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Tuesday, 15 June 2004
Page: 30361

Mr LEO McLEAY (6:18 PM) —The Appropriation Bill (No. 1) 2004-2005 and cognate bills are the government's last desperate attempt to get the electors onside before the next election is called. It is very obvious what the government is trying to do. It is offering inducements to voters to stick with the good old coalition, which will give you back little handfuls of cash—that is if you are lucky and you meet the eligibility criteria, of course—in exchange for your electoral support.

Well, it seems to have backfired a little on the government. Not everyone has taken the budget goodies as eagerly as the government had hoped. There is some healthy scepticism around. Perhaps the general public is starting to question the rhetoric of this government's spokespeople a bit more critically than it has in the past. Perhaps people have got sick and tired of this government saying one thing and doing another—John Howard's famous `core promises'. Perhaps people have woken up to the fact that so often this government has promised some wonderful benefit for all which has proven down the track to be of benefit for the few rather than for the many.

I for one am glad that the general public is not as gullible as the government would like it to be. After eight years of this Liberal-National coalition, voters are realising just how hollow their promises are. Take the much-acclaimed tax cuts, for example. What we have here are tax cuts for the more well-off, not the needy. I agree with the commentator who said, just after the budget measures were announced, that the cuts would make no difference to the rich who got them in this budget, but that they would have made some significant difference to the less well-off had they got them. These are pointless tax cuts. They are directed towards those who do not need them.

Despite what the government and its supporters might claim, a large group of the population have been totally left out of any support from these government measures, and this is what the general population has realised. The much acclaimed tax cuts that we all heard so much about in the days leading up to the election turned out to be tax cuts for the wealthier, privileged members of society. How typical of this government: look after the silvertails, look after themselves, and let the poor and the less well off be content with being told that they should strive to better themselves so that one day they might be in a position to earn enough to be eligible for a tax cut reward.

There will be more support for young families who meet the eligibility criteria and there will be tax breaks for the well off. There will be some more investment in aged care and some other welcome health care measures that I want to say more about later. What about those in between? What about those whose taxable income is less than $52,000 a year—that is, people who earn less than $1,000 a week, which is quite a large sum of money for people in my electorate—and who do not qualify for family assistance or are not yet in the aged care bracket? These are the forgotten people. I have heard various government spokesmen say that people should be encouraged to better themselves—work harder, get promoted to higher earning positions et cetera. That is all very admirable if you are in a position to be able to do this, but, as we all know, not everyone is able to gain promotion and earn more money. Not everyone can be at the top of the tree. Life is just not like that.

A lot of self-funded retirees, for instance, would not have higher incomes. They have completed their paid working lives and many go on to do important and much appreciated voluntary work, and they are now supposed to rejoin the work force and compete with younger people for those well-paying jobs that we are all supposed to strive for. Many have worked for a very long time. Surely they should have some consideration in their retirement years. As I have mentioned, many perform valuable unpaid work in the voluntary sphere. The dismissive and sometimes flippant way that these people are often treated by the government quite frankly disgusts me. These people are insulted by the callous remarks of those who should know better.

I do not buy the argument that it is okay because they got something in the budget last year. Every budget is different. And we are not talking about previous years' budgets; we are talking about the current budget and the government's blatant attempt to get certain groups of voters on side while it could not care less about others. I just hope that the architects of this budget get what they deserve. I hope the government loses the next election and that those who think it is fair and reasonable to give tax breaks to those who do not need it will one day know what it feels like not to be given a fair go, at least in their own minds.

There are a couple of good measures in the budget which I am particularly glad to see. I have long been a supporter of the cochlear ear implant program. I last spoke about the cochlear ear implants in June 2002, when my attention had been drawn to the plight of a family with a profoundly deaf son. The cost of accessing implants and the regular upgrades were considerable. I am pleased to see that at least some groups of people who are not well off are going to be provided with some funding to help eliminate the waiting list for children who need upgrades. It is a start, I suppose, but scope remains for a lot more to be done in this area.

It has always seemed ironic to me that the cochlear ear implant—or bionic ear, as it is generally known—is an Australian invention that, for once, was developed here, but it is still not utilised as fully as it could be, because there are problems with its affordability for those who actually need it. A couple of weeks ago I was interested to note a television program on which the inventor of the cochlear ear implant was a guest. Professor Graeme Clark is an amazing person; he has spent his working life on this invention. The cochlear ear implant is one of the inventions that he has come up with and he is still working on refinements to it. His inspiration in large part came from his parents. His father, a pharmacist, was deaf and his mother apparently gave him great encouragement to invent and be a high achiever.

