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Thursday, 24 May 2001
Page: 24369

Senator COOK (Deputy Leader of the Opposition in the Senate) (7:30 PM) —Budgets are about choices. They are about a government's values and the priorities the government sets for them. You can tell everything about this government not so much by what is in these budget papers but by what is not. There is nothing in this budget to help ordinaryAustralian families. There is no relief from the GST for families facing financial hardship and nothing for small businesses badly hurt by this tax. There is nothing in health and education to attempt to repair our public hospital system or help our struggling poorer schools. There is little to help the jobless in the year that unemployment is expected to rise—in fact, this budget opens an even bigger divide between the rich and poor. And this budget proves that the government is determined to go ahead with the sale of Telstra against the wishes of Australians all around this country—it is right there in the budget papers.

This budget shows once again that the Howard government has stopped listening to people, that it is out of touch with what ordinary families want. You cannot blame people for thinking this budget is just a cynical exercise to try to buy votes from the elderly—from our older Australians who have been flattened by the GST. Soon most Australians watching this speech will be called on to vote in a federal election. We in the Labor Party are going to give people a real choice—a choice between a Labor government that wants to help people and that is on the side of Australian families, and an increasingly out of touch government interested only in trying to buy its way back into office. We will return to Australian values—decent standards in public hospitals, looking after our elderly in their need, making sure every Australian child gets a good education and maintaining living standards in the country as well as the cities. And, most importantly, we will look at ways to ensure a good future for our children in the knowledge nation.

There is no reason why this country cannot be a place that invents and produces the best products in the world. Yet there is nothing in this budget to help Australia build a strong future, to give our talented young people the best education and training so they will want to stay here and develop ideas to make this country prosper. Instead, this budget confirms what Australians have long known: whatever John Howard gives people he will take away with the GST in the blink of an eye. We all know that he has broken the promise that the GST would result in a simpler, fairer tax system. We all know that his claim—that Australian people and the national economy would be better off under the GST—was a fraud. And we can now see very clearly that the government is panicking. All the billions of dollars of backflips revealed in this budget are spent merely to try to shore up the government's vote.

Tonight I am going to lay out the choices between the two major parties in Australia very clearly. The most important promise I can make is this: the Labor Party in government will put jobs, health and education—wherever you live—right back at the top of the priority list. The greatest cause of this year's economic slide, as revealed in this budget, is the GST. People were told it would be good for their families, good for business and good for the overall economy. The Howard government has failed on all three counts, and Australians know this. The GST is the Howard government's answer to all Australia's challenges. But it is the wrong answer. The Labor Party is going to give you a very clear choice. The government believes in slugging everybody with this unfair GST. The Labor Party pledges to roll it back. The government believes in selling the rest of its stake in Australia's biggest company, Telstra. No government led by Kim Beazley will ever sell this great national company, Telstra, and that is a rock solid guarantee.

This government spends hundreds of millions a year on wasteful advertising and consultancies. Last year the federal government spent more on advertising than Toyota, McDonald's or Coca-Cola—in fact, it was Australia's number one advertiser. This government wasted more than $200 million on advertising for the GST alone. That is 20 times as much as it spent on the carer payment for those looking after profoundly disabled children. That is not right, and everybody knows it.

Tonight we are going to do something unusual in a budget reply speech. I am going to give some even more concrete examples of the stark choices at the next election. I am going to give you several fully costed, fully funded policies as an example of the choice facing Australians. But first let me say this: this is the biggest spending, biggest taxing government in Australian history and it has left a set of low surpluses in the years to come. At the same time, bad priorities have left serious holes in the services Australians value most: health and aged care, jobs and education. This combination of high spending and inadequate services poses a challenge both to this government and any incoming one.

Labor's response to this challenge is threefold: first and foremost, Labor is about reducing, not increasing, the burden of tax on Australian families.

Senator Gibbs —Why don't you shut up.

Senator Patterson —I won't shut up!

Senator Chris Evans —Never drink and come into the chamber; that's a rule.

Senator Patterson —Madam President, I rise on a point of order. I ask you to ask Senator Evans to withdraw what he said. He made an implication that I had been drinking. I find that offensive and I ask him to withdraw it.

The PRESIDENT —I did not hear the remark.

