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Monday, 31 May 2004
Page: 29590


Mr KELVIN THOMSON (8:36 PM) —I do not intend wasting any time on the member for O'Connor's contribution on this Appropriation Bill (No. 1) 2004-2005 and its cognate bills—save to point out that the coalition engages from time to time in a furphy about wage increases and wages during Labor's period of office compared to those during the coalition's period of office. That furphy involves not taking into account advances in what are described loosely as the social wage—for example, the establishment of Medicare and the establishment of superannuation and employer contributions to superannuation, which are going to nine per cent and which make a substantial difference to the capacity of ordinary Australians to provide for themselves in retirement. His observation about wages also failed to take into account the impact of cost-of-living issues, such as the goods and services tax, rising petrol prices and the like.

The first thing I want to talk about in relation to this budget is the provision for defence spending, particularly in the context of the war in Iraq. That war has been a disaster—first and foremost for the people of Iraq themselves, but also in its ramifications right around the globe, including here in Australia. Progressively, misleading statements—indeed outright lies—have been exposed about the nature of that war. Firstly, we were told that we needed to go to war in Iraq to prevent the use of weapons of mass destruction. In fact, those weapons of mass destruction were not used when the war eventuated. They have never been found. The truth is they simply did not exist. They do not exist, and those governments and political leaders who told us that they did exist were misleading ordinary Australians for their own political advantage.

Secondly, we were told that going to Iraq was a part of the war on terrorism. It was never part of the war on terrorism. Al-Qaeda was not involved in Iraq. Indeed, al-Qaeda is now involved in Iraq, so invading Iraq has been completely counterproductive. It has made the war on terrorism more difficult, and the leadership of the war on terrorism—whether it is in the United States or here in Australia—has been found wanting.

Thirdly, we were told that the Iraqi people wanted us to get rid of Saddam Hussein—that they wanted him out and, as soon as we got him out, people would rise up and sing hallelujah and rejoice. Some polling has been conducted in Iraq, and it tells us that most Iraqi people want the Western forces out. We are now engaged in fighting against the Sunnis, the Shiites, various militias and the remnants of the Baathist regime—which makes you wonder from time to time just who in Iraq is supporting us.

So what have been the achievements of going into Iraq? The first achievement that tens of thousands of innocent Iraqi men, women and children have been killed. Frankly, all the consequences that we talk about pale into insignificance beside that tragic and entirely unacceptable outcome. The second achievement is that this has made Australia a bigger terrorist target. This is the thing that the AFP commissioner, Mick Keelty, spoke about on TV—a statement of the bleeding obvious. For his pains, he was heavied by representatives of the Howard government and effectively forced to issue a retraction. But the truth stands—the truth will out—and there is no doubt that our involvement in Iraq has made us a bigger terrorist target.

The third achievement is that this has been a detour from the war on terrorism. If the sorts of resources that have been put into Iraq had been put into the hunt for Osama bin Laden, perhaps Osama bin Laden would have been captured. The truth is that, instead of the United States and other forces seeking to properly apprehend Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda representatives, they chose to go off on an unrelated frolic of their own in Iraq. Indeed, if a fraction of the resources which have been put into the war in Iraq had been put into seeking to find a lasting peace in the Middle East and dealing with the Palestinian question, we might have made progress there and we would be much better placed in the war on terrorism. There is no doubt in my mind—and I have many people of Arabic and Islamic background in my electorate—that one of the ongoing sources of grievance for people of Islamic background is the failure of the West to find an outcome in relation to the Palestinian question and to establish a genuine Middle East peace.

The fourth achievement that going into Iraq has done is to damage the United Nations and the idea of an international rule of law. It has damaged Australia's standing in the world. It has encouraged a cowboy and vigilante mentality, the international rule of the jungle and the belief that might is right and that, if we are able to go in there and overthrow a regime, we can do that. That kind of arrogant `we know best' attitude coming from United States Republicans has done the world a great disservice. Some on the other side say that Labor representatives are anti-American. Nothing could be further from the truth. I have no doubt that, had Al Gore been elected president of the United States, the war on terrorism would have been handled differently. We would certainly not have been invading Iraq and this debacle would never have happened. It is not about being anti-American. It is about asking: what is the correct approach to international affairs, what is the right way to achieve peace and justice around the world?

