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Monday, 29 November 2004
Page: 118

Ms ROXON (7:53 PM) —It is very difficult not to respond to the last statement of the previous speaker, the honourable member for Barker, because it is one of the great disappointments of the re-election of the Howard government that there may be some policies that people are keen on, but if the government cannot deliver them in the areas where they are needed—my electorate, the electorate of Barker and others—these big-scale promises are not going to turn into anything much. This is instead of putting that money into a system that exists, and services our communities, but is underfunded. I do not want to be too distracted, because with this opportunity for the address-in-reply we obviously get to cover a range of issues.

I would like to focus on two things: firstly, some issues for my electorate of Gellibrand and, secondly, some important issues that are going to feature in the ongoing debate of the next three years about the way our government is structured and, in particular, my role as shadow Attorney-General. These are the sorts of things that will become increasingly important in holding the government to account in a range of areas.

I want to take this as my first opportunity to thank the people of Gellibrand for re-electing me for a third time. It is obviously a great honour for all of us to be elected. It shows great trust in us as representatives when communities re-elect us several times. It has been wonderful to listen to a number of first speeches today from new members on both sides of the House. They obviously feel the honour acutely when they rise to speak in this place for the first time. It is something that never leaves us, and it never should, because we have the responsibility of representing over 100,000 people each—it is about 120,000 in my electorate—who see us as their conduit to this national capital. The issues they are interested in and they care about which affect their lives can and must be raised here by us. It is an obligation and an honour that I take very seriously.

It is with some regret in making this speech that I note how strongly the community in Gellibrand endorsed Labor's policies at this election—in particular, I think, our direction on health and education was something that many people in the community could see offered them a great alternative to the system they are currently under and the pressures they are currently feeling. That we were not elected as a whole across the country is a great disappointment not just for us on this side of the House but also for those many people who voted for us and our policy agenda, who will not see it implemented and will not get the benefits of those policies, as would have happened in my electorate.

In particular, I am disappointed that we cannot deliver on some of the vital services that are much needed in Gellibrand, where we committed to better funding of our schools. I have lots of government schools and low-fee Catholic schools in my electorate, and one independent school with moderate fees. No school in my electorate would have been worse off under our policy, and many of the schools—probably with the exception of one—would have been far better off. Schools from Altona Meadows Primary School to the Maribyrnong Secondary College, to the Footscray City College and Williamstown High School are very good schools that really need some extra resources to be able to give the education of our kids in that area an extra edge.

I am pleased that the Minister for Education, Science and Training is here at the table—quite by chance—while I am delivering my speech, because he would be acutely aware that regions like mine in Melbourne need extra assistance. They need to be able to accommodate students who come from all different ethnic backgrounds, such as those from the very large refugee population who face challenges in English language when they start their schooling and many other challenges that make their lives a little more difficult than others. For example, we have relatively low levels of home Internet usage. These are the sorts of things that affect a student's day-to-day studying capacity but are not being dealt with by the government's funding policy for schools. The government is not putting extra resources into those schools that need it most. Those schools will continue to do a good job by our kids, but they will do it with one hand tied behind their backs through lack of funding that would have been offered if Labor had been elected at the federal election.

So that is a great disappointment. It is a disappointment that, because of the re-election of the Howard government, the extra $7 million of funding that would have gone to Victoria University will not. We will not have the better health and bulk-billing services that were promised. In particular, Labor was committed to ensuring that the western region of Melbourne had a rebateable MRI machine for our public health services. It is extraordinary that a section of Melbourne that probably has a third of the population does not within its whole reach have an MRI machine that someone can go to and claim a Medicare rebate for. It means that the people with the most money can pay up front to get those services, and those that cannot have to go on long waiting lists for other public facilities that are often difficult to get to. It is often frail and elderly patients who need these services, who have to travel across town to get them and who often risk some other damage to their health.

When an electorate like Gellibrand has voted for Labor at a ratio of about two to one, it is obviously my strong obligation and commitment, which I reaffirm here publicly today, to continue to fight for those issues—whether or not it is from opposition. There is an important role for us to play in highlighting the inadequacies of the government's policies, particularly for regions like mine, where we have an extra need for some intervention at the federal level and proper resources in areas where there is serious disadvantage.

I know that many in the House are familiar with the type of electorate I live in, but I want to put some statistics together. Thirty-six per cent of our population speaks a language other than English at home. We have a nearly 20 per cent—19.7 per cent—rate of youth unemployment and a 6.4 per cent general unemployment rate in western Melbourne. Everyone talks about how well the economy is going, but I think it is important to acknowledge that not everyone is yet benefiting from the economy going well and that we do have an obligation to make sure that everyone gets a fair share of the benefits that are flowing through to the rest of the community.