Senator Faulkner —Madam President, on the point of order: this is the most disgraceful abuse I have seen in my time in the Senate chamber. To interrupt the shadow minister representing the shadow treasurer in this chamber presenting the Leader of the Opposition's reply to the budget is an absolute and unprecedented disgrace, and Senator Patterson stands condemned for doing it.

The PRESIDENT —That is not relevant to the point of order. Senator Evans, if you did say something unparliamentary, it should be withdrawn.

Senator Chris Evans —Madam President, what I said across the chamber to those senators interjecting was: never drink and come into the chamber. I do not think that was unparliamentary. It is a bit of good advice. They ought to take it.

The PRESIDENT —It seems to be inappropriate language for the Senate. There should not be the interjections that were actually taking place at the time.

Senator COOK —I repeat: Labor's response to this challenge is threefold. First and foremost, Labor is about reducing, not increasing, the burden of tax on Australian families. That is what roll-back means. Families will benefit from GST roll-back, while Labor will not increase personal income tax rates. That is an absolute guarantee. Secondly, the Howard government's bad priorities clearly provide opportunities for cutting waste, extravagance and unfairness and investing in services that help all Australians. With our policy announcements tonight, we are giving a concrete demonstration of how this can be done. And most importantly, Labor's plans are not just quick fixes from one budget to the next. We have a long-term plan to make this nation a fairer and better place to live. This plan will be carried out at a pace and on a scale determined by what the budget can afford.

Labor already has a total of 70 policies publicly announced and available on our web site or through our members' offices—that is, 70 more than the Liberal and National parties. We have pledged to give the costings of all our policies—that is, what we will do and how we will pay for it—as soon as the government reveals the true state of the economy in the charter of budget honesty delivered during the election campaign. There will be no `non-core' promises from us. You will go to the polls knowing exactly what we will do, unlike the fraudulent behaviour of our opponents when they first ran for office.

Tonight I thought I would give you a clear insight, with more detail into how our policies match a Labor government's values. Tonight we announce that we will cut wasteful spending on advertising and consultancies by $195 million over three years in order to fund a national fight against cancer and to ensure all Australians can get medical help outside working hours. This government has given the richest category 1 private schools an extra $1 million a year. Tonight we announce that Labor will redirect these funds away from these wealthy schools to improve the quality of our government schools as well as the quality of teaching in the nation's classrooms.

This government wants to give a tax deduction to wealthy donors—to people who can afford to give big donations to political parties. Tonight we announce a plan that will use this money—$45 million over three years—to start rolling the GST back from charities that care for the most disadvantaged in our community. These are the sorts of priorities the government should have announced in this week's budget.

As I have said, the Howard government has spent huge and unprecedented amounts of public money on consultancies and government advertising. Spending on consultants amounted to a staggering $1 billion over the three years to 30 June 2000. In one year, the government spent $368 million, an increase of $119 million over the previous year. The advertising bill alone blew out to $210 million as the government tried desperately to convert people to its GST. We all know that the `Unchain my heart' GST ads were nothing more than political propaganda and should have been funded by the Liberal Party. Labor, in government, will reduce this spending on advertising and consultancies by at least $65 million per annum—a 15 per cent cut. And we will introduce strict guidelines to cut this blatant political advertising. This money will be used to tackle an area of health we want to make one of Labor's high priorities—the fight against cancer.

Each year, over 70,000 Australians are diagnosed with cancer. We all know someone who has struggled with, and survived, the disease and most of us know someone who has died from it. In our hearts we also know that no-one is immune. I want to help control cancer, and I want to make sure cancer patients receive the highest quality treatment.

Tonight I am announcing that Labor will commit $90 million over the next three years to mount a fight against cancer. We will also redesign the government's cervical cancer screening program and combine this with other unspent cancer money so that $149 million will be available over three years for the fight against cancer. We will build a new national cancer alliance to link our scientists with cancer specialists. We will create comprehensive cancer centres to improve treatment services. We will boost public health programs on tobacco and fund screening programs for other cancers.

Labor will rebuild Medicare and, unlike the government, public hospitals are our highest priority. Last August Mr Beazley announced Labor's Medicare After Hours policy that will fix the shortage of GP services at night and on weekends. This policy has two parts: after hours GP services working with local hospital emergency departments and a 24-hour medical advice line staffed by trained nurses under the supervision of doctors.