While he has spent many years on his research as well as working as a specialist in his field of expertise, he retains a youthful enthusiasm for his work. He is still working on inventions, still looking for challenges and still achieving remarkable results. He is one of Australia's genuine living treasures. I have known only too well what it is like to have a hearing problem because I too have one, so I commend the government for alleviating some of the difficulties that children have in accessing upgraded speech processors, and I urge the government and future governments to do more in this area.

Another budget measure that I welcome is the funding to be provided to assist users of insulin infusion pumps. Diabetes is a condition that afflicts many people. Last year I, in the company of other members, had the privilege of meeting children with diabetes here in Parliament House. We had lunch with them, and they were delightful companions. Their plight could not have been more appreciated by those of us who were at the lunch. Our hearts went out to them; they were very brave young people facing a difficult future, knowing that they were diabetic. So I am pleased that I was able to find some positive things in the budget—measures that will help children and their families—because most of the budget was unimpressive.

This government is the highest taxing government in the history of Australia. The government can wriggle and squirm and make accusations about Labor's spending when it was in government, but, when it comes to the truth, this government—the Howard government—is the highest taxing government that Australia has ever had. It can try to disguise itself as a generous government by giving a minority of taxpayers a tax cut, but this remains the highest taxing government in our history. Rather than respond to the real needs of Australians, the government has given a few crumbs to certain groups within the community. There is no big picture stuff here; there are just a few little bits and pieces without any coherency.

What we need—that is, what the people of Australia need—is an overall strategy with particular policies that will help advance Australia and be of real benefit to its people. Housing costs are high; mortgage payments take increasingly large chunks from the family income; telephone charges are increasing; medical costs are increasing; education costs are increasing—in fact, everything is costing more and more. Household debt is enormous for most people, and we have massive credit card debt in this country. This government puts forward a budget that does nothing to reflect that it is even aware of these problems, and the government has the effrontery to pretend that it has done a good job.

This is a tired government. It has run out of puff. There needs to be a fresh look at the economy and the government does not have the will or the ability, it seems, to do this. The government just thinks it can coast along, give a few little goodies to some but not all the electors, and all will be well when the election comes around. It is not good enough, and I trust the Australian people will see through the government's miserable attempts to buy off some of the voters and will show their contempt for the government at the next election. This is a government that has run out of ideas and enthusiasm. Indeed, when you look at this budget and the previous few, the government has obviously been content to do very little since it was re-elected in 2001. This small picture budget is a fitting epitaph for a dying government.

In the few minutes remaining to me, I will just look at some of the money that was appropriated for the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade and make a couple of comments about that department's maniac minister. The Minister for Foreign Affairs is the person who excels only after the Prime Minister himself in trying to develop his own little variations of wedge politics. A week or so ago, we saw on the Channel 9 news a great example of that. The foreign affairs minister and other people in the government leaked to Laurie Oakes a story that, just prior to the 2001 election, I visited Lebanon and—shock, horror—met with a terrorist, they said. They had a photograph of me on the news meeting with Sheikh Nasrallah, who is the secretary-general of Hezbollah. You had Minister Downer, who had obviously trawled through the department's files on my visit, saying how shocking this was for a senior member of the opposition—and you only ever get to be a senior member when they have something bad to say about you, otherwise you are a little-known backbencher. Shock, horror, I had—in their words—allegedly met with this terrorist.

Of course, what the Minister for Foreign Affairs did not tell Channel 9 news that he had found when he went trawling through the department's files was that, when I went to the Middle East in 2001—and I am thinking that maybe there is going to be another shock, horror story coming out of this as well—I visited Lebanon, Cyprus and Iran. I am expecting sooner or later to have another shock, horror story about me, saying that I must have met some bad person in Iran as well. The minister never mentioned that the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade organised the meetings that I had. When I went to Lebanon, I met the President, the Prime Minister, the foreign minister, the Speaker of the parliament, the Maronite patriarch, the Sunni mufti and a number of opposition politicians, including Danny Chamoun, whose father had been the President of Lebanon at one stage. I met people from the Right, the Centre and the Left. Of course, in the Lebanese parliament, Hezbollah is a major political party. You do not get a full picture of what is going on in Lebanon if you do not talk to all the players in the game. Meeting the secretary-general of Hezbollah was an important part of finding out the views of a whole range of political leaders in that country. But, as far as Minister Downer is concerned, I met with Hezbollah; therefore I visited Lebanon to meet with terrorists.

