuts after all of its responsibilities have been discharged, and that has been a wonderful benefit for our economy.
The Tasmanian community in general will benefit from this very sensible budget as well. Taxpayers across the state will receive around $780 million in tax cuts over the next four years. The new tax cuts are on top of the $86 billion worth of tax cuts nationally which have already been implemented by this government since 2002. For example, a Tasmanian single income family on $40,000 with two or three children will be $1,100 per year better off from 1 July this year. A Tasmanian dual income family on $50,000 with two or three children will be $1,250 per year better off. While every taxpayer in Australia will be receiving a tax cut under this budget, from 1 July this year the most significant savings in tax will be made by those people who earn between $30,000 and $40,000, which I believe is absolutely appropriate.
Total payments as a grant to the Tasmanian government have increased by a massive seven per cent to a new total of $2.413 billion. This is including GST payments of $1.64 billion, which is a staggering $117 million more than what the state government would have received under the pre-2000 tax-sharing system. This is tipped to rise to represent a bonus of $152 million in just a few years from now, 2010. This is the new tax system at work in conjunction with an economy which is doing extremely well. As I have consistently argued during this contribution, it is the benefits of good economic management which are felt not by the government, not by politicians, but by everyday Australians in every home around Australia. That is if you do it right, and that is what we are witnessing.
In addition, the entire state of Tasmania will benefit from increased funding for roads—even more than we have heard—health and education. In key budget measures for Tasmania, our local government authorities will receive increased financial assistance grants of 3.9 per cent, representing $57 million; and tied grants for state government programs such as schools and hospitals have increased by 12.9 per cent to $767 million. The funding provision for the uncapped Bass Strait Passenger Vehicle Equalisation Scheme and the Tasmanian Freight Equalisation Scheme has been increased to $130 million. These two schemes working together underpin passenger and freight movements across Bass Strait and give great strength and comfort to the Tasmanian economy, and have been a significant contributor to the increase in tourism and industry that we have witnessed in Tasmania in recent years.
I also observe from the budget that the average low-income Tasmanian family will be some $20.50 per week better off through reimbursements and improved payments being made available for child care. The budget demonstrates that the Howard government is extending the benefits of a strong economy to those outside the workforce, including older Tasmanians whose working lives have contributed to building our economy. This paves the way for a stronger Tasmanian community into the future. Bonus and recognition payments will be made to our older citizens by the end of June. These payments are also being made available to our veteran community. On behalf of my veteran constituents, I feel extremely grateful for such significant support being provided to our very valuable veteran community, and I know that this view is shared by both sides of the House.
In the moments remaining available to me, I want to touch on one component of the budget that gives me enormous satisfaction. Realising Our Potential, which has been crafted by the Minister for Education, Science and Training, along with the Minister for Vocational and Further Education, is a massive and comprehensive investment in the education and vocational training sector in Australia. It is part of an astonishing investment of $5 billion that will be paid immediately to a new Higher Education Endowment Fund to provide an ongoing source of funding to our higher education or tertiary sector. It will be a source of funding into the future for capital works, which have been greatly diminished and greatly criticised by the Labor Party. But no-one can be anything but impressed by the size of this payment, which will be perpetual. It will be there for future generations and be managed by the guardians of the Future Fund.
Along with this increased funding to universities, there will be increased funding to students, rent assistance for tertiary students and an extra 3,500 Commonwealth scholarships. There will also be more assistance for apprentices and those in the VET sector. Apprentices in their first and second years in areas of identified skills shortages will be very satisfied with a wage top-up of $1,000. These young people, as we know, struggle with the low income that they receive during their early years of apprenticeship. I know that apprentices in my electorate in Northern Tasmania will be very pleased with this payment. I also note that the extra payment of $500 per year toward training fees for first- and second-year apprentices will be gratefully received.
There is additional funding in this budget for teachers—those people who are given the responsibility of implementing curriculum in our schools. I am very gratified to see that the Commonwealth has continued its $700 tutorial voucher to help students in years 3, 5, 7 and 9 meet literacy and numeracy standards—as opposed to just students in the early years, as it was previously. It is great to see that there is real funding for a genuine national curriculum, which the Commonwealth and the states will work on. I look forward to it being implemented by the first day of school in 2009.
There are a lot more things that I could say about this budget. It is excellent for Tasmania, it is excellent for Australia and it is excellent for my community in Bass. It again reminds me of the value of responsible economic management and of making difficult decisions. It shows that only a coalition government can continue to provide the good economic times that so many people are beginning to take for granted. I thank the House.
In dealing with these appropriation bills, I want to first of all turn to a press release put out today by Alan Griffin, the shadow minister for veterans’ affairs and shadow minister for defence, science and personnel, entitled ‘What are you hiding, Mr Billson?’ The press release states:
The Minister for Veterans’ Affairs, Bruce Billson, appears to be trying to avoid public accountability of his Department by refusing to respond to a number of questions on notice from the last Estimates hearing.
I have been advised that the Department of Veterans’ Affairs is the only Department to not have submitted at least one response to questions from the last estimates round.
These questions were due on Thursday 29 March 2007 and are now nearly two months overdue.
I have advice from the Senate Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade that the majority of the responses have been sitting with the Minister from at least 13 April awaiting his clearance.
This is not the first time Mr Billson has taken excessive amounts of time to respond to questions on notice. It would appear that he is more interested in playing ‘clever’ political games with these responses, rather than answering legitimate questions asked of his Department.
I would have thought that the Minister would have been very keen to have the questions answered considering they covered topics such as;
- Casualties arising from the conflicts in Iraq, Afghanistan and East Timor
- Mental Health Programs and Research
- Suicide among Veterans
- The time taken for the Department to process claims
- The handling of complaints and correspondence by the Department
The fact that Mr Billson has not even responded to one question shows an utter contempt of the Veterans’ community who deserve answers regarding these very important issues. The question should be asked—is Mr Billson hiding something or is he just failing to handle the workload of his portfolio?
That is the press release by Alan Griffin, who is doing an excellent job. I am pleased with the way he is out there communicating with—talking to and listening to—the veteran community. The minister said on 23 May in responding to some things I had said on a veterans’ bill:
The member for Cowan purports to represent the veterans community by circulating and re-parroting very selective parts of information. He referred to a tragedy … To see parts of a psychiatric report read into Hansard and to then accuse the department of not being responsive is unfortunate. Somehow the report ended up in the hands of the member for Cowan, yet those representing the individual did not see fit to actually share that information with the department.
It is that last part of what the minister said that I want to respond to. I understand from very senior members of an ESO that this issue and the issues that I raised here were referred directly to the department and the same issues were raised at either the minister’s or the department’s own mental health forum. This minister needs to get on top of his brief. He needs to know what he is talking about.
It is unfortunate that members from our side of parliament have no option but to raise these issues in the House, because the minister, for some reason or another, as has been clearly pointed out in this press release by Alan Griffin, the member for Bruce, seems to be reluctant to answer questions or respond to correspondence. If the minister took these issues a bit more seriously and if he responded to the issues that are raised with him not only by members of parliament but by members of the veteran community then we would not have to go to such lengths to draw attention to these issues.
The circumstances I raised in that speech a couple of weeks ago were a tragedy, but the point is it is a tragedy that has been repeated too often through the lives of Vietnam veterans since they have returned home. If the minister does not understand the depth of this problem then perhaps, unfortunately, it is a tragedy which will continue to occur with the younger veterans who are coming back from East Timor and who have come back from Rwanda, Afghanistan and Iraq. No-one wants to see that happen.
I really do not need any advice from this minister as to how to deal with veteran issues. I have been involved in the veteran community since the early seventies. I have worked for the Vietnam Veterans Counselling Service. I have dealt with suicidal veterans, sometimes at 2 o’clock or 3 o’clock in the morning. I do not need this minister to come into this place and tell me how I should represent the veteran community. Representations that have been made by people like me and people in the veteran community have led to change. I know that if some of the issues that have been put before ministers for veterans’ affairs had been allowed to be swept under the table, they simply would have been. The veteran community is entitled to good representation, and I am in a position to provide it—and I intend to.
I was a veteran before I came into this place and I will go back into the veteran community when I finish in this place. On the other side of the coin, ministers come and ministers go. I think this minister’s brief is to get on top of his responsibilities and to truly understand the issues of the veteran community, particularly the issues that individual veterans confront with post-traumatic stress disorder. Abusing me in this House is not going to help rectify those issues. I call on this minister to address the issue of mental health within the veteran community a damn sight more seriously in the future than he has in the past.
I understand that the states are either currently about to negotiate or in the midst of negotiating a new Commonwealth State/Territory Disability Agreement. I understand that the states want to negotiate this agreement—it is an agreement that they all support—but I call on the states to be cautious in the way that they do negotiate this agreement.
I also call on the Howard government to stop playing politics with the disabilities sector of the Australian community. It absolutely sickens me to see the Commonwealth pitting state against state and disability sector against disability sector. I believe that this is an area that should be well above politics. I look to Minister Brough to find within Commonwealth and state agreements the same level of political bipartisanship which exists within the states. I think the level of bipartisanship within the political parties, for instance, in Western Australia in recent years has been excellent. I hope Minister Brough takes a lead from the states and injects some bipartisanship into his dealings with the states.
I understand that the money that Western Australia has been offered for the next few years of this agreement, in 2007, is exactly the same dollar amount that was put on the table by the Commonwealth in 2004. In other words, what they are offering in 2007 is money that is basically three or four years old. This offer does not take into account the incredible growth in demand and the incredible growth in cost in this sector over the years.
I want to talk about the state budget. The state budget in Western Australia saw an increase in funding to the disabilities sector to about $294 million. It is a lot of money—I understand that—but there is still a hell of a lot that needs to be done. The point is that this represents an increase over last year’s funding of some 7.3 per cent. It is also interesting to note that since 2000 the disabilities sector has seen increases of some 116 per cent allocated to it by the Gallop and Carpenter governments. As I said, it is a lot of money, but there is still a lot of unmet need out there. It is incredibly important that the Commonwealth, the Prime Minister and the minister recognise this unmet need and put some money on the table that will help the states deal with these issues.
I want to refer to a briefing note that was brought forward by the minister in Western Australia. It was actually a briefing note for federal parliamentarians. I understand that all members of parliament from Western Australia were invited into this briefing and this briefing note was made available. It is on the Commonwealth State/Territory Disability Agreement and it goes back into some of the history of this agreement. But the report makes this point:
16 years later, funding is still provided on the basis of population data from 1993 and Western Australia, along with a number of other jurisdictions, receives a much lower share of the CSTDA funding than our population warrants. Western Australians with disabilities represent 10.2 per cent of all Australians with disabilities but this state only receives 8 per cent of CSTDA funding.
It goes through a funding chart and it shows that per capita funding in the Northern Territory for people with disabilities is $610, in the ACT it is $563, in Tasmania it is $1,175, in Western Australia it is $675, in South Australia it is $1,279, in Queensland it is $820, in Victoria it is $835 and in New South Wales it is $864. We can understand why there is a concern about the amount of funding coming into Western Australia and it is for that reason—the lack of equity in funding—that I urge our state to be cautious in the way in which they negotiate this agreement.
As I have said, it is an agreement that I understand the states want but, importantly, the minister must recognise that it must have some equity and must recognise the incredible growth in costs that the states have incurred over the years. For that reason I was very disappointed to learn that the increase in the federal budget was only about 1.8 per cent. I came across a media release from an organisation called Dignity For Disabled, put out on 9 May under a big heading ‘Federal budget’, which stated:
The Federal Budget announced by the Government yesterday does virtually nothing to address the critical unmet need in the disability sector. Treasurer Peter Costello has failed to indicate any real support for the critical new commonwealth/state disability funding agreement due to be finalized by June 30th 2007. Despite the Senate Committee report released February 2007 showing massive shortcomings in previous funding arrangements and 29 key recommendations, Costello has snubbed the 200,000 Australians with serious and multiple disabilities depending on the new CSTDA agreement for quality of life.
The commonwealth’s budget forecast of funding indexation at just 1.8% and no additional funding for an enhanced CSTDA agreement where the states and the commonwealth agree to address what is fast becoming Australia’s greatest social injustice ‘Disability Services will leave the disability sector in shock at the callous lack of compassion and fairness of the Treasurer and this Government.
They are fairly harsh words but there is a great deal of concern within the disability community over the lack of funding. People with disabilities do not want to see the blame game played. They do not want to see politics played on this issue. Their needs are too great. We also do not want to see state pitted against state. We do not want to see disability sector pitted against disability sector. We want to see fairness and some equity in funding across the states and across the whole disability sector.
