Tuesday, 23 March 2021
Appropriation Bill (No. 3) 2020-2021, Appropriation Bill (No. 4) 2020-2021; Second Reading
Before the debate is resumed on this bill, I remind the House it has been agreed that a general debate be allowed covering this bill and Appropriation Bill (No.4) 2020-2021. The original question was that this bill be now read a second time. To this the honourable member for Kingsford Smith has moved as an amendment that all words after 'That' be omitted with a view to substituting other words. If it suits the House, I will state the question in the form that the words proposed to be omitted stand part of the question.
I rise to make my contribution to the debate on the Appropriation Bill (No.3) 2020-2021 and the related bills. It has been six months since the budget and it is becoming clearer that the title of the 'greatest economic managers' is just another empty label which this government crowns itself. The Morrison government lauds itself for a slight improvement in the economy, however, we have a trillion dollars in debt. The government has no plan to tackle the jobs crisis billed for the future or help struggling families and small businesses. We also have a continuing crisis in aged care that is continually neglected. On top of that we have persistent growth in inequality. The Morrison government's so-called improvements will be short lived as their budget has done little to address many of the underlying issues Australia faces.
Budgets are about making choices. They are about the direction that families, businesses, corporations and the government will choose. Unfortunately this government made the deliberate choice to deliver little in the long term for the people of Werriwa and Australia as a whole. What the pandemic exposed is that no matter what, big business will benefit from the government's plans. According to this government when times are good the top gets taxpayer funded handouts. When times are bad we continue to do the same. In December the combined worth of Australian billionaires was 52.2 per cent higher than exactly a year before. This reminds us of the stark inequality in Australia. We should focus government efforts on changing it.
JobKeeper is a good example of the mishandling of huge budget expenses, as well as exposing the inequality of top-down economics. In theory JobKeeper provides money to businesses so they can avoid closing. It keeps relationships with their staff. However, as time passed the more we learned about the mishandling of this scheme. Big businesses profited from JobKeeper. The Accent Group received $45 million, yet its 2020 profits were up 40 per cent. The group paid its CEO a $1 million-plus bonus. Shareholders received $65 million in dividends and $11 million of that went overseas to a Monaco billionaire. Bentley dealer Autosports received $2 million in JobKeeper and doubled its profit. Investment bank Moelis got $3 million in JobKeeper and paid $4 million in executive bonuses. Unfortunately, there are many others—like Crown Perth, Empired, Janison and MaxiTRANS—who are profiting from Australia's pain. A public backlash has led to a few companies returning the JobKeeper money. The problem is that the government isn't asking corporations to pay back their undeserved handout. The Treasurer had the ability to make the scheme do what it was intended to do: save the jobs of workers and prepare for the importance of the economy this year. But, given these examples, it is not how it's worked.
In comparison, successive coalition governments inflicted pain and anguish on already disadvantaged Australians with the inexcusable robodebt scheme—driving some Australians to suicide—to illegally take back money from the most vulnerable of Australians. These debts were often levied on the basis that you had to prove the government wrong. But when taxpayer money unfairly aids corporate bonuses the response from the government is: 'This is how it should work.' How can it be that an overseas billionaire is provided more care than a working Australian? Although difficult to comprehend, this is the situation in Australia at the moment with this government at the helm. There are thousands of unemployed Australians and people in sectors such as tourism and manufacturing that desperately need government support—like travel agents in my electorate, who face no future and have not been helped. They are the people who will get our economy going again. They're the people who need JobKeeper to continue after the end of this month.
It is troubling that the inequality in Australia is higher than it was a generation ago—and there's no pandemic defence the government can use to hide that fact. That's why it's critical to reiterate that budgets are more than just numbers; they are priorities and a vision for the people for the future. Peoples' livelihoods are at stake. Their bottom line doesn't mean they can't invest next month; it means they can't feed their family. The Mid-Year Economic Fiscal Outlook forecast a $198 billion deficit this financial year, with $456 billion of cumulative deficits over the forward estimates.
The budget will be in deficit for the next decade, which is understandable given the circumstances we face. The issue lies in where these funds are going and whether the average Australian is going to benefit from it in the long term. This government has chosen a short-term temporary fix that will come back to haunt us. The truth is that those struggling before the pandemic will also have a tough 2021. I also fear that, beyond 2021, there will be nothing to alleviate the struggle of many Australians. A government that chooses short-term gains is not on the side of working families—for example, the JobMaker hiring credit that the government announced in the budget. Getting a job over the age of 35 was already difficult, and for those over 60 it is near impossible. I have heard from many constituents aged over 60 who have unexpectedly lost their jobs during the pandemic. They have had to use their nest egg before they could access income support; but the prospect of gaining employment, no matter how many jobs they apply for, is next to impossible. There must be safeguards for all Australians. This measure is intended to assist. However, it's merely short-term—and it's clear in the numbers. Almost every age group saw an increase in unemployment or insecure work over the year. A total of 940,000 people were unemployed in January 2021. That rose from 875,000 in December 2020. Over 65,000 Australians received unemployment as their Christmas present. We are back to mid-pandemic levels of unemployment. And what do we have to show for it? The casualisation of the work force, giving more power to employers and fewer rights to the employee. Again, it is a temporary fix for the economy and the employer, but there is no delivery of long-term, secure jobs.
The fact is that the budget did not have a plan for good, secure jobs and fair pay and conditions. Job security, better pay and improving fairness in industrial relations is core to Labor policy. It is good for the economy, and people have the confidence to spend. By no means are you casual if you do the same shift continually for more than a year. For Australia to recover from the COVID recession we need secure jobs and incomes. We need the confidence to spend money and stimulate the economy. Secure employment, fair wages and good conditions are the foundations of a strong economy. But, as I said earlier, the budget is not just about numbers; it's about people.
The people in the aged-care sector are in dire need of support. The government can announce home-care packages but they don't seem to be able to deliver them. Services just aren't there for people in certain areas, such as Green Valley in my electorate. There aren't enough and, in some cases, there are no services for people who want simple tasks done, like lawn mowing or house cleaning. I can't tell you how many constituents have contacted my office saying that they have been approved for a package but that they can't even join a waiting list because those people just don't exist to help them.
Many people in this place know someone or have family members in the aged-care system. We also know how much the system is failing. This includes the 6,000 younger people with a disability that are currently in residential aged care. What we want for them is a system that works and provides the best possible care. A young person in an aged-care facility is just not right. Unfortunately, as is clear from the royal commission into aged care, it is in crisis. The government provides more than 75 per cent of the funding for aged care and is 100 per cent responsible for quality and safeguards, and yet it's this government that cut funding by $1.7 billion and, as a result, services have been capped and resources strangled.
Some private operators behave like profiteers, resulting in substandard food and care for our most vulnerable. According to the latest population trends, 38.3 per cent of Australian men and 55.4 per cent of women will need support from the aged-care system, especially residential aged care, and they're going to stay there for two to three years. Now is the time to make sure their stay is what they deserve. We know that many of the hardworking and caring staff in the aged-care services are doing a wonderful and very difficult job with the resources they have. But, as the royal commission has highlighted, the standard we accept should be much better across the sector.
After eight years of the Morrison government, it's time that we accept a higher standard for our older Australians. There must be structural change in the way aged care is managed, rather than allowing private companies to profit on the sector's depression. If it means using the government's responsibility for aged care to ensure that the funding is efficiently used and benefits the whole sector, then so be it. In aged care and social housing, these investments will benefit Australia in the long term.
Labor has also put forward a plan to invest in our tradies, creating thousands of jobs for brickies, electricians and carpenters. We saw during the GFC that every dollar spent in construction will flow through to the rest of the economy several times over. Fast tracking urgent repairs in social housing would not only create secure jobs but also secure housing for those who most need it. There is an urgent crisis in housing and homelessness that the government continues to ignore. Shamefully, the budget does not include a single dollar for social housing, while 100,000 homes need urgent repair and maintenance. In my electorate there is upwards of a 20-year wait for support, like social housing.
Having a policy will generate work for the local tradies and fix the homes that need to be fixed. It's grassroots economics. Creating a fair and equitable baseline of living is what Australia is all about. There's no such thing as: 'If you're good at your job, you'll get a job', 'Pull yourself up by your bootstraps', or 'If you have a go, you'll get a go.' Australia's working life can't be described by catchphrases like it is a 1980 sitcom. These are real people and they have real needs. Not everybody can flick a switch and turn their life around. They need support. The pandemic exposed this when so many people lost their jobs and income. It exposed how many people were on the edge, and the government has failed these Australians. This budget was an opportunity to pull us out of our first recession in 30 years—the worst downturn in close to a century. They even had a template on how to manage a global recession from the Rudd government.
Yet, I am sad to say, it seems this government chose their own template of partisan politics and short-term gain. The deficit was not unprecedented and neither was the pandemic months before lockdown. This government chose to treat it lightly until the last second, and we're going to pay for it now and into the future. The budget was an opportunity to deliver on creating secure jobs and future proofed training to ensure quality child care and aged care, to rebuild our manufacturing sector and to add power to our recovery with clean energy. But it seems we are left with giving hundreds of millions of dollars in dividends to the top and job losses at the bottom. The government is failing the people it should be protecting most.
Working in parliament has been the biggest privilege of my life. I have been fighting hard to improve the lives of the people in my electorate of Longman. As everyone who has worked in government knows, delivering funding for a local project or services isn't necessarily guaranteed. We as representatives of our communities here in parliament have to fight hard to deliver for our communities. There are electorates in every corner of this great country of ours, all competing over limited funding, whether it is to fix a road, build some new infrastructure or improve access to social services. I am fighting each and every day to ensure that people living in Longman are getting their fair share.
My vision while in office is to help make Longman the best place to live in Australia. It is a lofty goal, but it is one I truly believe we can achieve over time. But I know that I can't do it on my own. When I was first elected, even though I'd lived in the area for over 40 years, I had no idea how many great community support groups there were in the electorate. They all do great things and have their own unique niche that help with varied needs in our community. I knew in a small way as someone who had been in small business in the area for many years how generous the business community is and, having been involved for decades in various sporting clubs, how awesome the sporting community is. The issue I saw was that, while we had all these great community and sporting groups and businesses that wanted what I want, which is to improve the lives of every person in our community, they were all doing their own thing and many of them didn't know about each other.
That is why I've established a regular community networking event I've called Vision Builders. Vision Builders is a forum where local business, community and sporting groups, schools and local councils can connect, share experiences, learn from each other and talk about what they do all in the name of creating a better community for all of us. At these events I get various locals to share what it is they do in our community. We have had business owners such as Allan Sandilands and his daughter Amy from Taipan hoses, Michael and Gale Hudson from Pies Galore and Chris and Karen Dutton from Woodford Gardens. We've had representatives from community and sporting groups share what drives them to do what they do for our community—groups like Spiders Boxing, the business and professional women's group, Intercept Youth and Family Service, as well as community leaders like the head of campus from our university at the Sunshine Coast campus. As a result of this, we are starting to see some fantastic things happen as the people within the group are starting to work together and refer people they may not have been able to help to someone else in the group. They are using local services and businesses that they may have not previously known about. It's my belief this will lead to the outcome we are all seeking ,and that is to fulfil my vision to make Longman the best place in Australia to live.
A big part of this vision is to help those people who want to work into a job. As an employer and a small-business owner, this is one of the things I am most passionate about. We all know that, when people work, they feel better about themselves, they become better citizens, the crime rates drop and drug use drops. So I am committed to making this happen. I have been advocating for jobs creation and encouraging businesses to invest in the electorate, and we have seen some great results. This is because the electorate of Longman has one of the highest unemployment rates in Australia, and I am determined to get that down. To help combat this, early last year I held a jobs forum in conjunction with the federal government. It was a huge success. We had 1,981 jobseekers come through the doors and 40 exhibiters, including over 29 local businesses and apprenticeship, traineeship and service providers, offering a range of diverse employment opportunities.
I know for a fact there are many businesses in Longman who are looking for new employees to join their team right now. My Berries, run by the McGruddy family, are always on the lookout for young workers to join their team and pick some fruit. But it is not just fruit pickers; there are also other jobs in Longman. I've spoken to a local roof tiler who has had two apprenticeships going since last July and can't get anyone to take those jobs on. I've also got a big manufacturing sector there that employs almost 5,000 people. There are jobs in those sectors, but when I go out and speak to employers they are struggling to find workers. We've got the Narangba industrial estate. We've got the brand new Corporate Park East, at Caboolture East. It's a massive development; they've got 1,000 square-metre, 2,000 square-metre, 5,000 square-metre and 16,000 square-metre sites. It's general industry; if anyone out there wants to get around a lot of the council regulations that stop businesses from performing, general industry is how you want it zoned so you can do whatever you like there. That is selling fast. Stage 1 is out, and there are only two blocks left.
The government's $1.5 billion Modern Manufacturing Strategy will further harness our local manufacturing capability, and it's helping drive our economic recovery. Manufacturing is critical to our local economy. It's key to almost every supply chain. Over time we will deliver even more manufacturing capability to further drive the sector in Longman and create new jobs for locals. People in my electorate from Bribie Island to Dakabin, from Narangba to Woodford, expect me to deliver on infrastructure for their communities, and that's what I'm doing.
