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Tuesday, 15 June 2004
Page: 30348

Ms GRIERSON (5:17 PM) —In speaking today on Appropriation Bill (No. 1) 2004-2005 and cognate bills, I would like to revisit the government's 2004-05 budget and share my personal analysis of it. For me, it broke down into eight parts. Part A concerned the special, one-off `sorry' payments. Firstly, there was the $3,500 `sorry we ripped capital expenditure out of nursing homes' payment, compensating the electorates of the Hunter—supposedly—for the 369-bed shortfall we experience. Secondly, there was the `sorry we've made life so hard for carers' payment of $600 or $1,000 to compensate the 2,500 Newcastle carers who struggle to contribute to the $20 billion of annual economic savings for the government. Then there was the `sorry we bungled the family tax benefits and created so many family debts' payment of $600. Closely following that was the `sorry we made it hard for you to go back to work' payment, which actually increased marginal tax rates by another six per cent when a second-income earner moves from welfare to work.

I have labelled part B the `wow, we've discovered women work, have babies and vote' pay-off. In this section, John Howard managed to drag himself out from behind that 1950s white picket fence, screaming, `Vote for me,' and kicking his kitchen cabinet into the 21st century at last to introduce the maternity payment. As one of those females who make up 52 per cent of the population, 43 per cent of the work force and 100 per cent of those who can give birth, I ask: what took so long? As for child care, it is still a case of too little too late.

Part C is the `do not go to the front of the queue unless you can pay' dice roll, and this is the part where you need a safety net to gain access to Medicare and bulk-billing, and your child can gain entry to university if you can afford to pay for their place. Yet one-third of Newcastle university students in my electorate are from the lowest income families and, thanks to this budget and this government, they will pay 25 per cent extra next year. Part D was the `end of financial year health fire sale'. It said, `We'd rather provide a bandaid and a pain-killer than prevent disease.' But for kids who do have type 1 diabetes or who are waiting for a cochlear implant, any helping hand is very welcome. Since the budget we have had announcements on the pneumococcal immunisation, which I will come to later.

I have called part E the `hooray for our signs' pitch. I do encourage people to look for the Brendan Nelson billboards in stereotype, coming soon to a school near you. However, do not look for the level playing field, because this government does not fund schools on need. But hopefully some long-awaited literacy funding will help. I call part F the `Newcastle special'. This is the Prime Minister's `you don't get anything from me until you and the states cough up first' part. I am grateful that, after the New South Wales government committed $5 million and the public donated $1 million, our Hunter Medical Research Institute finally got a much deserved federal commitment of $5 million. But I have told my electorate of Newcastle: `Face facts. Unless we keep digging deep into our pockets to add to Bob Carr's $32 million, we are not getting one cent for our stadium from little Johnny.'

Part G is the `I don't need to buy your vote' discount. Of course, many people are in this section. This special nonpayment goes to anyone on less than $52,000 per year, pensioners, carers who do not receive a benefit, sole parents, eligible students who missed out on TAFE or university places, those who cannot afford dental care or suffer mental illness, the unemployed and anyone who would like to save the environment before it is too late. Part H I have called the `it's mine' surplus. I heard Peter Costello say it was his surplus. John Howard has said it is his government's surplus. And, on the night the budget was handed down, I heard Hugh Morgan say that corporate Australia created that surplus. Last time I looked, that surplus was created through the sacrifice and hard work of ordinary Australians, like those 41 per cent of Newcastle families in my electorate who earn less than $840 a week. In fact, almost 90 per cent of Newcastle people will miss out on the Howard government's tax cut because in Newcastle 89.6 per cent of people actually earn less than the $52,000 threshold for a tax cut. But they do not need to buy voters in my electorate, apparently.

In my electorate, unless you receive the family tax benefit or intend to have a baby, you miss out. In Newcastle, though, 9,380 families do receive family tax benefit A and they should receive their one-off payment of $600 per child before 30 June, with another $600 after they file their tax return. But, for a third of those families, the one-off payment will only help to reduce their debt. It would be better to fix the family tax benefit system. However, we have learnt since then that families who lodge their tax returns early will receive their tax cheque separately from their debt notice and they will not be advised of their debt notice until after 5 September. We assume the election will be held before that date.

