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Thursday, 16 May 2013
Page: 2880


Senator MILNE (TasmaniaLeader of the Australian Greens) (20:05): The budget is the most value-laden of any document tabled in the parliament. It reflects the priorities for the nation and the future. The Treasurer said as much at the beginning of his budget speech on Tuesday. If you want to know what people and governments value, then follow how they raise and spend their money. The test of this budget is not the size of the deficit or how quickly Treasury forecasts a path back to surplus, but rather whether the decisions underpinning and outlined in the budget make Australia a greater nation at home and abroad. Whether it make us a more caring, happy and prosperous community; whether it looks after the precious places and plants and animals that we all love and the natural and built environment in which we grow food and in which we live; and whether it delivers all this in a fiscally-responsible way.

What is so disappointing about the budget is that it does not present a coherent vision of where the country needs to be in 10 years time or of how we face the challenges posed by an increasing global population in a rapidly warming world, the interdependence of economies and our own narrow economic base, as well as our overdependence on resource based industries and the fossil fuel intensive energy sector that drives them. We have hollowed out the manufacturing sector, we have failed to invest in education and we have stuck our heads and future in a hole in the ground. We have done so for decades and we are planning to keep on doing it.

What Australians needed was relief from the pressure they are feeling day to day in keeping a roof over their heads and food on the table; and they needed hope in relation to the anxiety they feel about the future when they hear of job losses, fees rising, farmers walking off the land and traffic congestion. They wanted to know that those pressures can be relieved. People wanted a vision, a glimpse even, of a future in which everyone can be healthy and flourish, with a great education and with job prospects in a dynamic, diversified economy. They wanted a visions of a future where they can live in a safe climate, in communities that are safe, sustainable and friendly; and can look forward to an old age supported by appropriate health and aged-care services.

The fact that this budget is a finance plan without a broad vision, and beset by confusion and contradictions, is what makes it fail as a budget. And Mr Abbott's alternative is worse: full of rhetoric but devoid of detail—the very 'magic pudding' against which Mr Hockey railed. While championing important and necessary reforms, such as DisabilityCare and Gonski education funding, the government cannot at the same time aspire to be a low-taxing government. We have a lower tax-to-GDP ratio than even under the Howard government. You cannot claim to be choosing a smarter Australia while cutting funding to research and development, universities and students, in order to fund schools. You cannot claim to be addressing climate change while stripping millions from renewable energy and continuing to shuffle billions of dollars into fossil fuel subsidies. And you cannot claim to be choosing a fairer Australia while condemning those who are unemployed to poverty. I noticed that is precisely what Mr Abbott said he would do, but even worse.

In contrast, the Australian Greens have a consistent vision shared by many Australians: we want the gap between rich and poor to be closing, not widening; we want a sustainable environment to future-proof our economy and quality of life; we want infrastructure spending that gives us clean, liveable cities; we want farmers to stay on the land; and we want investment in research and development, and education and innovation to give us the low-carbon economy we need to meet the challenge of global warming. We recognise revenue must be raised and we want it to come from those who can afford it—mining corporations making billions of dollars from resources the people own, and major banks already making record profits. We want Australians to keep their generosity of spirit in the community both here and abroad, and for Australia to be a respected global citizen. Yet, despite continuing growth, low unemployment and inflation under control, millions of Australians feel uncertain about the future, uncomfortable and under pressure.

The question is: what is the government doing in this budget to relieve that pressure? Labor is not doing enough, and we know from Mr Abbott's speech tonight that a coalition government will make it even worse. The opposition leader gave us no confidence that he will place people over short-term economic outcomes. He says we need a competent, trustworthy, adult government, but, as one wag said today, 'He's right, but where will we find one?' Certainly not with Whyalla-wiped-off-the-map, Gladstone-ghost-town Mr Abbott—an alternative prime minister who said in his book, Battlelines, that the role of other ministers is to pick holes in your argument wherever possible so he tried to avoid taking things to cabinet. It sounds very much like Direct Action.

