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Thursday, 24 May 2007
Page: 130

Mr BARRESI (10:40 AM) —I am pleased once again to rise in this place and speak about a responsible and forward-looking coalition budget. Like the previous 10 budgets, it is responsible, delivers locally and builds nationally, so this morning I will be spending my time speaking again about the implications of this budget, not only at the national level but also at the community level in the electorate of Deakin.

The measures and priorities in this budget are an investment in Australia’s future. It is a dividend of years of hard work and tough decisions. The budget also comes at a time when we face many important challenges: the skilling of our workforce, climate change and infrastructure development. What we are looking at here is a period of unparalleled economic growth to secure economic prosperity well into the future, and this budget delivers in spades in those areas.

I am proud to have been part of major initiatives throughout this government’s term. On top of record investment into vital services such as health, education and the environment, this government has never sat on its laurels or lost sight of the need for ongoing reform in our economy. There has been vital tax reform, important structural changes to the health system and an emphasis on sustainability in preserving our precious water resources. Education is now set on a path of excellence, skilling future generations so they too can be part of a global village in the modern economy, and our ability to tackle climate change is moving forward in a positive and practical way.

The 2007 federal budget paints a clear picture of how far we have come as a nation in the past 10 years, and we need often to recall the last 10 years and just how far we have moved during this time, because there are many in the Australian community today who would not be aware of the dire circumstances this nation found itself in when we first came into power. In 1996, when the government was first elected, the focus was on dragging the economy out of the mire of the Keating era. All of us here remember those dark days very well and the $96 billion of government debt. I know a lot of people do not want these figures referred to, but we will. There was $96 billion of government debt, the $10 billion budget black hole, and, importantly and disgracefully, we saw unemployment sitting at over eight per cent, with many Australians unable to find employment and unable to have a wage which they could use to feed their families. This was a period in our nation’s history that required tough decisions to be made, decisions which would set the course for the longest and most stable period of economic expansion in our nation’s history.

What have we seen in the last 10 years? All government debt has now been paid back. Why is that important? If you pay back government debt—if you pay back debt of any kind—you have money that you can spend in other areas. In the case of the government, the interest savings alone of $8 billion can now be used in other vital—

Mr Cameron Thompson —Per year.

Mr BARRESI —Per year; that is right, member for Blair. So that is $8 billion a year in interest payments savings which can be used in other vital services. For the 10th successive year the budget is back in surplus to the tune of one per cent of our GDP—and this is at a time when the GDP itself, the size of the economic pie, has grown by over 50 per cent in the last 10 years. Unemployment has reached a 33-year low of 4.4 per cent—and we have done this without setting the political targets that were encouraged by the opposition. Rather than those sorts of stunts, we just got on with the job and we have seen the results that have taken place.

We have seen wages rise by over 19.2 per cent over the past 10 years. The number of small businesses—the confidence to set up a small business—is growing exponentially. These days the number of small business men, independent contractors and private entrepreneurs outstrips the number of union members. Only 15 per cent of the non-public sector workforce is now unionised. That reminds me to compare the 15 per cent of the non-public sector who are unionised with the 100 per cent of those who sit opposite the Treasury bench in this chamber who are unionised.

We also see 80 per cent of taxpayers now paying a maximum rate of 30c in the dollar in taxes. We see a budget that has delivered. We see a budget which has cut taxes and increased payments. If we recall budgets of the past, they were never ones of: ‘Will there be a tax cut? Will there be increased payments for pensioners or bonuses?’ They were always, ‘What is going to go up and by how much?’ We remember quite vividly the headlines where the government of the day was applauded for not raising taxes by as much as was anticipated rather than for talking about decreases.

These great achievements in the last 10 years point to one thing—that the enterprising spirit of Australia is alive and well and that individuals and families are looking to their financial future with more certainty and with greater opportunity. We have seen evidence of this in recent times when, according to an Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry survey, consumer and small business confidence reached an all-time high. This is not an accident. This really is businesses and consumers responding to the environment in which they now find themselves—an environment with low taxes, low interest rates and more flexibility which is responsive to their needs.

