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Tuesday, 27 May 2003
Page: 15078


Mr ROSS CAMERON (Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister for Family and Community Services) (6:01 PM) —I wish to begin my contribution to the debate on the Appropriation Bill (No. 1) 2003-2004, the Appropriation Bill (No. 2) 2003-2004 and the Appropriation (Parliamentary Departments) Bill (No. 1) 2003-2004 by enunciating four principles I regard as the standards for a good budget, and to indicate at the outset, perhaps predictably, that it is my very great pleasure to provide an analysis of the 2003 budget recently handed down by the Treasurer, Peter Costello. The four principles that I would regard as important to judge a budget by are as follows. Firstly, a good budget should have the capacity to maintain funding for core functions of government, being those matters essential to our community and security which the citizenry cannot adequately undertake for itself. Secondly, a good budget should place no greater demand on the scarce resources of taxpayers by higher taxes. Thirdly, a good budget should place no greater demand on the resources of future Australians by way of increased government debt. Finally, a good budget should avoid unintended adverse consequences—often of well-intentioned programs—such as placing upward pressure on interest rates and crowding out the creativity and goodwill of Australians to undertake those functions in their private capacity.

I will begin with the maintenance of the core functions of government. It is not possible in a budget of $160-odd billion to go through a line by line analysis of its individual provisions, but I just want to touch on the highlights, the key points. I would begin with the proposition that the first inescapable function of the state is the defence of the realm. It is something which we would prefer not to be on the front pages; we would prefer it to be lower in our spending priorities. We have to accept as a starting proposition that whatever is required for the defence of the Commonwealth of Australia a strong government must be able to deliver. In that regard, we have made provision for significant additional expenditure of $2.1 billion for improvements in our defence capability over the next five years—on ships, aircraft, land based military equipment and ammunition. There is $157 million for a special operations command, to increase our preparedness and capacity to respond to threats to our security at home and overseas, and over $100 million to boost Army and Air Force recruitment and to improve naval retention.

In addition to that defence spending, there is an additional $440-odd million to upgrade domestic security at our airports, ports and nuclear research facilities, and for improved tracking of persons of concern. This is part of the core function of the Commonwealth. Defence is one of the few areas of spending which have continually been given improved funding each budget since we were elected in March 1996. Frankly, I believe that it is incumbent on us to look beyond merely our defence capability, in terms of relationships around the region. I endorse the proposition of Pope John Paul I that the most secure border is a reconciled relationship. I nonetheless accept that we live in uncertain times, with a whole range of threats, particularly from non-state actors and terrorist organisations, and to some extent from organised crime. Particularly in this environment of religious fundamentalism, extremism and an apparent hatred towards Western civilisation in some quarters of the world, we have to make appropriate provision. Certainly this budget tackles those problems head-on.

I move, secondly, to the human side, and to how we care for the most vulnerable in our community. That might rightly be regarded as a test of our humanity. I will touch on the issue of provision for people with disabilities. I note that this budget provides $135 million over four years for community organisations that provide employment services to people with disabilities. I just want to illustrate—to drill down to, if you like—how that money is actually delivered, and cite the example of Cumberland Industries. It is not actually in my electorate but just outside my electorate at Auburn, in the electorate of Reid. Cumberland Industries is a world leader in competitive employment services provision for people with disabilities. It employs 430 Australians in six different divisions. Its work, led by Stephen Treloar, led to him winning a Churchill Fellowship to study vocational employment for people with disabilities, in Sweden, the Netherlands, the UK and the US.

I simply recognise that with our medical and scientific capacity to keep alive Australians who are suffering various illnesses—whether they are congenital or injury acquired disabilities—we also have an obligation to look at the quality of life of those individuals and of their carers and families. In that regard, it is pleasing to see an additional $110 million in this budget to provide additional funding for carers and for respite care over the next four years. Frankly, if you said to me, `Where would you like to see increased spending?' as a confessed arid economic rationalist I would accept without question the proposition that we need to make better provision for Australians with disabilities and their carers. I am pleased to see that this budget takes a generous approach in that regard.