Right now in Longman there are three major road projects underway thanks to a $680 million investment by this government. Work to widen the Bruce Highway to six lanes between Caboolture and Beerburrum has begun at a cost of $662½ million, with a federal government contribution of $530 million. Work has also begun on the $163 million New Settlement Road overpass in Narangba. This overpass is long overdue, as the traffic for residents, particularly in morning peak hour, has simply been unacceptable; I had to endure it for about five years myself. I'm pleased to say the federal government contributed over $130 million of the $163 million for this project. There is also the $30.4 million Bribie Island-Old Toorbul Point Road upgrade, which we contributed $20 million towards. It's only a few months away from completion. We are all about getting stuff done. The congestion on the roads between Brisbane and the Sunshine Coast, which go right through my electorate, is a nightmare on a Friday afternoon and a Sunday afternoon. It has to be fixed, and we are fixing it.
These three major road projects are important investments in my electorate, but just as important are the smaller projects that deliver a massive benefit in our communities. I have advocated and delivered funding for the Bribie Island after hours health service. When I got elected I thought, 'I'm going to try a new concept; I'm going to get out and talk to some locals, and see what they want.' The people on Bribie Island told me they were struggling. They were waiting for up to two weeks to see a GP. That just wasn't right. After some consultation with the PHN—who I want to commend for their service in this area—we were able to secure funding from Minister Hunt. Thanks to Minister Hunt we got $500,000 for a three-year trial for some after hours service on Bribie Island. So we fixed that. Patients now won't have to drive 20 kilometres to Caboolture Hospital, because you can't get a doctor after five o'clock on Bribie Island. That is just not good enough.
I also found out a lot of the residents on Bribie Island are on the older side of the population. Having an 85-year-old father and an 80-year-old mother, I understand what that means: they sometimes don't like technology. There is no Services Australia agency or office on Bribie Island, so they were driving to Caboolture. A lot of them didn't like that; it's a 25-minute drive. A lot of them didn't want to jump online and do the stuff. So I went and saw the minister, Stuart Robert, and said, 'Can we help these people?' He said, 'We do have a thing called an agency.' We've just been through the tender process, and last week it was announced that we've got a winner for that agency, and we now have a Medicare and a Centrelink agency on Bribie Island. That is fantastic. Again, we have listened to what the people need and we have delivered. To me, that's what good government is about.
The other great thing is we've done a lot of work with the local council. The Moreton Bay Regional Council have been terrific to deal with. Through some of our funding we have been able to contribute and do some joint projects. Some of the projects that I'm proud of include upgrading the lights at the Sandstone Point sporting fields, at a cost of $220,000, and upgrading some roads under the Roads to Recovery Program, with funding of $2 million for Keane Street; $1.5 million for traffic lights at Lear Jet Drive; and $1 million to upgrade Pates Road, Wamuran, to name just a few. And it's not just those bigger projects. It's the smaller programs, like the Stronger Communities grants, that really make a difference to some of these small community groups that did it tough through COVID, whether it's a tennis court for St Paul's Lutheran School, a trailer for the Boys' Brigade, or storage and a canteen for Caboolture Little Athletics. That stuff is just as important to the community as those bigger projects. We've also declared war on drugs and alcohol abuse in my electorate of Longman. At a cost of $11 million, we funded the Wunya rehabilitation centre, and I'm pleased to say it's operational. It operates 24 hours a day. People go in and they'll stay there for 12 weeks and get cleaned up. I was there recently, not as a patient but as an observer, and I spoke to one of the people who was in there. He was so delighted; it has turned his life around. He has actually done the 12-week course twice. Now he's looking forward to becoming a productive member of society and getting himself a job, which is fantastic.
The issue of sexual harassment has been roiling this building and has a significant economic cost. It is also an issue about which the government could be doing much more. So, I intend to use my opportunity today in this appropriations debate to discuss the issue of sexual harassment and what can be done to reduce it in Australia.
Australian women are angry. We saw this from the March 4 Justice. We've seen it from so many women who've written to parliamentarians, calling for Australia to do better. This is a moment at which Australia needs leadership, and we didn't get that leadership this morning. We've seen advisers being shown the door. Last week an adviser to the member for Deakin was dismissed after being accused in the Tasmanian parliament of using a sexist slur—which I won't deign to repeat here. We've also had the dismissal today of another coalition staffer, who was engaged in abominable behaviour. And we still have the questions as to what the Prime Minister knew about the alleged rape in a minister's office two years ago.
The Prime Minister has not been straight with the parliament in his discussion of the review taking place by the secretary of his department, Phil Gaetjens. He told parliament on 18 March, 'He has not provided me with a further update about when I might expect that report.' In fact, Mr Gaetjens had given the Prime Minister an update, on 9 March, that he had paused the inquiry. By failing to let parliament know that the inquiry had been paused, he was, in David Crowe's words, 'caught out being too tricky by half'.
We need a Prime Minister who will act on these serious charges. As Katharine Murphy has said:
Australian women will need more than words from the prime minister, they will need action.
Yet today we saw from the Prime Minister, after some heartfelt opening words, an extraordinary exchange with Sky News journalist Andrew Clennell. When asked whether he'd lost control of his ministerial staff, the Prime Minister told Andrew Clennell:
… you would be aware in your own organisation, there is a person who has had a complaint made against them for harassment …
And that matter is being pursued by your own HR department.
He went on, extraordinarily, to repeat specifics of the alleged incident. Andrew Clennell, as I understand, was not aware of that complaint. But it does make it even more extraordinary that the Prime Minister has the temerity to traffic in gossip about what's going in news organisations yet still claims to be unaware of an alleged rape in a ministerial office just metres from where his own office his.
Today the Academy of the Social Sciences in Australia held a forum in Parliament House. It was on the theme 'Gender, power, violence: creating a better normal'. The contributions reflected what social science can bring to our understanding of sexual harassment and to reducing it. Pauline Grosjean pointed out that sexism has a cost for the economy and that violence between men tends to be related to violence in the home. She noted that sexism has deep historical roots, noting the findings of her own research that the gender ratio in 19th-century Australia still has an impact on masculine attitudes and gender norms in Australia today. And she noted that social attitudes are shaped by the views of neighbours, pointing to a survey from Saudi Arabia that found that a large majority of Saudi men favoured women working in the paid workforce but thought that most other men didn't. When given information about other men's beliefs they became much more positive about the issue. Pauline Grosjean also talked about the importance of intervening at the school level on respectful relationships and sexual harassment.
Michael Flood pointed out that it is possible to change the patterns of violence, it is possible for communities to have real change put in place and it is possible for this to happen driven not only by communities at the local level but also by governments. He noted that too many men have stayed silent in the face of the clear evidence of sexual harassment in the community and that they can do three things: look at their own behaviour, challenge misbehaviour by other men and support better policies. He called on male politicians to break ranks from the boys club and bring parliament into the 21st century.
JaneMaree Maher pointed out that a sense of male privilege can lead to a sense of entitlement which can lead to violence and she talked about the importance of unconscious bias shaping the world in which men and women work. She gave the example in academia of student evaluations systematically being higher for male lecturers than for female lecturers and discussed the way in which class, race and disability intersect with the issue of gender bias.
She also made clear that it is important for leaders to act even in the absence of a formal complaint. As JaneMaree Maher pointed out, if an employer saw somebody sending substandard correspondence out of the organisation then they would bring the person in to correct that. They wouldn't wait for the recipient of that correspondence to complain. Similarly, she said that, if employers know that somebody is being a sex pest, they need to call that behaviour out immediately, not wait for a complainant to come to them.
JaneMaree Maher also spoke about the importance of putting in place quotas. This is something that this side of the House did in 1994. We instituted a quota saying that, for winnable seats, 35 per cent of Labor candidates would be women by 2002. That level was raised to 40 per cent in 2012. At the time there were suggestions that that would lead to a diminution in the quality of Labor candidates, but, if anything, the opposite was true. Labor went out in that era and identified candidates like Julia Gillard, Jenny Macklin, Nicola Roxon and Tanya Plibersek—among Labor's star performers in the last generation.
It is ironic that when the other side of the House are putting together a cabinet they have quotas for the number of Nationals, they have quotas on a state level and they have quotas between the hard Right and the moderates, but they reject quotas when it comes to choosing candidates for parliament. I think that's a mistake. I think the Liberal and National parties would be better off if they considered the role of quotas in improving their work.
Then there's the Respect@Work report handed down by Sex Discrimination Commissioner Kate Jenkins last year. As Jenna Price has written:
… but here we are: we have a government responsible for implementing it that appears riddled with people who have a complete disdain for women parliamentarians and staffers. And, unsurprisingly, well over a year since the report was handed to the Attorney-General only one recommendation is in action.
This is an important report. It notes that Australia used to be a leader on questions of gender equity. As well as being one of the earliest countries to extend the franchise to women, we put in place in the 1970s state antidiscrimination laws on the basis of sex and the Sex Discrimination Act in 1984. Yet we've fallen behind other countries in acting on the crucial issue of sexual harassment. This is despite the fact that the 2018 survey on sexual harassment found that 39 per cent of women and 26 per cent of men had experienced sexual harassment in the workplace in the previous five years. It's despite the fact that we have in Australia 38 per cent of corporate boards with no women, compared to just 0.8 per cent of corporate boards with no men. Only 17 per cent of Australian CEOs are women. And, while many young men have more progressive attitudes on gender equity than older generations, we have the scourge of ubiquitous pornography, which Maree Crabbe has written about, that is reshaping attitudes towards sex and sexuality in potentially dangerous ways that can undermine the progress that's being made on gender equity.
The Respect@Work report notes that workplace sexual harassment can sometimes end in sexual assault. It observes that sexual harassment, when it occurs, occurs sometimes electronically through technology but sometimes in person. Fifty-two per cent of those who were sexually harassed said it occurred at their workstation or where they worked. Those workplaces which are particularly subject to sexual harassment include workplaces that are male dominated, workplaces where the work is considered non-traditional for women, workplaces where there is masculine workplace culture, workplaces where there is high-level contact with third parties and workplaces where it is organised according to a hierarchical structure. I note in passing that all of that describes the federal parliament.
Sexual harassment, the report notes, also reduces productivity. It increases turnover. It does damage to the reputation of firms. It has a negative impact on workplace culture. Deloitte has conservatively measured that the impact of sexual harassment on the Australian economy is $3.8 billion. But, even if there was no dollar cost, we should all be committed to stamping out sexual harassment because it is simply wrong. Yet we know that there is a cost. We know that this is one of the chief causes of the gender pay gap. My former colleague at the Australian National University Deborah Cobb-Clark has worked extensively on the relationship between sexual harassment and the gender pay gap in Australia, noting that it can particularly be a cause of the high gender pay gap among professionals, and we know that the gender pay gap, as a percentage, steadily rises as you go up the wage distribution.
The recommendations that flow out of the Respect@Work report include recommendation 26: that the Australian government work with state and territory governments to amend state and territory human rights and antidiscrimination legislation to achieve consistency with the Sex Discrimination Act without limiting or reducing protections. It includes the recommendation that the fair work system be reviewed to ensure and clarify that sexual harassment, using the definition in the Sex Discrimination Act, is expressly prohibited. Recommendation 29 is that there be a 'stop sexual harassment' order, equivalent to the 'stop bullying' order in the Fair Work Act, designed to facilitate the order's restorative aim. And recommendation 30 is that section 387 of the Fair Work Act be amended to clarify that sexual harassment can be conduct amounting to a valid reason for dismissal in determining whether a dismissal was harsh, unjust or unreasonable.
The government must pay greater attention to the Respect@Work report. It is a crucial piece of work in stamping out sexual harassment. But the government also needs to look more closely at its own culture, at its own ranks. The Prime Minister needs to stop seeing this issue as one for which you can find a quick political fix and to recognise that this is a seismic moment in Australian history. He has the opportunity to do what Paul Keating did after the Mabo decision or what John Howard did after the Port Arthur massacre—to show Australians that he's fundamentally different from the boys club in which he has been brought up, that there are problems deep-seated in this parliament and that to date many of the problems that have emerged have been in coalition ranks, and that if he leads Australia will be the better for it. We will be a more inclusive nation, a more productive nation, a more equal nation and a nation which moves with the rest of the world in addressing issues of sexual harassment and gender equity.
Today we debate the appropriation bills. The name is arcane but its content is anything but. For it is in these bills that this parliament renews its ancient vow to faithfully serve the people of the Commonwealth, to ensure their freedom and rights to equality of opportunity, to give meaning to those rights that come not from the state but from the hands of God and allow us to build a fair community for prosperity and peace. The mere presence of many of us in this place point to the success of the Australian dream. From the beginning, this nation was cast out as the last refuge of the dammed, a place that our settlers wanted to be known around the world as hell on earth. Instead, it became the world's last best hope for any person who wanted to live a life of hope and opportunity. British governors were replaced when reports of our nation's opportunities were reported to them in Europe. The great project of our nation, whose goals can never be achieved, is a journey. It is our journey, a journey towards a more perfect nation. As each challenge is met and conquered, a new one begins, so it falls to us to bring about a new justice for a new generation that can no longer wait. So let us begin.
