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Tuesday, 19 March 2002
Page: 1510


Mr ZAHRA (6:19 PM) —I rise to speak on the Taxation Laws Amendment (Baby Bonus) Bill 2002. The Howard government is getting more and more Orwellian as their time in office continues. I see that they have called this piece of legislation the `baby bonus bill'. In truth, it should be called the `baby bonus shonky sham bill', because that is really what this is about. It makes out that this is pro-family legislation which is going to provide enormous benefits for people who are having children, but in fact it is really more of the same from the Howard government.

This legislation is very consistent with their GST legislation. The GST legislation is all about having a principle which says: the more you earn, the more you benefit. That is exactly what this so-called baby bonus bill is all about. The more you earn, the more you benefit and, from the point of view of those of us on this side of the House, that is not the type of legislation that we want to see the Commonwealth parliament focusing on. We want to see the Commonwealth parliament focusing most Commonwealth government resources on those parts of society and those sections of our community which need the most help. That is what the priority should be for the Howard government—that is what the priority should be for any Commonwealth government—but it has not been for the past six years, and it is certainly not true when it comes to the provisions of this particular piece of legislation.

I well remember the so-called baby bonus being raised in the context of the federal election last year. It quickly became one of those issues which attracted a great deal of attention early on. A lot of people thought, `Wow! This sounds fantastic.' But sure enough, in the manner we have seen so often in relation to the Howard government, the strands started to come away very quickly and the ends started to unwind. It became very apparent fairly quickly that in fact the Howard government's promises in relation to the so-called baby bonus were all quite hollow, that it was going to be something which only a small minority of families were going to benefit from, and that we were going to see a substantial differential in this so-called baby bonus between families with a high level of income and families who are not in that high income band.

On this side, we would like to see Commonwealth legislation having a greater focus on the people who need the most help, not just providing schemes with the most reward and the most benefit going to families who already have very high levels of income, very high levels of asset accumulation and very high levels of affluence more generally. In that regard, this is consistent with legislation which the Howard government has introduced to this House over the last six years. It is not legislation which we think should be the focus of a national government, which should be all about ensuring that people are included in our society, using all Commonwealth government resources to make sure that people are able to participate in all parts of our society and our community and do not get left behind.

The key point on this legislation is that it misses the point in relation to what Australian families really want: good services. Australian families want to make sure that they are able to send their kids to a choice of very good child-care centres; they want to make sure that they are able to send their kids to a good kindergarten and not have to pay large amounts of money to do so; they want services in place for families and want to be able to access good parenting courses and good parenting information; and they want a good choice of schools in their local community—that means a good choice from the public sector, the Catholic sector and the independent schools sector.

We often hear the Howard government talk about how they embrace choice. This is a laughable concept when it comes to what they have in mind. These people are freedom maniacs. They do not understand that choice in the context that they often talk about is only relevant if you have a fair bit of money. If you have a fair bit of money, you can choose not to send your kid to a local Catholic school or a public school. Not everyone can afford to send their kids to one of the affluent schools to which the government seems to be very obviously preferring to give large amounts of Commonwealth money. Our focus on this side is about making sure that when we talk about choice we talk about fair dinkum choice for people. That means having choices of good public schools, good Catholic schools or good independent schools. In many parts of Australia, people do not have those choices.

We think it is fundamental for Australian families to be able to choose between those different types of educational opportunities for their children and to be confident in knowing that, whatever choice they make, their children will receive a first-class education, that it will not simply be an education which is limited to however much money they can afford—the more they can afford, the better education their children get. That is not what we are about. This is something we believe Australian families want and should feel confident in. They should have access to great primary schools and great secondary schools. We think they should have the option of going to a really good university as well, and that the determination as to whether or not their kids are able to get into university is how hard their kids work and how smart they are, not how much money mum and dad have to buy their kids a place ahead of someone else who really deserves it.

