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Thursday, 29 May 2003
Page: 15417

Mr BILLSON (11:04 AM) —Reductions in personal income tax, enhancing our security and strengthening defence, investing in education and our health systems, funding boosts for disability services, and the greatest ever commitment of funds to tackle environmental degradation are features of the Howard government's 2003-04 federal budget, as outlined in Appropriation Bill (No. 1) 2003-2004.

Prudent financial management by the Howard government has enabled tax cuts to be delivered to all income earners after paying for the unexpected challenges of drought and Iraq, and after further reductions in the debt inherited from previous Labor governments. The budget delivered by Treasurer Costello maintains a respectable surplus and a climate conducive to improved employment opportunities and sustainable economic growth. The tax cuts will pay for the winter gas bill and amount to a return, in the coming years, of $2.4 billion from the taxes paid by income earners, above what is needed to fund federal works and programs. Tax cuts are the dividend paid to Australian taxpayers for sound fiscal and economic management and will be delivered without placing the economy, our nation's longer term national interests or the budget at risk.

Some, including the Labor Party, have been critical of the size of the tax cuts. It is interesting how those opposite can ignore the anticipated $1,800 impost on Victorian households and families under the hundreds of tax and levy increases implemented by the Bracks government in its budget a week earlier. Yet the opposition leader seems to have belatedly recognised that a tax cut is a tax cut—something that vividly contrasts with the form of Labor at state levels where, as I mentioned, dozens and dozens of taxes and charges are being increased at great expense to households.

The federal budget presents a sound triple bottom line approach for the Howard government to get on with the job at a time of great challenge and points to world-leading economic performance, increased social investment and new environmental spending. In economic terms the budget signals continued impressive outcomes. As William Pesek Jr recently canvassed in his column for Bloomberg News:

While most major economies are struggling, Australia's is thriving. In the U.S., Japan and Germany, it's stagnation and rising unemployment that folks worry about. Here, it's how to keep the good times going.

Chances are, Australia can do just that. The dismal state of the global economy is a clear and present risk to an economy Costello sees as expanding at 3 percent this year and 3.25 percent next year. But domestically, it's hard to see Australia as anything but a role model for the world's biggest economies.

He goes on to say:

Take the tax-cut plan Costello unveiled as part of his budget. It will lower taxes for 9 million Australians by A$10.7 billion over four years. That may not sound like much to politicians in Frankfurt, Tokyo or Washington, but it gets at a bigger point: Costello is in a position to trim taxes. He also has more ammunition to do so than his peers ... Compare that to what's happening in Washington. Australia's government expects to produce a A$2.2 billion surplus in the fiscal year starting July 1, its sixth in eight years.

He reflected on the Howard government's budget and concluded:

Australia isn't getting much credit domestically or internationally, and that's a shame ... Yet if you're looking for an example of an economy that's forging its own path, independent of the weakness slamming most, Australia is it. And if it's a haven from market volatility you're after, you could do worse than give Australia a look.

Pesek's piece emphasised how here in Australia we can expect continuing economic growth and modest inflation, accomplishments greatly admired by other developed countries who are facing a less prosperous future and the need to fund government activity on their national bank cards—a debt left for future generations to pay off. Historians will look back on this time and declare it a golden era in Australia's economic life. It will be contrasted with the neglect of opportunity and profligacy of the previous Labor government that produced debt, deficit and despair. Labor's approach stole from future generations and the Howard government have had to repair the damage we inherited, deal with the significant challenges of the day and build the foundations for a better future.

The budget includes new funding for further improvements to our border security, higher education and Medicare reforms, industry research and development, and a continuation and enhancement of the environmental commitments that have made the Howard government the greenest in our nation's history. Locally, the budget will help our regional economy and employment prospects by supporting continued strong building activity, home ownership, buoyant retail sales, expanding educational exports and continuing growth in the tourism, leisure and hospitality sector.

A significant proportion of our economy is interest rate sensitive. Fortunately, the interest rates in the early 1990s that crippled our region during Labor's `recession we had to have' are a dark but not too distant memory. The government's economic stewardship has steered the economy away from the horrors of 17 per cent home mortgage rates and even steeper business lending and overdraft rates. I remind those recent entrants into the home ownership market that they were the horrors that the Labor government gave home buyers not too long ago. Local home buyers and their families, Dunkley small businesses and those they employ, and all others associated with the discretionary expenditure segment of the economy can rejoice not only at the opportunities and the assistance the economic climate has offered under the Howard government but also at what has been avoided.

Speaking of avoidance, the Bracks government seems hell-bent on avoiding its obligations to construct the Scoresby Freeway. The single most significant and bold-faced deception of electors occurred during the last Victorian state election when the Bracks government promised to build the freeway without tolls. Labor lied. Labor still lies. Dunkley motorists intending to use the Scoresby Freeway to improve access to employment opportunities, educational institutions, family connections and leisure interests will now face a toll. Potential investors in our region now have to weigh the financial imposts of tolls, disadvantaging our region when compared with other investment designations.

