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Wednesday, 4 June 2008
Page: 4580

Ms GEORGE (12:36 PM) —I want to make some comments today about the overall budgetary framework and some of the particular appropriations that are contained in the Appropriation Bill (No. 1) 2008-2009 and cognate bills. It was just over six months ago that the Australian people decided to change the course of the nation by electing a Labor government—a government that the electorate understood was committed to tackling the long-term challenges facing Australia. We said in our election campaign that we were committed to building a modern Australia capable of meeting the challenges of the 21st century. In that regard, we drew constant attention to the fact that the former government had been asleep at the wheel on some very major challenges facing Australia—challenges related to the skills crisis, challenges related to global warming and challenges that related to a government that was really out of touch with the average family struggling under the weight of economic factors that were making it harder for them to reconcile their household budgets at a time of continually rising interest rates.

One thing I think is terrific about the budget is that we are implementing the commitments and promises we made. I think there was a growing cynicism in the community about governments that promised but did not deliver—and, of course, there is the history of core and non-core promises. So I take great pride in the fact that what we said to the nation is in fact what we are intent on delivering. That also goes for specific commitments that were made in the electorate of Throsby. I am very happy to be able to say to the people I represent, ‘We are a government that will do what we say we will do.’

We said that we would be responsible economic managers—in fact, I think the expression ‘fiscal conservatives’ was used on numerous occasions. That is reflected in the overall framework of the budget, which sets aside reasonably large surpluses, in the order of $22 billion, because we understand that, in our first budget, the major imperative is to take the pressure off the possibility of further interest rate rises. So the budget delivers a sensible economic strategy for the short term and the long term.

We said that as a party in government we would be committed to nation building and we would want to continue the fine traditions of Labor in power, which sees the future of the nation beyond the short-term electoral cycle. We have committed this surplus and future surpluses to three major funds. One fund, the Building Australia Fund, with a $20 billion allocation, will ensure that we have the capacity to pay for ongoing and much needed improvements to our roads, railways and ports and, very importantly, for communities like mine that do not have access to high-speed broadband—

A division having been called in the House of Representatives—

Sitting suspended from 12.40 pm to 12.53 pm

Ms GEORGE —As I was saying before the suspension, I am pleased that the commitments we made in the lead-up to the federal election have been rapidly and enthusiastically embraced by the Rudd Labor government. We are also a government which is planning for the long term. We have committed $20 billion to the Building Australia Fund to pay for ongoing improvements to roads, railways, ports and broadband. In my electorate, broadband is a major issue because so many of my communities lack access to ADSL and high-speed broadband connection. We have also invested $11 billion in the Education Investment Fund. Very importantly, we have made a $10 billion commitment to the health and hospital fund, which will be beneficial in the long term as we face the challenges of an ageing population, the costs of the introduction of new technologies, new medicines and new fields of endeavour and research.

So you can see that not only are we a government addressing the immediate issues but we are planning for the long term. In that regard, my community is very delighted that the Rudd Labor government is tackling the issue of global warming and the impact of dangerous climate change on our continent.

We are committed to building a modern, competitive Australia through a sustained focus on driving strong productivity growth. We see that in the substantial investment that we are making in addressing the skills shortage. Then there is our investment in schools. Next week we will hear more about our computers in schools program. I know the secondary schools in my electorate are very keenly waiting for the Trade Training Centres in Schools Program to come to fruition as well.

But the most important thing in the budget for the people I represent was the very substantial package to look after the interests of working families. Our Working Families Support Package will provide very significant assistance for the average income earner. Often in a family the father is at work full-time and the mum works part-time. This package will address a lot of the pressures that families are facing through increases in rent, petrol or grocery prices.

The former government kept telling us that working families had never been better off, but when you talk to the people in my electorate you hear very clearly about the daily struggles they have to try and make ends meet. In that regard, the tax cuts will be very welcome. We know that for a person on a single income of about $40,000 there is a tax cut of about $20.19 a week. For families on a single income of $80,000 the tax cut is around $21.15 and for families with a combined income of around $100,000 the tax cut is $31.73. In a typical family the father is the primary earner and the mum is usually working on a part-time basis. In that regard, the low-income tax offset will be of particular benefit.

I also want to make particular mention of the education tax refund—a very good innovation that comes with this budget. There is also the childcare tax rebate, which will rise to cover 50 per cent of out-of-pocket expenses. The Fuelwatch system will empower consumers to make informed choices about where they can get the best bargain without the daily fluctuations that we see and which we know are often inexplicable. We are looking into the issue of grocery prices through a comprehensive ACCC inquiry. And, of course, we are not forcing people into private health insurance by setting the levy surcharge at the low level that it was in the past. We are raising the threshold for a single person from $50,000 to $100,000 and for families to $150,000. It will be the case that many will want to retain private health coverage, but I think it also will put pressure on the private health insurance industry to come up with products and packages that speak for themselves in terms of the value that they provide.

As in other electorates, I have some concerns expressed by seniors, but I have assured them that the Prime Minister is very mindful of the financial pressures on seniors, pensioners, carers and people on the disability support pension. They have welcomed the fact that the Henry review will also be looking at the interrelationship between tax, welfare and our retirement income systems. This naturally will include a review of age pensions. That review is due to report in February 2009. We do not want pensioners to feel that their plight is being ignored; it is just that in six months time you cannot reverse the legacy of more than a decade of the former government. We do appreciate the contribution of pensioners and carers. We have increased payments to carers and people on the disability support pension, and I am very confident that we will see more good news in this regard in the months ahead.

In education, in addressing climate change and in improving our public hospital system, I think the government have understood the concerns of the electorate at large. In climate change, for example, we are making up for years and years of inaction and denial about the significant challenges that the economics of climate change as well as the environmental impacts will have on our nation. I know our ministers are working very hard to put together the framework of the emissions trading scheme and are looking at the equity issues that come with that.

In education, I am very delighted that we are investing substantially in the childcare and preschool area, that we are addressing the digital divide that occurs in many areas of secondary education and that we have made a substantial allocation to fixing capital works problems in our universities—and there is more to come, with our investment in the Education Investment Fund.

In conclusion, the budget has delivered on the commitments that the Prime Minister and ministers made nationally. It will deliver substantial benefits to people in my electorate, starting with the commitment to a GP superclinic to address the health workforce shortages that have been so obvious in that area for decades, with little or no attention from the former government. But we are also a party that believes in sensible economic management; we know that it is imperative to keep putting downward pressure on interest rates and inflation. We remember too that we have a particular responsibility to people who work very hard, be it in the paid workforce or in a voluntary capacity in the community. The community of my electorate is greatly relieved that one of the first acts of the Rudd Labor government was to abolish the iniquitous AWA stream, which as we know was having a marked impact on disposable income through the attacks on overtime, penalty and shift loadings.

We are still in uncertain economic times, and I do not think any of us can afford to underestimate the challenges that will face a reforming Labor government at the national level. But I certainly believe—and I think I speak on behalf of the people that raised their concerns through my office—that this budget will provide a strong foundation for assisting those who are doing it tough, working families and the people who have worked but are no longer in the paid workforce but still feel the impact of rising cost-of-living pressures. So we are doing what we can in the short term while at the same time making substantial investments in our nation’s future.