Thursday, 10 May 2012
Family Assistance and Other Legislation Amendment (Schoolkids Bonus Budget Measures) Bill 2012; Second Reading
That this bill be now read a second time.
I seek leave to have the second reading speech incorporated in Hansard.
The speech read as follows—
This bill delivers on the Government's Budget announcement of a new payment for families to help with the costs of children in school.
It is part of this Labor Government's commitment to helping Australian families make ends meet.
And it shows our determination to continue supporting low and middle-income families as we return the Budget to surplus.
Our economic fundamentals are strong, unemployment is low and we are in the middle of a mining boom, but we recognise that it's not everybody's boom.
We understand that many working Australians are struggling to balance the family budget. For many families, the extra costs of sending children to school, and giving them a great education, can add to this pressure.
That's why, from 1 January next year, the Government will deliver a new payment to about 1.3 million Australian families with kids in school.
This payment – the Schoolkids Bonus – will be paid to the families of about 2.2 million children in primary and secondary schools across the country.
The Schoolkids Bonus will be delivered as an upfront payment to families in two instalments each year – before Term 1 and Term 3 – to help them cover the costs of their child's education.
Expenses like school uniforms and school shoes, text books, camps and excursions, as well as extracurricular activities such as music lessons.
Eligible families will receive a total of $410 a year for each child in primary school, and $820 a year for each child in secondary school.
The Schoolkids Bonus will replace the Education Tax Refund in 2013, and this bill also removes the Education Tax Refund for 2011-12 from taxation legislation.
For many families with children in school, the Education Tax Refund has made a big difference. However, we know that many families are not experiencing its full benefits.
This is especially the case for working families on low incomes – it's simply too tough to pay the school expenses first and then wait months, or even a year, to get 50 per cent back.
For busy families, it can also be hard keeping track of receipts, and then filling out all the paperwork at tax time.
Last year, more than 80 per cent of families did not claim the full amount they are entitled to. About 20 per cent did not claim a refund at all.
In total, about one million Australian families are missing out on the full benefit of the Education Tax Refund.
This Labor Government wants that to change.
And this is the right time to turn this assistance into an upfront payment, with the 1 July 2012 increase to the tax-free threshold meaning that more than a million people will no longer need to do a tax return.
The new Schoolkids Bonus will make sure that all eligible families get their full entitlement – not just those who can afford to spend the money upfront and claim later.
The Schoolkids Bonus means more support for families with kids in school.
It means not having to wait months to get something back.
It means not having to collect a pile of receipts, or fill out that extra paperwork at tax time.
Paid in full and upfront, the Schoolkids Bonus means working families getting the support they need, when they need it.
It's money in your pocket – and new support from the Gillard Government.
It's support that's there before the costs start rolling in.
It's extra support for more than one million Australian families – who have missed out in the past – and can now get every cent they deserve.
The Schoolkids Bonus will be available from 2013 to families receiving Family Tax Benefit Part A, plus young people in school receiving income support payments such as youth allowance, ABSTUDY, disability support pension and veterans' educational allowances, on the eligibility test date.
Families will only need to notify Centrelink when their child first starts school so that the payments can begin.
After that, the bonus is automatically paid in January and July every year if they remain on the relevant linked payment, such as Family Tax Benefit Part A.
Parents will also need to let Centrelink know when their kids go to high school so they can move onto the higher payment.
The Government is delivering this new support because we know it can be tough to make ends meet, particularly when you're trying to get your kids through school.
Uniforms, school shoes, text books and excursions aren't cheap, and the costs can quickly add up. When the Schoolkids Bonus begins in January next year, it will help families relieve some of the pressure on the household budget.
But we also know that many families are feeling the pinch right now – and need a bit of extra support right now.
So as we transition to the Schoolkids Bonus, we want to do what we can right now to make sure we are looking out for low and middle-income families who are finding it tough to keep up.
This bill creates a one-off transitional payment – called the ETR Payment – which will pay out, in full, the Education Tax Refund to all eligible families for 2011-12.
This means families will receive their full Education Tax Refund entitlement for the 2011-12 tax year ahead of tax time – so parents won't have to worry about keeping receipts or making claims when they do their tax this year.
The one-off ETR payment will be $409 for a child in primary school and $818 for a secondary school child – the same maximum amounts that would have been available for the 2011-12 tax year. A family with one primary student and one secondary student will get more than $700 extra on average this year.
All 1.3 million families will get the maximum amount they are entitled to for the first time – and all will get their payments earlier.
They won't have to collect their receipts, and they won't have to fill out that extra paperwork at tax time.
This lump-sum payment will be paid to all families entitled to Family Tax Benefit Part A on May 8th this year for a school aged child, as well as to young people in secondary education who are receiving certain student income support payments on May 8th.
A similar ETR payment will be provided through amendments to Veterans' Affairs legislation for recipients on May 8th of payments under the Veterans' Children Education Scheme or the Military Rehabilitation and Compensation Act Education and Training Scheme.
The bill will also create an administrative scheme for the ETR payment, which will assist people who may not be able to access an appropriate ETR payment under the family assistance law or veterans' legislation – for example, a parent who was automatically paid the primary school rate for a child who is actually in secondary school.
In a tough Budget environment, this Government is making the hard decisions as we return to surplus.
But we are a Labor Government, driven by Labor values.
Labor will always stand up for Australia's low and middle-income families.
Families who do their very best with what they've got.
Who don't ask for much and who deserve a bit of extra support.
It's our job to make sure that those families who need a bit of extra help are getting it – and that's what the Gillard Government's Schoolkids Bonus will do.
Labor will always work to ensure that Australian families, particularly those putting their kids through school, have the support they need to make ends meet.
I rise to contribute to this debate, albeit, as we have heard, a very, very short debate because, in true Labor government style, condoned by the government's alliance partner the Greens, the Senate has to consider this important budget bill by 1.50 pm today, the Family Assistance and Other Legislation Amendment (Schoolkids Bonus Budget Measures) Bill 2012—or, as my good friend Senator Macdonald just said, 'Why don't they call it what it is: a bill that is going to be bribing Australian parents?'