The importance of the Scoresby Freeway to our community cannot be overstated. There is no single endeavour that will enhance the viability, vitality and living standards of our region more than this project, and the time has well and truly passed for local ALP representatives to stand up for our community. They have not been battling for this project but have been mere bystanders up until now. Worse still, they were briefed by Premier Bracks and supported the betrayal of their own promises and the interests of our local community.

Last Friday, at the quarterly elected representatives meeting hosted by Frankston City Council, all the local ALP state MPs could do was gloat—gloat about the effectiveness of their deception and crow about improved opinion polls and approval ratings, despite blatantly deceiving our citizens, misleading our community and placing their own pathetic self-interest above our community's needs. State Labor MPs sit in Spring Street on the back of an electoral fraud, knowingly deceiving the electors of the eastern and south-eastern suburbs into believing it was committed to the Scoresby Freeway. Scoresby has gone from a freeway for improved viability, vitality and living standards for our region—the Howard government vision—to a `boulevard of broken dreams' under the deception and indifference of the Bracks and Crean Labor team.

We will continue to honour in full our commitment to fund a toll-free Scoresby Freeway with the allocation of $445 million. We will need to join together as a community to demand that the Bracks government also honour its promise to the electorate and contractual obligations to the Common-wealth to partner the Howard government in building a freeway and not a tollway.

The reasons for the indecent haste with which Steve Bracks went to the polls can now be clearly explained. Premier Bracks knew he had squandered the surplus he had inherited from the Kennett government, that he could not possibly do all that he had promised and that his economic credentials and his own personal credibility and trustworthiness would be compromised as the evidence of his mismanagement and deception emerged in the public arena.

It is not uncommon for incoming governments to find their predecessors had cooked the books. We all remember that. That is what happened here, when the former federal Labor government, of which the now opposition leader was a key figure, claimed that the budget was in surplus in the lead-up to the 1996 election when we found it was really $10.5 billion in deficit. Tough choices and the difficult task of bringing the books back into the black were left behind by Labor for the incoming Howard government to address.

But this is not the story of Victorian Labor. The people in the government before and after the last state election were the same. The ALP had all the information about the budget situation before scurrying off to the polls. The Bracks betrayal was all his own work. The budget that we are discussing here today also buttresses the social fabric and builds a more able, fairer and well-supported future for our community.

I have heard some of the members opposite talk about Minister Nelson's higher education reforms. I compliment Ross Gittins for his article in the Sydney Morning Herald in which he said, `The opposition parties and interest groups have used several tricks to mislead us.' Do you see a pattern emerging here, Mr Deputy Speaker? Labor mislead and deceive. First, they have got people thinking that they are muddled between two separate schemes. Here we are hearing from the Labor Party the most outrageous, unrepresentative examples of what the implications of these changes would be. Gittins goes about dissecting the Labor lies again—the lies that seem to perpetuate under the Labor opposition. They attempt to do anything to frighten people into supporting their misguided causes.

Mr Hardgrave —Whatever it takes.

Mr BILLSON —Whatever it takes. The minister at the table is absolutely right. The Nelson higher education reforms will commit an extra $1.5 billion to the university sector over the next four years, $870 million recurrent extra funding from 2007 and $10.6 billion additional investment in the first 10 years. What will that do? That will increase the number of undergraduates in Australian universities. There are currently 531,000 undergraduates in Australian universities—more than half a million. Of those, 98.3 per cent are in government subsidised HECS places. You do not hear the Labor Party talk about that fact. What they seek to talk about is the less than two per cent who are not in government funded places.

Yesterday, the minister outlined to the House why the opportunity for full fee paying, non-government funded places should be made available to Australian citizens. Why? Because it is available to everybody else. If you come from Jakarta you can get a full fee paying place, but if you come from Frankston you could not—before the Howard government was elected and introduced that change. Minister Nelson very effectively highlighted an example from a Frankston high school student, where being just one-tenth of one per cent below a TER score could deny a student the opportunity to study and pursue their particular career.

What is wrong with that person deciding to invest in their own future? Absolutely nothing, I would have thought. They are making a choice about their future and investing in it by pursuing something that hits their buttons and stimulates their future working life. What is wrong with that? Absolutely nothing, unless you are from the Labor Party. They would rather see that person occupy a HECS funded place that could be exactly what someone else is looking for. Because Labor is so hell-bent on denying people the chance to select their own pathways in life, Labor would like to tell them what is good for them; not allow the individual to make those choices—

Mr Hardgrave —They don't trust the people!

