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Wednesday, 4 June 2008
Page: 4553

Mr IRONS (10:00 AM) —I rise today to speak on the Appropriation Bill (No. 1) 2008-2009 and cognate bills. Three weeks ago the Rudd government delivered federal Labor’s first budget in 13 years. It was an opportunity for the Rudd government and federal Labor to finally prove they were the economic conservatives they claimed to be in the lead-up to the 2007 federal election. Instead, the Rudd government delivered a stereotypical Labor budget that was high taxing and high spending yet tried to win a few brownie points by playing on the politics of class envy. While campaigning for the votes of working Australians, the then opposition leader Kevin Rudd and his shadow cabinet toured the nation, bestowing various vacant promises upon each electorate visited. The expectations of Australians were raised; the nation was led to believe that, if they voted for Kevin Rudd and Labor, petrol prices would be reduced, inflation would be reduced and grocery prices would be reduced.

The 2008-09 federal budget does nothing to address these three mandates upon which the Rudd government was elected into office. Instead, six months into his term as Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd capitulated and announced at a press conference on 22 May 2008 that he has done all that he can to address the problems he promised to fix and that under federal Labor prices will continue to rise. Mr Rudd said:

We have done as much as we physically can to provide additional help to the family budget, recognising that the cost of everything is still going through the roof; cost of food, cost of petrol, cost of rents, cost of childcare.

The people in my electorate of Swan in Western Australia were among the many marginal electorates visited by the Rudd spin machine during last year’s campaign. Unfortunately, the people of Swan are also among the many Australian electorates left disappointed. Now that they have tricked their way into government, federal Labor have asserted that what the Australian people believed were promises were instead ‘top priorities’ and that apparently there is a difference between the two. I have since learnt that this difference is basically that if you prove the Rudd government mentioned ‘promise’ or ‘pledge’ in any of their press releases then you have a chance of receiving your funding. If not, then tough luck.

One of these ‘top priorities’ was a Medicare office in the suburb of Belmont, in the north of my electorate. The previous, Labor, member for the seat of Swan had pilloried the coalition government for at least six years due to the lack of a Medicare office in this area. With great fanfare and much publicity the ex-member, Mr Wilkie, and the then shadow minister for health, Nicola Roxon, made an announcement that a Medicare office in Belmont would be a ‘top priority for a Rudd government’. The people of Belmont and the surrounding suburbs welcomed this announcement, which was cleverly designed to give the impression it was a promise. The fact that this announcement was made only four days before the election date of 24 November shows that it was nothing more than a clever stunt to try to swindle votes from the people of Belmont. A media statement released by Nicola Roxon stated:

There are many frail and elderly people in the Belmont area who have difficulty getting to Perth, Midland or Canington to claim their Medicare rebates.

It went on to say:

Its terrific that Federal Labor is prepared to recognise the needs of the community.

It also states that the previous federal member for Swan had:

… been campaigning for a Medicare office in the area since 2000 when he presented a petition in Parliament signed by thousands of local residents calling for improved access to Medicare services.

Again, here are all these wonderful expectations just four days prior to election day. However, the Belmont Medicare spin did not stop with the election. In early May the local newspaper, the Southern Gazette, ran an article saying that a petition signed by 10,000 people at the local shopping centre, Belmont Forum, would be presented to parliament for due consideration. The local state Labor member for Victoria Park joined WA Senator Mark Bishop in supporting this petition because, as Senator Bishop stated:

Access to services is a key focus for the Rudd government.

With all the expectation and excitement surrounding all this spin, the first thing I checked when the budget came out was Budget Paper No. 2. I went straight to page 247 and looked under ‘Human services’. And guess what, Madam Deputy Speaker: I could not see anything about the suburb of Belmont in Western Australia listed anywhere under the Medicare section. I will tell you what was in the Medicare section: a commitment to fund a Medicare office in Emerald. Surprise, surprise—Emerald is in Queensland, the home state of our Prime Minister. To the people of Emerald, I say: good luck to you; I am sure the Medicare office you are going to get will serve your community well. But to the people of Swan in my electorate, and in particular to the frail and elderly that health minister Nicola Roxon was so concerned about four days prior to the election, all I can say is that unfortunately you have now learnt what the Rudd government is about: spin, spin and more spin. The Swan electorate has been forgotten by the Rudd government and it will happen again and again. However, the people of Australia are slowly catching on to the trickery of this government. I will continue to fight for a Medicare office in Belmont and ask that the Minister for Health and Ageing, Nicola Roxon, meet the expectations she gave to the people of Belmont for a Medicare office.