The amazing thing is that, when the government were looking at another piece of wedge politics that we had here recently, they decided that they wanted to proscribe Hezbollah. But how do you proscribe a political party that has a large following in the parliament of a country that we have diplomatic relations with? That would be like proscribing the old Communist Party of the Soviet Union or the Communist Party of China. They could not do that, so who did they proscribe? They proscribed a fictitious organisation—the Hezbollah external terrorist organisation. You cannot find them in the phone book. Nobody seems to know who they are, but the government said, `We're going to ban someone, so let's ban this organisation that no-one knows exists.' While you have the foreign minister bouncing around like a child and saying on television, `Shock, horror: McLeay met terrorist,' of course I did not. The person I met was the secretary-general of the Hezbollah political party. In 2001 Hezbollah was not a banned organisation, and at present Hezbollah is not a banned organisation. This fictitious organisation called the Hezbollah external terrorist organisation is a banned body, but Hezbollah itself is not. So you had this bizarre piece of wedge politics.

I have no doubt that I am going to see, probably in the next few weeks, some other shock, horror story from the foreign minister, because when I went to Iran I also met politicians there, and that is part of the axis of evil, if you listen to the foreign minister's interlocutors in the US. In Iran I met the Deputy Foreign Minister, a number of clerics and a very interesting group of people. I say to Australian politicians that, when you go to the Middle East, you should visit Iran, because Iran is a country that has a group of people in parliament who have far more courage than anyone in this place has. I talked to a number of young people who were elected at the previous election. When you looked at their CVs, you saw that for political reasons they had been in and out of jail. For example, they disagreed with the mullah, so they were shunted off to jail, and when they came out of jail they went back to parliament and stood for election again. A number of these people had gone to university here in Australia. Some of them had gone to Sydney university and some had gone to the ANU. These are people who enjoyed their time here in this country, had been educated at university in this country, and said that what they wanted was to have a genuine Islamic democracy—something that does not exist in the world at present. Interestingly, it is something that the Americans seem to think that they want to create in Iraq. All we get is tirades against the Iranians, and no doubt some bad things have happened in Iran.

The thing about the Middle East is that no one individual or group has the answer to what is going on in the Middle East. No-one does. It is only by talking to everyone, or to as many groups and individuals as you can, that you can get a fuller picture. I am reminded of a time in the past when I visited the Middle East and was talking to a politician who at one stage had been hunted by the British as a terrorist because he was involved in a bombing atrocity. Bombs seem to have been the weapon of choice in the Middle East going back for years. If he was convicted the British were going to jail him and probably hang him. Time had passed; when I met him he was a respected Likud member of the Israeli Knesset. I think in that there is a very interesting tale about what we should not be doing about the Middle East.

We should not see the Middle East through the prism of people who see the resolution to all the conflicts in the Middle East as being a crusade. When I was listening to an interview with Richard Armitage, an American foreign policy person whose views I have had a lot of respect for in the past, I was astounded to hear him talk about a crusade in the Middle East. That just shows the narrow view that he has. Someone who lived in the Middle East would remember the crusaders. The crusaders were the people who, in the Middle Ages, were going to take back Jerusalem for Christendom. They slaughtered hundreds of thousands of Muslims in doing that. For a Western country to talk about a crusade in the Middle East shows an incredible cultural insensitivity. This is coming from the fellow who is No. 2 in the US foreign policy hierarchy. He is the Deputy Secretary of State.

Instead of listening to the puerile outpourings of our Minister for Foreign Affairs and the wedge politics that people try to develop about the Middle East, and the sort of insanity that comes out of the Australian Jewish News and papers like that, we all ought to listen to all sides. Australian members of parliament should visit the Middle East. They should go and see all the political leaders there. People should not just go and visit Israel. They should go to Lebanon. They should go to Iran. They should go to the other countries in the region so that they can get a proper perspective, or at least a wider perspective, on what is going on in that part of the world. As far as Hezbollah is concerned, I think I will stick with the words of President Emile Lahoud of Lebanon, who is a Maronite Christian and a former commander of the Lebanese army. He said:

Hezbollah is a respected and legitimate part of the Lebanese people and government and is not a terrorist group.