He says he will be 'honest' and 'competent', but he is facing at least a $70 billion black hole now gaping even further from his scrapping the carbon price but keeping the compensation and tax cuts. How on earth is he going to keep an $18,200 tax-free threshold plus all other compensation and pay the polluters as well? This is going back to the Costello handout era of corporate welfare on steroids. We are going to see, according to Mr Abbott, a company tax cut as well. What happened to Mr Hockey's end to the age of entitlement? This is dishonest and incompetent, and it will be no surprise when it is not funded. Without raising more revenue from more taxes, we will see bigger and more extreme cuts to services, thousands of public servants out of jobs, polluters being paid and even less support for those in need from Mr Abbott and the coalition.

Let us test the claim of a stronger economy that was made by the government in the budget. Not so. Instead, we have the absolute failure of the minerals resource rent tax to raise any significant revenue—only $200 million in its first year. This is an embarrassment for Labor, who championed the tax to 'spread the benefits of the boom'. Well, $200 million does not go very far. If Labor had the backbone to stand up to the big mining corporations, it would not need to slash funding to universities or push single parents into poverty. As John Falzon from St Vincent de Paul has said:

… this Budget is less Robin Hood and more Sheriff of Nottingham.

No wonder Tony Abbott intends to support the government's cuts. Let me address the attempts by the Treasurer to explain away the failure of his mining tax. He points to the drop in commodity prices, and it is true: commodity prices have come off their record highs, but they are still at historically high levels. It is true that the resource rent taxes are on profits, but can the Treasurer explain how Rio Tinto, which made a $9 billion profit from iron ore last year, paid no mining tax? Is the Labor Party really suggesting that a $9 billion profit is not enough to be taxed?

The reality is that the mining tax has fundamental design flaws as a result of BHP, Rio and Xstrata running rings around the Treasurer and the willingness of the Prime Minister to cut a political deal at the expense of the community. Labor has shown in this budget its lack of courage, as has Mr Abbott in his budget reply.

Unlike Labor and the Coalition, the Greens are not afraid to stand up to the big mining corporations in the interests of the Australian people. If the government had the courage to close the loopholes in the mining tax, like they are looking do to for other multinational business arrangements, this could be a nation that invests in education as a whole—rather than cutting from universities and child care to fund schools.

What about a smarter nation? Education is central to our vision for Australia. The Greens will give children better education from early childhood through school and onto university and TAFE. The government is right to highlight the need for a smarter Australia but a nation does not become smarter by cutting funding to universities and research. Indeed, this is a dumb choice. We are risking competitiveness in the global economy as well as our capacity to respond to global challenges by raising money from the poorest students and our universities. Our universities have been vocal about the effects of these cuts on the quality of the education they can provide, and according to a poll by Universities Australia over 50 per cent of Australians oppose cutting university funding to pay for schools.

Australian students are already under pressure, with more than 80 per cent of full-time undergraduates working as well as studying. The changes to the Start-up scholarships will place even greater debt burdens on Australia's poorest students. It is a measure that is contrary to the ideal of opportunity for all in education and it is likely to see a reduction of enrolments from those who are most disadvantaged. That is dumb and mean and the Australian Greens will move to block the cuts to universities and students.

The challenge for the coalition is whether they will work with the Greens to protect our universities—in particular our regional universities, who will be hit very hard by these cuts—and ensure greater opportunities for students, or whether they will continue this harsh agenda. According to the Leader of the Opposition tonight, they will continue the harsh agenda. As he said, he will back all of Labor's cuts if he happens to get into government.

For all the talk of creating a smarter Australia, this budget, on top of cuts to research and development last year, turns its back on some of the most exciting, innovative projects that are happening in this country and that are in dire need of support before their funding runs out within a year. The Bionics Institute, whose teams have played a key role in the successful development of Australia's world leading bionic ear over the past 25 years, has a plan to develop six new devices in the next five years to treat chronic pain and movement and psychiatric disorders. The potential health benefits and market size are bigger than for Cochlear's bionic ear. They need only $24 million over five years to keep going, yet despite requests there is nothing for them in the budget.