I call on this minister to start to respond to the cry of the states and to the cry of people with disabilities and to put some reasonable funding in place. For heaven’s sake, we are seeing millions upon millions upon millions of dollars thrown into public advertising by this government—a government that is in desperate straits and a government that intends to try to spend its way out of the predicament it has got itself into. I think it is a fair comment that perhaps if this Howard government had been less tricky, more up-front and more forthcoming with the disability sector and other groups in our community who do need a fair go, it probably would not be in the circumstances that it is in at the moment.
I also want to refer to the report of the Senate Standing Committee on Community Affairs which was released earlier this year. It was a very good report and I commend all members of the House to read this report—particularly those members who come from Western Australia, because I would be urging Western Australian members from all sides of the political forum to get behind the recommendations of this Senate committee. Our committees in the House and in the Senate do some great work, and it is a pity that more notice is not taken of the great work that our committees do, particularly when you have a strong, bipartisan report like this one from the Senate community affairs committee, in its inquiry into the CSTDA.
The committee recommended a number of things, but three of the most important were these: they recommended an equitable distribution formula of Commonwealth based funding; an indexation level in line with the actual costs of delivering services; and substantial additional funding to address identified unmet need. The things that Western Australia was crying out for were per capita funding equity, appropriate rates of indexation and growth funding for unmet demand.
I commend this Senate report to all members. I think it is an excellent report. Mr Deputy Speaker, I seek leave to table this report. It is a bipartisan document and I think it might be of benefit to members on both sides of the House to read it.
I thank members opposite for granting leave, and I commend the bill to the House.
The 2007-08 budget brought down by the Treasurer was very much about locking in the gains of the past 11 years and ensuring the right economic settings for the future prosperity of Australia and Australians. An important aspect of this is education and training. Realising Our Potential invests an extra $3.5 billion in education and training over four years. It provides additional funding of over $1.7 billion for universities, $222 million to improve access to tertiary education, $638 million for vocational education and $843 million for schools. The government is also financing unprecedented new investment in universities through the Higher Education Endowment Fund, with initial capital of $5 billion, achievable because of the 2006-07 surplus.
The government is committed to assisting apprentices to invest in their future. Skills for the Future committed $837 million to support skill creation. Realising Our Potential builds further on this and will attract new apprentices with wage and fee support and shorter apprenticeship while increasing the status and availability of quality technical training.
These measures are part of the government’s plan to restore the true value of technical and vocational training that declined under Labor. In the current economic environment young people can often earn more by casual labouring than by entering an apprenticeship. This can discourage potential apprentices, even though there is no doubt that having a qualification will stand them in better stead in the long run. It is important that our young people are trained and qualified for times beyond the current boom. Should there be a downturn, those who have chosen to labour for short-term cash gains will be disadvantaged. We cannot afford to let this happen to our young people.
Therefore, first- and second-year apprentices under 30 in skill shortage areas who have struggled with low incomes will greatly benefit from the announcement of a tax-free $1,000 wage top-up and up to $500 per year which can be used towards training fees. This will provide an effective wage increase of up to 10 per cent for some apprentices and will undoubtedly relieve the financial pressure which can act as a disincentive for those wanting to enter trade training. Both apprentices and registered training organisations will benefit from the $58.5 million allocated to working with industry and local employers to develop and implement fast-track apprenticeships based on competency based achievements rather than time served. The $50,000 on offer to individual registered training organisations to work with industry partners to further develop innovative and flexible training arrangements to fast-track apprenticeships is sure to be well received by both employers and apprentices.
The commitment to a further three Australian technical colleges, at an investment cost of $83.6 million, is a further step in the right direction to ensuring that Australia is effectively addressing its trade skills needs of the future. Even before this announcement, I had been a strong advocate for the establishment of an Australian technical college on the old railway workshop site in Midland, in the electorate of Hasluck. With industry support and its historical ties to apprenticeship training, it is a perfect location. Australian technical colleges have provided a fantastic opportunity for young people with the interest, commitment and ability to develop the skills they will need to succeed in their chosen trade career. It will continue to be essential that we provide a vocational education and training framework that allows the young people of Australia to discover and achieve their full potential across a range of rewarding careers. Australian technical colleges are proving to be an integral part of that framework.
It has been heartening to see the way that local business, industry and the community have embraced the Australian technical colleges. By the end of 2007 a significant number of Australian technical colleges will be up and running, providing an opportunity for young people to access practical vocational education pathways and careers in traditional trade areas in specialist trade schools. I have been pleased by the success of the Australian technical colleges such as Perth South, which has been established using a model developed and driven by local industry and the community. The college has enjoyed strong support from key industry associations, including the Housing Industry Association, the Master Builders Association, the Automotive Industry and local employers. As in all Australian technical colleges, the proactive contribution from industry and local communities is ensuring that the skills students obtain meet the needs of local businesses and employers. They are providing an integrated year 11 and 12 curriculum which includes academic, business and trade skills that set the students on the pathway to a career and apprenticeship.
TAFE has often been touted as a panacea to Australia’s training needs. This may once have been the case; however, under successive state Labor governments, TAFE has changed its focus to trying to be all things to all people, reducing its industry involvement and focus on trade training. This has in large part led to the current shortage of skilled tradespeople. Under a federal Labor government, apprenticeship numbers in traditional trades dropped from 151,000 in 1991 to 122,600 by 1993.
There are now more than 400,000 Australian apprentices in training compared to 154,800 in 1996. While the TAFE system still delivers approximately 70 to 85 per cent of all publicly funded training programs, it very much needs to refocus on trade training requirements, addressing the skill needs of industry and providing effective employment outcomes for its clients. Until the TAFE system is reviewed with a much stronger focus on flexibility and responsiveness to industry, employer and student needs, it will not have the ability to effectively meet the future skill needs of Australia. Likewise, while some schools such as Southern River College and Thornlie Senior High School in my electorate of Hasluck have done extremely well in introducing effective vocational programs, many schools have struggled. Why? Because they need specialist technical and industry specific skills and resources beyond the scope of the academic budgets of most high schools. The simple reality is that it costs more to deliver effective vocational training than to deliver English or geography. State Labor governments need to realise this and do something about it. Australian technical colleges are showing the way in developing industry specific opportunities for the 70 per cent of high school students not going to university, focusing on both academic and technical skills needed by students to develop successful careers in a trade. They also provide an excellent learning environment for those who learn by doing.
These budget announcements build strongly on other training initiatives implemented by the Howard government. For example, late last year the Prime Minister announced a number of initiatives in the $837 million Skills for the Future package, providing more opportunities for Australians to gain new skills and develop an entrepreneurial workforce. In announcing these measures he said:
It responds to demands from employers for a higher level of skills, a broader range of skills and more frequent updating of skills. It helps more Australians wanting to take up a trade apprenticeship in mid-career, as well as assisting apprentices to acquire the necessary skills to run their own businesses.
The budget initiatives and those announced in Skills for the Future are far-reaching and really demonstrate the Howard government’s understanding of the need to continually upgrade skills and for some to develop new skills no matter what their age.
In contrast, I found that the Leader of the Opposition’s budget response demonstrated a lack of real understanding of Australia’s training and skill needs and what really needs to be done to achieve successful outcomes for industry and the Australian workforce of the future. The Leader of the Opposition is suggesting that he will introduce VET—vocational education and training—to 2,650 schools around Australia. This initiative is simply not sustainable in the long term, has obviously not been properly thought through and is underresourced in every possible way. It is unrealistic to expect all schools to deliver trade training. It will spread resources too thin, producing mediocre results. This will not give Australians the skills or careers they need in the long run. This view was strongly supported by Mr Brian Toohey in his column in the West Australian on 14 May. It is not every day that I agree with Mr Toohey’s commentary; however, here he has got it right. He noted:
Kevin Rudd has made a bad policy mistake by promising to give every high school in Australia a trade training role. The job is much better done in specialist technical and vocational colleges where the money can be concentrated on producing fully skilled graduates.
Mr Toohey went on to say:
Rudd promised $500,000 and $1.5 million per school to build and equip workshops and computer laboratories—and no money for staffing them. It must be a long while since he has looked at building costs let alone the price of equipment needed.
It is ironic that on the day the Leader of the Opposition made his budget reply I was meeting with a delegation from the Australian Education Union, who raised the issue of the lack of skilled industry trainers and equipment in TAFE. How Mr Rudd’s 2,650 high schools are going to provide quality hands-on skills and technical training with a limited budget and limited staffing in underresourced workshops is an issue that Mr Rudd has conveniently overlooked, especially when state Labor governments around Australia cannot manage the TAFE sector or schools sector.
The general public has raised similar concerns, as evidenced by many letters to the editor published in the Weekend Australian on 12 May. I quote:
Kevin Rudd’s proposal to place industry-standard training facilities in high schools has merit ... but from where does he intend to get all the staff? TAFE colleges have been experiencing considerable difficulty in recruiting suitable lecturers, so what is Rudd’s strategy for sourcing the hundreds of skilled staff which will be necessary to provide industrial-level training in schools?
My apologies. The letter to the editor that I was quoting from went on to say:
Many of the existing manual arts and other skills teachers do not have industry-standard skills.
That was a letter from a Mr T Smith of Sorrento in WA. J Morrissey of Hawthorn in Victoria wrote:
Kevin Rudd’s rediscovery of the need for technical education is welcome but there is an incredible irony in this change of heart. It was Labor ideology which destroyed technical schools in the past 20 years and replaced them with one size fits all secondary colleges. This process cut the links with industry in the governance and direction of technical education in schools, and phased out teachers with trade experience. It was based on the delusion that a distinction was between high schools and ‘techs’ was elitist and that all students should be oriented towards university. Rudd denounced this delusion in his budget response as if he had reached some brilliant insight. Perhaps it was—for him.
I could not have said it better myself. They make excellent points. The quality of trainers and teachers has a direct impact on student achievements and outcomes. If schools cannot be appropriately staffed with qualified and experienced industry trainers, the injections of funds into this initiative will be a waste of taxpayers’ money.
In my first speech, in 2004, I noted that the challenge of how we skill and train ourselves and our people for the future world of work was an issue particularly close to my heart. It has therefore pleased me greatly to see the improvement in the number of people taking up vocational education and training. In 2006, around 1.6 million publicly funded students undertook vocational education and training. Approximately 405,000 people undertook an Australian Apprenticeship. Employment through group training is on the rise, with over 40,000 trainees and apprentices employed through this model. The statistics prove that the Howard government’s policies with respect to VET are working. This does not mean to say that there is still not more for us to do or that it cannot be done better. The ongoing concern with the quality of TAFE’s training and the need to create an effective alternative has been evidenced by the continued development of industry-specific training centres and private registered training organisations.
I believe that in addition to TAFE reforms there should be a continued focus on establishing more specialised industry based training centres, which, like the Australian technical colleges, have strong employer involvement. New initiatives such as FEE-HELP will assist private providers to compete with the TAFE sector and increase the numbers of students in training at private registered training organisations. With my background of over 18 years experience in an industry based association and training centre, I have witnessed firsthand the benefits these specialist training centres have offered to individuals, communities and businesses and the employment opportunities they have offered for young people. Unlike the current TAFE model, specialist private registered training organisations have the ability to keep their finger on the pulse of employer needs and can achieve better employment outcomes. With a direct involvement from industry, these registered training organisations have the flexibility and resources to deliver the sorts of training needed for industry to grow, develop and innovate, ensuring Australia’s future prosperity.
Similarly, the Australian technical colleges that are feeding the registered training organisation system should also be specialising in the key trades such as electrical, plumbing, automotive, construction, hospitality and other trade areas from some of the 40 qualifications listed on the skills shortage list. By specialising in an area, Australian technical colleges can become just that: specialists at training in their chosen trades creating topnotch tradespeople by addressing the needs of industry today and in the future.
With the rate of changing technology and growth in our economy, there is a need for government to actively manage our apprenticeship system. Around Australia, state Labor governments have taken their eyes off the ball in favour of union driven initiatives. Labor does not get it. Labor governments do not understand or appreciate that vocational training has to be developed to suit industry and employer needs, not based on some academic concept. There also needs to be further consideration of how we bridge the gap between trade and university qualifications. There is no reason why a qualified plumber, for example, cannot apply or should not be able to apply for a recognition of prior learning in order to obtain an engineering qualification. To date we have only tinkered around the edges of this issue, and I am pleased by the Realising Our Potential initiatives in this year’s budget, which recognise that the university and vocational education and training sectors are becoming increasingly interlinked.
I strongly support the proposal for a new trade diploma which will provide an excellent stepping stone from trade qualifications to university qualifications. By breaking down the barriers we will provide our students with a greater choice of qualifications and better quality training, giving Australians and employers better outcomes. With projects carried out by universities in conjunction with registered training organisations and government, I am sure we can create a model where these qualifications enjoy equal value in the eyes of students, training institutes and employers.