The Australian people are not fools. Whilst those on the other side may treat them as though they are mugs and cannot see exactly what this bill is designed to do, Australians know that this bill is nothing more and nothing less than something that you would expect from a desperate government—
a government that in Western Australia is so on the nose that they are likely to have no seats after the next election. The Australian people know that the only reason we are debating this bill today is that on 1 July the greatest political lie ever to be perpetrated on the Australian people is going to commence. And that is the lie that commenced with this, the day before the 2010 election: 'There will be no carbon tax under a government I lead,' the greatest political lie ever to be perpetrated on the Australian people. This bill confirms what the Australian people know.
Senator Sterle interjecting—
Senator Nash interjecting—
We are debating this bill today for one reason and one reason only. Because of Labor's toxic carbon tax, the costs of living that have already risen time and time again under the last four years of this Labor government are going to continue to rise—
Mr Acting Deputy President, I rise on a point of order. I would like to draw your attention to the behaviour of senators on the other side of the chamber who have continued to interject and now have, disgracefully, walked out of the chamber in shame when someone gets up to note their behaviour. It would be appreciated if you could draw their attention to the decorum of this place.
Labor has learnt nothing from the last four years of continual Labor government failures. Who can forget the $900 cash splash which, in many instances, was proven to be poured straight down the slot of a pokie machine? Who can remember the spectacular failure of the pink batts scheme? Who can remember the spectacular failure of the cash for clunkers scheme? The set-top boxes scheme? The list of Labor failures goes on and on and on. And what do we now have? Another cheap political trick by the Labor Party masquerading as the so-called schoolkids bonus.
The Labor Party have clearly underestimated the capacity of the Australian people to see right through their policy intent. The Australian people know that, despite the Australian Labor Party treating them as if they have no capacity to see through Labor's rhetoric, the bill we are debating today has nothing to do with education. It has nothing to do with the future generation of Australians and their educational needs and everything to do with those on the other side throwing as fast as they can—in fact, by 1.50 pm today—a wad of cash at the mums and dads of Australia who may qualify for this bonus. Labor know that the countdown is on and in but a few weeks those mums and dads are going to be hit with the greatest political lie of all time—the carbon tax.
It is incredible that, after four years of being in government, the Labor Party continues to believe that you can address the rising cost of living simply by giving the Australian people a cash handout. Anybody who has studied basic economics 101 will know that cost-of-living pressures only ever go down when costs of government go down. Based on Labor's record in that regard, it is going to be a very long time before we see the cost of the current government go down.
When considering the bill today we need to put it into context. Why has the government had to rush this particular budget measure through the other place and rush through the Senate in under two hours? Labor can rewrite history but it cannot rewrite the facts. The facts for the Australian people are this: the Gillard-Rudd-Swan Labor governments have delivered the four biggest deficits on record. That is right—the four biggest deficits in Australia's history. Contrast that with the former Howard government. In its last four budgets it delivered the four largest surpluses the Australian people had ever seen, including in its final year a record surplus of $19.7 billion. That was a surplus that was actually delivered, unlike those on the other side who currently claim to have delivered a surplus. They know full well that merely by saying on budget night that you anticipate a certain thing will happen does not mean that over the ensuing financial year it actually will.
The cold hard reality for the mums and dads of Australia is that the Labor Party continues to borrow an extra $100 million each and every day. The cold hard reality for the mums and dads of Australia is that the average Commonwealth budget balance was an $8.1 billion surplus over the Howard government years and under Labor it has managed a record average of a $41.7 billion deficit. The contrast could not be any clearer.
When it comes to budget deficits, this is a government that knows absolutely no bounds. Just look at what they told the Australian people in the lead-up to budget night. The budget deficit for 2011-12 was constantly revised upwards. The government told the people of Australia around 12 months ago that they were heading for a $12 billion deficit. They then realised that with their excessive spending they would need to revise that figure up, and revise it up they did. They revised it up to $23 billion. Again, it still was not enough. With their excessive spending, they had to re-revise the budget deficit up to $37 billion. Was that revision big enough to compensate for their waste and mismanagement? The answer is no.
We know the answer is no because on budget night just passed, the Treasurer, Mr Swan, advised the Australian people that the budget deficit had now exceeded $44 billion. As if that was not bad enough, the Australian people should be extremely alarmed that hidden in these budget bills was the government's announcement that it would seek to increase Australia's debt ceiling to a record $300 billion. Three hundred billion dollars is four times what the ceiling was in 2008. What does that mean? It means the Labor Party yet again is saying to the people of Australia, 'We have abused taxpayers' funds. We are well and truly over the limit on our credit card and yet again we have to sneak into the parliament—not make an announcement to the Australian people—an increase in the debt ceiling of Australia.' Does this government care? Of course it does not. That is why we are debating the bill that we have before us at the moment. What does it do? The government announces a quick political fix and it announces yet another cash splash. This policy measure is, without a doubt, one of the most blatant attempts by a fiscally incompetent government to cook this year's budget books in order to allow Labor to protect their artificial surplus for the next financial year. And why do we say that? Because the refund is going to be paid out before the end of this financial year, which is the sole reason that we commenced the debate at 12.30 today and we are being guillotined at 1.50 today, because Labor have manipulated the books to such an extent that they need to push a whole lot of cash through today to ensure that it is not reflected in next year's figures, to maintain their artificial surplus.
Labor's announcement that they are dumping the education tax rebate to instead give out handfuls of taxpayers' money is a desperate bid to improve their dying electoral chances. Like so many Australians, the coalition does not, and will not, support this improperly named 'schoolkids bonus' for very good reasons. The first is this: the money that is being handed over, that is being thrown at Australians, has absolutely nothing to do with education. Despite the Labor Party's denials of this—and deny it they have—we know this is true because, in the legislation we are currently debating, there is absolutely no requirement at all for the rebadged education tax rebate to actually be spent on a child's education. Under the education tax rebate, you had a rebate which had to be spent—you had to prove you spent the money on a child's education—and what do the Labor Party do? They abolish that and they say, 'If we call it a 'schoolkids bonus', hopefully the Australian public are silly enough to actually believe that in some way it relates to the schoolkids' education. Well, I have news for those on the other side: the Australian people are not mugs and they are not fooled by your rhetoric.