My story begins in many places, from the cold tundra of Kurdistan, a surrounded city in Russia's north, an ancient enclave in Poland's south and the safe surrounds of Collaroy on the beaches. From a father who came here as practically a refugee without even his own father to a mother who was always here but whose parents came from two warring tribes, an English Protestant and an Irish Catholic, they built a large business and then began again without bemoaning once their loss. The amazing thing about this story is that it is so common in this nation yet so very rare everywhere else.
I believe that the story of my parents and my family is different yet it rhymes with so many others in so many other parts of the community I represent. I come from a part of Australia that saved Christmas and then saved new year. This achievement was not without its selfless sacrifice from so many, like the 77-year-old grandmother who could not see her family on Christmas Day, the family that had cancelled their holidays for a fourth time that year. The businesses that were geared up for peak season did not let a person go, because that is not how we do it on the Northern Beaches, that suffered losses and are still waiting for proper compensation from any level of government. Over the pandemic, their federal government has had their back. More than $500 million has been sent directly to businesses on the Northern Beaches through JobKeeper. The cash flow boost added even more. During the Christmas lockdown, the federal government paid over a million dollars in pandemic pay. For some, this is not enough and, indeed, I would fall into that camp. However, I note that it stands in stark contrast to the help given by other levels of government. This was a local outbreak with a local lockdown that required a local response. But too many who bear responsibility sought to duck and weave rather than stand up for their community when it mattered most. Too many self-appointed community groups that were meant to work for the benefit of their community instead chose to ingratiate themselves with local power brokers.
If we cannot respond to a crisis without politicising it then we are all diminished. So it was during this lockdown and it is a matter of grave disappointment. Everyone wanted to see all three levels of government working together, because my community always works together. It is my regret to report to this House that that did not happen. However, there were two points of light where there should have been a thousand. They were Chris Kavanagh from the Mona Vale and Newport chambers of commerce and Stu Cameron from Pittwater Business. Never have two people so forcefully and persistently represented the interests of small business in our area.
Once again, the Northern Beaches community was the North Star of bringing out the best in all of us. That was from sporting and rescue groups, who protect our community through selfless volunteerism, through community groups who coordinate volunteers to make this world a better place to some of the most innovative and creative companies in the world, which started and thrived on the northern beaches. Unfortunately, there is not enough time to mention by name all of these fantastic groups and all the fantastic people who made them fantastic. However, as is common on the northern beaches, do not let practical considerations get in the way of ambition.
Our community is home to more surf-lifesaving clubs than any other place in the world. Andrew Pearce, of Whale Beach Surf Lifesaving Club, has set the standard that others follow when it comes to giving back. As Andrew famously said, 'Volunteering is the rent we pay for living on this planet.' It is such a good quote that Muhammad Ali used it about 30 years earlier!
The South Narrabeen Surf Life Saving Club and its executive, Martin Heywood, Richard Dowling and Claudia Ritter, run the Bush to Beach program, which brings underprivileged Aboriginal Australians from Brewarrina to the beach each year. It's a fabulous program that shows how surf lifesaving gives much more than it takes. That is why I was so proud to help secure funding for the Long Reef Surf Lifesaving Club to replace their temporary clubhouse of some 70 years of age. Peter Kinsey and Rob Pearson show what it means to never, never, never, never, never, ever, ever, ever, never give up. Hilariously, and consistent with this project's history, the build has only just begun and already it is two years behind schedule. Then, of course, about a month ago the Prime Minister made a visit to Greg Broome, president of the Collaroy Surf Lifesaving Club, where he announced more than $10 million for training and equipment to help them to save others.
The northern beaches also has more Rural Fire Service brigades than any other equivalent area in Australia. It also has the most famous one, at Davidson, which is run by the indefatigable Trent Dowling, and includes Tony Abbott as one of its members. The now commissioner of the New South Wales Rural Five Service, of course, started learning how to put out fires when he was a member of the Belrose brigade.
I'll also mention that the three best Marine Rescue groups in Australia are housed on the northern beaches, at Broken Bay, Cottage Point and Terrey Hills. The Broken Bay brigade is overseen by Jimmy Arteaga and the Terrey Hills brigade can tell you where every single boat off the coast of New South Wales is currently located. Recently, after a mere 14 years of complaining, arguing and besieging, the Liberal government was able to secure funding for improved telecommunications services at Cottage Point. Optus has stepped in and this project is proof that in Australia anything is truly possible.
Rotary is a mainstay of so many communities and mine is no different. There are so many people to mention, but allow me to focus on just two: Liz McDougall at Dee Why and Rob Haynes from the Upper Northern Beaches Rotary club. Rotarians have, in one way or another, made this world a better place. Together, they set us on a course to eliminate polio from the face of this planet, while at the same time they have also ensured that their feet are planted on the ground by removing graffiti from walls or organising fun runs that raise money for local charities. There is little that Rotary has not turned its mind to.
A couple of weeks ago I attended the Zonta breakfast at the Royal Prince Alfred Yacht Club to hear the announcement of the Pittwater Woman of the Year. This year's award went to Lynleigh Greig. Lynleigh gave one of the best speeches I have heard, both on the cuff or off. Of course, that was helped by the fact that her home contains many snakes and one very large goanna—always good material for an off-the-cuff speech! Her sense of purpose and life, and what one person can achieve in one area, is boundless. She is an example of the spirit that we have on the northern beaches. Zonta does so much in the world—so much good in this world. Susan Benson and her executive have only enhanced the work of this group. Their breakfast reminded me that educating women, especially in developing nation, has so many widespread benefits. It is something that I hope that this parliament can recommit itself to anew.
And then there are the entrepreneurs, the dreamers and the mad people, who believe when all others told them that they would fail but still did it anyway. Where some saw problems, they saw challenges. Together, they have created some of the most enterprising companies in the world. Marcus Blackmore and Toby Browne of Blackmores and PharmaCare have created the world's leading alternative medicines. They have done what few other countries could do. When you think of the supplementary medicines, wherever you are in the world you will be thinking of PharmaCare and Blackmores and what was created by these two companies.
Brett Crowther, of Incat Crowther, is designing ships for the US military, not because he wanted to and not because he won a tender but because they are literally the only boat designing company in the world that can actually develop such ships, such is the technical capability of the people of the Northern Beaches. North Sails ranks as one of the best sail-making companies in the world. And then there's HIFraser. When you want to keep a submarine dry on the inside, you go to HIFraser to get a seal. There's Medical Devices Australia, which has provided robots for 30 per cent of operating theatres in Australia and is at the leading edge of some of the medical devices in this country. When a high-end restaurant wants high-end kitchenware, they don't learn French and ring a company in France; they go to Roband, even if they're in sitting in Europe, Beijing or Singapore, such is the capacity of our great nation and such is the capacity of the community I'm honoured to represent.
In one way or another, the thing that all of the above have in common is that they belong to the working class. I got elected so I could represent this group of people in our nation's capital. Their values, their concerns, their hopes and dreams are my values and my concerns. I care about ensuring that they have a fair chance of achieving their hopes and dreams. I belong to a philosophical tradition and a political movement that has always stood for the proposition that it does not matter where you come from but where you are going.
The working class in this country believes that the problem with our politics is not too much moral argument but too little. Politics is overheated because it is mostly vacant—empty of moral and spiritual content. It fails to engage with big questions that people care about. Liberals, above all, understand that a free society is a precondition of a fair society, because no enslaved nation has ever set a single person free. But the surest path to serfdom is a government that seeks only equality of outcome and imposes its values on people and obliterates the equality of opportunity.
To those who say that a compassionate society only exists if imposed by a benevolent government rather than enabling people to live lives of full potential, we say that history has borne witness far too often to horrible compassion. Compassion cannot be found in the actions of a bureaucracy but rather in a civil society of free people, like our friends, families and those organisations that we choose to join. We've seen, all too often, the awful consequences of up-ending tradition for no better reason than it associates and ideologue or earns the unearned applause of an obeying crowd. The laws which pretend to protect the vulnerable only ever end up serving the powerful on whose advocacy we too often unquestioningly accept.
Because no nation's wealth should be judged by the treasures we possess but in the gifts we share, empowering people through economic opportunity, making their lives easier and giving them the tools to care for their families, friends and communities is our great project. These bills set out the very nature of this commitment.
I rise to speak on Appropriation Bill (No.3) 2020-2021 and Appropriation Bill (No.4) 2020-2021, which provide appropriations from the Consolidated Revenue Fund for the annual services of government for the remainder of 2021. I do so within the context of how our nation should proceed with the economic recovery from the coronavirus pandemic. I was reflecting on this. I remember having a discussion with a member of the government at the first iteration of the coronavirus—when it first showed itself here in this country and first manifested itself in a way that brought itself to the public attention. We spoke about the government response and what might happen to this country after that. We knew that our country, as a consequence of this pandemic, had changed, and will change, irrevocably, in ways I don't think we could possibly imagine. I think we're still trying to see and determine what has happened to our country. It's like a gigantic rock has been thrown into a pond and we're trying to gauge the reverberations of the pandemic on our society and our community, and the actions of our government.
In that discussion I had with the member of the government, I said that, given the sacrifices that we were about to ask the Australian community to make, we had an opportunity to reimagine Australia, to reboot Australia, to put a vision forward of Australia—an Australia that could be, not just the Australia that was. And what we did and watched, post March 2020, was Australians making the sacrifice that governments called upon them to make to keep each other and our country safe in peaceful ways, in ways of common sacrifice and communal sacrifice that we perhaps haven't seen in other countries in the world. We asked people to do things in this country that they haven't done before; and they did so, primarily peacefully, for the common good. In that contract, given what we had asked them to do, given the sacrifices that we had asked them to make, we would have imagined and created a better future for this country. Politics wouldn't have been the normal form of politics. We would see a newer country, a reimagined country. We would have, as the previous speaker said, a debate about the big issues, the big picture, the way forward—Australia's national identity, its place in the world, the future, what we might imagine ourselves to be.
After what we have seen in the past four weeks can anyone say we have reimagined Australia? Really? Have we? Do you think that what we have seen under this gigantic flag and flag pole does justice to the millions of Australians who made a sacrifice during the COVID pandemic? Do you think that they think our parliament's become more accountable as a consequence of the COVID pandemic? Do you think that they think we've become more transparent? Do you think that they think we've become less arrogant? Do you think that they think we have a future, that we've sat and dictated a future, that we've created a better future for those people who locked themselves away in homes for months on end, who didn't see their families for months on end, who couldn't attend the funerals of loved ones, who couldn't attend weddings? We asked them to stop doing the things that made them human. Does the community think that we have honoured the sacrifices that have been made by the Australian people?
No, we have not—not at all. We've done a disservice to our country and to the Australian people, and we have to do better. We've asked the Australian community to make the sacrifices. They've fulfilled their part of the bargain; they've made their sacrifice. We, as leaders of the community and as people that represent the community, have to reflect their will and imagine a better future for them. We have to point a way towards a better future for them, create that better future for them, give the incentives to them and give a clear direction to them. We don't and we haven't; particularly this government hasn't.
I'm not going to make this a party political speech. I remember being attracted to politics because of the vision of Australia that was put forward in particular by Paul Keating when he was Treasurer of this nation and by Bob Hawke when he was Prime Minister of this country. I remember being inspired as a young man by the changes that were wrought by Gough Whitlam—universal education, a universal health system and a whole swathe of social changes that made it easier for Australians to succeed, to prosper and to be more equal. We created an equality of opportunity for all. We liberated the economy in the eighties. We created a new class—the entrepreneurial class, if you like. I remember being very proud of that. I really did think, in watching what we had asked again and what this government had done, that we would see similar great reforms of this country being put forward—new manufacturing, new resilience. I've heard the terms; I've had the discussions. We need new resilient supply chains. I've heard it. Do you think many Australians in the outer suburbs would know what really is being done in terms of the new form of employment and the new economy? What are we doing? I tell you what Australians are confronting at the present time. We have many businesses—and I see this in the outer suburbs—which are on survival mode and which may well close after Easter, and many more Australians may become unemployed. I know in the coming weeks and months ahead that many sectors of the economy, especially small business, will be struggling to ensure that jobs are maintained and that businesses can remain viable once JobKeeper is withdrawn—and it will be withdrawn quickly—from the economy. We know that international borders are not going to be opening any time soon, so we're going to need to provide much more support to Australians in that section of the economy.
The COVID-19 recovery will last at least a decade, and it should provide us with an opportunity to invest in the future of Australia. The question we've got to continue to ask ourselves is: do we want to be simply a mining and energy-producing nation that has a vibrant service sector or could we expand the Australian economy to be dynamic and diverse and be a world leader in sectors like the global technological revolution and the arts? As former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd said recently at the National Press Club:
With technology re-writing the rules of economic competition around the world, why aren't we inventing, innovating and commercializing our own breakthroughs at scale – in IT, bio-technology and artificial intelligence, using our deep capital markets established by three decades of compulsory superannuation.
