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Tuesday, 6 June 2000
Page: 17117


Mr MARTIN FERGUSON (5:23 PM) —Mr Deputy Speaker Causley, as you would know, being a politician who has been around for a long time—I suppose, in the minds of some of the National Party, too long—a budget is an opportunity for a nation to take stock, set our aspirations and outline a plan to achieve them. It is a time to make a statement of values and a time to be honest with Australians about how those values will be reflected in policies. In Australia today, there are too many people and places that are missing out—and it is this problem that the budget has totally failed to face up to. I will therefore commence with a discussion of the fiscal position and economic climate in which the budget has been delivered.

Late last year the Reserve Bank thought our economy was close to capacity. That, combined with the fact that we know international factors affect our economy from time to time, created an economic climate that demanded a responsible budget. In fact, if the aim were to keep our economy growing, we would not be seeing this fiscal vandalism and we would not be seeing inflation and interest rates rising as a result of the GST. The government's obsession—as demonstrated by the support being shown by the member for Gilmore—with a tax that nobody wants, the GST, is being realised at the price of our long-term economic performance. What was expected to be a $11 billion surplus two years ago has now been reduced, on budget figures, to a $2.8 billion surplus. I will not go into the fiddles involved in that figure, other than to point out that Access Economics claims the true structural deficit to be $5 billion. Enough said, I suppose—and I note that the member for Gilmore did not touch on this issue.

While the GST is costing the budget some $25 billion in lost opportunities, including those in the seat of Gilmore, it is also costing us in terms of higher inflation and higher interest rates. The government said that the GST would increase inflation by only 1.9 per cent. The budget papers now show a 6.75 per cent inflation rate in the September quarter. The Reserve Bank, I suggest, will have little choice but to increase interest rates further, if inflation continues to exceed the government's forecasts. Who suffers from higher interest rates? According to the calculations of the Deputy Prime Minister, John Anderson—the leader of your own party, Mr Deputy Speaker Causley—the increase in interest rates in the past few months has cost farmers $225 million per year; and, as we all know, the GST is not even in place yet.

The Howard government has neglected the skills of our people and the development of our regions; therefore, we also confront skill and locational mismatches before we need to. That too puts pressure on inflation and interest rates. Instead of trying to buy a tax that nobody wants, this budget could have been, and should have been, a budget that was about investing in people, in places, in our infrastructure needs of the future—if anything, the very factors that help drive economic growth and development in Australia.

We all know that there is a very firm view at the moment—especially among those in regional Australia—that people are missing out. They are among the most vulnerable in our community: the elderly, low income families, and kids from poorer areas, both urban and rural. Nothing is more important to the future of Australia than the skills of Australians. It is a fact today that kids from less fortunate backgrounds still leave school early, and that workers from traditional industries lose their jobs and cannot find a retraining opportunity. I suggest that it is only Labor that is prepared to stand up for these people and invest in their skills. It is not a cost to the nation; it is an investment in the future of the nation.

Because the Howard government has failed to believe in our people and back them, we are now the only country in the developed world that is going backwards in its public spending on education and training. What a disgrace as we go into the new century. People are missing out, regions are missing out. That is a cruel fact of life in Australia at the moment. A cruel irony of the people missing out, I also venture to suggest, is that they are increasingly concentrated in particular regions, including in a significant number of seats held by representatives of the coalition government. A very firm view is that the last four years have represented a missed opportunity; if anything, during those years we have gone backwards rather than forwards. The truth is that many parts of Australia are missing out and that, therefore, people are missing out more often than not because of where they live. It is not just in the country; it is all over Australia. Today in Australia, there are just under 300 areas with double-digit unemployment, and there would be many more if it were not for population loss, especially from rural and regional Australia. We know that population loss is associated with service loss. It is about lost opportunities. If the Prime Minister and the Treasurer spent time listening to people, they would also know that and accept it.

This budget was, therefore, an opportunity for the Howard government to state that all Australians, regardless of where they live, deserve a fair share in Australia's economic prosperity and reasonable access to services. Given recent political events, you might think that the places missing out—whether they be in the city or in the bush—would weigh heavily on the government's mind, if not its conscience. But this budget contains nothing to improve services and nothing to encourage infrastructure development so necessary to those types of suburbs and regions. The government's only regional services program was supposed to deliver 70 rural transaction centres by June. So far, the truth is—and the facts show it—that the promise has not been met. We are now told they will be lucky to deliver 15—that is, 15 out of the promised number of 70—rural transaction centres by June this year.