It is unfortunate to hear that the Australian Labor Party after 11 years in opposition continue to oppose, block and rubbish every government policy that has enabled these economic conditions to come about. Last week Labor leader, Kevin Rudd, said they were now economic conservatives. If this is the case, then why has opposition leader Mr Rudd and his colleagues blocked every major economic reform this government has introduced which has delivered our economic stability? This approach to our reforms has not changed and it continues today. The problem for opposition leader Mr Rudd is that, even if he truly believes he is an economic conservative, he has not behaved accordingly and, most importantly, the team behind him are definitely not economic conservatives. They are true to their beliefs, and we will see this coming forward in the next few months.

Heaven help the Australian nation if the Australian Labor Party get in, because the forces behind opposition leader Mr Rudd will certainly assert their authority. Who are those forces? We will see ex-union bosses Bill Shorten, Greg Combet, Douggie Cameron and Richard Miles being parachuted into safe ALP seats at the next election. The Labor Party now is more captive to its union boss than ever before. Why are these individuals and a whole lot of others coming? It is akin to that great slogan that was used by Don Chipp—‘To keep the bastards honest’. That is why they are coming—to make sure that their agenda, their policies and their ideology are pursued and there is no deviation by someone who calls himself an economic conservative. The pay-off for having this team in Canberra is a $100 million war chest to oppose the government’s workplace policies.

Labor’s policy inertia on the important issues facing our economy does not stop here. In the area of taxation, we see a blank sheet of paper instead of a real policy by those on the other side. The Australian Labor Party are now at the stage where they dare not mention the word ‘tax’ for fear of offending those aspirational voters they now wish to court. Yet the simple truth is, when it comes to the economy, the Labor Party just do not get it. On tax, Labor shadow Treasurer Wayne Swan has no policy and in a recent interview said the ALP would not present a tax policy before the election. I agree with the Treasurer’s comments on Alan Jones’s program last week that the member for Lilley’s, Wayne Swan’s, tax policy could only mean two things: that Labor think that the tax system is ideal as it is—pretty unlikely—or that they intend to get elected and change the tax system but do not want to tell the voters beforehand lest the voters do not like their plans. This policy is one which will not go unchallenged by those on this side. We will pursue them in this policy area right through to election time.

I did not come here today to simply talk about the opposition, although it is always quite fun.

Ms Hall —I thought that’s all you guys ever spoke about! That and the state governments.

Mr BARRESI —Members on the other side never come into the chamber and speak about us—of course they don’t! But there are a range of policies and initiatives in this budget that have benefited us as a nation and, importantly, there are a range of initiatives and services which benefit the community that I represent, in the eastern suburbs of Melbourne. I want to touch on some of those in the time that I have left. The Springvale Road level crossing project received a vital cash injection in this year’s budget of $25 million to investigate alternatives and alleviate the traffic congestion that gridlocks over 120,000 commuters a day. This level crossing is now ranked by the RACV as one of the top intersection black spots in all of Melbourne. Thanks to this funding boost, the local council now has the funds to begin a comprehensive study to investigate alternatives to fix this chronic bottleneck in Melbourne’s east.

Without this injection of funds, commuters and residents throughout a large corridor of the Deakin electorate would be left with nowhere to go, particularly after the state Labor government, awash with cash, did not deliver one cent to this project. This is a road that traditionally would fall under the jurisdiction of the state government, and yet the state government, despite pleas from my office—and even from some of Labor’s own state MPs, who have basically been told to shut up and keep quiet—has walked away from the motorists and the residents in the eastern suburbs and refused to fund this project. The state Labor government has deliberately neglected this road and the region. Why has it done this? A source close to the state government revealed to me that a deal had been done by Premier Bracks not to support grade separation for fear it will divert traffic from the new toll link. I call on the Bracks government to reveal the contractual agreement and refute this claim, and to support the federal government’s funding for this road. This funding is urgently needed and has been called upon by all of us in the eastern suburbs of Melbourne.