Why have our rates of R&D investment and research commercialisation plummeted when the rest of the OECD is headed north? Our failure to make Australia an essential part of the global technology revolution will turn us into a second-tier economy faster than we think.
We have an opportunity with this great global economic transformation and upheaval that is being undertaken and that has happened as a consequence of the COVID-19 pandemic to fully participate in new disruptive technologies, particularly when Asia continues to play a central role. We can't allow that to just pass us by. I want to give an example of this, and it does tie into Australia and how we see ourselves. It relates to Screen Producers Australia who recently came to parliament to lobby for more support for the Australian film and television industry. The film and television industry was obviously lobbying the Morrison government to impose a 20 per cent local content quota on Netflix and other streaming giants, saying that the measure could sustain as many as 10,000 jobs once the recent flurry of Hollywood interest dissipates.
I had the privilege of meeting a delegation of local actors and producers—Simon Baker, Marta Dusseldorp, Bryan Brown and Justine Clark—who were basically talking about this temporary boom that we have with foreign companies coming in as a passing sugar hit. That is what Simon Baker said. What we need in fact, what Simon said, is to help develop a richer, stronger, more potent Australian voice.
This ties into my perspective about reimagining Australia. I fully support the plan to impose a 20 per cent local content quota on Netflix and other streaming giants. We do need to hold the power of tech giants like Netflix to account to ensure that Australians and the world can continue to enjoy Australian film and content. That was driven home to me specifically when I saw a movie recently that was filmed in the Victorian Wimmera called The Dry. It has certainly become one of my favourite Australian movies. Talking to some of the actors and talking to the Australian people who have gone to see it, particularly in the outer suburbs, a number of people said it reminds us of who we are.
You might think why am I talking about arts? Why am I talking about actors? Why am I talking about the film industry, the acting industry and the theatre industry? Because arts define who we are as a country. Arts define who we are as a people. They are a mirror to the national soul of a people.
The fact that this government allowed that, that expression of the Australian soul and its spirit, to wither at the vine during this crisis says a lot about the priorities of this government. When I asked members of the actors guild about how many actors were employed during the coronavirus pandemic—and we understand that there were restrictions—they said three per cent. Three per cent of Australian actors were employed during the coronavirus pandemic. That is a disgrace.
We saw governments move at light speed with respect to certain things and certain industries. The sporting industry is classic case in point. I am sorry, but I actually think the arts industry is as important as the sports industry. Does it generate as much revenue as a local AFL game?—I am a great AFL supporter—no, it doesn't. But do we need the arts industry to survive because it is an essential conduit, it is an essential window, it is an essential part of defining who we are as an Australian people? Of course we do. The fact that I was just gobsmacked by was the fact that I watched it basically being allowed to wither at the vine.
It's really important that we continue to discuss who we are because what things like the arts, the film industry and the TV industry do is they help sustain us. People were talking about how they were binge watching Netflix, Amazon Prime—a whole range of things—and a lot of people were saying they were going back to old Australian TV series. Why do you think that might have been? Because it shows you a window into a time, into a society that defines itself. As we continue to transition out we need to talk again about who we are. We need to provide a national direction. As a country we need to talk about the industries of the future and invest in them in tangible ways, ways that people can hold onto, because there isn't a lot that they can hold onto at the present period of time in this sea of uncertainty that has been created. We need to provide them and this government needs to provide them with a direction, with an idea, with an Australia that could become. I believe—and I am in furious agreement with former Prime Minister Tony Abbott—that Australia's best days are yet to come. Let's use this opportunity of COVID-19 to imagine and create that future, not throw Australia up against a wall.
From small businesses who have been operating for less than five years to some of Northern Tasmania's most iconic and long-term retail shops, thousands of northern Tasmanian businesses benefited from our government's JobKeeper package. It was an absolute pleasure to welcome the Treasurer, Josh Frydenberg, to our region a few weeks ago where he met a few of the more than 12,000 business owners in the state who benefited from JobKeeper and have since graduated from the program, businesses like Elysian Beauty and Wellness in the Launceston CBD. Owner and manager, Bronte Clinton, launched the business just over two years ago in a small one-room premises in the city. The business was going from strength to strength, moving to a larger premises and hiring two further employees towards the end of 2019. Like all businesses in the industry, Elysian had to close its doors suddenly a little over a year ago and were not able to resume trade until the middle of June. Like the thousands and thousands of businesses on JobKeeper last year, the program kept the business running. It's a thrill to see Elysian thriving, with an apprentice hired before the end of last year and a new fully qualified therapist coming on board and kicking off her time at Elysian on the very day of the Treasurer's visit. Elysian and the other businesses we visited that day, Neil Pitt's menswear and Jim Hughes and Sons Jewellers, are just a few examples of how businesses in my electorate have been able to weather the darkest days of the pandemic, particularly during lockdown.
JobKeeper was the program that Bass businesses and individuals needed to survive the pandemic. In Launceston, around 19,200 individuals received payments over the period April to September 2020 compared with 6,000 over the period October to December 2020, a fall of 61 per cent. Our state's unemployment rate after peaking at 8.2 per cent in October 2020 was at that point the highest of any state. Since then, it has experienced a strong recovery in its jobs market, with unemployment falling to 5.9 per cent, the lowest of any state and below the national rate of 6.4 per cent. Tasmania's employment recovery continues to be strong. Some 17,500 Tasmanians entered employment between May 2020 and January 2021, a 7.3 per cent increase compared to a 6.7 per cent increase nationally over this period.
As a government, we must look at what we can do to continue to support our most vulnerable industries as we move into the next stage of our economic recovery. The recently announced support package for the tourism sector is a good example. When Tasmania's borders shut last year, Tara Howell, director of the award winning Blue Derby Pods Ride, saw 100 per cent of her bookings vanish overnight. As Tara told me, to watch the business she put her heart and soul into suddenly become obsolete almost overnight was frightening and devastating. Almost a year later, Pods is going from strength to strength. With borders opening towards the end of last year, the business which, prior to the pandemic, relied on interstate tourists for more than 75 per cent of its bookings, has just come off a bumper summer season and autumn bookings are looking strong.
Like many Tasmanian tourism and hospitality businesses, it is the winter season that can be difficult to get through financially. After such a difficult year last year, many in the industry are wondering what this cold season will bring. So many businesses have been able to survive thanks to JobKeeper and, like Blue Derby Pods, have graduated off the program, but the quiet winter months still present some challenges. After supporting our tourism sector through JobKeeper as well as targeted support programs like the billion-dollar COVID-19 Relief and Recovery Fund, I was thrilled to join Tara and Assistant Minister for Industry development, Senator Duniam, to announce the government's half-price ticket program that will directly benefit the northern Tasmanian economy. I was pleased to see the Launceston Airport—incidentally, located in Lyons not in Bass, but it is the main airport servicing my electorate—was chosen as one of the initial 13 key regional sites to benefit from the 50 per cent flights in and out of Launceston to Melbourne, Sydney and Brisbane.
This program will provide an incredible boost to local hotels, restaurants, bars, caravan parks and tourism operators offering mainlanders a chance to visit what I think is the most beautiful region in the country. As Tara told me last week, this investment by the government is brilliant and just what the industry and businesses like hers need. She said: 'It's going to help our business dramatically, and it is coming at a time when the tourism industry here usually dips. It's winter and the lowest point of the year. The fact this program doesn't start until 1 April is also great, as it gives operators time to prepare a winter offering.' For the local airport, which prior to the pandemic employed close to 400 people and generated $44 million to the north of the state, seeing it bounce back to pre-COVID days is critical. Our recent measures to support the aviation sector do exactly that, with support available for regular passenger airports like Launceston to meet their domestic security screening costs.
Like Tara, I believe this new package is what the industry needs now. JobKeeper kept businesses afloat and employers engaged, but now we need to be giving them an opportunity to grow and thrive. As the head of our local Launceston Chamber of Commerce said last week, JobKeeper has done 'an admirable job of keeping the country's economy functional'. He stated that many members in their chamber 'have already transitioned away from JobKeeper in the second round'. Let's not forget the cashflow boost, which has provided tens of billions of dollars in payments to help keep hundreds of thousands of small and medium-sized businesses afloat.
Another critical funding program that has supported our region through COVID and will continue to have a positive effect for years to come is the Boosting Apprenticeship Commencements wage subsidy program. The Boosting Apprenticeship Commencements program has to date assisted almost 40,000 businesses to take on a new Australian apprentice or trainee. The initiative has supported the creation of more than 8,000 bricklayer jobs, 6,000 electrician jobs and almost 11,000 positions in retail and hospitality work. It has so far helped create 100,000 new registered apprentice and trainee places. In Northern Tasmania alone there have been 524 apprentices signed up to the subsidy, supporting local businesses and providing an important pathway for getting young people into jobs, to ensure there is a skills pipeline to meet the future needs of employers. By expanding the wage subsidy for another 12 months we will help businesses to create more jobs, further supporting our national economic recovery plan for Australia.
Lastly, our communities cannot flourish without the invaluable support of so many not-for-profit community organisations who do so much of the quiet work behind the scenes. The most recent round of the Stronger Communities Program funded 100 per cent of eligible projects. I'm sure my office wasn't the only one inundated with community organisations wanting to apply for the program, particularly as all fundraising activities ground to a halt last year. This funding will make a tangible difference, as will the recent announcement from the federal Assistant Minister for Children and Families that the 2020-21 Volunteer Grants round has been doubled for each electorate. These small grants are essential to supporting our community organisations, equipping local champions with the tools and resources that they need on the ground.
I rise to speak on the government's Appropriation Bill (No. 3) 2020-2021 and Appropriation Bill (No. 4) 2020-2021. It is important that there be proper debate in this House about fiscal management. We need to manage public money properly so that we can deliver for people who really need it, so we can ensure not only that investment goes to the right places to grow the economy and support jobs but also that we don't leave people behind. For this government, though, as we have seen during the pandemic and as we also saw beforehand, its focus isn't really fiscal policy. It's not monetary policy, it's not social policy and it's not economic policy; it's just political management. It doesn't matter what the issue is; the focus is, 'How do we manage it?' That's why, before the pandemic hit, it created a circumstance where it was a government in search of a reason for existence—a government that presided over wage stagnation over eight long years, a government that presided over productivity which was going backwards, a government with consumer confidence going backwards, a government with no social policy agenda advancing any great big reforms. That is why we're debating just one item all day today in this chamber—appropriations. Normally this would be up in the Federation Chamber, because we'd be busy dealing with legislation. But under this government, that hasn't occurred.
The pandemic came along, and once again, just as during the bushfires, the Prime Minister showed an incapacity to lead, an incapacity to show leadership, an incapacity to take responsibility for the issues that were there. The first big error was to announce an increase in JobSeeker without announcing a wage subsidies program. So, we saw the queues outside Centrelink, with people being laid off, because the message the government had sent was that people were going to be looked after if they lost their job, rather than asking, 'How do we keep people in employment?' One of the things wage subsidies do is to keep a relationship between an employer and an employee at a time of crisis. We know that is still the case for so many businesses and sectors, such as in Far North Queensland in the tourism sector. But we know it's all going to end at the end of this month because the government now says we can't afford it.
That's why it's worthwhile looking at how this government has managed fiscal policy. At the end of this process we'll have a trillion dollars of debt, we'll have no productivity improvements or productivity agenda, and not a single new major infrastructure project will have been announced. That's not a bad effort, to rack up a trillion dollars of debt without having a major infrastructure initiative across the board or a major skills initiative—not a single dollar into, for example, public and community housing; they have not one thing to show for it there.
But we do know, from appropriations and from the government's fiscal position, that they have found a billion dollars to spend on advertising—a billion dollars on ads to say how well they're going. One of the things they do is market research that's available only to the government. It's cabinet-in-confidence. And the companies that look after the Liberal Party's campaign get the coin from taxpayers in order to do that—and there'd be no cross-subsidisation there, of course, would there? Nothing at all, from this government—nothing to see here! Another thing that defines this government is that they're all photo op and no follow-up. Remember, when we were talking about budgets, that famous statement from the Treasurer? We were 'back in black'. They even had the mugs to prove it. But they were treating the Australian people like mugs.
Mr Thompson interjecting—
The member for Herbert says he's still got the mug. Well, hang on to it, son! It'll be a collector's item, because it's the closest a coalition government are going to do to deliver a budget that's back in black.
We see it across the board. The government said that at the end of this month there'd be four million vaccinations completed. What are they up to? Well, they're not quite up to 300,000. It's 23 March, and they're still more than 3.7 million short. But that pales into insignificance compared with the JobMaker program. A total of 450,000 people were going to participate in that program. And what are they up to, do you think, out of that 450,000? I'll give you a clue: they're 449,479 short of that figure. They missed by this much! They're on 521, out of 450,000. Then you get to the waste—the $40 billion blowout in subs and the $27.5 billion on the NBN. Whilst trashing fibre to the home and business, they produce a second-rate copper system that they've got to go back and retrofit because it's redundant before it's even rolled out, and it costs $27.5 billion more than they said it would.
