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Wednesday, 18 February 2004
Page: 25139

Mr SAWFORD (5:00 PM) —One thing this government cannot do is meet the needs of people. One of the first measures this government axed when it came to power in 1996 was the Commonwealth dental health program, created by the previous Labor government, which provided free treatment to pensioners and people on low incomes. The axing of this program set the tone of the government's approach to health care in the eight years since. In fact, the approach was defined three years earlier in the lead-up to the 1993 federal election by the then Liberal leader, John Hewson. His Fightback proposal would have abolished bulk-billing, except for those on benefits, along with higher subsidies for the private health insurers. The eight years of the Howard government since 1996 has seen these and so many aspects of Fightback become law. It is no wonder that John Hewson is sometimes so dark on the Prime Minister, given the role that the Prime Minister played in the machinations which eventually delivered him the top job. His articles in the Financial Review are apt evidence of that.

The appropriation bills before us today provide more of the same—more of Fightback. Not one cent is made available for the half a million pensioners or workers on low incomes to assist them to afford dental care. The lack of dental health care programs in Australia is a gaping hole in the social fabric of such a wealthy nation like Australia. It is very false saving, because dental care that is not performed when it is first needed becomes a bigger and more expensive problem later on for the government and the employers as well as the patient concerned. It does not take a huge amount of money to run an effective program for those most in need, and the continued refusal of this government to provide such a program is further evidence of the mean streak that doubles as its spine. The money is there.

This is the highest taxing government in this country's history. You could take the required funds away from all that money that the government gave to category 1, 2 and 3 schools who do not need it. They do not need it, but the dental program does. It is another instance of the government being set on punishing those who are most in need of assistance. The mean streak is also evident but more cleverly disguised in the government's so-called MedicarePlus and safety net. MedicarePlus aims to enact the main plank of the Fightback health policy—the creation of two medical systems. This is the two-tiered approach they take with education, health and anything else they can lay their hands on. There would be one private system for the well heeled, with high-quality services and supposedly no queues, though there is no guarantee of that, and an overloaded and rundown service for the bulk of the population.

The grounds for MedicarePlus have been laid in recent times by the ever-increasing cost to the public purse of the rebate scheme for private health membership and the ongoing decline in financial support for public health. There is no doubt that MedicarePlus will cause bulk-billing to plummet below 60 per cent in some areas. It has gone close to 30 per cent in a couple of electorates. After all, that is what the government has designed it to do. The Prime Minister has been on record for 20 years as wishing the destruction of Medicare bulk-billing. With MedicarePlus, he is taking yet another step towards that goal he stated so many years ago.

In some areas, it is already very hard to find a bulk-billing doctor. I am very pleased to say that, in my electorate of Port Adelaide, most GPs have a strong sense of community responsibility and have sought to maintain bulk-billing services. And this is often at their own cost. On behalf of the community, I thank them for that. But, in other areas where bulk-billing has collapsed, those on low incomes seeking medical attention are forced to attend the emergency departments of public hospitals, like the Queen Elizabeth Hospital in my electorate at Woodville. The safety net and MedicarePlus program are a joke.

If the government were concerned with protecting people from higher medical bills, as the safety net image implies, it would have sought to increase the universality of Medicare, not take it apart. All the safety net means is that patients must spend $500 or $1,000 before they get the protection they have enjoyed under Medicare. Basically, the safety net proposal is nothing more than another new Howard government tax of up to $1,000 on working families. This new tax, along with all the other new taxes that have preceded it, plus the decline in bulk-billing and the lack of assistance for dental care, all add to the pressure upon those in our community who are struggling to get by. When parents struggle to get by, their kids suffer and are less likely to fulfil their own potential and maximise their own opportunities and are more likely to get into trouble.

Perhaps that is also true of our veteran community. I had a veteran come to see me the other week. His name is Arthur Davis and he lives at Seaton. He is a terrific fellow, but he suffers from damaged vertebrae in the lumbar region which results in spondylosis and arthritis in the damaged area. It is very painful and debilitating. His visits to doctors and expensive drugs have failed. As a last resort, his GP recommended a physiotherapist. Eventually, hydrotherapy at a local swimming pool with specific exercises were recommended. Believe it or not, it worked. Pain elimination was achieved and the cost was a lousy $3.60 a session at the pool twice a week, totalling $7.20, which was reimbursed by the Department of Veterans' Affairs. However, the veteran informed me the other week that this subsidy for unsupervised hydrotherapy will cease as at 30 June this year. Who gave that instruction? Was it the Minister for Veterans' Affairs, who had a little rebellion and mutiny in the party room yesterday? Probably.

