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Thursday, 29 May 2003
Page: 15441


Ms JANN McFARLANE (12:44 PM) —I am pleased to have the opportunity to speak on the Appropriation Bill (No. 1) 2003-2004 now before the House. In my time as the member for Stirling, I have experienced five budgets from the Howard government. I do not want to devote my time in this place to listing the many atrocities of Treasurer Costello's previous budgets, but I will say that this year's budget is no exception—again he treats the Australian people with contempt and again he fails to show the ability to have care and concern for justice and equity for all Australian people.

If you listened to the Howard government rhetoric, health and education are two of their most important priorities. The Australian people are not that easily fooled, Prime Minister. This government has no real plans for health or education but, rather, ways to stop the everyday Australian from getting the access to the services that they deserve. Dismantling Medicare and the health system and increasing the burden on students, universities, TAFEs and colleges is not fair and equitable.

Allow me to start on the first of the Treasurer's supposed reforms of this year's budget: health. As part of my service to the electorate of Stirling, I produce a bulk-billing guide, listing all the bulk-billing surgeries in the area. The first edition of this guide, produced in late 2002, had 28 bulk-billing GPs on it. The list in latest edition, compiled in March of this year, has shrunk by more than 25 per cent, to be at 20 bulk-billing doctors for a population of approximately 90,000. On average, Australian patients go to a GP 6½ times per year. I trust that the government is able to do the maths.

Since the introduction of Medibank by the Whitlam government, Australia has been considered a world leader in government health provision for all in our community. However, the Howard government is slowly dismantling one of the most important government initiatives in Australian history and has left many Australians out in the cold when it comes to health care. What has this government given us as an alternative system? Not much. Private health insurance has been propped up by taxpayer money with questionable success—so now the whole population pays for rebates that go to the 44.1 per cent of people who are covered by private health insurance. Again, all of us pay the Medicare rebate yet, according to the government's private health insurance policy, only those not covered privately would actually use it.

Those Australians in private health insurance are not receiving the protection from fee hikes that the Prime Minister promised them so many times. Regularly, health insurance companies have raised their premiums well above CPI levels. Regularly, health insurance companies have ripped off their customers—and this government has sanctioned it. This government has never cared about health for low- and middle-income people and families, and this budget is no change of heart.

The shortage of doctors in this country is of growing concern. Particularly in rural centres, general practitioners are in short supply. Where is the Treasurer's commitment to fixing the problem? He will tell you it is in the $38.7 million dollars he has set aside for medical places. If he really cared about the number of doctors ordinary Australians had access to, the amount that universities could charge for these new spots would be fixed—naturally, it is not. There is a genuine shortage of doctors in this country, yet the Treasurer chooses to make a quick buck out of this through the universities rather than actually fixing the problem.

Prime Minister Howard says he is putting older Australians first by ensuring that pensioners have access to bulk-billing. My colleagues have outlined time and time again why the plan will not work—beyond that, even if it did work, this is still no real commitment to Australia's older people. Prime Minister Howard, if you cared about the health status of our pensioners you would do something about the crisis that is gripping aged care in this country. In the Stirling Electorate, bed licenses have been issued, but no new beds have been created since 1998, when I was elected. The fact that Australia has an ageing population seems to have escaped the government in putting together this budget.

I bring to the attention of the House the plight of one of my constituents, Mrs Athelle Thomas, herself 71 years old, having to pay the way of her 100-year-old mother because this government refuses to. Mrs Thomas is trying to find an aged care bed for her 100-year-old mother, so far without success. Mrs Thomas and her mother are not alone: hundreds of families in the Stirling electorate alone would be facing the aged care crisis daily—living with uncertainty for their own future and the future of their loved ones. If this government cared, the budget would have addressed the issue.

This government has got things upside down: health is clearly at the bottom of the list and one position above it is education. Treasurer Costello is striking at the heart of higher education in Australia with this budget. Australia has a worldwide reputation for educating its people. Treasurer Costello is trying his hardest to destroy that reputation. Gough Whitlam introduced a higher education system that ensured every Australian had the opportunity to go to university. When fees were introduced by the Hawke government, they were installed in such a way that, regardless of wealth, any Australian could still go to university. However, the Costello mentality is not about the most talented getting to university; it is about getting the richest to university. By giving universities 30 per cent freedom over their course fees, this government is creating a two-tiered system of education. If you are a student using HECS style repayments, you can expect to be in debt for the better part of your working life. For those families fortunate enough to be able to pay their sons, and daughters, fees up front, these positions will now cost anywhere up to $100,000.

