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Wednesday, 13 February 2002
Page: 160


Mrs CROSIO (6:17 PM) —At the outset, I congratulate all those members of parliament who have contributed today to the 40th Parliament by making their first speeches. I congratulate them all most sincerely, but particularly I would like to put on the record my congratulations to the Speaker of the House, to the Deputy Speaker and to you, Mr Jenkins, on your elections to that high office.

In this debate on the address-in-reply, I would like to bring to the attention of the 40th Parliament of Australia some of the issues and problems which I believe parliament must urgently address. First, I would like to place on the record, as I have stated, the input from all those new members of parliament and what great representatives they will be of the Australian people. It is a great honour and a special privilege to be elected to the federal parliament, and I am sure that those, like me, who have been re-elected understand and appreciate what this honour means.

Since parliament last sat, we have experienced yet another harsh Australian summer. As this new year unfolded, we were overcome with admiration for our volunteer bushfire fighters who, while many other people were enjoying the luxuries of a typical Australian summer, spent many days defending other people's property and protecting lives while raging bushfires threatened homes. I would personally like to thank all the Australian volunteer firefighters, and I join the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition in the motion today when we congratulated them on their tireless work and unshakeable commitment in helping their fellow Australians when they were in need.

It was a fitting but unfortunate reminder of the year which had just past—the International Year of Volunteers—to see not only the volunteer bushfire fighters but also their helpers who supplied the food and refreshment to the firefighters and the neighbours and friends who helped the victims whose properties had been destroyed all working to help each other. Let us not only as members of parliament but as Australians take heart from this experience and build on it to ensure that good deeds and acts of generosity towards our fellow Australians continue to be encouraged.

February 12 saw the 40th federal parliament sworn in. This sitting year has one of the lowest number of parliamentary sittings that I can remember. The elected federal government determines when parliament sits and the pattern of parliamentary sittings for the forthcoming year. Today we are in parliament for the first time in 139 days. It is an insult to the Australian people who voted in a general election on 10 November 2001 that the parliamentary sitting timetable has only 33 sitting days until August and 19 sitting weeks for the entire 12 months. The public have a right to hear the government state on the public record the truth about current issues such as the full extent of Australia's commitment in helping to rebuild Afghanistan and to assist the refugees; how the government plans to solve the current detainee crisis; and how much of the Australian taxpayers' money is being spent on the detaining and processing of asylum seekers on Pacific islands, because, as we saw before the November election, what the Howard government found to be their fix-all solution to the problem of asylum seekers involved them being processed on Pacific Islands such as Nauru and Papua New Guinea without any specific costs being provided.

The Howard government have struck a new deal with Papua New Guinea to make available around 800 extra places for the processing of asylum seekers and they have also recently made two new arrangements with Nauru to take another maximum of 1,200 asylum seekers. Despite our Minister for Foreign Affairs claiming that this new deal with Papua New Guinea means that the so-called Pacific solution has been consolidated, the Howard government have not at any time detailed the true cost of the exercise. The Australian public has a right to know, first and foremost in this parliament, what the full cost of the so-called Pacific solution is. During the election campaign, the government made it no secret that the government would determine who will come into this country and they owe it to the electorate to disclose the full costings of their main election policy as a first priority of this parliament.

According to information obtained by the ABC, the Prime Minister claims that a budget of $400 to $500 million for the Pacific solution was approved by cabinet in September. That is when Nauru first agreed to house and process asylum seekers. However, when the Prime Minister was confronted with this information—only a month later, I might add, and on air—he could not confirm what the cost was. All the comment he gave Neil Mitchell on 3AW was `it's expensive'. I would like to put into Hansard the transcript:

MITCHELL:

Is it correct that it was costing $600,000 a day to keep the Manoora there?

PRIME MINISTER:

I'd have to check the exact figures but it's not cheap.

MITCHELL:

Do you know what the overall cost of the ...

PRIME MINISTER:

No, I don't, it's expensive.

This just goes to show some of the complacency and arrogance that we can expect from this next term of this government. What kind of a leader of a country admits about his major policy of an election campaign and during it that he did not know what it was costing but `it's expensive'? The Australian government are responsible for the total cost of housing, feeding and clothing detainees. They are responsible for the Australians who staff the facilities and they are responsible for the help they receive from the defence forces.

But the precise financial and other obligations undertaken by Australia remain secret. The comment `I don't know, but it's expensive' cannot suffice. Surely, the Howard government knows the total cost of offshore detention. The Australian taxpayers are entitled to know how much is being spent on this government program. The Howard government argues the so-called Pacific solution is an effective program, but it is up to the Australian taxpayers to judge this claim and they can only judge that claim when the full costs are disclosed. If the Howard government will not come clean on this matter, I can guarantee them that in this House and in the Senate estimates committee process Labor will pursue them for full disclosure.