For families with young children, child-care costs are high and often one partner works full time. Places have been provided, but they are insufficient to match the shortfall. In my electorate there is a shortfall of over 120 places in OOSH—out of school hours—centres alone. But we will now have a baby care payment, which will be welcomed by Australian women. This policy was announced by Labor prior to the budget, and Labor's policy responsibly offers this payment in fortnightly instalments. That is because our major interest is the newborn baby and its care, not sending a `vote for me' cheque of $3,000 in the mail. Helping parents to stay in the work force does help families stay afloat and it helps the economy. We know it is a far better option than the Treasurer's `work till you drop' plan that says he can increase productivity by making people work into old age.

But let us put these family policies into context. The Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, the OECD, says that Australia has some of the least family friendly policies for working mothers in the developed world. Only South Korea and Turkey provide less child-care support. Australia and the US are still the only countries that do not require employers to provide paid maternity and parental leave. The OECD also found that Australia's tax policies actively discourage women from returning to work. Taking steps to improve female participation in the work force could, it said, help overcome the problems of an ageing population. It found that full-time participation of women aged 25 to 54 in the work force in Australia was 20 per cent below the OECD average, with only Japan and the Netherlands recording lower rates. I could go on.

Families with older children studying at TAFE and university also know that the budget had very little for them. It would seem self-evident that everyone benefits from a trained, highly skilled work force but, having cut $5 billion from universities over the period of this government, the Howard government sees education and training as a cost rather than as an investment in our future. Young people without a TAFE or university education are twice as likely to become unemployed as those with a qualification, yet the Howard government introduced new laws that shift costs to students and their families. In 2005, Newcastle university will increase its HECS by 25 per cent. It will also offer students who missed out on some courses the option of paying full fees to gain a place.

But, of course, it is a university which has had millions of dollars removed from its budget. I understand that the University of Newcastle is seeking 1,350 fully funded places overall and has put that submission to the government, prioritising some particular areas for growth. The University of Newcastle does have an explicit commitment to serving the needs of the Newcastle, Hunter, and Central Coast regions and assisting in their development. Around 70 per cent of the university students there are actually from these regions—Newcastle, the Hunter, the Central Coast and the mid-North Coast—with the university recently providing some services at a site in Port Macquarie.

These regions all have comparatively high rates of unemployment. They also have low year 12 retention rates, low rates of attendance at university compared to TAFEs, low levels of bachelor degree completions and low weekly household incomes. On all these measures, the people of the Newcastle, Hunter, Central Coast and mid-North Coast regions perform well below the state and national averages. Given the socioeconomic disadvantage of the regions from which the university draws the vast bulk of its students the University of Newcastle does need to maximise the number of Commonwealth supported places that it can make available and therefore increase the number of Commonwealth learning scholarships it can offer. I hope the government can see its way to be generous when it allocates those places.

On the issue of expenditure on our schools this budget did very little but patch up the long overdue correction of funding to Catholic schools. For the first time, this year, we should all note, more federal funding is being allocated to private schools—$7.6 billion—than to state schools, which have received $7.2 billion. It is a milestone, yes, but it is certainly not an achievement. Accepting, as we do, that private schools are entitled to some measure of public provision is not the same as saying that public support for the schools attended by the great majority of Australian children should be allowed to wind down but, unfortunately, that is what we are seeing. The consequence is that more money is actually being given to the schools that need it least. The shrinking of support for public education is contributing to a perception that state schools are second rate. Perhaps that is what the government desires, but that would be an absolute travesty of generations of hard work by the people of Australia.

Education is not a form of welfare and should never become one. Access to a quality education is what makes equality of opportunity possible, which is why Australian governments should remain committed to the maintenance of a public school system that provides opportunities to all children regardless of their religion, ethnicity or family income. Once state and federal governments cease accepting that this is their primary obligation in education spending then the quality of our democracy is certainly under threat. The funding of other schools should flow from the acceptance of that primary obligation. If that primary obligation is fulfilled then independent schools ought to have access to public subsidy on the basis of need. Unfortunately, that is not what we have seen in this budget.

When it comes to health, in my electorate the issue that is raised daily by my constituents is the cost of health care. In fact, in a survey I did last year where people had to send in their responses, over 1,200 people and over 40 GPs responded. The budget does not do anything but set up a Medicare safety net for a few, and it is certainly taking health care down the path towards a welfare health system when what people really do want is a universal health care system that is accessible and affordable for everyone.

