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Monday, 30 May 2011
Page: 5200


Ms SAFFIN (Page) (18:04): I welcome the opportunity to talk generally about the budget and the budget priorities and the government's handling of this, particularly over the last four years since the federal Labor Party came to government. One of the things that I always find rather puzzling is the view put, particularly by the coalition, that only they can manage the economy and only they can manage the government. Yet, if you read the history of budgets, of macro and microeconomic reform and of federal governments in Australia, you will see that that is simply not true; it is not borne out by the facts. The major reforms to our economy actually started in modern times during the period of the Hawke-Keating governments. But I have to say that, at the time, there were a few more 'yeses' from the then coalition opposition than we hear now. All we hear now from the opposition is 'no, no, no'—whatever it is. It is almost like a case of 'cut off your nose to spite your face'. They do not know when to say yes. A measure of an effective and credible opposition is knowing when to say yes.

What I want to talk about is this Labor government's budget. It builds on that history of reform, and it has done so since coming to government in 2007—and each budget thereafter, including this budget, reflects that. This budget reflects two essential things. One is keeping the economy strong—strengthening it where it needs to. That is necessary if you want to spend, and we need to spend because of the priorities that have to be funded in the electorates. I know that governments, whoever they are, have every backbencher at them wanting some of that money spent in their electorates. I am no different; I always want my share. But for a government to spend across the nation you need a strong economy. You also need—and this is the second essential thing and the essence of the Labor Party and what it does in government—to inculcate a fair go. That is inherent in this budget and in the way that the budget spend is prioritised. But this also means that there have to be savings; it has to be a responsible budget.

One thing that I have always said is that I am not in parliament to help the Mr Packers, the Mr Palmers, the Mr Forrests and the Ms Rineharts. It is nothing personal. Many of these people do big things and some do it more than others in terms of their sense of corporate social responsibility, which is a key—

Mr Danby: Some of them have it, some of them don't.

Ms SAFFIN: And some of them do it and some of them do not. However, I do not think they need my representation—I am sure they do not even know who I am. I am here to represent those without much voice, like people on wages, pensioners, my mum and a whole lot of other people in my electorate, such as people without jobs living at or below the poverty line as it is set in Australia, people living with mental illness, people basically in need and people suffering oppression and injustice wherever they are. Budgets—and Labor budgets more so—are one way of representing the people that I am talking about, and this budget shows that.

My seat of Page is not a rich seat; yet we do not feel poor. Ours is a rural and coastal area. We have a larger than average number of senior citizens. The aged care industry is one of 11 industries in my seat. In terms of numbers, we have twice the national average of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people living in the area. In fact, 10 per cent of Australia's Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander population live within the strip from the Hunter up to the Tweed. My seat sits within that strip. So when we talk about closing the gap and Indigenous Australia, we are talking about a large proportion of that population living in my seat and in the broader coastal framework.

I feel quite honoured to be on the expert panel for constitutional recognition of Indigenous Australians. This is something that we are approaching in a multipartisan way. I am on the expert panel with the honourable member for Hasluck, the honourable member for Lyne and Senator Rachel Siewert, so we have a broad political representation. This is something that we are talking about at the moment. Closing the Gap is an important policy way of incorporating a fair go. God knows that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people have not had a fair go throughout our history in Australia, and it behoves all of us to try to give them a fair go. Is it complex? Yes. Is it complex for people in need? Yes. But we still have to do it.

On the evening of the budget, I put out a statement on what it meant for me and the people locally in my seat of Page. In the lead-up to the budget, I had speculated as much as anybody else. People spend weeks speculating about what is going to be in and what is going to be out. It is one of those times when people think that backbenchers will have some particular information or knowledge. Those who are in government or who have been in government know that that is not quite true. What we see in the media is what we know. But that did not stop me speculating and being in the media, as it did not stop everybody else! On the day after the budget, I did eight or nine interviews in the media about it. So I have actually covered a lot of the things in the budget that impacted on us locally. Two of the general areas I went through were health and mental health.

I have always said that, if I have a key priority, it is health. I continue to make sure that I am knocking on the doors all the time on health. There were some good things in the budget in terms of health. Up to about $1.8 billion had been available in the Health and Hospitals Fund, and there is $475 million allocated to it but not yet spent. That means that some people can get a second go. I have said that in our area we can have a second go at trying to get some of that. That $475 million is national, so there will be a lot of people knocking at the door trying to get some of it, but we have got to get in and try. There were some other good things in the budget. One was the permanent funding for the National Bowel Cancer Screening Program, something that I and other members had lobbied for. I commend the Minister for Health and Ageing for that.

I also commend the minister for the $2.2 billion for mental health services. That is a historic investment in services for those with mental illness. My comments around mental illness over a long period of time have been that none of us have got it quite right. There is a lot more that needs to be done, but this is a good start. The fact that we actually went to an election with mental health as an issue was really important, because often it never gets into elections as a seminal issue. But there is still a lot more to do in terms of how we engage, people and engage them early, and some of the strategies in the mental health framework. It is a 10-year plan and it needs to be ongoing about how we respond to people with mental illness.

I listened to some of the speeches in this place about how GPs are our first port of call. They are for most things, but there are a lot of people who do not get access to mental health services through GPs being their first port of call. It is an issue I have been engaged in for a long time as a mental health advocate, and it is something that I am currently engaged in through personal family circumstances and experience. I share that with lots of families around Australia. It is another complex area to be formulating policy around, and it is one of those areas where it is better if we can do it in a bipartisan way. The people who suffer from mental illness deserve that. Another area of the budget that I want to talk about is regional spending and development. There has been record investment in our region for transport, water—infrastructure, which covers health as well—and education of over $4.4 billion. The previous government was elected in 1996, and in 1997 that government axed the whole department of regional development as well as a lot of regional development programs. I thought that was a rather odd thing to do, particularly when it was a coalition and one part of that coalition was the National Party, which says it is the natural party of the country or the bush. We reintroduced those programs and did a lot more in regional Australia.

That brings me to a report issued recently called Investing in regions: making a difference. We called it the Grattan report as it was put out by the Grattan Institute.It hit the headlines because it said regional investment fails to make a difference. It just seemed absolute nonsense. At my university—Southern Cross University—the vice chancellor, Peter Lee, entered the public debate and said, 'It's fundamentally flawed.' He went through the report critiquing the methodology. One of the measures the report used, which I found intriguing, was the number of patents that come from regions. I found that a rather odd measure. Regions that have small to medium businesses may never generate a patent—unlike my region, which, with someone like Rick Richardson, generates a lot of patents. He is an inventor with a national and international reputation. It just seemed an odd measure. My husband is a retired academic who chaired some regional economic development forums. He has a PhD in this area, and when talking to me at home about this issue he has been rather exercised. I keep saying, 'Get out and publish something on it because you know the issue better than most.'

The report also said basically that having a university in your region does not make a difference to a regional economy. What nonsense! We have figures that quantify that and it is really clear that it does make a difference, even with the jobs alone. It does make a difference with people from regions going to universities. Just having one there is a symbol; it appeals to that aspiration to go to university. I know it has done that in my area and in other regions across Australia. I would be surprised if any member here were able to agree with that report and the general approach that it took to regional development right across Australia.

In closing, I am happy to support this budget—it is responsible and will get us back into the black.