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Monday, 25 May 2009
Page: 4091

Ms ANNETTE ELLIS (4:25 PM) —I have to just reflect, if I may. I remember very well a meataxe of a different flavour in 1996 hitting my community with such vengeance that it threw Canberra into a recession. I just want the previous speaker, the departing member for Fadden, to think about that.

Due to the global financial crisis, I find myself rising to give quite a different speech on the Appropriation Bill (No. 1) 2009-2010 and cognate bills to the corresponding speech that I delivered last year. Last year one of the government’s main concerns was to fight inflation, which at the time was at its highest domestic level for over 16 years. How quickly circumstances can change. We now find ourselves in the midst of the worst economic crisis that the world has seen in over 70 years. Because of the global financial crisis, the world economy is expected to contract by about 1½ per cent in 2009. Australia’s major trading partners are expected to contract by about two per cent. This is a worse outcome than even the Asian economic crisis. All of this is having a direct effect on the Australian economy. Our terms of trade are expected to fall by 13¼ per cent in 2009-10. This will take approximately $35 billion out of the economy. Nominal GDP will fall by 1½ per cent in the same financial year. This represents the biggest fall in nominal GDP in the postwar era.

Last year I said that I was pleased that the first Labor budget in over 11 years had started a new era of responsible, long-term economic management. I am pleased to say that the second Labor budget for this government continues this era, despite its critics, and albeit in a somewhat different manner. Last year, the main priority was inflation. Now it has turned to unemployment. Already the number of Australians looking for a job has increased by 175,000. The most recent unemployment statistics from the ABS show a small contraction in unemployment, and although this was very welcome news and gave the nation a glimmer of hope I fear and we fear that unemployment will rise over the next few years. Unemployment is predicted to rise to six per cent by June of this year, and in two years time after that, in June 2010, another 300,000 people are expected to be unemployed. It is estimated that unemployment will peak in 2011 at about 980,000. This is the highest figure since 1992.

As the Treasurer stated at the National Press Club the other day, this government has no higher priority than minimising unemployment and helping families hold on to their jobs and homes. The budget that this government has brought down this year will do a lot to ensure that the government delivers on this priority. However, a lot of this work has already been undertaken through the government’s quick and decisive action by way of the two economic stimulus packages and measures such as the government’s decision to guarantee Australian bank borrowing. Without this measure, our banks would not have been able to raise enough funds to lend to individuals, families and businesses both big and small. Without this measure, the Australian economy would have ground to a halt or come very close to it.

There have been many critics, including from the opposition, of the government’s decision to make urgent cash payments to many households. Without these payments, consumer spending would have suffered. I have been speaking to my local retailers—I am a great shopper, Mr Deputy Speaker, and I am out there talking to them all the time. They are emphatically telling me that their better than expected retail figures in recent months are a direct result, in their view, of those very cash payments.

It is worth remembering that approximately 1½ million people are employed in the retail sector in this country. Without these payments, many of those Australians who work in the retail sector would now find themselves out of work. The money that the government has already invested in schools and public housing means that about 35,000 building sites are springing up around the country, despite what the previous speaker was raving on about. In meetings I have had with the ACT government, including as early as this morning, I have been made aware of the speed at which these programs are being picked up. I am really very pleased that they are progressing quickly and efficiently and that they are proving very successful. Here in my town I want to commend the ACT government for working hand in hand with us at the federal level to see these programs come through quickly and efficiently.

The increase in the First Home Owner Grant has ensured that new building approvals are up and that the housing market has not gone into a slump. I would like to relate a story told to me by a constituent in my electorate who is currently looking at purchasing a home. He told me that he and his wife have gone to about 30 house inspections over the last few weekends. He claims that nearly every one of these inspections is akin to a very busy marketplace; homebuyer traffic at these inspections is pretty heavy. He also claims that, invariably, a property will be advertised on either Thursday or Friday and will probably be under offer by the following Monday. When this government was elected, one of the major issues facing Australian families was homeownership affordability. The government pledged to fix this problem. Therefore, one of the most pleasing aspects of the extension of the First Home Owner Grant is that it enables people to buy their own home who might never have had the chance to do so.

Another of the government’s earlier announcements that will not only help Australia through these tough times but also be a vital infrastructure investment for the nation is the government’s investment, together with the private sector, to build a super-fast national broadband network. About a month ago, I received an email from one of my constituents who lives in the Hermitage apartment block in Chifley, which is one of the older suburbs in the electorate of Canberra—it is basically central Canberra. The apartment block itself would be a bit over 20 years old, I think. The constituent reminded me that, in a speech I gave in the House in March 2008, I stated that people who lived in her apartment block were unable to access broadband—and that is true. She asked me if I could find out if this situation had changed in the meantime. My staff made inquiries to Telstra in regard to this matter. The reply that I received read, in part:

Unfortunately these units are a little too far from the exchange. Some services on the street are able to access ADSL, as the services fall just within the provisioning limits. Unfortunately ADSL is not available at the Hermitage, as transmission loss is too great.

I was rather shocked to find that this was still the case. What on earth have Telstra been doing, when a block of apartments in central Canberra is just a little bit too far away to access ADSL? For Heaven’s sake! Did it ever occur to Telstra to just run another line a little further down the street? However, I know that the National Broadband Network will eventually rectify this problem for both the residents of the Hermitage in Chifley and many other residents not only here in Canberra but around the country.