I will touch briefly now on health and education. The member for Jagajaga has made a series of assertions and allegations, some of which I will take up. In the area of health I merely note that, under the leadership of Senator Kay Patterson, we are witnessing a $917 million package specifically directed towards adequately funding doctor visits under the Medicare package. Australians may be surprised to know about the levels of generosity currently in our Medicare funding arrangements. For example, it may surprise some to know that in the electorate of Fowler, almost adjoining mine in western Sydney, there are over 1.1 million doctor visits per year. There are about 90,000 voters in each electorate and 1.1 million doctor visits. There are more than 90,000 citizens—probably 150,000 or 160,000—but that means that every man, woman and child in the electorate is visiting the doctor about seven or eight times a year. That is just the doctor visits; that is not the other Medicare funded services, which in that electorate would, I think, double the total to two million individual Medicare funded services.

In my own electorate I am tremendously fortunate in having a high concentration of excellent medical clinics and health services. Ninety-two per cent of my constituents receive bulk-billed medical services. By contrast, my colleague the Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister for the Environment and Heritage has only two medical clinics that bulk-bill in her entire electorate—that is a bulk-billing rate of under 30 per cent. If you look at the electorate of Eden-Monaro, it has a bulk-billing rate of 38 per cent. Even at 38 per cent, there are still 480,000 doctor visits. I am saying to the House that we already have a very generous public health program in this country. It is regrettable that many of the state governments are not translating the generosity of the federally funded Medicare system to the efficiency and generosity of the state funded public hospital system. In my own electorate I know there has been a lot of frustration about the closing of beds in public hospitals, particularly in the maternity wards but also elsewhere.

There is almost $1 billion to encourage doctors to bulk-bill—seven million Australians are Commonwealth health card holders—and there are also significant extra incentives to coax the heavy concentration of doctors and nurses out of the urban, metropolitan, capital city areas and into the outer metropolitan fringes of our cities and the regional and remote areas, where there are virtually no doctors at all. That is already proving quite successful. Since the announcement of the package, I understand that over 70 doctors in urban areas have indicated a desire to sign up and move their practices to outer metropolitan, regional or rural areas. That will be welcome news for those areas suffering the greatest doctor shortages.

The investment of $1 billion in Medicare is absolutely dwarfed by the offer of an additional $10 billion to the states and territories to fund the coming four-year agreement for public hospitals. That money is on the table from the Commonwealth. We have asked the states for a higher level of accountability for performance, which some of them are resisting. We saw the extraordinary duplicity that took place with the manipulation of public hospital figures before the last election—which resulted in a group of specialists in the Port Macquarie area resigning in disgust at the pressure that was brought to bear on them to inflate the number of patients they were seeing and the number of beds available—only to have these services shut down immediately after the Labor victory. The specialists resigned in absolute disgust at the deliberate deception practised by the New South Wales Minister for Health. I think the Australian people rightly expect a higher level of transparency and accountability in how Commonwealth funds for public health in public hospitals are being spent.

I will turn to the education area. The member for Jagajaga has just criticised the budget and the Commonwealth for expecting some degree of reform in the area of the industrial relations governing tertiary institutions in this country. I simply say that there are few areas of our community—perhaps one is the building industry—that require more urgent industrial reform than the tertiary education sector, which is crying out for greater flexibility in the workplace. How well I remember my own dismal experience as a student at one of Australia's universities. The work practices were such that, once you were employed in an academic faculty, you had lifetime tenure regardless of your performance, and lecturers and tutors were employed very largely on the basis of whether their ideological orientation was consistent with that of the prevailing clique. Lecturers were a laughing-stock: they could turn up and give the same lectures for five years in a row. Students would not even attend the lectures; they would just go to their mates who had taken the class the year before or the year before that and say, `Give us the notes.'