We have had a decline of about 10 per cent in bulk-billing rates in our electorate. Although compared to some other areas it is still relatively high, that is a great difference. A large number of families have local doctors who are now no longer bulk-billing them. We are seeing a growing number of complaints on that issue. The re-election of the Howard government does not mean that these issues and needs can be ignored and my job, obviously, is to make sure that they are not. We must ensure that the government will govern for everyone, and that includes the people in my electorate, many of whom are having a hard time.

My job also reaches to holding the government to its election promises, and one of those promises was made in my electorate. That was a promise made during the election that the Howard government if re-elected would put $8 million into the Western Bulldogs Football Club to help redevelop the famous Whitten Oval and to make sure that a range of community services could be delivered through that redeveloped facility. The people of the region, who are very passionate about their football and their football club—as am I—were delighted that Mr Howard, in making his first trip out into the west of Melbourne, decided to make this commitment to the club. But I must say that we are a little bit concerned that since the election there has been deafening silence on this commitment. The club has written to the government, requesting confirmation and seeking advice as to any other processes that now need to be gone through and asking which department is administering the money. I have written to the Prime Minister, trying to find out this information. We have had no response.

I am very concerned that after all the fanfare—and even people who were not in Victoria would have seen the coverage, which was saturation coverage on the night, of commitments being make to our football club—there has actually been no follow through yet. It has made a lot of people in our electorate nervous. I am hopeful that the government will quickly clarify its commitment, acknowledge the advantage it clearly got in the election in many areas and make sure that it holds to its word.

Having sat through question time today, I was obviously also concerned that when Mr Anderson, the Acting Prime Minister, was asked a range of questions about other regional projects he seemed to be suggesting that the election announcements that were made were only step 1 in the process and that the communities now should actually follow some other process as yet unknown to people. He seemed to be suggesting that the money that was promised under regional programs may not actually be there after all for these communities. I have no idea whether or not this commitment to the Western Bulldogs Football Club, in my electorate, is one of those projects. It is extraordinary, really, that a commitment could be made without knowing that. But I am fearful that commitments to projects like mine in the electorate of Gellibrand are going to be broken because the government has got the electoral advantage it was after and has no intention of following through on them.

I am here to tell the government that if they try to do that there will be a riot in the western suburbs of Melbourne. It will be on the front page of every local paper. Every local paper, all of the metropolitan papers and all of the TV stations that followed it will be chasing Mr Howard and Mr Anderson—the Prime Minister and the Acting Prime Minister—around, asking exactly what it was that they had committed to and if they were going to follow through now on the money or not. I am sure that the government intend to honour their commitment. I hope that they do. Like the Bulldogs, we will all be looking very closely at every line in the budget when we get to it next year, to ensure that the money is there for the projects that they committed to.

While I have been talking about pockets of social disadvantage in Gellibrand, I also want to acknowledge that there are areas of new homeowners and people with very large mortgages. In 2001, there were nearly 12,000 mortgage holders in Gellibrand and there are growing numbers of young families. Obviously, with this change and with lots of housing developments under way we are seeing that people with large debts have very real concerns. We must make sure that the government is held accountable on its promise to keep interest rates low. But we also need to investigate more generally the issues surrounding affordability of home ownership. There are also other pressures that grow when you have changing demographics, like the need for child care.

There are a number of other local issues that are going to come up in the next year that I will be following closely, particularly the situation of Tenix and the dockyards at Williamstown. They are still waiting for the government to decide what it is going to do about the future of shipbuilding in Australia. We still cannot get any guarantees that any tender process for shipbuilding will be fair and open. In my view, that would give Williamstown the best chance of proving that it is the place to build Defence ships in Australia, being the only place where the Anzac frigates had been built over the past 10 years. The sale of the Maribyrnong Defence site is something about which there have been negotiations between the Victorian government and the Commonwealth. We are still waiting for the Commonwealth to sign off on that. We also have growing pressures with our environment—for example, on the rivers, particularly the Maribyrnong River and Kororoit Creek and others, and also on our bay fronts in Williamstown and Altona. That will be something that I will be pursuing in this next term of opposition.

In the time that is remaining I want to talk about the issues in my portfolio, the shadow Attorney-General's portfolio. We have a special role in this area to ensure the integrity of our legal and civic institutions. It is always important to do that, but the government has won control of the Senate and therefore both houses of parliament at this election and so some of the scrutiny that previously occurred in the parliament will actually have to occur outside the parliament. This will show that the strength of our other institutions is very important. Their robustness will be tested.