While I am on the issue of the elderly, I would also like to say that this budget has failed pensioners in Swan and across the nation, particularly single aged pensioners. The local member for Victoria Park was recently quoted in the Southern Gazette as saying, ‘Time and time again I hear stories of pensioners struggling to pay bills on the current pension rate.’ The Labor MLA prepared a petition in his office to present to the Rudd government, as even he believed the recent budget failed to provide pensioners with suitable remuneration. The Labor MLA went on to say, ‘The federal government is aware that pensioners are at subsistence level.’ He continued with, ‘I strongly believe that pensioners have worked hard for the benefit of the whole community and this should be recognised.’ Here we have a state Labor member who is confirming what we, the opposition, have been saying about the lack of support in this budget for the aged and pensioners.

Another blow to the seat of Swan was given in the Rudd government’s inaugural budget with the axing of the previous coalition government’s Regional Partnerships program. The Rudd government axed this program because, according to the Minister for Infrastructure, Transport, Regional Development and Local Government, Anthony Albanese, this program was a rort.

One of these so-called rorts is in my electorate of Swan. A local community organisation called Southcare received a grant of $273,350 from the coalition government under the Regional Partnerships program. Southcare is a community group that delivers programs which improve the quality of life for frail aged people, disabled youth and Indigenous people in need of assistance. The Regional Partnerships grant provided to Southcare by the previous coalition government was to help fit out a new building, purchase and install IT equipment, construct a garden store and undertake external works on their new building. As a side note, Lotterywest, who have given fantastic grants to people in Western Australia, must also be guilty of rorting in the eyes of this government, as they also provided $550,000 to Southcare to undertake this project. Unfortunately a couple of weeks ago Southcare was heartlessly informed via letter that the funding it had been allocated had been revoked under the new Rudd government.

It did not take the media or the public long to realise what this government had done. Newspapers and television programs like Channel 7’s Sunrise ran stories about local community organisations that had been thrown into financial difficulties by a callous government wielding its budget axe. Minister Albanese attempted to deflect attention from his terrible mistake by relentlessly claiming that Regional Partnerships was a coalition government rorting program. If he had looked more closely at each of these programs in the first place, he would have realised that they were mainly for non-profit organisations that provide services to the more vulnerable members of our community. If it had not been for the individual community groups, the opposition and the media fighting the scrapping of these Regional Partnerships programs, some invaluable programs such as those provided by Southcare would have been lost to communities across Australia. Thankfully, Minister Albanese has performed a backflip of enormous proportions and has had the common sense to reinstate 86 of the 116 programs he originally scrapped. Still, it remains that Minister Albanese failed in his duty of care and responsibility to properly scrutinise each of these programs before deciding to axe them and causing undue stress to local community groups. His actions were not what one would expect from a cabinet minister and the Commonwealth government. I dare say that Southcare and the many people in the Swan electorate who benefit from their services will welcome this turnaround. I myself welcome the turnaround and look forward to attending the opening day of the new Southcare building and facilities.

Another positive initiative of the previous coalition government which the Rudd government decided to scrap was the Investing in Our Schools Program. Again, the Rudd government used their catch phrase of ‘Howard government rort’ as their reasoning behind axing a program that has delivered benefits to local communities. Many schools in my electorate of Swan benefited greatly under this program, including Queens Park Primary School, Cloverdale Primary School, Kent Street Senior High School, Manning Primary School, Kewdale Primary School—and the list goes on.

The Investing in Our Schools Program provided schools with the opportunity to decide for themselves what it was that their school required, unlike the Rudd government’s uncosted education revolution, which tells the schools what they want. According to Rudd’s revolution, schools do not need new playgrounds to help boost the physical activity of students during lunchtime, they do not need an undercover area to protect our children from harmful UV rays and they do not need reverse cycle airconditioning systems to keep their students warm in winter and cool in summer. According to the Rudd government, what our schools need is computers—just computers. Computers were available under the Investing in Our Schools Program if the individual school community decided that that was what they needed. However, the ridiculousness does not end there. Not long ago we learned that schools not only are to be deprived of funding for necessary projects but also are to have hundreds of computers dumped on their doorsteps.

After getting into office, the Rudd government has now told us that it intends to share the cost of the education revolution with the unsuspecting state governments. We are told that the state governments will have to pay for the installation, maintenance and power costs of each computer. In Western Australia, the Carpenter government has said that it will not share these costs with the Commonwealth, and many other states have followed suit. This is yet another uncosted federal Labor election commitment that has come back to bite the government, and the costs are expected to be picked up by the community.