The fifth achievement is that the price of petrol has gone up. I do not accept it as a legitimate element of foreign affairs policy to say that we can go into Iraq and kill tens of thousands of people in order to keep the price of petrol down but, even if you thought that was the objective, the opposite has occurred. This policy has been so spectacularly unsuccessful that we now find that the price of petrol for ordinary motorists is going up as a result of Middle East instability. So what we have got here is an absolute debacle—a shameful debacle—in the conduct of international affairs. We have the prisoner abuse scandal. We have got no exit strategy. We were deceived by the likes of the Minister for Foreign Affairs, who said that we would be out of there in months, not years. The truth is we have been there for well over a year and the Howard government is unable to set any date at all for this country to remove itself from Iraq.

The impression given by those opposite was that this would be a walk in the park; in fact, it has been turning into another Vietnam. We are not wanted there. We should never have gone there without United Nations backing. The idea of Australia invading other countries who have not attacked us is repulsive. The idea that they were going to attack us and use weapons of mass destruction to do so was fanciful. It has been exposed as a charade, a fraud, and the impact of this monumental stuff-up on the part of the coalition will live on in Australia for years and years after those who made this error have departed. It is disgraceful.

The second thing I want to talk about is the fact that this is a budget for the few. I am sure it has come as a bit of a surprise to Liberal Party representatives opposite, whose branch members may well earn over $52,000 per annum, but the fact is that most voters do not earn over $52,000 a year and therefore have received nothing from the tax cuts. There is nothing for pensioners in this budget. That is something of particular concern to me in relation to the electorate that I represent. Wills has the highest number of aged pensioners of any electorate in Victoria—it had over 18,000 age pensioners as at June 2003—and the second highest number of any electorate in Australia.

By contrast, Labor do intend to support pensioners. For example, we believe that some of the budget proceeds ought to be invested in a dental care program. We propose that a Labor government would invest $300 million in Australian dental care over four years—that is to say, $120 million a year for this program when it is fully operational. Many people on the waiting list for dental care—and the waiting list is now over 500,000 strong, with people waiting up to five years to get their teeth fixed—are elderly. Our program will revive the vision of Ben Chifley, when he inserted an amendment intothe Constitution in 1946 which said that affordable dental health treatment was as essential as other medical treatments.

Under our plan, concession card holders such as pensioners, health care card holders and their dependents will now get free check-ups when they need them and subsidised dental treatment, restorations and dentures. Our plan will also assess the dental health of every person admitted to residential care and put in place an action plan to provide ongoing care. We will target programs for Indigenous communities, and we will provide public education awareness programs that help with prevention. We think that is important.

We also think that other aspects of health are important, and that is why we have put forward the proposal to help restore bulk-billing from the levels to which it has been falling under this government. Under us, there was a year in, year out increase in the level of bulk-billing. Under this government, there is a year in, year out decline in the percentage of bulk-billing. Medicare needs the support of a Labor government genuinely committed to bulk-billing and to restoring Medicare.

The other thing we intend to do which is very important for many Australian families is in the area of access to higher education and post-secondary education—that is, to provide some 20,000 new university places and 20,000 new TAFE places and to reverse that 25 per cent increase which universities have been allowed to charge in relation to HECS. You will be aware that most universities have been putting their hand out and saying, `Thanks very much; we'll take the full 25 per cent'—the full tote odds—and that has placed a very great burden on students and their families and has diminished ongoing access to higher education. One of the great achievements of Labor governments was the establishment of better and improved access to higher education, more places and more affordable places. That has been in reverse under this government.