In my electorate, we have had a GP after-hours access service for 10 years. It was so successful—and the government did assist that pilot—that it has been extended to four different public hospitals in the region, but we recently saw our health minister, Tony Abbott, say that our model—even though it has worked so well for 10 years—is a luxury model and that the government cannot fund it to that level anymore. Basically, he muscled up to one state and got them to cave in to a lower price, so apparently everyone has to do that. The reality is that the after-hours GP access model that we use provides assurances and security for doctors and a triage system that certainly works for patients. It also gets the support of doctors that work in it. Even Professor Marley at the faculty of health at the University of Newcastle commits to this service. That is the sort of support it gets from our GPs, which is why it has been working for 10 years—that is, because our local GPs sign up to it. It is not a luxury model; it is one that works. We also saw in this budget nothing for mental health, which is an appalling continuation of the underfunding of mental health—probably the one issue that everyone in Australia is touched by and that can make one feel totally helpless and powerless in addressing.

Our concerns about aged care continue. One-off payments of $3,500 do not match capital grants and they certainly do not match no-interest loans that should be made available. In my electorate we have had no new beds allocated since I became a member of parliament—and we are not talking about phantom beds; we are just talking new beds. The reason for that is that, really, no-one can make those beds pay. Inner city land costs are becoming higher so aged care is being pushed out to more affordable areas. Of course, for you, your family and your loved ones, that may mean a great separation of partners and much hardship to families. So we were very disappointed in my electorate at the lack of money for aged care.

Post the budget, we do see a catch-up policy by Tony Abbott trying to beat that election deadline by putting all those little plugs in the dyke before the election comes. Finally, we did see some funding for pneumococcal vaccine, which is long overdue. It was recommended in a report back in September 2002. That was a long time ago and too many families have suffered through that delay. Now we do call on the government to also fund polio and chicken pox vaccines. In my electorate, it was very good to see the Hunter Medical Research Institute receive its commitment of $5 million. It has waited a long time and is the only regional health and medical research institute in Australia. It coordinates the work of 350 researchers working in six programs at six sites with wonderful links between the university and Hunter Health. I do congratulate them and thank the government on their behalf.

Let us have look then at the government's overall record. I guess this government has the philosophy that, if the economy is strong, everyone will be looked after and that, if the rich are doing well, it will eventually filter down to the poor. It does not work. Let us look at the record at this stage. With regard to the cost of living, we have just had that wonderful report that says that the cost of living grew faster in Australia in 2004, in the 12 months to March, than anywhere else in the world. We just cannot get away with blaming it all on the rising dollar during that period. We have to acknowledge that the lack of services provided by the government at the cost of the electorate has certainly cut into our quality of living.

When we look at the current account deficit we find that Australia's current account deficit climbed to $12 billion in the first three months of this year. The current account obviously shows we spent $52.4 billion on imports but earnings from all exports reached only $44 billion, so we certainly have to do some economy strengthening and some building in our export industry.

In terms of economic growth, we have seen the economy actually slow to a crawl in the opening months of the year amid a cooling housing market and lacklustre exports. The national accounts show the economy expanded by just 0.2 per cent in the March quarter, down from 1.3 per cent in the previous quarter. It is actually the lowest in more than a year and well below everyone's expectations. However, our economic growth in the past year or so has still been dependent domestically on an inflated housing market and our exports have still been dependent on our farm and quarry ability. It is time we moved past that. We do need to consider the future and make sure there is some real investment in diversifying our economy and improving our infrastructure so that we really can keep competing in a globalised economy. In terms of youth unemployment, the government would say, `Gee, employment is looking really good.' Let us have a look at that claim. As I said before, in my electorate 28.9 per cent of youth are unemployed. In that last quarterly employment announcement, we saw that part-time jobs were actually reduced by 42,000, with half of those job losses hitting young Australians. It is certainly not good enough.

Let us get to that private debt—with bank fees of $8.7 billion in 2003. What a waste. What a waste of potential for this country. We have a credit card debt that we have never seen before. I think we have perhaps finally reached that economist's nightmare: welcome to John Kenneth Galbraith's nightmare of private opulence and public squalor. That is indeed the path we are heading down. We also have seen our hard-earned surplus reduce dramatically. There has been lots of expenditure on votes, but hard infrastructure capital has been sold off or allowed to deteriorate. Soft capital—in the form of public education, health, science and environmental spending—has certainly failed to keep up with community needs, yet taxes and charges have increased. We have seen public debt reduced—yes, the government has reduced its debt. But, as I said, private debt has increased, rising from 80 per cent of household disposable income in 1996 to 140 per cent of household disposable income now. There is not much left, really, is there? This year, fortunately, the Australian public do have a choice. They get to choose between a government that squanders our future opportunities for short-term election gains and a Labor government that has a plan not for the election but for our nation's future.