We think these principles are important for Australian families. While I think that is the reality of what Australian families want, it is not the reality of what the Howard government thinks families want. There is a substantial difference of opinion between my view of what Australian families think a government should be providing and what the Howard government thinks Australian families want it to be providing. It is very well characterised by this bill. The Howard government thinks that high-income people want to be able to access this money so that they can do whatever they want with it. The people in my electorate are interested in good services. We understand what good services bring to families. They provide people with that opportunity to have good services in place for their children, so that their children can get the start in life which will mean that they are able, later on, when they get into their working life or further education, to take advantage of those opportunities.

Services are very important in a regional electorate like McMillan. Regional services are important in attracting families to our district in the first place. This is the frustration that many of us who represent country districts feel when we consider legislation like this. Sure, this legislation is going to put more money in the hands of high-income earners, and they will be able to use it for whatever purpose they think is most appropriate in their familial circumstances. But the opportunity cost of legislation like this is not being able to provide services which the hundreds of millions of dollars which are involved in paying for the provisions of this bill might have gone into in providing services in places like the Latrobe Valley, West Gippsland and Pakenham, which I represent, or your own electorate, Madam Deputy Speaker Corcoran, or the electorate of Ballarat. We need good services in place in order to attract families to live there in the first place.

There is good reason why we want to attract families to live in our district. First of all, it is a great place to raise a family. Second, families are a very important component of the economic development and renewal of the electorates that I and the member for Ballarat represent. We need young families to come to our district, we need them to enjoy the benefits of raising a family there and we need the benefits of having them there. Young families are exactly the type of people you want to attract to our region because they are great consumers, they are great spenders. They come to a district, buy a house, get a mortgage, send their kids to the local school, fill up our schools and buy stuff for their kids. They might get a bigger family and have to get a contractor in to build an extension on their house. They are great consumers; they spend money.

They are activists in our local community; they are active on our local kindergarten committees, our school councils and our parents and friends groups. They end up being very active in our local communities by being involved in activities to do with their children, but more generally they involve themselves in other parts of our cultural life as well. These are the people who make sure that our community is cohesive. These are people who make sure that we have all of those voluntary organisations which we talk so often about and revere, but so often we fail to understand what is required to really keep voluntary agencies powering along. The most important ingredient, in my experience, is plenty of young families and community spirit.

So we need good services in place in electorates such as ours to make sure that families are able to confidently come and live amongst us. We understand why it is that these services are so important. When you think about what attracts families to live in an electorate like McMillan, it is good services— good public hospitals, good community services, good schools, plenty of support in parenting, education and early intervention programs which encourage families to participate fully in their children's development and to make sure that they are able to understand all of those things which are involved in raising a young family. People want to know that those services are in place.

Sitting suspended from 6.30 p.m. to 8.00 p.m.


Mr ZAHRA —Before the suspension of the sitting for dinner I was pointing out that families are very important to regional communities because they are the drivers of economic development—they are the big spenders, the big consumers. When they come to an area, they purchase a house and renovate it as their family gets bigger. These people are activists in our communities—they make sure that there are enough people on the kindergarten committees and on the school councils. They are active in fundraising and community service in many different parts of our community. These are the types of people we want in rural and regional Australia.

Unfortunately the government have their priorities all wrong in relation to this so-called baby bonus. They think that, by providing affluent families with a great amount of money and poor families with a lesser amount of money, somehow this will be a panacea in dealing with family issues. On this side, we disagree. We think that the government have focused their resources in the wrong area. The focus should be on providing support and services for families right across Australia, and in particular in rural and regional Australia. There is a lot of benefit to be had in rural and regional Australia. We should be providing an environment in which more families feel confident and comfortable moving outside the capital cities, taking advantage of the great opportunities which exist in raising a family in a country district and enjoying the benefits of our good local schools and the infrastructure that we have in place.

This money would be better spent providing those services to people. There is a lost opportunity in the money that the Commonwealth government is spending on this bill, money which I think could be better directed in rural and regional Australia. Whilst the government talks a lot about providing choice to people, there is not really much of a choice at all for those who are not on high incomes—and the higher your level of income, the bigger your payment under this so-called baby bonus legislation.