Instead of having a targeted payment, whereby all that parents needed to do was submit receipts that showed that they had expended funds on their children's education, and they would then get that money back, what we have is the Labor Party saying, 'We'll just give you the money; seriously, just take the money'—
Take the money and run, Senator Nash; that is exactly right. 'And we will have no conditions whatsoever, because we do not believe in making people accountable'—let alone themselves—'for what the money is actually spent on.' So parents can spend the money on whatever they like.
I spoke with a young mother yesterday. She was a single mother and, like so many Australians, she is under a lot of pressure and is battling with the rising cost-of-living pressure. She will qualify for this cash-splash payment. She said to me, 'Do you know what I'm going to do with it, Michaelia? It may well pay my next grocery bill, or maybe I will put it towards my electricity bill—because that keeps rising.' But she admitted she would not be using the money for her child's education. Whilst many parents will do the right thing and will put it towards their child's education, there are so many—like the mother I spoke to yesterday—who are drowning under the rising cost-of-living pressure who will have no real choice but, when given some money by the Labor Party, spend it on something else—and who can actually blame them? You cannot blame them, when they look you in the face and are honest enough with you to say, 'I won't spend it on education, because I'm about to have my electricity turned off because I can't pay my electricity bill.'
On that point, we have learnt today that, in my home state of Western Australia, electricity prices are likely to rise by almost 15 per cent, solely as a result of the federal Labor government's carbon tax and the fact that it is going to have a bigger impact and a bigger effect on bills than was initially expected. It has been confirmed by the WA Treasurer that power prices in WA will need to increase by 9.5 per cent to cover the added cost of producing electricity, solely because of the federal government's carbon tax. If Labor were truly serious about reducing the burdens facing Australian families, the best thing they could do is what the former Premier of New South Wales has told them they should do—that is, former Labor Premier Kristina Keneally. She has at least been honest enough to say, 'I supported the carbon tax because I needed to try and win an election. I now realise that that was wrong', and she is on the record as saying, 'The smartest thing that the current Prime Minister could do is to scrap the carbon tax.'
This new policy that they are introducing today, and the one that we are debating—we have one hour left now; one hour to debate a budget measure—has abandoned any pretence of being about offsetting education costs. It is nothing more and nothing less than a sugar hit for families to create a diversion from increased bills and costs that will happen just because a family goes about undertaking the day-to-day activities that they would normally undertake. Because of those on the other side, this is now going to be a far more expensive exercise.
The coalition understands, without a doubt, that parents in Australia need help with their education costs. We are upfront about that. In fact, we are so upfront about that that the policy we took to the last election was to increase the education tax rebate. Our plan was to increase it so that families would receive $1,000 for each secondary school aged child and $500 for each primary school aged child. Let's contrast that with the cash splash that the Labor government are giving out. One thousand dollars and $500 is what they would have got under the coalition; what are they getting under Labor? Under Labor they will only get $820 for secondary school aged children and $410 for primary school aged children. The Australian public are actually going to be $270 worse off per year under the Labor government. The coalition's policy was more money, it was appropriately targeted and it was directed straight at those families that most needed the financial assistance. But, as Graham Richardson has said time and time again: 'Whatever it takes.' The Labor Party will do whatever it takes to remain on that side of the chamber. The SchoolKids Bonus is the perfect example of Graham Richardson's statement in action. The legislation we are currently debating is about nothing more and nothing less than throwing money at people to compensate for the fact that they are about to be hit by the world's biggest carbon tax. This is about nothing more and nothing less than compensating the Australian people for the fact that over the last four years, under successive Labor governments, the cost of living has risen and risen, and the Australian people know that under Labor there is only one way that the cost of living goes, and that is up.
The coalition will oppose this bad policy. It is bad policy because it is not making a targeted payment. It makes a general cash handout that can be used in any way totally unrelated to education expenses. It is bad policy because it is bringing forward expenditure from next year's financial accounts into this year's in order to give the Treasurer and Labor a so-called surplus. Australia under Labor is now a nation that is saddled with increasing debt. That is the Labor Party's great record: a nation that is saddled with increasing debt.
Bills like the one we are hurriedly debating today prove that Labor's budget is not a nation building budget. It is not a budget to be proud of. It is a nation wrecking budget, a horror budget, and they should at least be up-front with the Australian people about what this cash splash actually is.
I rise to speak on the Family Assistance and Other Legislation Amendment (Schoolkids Bonus Budget Measures) Bill 2012. The issue here for the Greens is that we put very strongly to the government that we not proceed with the tax cut for big business in Australia because we are a very wealthy country, but we are also an unequal country, and it was time that we started to look at ways in which we could reduce the gap between the rich and the poor in Australia, which is widening. I am very pleased that the government did not proceed with the tax cut for big business. That essentially created the space in this year's budget to provide some, if you like, wealth redistribution.
The Australian Greens' perspective is that we would have preferred to have seen money made available for permanent system-wide improvements. When I say that, I, and the Greens, would have preferred to have seen $5 billion allocated to the implementation of the Gonski review into education. Of that, $3 billion would have gone into public education and we would have seen a huge investment across the country that would have complemented the previous investment in education from Building the Education Revolution funding. I am very aware that that funding led to badly needed new facilities across the country. I have visited many of those in my own state of Tasmania and I have to say that in the case of Tasmania, which is the place I am most familiar with in this regard, the money has been spent in a way that has made dramatic improvements in the amenity of school life for students across the state. That was an infrastructure cost, an improvement in facilities.