Then there's the COVID app. Remember that? We all got told we had to download the COVID app. See if you can find anyone who's actually used the COVID app. It cost $70 million. But, of course, they did produce another thing connected with COVID: their trade logo that looked like the coronavirus! That cost $10 million.
Then this week we've had the report of the National Audit Office into the Collinsville new coal-fired power plant proposal. I've done a few infrastructure projects in my time. We never funded proponents of a proposal to do the feasibility study first who had never built a thing. Perhaps they built something at home with Meccano or Lego, but they had no background in doing any of that at all, and so the audit office have called them out. The audit office have said that the company won't be able to deliver the feasibility study with the money from the grant. They had $100 in assets. Seriously: $100 in assets! Not $100 million, they had $100 in assets, and this mob want to give them $4 million to do a feasibility study. Unbelievable! They knew that this proposal wasn't going to stack up, because the market had spoken. Yet what they did was, in order to be dishonest to the people of North Queensland, they said: 'Here you go. Here's $4 million.' He knows it's not going to be built. Everyone knows it's not going to be built.
Then you look at JobKeeper. We're out there arguing for wage subsidies while the government and the Prime Minister were saying it was a dangerous idea. But they managed to design a program that is the most wasteful in Australian political history. As outlined in the report from Ownership Matters, a fifth of the JobKeeper subsidies that went to ASX 300 firms went to businesses that increased their profits during that period. They didn't go down; they went up. If their formula was applied across all businesses, they've run up pretty close to $10 billion going to companies that were making profits. We raised this in question time. What did the Treasurer say about this? The Treasurer said, 'Profitable businesses are a good thing.' Of course they are. But they shouldn't be paid for directly by the taxpayer, money which then goes straight into bonuses for corporate executives.
How does that compare with what they did on robodebt? Alan Tudge, the minister in charge, in announcing the program, at one stage said this:
We'll find you, we'll track you down and you will have to repay those debts and you may end up in prison.
So: 'If you're an unemployed person who got 50 bucks too much, we'll track you down and put you in prison,' but, 'If you are the wealthy corporate executive who's got tens of millions of dollars in increases in your wealth'—and we saw a lot of that on the weekend with the big riches list—'then good on you. You're making profits. Good on you!'
Strong against the weak, but weak against the strong: that sums up this government. The fact is that, if you look at where money has gone in this appropriations bill, we know that $30 million went for land around Badgerys Creek that's worth $3 million. We know that the government spent money appointing a new Fair Work Commissioner today, Sophie Mirabella. When you think 'conciliation', you think the former member for Indi! You really do think of bringing people together. She's the person who used taxpayer funds to fly outside my electorate office with someone demonstrating—the same person who was here with the 'ditch the witch' demo outside Parliament House—with a coffin with my name on it. She spoke at that meeting outside my electorate office in Marrickville. She has been appointed to the Fair Work Commission. Apparently, the AAT was full with former Liberal and National party MPs.
This is a government that just won't take responsibility for anything. This Prime Minister is an empathy vacuum and an accountability black hole. He didn't take responsibility for the bushfires. He didn't take responsibility for aged care. A reported sexual assault occurred just metres from the Prime Minister's office and he won't answer questions. Today we saw in turn on Sky News and News Corp the same attitude that he has in this chamber. He raised an issue that was confidential. He knew about that. He didn't know about the reported sexual assault that occurred two years ago in a minister's office until it was reported in the media.
This is a government that's on its own side. In contrast, Labor says to the Australian people: 'We're on your side. We're on your side when it comes to better wages and conditions. We're on your side when it comes to reviving manufacturing. We're on your side when it comes to cheaper child care. We're on your side when it comes to addressing the problems in aged care. We're on your side when it comes to ensuring that Australians have opportunity through skills and education. We're on your side when it comes to creating a national integrity commission that stops the corruption that is undermining political credibility in this country and confidence in this parliament.'
This is a government without vision for the nation. This is a government that has been in office now for eight long years and just says: 'It's alright. Don't worry about no wage growth. Don't worry about no productivity. Don't worry about the fact that the relationship with China, as the major destination for our exports, has gone backwards and there are all these problems. Don't worry about it. Just keep with us and we'll just keep things going.' If you question anything, you are un-Australian and you're engaging in abuse. That's what the Prime Minister says. News Corp copped that today and they saw a government that really is out of touch and out of time. I say to Australians that our answer to the issues confronting our nation is very simple: 'We're on your side and we will deliver for you.'
Honourable members interjecting—
The Labor Party effectively say that our debt is somehow or other too big and yet, when they get the opportunity to talk about all the programs and spending that we haven't done, obviously our debt is not big enough. They have an each-way bet on every particular issue that they run: yes, we should be going after these moneys that were overpaid; no, we should never have got involved in robodebt. They never mention the continual debt that they racked up when they were in government and the spending they set in stone for the years after they vacated the government side of this House.
When you're doing an appropriation speech you have to acknowledge where we came from and certainly the fact that we as a nation were spending $36 billion a year more than we were actually bringing into the coffers. This is something that always seems to be overlooked by the Labor Party. But that $36 billion worked out to be about $100 million a day that they were spending that they didn't have. Yet they still signed up for, and promised, money that they could never pay in the education sector. They signed up for and promised money that they couldn't pay in the disability sector. They signed up for a whole raft of spending programs that were just going to keep Australia heading down into a mire of debt.
Credit has to be given to the coalition governments that we have had in the last seven years that we were actually able to bring this nation back to the point where we were actually producing a modest profit prior to the COVID pandemic and to a situation where we could effectively pay for our NDIS without putting any additional funding onto our Medicare levy and where we could actually pay for the amazing education systems that we have in place. It enables us to now go and look at how we as a nation are going to pay for the aged-care provisions that are going to need to be introduced. But, again, it's only this government that's done this. There is nobody around the world and very, very few people in Australia that are not Labor Party members that would be critical of the way that this government has handled COVID-19, with JobKeeper, JobSeeker and the other programs that it has put in place.
As the local member in Nicholls, the major project that I've been very, very proud of has been the Echuca-Moama Bridge, a $324 million project initially split relatively evenly between the New South Wales government and the Victorian government. Money was put aside by Peter Ryan as the Victorian National Party leader. That money sat on the books until 2016. The New South Wales government National Party roads minister put their share on the table. Darren Chester was the federal minister for infrastructure who was able to bring all of that together and get the Echuca-Moama Bridge started. That project had been talked about for 50 years by various state governments in New South Wales and Victoria and various federal governments, but to actually get it signed off and now to see that bridge being built is quite a spectacular sight. That bridge is effectively looking to be finished towards the end of this year. Although when the actual spans meet and it's fully completed may be some time next year. But it has been an amazing investment, with over 400 jobs and 1,100 indirect jobs going into that project alone.
Another investment in tourism in the Shepparton area is the Shepparton Art Museum, an amazing project that has come in at just under $50 million. The federal government has been a substantial partner in that project. The Goulburn Valley is not known for its tourism assets, but certainly the Shepparton Art Museum, with its very strong link to our First Nations people, is going to be an amazing asset right at the entrance to Shepparton, right on the foreshore of Lake Victoria. It certainly is going to be an amazing asset for Shepparton. We are expecting that to be officially opened later this year. Certainly the $15 million that has been put into this project by the federal government is going to be incredibly well received.
This is all part of what the coalition government has put in place as a $110 billion infrastructure pipeline, making sure that these funding announcements can be delivered so that it's a continual rolling list of projects and that we allow for each one of these to be delivered on time.
One of the major aspects is $320 million for rail improvements. It's well and truly known that that North East line, the line after Shepparton, is still operating old diesels that are actually dragging the trains up to Shepparton. It's a ridiculously poor service of only four services a day. Also there's the line which continues on towards Benalla, Wangaratta and Wodonga. Again, that particular area has been the poorest when it comes to turning up on time. Punctuality has been absolutely abysmal on the North East line, and the Shepparton line has been atrocious. There is $244 million for the North East line and $320 million for the Shepparton line. It's money that should have been put up by the state government, but they have simply ignored that part of Victoria and poured all of their funding for rail upgrades into Bendigo, Ballarat and Geelong—and everybody would know that to be the case.
On top of all of that, we have the nation's biggest infrastructure project, the $14.5 billion Inland Rail project. At 1,700 kilometres in length, it will be one of the biggest inland rail projects in the world when it is completed. It's going to be an amazing boost to the Goulburn Valley. With its proximity to the port of Melbourne, the produce from the Goulburn Valley, which is normally worth about $2 billion every year, will be able to go out to the port and also to the north on trains if it is necessary for that produce to go further north.
A fact about the Goulburn Valley that's not well-known is that about 25 per cent of all the trucks in Victoria are registered in the Goulburn Valley. The junction of the Midland Highway and the Goulburn Valley Highway has been the home for so much of the produce that is produced in the area. It certainly makes it quite a hub for that type of investment. But we have also seen a whole raft of other investments go into the area from the federal government. We've had $10 million for the Murray Valley Highway upgrade between Echuca and Yarrawonga. That work is going to really improve the safety component of the highway. And there's $10 million for the Shepparton alternative route—to upgrade some big roundabouts to make them safer. We've had $5 million for the Doyles Road interchange, and that's been an important part of it. We have $2 million for bridge work and $6.7 million for local governments to do some bridge renewal and vehicle safety programs as well.
We have $208 million on the table for the Shepparton bypass. We are struggling to get the Victorian government to come to the table with its cost-benefit analysis of that project. They've been waiting for 3½ years to do a business case on this. They put $10 million on the table about three budgets ago. When this next budget is handed down, two budgets will have already passed without any support from the Victorian government for the Shepparton bypass. It's been very poor work. The city has waited for two decades to get that work done and get those big heavy vehicles out of the main streets of Shepparton.
We've also had serious investment in the Regional Jobs and Investment program—some $20 million around the area. And we have some tourist products. The Museum of Vehicle Evolution, Yarrawonga Tourism Trail and Murray River Paddlesteamers have been recipients of some of those funds. And some private firms have put their own funding in. Furphy Engineering; JN & R Engineering, in Kyabram; and Aquatec and Rubicon, from Shepparton, are doing some amazing work. Rubicon is working on water-saving projects that are seriously leading the world throughout the Americas and Asia. We have also seen investment in other processing companies such as ACM; Wine by Sam, in Seymour; and Ryan's Meats, at Nathalia. They are fantastic family businesses. The Turnbull Brothers and Ky-D-Pak are amazing businesses that have been beneficiaries of that investment as well. It really does show the credibility of this government when it is working in partnership with these communities and also with these local businesses. We only wish there was more to go around so that we could partner up with so many other businesses that would love to have a little bit of assistance as well.
I think one of the great things about this job is your ability to be able to work with community. One of the communities in my electorate is that of the town of Cobram. In Cobram in 2010 they had a fire that burnt down their local cinema. In 2012 there were 96 members from the Cobram Youth Group who launched a fundraising drive to build a new cinema. They raised over $700,000. It was great that the federal government were able to assist the township of Cobram with $526,000 through the Building Better Regions Fund. Together that money has now returned a twin cinema to Cobram. Very seldom will you see a project so good be driven by the youth of a district so I really want to congratulate them and thank them for what they have done. This is an amazing tribute to this government, the way that they are able to invest in this electorate—like they have invested in every part of Australia. Their reach has been thorough. Their ability to have their members go into the area, connect with their communities and then deliver on the projects that are necessary to take this nation forward makes us very proud to be part of this coalition.
We now find ourselves in a very, very tough situation, because of COVID and because of the assistance packages that we have put in place, but, again, I don't think there's anybody in this chamber who would suggest that we take that money back. I don't think there's anybody in this chamber who would suggest that we got it wrong. I don't think there's anybody in this chamber who would argue that JobKeeper should have been delayed or that JobKeeper should have been a lesser amount. We've got what we've got now because we acted in the best interests of our people. I think we will live and die by those decisions each and every day—when you are in the coalition. On this side of the House we believe very firmly that we have done the right thing by our people to support them in the way we have. At the same time as we are doing that, we are continuing to support our communities with this infrastructure spending as well.
Before I was elected to this place I ran a business for 20 years. I started a law practice with one of my partners and another partner came along. Then we grew into a multimillion-dollar operation. I later became a shareholder and director in that business. When you are actually running a business you get mugged by reality. You understands concepts like profit and loss, debt and deficit. You understand things like revenue and expenditure, assets and liabilities. Unfortunately, the member for Nicholls doesn't understand any of these concepts because he can't understand that every dollar this government spent they borrowed. They doubled the debt before the COVID-19 pandemic hit these shores. They doubled it. They were good on slogans in opposition: debt and deficit disasters, debt trucks. I wonder where those debt trucks that went around the country are. They are probably at the wreckers now. I guarantee you won't see them at the next federal election later this year or early next year. You will not see a debt truck with an LNP slogan on it because they have racked up the debt.
