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Thursday, 12 May 2011
Page: 2515

Senator CAROL BROWN (TasmaniaDeputy Government Whip in the Senate) (17:30): Whilst those opposite have again chosen to launch attacks on the federal budget, on this side of the chamber we intend to pursue and achieve our plan to bring the budget back into the black, to get more Australians in jobs and to spread the opportunities of the mining boom to more Australians. We have imposed the strictest spending limits, delivering $22 billion in savings to make room for our key priorities, ensuring our country lives within its means. Australia emerged strongly from the global recession, creating hundreds of thousands of jobs while our peers shed millions of jobs. Our public debt is a tiny fraction of that carried by comparable countries, our fiscal position is the envy of the developed world and the investment boom is gathering pace.

On budget night, Mr Swan detailed a course that has us back in surplus in 2012-13—on track, on time and as promised. This budget is tough but it is fair and it helps those most in need in our community. It is responsible, it balances opportunities for all Australians and it gets the fundamental economics right. The budget delivers for Australians in health and education; it delivers for families, for our regions and for businesses. I note that in his contribution Senator Joyce talked about investment in regions. He forgot to say that one of the first actions of the Howard government when it came to power in 1996 was to abolish the Department of Regional Development. Senator Joyce obviously has a very selective memory.

We are, as promised, on track to build a stronger economy for all Australians whilst delivering more jobs and more opportunities. The reality is that, as we move from the challenges of the global financial crisis and the natural disasters into a resources boom and economic growth, we are cutting spending to make sure we are not adding to inflation and cost-of-living pressures in the years ahead. As far as reducing upward pressure on interest rates is concerned, let us be clear: interest rates are set by the independent Reserve Bank of Australia. Our job is to be fiscally responsible and return the budget to surplus—which is exactly what we are doing. This motion is just an attempt to undermine the government's responsible fiscal management and to block the savings that we are making to curb inflation and to reduce cost-of-living pressures in the years ahead.

What will Mr Abbott do to reduce upward pressure on interest rates and further pressure on household budgets? What is Mr Abbott's plan to cut spending? Where will he find savings? Let's face it: the fiscal incom­petence demonstrated in the last series of coalition costings does not paint a pretty picture of what we are likely to hear tonight in the Leader of the Opposition's budget reply speech. Last year, Mr Abbott failed in the budget reply—a failure that left an $11 billion black hole in the budget costings. He also failed in his response to the flood levy and the National Broadband Network. Whilst Mr Hockey claims that he can get the budget back into surplus in 2011-12, the fiscal ineptitude that has been shown in the coalition's earlier costings still haunts those opposite. Mr Abbott has failed time and again to produce a detailed plan on how he will deliver a surplus—a year earlier, no less. Given his track record and the scale of his fiscal mistakes to date, it is obvious Mr Abbott represents a $1.3 trillion risk to the Australian economy and to the budget. If Mr Abbott refuses to back the government's savings tonight, he risks the budget surplus, which would put pressure on interest rates and damage the economy.

The motion we are debating now should be about those opposite with their ceaseless attempts to wreck the government's budget and to try to add spending to the budget bottom line through their private members' bills. It is this ceaseless and ongoing commitment by those opposite to derail the budget which is putting upward pressure on interest rates and further pressure on household budgets.

This budget provides more opportunities to help more Australians to get ahead, no matter where they live. This budget will enable us to deliver more than half a million more jobs over the next couple of years, which builds on the 750,000 we have already created. To help deliver this jobs target, we are investing $3 billion over six years to help skill Australia's workforce as part of our Building Australia's Future Workforce plan. As part of this plan, we will be helping industries get the skilled workers they need to drive future productivity and increase growth. This plan will begin by appropriately training the workforce that Australian businesses require. To help achieve this, we have announced a $558 million National Workforce Development Fund, which will help deliver 130,000 new training places over four years. We will help industries and regions get the workers they need by committing $101 million for a national mentoring program to help 40,000 apprentices finish their apprenticeships. Apprentices will also be supported through the government's $100 million investment to deliver more flexible training models. They will allow apprentices to progress through their training as they acquire the skills they require, allowing them to gain their qualifications sooner.