If we now implemented a real cash injection into education delivery in Australia we would have the long-term directional reform we need. However, the government has chosen not to do that. Instead it has looked at this particular bonus, which was already there in the budget as a tax rebate to provide support to families for the cost of educating their children. The problem with an income tax rebate is that people who are already on income support are not lodging tax returns and so do not benefit from this available support. When I sought some more information on this it became quite clear that, of the 1.3 million families across Australia who were entitled to access this, one million had either not accessed it or not accessed it in full. Those who had accessed it, a small number in relative terms, tended to be at the top end of the eligible income range, because they are the ones who are more likely to have tax accountants and are more likely to have a better organised way of managing their tax business and their tax receipts. So they are the ones who are able to benefit most from this, when in reality the people who need it most are at the bottom end of the taxable income scale or, indeed, the level of income support—or part-time and so on—they are working on.
I certainly support the view that if we are going to make a payment such as this it be targeted in a way that helps the people who need it most. I am satisfied that the previous way this was being offered, through the tax refund, was a failed policy for the reason I have just mentioned, namely, the people who need it most were the people who were not accessing it, for various reasons.
Another reason people did not access it is that, for many people, buying a new school uniform is not something they would necessarily do. Often they would buy school uniforms from other people, with the result being that they may not get a receipt. Equally, I am aware that the same thing happens, to a degree, with schoolbooks. I am also aware that children of low-income earners and people on income support have not been accessing school trips and school excursions. Unfortunately they require a copayment from the parents and often they cannot afford that.
If the principle that we are coming from as a parliament, and I hope it is the principle we are coming from, is equitable access to quality education, then equitable access has to be enabled. As I indicated before, the Greens believe the $5 billion would have been better directed to the implementation of the Gonski review to complement the Building the Education Revolution investment in infrastructure. The government has chosen not to do that. But this measure does enable a shift in focus, and I am confident that this money now going into the pockets of eligible Australian families will go to supporting their children in school.
Everyone in this parliament remembers the Howard government years, and everybody remembers the introduction of the baby bonus. I just heard Senator Cash speaking at length on how terrible it is that this money is not targeted. The baby bonus was also just a cash payment, and it is well-known across Australia that it became nicknamed the plasma bonus, because in many cases people spent the money upfront on some piece of capital equipment that they chose to purchase at that time. That is why there have been significant changes in the way that benefit has been paid over the years. It is gross hypocrisy for the opposition to argue about this, because if two people ever characterised the notion of buying votes with cash splashes it was the former Treasurer, Peter Costello, and the former Prime Minister, John Howard. They made an art form of it. They bought election after election with cash splashes, so let us not hear any more hypocrisy from the coalition on this. As the Prime Minister said in the House yesterday, a person gets a baby bonus for a baby and then the baby grows up and goes to school and they require money to enable equitable access to education. The leader of the coalition says, when asked why the baby bonus is different from the education bonus, 'It just is'. There is no principle and no policy difference, and it is ridiculous for the coalition to try to maintain the position it is currently taking.
In the midst of the mining boom we can afford to prioritise education for our children. Public funding of schools as a percentage of GDP shows that Australia is lagging the OECD average of 3.5 per cent, sitting at three per cent, while the best funded nations include Norway with 5 per cent, Iceland with 4.9 per cent and Denmark with 4.2 per cent—which is another reason why the Greens would have preferred this money to go towards a major injection into the Australian education system. The Greens will continue to advocate for an immediate investment in our public education sector.
We also want to talk about this benefit in the broader context of wealth redistribution in Australia and reducing the gap between the rich and the poor. We are concerned that the government has gone ahead with this schoolkids bonus bill. There is the added benefit through family tax benefit A but, unfortunately, there is nothing that is in any way equivalent for people on Newstart. We know that the most vulnerable people in Australia right now are those who are looking for work and are on income support. Frankly, I have to say the most vulnerable Australians getting Newstart needed another $50 a week at least. We are asking people to live on $244 a week. My colleague Senator Siewert did that for a week and, in some very passionate and excellent speeches, has said she does not know how people do it, given the cost of accommodation particularly as well as food and transport. I think $210 a year, which is what the government has made available—it will be indexed—is an insult to people who are struggling to survive. A 50c increase per day is not enough—it is barely enough for one cup of coffee a week. When we look at the most vulnerable and we add onto them the 100,000 single mums who are also going to have part of their benefit taken away in this budget, I would like to have seen an overall assessment of all of these different payments, working out how with the quantum of money across the levels of support we could have better supported those at the bottom end. As for the single mums, I make this point very strongly: if you are saying that you take the benefit away because you want people to seek work, the issue for me in rural and regional Australia—and every senator who is familiar with rural and regional Australia will know this—is that first of all you cannot assume that the jobs are out there in the first place; second, you cannot assume that there is any public transport or capacity to access transport to get to the jobs even if they do exist; and, thirdly, you cannot assume that there is going to be access to quality childcare. So you are penalising people who do not have alternatives, who do not even have the ability to go and get a job, let alone get to that job—and, even if they could get to it, they do not have access to quality child care.
The Treasurer made a point of saying that this was a budget of the fair go, that this was a budget which was attempting to redistribute wealth in order to benefit the most vulnerable people in our society. Yet the most vulnerable in Australia, single mothers on Newstart in this case, have not been supported in an appropriate way. Cutting back on foreign aid also says that you are building a surplus on the back of the poorest people in the world. So we are building a surplus on the back of the poorest in the world and we are not distributing fairly—we are not distributing to the most vulnerable and the most needy in the Australian context.
The Greens are supporting the schoolkids bonus because it is a way of making sure that payments are better targeted, going to those at the lower end of the income scale and to income support recipients—giving them support in educating their children. But we would have preferred a systemic change, with investment in the implementation of the Gonski review—$3 billion into public education across the country—and income support increased for the most vulnerable. That is how we would have dealt with this issue.
On the issue of Newstart, my colleague Senator Siewert told the Senate yesterday that she has met single mothers and older workers who have been retrenched, young men and women, people living with a partial disability or with mental illness, and migrants struggling with language issues. All of these people come into the category of most vulnerable and have some of the greatest barriers to overcome to get into the workforce. But not one of them said to her that Newstart is what they want for their lives or their family. What they want is to be able to improve their own lives and those of their families and communities by participating in the workforce to a greater extent.