That third thing I want to refer to is the appalling handling of cooperative research centres by the government. Just prior to the bringing down of the budget, we discovered that it had changed the guidelines in relation to cooperative research centres to rule out those which are engaged in research for public good—to say that, unless you have a commercial focus, we are not going to support you. And so it was that cooperative research centres like the reef CRC and the rainforest CRC were told that they would be defunded. We found, when we looked at the budget, that the amount of Commonwealth spending for CRCs was $202 million in 2003-04, $193 million in 2004-05 and that it will shrink to $152 million by 2010-11. The Commonwealth has been getting out of support for cooperative research centres and undermining them. In the environmental area, the figures in the government's budget papers show that funding for environmental CRCs will decline from $54 million this financial year to $48 million next financial year, to $34 million the year after that and just $29 million the year after that. This government has treated cooperative research centres very poorly.

The final thing I want to talk about is this government's lamentable performance on environmental issues generally and in particular as revealed by the budget. The government likes to talk about deficit and debt. In the area of the environment, we are building up a legacy of environmental deficit and debt for our children and for our grandchildren. In the Treasurer's speech, we heard not a word about the environment—not one word, just like last year—demonstrating again the Howard government's contempt for the environment. In a budget which was splashing around money like there was no tomorrow, there were no serious environmental initiatives. To add insult to injury, it was able to find $21 million over four years for a program to be called `Climate change strategies—influencing international climate change policies'. We all know what that is about. That is money to be used to undermine the Kyoto protocol and collective international efforts to tackle climate change. In other words, this is not expenditure to save the environment; this is expenditure to wreck it.

The Minister for the Environment and Heritage's claim of a $2.4 billion record level of environmental expenditure support for environmental action is an utter furphy. In fact, if you look at the $2.4 billion, you discover that over $2 billion of that $2.4 billion claimed environmental expenditure for 2004-05 is being spent by departments and agencies other than the Department of the Environment and Heritage. For example, Customs is spending $350 million; AusAID, $280 million; the tax office, $43 million; and other agencies, $162 million. So over $2 billion of the money the government claims it is spending on the environment is in fact being spent by other bodies.

When the environment budget expenditure is defined according to the more rigorous international standards used in the government finance statistics, we realise that from 1999-2000 to 2004-05 funding for environmental protection has plummeted from $555 million to $257 million per annum. It is scheduled to further decline to $233 million in 2007-08. As a proportion of total budget expenditure, this is a drop from 0.35 per cent to 0.13 per cent for environment protection expenditure. That is a drop of over 60 per cent. If you add in expenditure on `conservation and sustainable use and repair of the natural environment' from national parks, the national estate and natural resources development, expenditure has dropped by $58 million, from $984 million in 1999-2000 to $926 million in 2004-05. As a percentage of total budget expenditure, this is a drop from 0.61 per cent to 0.48 per cent—a drop of over 20 per cent.

So here is the reality: since 1999 the proportion of the Commonwealth budget being spent by the environment department on environment protection matters has been in virtual free fall. In order to make these outlandish claims of environmental expenditure, we have to have, for example, the AusAID budget counted as environment spending to the tune of $320 million last year, compared with $195 million in 2002-03, and we have to include spending by Customs on border protection, which has increased from $253 million to $295 million.

These claims of environmental expenditure are bogus. Unfortunately for our children and those who come after them, it is the Australian environment which will suffer as a result of this government's legacy of deficit and debt and their failure to tackle this nation's environmental problems. If this government were serious about tackling this nation's environmental problems they would adopt Labor's policies. They would adopt our policy to ratify the Kyoto protocol on climate change. They would adopt our policy to increase the mandatory renewable energy target to five per cent by the year 2010. They would introduce a national emissions trading regime. They would introduce a greenhouse trigger into the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act. They would find 1,500 gigalitres in environmental flows for the Murray-Darling. They would establish a Commonwealth corporation, as we would—the Riverbank Corporation—with an initial capital injection of $150 million to enable that water to be found. They would save Point Nepean. They would do something about land clearing— (Time expired)