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Thursday, 29 May 2003
Page: 15406


Mr HARTSUYKER (10:23 AM) —The parliament has before it the Appropriation Bill (No. 1) 2003-2004, the Appropriation Bill (No. 2) 2003-2004 and the Appropriation (Parliamentary Departments) Bill (No. 1) 2003-2004. I am honoured to be a member of the coalition government, which in this budget is handing down its sixth consecutive budget surplus. The performance of the Australian economy has been outstanding against a backdrop of slow world economic growth and the drought. This economic performance is due in no small part to strong economic management by this government. Despite the additional expenditure required for the war on terror, greater demands on home security and the huge cost to government of the drought, this government has again delivered a budget surplus. A surplus has been delivered by Treasurer Costello, along with modest tax cuts, at a time of increased spending on defence and security.

This budget includes very important announcements with respect to higher education and is particularly significant for regional universities. These are far-reaching reforms to the Australian system of higher education. I believe these reforms are balanced and highly focused. Through strengthening our universities, including specific measures for regional universities, the changes introduced in this budget set a framework for the higher education sector and individual institutions to deliver high-quality education for students and to conduct high-quality research. These aims will be accomplished through the $1.5 billion increase in funding to be allocated to higher education over the next four years. The Treasurer told the House that these reforms will be fully in place by 2010, and there will be an increase of 17 per cent over 10 years in real terms.

Universities will be encouraged, through incentives, to improve their internal governance and workplace relations. Such reforms are due, and they are appropriate. They recognise that universities are tasked with delivering higher education to their students, and they must be efficient and highly focused in that objective. Under the proposed reforms, universities are to be given flexibility in relation to fee-setting. These announcements are designed to produce better outcomes for students, but students will also receive other direct benefits, such as assistance through the new Higher Education Loan Program to help with the payment of fees. The HECS repayment threshold will be raised from $24,365 a year to $30,000, directly alleviating some of the current financial pressures on thousands of graduates and, of course, assisting countless students into the future.

The HECS system is something which occasionally comes under fire from various quarters, but I have been reading with a great deal of interest some of the commentary in the media over this issue and the budget's higher education reforms. It is interesting to note media reports which have been generally supportive of the proposed reforms. I note comments in an article by Paul Kelly in the Australian of 21 May, which quoted the Australian National University's Bruce Chapman—a former Keating adviser, I might add—and highlighted the point that:

... the Whitlam government's abolition of fees “had no discernible effects on the socio-economic composition of higher education students”.

That is an interesting point: there were no discernible effects on the socioeconomic composition of the student population. Most notably, it did not lead to a greater proportion of poor students going to university. The article goes on to state that the overall distribution effect was `from poor to better-off', since there is a greater proportion of better-off students at university. Chapman describes the free university system as `unquestionably regressive'. Kelly makes the important observation that HECS, introduced by Labor with the support of the coalition, `had no detrimental effect on access to university', and that, in a recent paper by Chapman and Chris Ryan, they found that:

“those from less privileged backgrounds were no more discouraged from attending university in 1999 than they had been in 1988” (when HECS started).

They formed the view that:

“There's nothing in a HECS system that disadvantages the poor.”

The carping, mindless opposition across the chamber should take note of these important points. In fact, HECS is a scheme founded in equity. Under HECS, both students and the government contribute to the cost of education, and the students' contribution is deferred. In fact, the only up-front payment faced by students is the compulsory union fee, and we want to abolish that—unlike Labor and the Democrats. It is important to note that the student contribution to the cost of a degree is deferred, and it is a partial contribution at that. The student actually pays only 27 per cent of the cost of the university education, with the government contributing the other 73 per cent by virtue of many taxpayers who have never seen the inside of a university. As I said earlier, the reforms will also increase the threshold of HECS to $30,000 before repayments start. This scheme is sound, it is fair, it is equitable and it ensures that public higher education is affordable, progressive and sustainable.

Financially disadvantaged students will be assisted by three new scholarship programs costing $162 million over four years. The package of measures also puts an extra $113 million over four years into quality assurance and promoting Australian education and training to overseas markets—a market which brings in $5 billion in export earnings each year.

However, I particularly congratulate the government on the specific measures for regional universities in this announcement. One of the cornerstones of the higher education reform package is the proposal to boost regional universities by providing an injection of an additional $122.6 million. It is to the credit of the minister for education that he has recognised the importance of universities in regional Australia and the additional costs and difficulties faced by them as a result of their location. Additional funds will be incorporated into the new Commonwealth grants schemeand will particularly benefit the Coffs Harbour campus of Southern Cross University in my electorate of Cowper. The funds are to be allocated on the basis of regionality, which is to be determined from the size of the campus and its distance from a mainland capital city. I am pleased the Southern Cross University's Coffs Harbour campus will receive the second-highest level of loading allocation in Australia, 7½ per cent, under this measure. This will be a significant and welcome injection of funds into the university and into the Coffs Harbour campus itself. It will benefit the students at the campus and also the wider region, and I thank the minister for education for his work in bringing about these measures which are so beneficial to regional universities and, particularly, the Coffs Harbour campus.