We have had a lot of important inquiries in the Senate in the past six to eight years, from inquiries into poverty and children in care to others like cash for visas and the `children overboard' issue. They were important opportunities for allegations to be tested, for important social issues to be aired, for people to give their expertise to the parliament and for us to make recommendations on those issues. I think it is very important that the Senate does not lose that role but in terms of the accountability that the Senate has been able to require from the executive government we may be looking to other arms of government to do that in a different way.

I raise this because one of the things that we took to the last election was significant reform of the Freedom of Information Act. Those commitments are very important and we remain interested in implementing them, but I think we need to go much further than that. We need to look at how else the system should be reformed so that government decisions are transparent, so that the public are aware of all of the information at further elections, or when involved in public debate, and they know the information that should be publicly available—because governments are actually elected to do work on behalf of the public, not to operate as secret think tanks and not provide people with information and ideas that they may have gathered as a government.

I am a little bit fearful of a bill that has been introduced in the other place—because of the timing of the new parliament, it has been introduced in the Senate first rather than in the House—which contains reforms to the Administrative Appeals Tribunal. I raise this not to debate the detail of the bill, which will be done at another time, but to say that there are moves, as part of that amendment, to downgrade the role of the Administrative Appeals Tribunal and particularly the role of the president. I think this is of concern when you think about the types of matters that come before the Administrative Appeals Tribunal.

This is where people who have a dispute with the government most often take their complaints. If you have a dispute with the government over a social security issue, appeals from the Social Security Appeals Tribunal go to the Administrative Appeals Tribunal. It is the same for a dispute over a Veterans' Affairs matter, a workers compensation issue in Comcare, a child support dispute or a freedom of information request that is contested, and even for a number of issues in the immigration and citizenship area. So, if members of the general public who are involved in decisions made by governments have a problem, the place where they will most likely have to challenge the decision is the AAT.

I think it is worrying that, at the same time as we see the government gaining control of the Senate, we also see them seeking to have more control of institutions like the AAT by downgrading the role of the president—removing tenure from the president so that they are potentially politically vulnerable if the decisions they make are not favourable to the government. This is something that we will need to monitor very closely. I hope that discussions with the government might lead to some sensible developments in that area, which is why I do not want to go to the provisions of the bill in detail, but I would like to flag that it is something that we regard very seriously as an accountability matter.

We also think that we should have a discussion about a better process for judicial appointments and complaints against the judiciary. People will remember the extraordinary attacks on some of our judiciary by this government in its last term. I think it highlighted the fact that we have no process for quickly dispensing with malicious or vexatious complaints. At the same time, it must be acknowledged that we also have no process for dealing with serious complaints, and I think that is something that should be explored. Again, these are things that I see as strengthening the role of the judiciary, by making sure that each arm of government—government with a small `g'; the legislature, the executive and the judiciary—can operate to its full strength, free from the influence of the other arms of government.

We also have some questions on issues that have been much debated in the last couple of weeks about the appropriateness of government spending and decision making that relates to government funding. As allegations by the member for New England have been explored, we have found that a whole range of other funding commitments are starting to unravel before us. The issue of propriety in procedural justice and the processes that are used for allocating federal money are going to come under much closer scrutiny and indeed need to.

I also want to talk about a range of issues to do with access to justice. I have put this on the record before, so I will just give a very short version because I would like to concentrate on a couple of issues. The government have a very poor record on legal aid. They slashed enormous amounts of money from the budget in 1996, and we are only getting back to 1996 levels now, eight years later, but of course with some reductions because inflation was not taken into account.

At the same time we have seen a boom in spending on legal services for the government. We need to much more closely consider how we track the money that the government spends on legal services and whether we can divert some of that money from government expenditure, and use taxpayer money to fund those ordinary mums and dads who need assistance in the courts—not to make sure that the department always has four opinions on the same issue and pays Sydney rates for them. There is no excuse for that. It is extraordinary to us that the government does not know where a lot of its legal expenditure has gone. With modern technology, tracking systems and accounting processes, there is no excuse for that.

I wanted to flag some family law issues, but I think time will defeat me so I am just going to raise an issue about Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander legal services. The government has started the first stage of tendering out these services in WA and Victoria. Although there have been some improvements to the extremely damaging tender document that was released earlier in the year, there is still nothing in the tender document that allows the services to be paid for work in Aboriginal communities for the prevention of crime and for community education about legal issues; it is focused only on legal work, case by case. This means that Aboriginal people will lose a range of services that they currently have under the ATSILS program. I think it sets us back a long way if we deal with the problems only when they are already in court rather than in a preventative way, which would be preferable. (Time expired)