We are also making an additional $1.7 billion investment in vocational education and training over five years. This builds upon our existing $7 billion investment and will help deliver our reforms to the vocational education and training system. We will do this through our national partnership with the state and territory governments, which will help make the VET system more transparent and productive. The budget will provide $143 million to deliver 30,000 additional places in the Language, Literacy and Numeracy Program to give people the basic skills which are essential for any job. In addition, for the first time we will allocate 16,000 skilled migrant places to the regions, also reducing skills shortages in regional Australia, through our regional migration agreements. The budget will also deliver major investments in health, particularly through our historic mental health reforms. This budget delivers $2.2 billion over five years for mental health. The government's package will provide more intensive support services and better coordination of those services for people with severe and persistent mental illness who have complex care needs. The package will target support to the areas and communities that need it most, such as Indigenous communities and socioeconomically disadvantaged areas that are underserviced by the current system. It will also help to detect potential mental health problems in the early years and support young people who struggle with mental illness.

We have heard Professor Patrick McGorry and Adjunct Associate Professor John Mendoza speak of the debilitating impact mental illness has on individuals, their families and communities. They have spoken particularly of their belief that the focus should be directed towards youth mental health services. I am pleased to say that this mental health package delivers targeted services across the board. As part of the mental health package, we will deliver $571 million over five years for more and better coordinated services for the severely mentally ill. This will include the expansion of successful mental health programs such as Support for Day to Day Living in the Community, and Personal Helpers and Mentors, PHaMs.

We have delivered $220 million to strengthen primary care and to better target services to those in need, including an expansion of the Access to Allied Psychological Services program. We will also deliver $491 million to boost services for children and young people. This will be used to expand mental health services for teenagers and young adults by providing more funding for the successful headspace centres and Early Psychosis Prevention and Intervention Centre programs. Our mental health package will deliver an extra 30 headspace centres, taking the number around Australia to 90. We will also provide extra funding to existing headspace centres to help them better service existing demand. When up and running, at full operation, the 90 centres will have the capacity to assist approximately 72,000 young people. The government will also provide funding and seek matching contributions from the states and territories to provide more early psychosis prevention and intervention centres.

The budget also contains provisions for providing $16.4 billion in extra growth funding for public hospitals as part of the new health deal signed between the states and territories. We will have a regional priority round of the Health and Hospitals Fund to deliver new investment in hospitals and health care for regional Australia. We are providing $717 million in new funding over five years to expand access to diagnostic imaging services by subsidising MRI scans through Medicare, particularly for those living in regional areas.

This budget reflects the government's commitment to empowering Australians through education and training. We are delivering over half a billion dollars in funding to improve schools and reward quality teaching. We are also delivering $200 million to support students with a disability.

This year's budget has new measures to help with cost-of-living pressures, with a renewed emphasis on low-income earners and families with kids at school. We have increased the family tax benefit part A for older teenagers by up to $4,208 a year—that is, around $161 a fortnight. The result of this is that families with a teenager will now be eligible for up to $4,000 more a year if their child stays in education or training. The education tax refund will be increased by $460 million to extend to school uniforms, which will be a great bonus for families. We are also providing payment advances of up to $1,000 for family tax benefit part A recipients at any time to ensure they can meet unexpected family expenses. These changes also give parents more flexibility in when they receive childcare support.

We will provide more tax assistance to 6.5 million Australian taxpayers on lower incomes. This will help encourage work and provide some modest help with cost-of-living pressures. The government will increase the low-income tax offset from 50 per cent to 70 per cent. This will put an extra bit in the weekly pay packet and, while the amount is modest, we know that every little bit helps. The increase to the low-income tax offset will mean that someone with an annual income of $30,000 will get an extra $300 during the year in their regular pay. It is also worth pointing out that, as part of our historic pension reforms which began in September 2009, maximum pension rates are no2 $128 per fortnight higher for singles and $116 per fortnight higher for couples. We have introduced these measures because we are committed to helping those most in need. As the Treasurer said on budget night:

We know too many Australians are squeezed by rising costs of living and we help where we responsibly can.

That is why we cut income taxes substantially in each of our first three budgets, so that an average income earner now pays around $1,000 a year less tax and why we have ensured pensions are now … higher for singles and higher for couples since … our historic boost two years ago.