Taking a trade pathway should not be a barrier to university but rather another pathway. So, on trade qualifications—whether there are diplomas involved or licensed qualifications associated with that trade—it seems to me that, for those people who wish to take advantage of developing their skills and their qualifications beyond that, there should be pathways directly into university. Those qualifications should be recognised as entry-level qualifications to universities. This will provide the opportunity for those who decide, after having a trade career, to go on to expand their qualifications in such trades as engineering et cetera to do so without having to go back and do some academic based training to gain entry to university. The 2007-08 budget will continue to make a major impact regarding the skilling of our workforce by investing today’s wealth for the benefit of Australia’s tomorrow. The 2007-08 budget has my wholehearted support and I commend it to the House.
Labor welcomes the tax cuts and one-off payments in the 2007 budget because many Australian families, and carers in particular, have been under enormous financial pressure. It is clearly a very clever election year budget in terms of these giveaways, but it is a budget that fails the future test. The 2007 federal budget has squandered a unique opportunity to use the once in a lifetime $300 billion mining boom to secure Australia’s long-term economic future. Australian families care about their children’s future and, while these families desperately need the tax cuts and one-off payments in the budget to pay for their rising petrol prices, childcare costs, mortgage repayments, higher rent, and higher health and education costs, I believe that ultimately Australians also want the federal budget to address the long-term challenges that face the nation. Some of the biggest challenges include the need to boost productivity to make us competitive over the long term and to lock in future economic growth. Tackling the environment and economic challenges caused by climate change and the national water crisis is, of course, another long-term challenge, and keeping our workplaces fair is the third. The budget delivers little or nothing in any of these areas. The challenge of the budget was to invest some of the capital generated by the resources boom for the future and not squander it, but as I say this budget does not do that.
Housing affordability is one area that this budget does not touch at all. The budget was extremely disappointing for anyone who is interested in housing and housing affordability, particularly for the quarter of a million Australian families who are now paying over 30 per cent of their income in rent, a figure which NATSEM expects to rise to almost 400,000 households by 2010 if we continue on the current path. The budget is also extremely disappointing for the one in two adults and nearly two out of three children who are turned away from emergency accommodation in our towns and cities every night. It is also disappointing for first homebuyers, for whom average monthly repayments now stand at an all-time high of $2,300, which is more than 30 per cent of the average disposable income. It is interesting that in Sydney now a family needs an income of $100,000 to afford an average mortgage. Indeed, all families entering the housing market or who need to move to a bigger family home now need this six-figure income to keep up with the mortgage repayments for the median priced home in many Australian cities.
Austudy students were given some help by the government when it extended Commonwealth rent assistance to students receiving Austudy—of course, Labor has been arguing for this for many years now. We also cautiously welcome the $293.6 million in additional Indigenous housing funding for remote communities. But of course we have seen in recent media reports over the last week that the success of this initiative is far from guaranteed.
It is also worth saying that it seems extraordinary to me that much of the money that is currently spent on disadvantaged urban communities to providing housing for Indigenous Australians is being moved to disadvantaged remote communities. While I think there is a desperate need for greater investment in housing in remote communities, frankly it seems bizarre to take that money from some of the most disadvantaged Australians living in urban communities. We know for sure that Aboriginal communities are facing a shortage of about 18,000 homes over the next few years, and the budget announcement funds about 730 new homes in remote areas, if we are lucky. As I say, there is nothing additional for Indigenous people who live in urban areas. In fact, many will actually see funding taken away.
The recommendations of the review into the Community Housing and Infrastructure Program, CHIP, completed by PricewaterhouseCoopers in February 2007, were adopted by the government and funded in this budget. That means that the government will now abolish the Community Housing and Infrastructure Program, and that means the loss of funding for Aboriginal-specific community housing. These Indigenous community housing organisations manage about 21,758 houses across the country, according to a recent Australian Bureau of Statistics report, and the loss of CHIP funding puts these organisations at grave risk. The implications of the funding loss will also have knock-on effects over the wider social housing system. Obviously, if Aboriginal-specific organisations are closed down or have to reduce the housing stock they have available, their tenants will be looking for housing either with state public housing departments or with other community housing organisations. Those organisations are already overburdened.
Over the last three Commonwealth-state housing agreements, including the current one which is set to run out in June next year, the federal government would have ripped a total of $3.1 billion out of public and community housing; you cannot do that and not have dramatic effects. Over the last few years, the state housing authorities have therefore been faced with funding the shortfall or cannibalising their existing stock. Either way the people who are suffering, obviously, are those who need affordable housing. Without funding to compensate for the federal government’s so-called mainstreaming agenda for Indigenous housing, it is difficult to see how social housing providers will cope with the increased demands for their services. As I say, it simply does not make sense to shift funding from disadvantaged Aboriginal people living in urban areas to disadvantaged Aboriginal people living in remote areas. There are surely better ways of handling funding for those communities who desperately need it.
Beyond the lack of spending in Indigenous housing, there is no plan here in the budget to deal with the issue of housing affordability. The government’s simple answer is to say that the issue of housing affordability is something for the states, that the federal government has nothing to do with it at all and that the market will solve it all anyway. Well, that is plainly not the case. In the last 10 years the average home price has gone from three times the average annual income to seven times the average annual income. So the market is not fixing that problem. Even giants like the Housing Industry Association are calling on the federal government to tackle housing affordability. They say:
It’s time for the Federal Government to provide leadership in this area and convene a national summit to look at measures to restore affordability.
… … …
The Federal Government has the capacity to provide more assistance to state and local governments in meeting the cost of urban infrastructure, new homebuyers cannot continue to fund what are government obligations.
That comes from Dr Ron Silberberg, Managing Director of the Housing Industry Association.
Labor agrees. We know that people who are struggling to save a deposit and trying to get into the homeownership market are really tired of hearing the federal government say that it is all the fault of the states. Obviously, a problem like housing affordability needs to be dealt with by all three levels of government in cooperation, and that is what Labor’s national affordable housing strategy will do. It is plain, too, that there needs to be some government involvement in encouraging investment at the affordable end of the rental and home purchase markets. We have seen that a lot of investment in rental properties is at the higher cost end of the market, and that does not help people who are struggling to afford the rent.
The budget spends not one single additional cent to make housing more affordable, despite the fact that the proportion of first home buyers has declined dramatically from 21.8 per cent in 1996 to 17.5 per cent in February 2007. Home repossessions are soaring. In one month recently there were more than 5,000 repossessions in Sydney. That was 1,000 more than at the same time the year before. Rent is rising faster than inflation, and nearly 100,000 people each night are homeless in Australia. Nearly half of those are under the age of 24. The federal government has a role in making housing more affordable, and this budget was another squandered opportunity to help people who are struggling to pay the rent or struggling to get into the housing market. The Prime Minister admitted recently that rental prices were too high and that they were causing many households pain. The Deputy Prime Minister was so concerned by the government’s neglect of the issue of housing affordability that he reportedly raised the issue at a recent party room meeting. Likewise, there is uncommon and across-the-board agreement from groups such as the Housing Industry Association, industry groups, developers, affordable housing lobby groups and the Australian Council of Social Service that there needs to be some leadership from the federal government to stop housing becoming a luxury item. This budget demonstrates a complete unwillingness to show the leadership that is necessary.
As I say, we need all three levels of government to work together on housing affordability and, to that end, a Rudd Labor government would replace the Commonwealth-State Housing Agreement with a new national affordable housing strategy which would bring together those three levels of government to work on affordable housing. We also believe that all elements of housing policy should go under that agreement. Base grants to the states for public housing, community housing support, the first home owners grant and the Commonwealth rent assistance program would be all bundled together so that we can make sure that those programs are not working at cross-purposes with one another. We are also looking at a variety of other innovative proposals to tackle the housing affordability crisis, including examining ideas like helping low-income families into homeownership through a federal government backed shared equity scheme. We are looking at ways of encouraging private investment in the affordable rental market, increasing public housing stock. We are looking at boosting the community housing sector and improving services to the homeless. All of these need to be part of a broad strategy to address the issue of housing affordability and homelessness in Australia. To do all of that of course we need a housing minister, and currently there is no-one in the federal government who seems to take responsibility for housing as a policy area.
I want to turn my comments now to the missed opportunity in this budget when it comes to workforce measures to help parents, particularly mothers, returning to work after they have had children. This budget attempts to do something around child care. Any improvement in this area is welcome, but this budget does not contain enough support to genuinely help those women who are finding it tough to find child care or afford child care so as to get back into the workforce. Our future prosperity depends on lifting women’s participation in the workforce. As far as that goes, there is nothing in this budget that will do that.
Certainly, there is nothing here that would support a fairer industrial relations system; there is nothing here that supports parents who want to take extra time off when their babies are very young or who want to work part time when they return to work when their children are young. It does not offer, as Labor does, the right to request an extra 12 months unpaid parental leave or the right to request part-time or flexible work when returning to work. It does not do anything about the quality or availability of child care. It does do a few things about the cost, but I will return to that later. It does not invest in preschools or primary or secondary schools and it certainly does not have any plans to support the retirement incomes of women, which are still falling way behind men’s.
Australia’s future economic prosperity depends on making it easier and more rewarding for parents with childcare responsibilities to be in the workforce. We have low participation rates by international standards. We are ranked 23 out of all OECD countries, behind New Zealand, the US, the UK and Canada. The main reason is that, while many women would prefer some paid work or more paid work, a lack of child care, high costs of care and working hours that are unsuitable for family life contribute to a lot of women just throwing up their hands in despair and giving up. Of course families should not have to rush back to work when children are young just to pay the mortgage, but it should be a little easier for those people who want to go back to work to do so.
The increase in childcare benefit is welcome, although it is worth noting that childcare costs have been going up by 12 per cent per annum for four years, and the 10 per cent increase in childcare benefit is a one-off increase. So we are not even keeping pace with the CPI over recent years. It is also worth noting that, with the childcare tax rebate, we are now making parents wait one year instead of two—it simply enacts the original election campaign promise when it came to child care but it is still making people wait a year and it is still very difficult for some families. It is also worth noting that the figure that the government likes to bandy around—$4,000 per child—is quite different from the actual average payment, which is about $813. I want to contrast that with Labor’s investment of almost half a billion dollars for early childhood education, which will give every four-year-old the right to 15 hours of early childhood education a week for up to 40 weeks a year delivered by a qualified teacher, and our proposal to spend $200 million building up to 260 new childcare centres on school grounds and other community land.
I want to finish by speaking for a moment about disability support pensioners. There were a number of one-off payments for carers, for example, and for age pensioners. The payment to carers was $1,000; the payment to age pensioners is $500. Of course Labor welcomes these payments because, in an environment where people are finding it very difficult to make ends meet, any little bit of cash helps. When you think about it though, it seems a pretty unprincipled thing to collect vastly more tax than you need and then hand it out in dribs and drabs to the people who you have squeezed so mercilessly over previous years. It seems a little unfair to me as well that the many people who have phoned or emailed my office who are disability pensioners have missed out in this round of one-off payments. It is plain that this government does not believe that disability support pensioners are as worthy as other types of pensioners or other recipients of payments. It is plain that the government has prejudged these people perhaps as unworthy or perhaps, even more cynically, as unlikely to vote for the government whether they get the money or not. It is worth remembering that this is the same group that were punished so harshly in the 2005 budget when they lost $77 per fortnight. We remember the 2005 budget for the incredibly unfair tax cuts and harsh Welfare to Work measures. So those same people who were suffering in 2005 cop it again in 2007. As I said from the beginning, this budget fails the future test because it fails to invest the $300 billion mining boom windfall in measures that will enhance our productivity and enhance fairness and opportunity for Australians into the future.
I rise today in support of Appropriation Bill (No. 1) 2007-2008 and cognate bills. These bills outline the spending of the federal government associated with the federal budget for the 2007-08 financial year. I would like to take this opportunity to congratulate the Treasurer on delivering yet another exceptional budget for this nation, which will lock in the gains of the past as well as invest in the future of this nation. I would also like to congratulate the team behind the Treasurer, specifically Senator Minchin, the Minister for Finance and Administration; the member for Dickson, the Minister for Revenue and Assistant Treasurer; the member for Aston, the Parliamentary Secretary to the Treasurer; and Senator Colbeck, Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister for Finance and Administration—the team. Together this team has guided the nation to a period of economic strength and, instead of widely spending, as history shows us our colleagues across the chamber would have done, this team has put together a responsible budget which will build on that prosperity and strengthen the future of our nation. It places us in a position to still address areas of state Labor responsibilities, which we have done and will continue to do into the future.