The Greens are supporting the schoolkids bonus. We do think it is better than a tax rebate, but in the broader context we would have liked to have seen system-wide and permanent change to the funding of public education. If you had that, a lot of the charges that schools are increasingly having to impose on parents could actually be covered out of the schools' own funding. It has been quite a while since I was teaching, but I have many friends who are still in the teaching service and they all say that, over the years, there has been a massive cost shift to parents because the public education system simply cannot offer the same level of opportunity it used to—the public schools just do not have the money to do it.
Fundamental system-wide change is what is required to achieve permanent improvement in the public education system—whereas the schoolkids bonus, in my view, is a stopgap measure. I recognise that it is ongoing and I recognise that it will be helpful in some cases, but I do not think that it is the kind of move which will inspire the nation to think that there has been a genuine investment in better educational opportunity and in universal access to high quality education. That could have occurred if the quantum the Greens saved the government could have been looked at differently—to make sure it was even better targeted to support the most vulnerable.
I rise today to speak in support of the Family Assistance and Other Legislation Amendment (Schoolkids Bonus Budget Measures) Bill 2012. Parents of Australian children, like parents everywhere, want nothing more than to give their children the best start in life they can. They understand that for a child's potential to be realised, both for the benefit of the child and for the benefit of our nation, this potential must be nurtured. Access to a good education is a right that all Australian children deserve and provision of a good education is the best way to help them realise that potential.
The government understands that educating children can be expensive. The cost of uniforms, computers, stationery, music lessons, sporting uniforms, art supplies, software and numerous other items adds up to a significant portion of a family's budget. The Gillard Labor government understands this. We understand that at times parents must make difficult decisions to ensure their children's educational needs are met. The Gillard Labor Government's new schoolkids bonus is a recognition that educating our children is expensive. The new schoolkids bonus is a way that the Labor government can support parents in their most important task: building a better future for our children.
The schoolkids bonus is replacing the education tax refund from 1 January 2013. Under the education tax refund, parents were entitled to claim a refund by submitting education receipts. Unfortunately, many parents were not claiming either part or all of the refund they were entitled to. Parents now will not have to pay out of their own pocket and then wait months to get the money back. The Labor government has made this an upfront cash payment because we realise that parents are busy and that collecting receipts and tucking them away in envelopes until the end of the financial year is not at the forefront of their mind when they are busy buying new school uniforms, new stationery or new sports uniforms.
The new schoolkids bonus makes it easier for the parents of 1.3 million families across the nation to get the support they deserve from the government. In Tasmania, my home state, 34,800 families are expected to receive $410 for each child in primary school and $820 a year for each child in high school. Payments will be made for a total of 61,150 children just in Tasmania. In Franklin, the federal electorate where my electorate office is located, a total of 6,850 families with 12,050 children will receive funding totalling over $7 million. The schoolkids bonus will be available to families receiving family tax benefit part A, plus young people in school receiving youth allowance and recipients of some other income support and veterans payments. The eligibility requirements are the same as those for the education tax refund. As a transition to the schoolkids bonus, this bill creates a new payment called the ETR payment to replace the education tax refund that would otherwise have been available to eligible families for 2011-12.
The ETR payment will be paid to all families entitled to family tax benefit part A on 8 May 2012 for a school-aged child, and to young people in secondary education who are receiving certain student income support payments on 8 May 2012. The ETR payment will pay out the full amount of what would have been available through the taxation system for 2011-12—that is, $409 for each child in primary school and $818 for each child in secondary school. The ETR payment will be paid earlier than otherwise would have been the case under the education tax refund, and without the need to lodge receipts for a tax return. A mirror ETR payment will be provided through amendments to veterans affairs legislation for recipients on 8 May 2012 of payments under the Veterans' Children Education Scheme or the Military Rehabilitation and Compensation Act Education and Training Scheme. The bill will also create an administrative scheme for an ETR payment which will assist people who may not be able to access an appropriate ETR payment under family assistance law or veterans legislation. All ETR payments and the schoolkids bonus will be non-taxable and will not count as income for social security or veterans entitlements income test purposes.
I am terribly disappointed that the Liberal Party have opposed this measure. I am deeply disappointed that the Liberal Party do not appear to care for the future education of Australian children. I am also deeply disappointed that the Liberal Party do not care about supporting Australian families. I call again on every Tasmanian Liberal senator to go to the schools in their communities and explain to the parents of students at Snug Primary School, Reece High School, St Aloysius Catholic College and every other school across Tasmania why the Liberal Party refuse to support their family in educating their children. And what excuse does the Liberal Party offer for refusing parents the schoolkids bonus? All that the Liberal Party offer is that they do not trust parents to spend the schoolkids bonus on their children's education. How insulting is that? How insulting is it to every caring, hardworking parent across our country that the Liberal Party believe that, instead of spending money on their children's education, parents will simply waste the money? How insulting is it to every caring, hardworking parent across our country that the Liberal Party do not trust parents to act in the best interests of their own children?
I find it disgusting that Senator Cash came into this place not long ago and implied that parents receiving this bonus will just pour it into poker machines—that the shadow parliamentary secretary for the status of women thinks so little of the mothers of Australia, whom she purports to represent, believes that. I do not think she actually believes it; I think she is just toeing the party line to be nice to Mr Abbott. I also find it quite hypocritical that Senators Fifield and Bernardi make public statements that young families are doing it tough but refuse to pass the one practical measure to help them out. I am angry that the Liberal Party think so little of Australian parents and Australian children. That stinks, it is rotten and it is mean. It is just plain nasty. Australian parents deserve better than those opposite.
I am, however, proud to say that the Gillard Labor government passed this bill through the House of Representatives last night, despite repeated, bizarre attempts by the Liberals to block the vote. Tony Abbott's extreme and unfortunately increasingly predictable blocking tactics took 'no' to a whole new level. The 19 Liberal Party members of the House of Representatives who spoke in opposition to the schoolkids bonus should hang their heads in shame and take a moment to think of the families in their electorates. Mr Abbott has shown all Australians just how determined he is to stop families getting the money they need.