We will see the benefit of unprecedented investment in regional Australia through our record $4.5 billion package for hospitals, health care, universities and roads. As the Minister for Infrastructure and Transport, the Hon. Anthony Albanese, has outlined, compared to the last full year of the former Howard government, 2006-07, we will be providing more than twice as much regional infrastructure funding. This package includes $1.8 billion for critical health infrastructure, $500 million for the regional priorities round of the Education Investment Fund, $916 million for projects under the Regional Infrastructure Fund and $1 billion through the Regional Development Australia Fund.

As well as the measures I have outlined in the budget that relieve the pressure on households, it is also worth noting the additional taxation benefits included in the budget that will flow to small businesses. The government will reduce pay-as-you-go instalments for 2011-12 for the majority of small businesses, providing a $700 million cash flow benefit. These measures will reduce the amount of tax payable or improve cash flow for up to 2.7 million small businesses. The investments in regional Australia will flow directly to my home state of Tasmania. For example, in Tasmania, up to 12,603 apprentices may benefit from the investments aimed at modernising the apprentice system. The long-term unem­ployed in Tasmania will benefit from new funding to assist training and work exper­ience. Over 19,000 local families and over 23,000 teenagers in Tasmania may be eligible for the extra $4,200 per child between 16 and 19 years of age under changes to the family tax benefit. Of course, there are benefits that will flow from the extension of the education tax refund to school uniforms. And this year Tasmania will benefit from $121 million in rail and road infrastructure as well as the additional $46.4 million to assist Tasmania's councils to maintain and upgrade their local roads. This is on top of the funding that will continue to make highways and roads safer.

As we know, Tasmania will benefit from new investments in health, mental health and dental care. We have the $240 million Royal Hobart Hospital redevelopment, a new medical centre in Cygnet and a new health precinct in Sheffield. We will also receive assistance to reduce community dental waiting lists. The University of Tasmania, as a regional university, will benefit from the EIF—the education infrastructure funding—increased regional loading payments and the Higher Education Participation and Partner­ship Program. This list is by no means exhaustive.

As I said in the beginning, this budget is responsible. It balances opportunities for all Australians and gets the fundamental economics right. That is because we, in the government, are making the investments we need, through the budget, to position Austr­alia to take full advantage of the mining boom. Australia's high terms of trade, strong growth outlook and tightened macroecon­omic policy settings have seen the Australian dollar appreciate to post-float highs. As the government has outlined in the budget papers, in the current macroeconomic context, the high exchange rate and the with­drawal of fiscal and monetary policy stim­ulus are helping to moderate inflationary pressures as the economy returns to full employment.

We have also delivered on our promise to set out a strict fiscal strategy through identifying significant savings so that we can fund new priorities whilst balancing the costs of the recent natural disasters and returning the budget to surplus. To that end, the government has also held growth in real spending to two per cent and has placed significant restraint on government expen­diture. With fiscally responsible policies and approaches such as these, it becomes obvious that the criticisms being levelled by those opposite lack a true depth of analysis and have no substance.

This afternoon, the Minister for Finance and Deregulation, Senator Wong, highligh­ted that Australia's position is amongst the best in the world in terms of net debt compared to other advanced economies. Australia's net debt is expected to peak at less than one-tenth that of major advanced economies, and the government is on track to bring the budget into the black in 2012-13. With that in mind, whilst others in the developed world seemed to envy the finan­cial position of Australia after the GFC, it is difficult for me to comprehend why those opposite cannot offer their support for the fiscally responsible approach this govern­ment has taken in this budget. This budget is tough, but it is fair and it helps those most in need in our community. It is responsible, it balances opportunity for all Australians and it gets the fundamental economics right.

During the Howard government's term in office, the only thing that they seemed intent on doing was stripping the rights and conditions off workers—and, of course, that was through Work Choices. What we saw during their Work Choices time was an attempt, through AWAs, to have workers forced to sign new AWAs. We saw many examples where they were asked to sign an agreement for the job they were doing for a lot less money. Those opposite who come in here with this ridiculous motion to suggest that this government is not being fiscally responsible and not having a mind to care for less fortunate Australians really need to look back on their record—because all Australian working families got during the Howard government years was Work Choices, lower wages, fewer entitlements and less job security. (Time expired)