I see the minister for tourism putting his hand up. I am pleased to say that when the Minister for Small Business and Tourism was the president of the SRC at Sydney University he began agitating for workplace reform and encouraging students to hold lecturers accountable for their performance. We saw, for example, in the student newspaper the beginnings of student assessments of lecturer performance, because that was the only assessment that was available. There was no independent, objective assessment of lecturer performance in the industrial relations climate. It was a closed shop and, in an institution that was meant to be the centre of the open, liberal, flexible, creative culture of the nation, we found the most regressive, conservative, reactionary industrial backwater in the whole country.

Brendan Nelson has painstakingly worked in a consultative way with the key elements. He has worked with the student unions, he has worked with teacher unions, he has worked with the Australian Vice-Chancellors Committee, he has worked with the key research organisations, he has worked with the sandstone universities and with the newer regional and country universities, and he has been congratulated for the exhaustive process of consultation which is behind this package. It is a great achievement that, in spite of the great restraint of this budget, we see $1,500 million more for tertiary education than was in the previous funding agreement—a massive increase which reflects the commitment of this government to seeing greater resources go into the sector.

The member for Jagajaga said that students ought not to have to contribute any more to the costs of their own education. Let me put this very simply. Seventy per cent of my constituents who finish high school will never go to university. The value of one year of tertiary education over a person's lifetime is about $9,000 of annual income. It will vary between a social worker, on the one hand, and a lawyer or a veterinarian, on the other hand, but, on average, each year is worth about $9,000 or $10,000 of annual income. Let us say $10,000 for argument's sake. So $30,000 of annual income, over a person's working life, is the value of the economic asset they acquire from a three-year undergraduate qualification. If a person works for 40 years, they will get 40 times $30,000 as an economic asset. That is a private benefit they accrue as a result of the privilege of a tertiary education.

After these reforms pass through the Senate—as I hope they will—we will be asking the average student to pay 27 per cent of the costs, on average, of an asset which will be worth roughly $1 million to them over their working life. We will ask them to pay 27 per cent of the cost of acquiring that asset. I do not regard that as a great affront to social justice; I regard it as a commonsense contribution by students to the best investment they will ever make. They would not have made a better investment if they had put their money in George Soros's investment fund 10 years ago or put it with Frank Lowy at Westfield, whose equity has performed even better than George Soros's. Even that would not beat that sort of return on investment.

I am entirely supportive of the path-breaking reforms introduced by the minister for education. At the moment, we do not have one tertiary institution in the top 100 in the world. Brendan Nelson said, `That is not good enough,' and we are going to create a much more flexible, differentiated system which allows each institution to define its own future and set its own prices. Some institutions will lower the costs of their courses to attract more students into them. We are providing more resources for teachers and nurses where we know that they are most needed.

I will move quickly to the other principles. I do not want to see us placing greater demands on the scarce resources of taxpayers by raising taxes. I note simply that the unexpected part of this budget was a $2.2 billion tax cut. That is a lot of money. For the average family or the average taxpayer, depending on their income, we are looking at between $220 and $600-odd. I am not going to talk about the amount itself; the principle is the critical thing. We on the coalition side of government do not assume that any surplus in the budget must be spent on new programs. We believe that taxpayer money is precious and that the principle to be observed ought to be that, if there is a surplus, it should be returned to those who created it.

We have returned six surpluses out of eight. There was one extraordinary budget in 2001-02 when the war on terror in Afghanistan pushed us marginally into deficit, and, of course, we inherited a massive debt from Labor in 1996 of $90 billion. That had to be repaid, and it took us two years to get back into surplus. I point out that we have repaid $60 billion of the $90 billion debt we inherited from Labor, so we start each year over $4 billion in front in terms of interest payments we do not have to make. I regard that as a great achievement.

Australia's net debt is at 4.3 per cent of GDP, as against an OECD average of 47.3 per cent of GDP. We are at one-tenth of the OECD average of government net debt. At the same time, we have created a million new jobs. Unemployment in Parramatta has gone from 14 per cent to four per cent since this government was elected. That is my idea of job creation. We have resilient economic growth in a time of global uncertainty, and it is all growing out of a core philosophy of restraint, discipline and vision. (Time expired)