Tonight I am able to announce that Labor will spend $55 million over its first three years to establish the 24-hour medical phone service. When a parent is confronted with a medical emergency or is anxious about a child's health, they need immediate medical advice. Labor's 24-hour phone line will give them basic advice and direct callers to the best place to get more help. In this budget the government has tried to steal Labor's policy by announcing $43 million over the next four years to establish services that imitate Medicare After Hours. But it is a very weak imitation. It includes no 24-hour advice line and it is not a national program. Like much of what the Howard government has done, its attempt to copy Medicare After Hours is a case of too little, too late. A service like this is way overdue, and Labor will deliver it.

Our small population gives us a challenge and an opportunity. If we are to be the world's leaders in new industries and new developments in biotechnology, medical research, environmental management and IT, we need better education and training for more of our people. Our greatest assets are the 250,000 new children born every year. We have to give all of them the best education we can—all of them. But this government believes in giving a good start in life only to a chosen elite. The Howard government believes in giving millions of dollars extra per year to wealthy category 1 private schools, like the King's School and Geelong Grammar, that already have the best of everything. These schools, I might say, are attended by less than two per cent of Australians, but count about 60 per cent of this cabinet among their old boys and girls.

More broadly in education, since coming to office John Howard has cut spending on universities and R&D by $5 billion. And, for the first time in many years, university enrolments fell last year. In 1995-96 Commonwealth support for science and innovation was 0.75 per cent of GDP. In the coming year it is estimated to fall to 0.65 per cent of GDP. The research and development tax concession in Labor's last year of office was worth $800 million to industry. Next year it is only $470 million—so much for their much touted innovation statement.

There are no Australians more important than our teachers. There would be nobody watching tonight who could not recall their best teacher. A good teacher changes lives. Every parent knows that the best way to improve their child's chances of staying at school and going on to university is to make sure their children's teachers are experts in their subjects—and yet under the Howard government up to 40 per cent of junior secondary students are taught maths by a teacher without specialist training to teach that subject. Many rural and regional schools cannot even fill vacancies for maths and science teachers.

I am tonight announcing the funding for three initiatives to tackle these problems. Firstly, under Labor $100 million will be spent over three years to improve the classrooms, libraries and laboratories of our government schools—all the things that will bring back pride in the basic school system that has given us so many leaders in this country. Half of this money will come from the Commonwealth, and it will be matched by the states. Secondly, Labor will award 1,000 prestigious new scholarships each year to high achieving graduates who enter teaching, especially in the key disciplines of maths and science. These teacher excellence scholarships will pay the HECS debts of graduates for every year they remain in teaching. This measure will mean a new generation of committed and idealistic teachers in our classrooms. Thirdly, Labor will update the skills of Australia's existing teachers through a new program we call Teacher Development Partnerships, costing $50 million over three years. The Commonwealth will pay the course costs for 10,000 teachers to undertake refresher retraining, and will pay them $2,000 on completion of their training.

So this is the choice we offer the Australian people—million dollar increases for the wealthiest private schools or $100 million to improve government schools, 1,000 scholarships a year to recruit the best and brightest into teaching and professional development courses for 10,000 existing teachers.

Labor will also invest in university education and research to give regional Australians the skills to create their own destinies. We will provide an additional $10 million over three years to help regional universities and campuses meet the cost of communications, which they need to access the world of knowledge, and to provide quality distance education over the Internet. We will spend a further $15 million to create 400 new postgraduate research positions at regional campuses, increasing research on fisheries, agriculture, mining and tourism.

The Howard government has introduced legislation to increase the maximum tax deductibility threshold for donations to political parties from $100 to $1,500. In other words, the cap on the amount you can claim from the tax office for political donations has been lifted substantially, no doubt aimed at collecting more from groups like the HIH company. The government estimates this will cost a total of $45 million over three years. The legislation is currently before the Senate. We do not believe the taxpayer should be required to subsidise such donations. Labor opposes this legislation and in government will maintain the threshold at its current level of $100. And we will spend the $45 million instead in starting to roll back the GST on charities! When this government launched its GST, it promised to free the charities and catch the tax cheats. Now we know the truth. This Howard government has freed the tax cheats, and mugged the charities.