Professor John Rickard, Vice-Chancellor of Southern Cross University, reacted to this announcement by saying that the budget recognises the situation often faced by universities in regional areas and that they are, in fact, at a disadvantage. He also noted the important contribution that regional universities make. He said that the extra funding coming under this budget could be put into offering components of courses for the first time at the Coffs Harbour campus and also into expanding those programs already in place.

The Treasurer announced last Tuesday that the budget is setting aside some $161 million for teaching, nursing and other priority courses, and there are to be at least 574 extra places in nursing by 2007. This is a highly commendable measure and it will also be welcomed in the Cowper electorate. I might mention to the House that there are moves afoot at Southern Cross University to establish a course in aged care nursing at Coffs Harbour. This is a particularly relevant and important area for the community in a region which has an ageing demographic. I am hopeful that such a course will be created at the Coffs Harbour campus and that it will become a recognised centre of excellence in this field. It will certainly be something that brings great opportunity for young people and others wishing to enter this expanding vocation.

A vital part of improving university education for students is the abolition of compulsory union fees. I believe in freedom of association, as opposed to forced association and the compulsory membership of student unions. The abolition of compulsory union fees for students would be welcomed by many students in my electorate. Offering choice is a very important factor, I believe. How can the Labor Party stand for equity when they support compulsory union fees? They do not stand for freedom of association, and that is why they oppose the government's moves to abolish compulsory union fees. I call on those opposite to support the lifting of what is an up-front cash fee on students going to universities. You cannot claim to stand for the rights and interests of students if you cannot stand up for freedom of association.

This budget has been delivered in a period when the dangers of international terrorism are rising and our national security is at the forefront of our considerations. In the last year there has been considerable cost involved in Australia's commitment to the international coalition against terrorism and, in particular, our endeavours to fight this threat and liberate the Iraqi people from the tyranny of Saddam Hussein and his regime. That is an issue on which I have spoken on a number of occasions in this House. The Treasurer reports that the cost of these commitments to the budget is $645 million, which includes some rehabilitation, reconstruction and humanitarian expenditure. A further $100 million has been committed for urgent humanitarian relief for the Iraqi people.

There is a continuing commitment of our troops in East Timor at a cost to the budget of some $500 million. The Treasurer announced $2.1 billion over five years in new defence spending, bringing total defence spending up to $15 billion in the coming fiscal year. This is an absolutely necessary area of expenditure. The world is not the place it once was, and we must protect our nation. This government delivers on its commitment to the Australian people to do all it can to ensure that our country is protected from the threats against it. It also delivers on a duty to those who serve on the front line—our Defence Force personnel, our emergency services personnel and so on—to have money there to back them up so that they have the resources they need to do their jobs well.

The recent announcement of a special operations command in the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet is a welcome one. It will enable a coordinated approach between federal and state agencies. Through this package, which enhances Australian security arrangements, an additional $152 million will be put into vital intelligence services to add to their counter-terrorism capabilities. I am particularly moved by the budget measure allocating $10.5 million to fund a new intensive care centre for the Sanglah Hospital, in Denpasar, in commemoration of the Australian victims of the 2002 Bali bombing and in recognition of the assistance provided by the Balinese to Australians in a time of need.

The disability employment assistance area is another key area which will receive a boost in this budget. This $160 million measure will offer assistance to 90,000 people with disabilities across Australia, including hundreds within my electorate of Cowper. This government has been reforming this policy area since 1996 towards a focus on the individual needs of job seekers. The announcements in this budget recognise that different barriers are faced by different supported job seekers, and it puts in place measures which address that fact. I give the following as an example of how these new measures would work. A person with a high support need in rural Australia might decide they want to undertake an IT traineeship. With the funding assistance announced in this budget, the employment service would receive up to $16,660 to help and support the client in ongoing work, up to $7,000 to provide work based personal care, up to $5,000 in travel assistance and another $660 for getting the client the traineeship. This compares with the total of $7,000 in assistance which would currently be available. There is also practical help for businesses employing supported employees, including a $25.4 million package. As I have said, these measures will be of assistance to many thousands of Australians.

I welcome the regional partnerships announcement, which integrates a number of initiatives for regional Australia into one. It effectively extends the Regional Solutions Program, which was due to expire at the end of the coming fiscal year. The Regional Solutions Program has been a highly successful initiative for regional communities. By way of example, the Minister for Regional Services, Territories and Local Government, Minister Tuckey, recently announced a $52,000 Regional Solutions Programgrant for the Royal Volunteer Coastal Patrol headquarters and communicationsfacility in Coffs Harbour. Not only is this a program which, importantly, injects funds into regional economies like Coffs Harbour, but it helps local communities with projects such as this one, which will immediately enhance communication and search and rescue services provided by the coastal patrol for the many seagoers in the region.