Meanwhile Bionic Vision Australia, a world leading national consortium of researchers working together to develop a bionic eye, is currently using advanced manufacturing techniques to make in Australia prototypes that right now are being tested in patients. They need a mere $8 million a year for the next three years to keep going—but the budget turns its back on them. Without secure funding past this year, researchers will pack up and look to other countries that can offer greater support and we may lose this work forever—just as we have with so many climate scientists and technologies.

News today that CSIRO scientists have developed flexible solar panels that can be printed at home is great, but cutting 165 jobs from that very institution, the CSIRO, is dumb. These are the industries of the future, where Australia's advanced manufacturing techniques and our incredible intellectual capacity work together. If we can sell the world a bionic eye or an implant that relieves pain, it will be far better than shipping off coal or woodchips.

The Australian economy is in transition. We must move away from dig it up, cut it down, ship it away. We can prepare for the new economy or be caught out. The old parties seem more than content to leave us to be caught out by the changing global situation and the carbon bubble that will see huge coal projects and ports stranded as black elephants. Cutting more than $1 billion from renewable energy, energy efficiency and the environment is not smart or strong and it is further evidence that Labor cannot be trusted on the environment.

Let us be clear: we are in a climate change emergency. Last week climate scientists reported that, for the first time, atmospheric CO2 concentration figures exceeded 400 parts per million, moving us perilously close to runaway climate change. In that context the government have to answer two fundamental questions in the budget.

First, why do they believe that the measures to reduce greenhouse gas emissions should be revenue neutral? The government asserts that receipts from the sale of emission permits should equal expenditure on assistance measures and programs to promote energy efficiency and renewable energy. But why? Given that we are in a climate emergency and deep and sustained emission cuts are a scientific imperative, why should expenditure on climate related programs be revenue neutral? It is like saying that defence should be revenue neutral in a war.

Second, the government said the funding to climate related programs needed to be cut because of the lower carbon pricing when trading starts. But the trading period does not start until 2015-16, so why is the government cutting almost $400 million from the essential Australian Renewable Energy Agency, the effective Low Carbon Communities program and the critical Biodiversity Fund during this two-year period? Not only is this a breach of the Multi-Party Climate Change Committee agreement; it is denying Australians cheaper electricity prices through investments in renewable energy.

The opposition is not serious about climate change either and, contrary to his promises about a secure and safe Australia, Mr Abbott is mortgaging our children's future. His Direct Action plan still has not won support from a single Australian economist or industry group. Perhaps Mr Abbott, who wants to be seen as honest, trustworthy and competent, can give a straight answer to the question of the dollars that are going to go into the carbon fund and a yes or no answer as to whether he will maintain the 41,000 gigawatt hour target for the large-scale RET.

The budget is further evidence that the Labor government is internally conflicted about climate change and cannot be trusted to protect the environment. The rush for coal seam gas and the exporting of more and more coal is killing the Great Barrier Reef and destroying valuable farmland and groundwater systems, and Labor and the coalition are standing by and letting this destruction happen. Not one coal seam gas project has been rejected by Minister Burke—not smart or strong; that is dumb, weak and dangerous.

So is Mr Abbott's proposed one-stop shop for environmental approvals. Mr Abbott will stand by and let the Queensland government turn cattle into national parks and allow them to graze those national parks at the same time as he stands by and allows the Queensland government to overturn national parks for logging. Today we had an Abbott opposition talking about agreeing to logging in World Heritage areas.

Despite taking the chair of the G20 next year, Australia is failing to live up to the commitment given at the G20 to end fossil fuel subsidies. While we welcome the cuts to carbon capture and storage programs—which was always a nonsense and a waste of money—the government will continue to provide billions in tax breaks for big mining corporations, while pushing single parents onto Newstart. While shaving the subsidy for mining exploration, the government's ongoing financial support to the big miners is bad for the climate and a diversion of taxpayer funds which could go into creating a more caring society. These are the choices and priorities of Labor and they are backed by the opposition.

And what about fairer? The Greens have a vision not of closing the gap not only on ecological sustainability but also between rich and poor—and that gap has been widening. We support a universal health system that includes caring for our teeth and growing more secure jobs throughout our economy. DisabiltyCare is a significant reform towards a better and more equal society. We Greens are proud to have backed it from the beginning and to have supported it through the parliament. We congratulate the Gillard government for delivering.