On infrastructure, I also note that the government has spent the past six months raising people's expectations, especially in rural and remote Australia. As I move around regional Australia, I find that people are disappointed, yet again. The government failed very clearly to develop a coordination mechanism to meet our long-term infrastructure needs. The budget neglected industry calls for a national infrastructure advisory council, and the recommendation coming out of the government's own regional summit for a minister with infrastructure responsibility.

On telecommunications, the most notable thing in the budget is the claim that Telstra will be sold—never mind mobile phone coverage and never mind affordable Internet access for businesses and households in regional Australia. As usual, the government is telling ordinary Australians what is good for them—not mobile phone or Internet coverage but selling Telstra. So much for the Prime Minister's whistlestop tour of regional Australia earlier this year!

On transport, the government has established, after more than four years and after heckling from the states, a national transport secretariat—at least something has been achieved. Its mandate is supposedly to address some of the long-term planning issues that the government has deliberately neglected. Among them, interestingly, is an increased role in the greenhouse debate. The minister could do with some help on greenhouse issues, having cut down his environmental credentials in one fell swoop in recent weeks.

A few months ago, the Deputy Prime Minister made a speech about the state of our country roads. What is missing is the funding to back it up. The budget, Mr Deputy Speaker Causley, as you and I know from the regular complaints to our own electorate offices, contains no more money for country roads. In fact, when I go to the budget papers and look at federal roads funding, what I find is very interesting. For example, in last year's budget was the statement that `the government will spend $1.6 billion on roads funding in the year ahead'. In this year's budget is the statement that the government will spend $1.3 billion on roads funding in the year ahead. For some strange reason, country roads have been short-changed. Some $300 million has disappeared from federal roads funding. That is right; it is not an insignificant figure. I suppose it is not significant in terms of what the government is prepared to spend on its PR campaign for the promotion of the GST but, when it comes to road funding, regional Australia actually believe that $300 million is significant. But for some reason $300 million has disappeared from federal roads funding.

On top of this, the government has ignored the recommendations of various reports on rail, yet again. Despite damning evidence that balaclavas and barking dogs have not helped waterfront productivity, all we see in the maritime and shipping area is the contracting out of more jobs. The transport minister should spend more of his time doing his job and less of it selling propaganda on regional TV. While he is attending to the internal spats on the other side of the House—some of which I venture to suggest that you yourself contribute to, Mr Deputy Speaker—the minister is, for those reasons, neglecting his responsibilities in the aviation, rail and maritime industries, for which he is responsible and, more importantly, should accept responsibility for.

The responses from people in regional Australia to this budget, particularly once they realised that the $1.8 billion was a con job, say a lot. I have heard a lot from coalition members, both from the Liberal Party and from the National Party, in recent weeks with respect to those issues, most notably in recent days by the member for Herbert, but he is not alone on that side of the House. People all around the country are summoning their coalition MPs asking them to explain themselves. It is bad enough that the budget fails to deliver. But, when you deliberately try to deceive people by claiming that the budget delivers a $1.8 billion `bush bonanza', you are doing precisely what people, especially in rural and regional Australia, have had a gutful of—deception and dishonesty. People want governments to be honest with them, and they want coalition ministers to stop misleading them when it comes to supposed support for regional Australia. What they want is nation building.

Given that ordinary Australians are struggling to deal with economic and social change, you might think that the government would see this budget as an opportunity to reassure people, to remind them that the national government is on their side. I suppose we would not expect that of the Howard government because that takes leadership and, if there is one thing this Prime Minister does not have, it is leadership, vision and a capacity to actually do something for the benefit of all Australians. I say that because leadership is about bringing different perspectives together. For a government that has done nothing but divide our nation economically, socially and culturally, this is clearly too big an ask. This is a government that has deliberately and on a regular basis pitted workers against bosses, rich against poor, skilled against unskilled, indigenous against non-indigenous and the city against the country. This is a government that has deliberately made life harder for workers, harder for the unskilled, harder for indigenous Australians seeking respect and acknowledgment and harder for people living in the areas that are missing out in rural, regional and metropolitan Australia.