The Regional Solutions Program is also providing $137,500 in Woolgoolga for a senior citizens centre. A $222,000 grant under the Rural Transaction Centres initiative has established an RTC in Bowraville, which I recently had the pleasure of opening. The RTC program, which will also be rolled into new regional partnerships, provides funds to help small communities such as Bowraville to provide access to services. Those services can include areas such as financial services; postal services; phone, fax and internet services; Medicare Easyclaim; Centrelink; facilities for visiting professionals; printing and secretarial services; insurance and taxation services; and a variety of other state and federal services. These services are vital to regional locations like Bowraville, which are effectively isolated by virtue of low levels of car ownership and a disadvantaged community that exists in that area.

Whilst the federal government's role in the provision of public health care is limited, with jurisdiction primarily being held by the states and territories, the Commonwealth does play an important role in ensuring access to health care through Medicare and in providing funding assistance to the states and territories for hospitals. This budget includes and builds on some vitally important announcements which have been recently made in relation to Australia's health system.

The Prime Minister recently announced a range of changes to Medicare at a cost of some $917 million. These changes are designed to increase affordable access to primary health care. There is a particular focus in the package on increasing the availability of general practitioner services to the general public and bulk-billing services to low-income earners, pensioners and others in need. There will be around 234 more places a year for medical courses and an additional 150 GP training places. Importantly, the additional medical school places will be bonded to areas of doctor shortage and the additional training places targeted at rural areas.

New incentives to encourage doctors to bulk-bill pensioners and holders of Commonwealth concession cards will be put in place. General practitioners who agree to bulk-bill pensioners and Commonwealth concession card holders will receive extra incentive payments. In the electorate of Cowper, that will amount to $5.30 per consultation. They will also receive expedited payment of the Medicare rebate. The new scheme will eliminate the need for patients seeing participating doctors to attend Medicare offices to receive their rebate, which will be received electronically at the surgery.

Safety nets will be put in place to protect against high out-of-pocket medical costs. Firstly, a new government funded scheme will help pensioners and Commonwealth concession card holders with $500 or more in out-of-pocket costs for out-of-hospital medical services in any year. Secondly, private health insurance cover will be available for out-of-pocket expenses for out-of-hospital services exceeding $1,000 in any year for other patients. The new private health insurance cover will attract the government's 30 per cent rebate.

Under the Australian health care agreements, the Commonwealth assists states and territories with funding for public hospitals. Negotiations are currently under way for an agreement for the period 2003-08. The Commonwealth has offered the state and territory governments up to an additional $10 billion to help run public hospitals, an increase of 17 per cent in real terms. The total amount to be provided by the federal government is in the order of $42 billion over the next five years.

This commitment is very important for public health care. I am concerned, however, that the figures from the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare indicate that growth in public hospital funding provided by state and territory governments as a whole has not kept pace with the growth in funding provided by the Commonwealth. The total state and territory share of funding has fallen from 47.2 per cent in 1977-98 to 43.4 per cent in 2001-01, whilst the Commonwealth share has risen from 45.2 per cent to 48.1 per cent over the same period. I am hopeful that this discrepancy in state government funding will be addressed by the Commonwealth's offer under the new Australian health care agreement by committing the states to match federal increases in funding for their hospitals.

Finally, the government delivers in this budget a personal income tax cut for nine million Australians and, unlike the l-a-w law tax cuts, they will be delivered in full. The size of this tax cut has come under fire from some quarters, including the Australian Labor Party. It is important to note that the Australian Labor Party is a party without any economic or budget credentials whatsoever. The Treasurer has delivered, to his credit, the sixth budget surplus of this government. Members will note that the Labor Party delivered nine deficits in its most recent 13 years of government—plus the budget black hole the party left when it was removed from office in 1996. I might add that this debt was incurred at the same time the party was conducting asset sales. So the Labor Party could not even balance the budget while selling off the family silver.

Compare that with the coalition and the Treasurer, who in this package delivers a $2.2 billion budget surplus at a time of continuing global economic uncertainty and heavily increased demands on the budget in defence and other areas. On top of that surplus, the Treasurer delivers a tax cut. There have been some ill-informed remarks about the size of the tax cuts. Let us look at those tax cuts. Firstly, it is a reduction in tax for nine million Australians. Secondly, it is a tax cut which amounts to $2.4 billion in the coming fiscal year and $10.7 billion across the period of the forward estimates. That is a $2.4 billion injection into the economy, giving money back to the Australian people. This tax cut, in my view, is significant. It displays our position on these matters and it distinguishes us from the Labor Party—in that this government will return the money of the people wherever possible. (Time expired)