I am proud to say that every single one of my Tasmanian Labor colleagues in the House of Representatives—Geoff Lyons in Bass, Sid Sidebottom in Braddon, Dick Adams in Lyons and Julie Collins in Franklin—voted in support of the schoolkids bonus. Each Tasmanian Labor member stood up for the families in their electorates. I am also proud that soon my Labor colleagues in the Senate will do the same and vote in favour of the schoolkids bonus. I highly recommend and commend this bill to the Senate.
I rise to make a contribution on the Family Assistance and Other Legislation Amendment (Schoolkids Bonus Budget Measures) Bill 2012. Colleagues, just when you think the government cannot possibly come up with yet another shambolic policy, here it is. After the litany of shambolic policies that we have seen from this government, we thought maybe one day they might get to the end of that; maybe one day they might actually give us something that they have thought through and that is substantive. Sadly, colleagues, no—not a chance. This country should be so lucky! This schoolkids bonus is yet another example of this government simply not thinking things through.
This should not in fact be called a schoolkids bonus; it should be called a parents bonus. This is money that is going straight to parents with absolutely no requirement whatsoever that the money be used for their children's education. Supposedly, this is all about ensuring that money goes to children to support their education and other needs. Yet the government says to parents: 'Don't worry; we'll just give you a bit of a cash handout and you don't have any responsibility to prove to the Australian taxpayer that you're going to use this for your children's education'—none whatsoever. How you can possibly call it a schoolkids bonus when there is nothing to tie the bonus to schoolkids? I must say I think we should show these so-called schoolkids the respect of at least calling it a schoolchildren's bonus.
This government has absolutely no idea. This is nothing more than a cash splash. This is nothing more than a sugar hit for families. And it creates a diversion from the carbon tax hit to the cost of living. That cash splash is going out to parents at the very same time as the government is asking the nation to stump up for a $300 billion limit on the country's credit card. On one hand we have the irresponsibility of putting money out, throwing out a cash splash, with no requirement for responsibility from parents as to how they are going to spend it, and on the other hand asking this parliament to increase the limit for borrowings from $250 billion to $300 billion. This Gillard-Greens-Independent-shambolic-crazy government is absolutely appalling. They have no idea how to construct a budget that will take the country forward to a sustainable future.
The people in this nation get it; they understand it. Senator Cash was absolutely right when she said earlier that the Australian people are not fools. They know that this is money to buy votes, that this is money to distract people from the cost-of-living hit which will come from the carbon tax—there is absolutely no two ways about that. With the litany of policy failures, this is just another. Look at the Home Installation Program, where $2½ billion was mismanaged with at least $500 million spent fixing the mistakes; computers in schools is a $1.4 billion blow-out and way behind schedule; Fuelwatch and GroceryWatch had nearly $30 million spent setting them up and then they were dumped; Labor's multibillion dollar NBN rollout—as my good colleague Senator Joyce said last night, the next budget nightmare—has continued without a proper business case; and my personal favourite, a small but a goodie: the government sold the parliamentary billiard tables for $5,000 and then spent $102,000 determining whether or not they got value for money. This demonstrates the calibre of this government.
It is no wonder people come up to me in the street and say time and time again that they are embarrassed by this nation's Labor government. There is absolutely no confidence out in the community, none whatsoever, and things are in a downward spiral courtesy of this cobbled together, Labor-Independent-Greens government which people are mightily sick of. When they see things like the schoolkids bonus, they know money is not being targeted properly, that there is no responsibility being required from parents as to how they are going to spend this money. There is not one single thing linking that payment, the cash bonus going to parents, to providing educational needs of the students. How can it possibly be called a schoolkids bonus? As I said earlier, it is a parents bonus; it is not schoolkids bonus.
Earlier Senator Bilyk used a litany of phrases about how terrible it was that we thought parents were going to spend this money on things other than educational needs. It is not that we think badly of parents; it is that the cost of living being exacerbated by the carbon tax will mean parents will have no choice but to use this money to address cost-of-living increases. They are not going to have any choice.
This government should scrap the carbon tax. If this government had one shred, one iota of sense and sensibility, it would get rid of the carbon tax, which is not going to change the climate one little bit yet will put a huge impost on families across this nation when it comes to the cost of living. If the government did that, it could retain the education tax refund, which would be targeted to families for education purposes. We heard comments earlier from Senator Milne trying to compare it to the baby bonus. The baby bonus was a targeted payment to achieve a policy objective. This is nothing more than a cash splash, like the $900 cheques which went to prisoners and people living overseas. Indeed, I remember a story of a fellow who had worked in property in north-west New South Wales, who called his boss when the $900 cheques went out and said, 'Hey, mate, can you thank the Prime Minister for me. I've got my $900 cheque.' He was sitting in a pub in London. That is the sort of policy ineptitude—'expertise'—that we see from this Labor government. The schoolkids bonus is yet another example of it.
With this dodgy budget, cooking the books, the way the government are running the nation's finances, if it were not so desperate it really would be laughable. Everyone can see it. Labor think they are hiding in the corner saying, 'No-one can see that we have moved all this money into this financial year and pushed a whole lot out to 2013-14. Gee, doesn't the surplus look fantastic in 2012-13!' People can actually see. They know and understand that the government have cooked the books to get the 'surplus' they want for this year, and it is simply appalling. The schoolkids bonus is no way to provide for educational needs for school children. It is absolutely no way to do it. It is yet another example of this government's complete ineptitude, and the Australian people know it. They are out in the streets decrying the fact that this Labor-Greens-Independent government simply are unable to run the country properly. They are completely inept, and it is no wonder people are saying it is time for the government to go.
What we just heard in that contribution from the opposition on the Family Assistance and Other Legislation Amendment (Schoolkids Bonus Budget Measures) Bill 2012 was again simply a list of reasons why they cannot support Australian families. No matter how they try to dress it up, no matter what sorts of mealy-mouthed words come out, the reality is that that contribution was, firstly, talking about cobbling together a government. Mr Abbott was trying to do the same thing, but the reality is Australians do not want Mr Abbott as Prime Minister. They could not do that, so now they criticise the government. They talked about the NBN, again an initiative widely supported by the Australian community. Across the states and territories, particularly in Tasmania, it is a fantastic infrastructure initiative providing jobs and boosting the economy.