The first matter I would like to talk about is the introduction of the dental program. The Howard government’s decade of strong economic management has enabled the federal government to fund a number of programs which are not technically its responsibility but which, nonetheless, are desperately required, and there is no better example of that than the dental program. When it became clearly evident that the South Australian Labor government were not going to live up to their responsibilities in relation to the dental health of South Australians, I canvassed my electorate to determine the level of concern about the lack of public funding for dental treatment and the impact it was having on people’s quality of life. I was overwhelmed by the response and raised the matter with my colleague the Minister for Health and Ageing. I also wrote to the Prime Minister, as well as raising the matter in the coalition party room. I was thrilled to see this item included in the budget: $2,125 per year for dental treatment for every patient whose dental health is impacting on a chronic medical condition. This is a huge relief for many Australians who have suffered too long because of state government inaction and it is a huge relief for many in my electorate of Kingston.
Another initiative in this year’s budget which is to be commended is the $1,000 wage top-up for first- and second-year apprentices aged under 30 who are training in a trade in an area of skills shortage. I have two young boys who are apprentices and I can assure the House that one of the biggest problems they face in completing their apprenticeship is the fact that in their first few years they are earning significantly less than their friends who are working full time in jobs which do not require apprentice training. This wage top-up payment will go a long way to encouraging young people into trades where there is a skills shortage but it will also provide in the early years of their trade an incentive to remain in that trade and complete their training. This is yet another initiative which, but for the strong and disciplined economic management of the Howard government, would not have been possible.
This government recognises the important contribution senior Australians make to our nation and we recognise the importance of doing all we can to assist them. That is why I was pleased to see included in this year’s budget the $500 non-taxable payment to senior Australians who are eligible for the utilities allowance or the seniors concessions allowance. Senior Australians have already given so much to this fine nation and yet they continue to give in their senior years. The Australian government is proud to provide this support to senior Australians and I am very pleased that this will assist so many in my electorate of Kingston where I have been overwhelmed by the response from senior constituents of mine calling to say ‘thank you’ for this initiative.
I have spent a considerable amount of time since I entered parliament advocating for the rights of the disabled and their carers. I was exceptionally pleased to again see a reward for carers included in this year’s budget. This year, those carers on carers payment will receive a bonus of $1,000, and those Australians receiving carer allowance will receive $600. No government and no amount of money can ever adequately thank carers—those people who give so much of their lives to caring for and defending those who are tragically less fortunate than themselves. Carers do not undertake this task for the money or the one-off payments from the government. They undertake the task purely because they love and care for the individual. The Australian government is proud to recognise that very selfless commitment and we are proud to be in a financial position to provide this financial relief to Australian carers.
This budget saw a massive increase in the Australian government’s funding for roads across the nation. The safety of Australian road users is dependent on good quality roads. Put quite simply, the upgrading and maintaining of roads to an appropriate standard saves lives, and the Australian government has once again increased its commitment to that cause. Being a former police officer, I know firsthand the carnage that can be caused by poorly kept roads, and the grief that can engulf a family or an entire community when a young life is cut tragically short. That is why I am so pleased to see the increase in this year’s budget for Australian roads. I can stand here today and assure the people of Kingston that I will fight very hard for their share of that increased funding. The South Australian Labor government has neglected the southern suburbs of Adelaide. It has refused to fund significant projects in the south. Despite spending millions of dollars in projects which have had massive blow-outs across the rest of the state, the state government has refused to live up to its responsibility to road users in the southern suburbs.
The Labor candidate for Kingston, Amanda Rishworth, decided to attack the fact that I did not get the same amount of funding for my electorate of Kingston as was received by the northern suburbs seat of Wakefield. I will put aside for the moment the fact that the Labor Party were whingeing about pork barrelling when it came to this funding everywhere else in the nation but somehow the candidate for Kingston was complaining that the Howard government is not in the habit of pork barrelling in Kingston. I will leave aside the fact that the City of Onkaparinga, my local council, in fact got every last cent they asked for. The thing that really annoys me and my constituents is that if the Labor candidate for Kingston had lived in the electorate for more than five minutes she would have been all too aware that since my election to the parliament I have delivered many millions of dollars in road funding.
Maybe Ms Rishworth should stick to commenting on the road-funding arrangements in the seat of Port Adelaide, where she has actually spent most of her time. Southern suburbs residents will not tolerate being fooled. They deserve someone who actually knows their area, knows how it ticks and knows the constituents’ concerns as I do, having lived in the area for over 20 years—and I still live there. They want someone to represent them who actually cares, who has a vision of security and direction for the south, to stand up and deliver as I have done in just two years—in comparison to the Labor candidate for Kingston, who proved how little she understood or knew about the southern suburbs when commenting on the budget.
I am proud to be a part of the Howard government team, and this budget is yet another fine example of what we can achieve because of the depth of talent within our ranks. The Prime Minister, the Treasurer, the Minister for Foreign Affairs and the Minister for Finance and Administration, Leader of the Government in the Senate, have served this parliament and their nation with honour and have delivered nothing but positive results for the last 11 years. I am proud of this budget and this government, not just because of the hard work and talent of one man but because of the hard work and talent of an entire team—an entire team of individuals who are here purely to fight for what they believe is right for their nation. Sadly, we cannot say the same about the members opposite.
It is fitting, given my former SANFL football playing career and the Treasurer’s love of AFL football, that we put the performance of these two teams in context. I liken the Howard government to the Adelaide Crows, a group of individuals with finely tuned skills who come together and take the field as one, fighting not for themselves but toward one ultimate goal: the taking of the premiership flag. Conversely, I liken the Australian Labor Party to the current state of the Richmond Football Club, plagued by inconsistency, all playing for their own careers and desperately searching for a free kick, a one-man team with no team to provide substance and, most importantly, yet to win a game. This is the Rudd and, dare I say, the Rudd-Gillard team. But there is no ‘I’ in team, and that is a most significant aspect of the Howard government team versus the Rudd one-man team.
The joy for the Richmond Football Club is that at the end of the year the AFL will hand them a lifeline with some priority draft picks. They will be back; that is how the game works. Sadly, that is not how politics works. That is not so for the Australian Labor Party either, whose benches will be so full with union hacks they would not have room for a star recruit if they were handed that all-important first draft pick.
I commend these bills, I commend this budget and I commend the Treasurer. I commend the budget for its commitment to the future of our nation, I commend the Treasurer for yet again making the tough decisions and I commend these bills for locking in the gains and planning for the future. I commend these bills to the House.
I will not get into the conversation about football teams on the day after my beloved Newcastle Knights, unfortunately, took the biggest pounding in the history of the club, but I can guarantee the House that when they overcome their injury woes they will be back.
It is a pleasure to speak to the Appropriation Bill (No. 1) 2007-2008 and cognate bills. This is the Treasurer’s 12th budget and my 12th budget. I have been here just over 11½ years, having been elected in March 1996. A strong global economic environment, record terms of trade and an unprecedented resources boom continue to make the work of the Treasurer easier than it has been in the history of Federation. It is a dream come true to be in government and to be Treasurer in these buoyant economic times. This coming financial year the Howard government will officially collect some $247 billion. We throw the term ‘billions of dollars’ around in this place with gay abandon, but in anyone’s language it is a huge amount of money.
In addition, the Treasurer will collect about another $37 billion in GST. He does not like to count that on his books, even though the accounting standards the government is expected to adhere to demand that he does. The government’s orphan tax is the GST. It is a big tax take that demands enormous responsibility. Unlike the days before the former Hawke-Keating Labor government’s restructure that opened up the Australian economy, the biggest challenge for Peter Costello on budget night was to determine how best he could spend this richness of money without making his political intentions too obvious in this important election year, and how best he could spend the riches without putting too much pressure on the Australian economy—in other words, without stimulating the Australian economy too much.
Of course, the question for the rest of us was: has it been spent wisely? I should begin answering that question by touching on some of the good things in the budget first, some things that we welcomed. We do of course welcome the tax cuts. They are an appropriate dividend paid out to those who live and work in this country in these good economic times in this resource-rich nation. And they are also welcome on the basis that, for a change, they are largely targeted at lower and middle-income earners, unlike recent budgets, where most of the proceeds of tax cuts have gone to those on higher incomes. So we welcome that point. We also welcome the $22 billion or so for road and rail infrastructure announced under AusLink 2, although I note the government’s refusal so far to announce where that money will be spent—no doubt that information is being held back until closer to the election, and on that basis it is very difficult for us to determine whether that money will or is likely to be spent fairly and efficiently.
One aspect of the budget which exposes it as the most poll-driven document I have seen in my 11 years in this place is the range of one-off expenditures. For example, there is $500 for pensioners as a one-off payment. There is $1,000 for carers, those people who do such a magnificent job in our community, as a one-off payment. It really does pose the question: if these people are deserving of additional payments, why is it only a one-off payment in an election year? If the member for Dobell is able to answer that question, I would welcome it. This must be breeding increasing cynicism and scepticism in the electorate about this government’s intention when it is handing out cash grants to pensioners and carers as a one-off payment only in an election year.
Nothing causes the 2007-08 budget to stand out as a political document more than the bringing forward of some $250 million under the strategic regional roads program, money that should have been spent after the election but will now conveniently be spent prior to the election. This is a quarter of a billion dollars which can be flushed straight into the system by virtue of the fact that the money will go to applications that were denied in the last funding round. So, no documentation is required, there are no cumbersome and time-consuming processes. Bang; $250 million is spent on regional roads, no doubt mainly in key marginal electorates. But there will be exceptions to that rule because, with many of the projects, like those in my electorate that were denied funding the first time around, the government will be forced to fund them because they were in the round and it is going to be impossible for the government to spend money in areas where applications had not been lodged previously.
So there is some good news for my electorate, as just over $2 million will be spent on roads in or around the vineyard districts in my local area. That is very welcome news. I have to say, though, that just over $2 million is a very small amount of money. Cessnock council, for example, has indicated that at least $10 million is required to bring the road network within the Hunter Valley wine country up to anywhere near an acceptable standard. Why shouldn’t the federal government be more heavily involving itself in this road network? As you would know, Mr Deputy Speaker, in the Hunter Valley we make the world’s finest wines, we are the state’s largest tourism destination outside Sydney, we are a real draw card for the state and we are a key economic driver for the state’s economy—and therefore for the national economy—so why wouldn’t the Commonwealth government be investing in that all-important road network? It has been ignoring it for too long and it is about time it started to invest; $2 million is a good start but we need much, much more.
On the question of spending wisely, the big test in this budget was for the government to demonstrate that in these good economic times it was prepared to astutely invest in our future. We are still involved in a very long economic growth cycle and we are very fortunate to be locked into that process. But the good times will not last forever. No qualified economist would argue otherwise, and we really do need to be taking the proceeds of the good times and investing in the future to insulate ourselves from tougher times. There is little evidence of that in this budget.
As I mentioned, we have seen a significant injection into AusLink 2 and a promise of funding in the future, but again we have not seen the detail. We still live with a lack of funding in preschool education, in skill education and, of course, in higher education. I know I will hear from government members saying, ‘You can’t talk about higher education. We put $5 billion into a Higher Education Endowment Fund.’ This is no more than a promise to pay some surplus into university infrastructure in the future. There is no real commitment from the government. We have seen a theoretical hypothecation—which is unusual for any government—of future tax revenue into a higher education fund. Whether it is banked with the Reserve Bank, banked in the Future Fund or delineated out into a higher education endowment fund means nothing at all. It is nothing more than a stunt.
The reality is that we live with crumbling university infrastructure, right now, as a result of underfunding in years gone by. Our public schools are struggling. Of course, the Prime Minister has shown a bent away from public schools in funding terms. Working parents still cannot get child care. In the budget there was a 10 per cent increase in the childcare rebate, but what is the point in doing something on the demand side if you are not working on the supply side? You potentially make the situation more difficult, and it is a huge issue in my electorate.
All these problems contribute to undermining Australia’s future economic prosperity. We have to be investing heavily in education for our children to make sure they are the leaders of tomorrow. We have to provide them with quality teachers, quality infrastructure and a whole range of opportunities all the way from TAFE to university to make sure that they maintain the living standards that we have enjoyed over the last decade or so.
I would be happy to talk about the coal loader in Newcastle, as the member for Dobell interjects. I have some views on the coal loader in Newcastle that would not quite be consistent with the views of many others in this place. The reality is that coal loader in Newcastle is privately owned by a cooperative of coalmining companies. What is happening at the Newcastle coal port is a great tragedy. More than 60 ships are waiting offshore to collect their coal to take to our, mainly Asian, customers. That is a national disgrace and an international embarrassment.