This government need to be held accountable and it is the role of opposition to hold them to account. The people in my electorate need to know what is happening in regard to the erosion of health and education services in the western and south-western suburbs of Sydney and the parliament is a forum where these issues should be raised and brought to the attention of the government. Allocating only 33 sitting days until August sends a clear message to the Australian people, and the people within my electorate, that this government are reluctant to be held accountable for their policies.

I can relay to this House that, while the Howard government may have a new term— and I congratulate them—the voters in the electorate of Prospect overwhelmingly voted against the Howard government. They voted for the Australian Labor Party and I am honoured to be elected once again to represent the people of my electorate of Prospect. The people of Prospect voted for the Labor Party for a reason, and that is because they know first-hand the reality of living under a Howard government.

For the entire term of this government, the issues which I believe are most important to the people in my electorate have been cut out completely, starved of funds or just plain ignored. Recently, the Western Sydney Regional Organisation of Councils—or WSROC, as it is referred to—published a study entitled Who cares about Western Sydney? which reported on what the people of Western Sydney are most concerned about in their region. Crime, community safety, unemployment and drugs and alcohol abuse were very high on the list but better funding for health services, more available child care and better access to high-quality education facilities were also a main priority.

The six years of a Howard government that have now passed provided no plan for this government to address the problems of the people in Western Sydney. Let me just state some of the concerns of my constituents to the House. A major report that was released towards the end of last year comparing the effect of child-care cuts between western and northern Sydney has shown that the Howard government's devastating attack on child-care services had the greatest impact on families in the Fairfield-Liverpool area.

In 1996, when the Howard government first came to office, $850 million was cut from the federal government's child-care budget. Already, in the Prospect electorate, we have seen two child-care centres close: one in Villawood North, which, although it is not now in my electorate due to the redistribution, is still in the south-west region; and the other in Greenfield Park, which most certainly still remains in my electorate. This has occurred while, to my knowledge, there have been no closures in Liberal Party heartland areas such as Sydney's lower North Shore.

Recent research has shown that the parent gap fees have increased by at least $20 to $30 per week and many child-care centres in my electorate remain strapped for cash, have been refused federal funding for upgrading of important facilities and some are still in danger of closing. This government had made several changes to welfare payments but, despite this, the fact remains that child care was still 16 per cent more expensive in 2001 than it was when the Howard government came to office. Working mothers and families need to have a reliable system of child care so they can better balance their work and family commitments. We clearly have a long way to go before affordable and quality child care is available to families who need it. That is something I believe should be addressed in this term of the Howard government; however, I am not optimistic.

The WSROC report that I mentioned earlier reported that, according to those people living in Western Sydney, the federal government's top priority is to decrease unemployment and create jobs. I can tell them that in my electorate the unemployment rate has been—for the entire term of the Howard government—unacceptably high. I believe the most effective way to bring the unemployment rate down is to create suitable economic conditions for businesses and also to provide the education and training opportunities for job seekers so they can acquire the skills needed to secure employment. However, in August 2001 it was reported that the Howard government slashed the number of research training places at the University of Western Sydney by almost half—almost 50 per cent. This decision has seriously limited the learning opportunities of the people in the electorate of Prospect and, thus, their opportunities to find employment.

Figures from the government show that research training places at the University of Western Sydney have been reduced from 687 places in 2000 to 346 places in 2001, and this is a change of almost 50 per cent. I am still waiting for the current figures. Further analysis shows that one in every eight research training places at Australian universities will be abolished. This means there will be fewer research training places for students wanting to undertake study in the new economy industries such as information technology, biotechnology and environmental science. The University of Western Sydney once stood as a symbol of hope and promise for our people in Western Sydney so that they could have access to a quality education system. It is now in danger of becoming yet another education casualty of this government.

The government's attitude to education is no more clearly seen than in the May 2001 budget, which showed the Howard government's complete neglect of its funding responsibilities for public schools, universities and TAFE colleges. In 1996, the government cut funding for TAFE employment and training programs by $240 million but have only now in the budget past decided to fund TAFE and employment opportunities back to their pre-1996 levels. However, the point is that the Howard government must increase funding to the education sector and must continue to increase funding for training programs year after year. You cannot cut back and then five years later go back to a pre-1996 funding level. Training programs are vital for job seekers to obtain the skills and the training needed to find stable and lasting employment in today's competitive labour market.