I remember an Australia that, with the Whitlam government changes, became renowned for its creativity, ingenuity and skilful, intelligent citizens. This was the product of a time when Australians were admitted to universities on the basic of talent, not on how much they were prepared to pay. For the very small proportion of people out there with enough money to pay such high fees, there is some good news—the extremely wealthy minority will get into the top universities, regardless of talent, because they have a bank balance that meets the Treasurer's criteria.

The Treasurer talked about the value of education as an export. Granted, we should take advantage of our international reputation as an educator and open our universities to students from around the world. But this budget allows for up to 50 per cent of undergraduate places to be for full fee paying students, the majority of which would almost certainly be taken up by international students. Yes, let us make education an export; but let us not do that at the expense of young Australians, who have every right to a higher education within their own country.

Once, we were the clever country; but, under this government, we will soon become the class country once again. The measures in this budget in terms of education ensure that lower socioeconomic groups have no feasible access to higher education in this country. Australia's skilled work force makes up a high proportion of Australians because of the accessible education that Whitlam put in place three decades ago. Even past coalition governments have realised the importance of accessible higher education but, for the first time since the early 1970s, not every Australian will be able to go to university on the basis of merit. I am appalled. My constituents in Stirling are appalled. They are also fearful that their children and grandchildren will not get access to education.

Health and education should be the priorities of the budget, not the victims. But this government has enough disrespect for ordinary Australians to slash and burn through both areas of funding in the one budget. What compensation do the majority of Australians get for such poor policy? They get Treasurer Costello's tax cut—a very weak, very useless and very empty tax cut of $4 a week. Does that $4 compensate for the thousands of dollars extra that Australian families will pay to put a child through university? Does it compensate for the GP payments, and at times, poorer health of Australians? Does it compensate for the peace of mind it has taken away from middle Australia? No, it does not.

We, on this side of the House, take tax cuts very seriously. If the government did too, a tax cut would be introduced that managed to cover bracket creep or one that gave Australians more for their retirement. Instead, Australians are given a token cut—a cut that fails to confront bracket creep and is worth nothing. This empty tax cut should be measured up against the tax regime that the coalition has introduced during its time in government: for example, $4 a week compared against the Ansett levy, the milk tax and the sugar tax or $4 a week against a goods and services tax that was meant to simplify tax, but was really just another tax increase. The government, presumably, taxes Australians to fund public services. This government has ripped the most basic services—health and education—to shreds. Where is all this tax going, Treasurer Costello? Ordinary Australians, like the people of Stirling, deserve better. My colleagues and I are committed to serving the many, not the few.

The government is not only removing our basic services but failing to invest in our greatest strengths. Australia is held in high regard as a destination throughout the world. Tourism should be looked upon as a key industry for the growth of the Australian economy. The global tourist market is going through very tough times. Terrorism and a poor global economy are threatening thousands of Australian jobs. The industry is in a state of crisis, but this government has done literally nothing to nurture tourism while it is fragile. Airlines all over the world are collapsing and tourist destinations are going under every day, but the Prime Minister and Treasurer have twiddled their thumbs on this one, despite Australia's stronghold in the industry being threatened. I wonder if $4 a week will be enough to comfort those who lose their jobs because of government inaction.

This mentality can be seen especially in the electorate of Stirling. I have brought the issue of the Sunset Coast as a tourist destination to this place a number of times. This is one of hundreds of natural tourist destinations in Australia which receive no support from this government. In spite of the government not caring about Stirling's tourism—in spite of the lack of support—the Sunset Coast and the Stirling electorate have pressed on and continued to attract tourists. The City of Stirling has poured millions into developing the areas surrounding the beaches along our beautiful and pristine coast. However, this organisation should not have to act without the backing of the federal government. I am sure there are many councils throughout Australia being treated just as badly. Treasurer Costello, you do an injustice to our beautiful country by not supporting them. Recent publicity in the media points out that Australia is perceived overseas as one of the safe destinations. We should be doing everything possible to promote that safety, to promote our beautiful country and natural attractions and to attract tourists and the tourist dollar.

Neglect is a common theme in this budget. Health, education and tourism have all been comprehensively neglected by the powers that be. We can add Australian families to this list. The Howard government has, yet again, snubbed parents who need help balancing their work and parenting responsibilities. Nowhere in this budget is there anything for the average Australian family. It costs more to see a doctor and to get an education, particularly if they are a low- or middle-income family. These same families cannot go out and earn enough money to try to pay their way, because a large proportion of their pay packet goes toward child care. The government has left Australian families out in the cold yet again, with no paid maternity leave, no child-care relief and, clearly, no interest in making life easier for the Australian community, particularly working people.