There are a few bodies responsible for that international embarrassment, and I would nominate three groupings. The first is the coal companies that run that coal loader. In my view, they have abused their monopoly status and have attempted to maintain capacity at just the point of full utilisation. No company or firm facing competition can ever hope to maintain capital at full capacity utilisation. It would not happen in a competitive market, but that is exactly what has happened at Newcastle. There has been no incentive whatsoever to expand that port in the absence of competition. That is a big red mark against the coal companies. A second red mark is against the New South Wales government—and I am happy to say it—for not showing more urgency in approving the expansion of the existing coal loader, run by PWCS, and in approving the application for a third coal loader by a second identity right next door. That lack of urgency on the New South Wales government’s part has held back the development of the third coal loader and taken the pressure off the existing coal loader to expand in the lack of competition.
The third big red mark goes against the federal government for removing the urgency to action by both the coal companies and the state government by giving imprimatur to a quota system, authorised by the ACCC, which has removed that urgency. At the end of the day, that authorisation is the right to immunity from prosecution for an anticompetitive practice, and that is exactly what the quota system is at the port of Newcastle. It is an illegal practice that should never have been allowed and has exacerbated the situation at the port of Newcastle. So there is collective responsibility on the part of the coal companies, the state government and the federal government; they should all collectively hang their heads in shame.
Now that approval has been given to the third coal loader and to the expansion of the existing coal loaders, let us hope that we will see some eventual relief at the port of Newcastle. But it will be too late for the 300 or so miners who have already lost their jobs as a result of that bottleneck at that port. The coalminers are asking how they could possibly lose their jobs in the greatest coal boom we have experienced in at least the last 30 years, if not in the history of our Federation. It is a ridiculous situation. As I said, they should all collectively hang their heads in shame.
I want to say something about the defence aspects of this budget. A lot of fanfare has surrounded the additional defence spending, which is always welcome. Defence spending now represents some $22 billion—right on two per cent of GDP. That is a lot of money to most people, but it is certainly not the peak of our spending. Back in the peak of the Vietnam War we were spending in excess of four per cent of GDP on our defence needs. Of course, when operational tempo is high, the requirement will be to spend more money. We currently have some 3½ thousand members of the ADF deployed overseas in Afghanistan, Iraq, East Timor and other places and therefore the demands for spending on defence will increase.
The question remains as to whether, in this time of high operational tempo, that money is enough. What we certainly cannot afford to be doing is wasting that money. We have seen too much wastage of defence dollars in recent years. Every defence dollar wasted is a dollar not spent on our strategic national interest, and that is the great tragedy of this budget. We welcome the extra money, but we would like to see the money spent more efficiently and more effectively. I do not have time this evening to go through all the examples, but most members of this place are familiar with the long list of cost blow-outs and overruns that have been besetting the ADF in recent years, and much of that comes back to poor government planning, bad and inappropriate government intervention and general mismanagement.
It is interesting to remind the House that in this year’s budget, at the same time as significant extra money was injected into the defence budget, money was again deferred. In other words, we are putting more money in but we cannot spend it because of the government’s mismanagement of the defence procurement program over recent years. We welcome the National Security Committee’s decision not to scrap the Seasprite helicopter project and flush $1 billion down the drain—a decision taken only late last week and taken despite Minister Nelson’s insistence that the project be scrapped and another $1.5 billion be found to start a new project. It has really been a mess and it is time the government lifted its game.
Recruitment and retention are important areas. There is no doubt that recruiting and retaining skilled people are the biggest issues facing the Australian Defence Force at this time and therefore the biggest challenge facing our national security. We welcome the additional money spent on recruitment and retention, but we believe that the government has to get more innovative. You cannot just keep spending and throwing money at the problem. We need new paradigms and new methods to attract people to and retain them in the Defence Force.
I want to wind up by saying something more specific about my electorate. Between 1996 and 2001 I was very proud and privileged to represent the area commonly known now as the Upper Hunter Shire. This included Merriwa, Scone, Aberdeen and Murrurundi, which were the large towns in that region. Sadly, in 2001 I lost those townships as part of the then redistribution. I picked up very large segments of the Maitland LGA. As a result of the last redistribution, I have again lost some parts of the Maitland local government area, particularly parts of east Maitland and areas like Medford, and they will now go into the electorate of Paterson and be represented by the member for Paterson. I have now picked up those parts of the Upper Hunter Shire again. So from election day in October—or whenever it might be—electorate willing, I will for the first time in many years be once again representing those towns that now fall into the local government boundaries of the Upper Hunter Shire.
Last week I started to travel around those areas. I have deliberately not done so before now because they continue to be represented by the former Deputy Prime Minister John Anderson and there is a certain etiquette involved there, but I have—given that it is getting much closer to the election—decided to start re-establishing myself in those areas. I had a very nice afternoon tea in Merriwa last week, and next week I will be travelling to Scone, Aberdeen and Murrurundi to do the same to reacquaint myself with the people there and rebuild the very good relationships I had not only with local government there previously but with the various community groups and the many people who live in those areas. I look forward—again, electorate willing—to representing those areas once again and working with those community groups and the council in furthering economic development in the area for the benefit of all those who live in the area. I am sad to be losing those parts of east Maitland and those immediate areas which I will not represent after the election, win, lose or draw. I thank the many people who I have met and worked with in those areas for their support and wish them the very best in the future.
I rise to address Appropriation Bill (No. 1) 2007-2008 and the cognate bills. As I do so, it is important to put this budget in some context by looking at Australia over the last couple of decades. I go back to some of the headlines from the times. For example, in August 1986 the headlines read, ‘Budget axe on welfare, jobs and wages’, ‘Health slashed by $300 million’, ‘Medicare levy up’, ‘Petrol and diesel up by 3 cents’, ‘New taxes’—a whole range of things. In August of 1990, a headline read ‘Slugger Keating: old, sick and jobless hit.’ An article began with, ‘Treasurer Paul Keating delivered a penny-pinching budget which left pensioners and families feeling punch drunk last night.’ These were headlines in 1993: ‘Rises in sales tax on thousands of consumer items’ and ‘Tax rates on annual long service leave rising up to 48.4 per cent’. Compare that with the headlines in the same paper for 2007: ‘Tax cuts for all, billions for education. The budget attracted widespread acclaim from business, family, environmental groups.’ That is quite a contrast. It is important that we recognise that that contrast has made a real difference for families in Australia because Australia is no longer struggling under the burden of $96 billion of Labor debt. Because we have paid off that debt, there is some $8.5 billion every year that was paid on interest that we can now invest in health, education, defence, roads, infrastructure and other things that benefit our communities. The broader economic policies—the things that have put downward pressure on mortgage rates and have seen them at historic lows—mean that the average rates under the coalition are down around 7.2 per cent versus the average rates under the previous Labor government of 12.75 per cent.
In the electorate of Wakefield, which I am privileged to represent, I look at the large number of areas which are expanding rapidly with housing. As people take on mortgages, they have a dream for themselves and for their families. They are investing in the future and relying on having a government that will keep the economic settings for and focus on running an economy that will keep interest rates and inflation low. Inflation is at 2½ per cent compared to the average inflation under Labor of 5.2 per cent.
People may think this is out of date because it is about old Labor governments. Despite record growth in things like the GST, from which every dollar goes to the state and territory governments around Australia, on a net basis the state and territory governments—which are all Labor—are in deficit again. They are spending more than they are bringing in again. So you can see that the leopard has not changed its spots and that Labor will still spend its way into deficit, which is in stark contrast to the coalition government.
I will mention a few areas that I believe are important, such as health care for veterans. As somebody who served in the Defence Force for over 22 years, I believe we owe a huge debt to our veterans, and it is one that we have to honour. In 1996, the government then was spending around $1.6 billion on health care for veterans. This year in this budget, it is spending $4.7 billion. That makes a difference on the ground so that we can afford to work with the veterans at the Peter Badcoe centre in Wakefield in South Australia. Rather than condemning them to be itinerant residents of various buildings that are run down and leftovers from Defence, we have been able to invest in a new facility for those veterans so that they can have a counselling centre that not only helps Vietnam veterans but also increasingly reaches out to recent veterans from Afghanistan, Iraq, East Timor, the Solomons and Bougainville. That is an investment. When people look at it and say, ‘That’s great,’ they need to make a link to the fact that the only reason we can afford to make those investments is that we have a government team, a Prime Minister, a Treasurer, a finance minister and other members of the cabinet who can take the hard decisions that put the economic settings in place to give us those budget surpluses.
In direct funding for the environment, Australia was one of the first nations in the world to consider greenhouse problems and actually set up a greenhouse office. That is something most people do not recognise. This government put tens of millions of dollars into the Waterproofing Northern Adelaide project so that we can make better use of the stormwater that falls in the electorate of Wakefield by re-using it and taking demand off the Murray River. That is significant spending that we could not have had in the days when Treasurer Keating was slashing money from things like health. The Bolivar pipeline extension is another program we are looking at to re-use water in the horticultural sector, and programs continue right down to the community water grants that so many schools have benefited from in the electorate of Wakefield.
In this budget, some $477 million is going to support the construction of new facilities in Wakefield for the Defence Force. Why are we doing this? We are doing it because this government recognises the importance of a viable and sustainable Defence Force and, in contrast to the previous Labor administration, which cut numbers, cut two battalions out of the Defence Force and decreased spending in 1996 to $10.6 billion, this year the coalition is spending over $22 billion on defence. This is about the only government that has ever consistently—for some seven years now—spent in excess of the three per cent of real growth that the white paper has called for in the Defence budget. We are seeing a growth in numbers, and the relocation of a new battalion to Edinburgh in Wakefield will bring benefits not only to our Defence Force personnel, who now have the opportunity for a rotation from their northern bases, but also the flow-on effects both in construction and in the broader community. The schools, the parents and friends organisations and the sports organisations will now have these defence families involved with them.
We are seeing real work towards reconciliation with Indigenous people. We are seeing some very local examples, like the Salisbury High School Reconciliation Ball, which has been running for a number of years now with funding support from the federal government; through to very practical things like the Marni Waeindi lifelong learning project, which is seeing health outcomes for Indigenous people as they learn to work with their own communities and learn about health skills and becoming health professionals; through to the homework and support programs running in local schools, where Indigenous children are given the additional support they need to get the educational base so that they can make their own way and make choices to determine their own future—free from handouts—in our society. That is real reconciliation.
Total spending on health has gone from some $17.9 billion in 1996 to $51.8 billion in this last budget. What does that mean? It means that in towns like Gawler in Wakefield we have seen over $500,000 put into the Gawler health service so that there is an after-hours GP clinic, after-hours accident and emergency health care and additional doctors. We have seen funding go into regional areas such as Clare to make sure that there are training opportunities for young GPs.
We have seen mental health initiatives—things like Headspace, which the Northern Division of General Practice is running across the cities of Salisbury, Playford and Gawler in the electorate of Wakefield to connect our young people with mental health professionals and others who can assist them. In the vital area of apprenticeships, we have seen the number of apprenticeships grow from some 152,000 back in March 1996 to 404,000 today. Some of those are traineeships but the majority are traditional apprenticeships. The number of traditional apprentices has increased dramatically since 1996. We are taking more steps to encourage that—things like the Australian technical college; the Defence apprentice scheme, so that young people can join the Defence Force and take up an apprenticeship; and the Commonwealth funded Northern Advanced Manufacturing Industry Group, which is a group of industries that come together to engage with high school students to give them, and their teachers, an insight into what the manufacturing and advanced industry sector is about so that those young people have the motivation to hang in there at school. Rather than dropping out, they see a future. They see an employer who has an interesting workplace, who has an interest in them as young people, and who is investing—along with the Commonwealth government—in making that connection between our young people and the industries that want to employ them.
What else does this economy do? It is not just about having surpluses; it is about having the capacity to invest in things like our infrastructure, like funding for roads, which has gone from $1.6 billion in 1996 to $3.4 billion in this year’s budget. That has meant that things like the Roads to Recovery program have been able to be extended. In Wakefield, it has meant that we have seen things like $5 million going into West Avenue, which is connected to the growing industrial area of Edinburgh Parks and Elizabeth West, so that we are seeing more investment, with companies like Hirotec coming in and investing in manufacturing plants in Wakefield, as well as a number of defence industries and other companies that are now diversifying into the mining sector as well as the automotive sector.
We have seen a significant investment in Main North Road as a result of this last budget. The condition of Main North Road, which is a state road—running particularly from Gawler through to Clare—has been atrocious. Yet this budget has, for the first time, seen a significant investment by the federal government into this state road. I certainly call on Mr Rann and Mr Foley, as they lead up to the state budget in June this year, to at least match that $6 million to fix this road which is causing so many problems.