Mr BILLSON —They do not trust the people; and they certainly do not trust young people making choices about their career type. You get somebody who may have just missed out by one-tenth of one per cent on a TER score to get into their preferred course being denied the opportunity to approach that university to argue that they are competent and capable of undertaking that course of study and to invest in their own future. Instead, under Labor, they are forced into a program that is not their preference and they displace someone from a HECS funded place who may actually desire to be in that program. Those people are perhaps not going to be stimulated by that program, which may explain why about 40 per cent of people who commence higher education do not finish.

What is wrong with encouraging people to pursue their own course and invest in their own future and, in doing so, strengthening the university sector, where you will see an increase in HECS funded places—not, as the Labor Party would deceive people into believing, a situation where someone has to go and save for those places? They are using fictitious examples to create a less than two per cent case study and then seeking to apply that across the entire university sector. As Ross Gittens has outlined, they should stand condemned for their tricks in misleading people and continuing to do what Labor do best; that is, attempt to scare people with their lies and false representations of government policy.

The additional support for carers of people with disabilities, those selfless individuals who give up so much of their own time and opportunity to care for a loved one, is welcomed in this budget. The disability employment services funding boost is also a positive social measure that recognises the selflessness of those people supporting disabled citizens. The record $2 billion committed to environmental repair and management programs in the 2003-04 budget exemplifies the Howard government's whole-of-government framework for environmental sustainability. It includes for the first time $40 million for a sustainable cities program, aimed at the impacts of city living and improving the environment, health and lifestyles of urban Australians. It includes a further increase in spending between the environment and agriculture portfolios, which jointly administer the landmark Natural Heritage Trust and the National Action Plan for Salinity and Water Quality. That funding is going to be increased for environmental activities—a funding level that has more than doubled since 1996 to a record $957 million next financial year.

That is what good economic management offers: the chance to do something. As you see in the state of Victoria, poor economic management denies opportunities to do things. I spoke in this House about a $20 million subacute facility in Mornington hospital—unashamedly presented as an election sweetener for those people in the southern part of my electorate. That is not even in the forward estimates of the Bracks budget. That is what poor economic management does: it denies opportunities and it limits future potential of not only our communities but our nation.

Going further on the triple bottom line advantages of this budget, we can look at some of the less spectacular programs, which are equally important. I am particularly pleased that the retractable needle and syringe program I secured prior to the last budget has advanced to the stage where $17.5 million has been allocated to roll out the technology over the next three years. That is encouraging news. It is providing the proper public health support for injecting drug users, but not at the expense of the safety and wellbeing of regular citizens, who are fearful of coming into contact with recklessly discarded used syringes. That is a constructive, positive measure that I strongly support.

Before I close, I would like to talk about one other issue. For a long time, I have been a campaigner on the virtues of LPG. I think LPG is the new fuel. Sadly, its genesis was one of a dirty fuel; a waste product from petroleum refining. But we have come to realise that, as a fuel source, it is clean, it is kinder to the air quality and it is in abundance in our area. The government has announced that it is examining the question of fuel taxation through the fuel tax reform for the future package. I am encouraging people like me, who recognise the fuel security and self-sufficiency virtue of LPG and our capacity to meet those transport fuel requirements from our own reserves. There are values that LPG offers that should be reflected in the final determinations of the rates later this year. There are also the air quality benefits. Mr Deputy Speaker, you would be aware of the particulates, the things that are compromising our efforts in improving air quality and would even make the gains we hope to make under the sustainable cities initiatives more difficult. LPG offers a pathway there: it is friendlier to the air quality, and that should also be recognised as another factor to influence the rate of excise that is applied to those fuels.

Finally, we have the greenhouse benefits. We know that the performance of LPG outstrips many other fuel types in the transport sector, and that also has a public policy value that should be taken into account as another factor that should influence the rates of excise applied to LPG. I encourage the LPG sector, with whom I have worked closely over the last four or five years, to get that information together. The opportunity is there. The government has stated that the energy content of the fuels will be the starting position. I have been assured that other factors will be taken into account. Let us assemble that information and put it to the government. Let us show how LPG is not only an attractive, self-reliant and environmentally friendly fuel that we should integrate more deeply into our economy but also a fuel where there is an existing distribution network. It is not a potential alternative fuel for the future: it is here now.

One in 17 cars in our national fleet are using LPG. We have secured the support, coordination and cooperation of the industry to promote and market LPG as the clean fuel. I have described it as a bit of an aspirin, in that people have sometimes discounted the virtue of LPG but, as time goes by, we will learn more about its positive characteristics. I encourage the sector that has worked so effectively to advance the interests of LPG to combine to get its information together and help support me to present the best possible case about the other factors that need to be taken into account beyond the energy content of LPG as the government moves to settle on that fuel type.

All four of the original equipment manufacturers of vehicles in Australia have been working on LPG cars. We are looking at European technology, which is primarily on two-litre engines, to see what needs to be adapted and changed to meet Euro 4 end of pipe emission standards for LPG. This is an exciting time. LPG is the fuel of the future and we should get behind it. (Time expired)