They also talked about our economic expertise. Of course, they would, because we have a strong economy. We acted quickly and directly to tackle the global financial crisis and they do not like it. And we returned the budget to surplus and they do not like it.
No matter how they dress it up and no matter what they say, they do not want to support the schoolkids bonus, because they want to oppose everything. By saying that parents will not spend the money on their children's education, no matter how they word it, they simply mean that they are refusing to trust families. They are blocking this relief for family budgets, for extra money to be spent on children's education, because they do not trust families and they have no other word but 'no'. We know they have been called the 'noalition' and I am sure they are very proud of it.
What we are doing in delivering on the government's announcement to replace the education tax refund with the new schoolkids bonus is ensuring the government's commitment to help low-income families make ends meet. The new schoolkids bonus is a $2.1 billion investment over five years, which will provide assistance for about 1.3 million Australian families and for 2.2 million kids in school. The new payments will see eligible Australian families receive $410 a year for each child in primary school and $820 a year for each child in secondary school. In my home state of Tasmania, around 35,000 families stand to benefit from the schoolkids bonus, sharing in over $36 million. The bonus will help parents meet the costs of having children in school by providing a payment to assist with school uniforms, textbooks, excursions and stationery.
Because we are making the schoolkids bonus scheme automatic and upfront, parents will not have to keep receipts for months and months until tax time. It also means that parents will receive the full amount every time, so families will not miss out if they happen to lose their receipts. Parents will not have to wait for months to be reimbursed if they have to pay the expenses out of their own pocket. The schoolkids bonus will be paid upfront in two instalments in January and June each year, so families will have the money in their pockets when children's school expenses start to flow. The bonus will be available each year to families receiving family tax benefit A, to young people in school receiving a youth allowance and to families receiving some other income support or veterans payments.
As I mentioned earlier, the government is implementing the schoolkids bonus to replace the education tax refund. We introduced the education tax refund back in 2008 to help families with the cost of having children in school. However, many families did not claim the full amount they were entitled to under the education tax refund and some did not claim anything at all. Families lost their receipts or forgot to keep them, and many parents were not able to afford to pay for the school items first and then wait months to be reimbursed. So, we are now introducing the schoolkids bonus scheme, which has simplified the process and will provide upfront financial support to parents when they need it most. As part of our transition to the new schoolkids bonus on 1 January 2013, the government will pay out the education tax refund in full next month to all eligible families. We are doing this in the knowledge that many families would have school expenses that they need help with right now to make ends meet. This means that families with schoolkids will get payments straightaway, without having to collect receipts and wait until tax time to fill out the paperwork to be reimbursed. The lump sum education tax refund payment will mean eligible families will receive $409 for each child in primary school and $818 for each secondary school child. These are the maximum amounts that would have been available through the education tax refund in 2011-12.
Whilst we on this side of the chamber are implementing measures to support families to help make ends meet, what do we get from those opposite? We have already witnessed here today the negativity; we have already witnessed here today the opposition, and we have already witnessed here today the opposition's view that parents cannot be trusted. That is exactly what we would expect—mindless negativity with the view to oppose, oppose and oppose. Mr Abbott and his Liberal colleagues have revealed their true colours. They have tried to block the passage of this vital piece of support for Australian families. Why Mr Abbott and his Liberal colleagues would want to deny extra payment and assistance going to families to help them with cost-of-living expenses is a question Mr Abbott needs to answer for parents. It is clear that the Liberal Party led by Mr Abbott do not support Australian families. Instead, they want to rip hundreds of dollars from the pockets of Australian families who are putting their children through school.
We know that families on low and middle incomes are feeling the pinch and that is why we are providing them with the extra support to make ends meets. We are still waiting for the Liberal Party to drop the negativity. We are waiting on them to drop their mantle of opposing for opposition's sake and to help put some money into the pockets of Australian families to use for educational expenses. They failed last night, but today they have an opportunity to say to Australian parents, 'We understand that this money will help with your children's school expenses and we do trust you to use that money on your children's education.' Today, parents—and I know there are around 35,000 Tasmanian families who will benefit from this bonus—are looking for the Liberal Party in the Senate to say: 'Yes, we want to help you as well. We'll join with the government and pass the schoolkids bonus.' With those few words, I ask that the Liberal Party join with the government in ensuring that parents and their children receive this bonus to assist them with their children's educational costs.
I will make a very brief contribution on the Family Assistance and Other Legislation Amendment (SchoolKids Bonus Budget Measures) Bill 2012, because on such an important piece of legislation it is important that the record is made clear. I will be supporting the second reading of this bill but not the third reading. I do so for this reason: as a general principle I think it is important to support parents in the area of schoolkids' education expenses. I am a supporter of government assistance where it is needed. One of the functions of government is to provide financial assistance to help those in need meet basic living expenses. So in that respect the principle is not a bad one. Increasing the level of assistance to families for schoolkids' expenses is a laudable principle.
I object to the bill in its current form and I cannot support the third reading of the bill because of the way it is being handled, because this is just a blank cheque, in a sense. A voucher system would have been much more preferable—the system that was in place previously—because it would limit the possibility of some parents, a small minority of parents, rorting the system. In some cases that does happen and we ought to acknowledge that. But there is also the general principle of ensuring that, if this is about schoolchildren and their educational expenses, this money ought to be spent directly for the kids' educational expenses, not by means where there is no accountability. That is why I think this bill in its current form is flawed. The government ought to have stuck with the voucher system; if it had, I would have supported this bill.
In summary, I do support the principle that there should be additional assistance to families, but if it is targeted specifically to educational expenses for schoolchildren then it ought to be via a voucher system rather than a system which does not have any reasonable measure of transparency or accountability.