We have seen investment in things like the corner of Angle Vale Road and Heaslip Road, where families were literally in fear for the safety of their children. I had an email today from a family who have actually sold up and left Angle Vale to move to a different town because of the atrocious traffic conditions in that town, and the state government has consistently refused to fund an upgrade to that intersection. I welcome the funding that has come out of the strong economic management of this government that has enabled us to partner with the council so that they can put traffic lights into that intersection and provide safety for that community of Angle Vale.
Federal funding for government schools has gone from $0.9 billion in 1996 to $1.9 billion today. At Kapunda High School, we have funded the new science labs, and at Craigmore High School we have funded significant upgrades. As a result of the Investing in Our Schools program, some 62 schools have received nearly $7.3 million for 150 projects that have been put in through the Investing in Our Schools program. We have seen mandatory literacy testing for children. There was none in 1996; whereas now it is tested at four different points through a child’s education, which enables us to identify where additional resources need to go. Rather than sticking our heads in the sand and pretending that it does not exist, we have put in place a structure whereby we can work with teachers through things like the Boys’ Education Lighthouse program, things like professional development for teachers, so that teachers can further develop themselves, and receive bonuses, over a Christmas period. All those things are properly the responsibility of the state government, but this government, through its good economic management and the fact that it has the resources, has now taken the initiative to put those in place.
The $5 billion endowment fund for higher education is a significant investment. What that means on the ground is that we can now look with more confidence to things like Roseworthy Agricultural College, where we are working in partnership with Adelaide university to create a veterinary school to give the young people in South Australia the opportunity for the first time not to have to go interstate but to be able to train as a veterinary doctor in South Australia; to study in the agricultural sectors, including aquaculture; or to specialise in areas such as biosecurity, which is an area of growing need in Australia.
We are also seeing a great amount of work put in to helping those people who are unemployed, not only through things like the Green Corps program but through Boystown, which we have funded to come down to Wakefield so that they can work with young people who are disengaged from school, perhaps in trouble with the law, and who no employer would touch with a 10-yard barge pole. Because of its economic management this government has the ability—it has the surplus—to put money into programs like that to make it possible for these people to re-enter the workforce. The decrease in the long-term unemployed has been a real plus; it is a really good outcome from this government.
We have seen expenditure on child care. Because we uncapped childcare places, we have seen additional private providers set up in Clare and demolish the waiting list such that there are now vacancies in childcare centres there. In Kapunda we have seen viability subsidies of nearly half a million dollars so that in that small country town a childcare provider can set up on the hospital grounds and provide that service for people. We have also seen the number of aged-care places grow from 141,000 back in 1996 to 208,000 this year. In places like Balaklava and Gawler we are seeing Eldercare, ECH and others build large new facilities to make sure that we have good quality aged care for the elderly who have gone before us.
I refer also to the respite carers program. We have put in money to make sure that carers can have respite from looking after those who have a disability. I think it is significant—as we come up to a deadline facing the state governments to step up and accept the offer made by the Commonwealth through the Commonwealth State/Territory Disability Agreement—that the good management of this government and its team has meant that we are able not only to match the previous money that was put up with indexation, but to put up an additional $400 million. And we are able to make the offer to the states and territories that if they are prepared to identify the areas of unmet need for people with disabilities, the Commonwealth will match it to 50 per cent. That has never been offered by the Commonwealth before. Why can we do that? We can do that because of the good economic management of this government. That economic management is not just because of the leader; it is also important to look at the team behind him. I think that is something that the Australian public really needs to consider going into the future.
We have not just ridden on the back of a mining boom and a strong world economy. People forget things like the Asian recession and the US recession. They forget things like the SARS crisis. The Australian Treasury made the comment that SARS has severely disrupted the economies of some of Australia’s major trading partners in the region and that this is expected to reduce GDP growth in East Asia—and that has occurred in an environment where the global economy is already subdued. So when the Leader of the Opposition sits there in his bright, new, shiny TV ad and says, ‘Me too! I’m an economic conservative; I’d do what they’ve done,’ do not believe it. Remember back to Mr Latham, the man who signed the big cardboard cheque. How much credibility did that have?
Look at the current Leader of the Opposition and his support team; it is completely made up of union members. Look at the people coming in, like Greg Combet, Bill Shorten, Doug Cameron, Don Farrell, Richard Marles and Kevin Harkins. All of these people are coming in to join people like Martin Ferguson, Simon Crean and Jenny George—all previous union secretaries and officials. What you can see is a team to which economic reform and the concept of economic conservatism is a complete anathema to the way they have conducted themselves over the last two to three decades in this country.
As we come up to the election later this year people will look at the things that have been delivered in bonuses and support for the aged and elderly, in education, in defence, in roads and in a whole range of sectors. They have been delivered because of good economic management—the ability to take hard decisions and to reward the efforts of individuals. Let us not go back to the days of domination by a group who represent only 15 per cent of the private sector workforce. Why should a group who represent only 15 per cent of the private sector workforce dictate to the other 85 per cent how things should be run? They have opposed every significant reform that has enabled this country to see out the US recession, the Asian recession and the SARS crisis and still end up with record numbers of surpluses, record low unemployment and record low inflation. Why would you want to trust all of that and the future of your family and the wellbeing of your family to a team who have opposed all the changes that enabled that?
The budget this year is a good example of the credentials of not only the Prime Minister but the team behind him. I welcome the budget and I particularly welcome the benefits it brings to the people of Wakefield.
The 2007 budget was hailed as a masterstroke by the commentators who spend their lives within the walls of Parliament House, but out in the real world the reaction was nowhere near as enthusiastic. It is hardly surprising given that, when it is all boiled down, the benefit to average working families is precious little. As one commentator in the real world who looked at the budget remarked:
If you take the effect of the tax cut and wage increases since the last sandwich and milkshake tax cut, that average family has an additional take-home pay of about $85 a week, but out of that you have to take into account an extra $8 a week for petrol and an extra $50 a week in repayments on a $250,000 mortgage, and at least $30 a week to cover other price increases. That leaves your average working family just $5 a week better off.
It is no wonder that the budget did not give the government a bounce in the polls. I am sure that everyone who filled their car the day after the budget saw just how far a $16 a week tax cut would go. By the time average income earners get their tax cut in their pay packets they may even see the whole lot swallowed up when they fill the tank of their car.
If the Treasurer expected a grateful electorate to suddenly give the government a boost in the polls, he greatly underestimated the feeling of the electorate. It just goes to show how isolated he is from the real world of working families across Australia. In those homes, the only budget that really matters is the household budget. No matter how many statistics government members quote, they do not add up.
Just a few years ago the Prime Minister was boasting that no-one had ever complained to him that the price of their home had risen. But now in some suburbs of south-western Sydney in my electorate of Fowler house prices have fallen by more than 10 per cent. We have seen four interest rate rises since the last election—the one where the government promised to keep interest rates low. It is one thing for families to meet mortgage repayments when they see the value of their home rising but another when the mortgage payments go up and the value of their home is going down. They have to wonder if it is worth the cost. The result we are seeing all too often in south-western Sydney is an increase in the number of forced property sales. For many families, the dream of homeownership has become a nightmare. The official figures for forced sales do not show the high number of distressed sales where families have abandoned homeownership before the lender moved in.
In the real world household debt has climbed to 150 per cent of income, and interest payments now take up more of the household income than ever. So, while the Treasurer has an embarrassment of riches—thanks to the mining boom—households are going deeper and deeper into debt. But few of the commentators who applauded the Treasurer for his economic wisdom seem to appreciate that.
I did, however, note one commentator who was critical of the Treasurer, Peter Saunders, the social research director of the Centre for Independent Studies in Sydney—definitely not someone I would usually agree with. But Peter Saunders really did bell the cat when it came to his assessment of the budget. In a piece in the Australian on 10 May titled ‘Peter Costello is just like Santa on steroids’, Saunders warned that none of the Treasurer’s handouts makes economic sense. Saunders said:
... the Treasurer is so awash with taxpayers’ money that he really does not know what to do with it. A couple of years ago he set up the Future Fund to soak up his surpluses, but this fund is now expected to meet its target ahead of schedule, so he needs to find another mattress to hide our money under. That’s why he has come up with his universities’ endowment fund.
As I said earlier, we have household debt at record levels, yet the Treasurer continues to rake in more tax revenue than is necessary to fund this year’s government’s spending priorities. Peter Saunders went on to say:
But why take so much tax from us in the first place? Some economists say we may spend too much of our own money if taxes are reduced, and this can trigger inflation. But if that is why the Treasurer keeps collecting much more tax than he needs, he can achieve the same result by cutting taxes and requiring us to save the difference in our personal super funds. It would be far better for us to save our own money in our own accounts than for the Government to take it off us and put it in its own giant piggy bank.
For once, I find myself in complete agreement with Peter Saunders—even though it is a shock to me. What a mockery it makes of the cries of government members that Labor would raid the Future Fund to build a fast broadband network. But that Future Fund contains the money that this government has looted from the retirement savings of ordinary Australians.
To get some idea of how much the government gets from dipping into the piggy banks of the more than 10 million Australian workers we should look at the revenue and receipts forward estimates contained in the budget papers. For the 2007-08 financial year, this government will rake in $8.3 billion in total superannuation taxation. That revenue comes from the 15 per cent tax on contributions and earnings of every Australian worker with employer paid superannuation and a smaller amount from superannuation surcharge. For an average income earner, that is around $750 a year. That works out at $14 a week, almost exactly the same as an average earner will get in their income tax cut. Over the lifetime of a worker on average earnings that can add up to more than $100,000. It is no wonder that the Treasurer has such a smirk on his face, accusing Labor of raiding the government’s piggy bank when he is definitely the one who is raiding the piggy bank of every employed Australian.
But we all know that the Treasurer is opposed to compulsory employer contributed superannuation. He has been against it since the last Labor government introduced it. In his time as Treasurer he has not only raided it by pocketing the contribution and earnings tax; the Treasurer was also the one who killed off plans for a government co-contribution for low-income earners. That was the same Treasurer who mocked Labor’s l-a-w law tax cuts which were planned to provide for a co-contribution. But what did we get instead? We got the doctors’ wives’ co-contribution which the Treasurer increased in this budget.
I find myself asking: how many low-income earners in the Fowler electorate can afford to put aside $1,000 to attract the government’s co-contribution of up to $3,000 and how many have smart tax accountants to tell them how to get away with it? The government’s co-contribution is nothing but a rort. It would be much fairer to scrap the superannuation contributions tax for low-income earners rather than handing out cash to those who have a spare $1,000 after meeting the cost of living. Before any government members try to suggest that changes to superannuation, making it tax free at age 60, overcome the issue of contributions tax, I should remind them that the lump sums of average income earners are still below the tax-free amount.
When it comes to statements from the Treasurer about the effects of an ageing population it is no wonder that he is silent about the one policy that is making a real difference to Australia’s future prosperity—our compulsory superannuation. This government treats the trillion-dollar superannuation investment of Australians in their own futures as a cash cow to fill up the Treasurer’s piggy bank—and then he brags about what a great economic manager he is! The only master stroke in this year’s budget is the pea-and-thimble trick that the Treasurer has pulled off—and, once again, the commentators have definitely been taken in. But if the polls are correct, at least the voters of Australia, the voters of my electorate, have not been so gullible.
I will now turn to one measure that was announced in the budget which I have been closely involved in through the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Family and Human Services, of which you are chair, Madam Deputy Speaker Bishop, and that is the issue of child care. I note that the budget includes changes to the payment of the childcare rebate. One thing I do agree with the Treasurer on is the need for Australia to increase the participation rate of women in the workforce. Our participation rate for women is low by comparison with many European countries. Given the higher levels of education and skills of women, increasing workforce participation has the greatest potential to improve our rate of growth in the years ahead. I know that, while there is no change to family tax benefit B in the budget, the government seems to be going soft on the idea. It seems crazy to force single parents with an eight-year-old child out to work, while paying $3,000 a year to partnered stay-at-home mums with a 17-year-old child.
But I will come back to the proposed changes to the childcare tax rebate. The House of Representatives Standing Committee on Family and Human Services in its report on balancing work and family examined the issue of childcare funding in some detail. Regrettably, as Labor members of the committee—and I as deputy chair—stated in the dissenting report:
The operations of existing child care programs, the Child Care Benefit and Child Care Tax Rebate, were not examined for improvement. Instead, the inquiry focused on tax deductibility for child care expenses as a cure-all for the problems faced by working parents. As clearly shown in the Econtech report commissioned by the committee, only families with individual incomes above $75,000 will benefit and there is no real incentive to encourage the bulk of working age women to increase work hours. Tax deductibility for child care is simply welfare for the wealthy.