The Howard government talks about the importance of work and family but there is little in this budget to give practical support and resources to Australian families. The only money that is going into the Family and Community Services budget this year is money to catch out Centrelink cheats. I agree that those who are cheating the system need to be caught but, if you look at the amount of money going into catching the minority and the amount of money going into helping the majority of genuine claims, there is a huge problem. This problem has existed throughout the Howard government's time in office and, year after year, it has washed its hands of family services and decided that it is a problem too hard to fix. I must also point out that, under the Family and Community Services portfolio, there seems to be a philosophy of funding pilot programs. Pilots run for a year or so and many have proved very successful, yet ongoing funding is not given to many of them. That sets up a situation of creating an expectation in communities that they have a service, but then suddenly the service disappears.

Judging by the measures taken in this budget, the federal government is eager to abandon you almost as soon as you leave Australian shores. Under the new budget, those on the majority of support payments will only continue to receive them for 13 weeks after leaving Australian borders. This means that those young Australians gaining an education overseas, like a growing number of Australian students, will be supported by their government for barely three months. I appreciate entirely that when someone leaves Australia they do so of their own accord, but this is just another way that the Treasurer has trimmed off the top in order to try and buy us all for $4 a head.

In the context of the Stirling electorate, the Treasurer and Prime Minister have starved the area of resources yet again. The people of Stirling are hardworking individuals from all walks of life. The treatment of the Stirling electorate in this budget is not unique; it repeats the treatment being given to many Australians: it ignores the needs of the everyday person. Stirling could easily be a tourism money-spinner for the federal government and the Treasury coffers. I challenge the government to find many other places in the world that have pristine beaches such as Scarborough, Trigg and North Beach located so close to a city centre. People throughout the world would pay to come and be a part of that—if the Howard government let them know. I cannot repeat this often enough.

But the neglect of Stirling is not only in terms of the tourism industry. The coastal suburbs within Stirling electorate have endured poor television reception for many years, due to the unique geography of the area. I have brought this matter to the attention of the government several times, with no success. It would seem that the people of Stirling do not deserve an adequate quality of television reception. This is despite the fact that barely half of the money allocated for fixing television black spots in the 2002-03 budget was spent. The Treasurer takes great pleasure in announcing his budget surplus, but this budget weighs down the people of Stirling, and many other Australians. An opportunity for Stirling people to get reasonable television reception was lost.

When people within the Stirling electorate are unable to get on aged care waiting lists because facilities are so overrun the lists have been closed, alarm bells should be ringing. Yet absolutely nothing is being done to give Australians the basic services they have earned through paying their taxes. Many people have said to me: `The problem with aged care beds not being built is due to the Howard government cancelling the capital grants program to build aged care beds in the cities. Why doesn't the Howard government use some commonsense and bring back the capital grants program for the cities?' Yes, Prime Minister and Treasurer, why don't you use commonsense and bring back the capital grants program for the cities and enable the many thousands of beds, for which licences have been issued, to be built?

The poor decision making and planning by the Howard government is affecting areas not covered by federal legislation. When the federal government keeps on passing the buck, someone has to take up the slack. In the case of Western Australia, it is the Labor state government. Health has been continually patched up by the state government. The system has been propped up with state funds earmarked for other important areas.

The Western Australian Minister for Health, Bob Kucera, told me recently that in Western Australian hospitals there are 260 aged people who should be in an aged care facility. This is an enormous drain on state government finances—money that should be going into providing health services to people using the public hospital system. As well, it is an enormous saving for the federal government budget. This is perhaps how Treasurer Costello has brought in his surplus. The state government is paying for the health provisions that the federal government should be paying for.

Budgets in the years gone by have, just like this one, resulted in degradation of services and less support for those in need. All of Treasurer Costello's budgets have robbed low-income and middle-income Australia of the service and support that previously made Australia a world example of social equity. As a mother and a grandmother and the member for Stirling, I am offended by what this budget is trying to do. I want my children and grandchildren to have reasonable access to health care. So do Stirling constituents. I want to know that I live in a country which looks after its young citizens. So do Stirling constituents. This is not just about their health; it is also about their education. It is a crime against our children and against Australians in general to starve a massive proportion of our population of higher education access. This budget neglects the things most important to me, and most important to ordinary Australians. We have been lucky enough to have had visionary leaders like Whitlam, Hawke and Keating, who saw the necessity of giving all Australians a strong infrastructure and resources. This budget is about tearing those basic resources away. It is poor economics, it is cheap politics and, sadly, it is an injustice against every Australian who believes in a fair go.

We on this side of the House simply want a fair go for every Australian. I am proud of Labor's resolve when it comes to health and education. I worry that the Treasurer has gotten so lost in undermining Labor's principles that he has forgotten what this place is about—representing Australians. This budget is no different from its predecessors, and I am appalled at the Howard government's approach to managing Australia's finances. You do not balance a budget through cutting essentials—you balance a budget through long-term investment and vision, something the Howard government has once again shown to be lacking. I call on the government to restore justice and equity and rethink its budget.