This year’s budget builds on the government’s prompt and decisive actions to combat the global financial crisis. A historic $22 billion investment in the nation’s infrastructure will be spent on building and improving ports, roads and rail. This will lay the foundations for a more prosperous future—and it actually points to the lack of activity in this region over the last decade or so. This is something that those opposite should think about. There will be $64 billion, over five years, for the public hospital system. That is an increase of $20 billion, or approximately 50 per cent, on the previous Australian healthcare agreements. That is very welcome, but it is also very necessary to give the public healthcare system a bit of a go after the previous government’s neglect of it. There will be an increase of $5.3 billion in investment in the higher education sector. The number of university places will be uncapped, providing incentives for kids from disadvantaged families. There will be increased funding for research and commercialisation and more money for capital projects. I note that the Vice-Chancellor of the Australian National University, Ian Chubb, has welcomed the government’s investment in higher education. He said, in part:

I am … delighted that the Government has accepted that research and innovation will be important elements in economic recovery and that now is a time to invest. I recognise that in these difficult economic times these multiple investments reflect well on the Government’s commitment and its confidence in Australia’s universities.

Professor Chubb has stated that the funding at the ANU will be spent on two new chemistry buildings, a new science teaching building and a combined sciences workshop.

The extension of the First Home Owner Grant for an extra six months, beginning with a phase-out period starting in October, is a welcome initiative for the construction and real estate industries. For small businesses, the tax break on eligible assets will be increased from 30 per cent to 50 per cent. For full rate single pensioners, including age pensioners, disability support pensioners, war widows, veterans’ income support pensioners and widow B pensioners, there will be an extra $32.49 per week, and there will be an extra $10.14 per week for combined couples receiving the corresponding pensions. There will be more assistance for carers, through a legislated carer supplement of $600 per year for carer payment recipients and an additional $600 per annum for carer allowance for each eligible person in their care. There will be an investment of $731 million, over five years, for the implementation of a paid parental leave scheme starting from 1 January 2011.

The measures in the budget which will specifically benefit Canberra include $60 million for a world-class brain research centre at the Eccles Institute in the John Curtin School of Medical Research, $90 million for the ANU chemical sciences hub and $29.7 million for the ACT Integrated Cancer Care Centre. This is a very important investment in health in Canberra and the surrounding region, and it is part of the overall redevelopment of the Canberra Hospital campus. The centre will be located in a new building adjacent to the newly redeveloped radiation oncology unit and will centralise all cancer related services into a single integrated centre. For members of the community who have had incidences of cancer in their family, whether it be a child or an adult, this is an enormous decision and I welcome it warmly.

There is also $11.3 million for Questacon, not only to improve its education facilities in Canberra but also to deliver an outreach program that will include exhibitions, in-school presentations and digital online programs to promote children’s interest in science around the country. There is $50 million committed to the building of a new supercomputer infrastructure to be based in Canberra.

As I said earlier, the government is determined to see Australia through the worst of the global financial crisis and it has acknowledged that it has had to take a number of unpopular but necessary steps to ensure that the deficit is kept under some control and that we can in fact put money where it is most badly needed in the community. Some of these less popular decisions include the means-testing of the private health rebate. This decision means a single person earning over $75,000 a year will only get a 20 per cent rebate; those earning over $90,000, a 10 per cent rebate; and those earning over $120,000 a year will not receive a rebate. The corresponding earning amounts for couples are, for a 20 per cent rebate, over $150,000; for a 10 per cent rebate, over $180,000; and no rebate for those earning over $240,000. It was a hard decision, but the individuals and families out there who are not in those income brackets do not lose that rebate. So let us just keep this in the context of a debate on fairness.

So, when the previous speaker says he is going to fight for his 74,000 constituents who pay private health insurance, I take it he means that all of them earn over $240,000 as a couple or $120,000 as an individual. Otherwise, he has not very clearly understood the arguments being put forward about the fair distribution of money in very tough times.

This decision will result in savings of $1.9 billion over the next five years. No wonder I am pleased to see a cancer centre come to Canberra as a result of those savings. Other decisions are a number of tax reforms, including the tightening of rules applying to non-commercial business losses and limiting the scope of tax exemption for foreign employment income.

One of the very pleasing aspects of this budget from my perspective is the very large investment in science, research and technology. The government has made a substantial commitment in areas such as the Education Investment Fund, Sustainable Research Excellence in Universities, postgraduate research and Super Science Fellowships. There are many more. However, one of the really standout investments in research is the $120 million that the government will provide to the CSIRO to construct a new marine research vessel to replace the ageing RV Southern Surveyor. The old vessel has become somewhat outdated, to put it mildly, and this new vessel will allow our scientists to progress our work at sea on climate change and variability, the development of resources located under the seabed and sustainable use of Australia’s biodiversity.

How do I best summarise this budget? I do so by looking at two contrasting parts. On the one hand, the opposition talk an awful lot about deficits, rates and borrowing. There is nothing wrong with talking about that; however, they do not give us any idea—and I have not heard one speaker yet do so—as to how they would solve the problems that the nation now faces. All they seem to want to do is talk about the economy in negative terms. They are forever talking the economy down, therefore, with a scare campaign about debt and deficit. Let us have that discussion, but let it be fair and balanced. What would they actually do? They need to tell the Australian people what their alternative plan is, but I have yet to hear it. On the other hand, on this side, the government not only talks about but also acts to address the nation’s challenges through spending in infrastructure, research and development, and innovation. In short, the government is more concerned about the future and is acting accordingly.

There is no doubt that some of our decisions around these subjects will not be popular with everybody, but there is a famous saying that you can please some of the people some of the time but not everybody all of the time. The government has had to make some really hard decisions in extraordinary circumstances. No-one can deny the circumstances in which we find ourselves. I am very pleased with the investment in the budget. The investment that we are seeing has a long-term life. It is going into education and health, things that stand the test of time, at a moment in our history when private funding is not around. The private sector is not able at this stage to come forward with that money. So what does the government do? It does its job. It comes forward and invests in the country and its people, and that is what this budget is doing.