I am particularly pleased to see that the Treasurer shared the view of Labor members of the committee and, as we see in this budget, has decided to make changes to improve access to what is now known as the childcare tax rebate. I can only add that if the family and human services committee had taken a broader approach in its deliberations we might well have been able to make some constructive recommendations for improving the delivery of the childcare tax rebate. I am pleased to see that childcare support will in future be handled by Centrelink rather than through the tax system. I much prefer to see a payment identified as a benefit rather than come through the tax system. In the future we could look forward to dropping the reference to ‘tax’ in payments, such as in family tax benefits.
Another point to consider, and one which was raised only in passing by the balancing work and family inquiry, is a link between the payment of childcare benefit and childcare tax rebate and work. As the committee noted, payment of the childcare tax rebate is only loosely linked to employment, with a family still qualifying even if the parent works fewer than 15 hours per week.
One of the most common grievances I hear is from parents in full-time work paying high childcare fees when non-working parents receive free or low-cost child care. I know that there is more at issue, but if the objective in reforming childcare assistance is to increase workforce participation then it is time to reconsider eligibility for childcare assistance where a parent works very few hours or not at all. At least linking the childcare tax rebate to income earned meant that there was some test to ensure that the child care was work related. Again, regrettably, these matters were not the focus of the inquiry by the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Family and Human Services. What is important, however, is that working parents can look forward to receiving a benefit to assist with the cost of child care in a much more timely manner.
I turn to local funding issues affected by this budget in the Fowler electorate. My biggest regret is the low funding provision for the freight-line extension through the Fowler electorate. Despite repeated representations from Fairfield City Council, from community representatives in the Liverpool area and from me, calling for more extensive noise mitigation and other work to relieve the impact of the line on local residents and businesses, the Commonwealth has placed an unrealistic very low cap on funding for these works. While the freight line will not be within the Fowler electorate at the next election, I know that the Labor candidates in the seats containing the freight line—Jason Clare in Blaxland, and an excellent candidate, Greg Holland in Hughes—will be pressing for additional funding for work to relieve the impact on residents and businesses. The Fowler electorate has gone from 47 square kilometres to 247 square kilometres, and I look forward to the challenge of representing over 30,000 new electors and taking up the many issues in need of Commonwealth government attention in those areas.
The best thing that can be said about this budget is that it will definitely be the last budget of the Howard government. It will be the last budget which ignores the real needs of building a strong Australian economy. It will be the last budget to see Australia’s investment in education heading for the bottom of the OECD league table. It will be the last budget that pays lip-service to increasing the skills base of Australian workers. It will be the last budget that uses bandaid measures to assist Australians balance work and family pressures. It will be the last budget that plays a funding blame game with the states. It is time for the Treasurer to pack up his slide rule and make way for fresh ideas that will set the Australian economy on the path of future development while ensuring a fair go for all Australians. This budget has been the Treasurer’s swan song.
I rise today, in this debate on the Appropriation Bill (No. 1) 2007-2008 and the cognate bills, to congratulate the government and the Treasurer on delivering another budget which demonstrates not only economic credentials but also a capacity to invest for the future. Many people in my electorate of Greenway, and residents of the Hawkesbury particularly, will benefit from this budget. Australia is one of the few countries across the globe where the budget operates on a surplus rather than a debt. More than that, the government is investing billions of dollars to earn income to build infrastructure and cover future liabilities, such as superannuation.
The member for Parramatta spoke about the budget as passing by with little comment from her community. Australians are in a position where they expect tax cuts. They expect one-off payments. They expect assistance for child care. They expect this because they have a government that has been able to manage a trillion-dollar economy responsibly and deliver to Australians. The Australian public have come to expect tax cuts. When they are delivered, they accept them as part and parcel of everyday life. When Labor was in government people hoped for a tax cut, and when they got it, it made headlines. It did not happen very often.
Tax cuts should be for everyone who works, and I am proud that the Howard government has yet again delivered tax cuts for all Australian income earners. Because of these tax cuts, over 80 per cent of taxpayers will pay no more than 30 per cent of their gross earnings in tax. These tax cuts will mean that people in my electorate who previously earned up to $25,000 and paid 15 per cent tax will be able to earn an additional $5,000 before the tax rate increases. A part-time mum who may have felt that the $25,000 threshold was a disadvantage may now find this an incentive to work extra hours. It will give working mums more choice. Families from Kings Park, Glenwood, McGraths Hill, Bligh Park, Kellyville Ridge and Riverstone will welcome the 10 per cent on top of indexation that will be added to the childcare benefit and the further $2 billion in childcare assistance. It is because of strong economic management that additional funds can be made available to assist families with childcare costs without putting our budget into deficit. Families in the electorate will also receive a childcare tax rebate of up to $4,200 per child. Parents have welcomed this.
In Greenway, parents with primary school children who are having difficulty with their literacy and numeracy will have additional peace of mind knowing that there are education vouchers available to assist with tutorial costs. As a parent of an 11-year-old and a 14-year-old, and as someone who mixes with many other parents, I know our children’s education and the ability for them to achieve their potential is critical. Literacy and numeracy are vital to their future education and their future prospects. From 1 January 2008, parents will be provided with a $700 tuition voucher if their child does not achieve national literacy and numeracy benchmarks in years 3, 5 and 7. This provides the financial assistance parents need to secure for their children the help they need to bring their literacy and numeracy up to speed. For teachers there will be bonuses to encourage academic excellence. Schools will be eligible for up to $50,000 if they make significant improvements in numeracy and literacy, and teachers will receive a $5,000 bonus if they undertake training over summer.
The $1.8 billion invested in aged care will further improve our aged-care system. I have spoken personally with aged-care providers, carers and older residents and I am sure the increase in payments for residents of aged-care homes and the extra 100,000 days of respite care over the next four years—
A division having been called in the House of Representatives—
Sitting suspended from 8.08 pm to 8.22 pm
I was speaking earlier about personally speaking to aged-care providers, carers and older residents. I am sure the increase in payments for residents of aged-care homes and the extra 100,000 days of respite care over the next four years will benefit the aged-care community greatly.
The Minister for Health and Ageing, Tony Abbott, and I recently met with Hawkesbury division of GPs at the Hawkesbury after-hours practice to discuss their service, and I am sure that the announcement of an additional 357,000 GP hours of after-hours service will be very much welcomed by the Hawkesbury team. I am sure that residents living in the Hawkesbury district who use the after-hours clinic will also welcome the additional $71.8 million that has been allocated to after-hours GP services, as well as the Australian government’s commitment to promoting healthy eating and physical activity for children through the CSIRO Wellbeing Plan for children.
Greenway has an unemployment rate of 4.2 per cent, 0.3 per cent below the Australian average, which is 4.5 per cent. We have seen two million new jobs created. This, coupled with the increase in real wages by 19.8 per cent since March 1996, has enabled families to plan with confidence not just for their future but for the future of their children. New jobs create new wealth. This extra money in the economy and also in the hands of families and income earners has enabled a growth which has seen business investment grow by more than 70 per cent in real terms.
I welcome the Howard government’s ongoing commitment to small business by providing this sector with tax cuts worth $450 million over a four-year period. Small businesses who earn less than $75,000 do not have to register for the GST and, over a 10-year period, there will be $90 million plus in grants for small businesses. By continuing to support small business, we will continue to strengthen our economy and enable small business to plan their future with confidence. This means more jobs for more people.
Families in Western Sydney want to know that their children’s future is as important to the nation as it is to them, and I welcome the Howard government’s commitment to tomorrow’s future—our children. Before the last election, the Howard government reminded us that an apprenticeship is just as important as a degree. This is why it has continued to invest funding in addressing Australia’s skills shortages. In the electorate of Greenway we can already see the success of the Australian technical college. Students from the 2007 intake are about to finish their first block of on-the-job training and are about to start their third term. By the end of 2008, these students will be ready to move into full-time employment with a certificate III under their belt, their HSC and a job. Inquiries about the 2008 classes are already strong. The reputation of the Australian technical college has meant that students have enrolled from all over Western Sydney, including Hawkesbury, Penrith, Blacktown and Pennant Hills. The $549 million that will be invested over four years to help address skills shortages by further boosting Australian apprenticeships is welcomed. I congratulate the Australian government on recognising the need for another Australian technical college in Penrith.
Then there are the students who attend universities. The University of Western Sydney, which has two campuses in my area, will welcome the news of the Higher Education Endowment Fund. This $5 billion investment fund will enable campuses such as UWS Hawkesbury to deliver world-class research facilities and capital works. Universities will be able to plan with confidence, knowing that money will always be made available through the $5 billion investment fund.
One trillion dollars is a lot of money for a government to be responsible for if they are not strong economic managers—and the Howard government have shown that they are strong economic managers. An everyday Australian would not give the management of their weekly budget to a person who had no economic credentials. Would families trust their household budget, when the house is fully paid for, to someone who, last time they were in control of the purse strings, created a $96 billion debt? I think not. This is what Labor want Australians to do. Labor want Australians to trust them to deliver a strong and prosperous economy like the Howard government have done.
After the Labor government left Australia with a $96 billion debt, will they really be able to deliver surplus budgets? I think not. Will they be able to guarantee the security of the education fund and ensure that it remains a priority? I think not. Will they be able to offer personal tax cuts for all Australians like the Howard government have done for the past four years? I think not. Will they be able to provide a bonus to older Australians who are receiving a utilities allowance or a seniors concession allowance? I doubt this very much. Even the opposition’s shadow Treasurer stated publicly that Labor do not have a tax policy. How can they deliver the type of budget Australians expect when they do not have a tax policy in place? With an economy 1½ times larger than it was 10 years ago, Australia needs to have a government that will manage it responsibly.
It took the Howard government 10 years to pay off Labor’s debt. Can Australia afford to have another debt of $96 billion? I think not. Can Australia again afford headlines such as ‘Old, sick and jobless hit’ or ‘Budget acts on welfare, jobs, wages—it sinks or swims’? That is in contrast to a government which has spent significantly on Welfare to Work packages, which returned people to work who were able to work and gave people who historically have not been given the opportunity to work—people with disabilities—access not just to training but to support. Many of these people are now in full, open employment whereas under the previous Labor government they would not have been supported because money was not made available for them. Other headlines when Labor were in government read, ‘$3.50 to see doctor’ and ‘$8 tax cut, cigs up 6c, petrol up 3c, sales tax up—gain and pain’.
Can Australia afford a Labor government, when they have a history of going back on their promises—like the second round of tax cuts for middle-income earners that was dropped, as reported by the Daily Telegraph in May 1996? How many Australians plan their future with confidence? They will not be able to under Labor—Labor do not even have a tax policy to give Australians the confidence that they can do the job and manage a trillion-dollar economy. It is because of solid economic management by the Howard government that another budget surplus has been produced, and because of that people in my electorate and across this nation can plan with confidence. They can plan with confidence because they know that the Howard government has planned for an ageing population, has planned for the growing demands on health care, has planned for the challenge of climate change, has planned for the future of education and has planned for Australia’s future. I commend this budget to the House.
The appropriation bills are always a great opportunity for members in this place to put on the record some of our views about not only the budget but government policies, our own policies and, I suppose, the current state of affairs. In particular tonight I would like to talk about some industry policy, where Australia is heading in the future and the lack of vision of the government. The government talks about a whole range of things but in the 11 years it has been in power it has reaped the benefits of a growing global economy and a great economy in Australia but has not really contributed a great deal to that itself. Basically, with the sorts of revenues that are coming into Canberra, it is almost impossible for government to spend them all—even though it blows billions of dollars on a whole range of things. What I would like to do is focus on some industry issues.
During the recent press launch of the government’s new industry policy, the Prime Minister reminded the gathered media that mining was very important—and that it is. He also said that it was not the only pebble on the beach. Hoorah for the Prime Minister! He has finally come on board and realised what the rest of us have known for quite some time: that there is more to industry policy than just mining. Unfortunately, the Prime Minister’s observations come a long time after Labor, just like the rest of the country, had already formed very strong views in this area and had formed strong policy. The unfortunate part of it, though, is that the government needed to have understood this much earlier, to have put some policy in place and done something about it.
We have creaking infrastructure that cannot quite cope with the resources boom globally. Now what we are seeing because of that is the states often left to carry out massive infrastructure investment on their own when they just do not have the capacity. When they turn to the federal government, the federal government has a great opportunity but just does not contribute. We are seeing the outcome of that now with the potential loss of mining jobs. Believe it or not, there is a potential loss of mining jobs in an era of a resources boom because mines have overrun their capacity to export. We have got so much coal building up, so many of our resources building up, that mines may possibly have to shut down or at least slow down operations, meaning that miners could lose their jobs. That is an incredible outcome after years of being warned not only by the states but also by federal Labor that more had to be done. The federal government decided to play the game of politics and just not get involved. That was certainly not good enough.