The government's priorities are wrong. We on this side want to see a greater focus of Commonwealth government resources on those people who need to be more included in our society. In particular I think there has been a missed opportunity in relation to early intervention. There has been a lot of research done which points to the importance of intervening in the early years of a child's development, making sure that there are enough services in place to give children every opportunity available in the early years through to about six or seven years of age. We proposed—and this was supported in the course of the election campaign last year—a national early intervention program. It is a great tragedy that the government seems to think that providing a large amount of money to people on high incomes is a greater priority than supporting the national early intervention program. This program would have given more support to families in the early years of the child's development and families would have been given support services such as parenting education and a national parent telephone line and the help they needed at a time which was most critical.

We think there is a missed opportunity there in the government's priorities. As I mentioned before, when you talk about the needs of families you cannot just talk about how, in this set of circumstances, you will provide high income earners with a certain amount of money and that will provide more money for them to spend on their children. We do not think that is enough. We think that is adopting the position taken by those on the other side of the parliament, that is, every individual family knows best what to do in their particular circumstances and to hell with everyone else. They have taken that approach too far. It is more important to make sure that there are services in place which all families can access. In particular, there should be more support services in place for families early in the piece. An effort should be made in rural and regional communities so that people have access to support services which are fundamental to the way their children are given opportunities in life: properly functioning kindergartens, a good choice in child care and schools and that people have the opportunity to go on to TAFE, university or some other form of training. These are things which are fundamental to families. You cannot talk about what is important for families in isolation. That is what the government is trying to do with this legislation. Services are important—not just the cash. Cash is not a panacea; cash does not make family services better for everyone in the community. We have concerns about the government's priorities in relation to this legislation. Our view is that a lot more needs to be done for families.

I have mentioned the national early intervention program. This program is a good example of the things people in the community want to see the government focusing on when it comes to legislation or Commonwealth government effort to do with families. Communities recognise that it makes much more sense for governments to allocate resources at the beginning of a child's life when their family needs the most support, rather than just focusing resources on the later end of a child's development where they might come into contact with the juvenile justice system or become victims of alcohol or drug abuse. People in the community understand that it is a commonsense approach to make more resources available in the early stages of a child's life.

This is an area which the government needs to respond to and do something about. There is a lot of understanding in the community about the importance of focusing on the early years. This government, instead of focusing its efforts on this bill— which is all about providing high income families with as much money as possible—should be directing resources to the early years of a child's development, as we all know the enormous benefits which can be gained.

In particular I think the bill and its provisions, which will see the largest amount of money given to people on the highest levels of income who mostly do not live in rural and regional Australia, is the wrong approach to take. I would like to see more focus placed on making sure that the services are in place that support families in rural and regional communities. I mentioned before the importance of having good public health services and good specialist medical services in rural and regional Australia as a way of attracting families to come and live there. We should make sure we have good schools, kindergartens and child-care centres. These are the types of things that make our regions attractive to families. We all know of the massive economic benefit that rural and regional communities get when new people come and live in our districts. It makes an enormous difference when we have new people come into our districts who are prepared to participate fully in community life and, as well, be substantial economic drivers in our districts. We think that we in rural and regional Australia have a lot to offer, and we think, with the support of the Commonwealth government in making sure that services are in place and that the efforts of the state government are matched in terms of the development of existing services, that we can really market and sell rural and regional Australia as a great destination for families to come to live in and as a place to raise their children in a positive environment where they can enjoy access to quality infrastructure.

I think the government has it wrong in terms of its priorities. This is a bill which makes sure that the most money goes to the people who already have the most in terms of incomes and assets. I think there should be a greater focus placed on making sure services are in place in rural and regional communities so that we can attract families there who we know are the drivers of economic development and the activists in our communities who will make sure that we have a future in rural and regional communities. (Time expired)