Let me give you an illustration of just how unfair this GST is. When a big company gets a million dollar electricity bill, it can claim back nearly 10 per cent of the bill from the tax office as a tax credit. But if a charity moves in to help a needy family in a crisis, and pays the family's overdue electricity bill, the charity is slugged a full 10 per cent in GST—and cannot claim back a cent. This is a clear double standard. Worse than that, it is just plain unfair. Well, that might be acceptable to the Prime Minister, but it is not acceptable to us. And Labor will start the process of rolling back this GST by helping Australian charities get on with the great work they do in our communities.

The government's GST has hit, and hit hard, Australian families, particularly those who are struggling to meet the increased pressures of work and family life, and the high cost of child care. It has severely hurt small business people trying to come to grips with the BAS forms, which have not been improved, in spite of all the government's promises. The GST has harmed businesses, cost jobs, and hurt the economy.

Remember who said in 1998, `The combination of higher growth and improved work incentives will deliver more jobs and lower unemployment'? It was the author of the budget papers, Treasurer Peter Costello. The budget itself shows how wrong these predictions were. They show `slower than expected growth' in the economy as a result of the GST. The budget says residential construction industries were particularly hard-hit. I quote:

The downturn in this sector had flow-on effects to other parts of the economy through its impact on employment, consumer spending and business sentiment.

Only last November Peter Costello said unemployment could go down to five per cent. `You could see a figure with a five in front of it,' he told the 7.30 Report. He now has to admit that unemployment will rise to at least seven per cent. By the end of its second term the government will only have been able to get unemployment down by around one percentage point, and the majority of new jobs are part-time.

This budget shows that John Howard and Peter Costello think the vote of the elderly people of this country is worth a mere $300. The Labor Party has a lot more respect for those who took us through the Depression and several wars, building the sinews of this country. They all know they were promised $1,000, not less than one-third of that. It always pays to check the fine print with this government. By no means all pensioners are getting the $300. Our offices, and I expect it is the same with those opposite, have been logging literally hundreds of calls a day from disability support pensioners in particular, and other pensioners, who have just discovered that they do not get a cent. Many of these people are struggling to pay for expensive medicines. Many were injured at work. They have simply been cut adrift by this government, which calculates it does not need their vote. Our offices are taking call after call from self-funded retirees between the ages of 55 and 65 who feel duped by the government. They thought the budget promised them tax relief and, in the end, there was not a bean. In fact, far from all self-funded retirees benefiting from the extra budget measures announced on Tuesday, about 350,000 will miss out.

I want to remind you of Treasurer Costello's budget speech on Tuesday night when he quoted from the first Commonwealth budget brought down by one of this country's Federation founders, George Turner. Mr Costello quoted Turner telling the parliament of Australia that `in the early stages of our career' it should avoid `extravagance'—and we agree that it should. But it says a lot about the values, the lack of imagination, of this government that the Treasurer skipped right over a far better quote from George Turner only a sentence or two earlier in his speech. That first Australian Treasurer said:

I feel that in dealing with the finances we all fully realize the great responsibility which rests upon our shoulders, and I am certain that, whatever our opinions on the fiscal question may be, we shall give each other credit for being animated by but one desire—to do that which is best for Australia, and fair, just and equitable for all states, and to all classes and sections of our community.

That is the missing part of the Treasurer's speech of 2001—a commitment to justice and fairness for all, for struggling Australian families, not just the people this government needs to get itself re-elected. At the next election—only months away at most—the people of this country will be faced with a very stark choice. They will have on offer a stale, five-year-old government that has stopped listening, and run out of ideas, a government whose only vision for Australia was to introduce a new tax, the botched, unfair, and badly administered GST.

The Labor Party has a stronger vision. We look to a future of greater prosperity for all Australians— those who live in the cities and those who choose the quieter roads. We want to create a future where the protection of our beautiful environment is an integral part of our growth and development as a nation. We want a future in which our people's health care is provided by virtue of citizenship, not of wealth. We will work for a future in which quality education is there for all, not just the privileged. We will work to make Australia one of the world's leading knowledge nations, harnessing the new age of communications for the benefit of all of our people.

These things will put bread and butter on our tables and ensure our people survive and prosper. But we need food for the soul as well. We need to be a unified nation, reconciled with this country's first inhabitants. We need to bring home our Constitution and make an Australian our head of state. These reflect the values Australians have discovered in themselves as they built this great nation over the past 100 years. And let me assure all of you tonight that these are the values that will inspire and govern Australia under a Beazley Labor government.