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Wednesday, 23 May 2001
Page: 26868

Mr St CLAIR (1:29 PM) —What a great day it is to be able to stand here in the House and reflect on the delivery of the budget last night and have the opportunity to make sure that this House is aware and the people of Australia are aware of some of the marvellous initiatives that have been put in place. I want to cover a number of these issues today, but I would like to start off in particular with the recognition by this government of the POWs and the widows and widowers of POWs.

It was not until I was starting to put a few lines together for some history of what has happened over the last 60 years that I started to see the enormous contribution that people made in their service to this country. I do not think there are many people in this place whose families have not been touched in one way or another by those who served overseas. Certainly, there would not be many members in this place whose families were not touched by those who served in South-East Asia in that theatre of war under the Japanese.

I notice that following the fall of Singapore nearly 60 years ago, in 1942, more than 22,000 Australian men and women were taken prisoner by the Japanese. By war's end more than 8,000 Australian POWs, or 36 per cent of those taken prisoner by the Japanese, had died. These are appalling statistics. For up to 3½ years, Australian service personnel, and civilians of course, suffered in the most horrific conditions imaginable. As we have heard here in this place, they endured starvation and brutal treatment at the hands of their captors. They were forced into slave labour projects, as we are aware, such as the Burma-Thailand railway. Earlier today the member for Mallee spoke of three of his uncles, the fact that only one returned and of the difficulty that those people who returned had in being able to discuss anything of what happened up there. My wife's uncle, Claude Pidcock, spent a number of years in internment, working on the Thai-Burma railway, and then had a long stretch in hospital before being flown back to Australia. He was a member of the 8th Division, 2/15 Battalion. He also could not talk about it to any of his family, including his wife, Norma.

A package which will pay a certain amount of compensation is a great tribute to the Howard-Anderson government. The Minister for Veterans' Affairs, the member for Maranoa, actually approached the POW association to ask it to put forward a program for compensation and to seek its views. The POW association responded and Minister Scott not only acted upon that information but indeed was able to go beyond the expectations of the POW association. I think that is great.

In my electorate of New England we have some 22 or 23 ex-POWs who served over there. We also have some 60 widows of POWs who have passed on. I am sure that this compensation, while coming late in their life, will be welcomed and appreciated, particularly as an act on behalf of this government and of Australia in giving thanks for their ultimate sacrifice. We need to get the message out there that this compensation is available. As we know, a lot of people who return from active service do not seek compensation, and the message should be put out there, particularly to the widows and widowers, that this compensation is available and that they are entitled to it. I urge all of us to be out there in our communities making sure that those who are entitled to the compensation receive the appropriate payment. I am pleased to see that there is bipartisan support for this measure, and again I congratulate the Howard-Anderson government. I particularly congratulate Minister Scott, the member for Maranoa, my National Party colleague, for being instrumental in bringing this compensation measure to fruition. I think it is great news and certainly welcomed.

I turn to the budget generally. I want to stay away from the negativity of the other side. I do not want to be involved in that negativity—that spoiling, that misinformation, that running down of economies, that continual having nothing constructive to provide. I do want to take up a couple of the points that were mentioned by the previous speaker. He was discussing the revenue from the GST. He failed again to recognise in this House that the total revenue from the GST goes to the states. In the case of New South Wales, that is a figure of some $8 billion-odd, which is enough to pay, as we have heard before in this place, the wages of every teacher and policeman and of those involved in other public service. In the case of New South Wales, we are looking forward to seeing some of the moneys that are coming through from the GST being spent back in that state.

The member also mentioned free dental care. I must make a comment on this. Back in the time of the previous Labor government, in about 1992, there was a four-year sunset-claused program of dental assistance around Australia, particularly in New South Wales, to help cope with the demand for dental care. That was to assist New South Wales get its programs up to date. I can inform the members of this House that the New South Wales Labor Carr government has failed miserably in its provision of dental care to the public of New South Wales. Those on the other side of the House have often raised the fact that the dental program had money taken away from it by the Commonwealth. That is not correct. The fact is that it was a four-year fixed program. Typical of those on the other side, we find that there is this continual neglect of the taxpayers in New South Wales by the Carr Labor government in relation to the spending of money.

When we look through the budget papers and certainly at the speech that the Treasurer gave last night—and people in my electorate have commented to me about this—we see that it was again another strong delivery of a budget that is building upon five strong budgets before that. During some of the discussion that has been put forward on wages and tax cuts in particular, I noticed that the average weekly wage earner's top marginal rate used to be around the 42c in the dollar mark. People will be aware that through the tax cuts which are, of course, still current— they are still going on—that rate is now down to 30c. Workers in my electorate in particular, in the factories and on the floors, to whom we talk regularly are concerned that, should Beazley and the rest of his people on the front bench over there form government at the next election, they will see their marginal tax rates go back up to 42 per cent. They are very concerned about this issue of roll-back and the fact that their income tax will rise to pay for it.

We are restricted by time, but I am looking forward to having more of a chance to go into the details of the budget. It is a strong budget built on a strong economy. It is certainly good for the country areas, particularly in my electorate of New England. I commend the government for it.