There was an ad once that said, 'If a stranger comes up and gives you flowers, it is Impulse.' It was an ad for perfume. Sometimes when a stranger comes up and gives you flowers it is impulse; sometimes it is just plain creepy. This is the ultimate: the stranger coming up to give you flowers is Julia Gillard. Where did this bouquet come from? What inspired this bouquet? Why has she now decided to throw this garland before the Australian people? Pray tell. It is apparently about schoolkids. If she had actually thought about it, maybe it should have been about 'schoolchildren'. We are trying to get the proper dictum here and I think 'schoolchildren' would be a good approach to take.
Let us talk about where the schoolkids bonus—more like a 'country on the skids bogus'—is going to come from. The whole thing about this is that it is borrowed money. It is not our money, it is somebody else's money. It is more money that we are going to be borrowing from the Chinese, more money that we are going to be borrowing from people in the Middle East, more money that we have to pay back. It is no bonus to the schoolchildren when we find out that not only will they be paying it back but, with $300 billion on our overdraft, their children and their children's children will be paying it back. The insane approach that this nation is taking now is beyond comprehension. Where do these ideas come from? Where do they emanate from? More to the point, where is the money coming from? They just do not seem to care anymore. We have got the schoolkids bonus—the country on the skids bogus—yet we have only managed to put $1 billion into the NDIS over the next four years. Where are the priorities of this government?
Knock me down with a feather here, but you are not just trying to bribe your way into an election, are you? You have not decided that you might be able to get a bit more largesse out to every person with a child rather than actually help people with disabilities? Is that the approach? You are going to get called on it—people are all over you like a rash on this one. It is just so pathetic. We have could have built a dam and created wealth, we could have fixed up railways, but no. Why not have another payment to every person who owns geraniums or who has owned geraniums or who could possibly own geraniums at some point in time in the future? This is to help schoolchildren—what, in July? I thought, 'If they are not at school by July, you have got another problem on your hands—it is called truancy.' This is just so manic; it is just so typically Labor.
We are, as we speak, $228.8 billion in gross debt. The finance minister of this nation could not even nominate their peak debt position. We are dealing with the most incompetent economics team that has ever run the country. In the midst of this, at a time where you would expect some sort of frugal inspiration to come over the government—noting that it is not their money, that it is all borrowed money that has to be repaid—and that they would be using their expenditure first and foremost following priorities. Obviously the schoolkids bogus sits above the NDIS, because you cut your money back on the NDIS. We have got to get our priorities right here. We have got to somehow think that people are so naive that you can actually buy their vote, because that is all you are trying to do. People are thinking that this government is a little bit creepy. It has become a little bit strange. We have seen fantastic figures in the budget—an 11 per cent increase in revenue streams. They must not have televisions over in the ministerial wing. There is a little bit of a problem going on in Europe—Europe being the biggest consumer of products from China and China being the biggest market for our commodities. This does not seem to worry them. Just borrow more money! And what is the outcome they are looking for? What do they put on the table as the outcome they want to achieve from this? What is it? Who would know? All we get are these stumbling speeches about the fact that people no longer have to keep receipts. How do you think the rest of the economy works? That is what happens—you keep receipts. You keep receipts, you get to the end of the financial year and you add up your receipts. Why don't you have another policy, since you are so worried about people keeping receipts, of getting rid of group certificates as well? Let's get rid of all forms of record keeping, because that is apparently the motivation that sits behind this.
Who thought this up? Was it Minister Wong who thought this up? Is this one of her grand visions? Was it that pre-eminent bard of economic literacy, the Treasurer, Wayne Swan, who thought this up? Where is the committee that sits behind this idea? Where was the committee hearing that came up with this idea? Find me even one adjournment speech by one member of the Labor Party that even suggested this. Where did it come from? Where did this little pearl come from? Did it come from some lobby group? Has any peak industry group come in and asked for this? Have I missed something? Was it telepathy that brought this thought into creation in the Treasury? Is there one person who, before the date this was announced, stuck up their hand and said this was what they wanted? Where did this $1 billion of frivolity come from?
It is all borrowed money. It is more money for the Australian people to repay and there is no benefit to the child who has to grow up knowing about this debt. From what we saw in the paper today, they will be paying $5,000 for social security services a year out of their tax. How much do you intend for them to pay just to repay your debt? Where does this debt finish? You have $300 billion on your credit card. Even if you could possibly believe in their so-called surplus—a $1½ billion surplus—how many years will we be waiting around to pay off the credit card? A couple of hundred years. That means that, if we had racked up this debt when Cook arrived, we would just have paid it off lately. This is so mad and it is so dangerous.
So we have come to this position now where we really have to call on the people in this chamber to be adult and start asking the serious questions, because you know what this is. It is merely a bribe. It is a completely and hopelessly unadulterated bribe. It is quite creepy the way things have disintegrated in the Labor Party. It has become so pathetic. It is quite obvious to all and sundry that there is no logic that sits behind this. There was no committee hearing. There was no peak industry body. Nobody has ever asked for this. It is just something that has been concocted on the back of an envelope, very much like the NBN—the next budget nightmare.
If you want to have just a skerrick of fiscal responsibility, a skerrick of integrity, you cannot allow these sorts of things to happen. You have to remember that the opportunity cost of the money wasted here is the hip replacement in the future. It is the dentist in the future. It is the health expenses in the future. It is the money that could be spent on people with a disability in the future. It is our defence budget in the future. These are the things that are being compromised because of this type of creepy lunacy that has come into existence with these random payments that have started floating in here.
The Australian people will take your money—of course they will. It is like the person at the hotel who shouts the bar over and over again. Of course you take the beer, but you do not respect them. You just think they are a straight-up fool. But this is what is happening with our nation. Senator Mitch Fifield here will be very interested in why this money was not in the NODES. They found the money for the creepy bonus, but they cannot find the money for the NDIS. We have reduced the money for the NDIS because we have to put it into the creepy bonus.
In closing, it is so obvious that what we are doing is bribing Australia with borrowed money. The Australian people will not respect you. The Australian people will hold you in contempt for what you have decided to do. The Australian people will hold you in contempt because the legacy of your government will impoverish the future of the cost of our future health care, our future defence and the future needs and requirements of this nation—because of your random, crazy government.