This government likes to associate itself with what it gives to veterans, but it is remarkably silent about what it takes away. I think that is very poor stewardship by the government and the minister, and obviously the Clarke report, which was supposed to be tabled yesterday, is yet another example of that. It is important to break this cycle of underprivilege in Australia by providing support and assistance to those who are struggling rather than letting the mean streak of this government have its way, dishing out punishments as it sees fit.

One of the most unfortunate consequences for children of low-income households, including one-parent households, is an increased likelihood of school truancy. Sometimes this is disguised as home schooling, but you and I know that if you go to any regional centre in Australia you will find hundreds of kids in shopping centres on any school day. They should be at school; they are not. I congratulate the South Australian state government on its current attempts to deal with the huge truancy problem in that state.

Australia has a very high standard of education, and its teachers, its facilities and the breadth and depth of its syllabus are all first class. It is so good in fact that a long line of students from other countries are seeking to come here to study in our secondary public schools. Their parents are very happy to pay significant amounts of money for the benefit and the privilege of an Australian public education. That is why I find it particularly sad when Australian children are denied an Australian education by parents who, for one reason or another, fail to ensure that their children attend school every day. There is no excuse for the hundreds of kids in our regional shopping centres. That is parental failure. The reasons for this parental failure can range from simple neglect to an often misplaced conviction that home schooling is better.

I have recently been made aware of one single-parent family on a benefit where the four children have not attended school but have received their education from the Fox education channel. The eldest boy is now an adult and has no educational qualifications whatsoever. This means his chances to achieve in life what he dreams of are extremely hampered. I feared the other three boys were headed in the same direction, but I am very pleased that the South Australian education department has now been made aware of this situation. I can think of nothing crueler than sending a young person into the world without giving them the chance to gain educational qualifications and the chance to choose a career—except of course to send four children to such a fate.

As important as qualifications are, the school experience develops the broad and elementary skills so essential to conducting an essential path of social esteem through life. The schoolrooms and the school ovals and courts are where children learn important life skills with their peers—skills they can build upon as their lives change and careers develop. Without this early exposure to the ways of a schoolyard, home-schooled children can easily become socially inept and their performance and advancement in the workplace can be inhibited. We had some unfortunate examples on the weekend, but I do not want to refer to those. There are exceptions, of course—families who conduct proper home schooling—but the exceptions unfortunately are more likely to be the few rather than the majority.

Other children who are left to roam the streets of this country during school are equally badly off, being exposed to all sorts of dangers and missing out on laying the foundations for their own secure future. But they seem pretty good at developing anger and hatred within their precious bodies. It is a great sadness to see that and to see no-one taking responsibility for it. I consider the failure of parents to ensure children benefit from our excellent public education system as a form of child abuse. Parents should be held accountable.

I am both very pleased and saddened to hear that the South Australian government has commenced prosecution of the parents of eight chronic truants there. Five families, including the parents of a nine-year-old who has not attended school since November 2001, are being targeted. The previous state Liberal government must be condemned for turning a blind eye to school truancy for over 10 years. They also must be condemned for allowing the growth of so-called home schooling without establishing any effective checks on the educational welfare or general welfare of children in such home schools, let alone applying reasonable requirements on the parents to ensure they are suitably qualified to conduct the home schooling in the first place.

The South Australian education minister, Trish White, was recently quoted as saying that she was disgusted by the situation and wanted to send a clear message to parents that truancy was no longer acceptable. I endorse those sentiments, and I strongly support her efforts to tackle the truancy problem. While clearly it is better if parents can cooperate in the efforts to ensure that children attend school, the minister is determined to enforce attendance and apply fines to parents where appropriate—and to increase penalties by legislation, if it is deemed effective and appropriate. This stand, to improve school attendance, has been backed up by more than $2 million in extra funding. It follows new truancy laws and tougher penalties in Queensland, New South Wales and Western Australia. The moves also have the support of the teaching profession, with the president of the South Australian Primary Principals Association, Leonie Trimper—a former colleague—saying that there is a need for an `end of the line of tolerance' for some families, while pointing out that there must be follow-up support strategies to ensure that children get to school and receive a quality education.