On another note, yesterday I heard the member for Fremantle speaking on the success of the FuelWatch program in Western Australia. The member lauded the program and stated that the Western Australian members of parliament supported it. I hate to rain on the member for Fremantle’s parade and the government’s apparent enthusiasm for the FuelWatch debacle, but I seriously doubt that this program has provided any major benefits to WA motorists. Any program that is anticompetitive and does not allow the natural pressures of the marketplace to occur is a program that defies the logic of a free trade market that the Rudd government claims to support.

This is a waste of $20.9 million over four years of taxpayers’ money. It is yet another spin program designed to give a warm, fuzzy feeling to the electorate to persuade them to believe the government is putting downward pressure on the price of petrol. But I ask: how can the price of petrol go down if outlets cannot reduce their pricing to compete in the marketplace? If an independent petrol outlet owner gets up on Monday morning and finds that the petrol of one of the large corporate outlets down the road is 10c a litre cheaper than his, he cannot adjust his prices to compete. The independent may as well shut the doors for the day and head home.

This same analogy applies to the proposed ‘grocery watch’ program, except that I am at a loss to understand how this program will actually list the prices of a basket of produce and also take into consideration the quality of the vegetables and fruit. Is the produce fresh? Is it one day old, a week old? Are the bananas yellow or black? How are they going to put this on the website? How are these variances going to be part of the ‘grocery watch’ program? This is yet another example of spin from a government more interested in selling the story than in actually providing anything of real substance to the Australian people by delivering on the expectations it created during the election.

Next we have the change by the Rudd government to the Medicare surcharge levy—another story of spin with no facts. Yesterday in Senate estimates, Treasury department officials confirmed: (1) the government’s modelling understated the impact on public hospitals of the policy change by failing to take into account the children and dependants of members expected to desert private health insurance; (2) Treasury were not asked to consider the impact on state public hospitals from the resulting increases in demand for public hospital services; and (3) the Commonwealth expects to save $300 million overall from the change but has not consulted the states or territories about the impact on them.

Senator Mathias Cormann said that the industry estimates that more than 700,000 people will leave private health insurance as a result of this change. That is clearly well above the Treasury’s own estimates of 484,000 people. The government used this figure from Treasury in its spin but obviously failed to check the figure and do the duty of care by actually getting the facts. Treasury conceded yesterday that they did not even conduct any modelling on the impact on public hospitals, as it was ‘not normal practice’ to assess secondary impacts of federal budget measures. Senator Cormann said, ‘So much for the commitment before the election to pursue a new cooperative federalism on health’. Any economic conservative running any business would know that if you make changes to your business or corporation you have to look at the secondary and even tertiary effects on the decisions you make and at how they impact on your business and all affiliated stakeholders. It is just good business practice.

In the electorate of Swan we have the Perth domestic and international airports. I checked for any funding for Swan with regard to the Australian Noise Exposure Index area around the airport. Unfortunately I again saw nothing in the budget. Hopefully the minister for this area, Mr Albanese, will be able to see past his own electorate and provide funding for noise insulation into the necessary areas as required. The Great Eastern Highway—which again had much fanfare with $225 million of funding committed during the campaign—has been forgotten, with a paltry sum provided in the budget to do a review. That is another review to add to the long list of them.

In summation, it is clear that the Rudd government has failed the Australian people in the 2008-09 budget. With this budget the chance to prove that this government was run by economic conservatives has gone. The chance to give the Australian public some proof that the country is in safe hands has gone. What Mr Rudd fails to understand is that you do not become an economic conservative overnight by calling yourself one. You have to actually be one, and this budget has clearly demonstrated that Mr Rudd is not an economic conservative. You cannot run any business, let alone a trillion-dollar economy, on ideology and spin. The economy has to be run on sound basic fiscal principles.

The more this budget is dissected the more holes appear in it. The Rudd government have failed to deliver on the pre-election promises to lower petrol prices and the cost of groceries. They have failed to keep their promises to individual electorates, including my electorate of Swan, and have only funded those election commitments which they are unable to escape from. It is clear that many of the Rudd government’s pre-election promises were uncosted and economically irresponsible. However, they were still promises made to the people of Australia and in failing to deliver on these promises Kevin Rudd and the Labor Party have failed the very people who voted them into government.

However, what remains is even worse. In order to provide for these campaign commitments the Rudd government appears to be attempting to acquire funds from projects for the more vulnerable members of our community, such as pensioners, who they believe are not strong enough to fight back. The scrapping of many coalition programs, such as the Investing in Our Schools Program and Regional Partnerships, just to create an image of doing something, is disgraceful. The Australian public deserve better.