While Labor has the honesty to express shame where shame is due and pride where pride is due, the Prime Minister unfortunately has the courage to do neither. He is a leader struggling to come to terms with Australia as a nation in the 21st century. We all know the particular term he is struggling with on the issue of reconciliation. And we remember how long it took him to bring himself to use the term `multiculturalism'. In actual fact both sides of the House counted it when he finally used the word in a speech. `One, two, three,' they said each time he used the term `multiculturalism', a modern Australian term. Australians looking for leadership know that these are not only tests of our maturity as a nation but also tests of our leaders, tests of us as human beings and tests of us as modern-day Australians seeking to govern for the benefit of all Australians.

We have a Prime Minister who has an empty notion of Australian citizenship and an empty vision for what we are and what we should be. The belief of the Prime Minister, the Treasurer and the Deputy Prime Minister in trickle-down economics has had a devastating effect on the lives of ordinary Australians. That is why nearly 300 communities across Australia today have double digit unemployment figures including, for example, an area such as Wide Bay, represented by a minister on the front bench on the other side of the House. It has not helped the many communities that have experienced population loss and the withdrawal of government services. The real test of this budget is how it makes life easier for those Australians doing it tough and how it provides opportunity for all of us—not handouts, but opportunity for all of us. So how does the budget improve the ability of our economy and our people to adapt to change? What does it offer for education and training and what does it offer for regional development? Does it do anything for the people and the places missing out?

I believe this budget says a lot about the priorities of the Howard government. It was promoted as a $1.8 million `bush bonanza'. Mr Deputy Speaker, you would be aware that last year the government held a regional summit that generated a lot of goodwill and brought together a lot of committed people. While the summit brought with it cautious optimism, everyone knew that the real test would be whether the rhetoric was backed up at budget time. So what of the $1.8 billion `bush bonanza'? The first thing to note is that there is no $1.8 billion. There is no $1.8 billion in new initiatives, and I challenge any member, including the member for Dawson, to dispute me on that. The amount of $500 million is being spent just trying to ensure that the GST does not increase petrol prices. After saying that the GST would not increase petrol prices, the Treasurer now tells us it will cost us $500 million to make sure, and even then people are not convinced. Another $309 million over four years, the agricultural component, replaces a previous commitment of $525 million over four years. Despite the government's rhetoric, that is actually a budget cut of $216 million from agriculture. Even the government's backdown on assets tests for farmers whose children are seeking youth allowance—have a look at the facts—does not kick in until a few months before the next election. The way the government has promoted this package as a boon for the bush is precisely the sort of deliberate dishonesty that people in the bush are fed up with.

The Deputy Prime Minister says that it is his political mission to meet the `reasonable expectations of country people'. If that is the case, then he should have started with a bit of honesty in this budget and his budget announcements. After previous Howard budgets abolished community jobs schemes, abandoned regional development and withdrew services from rural and regional communities, people were entitled to expect more than they got on budget night. Despite economic growth in cities, after more than four years under a Howard government, people in rural and regional Australia are asking when they will get their fair share. Kim Beazley, the Leader of the Opposition, correctly described the budget as a budget of lost opportunities, because the GST has left the government with nothing to invest in the future of rural and regional communities.

Labor fundamentally opposes a tax that is unfair, that hits Australian families and that hits small business with a compliance burden the likes of which we have never seen before. Even more important is the fact that this new tax comes at the expense of the investments that we need to make in our nation's future. A budget surplus created on the back of cuts to education, health, labour market assistance and regional development is being used to finance tax cuts—the lion's share of which go to the 20 per cent of top earners in the community. The people and places missing out are not on high incomes. Ninety per cent of our regional centres have incomes per capita below the national average. As you would know, in rural Australia and in our struggling suburbs things are even worse.

While we all see that the Howard government is losing ground in debates about the old economic agenda—as the budget slips into structural deficit, as the GST pushes up interest rates, and as we see our strength in trade negotiations diminish—the real tragedy is that the budget is a budget of yesteryear and the Prime Minister is a prime minister of yesteryear. The trouble is that this government and the Prime Minister have not realised that the world has moved on and the policy agenda has moved on. Labor's agenda is about how we will allow all Australians to share in the new economy by investing in our people and our places, investing in our ideas. We are about ensuring that our regions share in our economic prosperity, which will require us to invest in our economic infrastructure and develop new industries. (Time expired)