The federal government's mean streak, which has imposed a range of new burdens on working people and beneficiaries, has made life harder for many Australian working families. One of the unfortunate consequences of hardship in the home can be truancy, and truancy points to a future of further hardship for the truant. Those in need must be assisted, not neglected, not ignored, not punished and certainly not blamed. They must be assisted, but it must be strong assistance. It must not be some of the wimpy stuff that we have had for the last 10 years. Kids need consistency in being dealt with, and they appreciate consistency. They will not respond positively if they are shown inconsistent behaviour by adults. In many cases it is only with assistance that people can get onto the next rung and build themselves a better future. I wish these appropriation bills before us today served that purpose, but unfortunately they do not.

Good government not only pays attention to social infrastructure; it pays attention to physical infrastructure as well. I noticed that the previous member spoke a lot about roads, and they are pretty important, but in recent decades a disturbing trend has developed in investment in public infrastructure in much of the Western world, and Australia is no exception. Too many governments are debt averse for all the wrong reasons. Standard and Poor's may be a credible credit agency as far as some people are concerned, but following their advice may result in regions becoming very standard indeed and very poor indeed.

The obsession of many government treasuries with having AAA credit ratings without actually borrowing any money is misplaced and illogical. A AAA credit rating has a purpose only if you do in fact borrow money. If that money goes to projects that last for 50 or 60 years and improve the social, physical and competitive nature of the region, that is responsible and good debt, and that will leave a positive legacy for our children and our grandchildren. Ignoring the needs of physical infrastructure and replacing it with privatisation, or so-called public-private partnerships, is not only more expensive; it also does not fool anyone. It costs more, it is a folly and it reflects very poorly on many administrations in this country and around the world. The Howard government is the national leader, but it is bereft of leadership in this very important planning matter for the future of all Australia.

A constituent named Gordon Brooks came to me the other day. He is a former champion bike rider in South Australia. He still rides, and he is well into his 70s. He told me some horrible stories about the lack of maintenance of equipment around Australia. He has noticed this in many cities. For example, there is a power problem but there are lights on 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year—he pointed them out to me. He told me about transformers that are managed by private electricity companies, and those transformers, of course, need to be consistently maintained with oil, to keep the level up. A lot of these transformers have been blowing up. They are blowing up for one reason, according to Gordon: they are not being maintained. The same thing happens with water bursts. The pipes are not being flushed and there is a reliance on fewer and less practical staff—they do not even know how to solve the problems. Fire brigades around the country complain bitterly about their access in emergencies and when there are fires. They sometimes do not know which equipment to connect, because what used to be there, showing quite clearly what you need, is no longer there.

We in opposition could quite rightly say that there is disagreement on our side as far as public-private infrastructure is concerned. That is true, but at least on this side of the House we are having the debate. Yes, there are differences, but we will get through that debate, and when we come to government we will make the right decisions. But as far as infrastructure is concerned the government has just allowed this country to drift on. It has a hit-and-miss approach to what should be done.

I would like to know what the federal government's view is about infrastructure. Does it have a view? If so, what is it? Do the backbenchers have a view? Obviously, over the last couple of months they have been beginning to rise. I congratulate the backbenchers who stood up for the veteran community in the party room yesterday, and I congratulate the backbenchers who have stood up to a Prime Minister who has basically had his own way for eight years without being questioned. I look forward to the contributions of government backbenchers in this debate, but the most important question to ask all of them is: why are there so few of them on the speakers list? Does this have anything to do with the third term agenda not being in existence? We noticed, when we saw the plans for legislation in the autumn session, that there is nothing in weeks 3 to 5. There is nothing there! Is that what this government has come to? Has it run out of puff?

Mr Fitzgibbon —They're too busy in the party room. They're making their speeches in the party room.

Mr SAWFORD —The member for Hunter says they are in the party room. Has the government run out of puff? Where are the backbenchers? I will be interested in the member for Herbert's contribution in just a moment. I wonder whether he is going to stand up and put on the public record what ought to be some important things for a third term agenda. Is there anything there? I ask the member for Fisher, the parliamentary secretary at the table: is there anything there?

Mr Slipper —Lots.

Mr SAWFORD —They are very vague. It is interesting, listening to the contributions of government members thus far. They have all been very thin. There is no forward thinking whatsoever. They have had to go back and rely on past achievements. That is a very bad sign for a government. That is a sign of a government in trouble, a leader in trouble, a backbench in trouble and a frontbench in trouble. That is a very good sign for an opposition. We look forward to further debate ensuing in relation to these particular appropriations.