Contrary to what the member for Nicholls had to say in terms of infrastructure, they will leave no legacy on infrastructure because what they have taken is the debt from $200 billion up to a trillion dollars and not a road project to show for it—nothing for it. Even on the infrastructure spend in the budget, when it comes to bridges renewal, blackspot funding, roads to recovery—which every government does—this government announces it and doesn't deliver on it. Every single time there's a budget or a MYEFO, every single time they're asked questions in Senate estimates, guess what? They underspend. It's announcements and no expenditure or little expenditure every single time. This government is all about the show. A government by the mates for the mates. Sophie Mirabella was appointed for a role today. No-one could possibly think that she was moderate, sensible or understanding when it came to issues of industrial relations. Perhaps they couldn't find a tribunal—AAT—or any other place they could plonk her. Honestly, for the government to do that today of all days is an utter disgrace.
When it comes to disgrace, nothing speaks more of disgrace than the NBN opposing fibre to the premises. Tony Windsor said 'do it once, do it right, do it with fibre'. The government, when in opposition, were pretending all the time that they could do it with this copper based system. In 2021, how about we roll out an old Toyota from 1983 and think that will do the job for Australia, a used Toyota Corolla or something like that? That is what they were doing when it came to telecommunications. This is a government that couldn't manage the Ruby Princess or the vaccination program or JobMaker correctly and can't even get the right figures for JobKeeper. It expects to be lauded for an increase on JobSeeker that will amount to a cup of coffee at a cafe in the high street in a regional town or city across the country. This government can't manage money.
The government have increased the debt five times—doubled it before the pandemic—and left no lasting infrastructure legacy afterwards. What we see is them expecting to be patted on the back with 5.8 per cent unemployment, 8.5 underemployment, over two million Australians languishing. What does the Commonwealth Bank say? The Commonwealth Bank says when JobKeeper goes off on 28 March, 110,000 people lose their jobs. Treasury says 100,000. In my electorate there's about 1,100 businesses with 3,336 people on JobKeeper whose jobs are all at risk come 28 March. The government couldn't even calculate correctly how much JobKeeper would be and wanted a pat on the back when they underspent.
This is not a government that gets things right. It's not a government that cares for people and it certainly doesn't care for the 40,000 Australians who were promised they would be home by Christmas and were left stranded overseas during the pandemic. There wouldn't be a federal MP in this place who wouldn't have had to deal with the challenges—the tears from parents. I can think of young dancers from Ipswich who were stuck overseas. I can think of people stuck in India, stuck in America, stuck in the UK, stuck in Germany and other places who contacted my office during this time. And the government—what did they do? Not very much at all. The government promised, again, they would all be home by Christmas but 40,000 Australians were still stuck overseas.
What about the rorts—the sports rorts, the land rorts? Again and again Senate estimates shows what is happening in this government. They're not managing money. This is a government for their mates, appointing their mates, deciding for their mates. This is a government that seems to think you can persecute poor people on robodebt—$1.2 billion, a fiasco. No-one has lost their job over there on that side, no-one, because the Prime Minister and the current minister are in it up to their eyeballs. They have all had a hand in robodebt, with $1.2 billion of taxpayers' money gone. There were legal fees spent on behalf of the Australian people to defend this nonsense. There were threatening letters that each one of us as MPs would have seen from constituents. How many times did people appeal those? We had cases in my electorate where people were alleged to be owing to the Australian government up to $40,000 or more and, in the end, were refunded. This is what happened.
The minister over there shouldn't be there. The LNP member for that Gold Coast seat shouldn't be there as a minister. It's a disgrace, what's happened with the government. Talk about wastage. The attitude of those opposite towards robodebt, towards people who are poor and disabled, towards people who are aged, and towards people who are on JobSeeker is one thing but what about JobKeeper for their mates—profits, dividends, executive bonuses? Honestly, for the Prime Minister to have a go at Christine Holgate and the way he treated her compared to the attitude when it comes to JobKeeper. So much of that money was wasted and given to people who were wealthy. It's enriching the rich for so many people. The figures clearly show that, in report after report. I want to praise the member for Fenner who has led the charge to show the wastage. He has done a fantastic job in this area, with speech after speech and interview after interview. He led the charge to show that a good program was wasted and mismanaged by this government. What are they doing? It's some sort of corporate largess to give to the wealthy companies in this country. And what do they do? They say: 'Give it back if you feel like doing so. It's okay, we won't charge you. We won't challenge you. We won't go to court in relation to it. We'll just let you go. If you're a nice boy or girl, give it back to us.' Talk about pathetic. This government is pathetic when it comes to these issues. Absolutely pathetic.
Two million Australians unemployed or underemployed. There were so many people excluded from JobKeeper: people in the child-care sector, the local government sector, the arts community and the universities sector. There are the people who are on temporary visa situations and those who have been casuals for under a year in their jobs. So many people who could have been included, if the government had got the program right in the first place, were excluded from JobKeeper. The government was clumsy and inept. Having thought that the program and the idea of a wage subsidy was dangerous at first, the government brings in this blunt instrument and then has the temerity to say that Labor wastes money. This evening I have given example after example of how the government has wasted money on programs that should never have gone on, like robodebt. The JobKeeper arrangement should have been better targeted, not given to wealthy companies to go in corporate bonuses, profits and dividends. If that was to happen, the government should have used every resource of the state to reclaim that money or ask for the money back but, no, they haven't. The government run around the countryside giving us lectures on financial prudence but they will spend this money left, right and centre. Every dollar they've spent on their corporate largess to their friends in the corporate world is a borrowed dollar that we, and future generations, will have to pay.
During the global financial crisis, this government, then in opposition—and I was here at the time—gave us lectures and pretended we shouldn't have borrowed money. They voted against it. Even when we kept the country out of a recession, they pretended that, if we hadn't borrowed the money to support the jobs and infrastructure it was spent on, we would have still stayed out of recession. But that didn't happen. The country would have gone into recession, if the Gillard government and the Rudd government hadn't done what they did, but they weren't honest enough in opposition. Now they pretend, in government, that they can spend this money without consequence and blame us for it. They're forgetting all about what they said, for year, after year, after year and in campaign, after campaign, after campaign.
We don't oppose the appropriation bills. Why? Because we take a principled position that the Labor Party doesn't oppose appropriation bills. Why? Because we can remember, in 1975 when there was a Labor government, that the coalition in the Senate—in the place down the road, before this building was built—opposed the elected Labor government, that was the Whitlam Labor government. We remember it. This government, the Liberal and National Parties, are ashamed of what they did in the 1970s. We always remind them. Every time I make a speech on the appropriations bills, I remind them about this. We have a principled position to support the appropriation bills, because the government of the day, elected by the Australian public, has the right to bring appropriation bills and pass it through the House of Representatives and the Senate. Even if we don't agree with a lot of what the government does, as a matter of principle Labor supports appropriations bills.
Those opposite, when in opposition, pretended for a start that we could keep the country out of recession during the global financial crisis but not borrow money. Now they say the debt is entirely manageable. They confuse debt and deficit—like the member for Nicholls, who doesn't understand basic business concepts—and pretend to give us lectures. I spent 20 years running a business, I know what it's like and how hard it is when it's your own business and your financial future on the line.
This government will leave no legacy afterwards. You might borrow money for a house, end up with a house and land, work hard, pay it off and end up with something at the end. This government has borrowed so much money but left nothing at the end. Our future generations will be in a position where they will have to pay back this debt. What's there? What are they left with? The assets I referred to in the balance sheet will not be there, because the government has given them to its mates—corporate largess. The government should never ever call people dole bludgers, not when it's given so much money to its mates and won't even reclaim it. This government should hang its head in shame over the way it's conducted itself in terms of budgetary management in this country and the inconsistent messages it has perpetuated and perpetrated in campaign after campaign.
I look forward to going around Australia some time and looking for the mythical debt truck. It's probably there somewhere, like the Tasmanian tiger or the yowie—somewhere up in Kilcoy or somewhere like that. That debt truck is probably lurking somewhere! I wonder whether there is a rusty LNP logo somewhere on that truck? I can guarantee they will never wheel it out—probably not in my time in politics or anyone else in this place's time in politics. It will be in the time of people much younger than me.
This government has a shocking record of economic management and has an incredibly hypocritical approach when it comes to economic management and campaigning in this country. The people should remember the different messages between campaigning and governing. This government has a shocking record in this area. In terms of jobs, there are two million people plus who are unemployed or underemployed and who face a stark reality at the end of March this year. I hope the government remembers them.
I rise to speak on Appropriation Bill (No. 3) 2020-2021 and Appropriation Bill (No. 4) 2020-2021. The Morrison government is committed to ensuring the Australian economy recovers from the COVID-19 pandemic. As part of our economic plan we are investing in local infrastructure programs to stimulate economic growth and boost jobs. This includes in my electorate of Robertson, on the New South Wales Central Coast, where a number of important sporting, education, telecommunications and other infrastructure projects are being rolled out to improve the lives of Central Coast residents.
Last Friday I joined the Minister for Education and Youth in opening renovated learning facilities at ET Australia Secondary College, in Gosford. This included new classrooms, a science lab, two computer labs, breakout study areas and learning enrichment rooms—all made possible through a $1 million investment under the Morrison government's Capital Grants Program. This investment is part of our record funding for schools across the country to deliver real needs based funding and drive better results and outcomes. The new learning facilities look fantastic, I have to say. They are state of the art, and they are going to give our students on the Central Coast the chance to learn in high-quality, purpose-built facilities, and, combined with the school's unique teaching methods, ensure our young people are equipped with the skills to be successful both during and after school. It was a pleasure to visit ET Australia to see these new facilities, and I look forward to hearing about the positive impact that this school, its teachers, its staff and its students will have on the school community and our community as well.
The Morrison government is also delivering for residents along the Hawkesbury River, in Spencer, Marlow and Wendoree Park, with a new mobile base station recently being turned on. This will significantly improve the ability of residents to make calls, browse the internet, stay connected with loved ones, do business and access education. Improved mobile coverage has been a long-held dream for residents in this region, and I'm really pleased to be part of a government that has listened to their needs and concerns, and delivered.
The new mobile base station was completed by Optus and is the latest of four sites across my electorate to receive new or improved coverage under the program. This improved service is thanks to the government's $380 million Mobile Black Spot Program. The first five rounds of this program are funding more than 1,200 mobile base stations around the country, with more than 900 already on air and providing much-needed mobile connectivity to rural and regional areas. I know that this new mobile base station will be particularly important following the devastating bushfires last summer, with residents in Spencer, Marlow and Wendoree Park expressing their relief that connectivity will be improved significantly in an emergency. I just want to note that residents in that community are facing some very challenging conditions at the moment due to the adverse weather. On behalf of my community, I will extend our thoughts to them at this time.
Spencer resident, Robyn Downer, said that communities on the Lower Hawkesbury, which is a region only half an hour's drive north of Sydney, had dealt with poor mobile coverage for many years and had been campaigning for improved telecommunications services since November 2015. Robyn says that she's finally seeing light at the end of the tunnel after delivery of this important project. I congratulate the local Spencer community for their advocacy on this issue and I'm really pleased to see improved mobile coverage across this important local region.
Last Friday I was also pleased to attend the start of work on the new 'missing link' pathway, connecting Davistown and Kincumber, a cycleway in my electorate of Robertson. The Central Coast Council is constructing the new shared pathway to provide a dedicated off-road route for pedestrians and cyclists, with stage 1 works focusing on a 320-metre section along Malinya Avenue at Davistown. Works also include construction of curb and guttering, improvements to the road shoulder, adjustments to property access and improvements to stormwater drainage. Over $900,000 of funding has been provided for the project under the government's Local Roads and Community Infrastructure Program, helping to improve our already fantastic walking and cycling tracks used by both locals and visitors. I'd really like to thank the Davistown Progress Association, especially its president, Jenny Mcculla. They have really worked tirelessly to make these upgrades a reality. Jenny said that she's delighted to see funding for this much-needed pathway so that residents can walk safely to school, medical appointments or the local shopping village. I know it's really important as well for those who choose to cycle along that path, particularly for families.
Construction has also begun on the redevelopment of the Narara Skate Park, made possible through federal government funding. Feedback from local skaters played a key role in the final design and will ensure that it caters to all skill levels and skating styles. The park also incorporates elements which will enable it to be used for future competitions and riding workshops. The redevelopment is expected to be completed by mid 2021, and I look forward to visiting the skate park to see these improvements. It's a really important commitment for my electorate.
The Morrison government has also committed to delivering improved sporting facilities to ensure that we have places to exercise and enjoy the sports that we love. This includes on the Peninsula, where I was pleased to open new women's change rooms and facility upgrades at James Brown Oval in Woy Woy. This project was made possible following an investment of more than $480,000 by the federal government. The facilities are so much more than just a place for sport. They really enhance team spirit, create a sense of belonging for players and ensure that women's sports are supported across our region. The president of the Southern & Ettalong Football Club, Glen Balneaves, said that the new change rooms will help to create equality within the club and lift morale for women and girls who play football across the Peninsula.
A new $80,000 digital scoreboard for Woy Woy Oval has also been delivered, completing the state-of the-art facility for local and regional events. The multipurpose scoreboard will display game scores, player names and statistics as well as information for community events. I want to thank Woy Woy rugby union and Woy Woy rugby league for their advocacy on this important project.