Achieving a more equitable schools funding model is another important step for a fairer society. The Australian Greens are right behind the Gonski school funding reforms. We have been advocating a fairer funding model for schools for over a decade and we want it legislated before we rise for the election. The test will be whether the government's proposals live up to the expectations of the Gonksi review for an equitable funding system. Australians have reason to be sceptical, given the very modest funding available in the next four years. For a Prime Minister who proclaims education to be the reason she entered parliament, she is selling the school children of Australia short with only $473 million next year. More money should be flowing to our public schools—the schools that educate our most disadvantage kids—and it should be flowing faster. The longer we wait the more kids we are selling short.

The coalition is all at sea on this issue, but to be perfectly clear—and from his speech tonight—Mr Abbott has said he will not proceed without additional funding unless all the states sign up. At this point many have not done so. The Greens will protect a fairer and more equitable funding model against a coalition government intent on letting our public schools down. We will stand in the Senate and in the House of Representatives against any repeal.

In contrast to schools, the budget actually cuts funding to child care. It keeps in place the freeze on indexation on the childcare benefit rebate, leading to increased pressure on families struggling with the cost of living. When we know fees are increasing and the childcare sector desperately needs help to provide quality and flexible care for busy families, this is neither smart nor fair. The biggest disappointment for many Australians who are really struggling is the failure of the government to increase the rate of Newstart and youth allowance, and its continued punishment of single parents. The paltry increase of $19 a week to the allowable income of Newstart recipients, including single parents, puts a lie to Labor's claims of 'a fairer society'. It is an insult to those who are struggling to make ends meet.

More than that, the decision to abolish the baby bonus by incorporating some of it into family tax benefit A will further hurt low-income families. While the Greens support, in principle, reform of the baby bonus, we want to ensure the poorest in our community are not hit harder by these changes. It is disappointing that once again the opposition have joined with Labor to remove benefits from those most in need. Mr Abbott went even further in his speech tonight. Not only is he going to cut Newstart even further but also he is going to delay the superannuation guarantee and take away the low-income tax rebate, at the same time letting the big miners off.

The failure of the Gillard government to increase Newstart payments by $50 a week, an increase supported by both business and the community sector, will lead to more people falling deeper into poverty. It is even more disappointing that the government has decided not to act, despite the other place today voting to support a Greens motion noting that Newstart is too low. This was the choice the government made—uncaring and mean, like its race with the coalition to the bottom on who can be crueller to asylum seekers fleeing horrors in their own lands.

Lord Stern commented this week that with global warming the challenge of food security will see displacement of millions. In such a global context, Australia cannot continue its appalling treatment of refugees. It was disgraceful to hear the Leader of the Opposition say that he is going to rescind the increased humanitarian intake.

The cruel government and coalition policies are costing billions—nearly $10 billion from 2012 to the end of the forward estimates—and are undermining our international reputation; but more than that, it is just deliberately cruel policy. They are spending almost twice as much on cruel detention polices than on DisabiltyCare and Gonski combined over the forward estimates. What does that say about a fairer society? We also learned in the budget that the government is looking to revise Australia's refugee assessment processes to find new ways to punish refugees and shut people out from safety. This is the government now wanting to wind back humanitarian protections, to deport more refugees back to the countries they have fled from. It is not the policy of a nation that cares for people or seeks to play a leadership role in the Asian Century.

Adding insult to injury, we are now allocating overseas aid money to our cruel and inhumane refugee detention policies, in contradiction to the government's own scope of legitimate aid document, making us the third biggest recipient of our own overseas aid—not fair, not smart; plain dumb and mean. As well as demonstrating its lack of compassion here in Australia in the last two years the government has cut $4.8 billion to overseas aid over the forward estimates. Australia is in the right place at the right time for the very first time in our history. Not only are we hosting the G20 next year but also we have been elected to the United Nations Security Council. But we are in danger of being perceived as uncaring by the rest of the world and on the international stage of making promises, only then to break them. It should concern all Australians that, while campaigning for a seat on the Security Council, Australia promised to meet our aid target of 0.5 in the time frame agreed, and now we have reneged twice. What sort of country are we looking like?