Another very welcome federal government budget measure that will benefit my community is the preservation of the Blackburn Lake Sanctuary, whereby $1.8 million has been set aside to help purchase a one-third stake in the allotment adjoining the lake, thereby preserving a vital space for the local community. This funding comes off the back of widespread public concern in this area about land and habitat preservation. I am pleased to say that, after representations that I made on behalf of the community, the federal government has agreed to this buyback plan and it is well on its way. It will mean that a vital slice of Blackburn’s environment will be set aside for the residents to enjoy for the years to come.

I will also take this opportunity, while I am at it, to mention that there has been some muttering that some of the stakeholders who initially proposed to buy back this land—the local council and the state government, but in this case I focus my attention on the council—may be trying to do a runner on the residents, to weasel their way out the back door and not fund the purchase of this land. Having fought so hard to get the funding and having made commitments, they may now be looking at possible loopholes to avoid the purchase. Certainly if they do so the residents, the ratepayers and the taxpayers in the Blackburn area will be very vengeful, and they will take out their displeasure on the council at the coming council election, in 2008.

I entered parliament determined to make a difference for my local community and for our nation, as most members of parliament do. I always saw education as one of the areas where opportunities can be made and skills enhanced to improve prospects for future generations. I particularly welcome initiatives in the area of technical education. With an Australian technical college located in my electorate of Deakin, at the site of the Ringwood Secondary College, I have seen firsthand how important it is that we skill up our youth to prepare them for the future. I am very proud of this particular college. It has been established after vigorous representations by me to get its forerunner on that site, the automotive and manufacturing technology skills centre, established. The college itself will be taking over that skills centre and we will have a comprehensive educational facility which will deliver vital trade skills.

These policies in the area of trade are important. I commend the Minister for Vocational and Further Education, Andrew Robb, for working closely with a coalition of education groups and industry to develop policies which cut to the heart of the matter and engender real change in this particular area. These are not policy announcements made on the back of an envelope that there will be trade schools in every school. I do not know where they are going to find the teachers and the tradesmen to go into those schools, and not simply the numbers but even just getting them out to the various locations. It is a wishy-washy statement with very little thought having gone into it.

Ms Hall interjecting

Mr BARRESI —In the time that I have left to speak in this debate—and I know that the honourable member for Shortland would not want me to be short of time, since she is someone I do get along with—I want to discuss a matter of great concern to my constituents, and that is the environment and everything associated with it, particularly the current debate on climate change. Thanks to the strong economic management which underscores this year’s budget, policy initiatives to address climate change can be made and, more importantly, can be funded. At the end of this month, the Prime Minister will be receiving the much anticipated emissions trading report by a task force involving industry. The report will determine if an emissions trading system needs to be established, what it would look like, whether targets can be or need to be set and, importantly—and in total contrast to the view of those on the other side—whether or not such targets can be sustained and what their consequences would be for the Australian economy and Australian industry.

I note that the recent international scientific panel on climate change report of 2 February predicted that if carbon dioxide concentrations in the atmosphere reach twice their pre-industrial levels, the global climate will probably warm by 3½ to eight degrees and that there is more than a one-in-10 chance of much greater warming. Whether or not this will actually occur is a source of much debate and conjecture in the community. I know that the forces on either side are lining up with their particular arguments. Personally, without going into the science of it and whether it is 3½ or eight degrees, I do not dispute that global warming is taking place and that action needs to be taken in order for us to leave a more sustainable environment for our children. I am hopeful that the $4.3 billion that has been allocated in this year’s budget will assist in paving the way for many more directions on tackling climate change and, in particular, addressing some of the recommendations that will come out of the report to the Prime Minister. A move towards an emissions trading system would encourage a reduction in CO emissions, and the system should be tailored to meet Australia’s unique economic and environmental conditions. Any agreed trading model should act as a positive force, rather than as a punitive force that hurts Australian industries and Australia’s international competitiveness, and one that addresses the issues of climate change.

I have very little time left to speak in this debate, so I simply say that without a stable, growing and prosperous economy none of these initiatives would be possible, but the economic situation in which we find ourselves has not happened by accident. It has happened because tough decisions were taken and carried through. I am immensely proud of this government’s achievements in the areas of economic management, education, health and the environment. This is a government that actually delivers on what it promises and it has an economic record that is unparalleled in our nation’s history. I certainly support the budget and all its measures.