Other than jobs, education and child care in Western Sydney, the WSROC report mentioned that health issues should also be a priority for this Howard government, and these include the provision of affordable aged care beds. There can be no doubt that the Howard government has continually failed in its duty to ensure that frail, older Australians are provided with proper and affordable care. Australian Bureau of Statistics 2001 figures show that the Howard government will fall 398 beds short of its own target for the number of aged care beds needed in south-western Sydney.

My electorate of Prospect has a very high population of elderly Australians who have lived and worked in south-western Sydney and paid tax most of their lives, and they want to stay in south-western Sydney, but they are now looking with their families and relatives at where else they can go because they cannot find an aged care bed. Our elderly deserve nothing less than affordable, readily available and quality care in nursing homes—and the Howard government must start to ensure that this is achieved. Due to the federal government's failure to reach its own targets in 2001, many elderly Australians in my electorate are being denied access to aged care services they need and deserve.

The federal government's responsibility to provide health services goes far beyond the confines of aged care. Since gaining office six years ago, the government has systematically set about making more and more health services unaffordable. As a result, people in areas like my electorate suffer—especially our low income earners and our pensioners. In 1996, the Howard government abolished the Commonwealth dental health scheme, which provided assistance to many people who could ill afford the high cost of essential dental work. Many people in my electorate who used to rely on that federal government program for dental assistance can no longer afford dental health services. Approximately 500,000 Australians remain on the government's waiting list for urgent dental treatment, but our Prime Minister, Mr Howard, says his government has done enough in the area of dental health.

Besides the lack of essential funding for health services, educational facilities and job opportunities, the Howard government has made comments in the media that in this term it will look at and reform workplace relations—and today we have already seen the introduction of the Workplace Relations Amendment (Fair Dismissal) Bill 2002. Let me remind the minister who introduced that bill today that fewer than 0.3 per cent of small businesses are involved in any one year in a federal unfair dismissal case. What happened to a fair go for all Australians, especially if they are coming about to lose their job? We only have to cast our minds back to the images of the Patricks dispute, when workers were sacked from working on wharves that were productive, because they belonged to a union, to know what this so-called reform means. Workers all over Australia can look forward to a continual decreasing of their job security, to a continuation of schoolyard style union busting activities and to still no means to protect 100 per cent of their entitlements in case of insolvency.

One thing that the Australian people have learnt from the last term of this parliament is that, despite the government having the means to do so, there is currently no legislation which secures 100 per cent of workers' entitlements in the case of employer insolvency. Over four years ago, I introduced a private member's bill—as I have done every year since, and I will reintroduce it next Monday—to protect workers' entitlements in the case of employer insolvency through an employer paid levy of close to 0.1 per cent of payroll cost. I plan, as I said, to reintroduce that bill every year until 100 per cent of Australian workers' entitlements are protected.

The Howard government has presided over some of Australia's largest corporate collapses, with workers having no guarantee that their entitlements will be paid. It is inevitable that during this term there will be more corporate collapses and insolvencies, and workers who have lost their jobs will be left waiting to be paid. I refer all members of the parliament, if they feel that I am being unjust or unkind in talking about workers' insolvency, to page 11 of the speech given yesterday by the Governor-General. It is stated:

In the first weeks of parliament, the government will introduce bills to ban compulsory union fees, ensure secret ballots before strikes, prevent one-size-fits-all industry bargaining and establish fair dismissal procedures.

I am sure, as elected members of parliament, you can all read; I will not continue. There are 14 lines of the Governor-General's speech given to union bashing and to what the government is going to do to workers of Australia. I remind the members on the government side of the House who are showing great delight and mirth that there are two lines in the speech delivered yesterday dedicated to aged care. In other words, in 14 lines we can deny the workers of Australia their rightful opportunities to have jobs, but we can say to the elderly in Australia, `We think so much of you that we will give you two lines of mention.' Those two lines being:

In its third term, the government will give particular attention to addressing the challenges of an ageing population ...

The people are not going to accept that. Gone are the days when you can tell a few and expect the majority to comply. The people of Australia are more educated than that and are going to demand a lot more in this third term of the Howard government.

Members of the government need to hang their heads in shame for what has not been spent on the people compared with the money that has been squandered by this government in endeavouring to continue wedge politics in its third term. This is not acceptable by any standard, nor will the voters of the future continue to accept it. We need a little bit of truth in accountancy. But, more importantly, as members of this parliament, we need to provide an era in which we can debate the issues, not an era in which we have only 19 sitting weeks so that this arrogant government can hide itself in shame and not be held accountable in this, the people's House. The people should have their representatives in this place debating important issues on which Australia and Australians want answers.


The DEPUTY SPEAKER (Hon. IR Causley)—Order! Before I call Mr Ciobo, I remind honourable members that this is his first speech. I therefore ask that the usual courtesies be extended to him.