In Ettalong Beach, the Morrison government is delivering $1.45 million for a new amenities block and clubhouse at Lemon Grove Netball Courts. The upgrade will provide state-of-the-art amenities for netballers on the Peninsula. I am advised that it is on track, with the detailed engineering design package commenced and the clubhouse due to be opened to players in the 2021-22 financial year. Lisa Coakley from the Woy Woy Peninsula Netball Association said that the club had been advocating for better amenities to ensure members can enjoy world-class facilities and that the executive can't wait to see this new clubhouse built.
In Umina, the $8.25 million Peninsula Recreation Precinct upgrade is being delivered by the Central Coast Council. Early consultation, I'm advised, has been held with various sporting groups, and I'm advised that the project management unit at the council has continued to liaise with the Umina Community Group. A site survey, geotechnical investigations and an electrical audit have been undertaken to inform design development. I look forward to these upgrades being completed as soon as possible. It is important to acknowledge that this project would not have happened except for the work of local community groups, such as the Umina Community Group, who advocated for improved facilities for the region's young people over a number of years. They brought the community together and developed a petition, and the delivery of this project is proof that their voice made a difference.
Finally, the Morrison government is delivering improved parking and road infrastructure for Central Coast residents, helping them to shorten commuting times and get home sooner and safer. Thirty million dollars has been committed to deliver commuter parking at Gosford station and there is $5 million for Woy Woy station. Commuter car parking is congestion-busting infrastructure that gets cars off the road and helps Australians to get to work more quickly. At Woy Woy, Transport for NSW has completed a rapid viability assessment and identified four suitable sites. Preparation work is being finalised, and I will be able to say more on the delivery time frames once a site has been determined.
The Morrison government's $86.5 million Central Coast Roads Package is delivering for local residents and is also assisting our recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic by supporting 190 direct and indirect jobs, based on government estimates. A number of upgrades have been completed, including Mutu Street, Woy Woy, Glenrock Parade, Tascott, Maidens Brush Road, Wyoming, Springfield Road, Springfield and Gem Road, Pearl Beach. Upgrades to important local roads, such as Del Monte Place in Copacabana and Ridgway Road in Avoca Beach, are underway. Design works have also commenced on Steyne Road at Saratoga, Lushington Street in East Gosford and Shelly Beach Road in Empire Bay. Those last three roads, I know, were very important roads for the local community. They advocated incredibly hard to see that funding delivered, and I'm very pleased to have been able to deliver that funding. It will make a tremendous difference in the lives of those people who are living in those communities. These upgrades will make a huge difference to the lives of people who live and travel on all of these roads across the Central Coast every day, including people like Lindsay Cunningham, who said that the upgrade to Ridgway Road in Avoca Beach will ensure that local students can walk home safely from school and Kevin Dewar, who has previously told me that the Ocean Beach Road intersection upgrades were much needed to address congestion that has been getting worse over many years.
These are just some of the many investments in infrastructure being delivered right across the electorate of Robertson. I know that the Morrison government will continue to implement our economic plan to assist Australia's recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic, and I will continue to fight to ensure that we do see more and better infrastructure delivered to a region like the Central Coast, the very best region in the best country in the world.
The announcement today from the government that they're appointing former member for Indi Sophie Mirabella to the Fair Work Commission did not come out of a vacuum. This is not just one bad appointment—one crazy ideological appointment; it's actually part of a very deliberate strategy of hard-line ideology from this government. For the commission to function as it's meant to function, there needs to be a balance between the employer and the employee representatives, but, for eight long years now, this government has been stacking the commission with employer reps only and conservative ideologues to make sure that workers have less of a voice. And now they have gone to make the blatant political appointment of a former Liberal MP, the least conciliatory member of this House in living memory, to be in charge of conciliation for every workplace in Australia.
Are they just trying to stack the Fair Work Commission? Are they trying to undermine its credibility? Because this can do both. This is a government hell-bent not just on attacking the Labor Party but on attacking the rights of workers themselves. Ideologically, Australia was meant to be in a different position to countries like the United States. More than a hundred years ago, we had a world-leading decision with the Harvester judgement, and, in doing that, we decided as a nation that there would be a social contract, that there would effectively be a settlement, that the livelihoods and wages of workers would not only be based on the profits of the companies but actually be based on the needs of the individuals. That settlement for a long time was respected by each side of politics. We had some outbreaks with the Bruce government. We had outbreaks with work choices from the Howard government. But that principle has basically been at the core of the Australian concept of a fair go—that settlement: that workers, their rights and their needs are how you work out what their minimum wage needs to be.
But today's appointment is not the beginning of the government trying to undermine that settlement. They did it with the trade union royal commission by appointing somebody who was also appearing as the featured guest for Liberal Party fundraisers as the alleged impartial judge. They did it with the politicised ABCC; the politicised Registered Organisations Commission; the failed anti-union ensuring integrity laws; the failed anti-worker IR reforms last week, which, when they were presented to this parliament, were, in black and white, a how-to guide for cutting wages. And they did it with the endless stacking of the Fair Work Commission in favour of employers and hardline ideologists. The attacks on workers never end.
When you get a new player going in there like the gig economy which is entirely working on a race to the bottom on wages, where people are being paid less than the legal minimum, what's the response from the government? It's: 'Fixing that is complicated. It's complicated.' No, sorry, it's the exact same principle that the Harvester judgement was fixing more than a century ago—that, if all you look at is a race to the bottom on wages, then you don't give people dignity. Australia was meant to be above that, but this government is clearly not above a race to the bottom when it comes to wages for the Australian workforce.
Then we end up with the Sophie Mirabella appointment. What chance do you think you'll have if you've got an anti-bullying claim and you take it to the commission and you discover Commissioner Mirabella—or deputy president; we don't know which title she'll be given yet—is actually in charge of judging whether or not you've been bullied or treated unfairly based on your gender? This is the same person who, just outside the chamber, when the 'ditch the witch' signs were there, was there with other members of the parliament who still occupy the front bench on that side of politics. This is the same person who turned up outside a Labor electorate office with a coffin as a prop, and the government thinks that's the sort of person who should be in charge of deciding whether or not vulnerable workers have been bullied. That's the sort of person who's now going to be in charge of deciding whether or not you're being treated fairly at work. That's the sort of person who's going to be put in charge of conciliation. The least conciliatory human you could get in this place is now in charge of making the peace. A person who described John Howard's work choices as 'big but fair' and 'significant but necessary' will earn around $400,000 a year for the next 13 years to oversee Australia's workplaces. That ought to send a chill down the spine of every Australian worker.
This is not just a one-off appointment; this is part of a stacking operation by this government. Let's not pretend this is just, 'Oh, yes, the government appoints their people, but we'd appoint ours if we were in government.' No. Labor made sure we were appointing people from both sides of the bargaining table, because that's how the commission had worked for more than a century. But this government has decided, in terms of appointments, it's winner takes all. What that means in terms of disputes is that workers lose all. That's where that gets you.
But, as I say, this is not the only appointment that creates a problem and it's not just the general trend. Also in the papers today we have one of their other appointments, Deputy President Gerard Boyce. This is someone who is meant to work out whether or not you could go with a dispute saying: 'There are sexualised images in my workplace. I don't feel comfortable at work. I want the commission to be able to properly hear the matter.' What chance do you have when the commissioner himself brought to his workplace, the commission, scantily clad, erotic anime figures? He decorated his own office in the exact way that workers are meant to be protected from in their workplace. And he's put in charge to be the umpire? Then, when people complained about it, he decided he would show how impartial he was. How did he do that? He brought in a life-size cardboard cut-out of Donald Trump. Then, when he was worried about people looking at what in his office, he put up fake surveillance equipment to scare people off. Then, at the Christmas party last year in New South Wales, where fireworks are unlawful, he started throwing explosive devices down from a balcony.
Do I need to go through the list of what he's meant to be defending? It's workplace health and safety, the rule of law, people having safe workplaces and people being able to work in an environment that's free from offensive images. This is not talking about some random person who turned up at a Liberal Party fundraiser and someone got a photograph with him and we're saying, 'It's outrageous this is who you associate with.' This is who the government appointed. He gets paid $470,000 a year as a deputy president. And, because it's a quasi-judicial appointment, he is there until the year 2038. Will anyone from the other side defend this as a good appointment? It didn't go through the parliament. I'll tell you where it went through. It went through the cabinet of Australia. I say to those backbenchers opposite, those people who are not members of cabinet: the people who your side has decided have the best judgement available on your side of the chamber decided he should be put in charge of every Australian workplace. They decided Sophie Mirabella should be put in charge of every Australian workplace. They decided to put protagonists in as umpires. If they were doing it on both sides even-handedly you could say, 'It'll work out in the wash through a series of appeals to the commission.' But, no. Every single decision goes the same way. Every single appointment goes the same way. It's a stacking of the industrial commission and a deliberate strategy to undermine the workforce of Australia.
Those opposite might not care, because for those opposite it would be years since any of them were reliant on an award wage. But I'll tell you what; the people on this side of the House will defend people who rely on award wages. The people on this side of the House will defend people who are reliant on a wage in an enterprise agreement. The people on this side of the House know that, if the umpires are no good, the outcomes are going to be no good. I say to those opposite: think of how many times you have watched a sporting match. Maybe that's something you'll understand if you don't understand workplace law. How many times have you thought, 'That umpire made a weighted decision.' Then think that you are responsible for putting umpires who are not up to the job in charge of every workplace in Australia. When people aren't getting a pay rise, don't think, 'I wonder how that happened?' You will have done that. When agreements get past that leave workers worse off, don't think, 'That's just the system.' No. You own those outcomes. If you make these appointments, you own those outcomes. If you abandon or up-end the concept of a settlement between the labour workforce and getting a fair share of profit then when people are worse off it is not an accident; it's because you did it.
Only two weeks ago I was with workers who are living some of these outcomes right now, and they need better industrial relations laws. I was with the leader of the Labor Party, Anthony Albanese, and the member for Hotham, Clare O'Neil, at the McCormick dispute. These are workers who for five years have not had a pay rise—five years. Go back and check your tax records and see what you were earning five years ago and think, would you even like to go back to that? I tell you what, you were always earning a hell of a lot more than these workers are. And for these workers, after not getting a pay rise for five years, what do you think the offer from the company was, if they didn't want to lose their penalty rates, which would see them go backwards? The offer from the company, for the next enterprise agreement, if they were not willing to give up penalty rates and other entitlements, was zero—a zero percentage increase. If they agreed to that, it would leave them for eight years without a pay rise.
This is real. This is what's happening in the Australian workforce out there. And those opposite—worse than turning a blind eye to it—are contributing to low wages outcomes in this country by the appointments they're making and by the refusal to provide changes to industrial laws that would actually deliver improvements rather than further cuts. McCormick—you might not know their name, but I tell you what, you know their products. They make the sauces for McDonald's, for KFC, for Nando's, for Subway and for other famous herb-and-spice brands, such as Keen's mustard and curry. They are a substantial multinational business, and they can afford to pay. There's one thing that lets them think they can get away without giving a pay rise, and it is the Morrison government. That gives them heart, because they know that if they don't agree to another enterprise agreement there are not going to be industrial laws forcing their hand. They know that, if they continue to provide zero percentage increases to people's wages, no-one's going to improve things for those people.
I met Mary, age 55. She's worked there for 33 years. We went through worker after worker on the picket line. These are loyal, hardworking workers who are being treated appallingly by this company. In return for their loyalty they get a zero per cent pay rise. They deserve better. And every time the government wants to run some scare campaign about unions, I would share this simple fact; those opposite are doing nothing to get them the pay rise. But the UWU is trying to get them a pay rise. I met union officials who were standing with those workers on the picket line, trying to make sure they get a pay rise.
And when I came back here, what did I find that the government was doing? The government was getting rid of its laws on wage theft. The government was wanting to make it easier to casualise people. The government was making appointments to make sure it's easier to keep wages low and it's easier to make sure people have their entitlements removed. Those opposite often see workplace relations, industrial relations, as some sort of complex, clubby policy area. It's not. It's about the take-home pay of the majority of Australians, and those opposite are making sure that it is less secure and that it stays low.
One thing I've said many times in this place since being elected is that I'm Braddon's voice in Canberra, not the other way around. This commitment remains my priority. As I move around the electorate, through the north-west, the west coast and King Island, I'm grateful for all those who take the time to update me on how things are going in their local communities. Whether you're representing your own views or those of your business or organisation, it's important that I know and understand what is working and what isn't—what the success stories are and what challenges remain.
Last week's labour force figures show the strength and resilience of the Australian economy. The unemployment rate dropped from a revised 6.3 per cent in January to 5.8 per cent in February. Around 88,700 jobs were created across Australia during the month, all of them full time. More than 80 per cent of these jobs went to women, and more than 40 per cent went to young people—and this is important. It's also important that the participation rate remains at a record high. The level of unemployment is now back to prepandemic levels.
Tasmania's economic recovery is in full swing. The economy is growing. Our state has consistently been rated as the best performing and most confident in the nation. We have the lowest unemployment rate of all of the states. Our job numbers are at prepandemic rates. Our job vacancy ads in February led the nation and were over 52 per cent higher than the previous year, more than double the national growth for that year.