What it means is that this government is out of touch and out of ideas. After 11 years, it cannot come up with a new idea. It cannot come up with some decent industry policy that will see us through the next 20 years. It is one thing to inherit a good and growing economy. It has been growing for 16 years. You have to understand that the Howard government has only been there for 11—it inherited a good economy. You cannot stop a global boom. But you have to leave a legacy; after more than a decade, you need to leave something. This government needs to leave something for the next 20 years, and that is what we are not seeing. That is the great danger we face: that in these great economic times people are blinded by the good fortune that they inherit but then do not invest for the future. Good times end. They might not end for a while, but they will end. When that cycle finishes—and it may not be that the mining boom or the resources boom will end; I think that the demand is going to stay there for a long time—profits will not be as big and there will not be as many jobs created out of it. Other technologies will be developed in the next decade. There is a whole range of issues that we have to deal with, and this is where you need a government that puts some thought, time and effort into the future rather than just harping on about the past and the things that it has inherited.
We need a government that not only talks about innovation but is innovative. There is no doubt that the innovative capacity of our manufacturing services sector is also important and Australia has to invest properly in our capacity to innovate. We need an open economy. We need to make sure that we are out there competing with the rest of the world. I have said in many places that the greatest issue we have in Australia today, as China and India develop as nations, is one of manufacturing. Basically, they can make things cheaper than us. We will never be able to compete on wages—there is no way that Australia should or could ever compete on wages—but that is not the biggest threat. That is just the perceived threat today. The threat tomorrow is that they will out innovate us; they will beat us at our own game. Australia’s great history has always been that we have had great ideas, great innovators and entrepreneurs. Because of our isolation and remoteness from the rest of the world, we have always been able to do things just a little bit better in a whole range of ways. It has kept us punching well above our weight. But what we are seeing is a complacent government that does not look that far ahead. The fear I have is that if we do not put those sorts of policies in place very soon we are going to see some negative outcomes.
Back in February this year in a speech to the Australian Industry Group, the Labor leader, Kevin Rudd, made his own observations stating that in the 21st century innovation policy was actually industry policy. This is the difference between the Howard government and a Rudd led Labor alternative government. The ALP is thinking about the future. We are thinking about how to pull all of those different threads together and present a coherent economic vision while the government does nothing but play catch-up.
In this context I want to raise the issue of the recently released Productivity Commission report called Public support for science and innovation, and add a couple of interesting thoughts in that debate concerning innovation and productivity in Australia. The commission’s report formulates a clear and concise rationale for public support for innovation and science on two broad principles. Firstly, the best rationale for public support of innovation and the sciences is the spill-over effect. Quite simply, that means that by investing in particular areas you get much more spillover into the rest of the economy and the rest of industry than just where you particularly invest. It is an important point that government should understand: that investment in innovation, in skills, in training and in education, while it is long term, is a good thing. It actually is an investment and not just a cost.
Secondly, government funding decisions should seek to maximise the return on taxpayers’ dollars by supporting innovative activities that otherwise would not be undertaken independently by the private sector. That is the principal addition, where you can add on to the private sector where otherwise things would not happen. Basically, what the Productivity Commission does is argue that public support for science innovation should always be aimed at generating the greatest social return, which is a sensible rule of thumb for any government regardless of its political stripes.
But on the innovation front you cannot say that there has been a lot happening. Sure, there has been a little bit in a few areas, and one of the key areas where government has had some great opportunities is the EMDGs, the export marketing development grants. Personally, I think it is a great program and government should support it, and it does support it, but it has diminished. This is one program where we see net benefits and results, really good outcomes. But what has the government done with one of the best programs out in the marketplace? It has wound it back, scaled it back; it has taken some of the money away and made it more difficult.
Some of the funding commitments are remarkably small also. One in particular that I want to raise is a paltry $14.3 million over two years to extend the Building Entrepreneurship in Small Business program for just one extra year. If you have a close look at the government’s commitment to small business and innovation, you will be a little bit surprised here. It talks about it; it just does not invest in it. Australia has 1.2 million small businesses. It does not take a brain surgeon to do some quick mathematics on this to see that any small business wanting to access funds here will really struggle; there is just not enough money. But it is a good program and it should be supported. It is something that we could do a lot better. We need to see some long-term commitment.
The other interesting point is that the government keeps drawing on Labor policy, and we have heard quite a bit of that lately. There is one particular issue I want to make mention of, and that is the Australian industry policy centres, which almost identically mirror Labor’s policy commitment to establishing 10 Enterprise Connect innovation centres to better connect business, people and ideas. So there is a whole range of areas where this government looks to the past, reaps the benefits of the things that have come before, but does not itself innovate or do anything to stimulate ideas and innovation. Ideas in the next decade will be the greatest things we have—new ideas, new ways to do things, new processes, new skills and certainly some things we have not even dreamt of today. But if we do not make the hard decisions today and if we do not use the good economic times we have—the rivers of gold in tax revenue that flow into the government coffers in Canberra—for the great programs and the innovations which support business and the community then we are going to miss out.
Labor, on the other hand, do have a positive agenda. Labor want to build a culture of innovation. We want to support new ideas and we want to do that by strengthening investment in creativity and knowledge generation. We want to focus incentives on business research and development to promote global competitiveness, because at the end of the day our ability to compete with the rest of the world is how we will succeed and how we will create the jobs later in the 21st century. If we want to deliver the best outcomes for exports and economic growth then we have got to support the companies that are investing in those areas. We want to accelerate the take-up of new technology so that Australian firms can access the best ideas from around Australia and the rest of the world. I do not have to repeat them today, but I know there are dozens and dozens of stories that people know, of great ideas, inventions and innovations made right here in Australia, which could not find support. Support could not be found from government or from the private sector and those ideas had to go offshore, only to come back to us in mass numbers. In relation to solar panels, hot-water systems, microwave ovens, black box flight recorders, and a whole range of other ideas, we have exported the ideas but just did not re-import the revenue and the profits.
Labor want to make Australia’s innovation system truly international by supporting partnerships with foreign investment in Australian research and development. We want to make sure we can use government procurement to support innovative Australian firms. We want to make sure we give firms a leg-up, not a handout. We want to make sure they can do things for themselves. We want to make sure we can strengthen publicly funded innovation and research infrastructure and develop a whole range of pathways to assist our universities to achieve these goals. Labor want to make sure we can develop and implement a set of national innovation priorities with a broader focus than the current national research priorities.
We want to strengthen the governance of the national innovation system to support higher expectation of government agencies and business. It is not good enough for government just to provide some programs but not itself take on innovation and new ideas. And we certainly need to look at reducing the bewilderingly duplicated and multilayered bureaucracy—dozens to hundreds of programs for industry that seem to do a range of different things or the same things. If you were to ask anyone in government or the bureaucracy to put it into context for you and give you a document that spelt it all out, I think it would be just about impossible for them because it is so complicated. It is almost as if this government has designed it to make it difficult to get to—to make it so complex and so hard that small business owners and medium sized enterprises cannot quite get their head around just where they might go to get a grant, assistance or R&D funding, so they cannot achieve their own outcomes and give up. So some of the money just sits there in the funds and does not get used.
An interesting thing has happened over a number of years. We keep hearing about some terrible economic times in the past, and how great this government is at managing the economy, but we only hear half the story. That is the unfortunate truth; we only hear half the story. They say how great it is to have all these revenues coming into government, but of course that is from the mining boom. This government did not create a global demand and a Chinese demand for resources. I do not think they are claiming that—it would be interesting to see if they were—but they are only telling you half the story.
What we do know is that, while the government has been claiming that it is so good, on the really important factors that are going to determine our standard of living and our lifestyle in the next two decades we have actually been going backwards. That is the sad truth. If you have a look at productivity—and probably the key indicator in any economy about where you are going into the future is your capacity to become more productive—then you see that Australia does not do too well. When we left office, productivity was growing at an average of 3.2 per cent, which was not too bad. It actually put us in a strong position. If you look back—and the economists or anyone else who has looked at it will tell you this—you will see that it actually set us up today. It was that productivity growth. What has this government done with that 3.2 per cent growth? It has reduced it. Productivity is now down to 2.2 per cent and is expected to fall even lower to 1.5. What that means is that we are dumbing down. It means that industry will not be able to compete. It is not competing now. We are lucky that there is a resources boom and we have got the resources because if we had to compete globally on other things, including our own productivity, our capacity to improve what we do, make it better, make it faster and make more of it, then we would be struggling.
So that is the half-truth you get from the government about the good economic times. But you do not get the other half: that we are falling behind the rest of the world. That is something that this government refuses to acknowledge or address, and I think in the future that will be looked upon very badly. This government applauds itself on a whole range of things. It says it is the great economic manager, but you have just got to have a look at the record run of trade deficits. Despite the most favourable global economy and global conditions in 30 years, we cannot seem to pick up the ball. We just cannot seem to get our game right. We keep going backwards. Our trade deficits are getting larger and larger.
This government is very proud of saying that it has no debt. That is right; there is no government debt. But to my mind it has transferred it to the community. It is the poor punter out there and it is the electors who have got the debt now. Government has managed to transfer its debt and neatly place it into peoples’ homes. Homeownership debt is through the roof; it has never been higher. Credit card debt is out of control. Everywhere the government applauds itself. It is a 50 per cent story, a 50 per cent truth. Yes, it is true that the government has got no debt. But who cares that the government has got no debt? I am actually much more worried about people in my electorate whose household debt has tripled or quadrupled since this government has been in power. That is a debt they have to live with every day, and it is causing a whole heap of strain in homes.
There have also been eight successive interest rate rises. We keep hearing about interest rates back in Labor’s day, but the government only tells you half the story. It is a 50 per cent truth. The reality was that, compared to the rest of the world, interest rates in Australia, while they were high as a number, were not that bad. As a number they were high, but how much was it hurting your back pocket at 17 per cent at that peak for three months? Let me tell you: a whole heap less than it is hurting you today at 6.5 or seven per cent, because today the equivalent to 17 per cent is about 7.5 or eight per cent. That is the reality today. People are going bankrupt and losing their homes now. Home bankruptcy and mortgagee repossessions have quadrupled in the last quarter. Ask the government why under its policies with supposedly such low interest rates people are losing their homes faster than they have ever lost them before. How can that be? The numbers simply do not add up. The reality today—the 50 per cent truth of this government—is that it says interest rates are low but we have had eight successive rises. We have had four just recently. Interest rates just keep going up under this government. They do not need to go up much because every quarter per cent today is equivalent to two or three per cent back in the nineties. That is the reality, the 50 per cent truth. We have had warnings from the Reserve Bank. We have had former Reserve Bank governors coming out and telling the real position once they were no longer in their positions in their office and saying just how bad this economy is for a lot of Australians. We should not forget that about the 50 per cent truth this government always talks about.
This is a government that has been great at fudging the books. It has been great at passing the buck. It has been great at looking the other way when it comes to skills and training. Why is there a skills crisis today and why is the government clamouring to build ATCs and do something about skills? Because it just did not do anything about it before. For 10 years it just sat there and did nothing, and now it is saying, ‘Oh, my God, we need to do all these things.’ This is incredible. This is a government that has ripped money out of education and health, and now we are seeing the real outcomes of having Labor’s Commonwealth dental health program axed back in 1996. It was not a lot of money back then but it has caused a lot of pain for ordinary people today. That scheme needs to come back, and Labor will be putting that back.
Of course, Labor supports income tax cuts, because the long-suffering taxpayer deserves a little bit back from all the taxes they are now paying. They are now paying more tax than they have ever paid. Higher education needs to be on the agenda. We also need to see trade skills back on the agenda. We need to see this government seriously look at infrastructure. I will not go on about infrastructure in Queensland in the small time that I have left. But after 10 or 11 years of doing absolutely nothing, what is government doing today? In the last throw of the dice before an election, this is the government that rocks up with a giant bag full of cash—taxpayers’ money—and says, ‘We’re here to help; we’re going to do something for you.’ But I think most people have woken up and said, ‘But where were you for the last 10 years? Where were you when we were crying out for funding for desperately needed safety upgrades and urgent upgrades on federal roads?’ You cannot blame the states for federal roads. In reality, this is a government that is missing in action; it is a government that is out of ideas; it is a government that has lost its way; it is a government that is tired; it is a government that no longer has an idea about what it ought to do in the future; and, in my book, it is a government that is out of time.
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)