Population pressures exist not only overseas but also here at home. Some of the real pressures Australians are feeling come from living in cities with inadequate infrastructure. We welcome the commitment to rail projects, in particular the Metro rail and Perth rail projects, but are disappointed no funds were there for Hobart's light rail. And we are concerned about the apparent embrace by Labor of the failed public-private partnership model.

It is also disappointing that much of the good planning work on boosting public transport and active travel to create more sustainable and liveable cities has not been converted into action—70 per cent of funding is still flowing to road projects. Investing in public transport and rail will relieve pressure on people in our cities, but the old parties retain their obsession with roads. The coalition's speech tonight was a classic in this regard—more highways everywhere.

The government also failed to acknowledge the national housing crisis. The Labor Party and the Liberals have turned their back on millions of Australians struggling with unaffordable housing. Housing pressure is enormous here, yet the budget essentially ignored it, with no new programs for housing affordability, no new money to tackle homelessness, no boost in public housing, no plans for more affordable rentals or more affordable ownership and no mention of the word 'housing' at all in the budget speech. So much for 'fairer'.

Quality of life is further enhanced by the arts and we welcome the fact that the national cultural policy is now to be enacted and we welcome the restructuring of the Australia Council. The Greens have been campaigning for a long time for increased resources to the ABC and SBS and are happy to have delivered a $129 million boost to the ABC and an increase of $30 million for SBS. However, the failure to find a measly $1.4 million for community radio is a disgrace. The Greens will continue to do what we can to ensure additional support for community radio.

Furthermore, regional arts have been ignored. In fact, the whole of regional Australia does not seem to exist for the Labor Party. Rural and regional Australia, which is facing very significant challenges, has been let down by the slashing of Caring for our Country and the Biodiversity Fund—and taking $2 billion away from the Regional Infrastructure Fund will not make for a stronger economy or a fairer Australia.

A stronger society is not just about money but also about how we relate to each other. The Greens are going to continue to boost that dividend of decency in Australia by pursuing marriage equality and banning sports gambling advertising before nine o'clock.

The Treasurer is reported to have yesterday placed Labor between the austerity freaks on the one hand and the Green types on the other. The Green types, according to him, want the bottom to fall out of the budget. Last year it was the Treasurer who was the austerity freak, insistent on a budget surplus this year, and it was the Greens showing economic maturity and responsibility in calling for a delay in the surplus. And it is now we, the Green types, who—far from wanting the bottom to fall out of the budget—have been identifying revenue measures, including fixing the mining tax, ending fossil fuel subsidies and introducing a levy on the big banks. It is the Treasurer who would rather engage in stereotyping than standing up to Rio Tinto, BHP, Xstrata or the big banks.

The Labor government had the opportunity with this budget to manage the economy in a way which would care for people and protect our environment. That would have been smart and fair. Instead, we got $2.3 billion of university cuts, a billion taken from clean energy and the environment, and continued punishment for single parents and the unemployed. I do not think they will take much comfort from a 10-year road map with a shelf life, if the polls are right, of only a few months.

And Tony Abbott will be worse, if his speech tonight is anything to go by. That is why you need the Greens. It is governments working with the Greens that deliver major reforms. It is the Greens who have delivered the clean energy package, it is the Greens who have delivered Denticare and it will be the Greens who deliver marriage equality. What is more, we will stand up strongly in the Senate and the House of Representatives. We will not allow the repeal of important initiatives we have fought hard for, particularly those in the areas of schools and clean energy. We will stand against the excesses of any future government, including an Abbott government, which tries to turn such achievements back.

The Australian Greens will deliver a caring Australia, a path to a safe climate and a proud global reputation. We are the competent, adult, honest party which will stand up to those who protect their own interests to the detriment of the environment and who deny everyone else a fair go. It is the Greens who will stand up with a strong voice for what is right and what is genuinely strong, smart and fair in caring for people and protecting our environment.