A range of jobs across a variety of sectors are available right now across our region. I encourage all jobseekers to consider the opportunities when they become available and how they can make the most of them. Again, if there are barriers to you getting a job in Braddon then I need to know about it, so please let me know.
The months ahead are going to continue to be challenging for some sectors, but the labour force figures and other economic data should give confidence that the Morrison government's economic recovery plan is working as we emerge from the most significant financial crisis in more than 100 years. Our future looks positive.
As your federal member for Braddon I will continue to listen to you and to raise the challenges that you are facing and represent the needs and interests of the north-west, the west coast and King Island in Canberra. I will continue to fight the good fight and keep fighting for job-creating enterprises and services that our region so desperately needs to regain its full potential.
Education is a key pillar of my region's future prosperity, whether it is schooling, vocational education, TAFE, university or on-the-job training. Ensuring that everybody across the north-west, the west coast and King Island has access to first-rate education is crucial if our region is to reach its full potential. As opportunities present themselves we need to make sure that we're skilled up so that everyone can take advantage of these jobs and prosper.
I'm particularly proud of our west coast study hub. In fact, I was at the opening of this hub in Zeehan. It was one of the first things I did when I was elected to this place. Those who live on the west coast of Tasmania know that there is a significant divide when it comes to accessing higher education. The further you move away from the big capital cities the worse the educational opportunities are. The statistic is that you are 50 per cent less likely to achieve a bachelor's degree by age 35 if you live in a rural or regional community. This is not good enough.
It's a significant financial burden to move away from home to study. There's also the social and emotional toll that leaving families and friends behind brings. Regional study hubs are one way to address these barriers. They allow students to study and to continue to live at home in their own townships. I'm very happy to report to the House that the Morrison government's investment in higher education on the west coast of Tasmania is reaping rewards. It's doing exactly what it was designed to do. It's working. I'd like to see it expanded.
Through the hub there has been a continual flow of students of all ages. There have been locals looking to undertake university courses, vocational programs and upskilling. Critically, the hub has been accessed by many learners who are choosing to access higher education for the very first time. I think this is a great outcome. I'm incredibly excited about what's happening on the west coast. The region is creating a community of learners who are being linked to education and employment outcomes. The west coast hub has proved to be such an effective model and an excellent investment that that centre is now looking to develop outreach programs in Circular Head and King Island, as I said earlier. I look forward to continuing to support these ventures in our regional communities and to work hard to close the gap in the educational outcomes between the city and the bush.
The Morrison government's commitment to education is not limited to the west coast study hub. I'm very pleased to report to the House that the construction of the University of Tasmania's new Burnie campus is nearing completion. It's looking great. This is a once-in-a-generation investment by the Morrison government. It is a crucial element to improving educational outcomes in our region. It will build the north-west region's reputation as a distinctive learning destination.
This investment goes well beyond the educational benefits that it will bring to the region. It will create vibrancy close to Burnie's CBD, it will foster economic benefits and it will pave the way for increased community-industry partnerships that enable the region to prosper and to grow. These new facilities will support and deliver the new degrees and industry aligned courses, increasing opportunities for students right across the region as they graduate from university and gain job-ready qualifications. I welcome UTas's commitment to focusing on leveraging on the strengths of our region. This will ensure that the courses offered meet the specific needs of our regional communities, align with our future workforce needs and continue to attract students from right across Australia and the world.
A few weeks ago I had the pleasure of spending a few days on King Island. It was great to see the island bustling. I'm happy to report that the King Island Show was an absolute credit to all those involved. It had everything you would expect, plus more. Congratulations to everybody who was involved in organising the great King Island Show. I had the pleasure of officially opening the King Island early childhood centre upgrade and extension. This investment is another example of the Morrison government linking education and jobs together. This project upgraded the main facility to comply with the current building code. It improved operational efficiency, as well as constructing a new standalone building and increasing enrolment capacity to further strengthen and grow the King Island community. It's a great outcome. Spending time with Murphy Summers and her team at the early childhood centre and seeing how the little ones were thriving under their care reinforced for me the value of our commitment and how critical this is to our small regional communities. More parents are now able to return to work. They know that their child is receiving the care and the early learning that they need to have the best possible start in life. It's so important.
Over the past few weeks I've also had the pleasure of officially opening two new school redevelopments focused on STEM. Burnie's Leighland Christian School and Devonport Christian School received funding through the capital grants program. This investment by the Morrison government reflects our ongoing commitment to today's students. They know we are willing to back them and ensure they are equipped with the skills that they need for the jobs of the future. If the students at Leighland Christian School and Devonport Christian School reflect the students right across the nation then our future is in good hands indeed. Their excitement to embrace this new technology, their willingness to learn and the way they challenge themselves across STEM subjects was absolutely impressive and infectious. I'm so proud of them. No longer is science, technology engineering and mathematics something that is taught from a textbook; it's a hands-on and immersive subject, and students are loving it. Congratulations to the principals—Elizabeth Scheu and Chad Smit—and the teachers, support staff and parents of these great kids, who all play such an important part in the education of these kids. Thank you for making your students' journey through education a positive and exciting one and for ensuring they are ready to take advantage of every opportunity that's laid before them.
Last year the Morrison government and the Tasmanian government signed a state energy and emission reduction deal that will create thousands of jobs and deliver an affordable power supply to Tasmania and the broader electricity market. Under the agreement, both governments will work closely to deliver the Battery of the Nation and Marinus links to better connect Tasmania with mainland Australia and the National Energy Market whilst improving energy security, keeping prices low and reducing emissions.
Delivering the Marinus Link and Battery of the Nation projects is key to the federal government's JobMaker plan to shore up affordable and reliable energy in the east coast energy grid. Both Marinus and pumped hydro will maintain downward pressure on electricity prices and this is one of our government's key priorities. So households can keep more of what they earn. This will also develop the backbone of reliably lower emissions in the National Electricity Market for the next decade and beyond. It is forecasted that these projects will create up to 2,800 jobs, which will be absolutely crucial to my regional communities as they recover from the COVID-19 pandemic.
The Marinus Link will also provide the additional interconnection needed to export the electricity grid to the Battery of the Nation on the mainland. In doing so it will unlock a pipeline of renewable energy investment, including pumped hydro, and create energy storage. Having already achieved more than 100 per cent self-sufficiency in renewables, Tasmania is punching well above its weight when it comes to generating low-cost, reliable, clean energy for the nation. This will help us achieve our target to double our renewable energy generation to 200 per cent of our current needs by 2040. It's a great goer! The anticipated increased energy interconnection between the mainland and Tasmania will also improve energy security, helping put downward pressure and lower prices on our state's domestic electricity market. It will also enhance growing opportunities for renewable generation in our state. The Morrison government has contributed $150 million towards the Marinus Link project to date, guiding it through its development and approval stage.
The Morrison government is continuing to invest in the electorate of Braddon across all sectors, as you can clearly see from my speech tonight. Almost everywhere I turn, every local government area I visit has federally funded projects being undertaken. It's a wonderful thing. From roads and bridge maintenance, large infrastructure projects and smaller capital grants projects that are important to our small regional communities to supporting our volunteer sector—those volunteers are absolutely crucial to our regions—and our local junior sports champions—the list goes on and on and on. Thank you to everyone across the north-west, the west coast and King Island for how you have responded to the challenges we have all been through together in the last year.
Together we are building stronger communities and we are building a stronger Tasmania. Our region has always had a glass-half-full approach. We have taken on our challenges and we have met them with the same determination we always have, and we are winning. I look forward to working with everyone in my electorate in the years to come, working together to realise our goals and seize our opportunities as they present themselves, ensuring everyone is equipped with the skills they need to be the very best Tasmanian they can ever be.
I rise to speak on Appropriation Bill (No. 3) 2020-2021 and Appropriation Bill (No. 4) 2020-2021. I want to acknowledge the celebration this weekend of the Holi festival—'the festival of colours', as it's widely known. It's an ancient Hindu festival also known as 'the festival of spring' or 'the festival of love'. It originated in India but is now celebrated across much of Asia and the Western world because of the fast-growing and vibrant Indian diaspora communities across so much of the world. It's a festival celebrated now by over a billion people worldwide—'the festival of lights'—including many hundreds of thousands of Australians of Indian origin. It's about the triumph of good over evil. Of course the most widely known part of Holi is where people smear each other with colour and drench each other with water. It's enormously good fun, I must say.
I'm proud to represent a vibrant and fast-growing Indian diaspora community in the electorate of Bruce. Unfortunately, I fear that again this year COVID restrictions will limit and curtail somewhat the celebration of the Holi festival in my community and in many parts of Australia. I say to any Australian who hasn't experienced the Holi festival: whenever you can, whenever you have the opportunity, go and experience it. The community are so welcoming in talking to you about their traditions. I would also say: wear some old clothes or an old suit. That is a good tip! Do have some fun but also reflect on the message of Holi—'good over evil'. It's an opportunity to rid yourself of past errors, to forgive others and to end conflicts—be they in your family, community or workplace, or wherever—and to spread positivity around you. I wish everyone celebrating Holi a happy Holi, and I thank the Australian Indian community for their contribution to modern Australia. You enrich our community and participate in every aspect of Australian life while continuing to share your culture and traditions with your children and the broader community.
I have spoken before about the mess the Liberal government has made of partner visas in this country. We have had nearly 100,000 Australian citizens and permanent residents desperately waiting for years for a visa for their partner, their husband, their wife, their fiancee, their spouse, their loved one. To fall in love with people from overseas is quintessentially Australian. It's been part of modern Australia for decades. It should be no surprise to even this government that, as the population grows and we see more migration, we see young Australians travelling the world and living overseas in their formative years. They meet people and fall in love and want to come back here and build a life. We see the government blaming COVID for why people are waiting so long. That's an excuse. This mess has been years in the making. When Labor left office, it took six to nine months on average to get a visa for your partner, your loved one. Under this government, it has blown out to close to two years. In many cases, people are waiting years and, for certain categories, now there is no hope in sight. The government has taken the waiting times off the list. Just pay your $8,000 or $15,000 or whatever it costs you, good luck.
The government say they put caps and cut the number of visas they issue each year. The caps are illegal; they contravene the Migration Act. The minister has no power to impose caps over partner visas and child visas. They have cut the number of visas they are issuing each year in a naked, blatantly political little sop to Pauline Hanson to say, 'Oh, we have cut migration.' They haven't cut migration; they have just cut the number of permanent visas they issue while temporary migration has blown out. So many of these partners come here and wait on visitor visas for years. They haven't cut the number of people in Australia. They haven't busted congestion. They have just broken up the relationships and the love of Australians and made people miserable waiting, unable to start their lives.
Even this government detected the rising anger and said in the budget they were going to issue more partner visas, increase the number of places. That's a good thing. We don't know how many places though. We don't know how they are going. Are they on track? A few people lucky enough to be onshore might have their visa granted because of the campaign that we ran, that I supported and that the government finally caved in to, to let these visas be granted. But there are a lot of unlucky people. There are people who live in the city whose love apparently is not worth the same as someone living in the regions. They are being discriminated against by this government.
If you fall in love with someone from Africa or the Middle East, you are not going to get a visitor visa to come here under this government, so don't fall in love with people from those countries. You had better fall in love with someone from a nice white English-speaking country then you can get a visa to come here and wait. For everyone else, you are in the far queue waiting an indefinite amount of time; they have taken the time off the website.
I just want to make a few brief remarks about another unlucky category of people. People who applied for the 300 prospective marriage visa are often the fiancees of Australians. Even if they have the visa issued, have paid their $8,000 and have waited years, they are not getting travel authorisations to come here. There's enormous sadness and anger amongst Australians that they are being discriminated against because of the visa which their partner applied for. These visa holders have already proved the genuineness of their relationship to the department. They are only a wedding certificate away from being called 'spouse' but they are not allowed to come here and have the wedding. It's a chicken-and-egg problem. For the travel exemption, people have to prove they have this de facto status, which means living together for at least a year or more. In real life, it is often impossible for couples to physically live together in the same house for a year, either because they are having long-distance relationships for years or they might have children from previous marriages or be moving from country to country. They might have family commitments. They might not want to physically live together until their kids are grown up or for religious and cultural reasons. In many cultures, it is normal for people to not physically cohabitate together even though the relationship is genuine and may have been continuing for years. People go off and do PhDs and maintain their relationships. These are legitimate reasons and real relationships. Fiancees are family too yet thousands of Australian couples have been separated for years with no hope in sight. The government is letting business and investment visa holders get automatic travel exemptions.
It's also an issue for fertility. We have a falling fertility rate and—I can tell you—the saddest people to talk to in this situation are people whose biological clocking is ticking. This is not hyperbole. I've sent letters to the immigration department with IVF letters attached saying, 'This woman is 41. The only opportunity she has to ever have children and start a family is to get the travel authorisation and be with her partner to start the IVF.' The government's response: nothing! The clock is ticking.
I call on the government to show some compassion and to revisit their approach to fiancees and the 300 prospective marriage visa. If you've lived together for one year and been together for one year, that's okay. But if you've been together for five years but you haven't lived together for one year then apparently that's not okay. It's discrimination.