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Thursday, 29 May 2003
Page: 15456

Mr PEARCE (1:43 PM) —I rise to speak on the Appropriation Bill (No. 1) 2003-2004. Australia's economy is in good shape and continues to outperform other like nations throughout the world. According to the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development—the OECD—Australia's armour-plated economy is leading the world and is better equipped than ever to withstand financial crises at home or abroad.

Let me start by taking the House back 10 years to the fiscal year 1993-94. Under the then Keating government, Australia recorded the following key economic conditions for our country: the budget was in deficit in the order of $17.1 billion, unemployment was at a rate of 10.2 per cent, government debt was a staggering $70.2 billion or 15.7 per cent of GDP and home loan interest rates were approximately nine per cent.

Let me move forward to this fiscal year and contrast those days with the current performance of Australia's economy after just seven years under the coalition government. The budget is in surplus by about $2.2 billion. Unemployment is low and is forecast to average six per cent. Government debt has fallen drastically. It has been reduced by $63 billion to $33 billion, representing around four per cent of GDP—one of the lowest levels of general government debt in the OECD. Home loan interest rates are around six per cent.

This budget is about protecting, securing and building Australia's future by taking responsible action. In the past year Australia has had to deal with unexpected pressures like the Bali atrocity, the war in Iraq, the worst drought on record and the unstable world economic environment. Despite these pressures, the coalition has been able to deliver in this budget a responsible plan that further strengthens certainty and stability for families not only in my electorate of Aston but right across Australia.

This plan not only protects and secures Australia in the immediate future but also, just as importantly, provides the stability and certainty needed to build Australia in the long term. The coalition is committed to keeping Australia's economy strong. Keeping the economy strong is good news for Australian families and small businesses which benefit from jobs growth, lower interest rates and the security of a stable economic future.

Most developed economies of the world are experiencing downturns and are deeply in deficit. In this very difficult international environment the Australian economy has shown remarkable resilience. Our economy has continued to grow solidly, outperforming most other developed economies. Investment has surged, employment has grown strongly and inflation has remained moderate. Looking forward, despite continuing global economic weakness the prospects for the Australian economy remain solid. Economic growth in the coming budgetary year is forecast to be 3¼ per cent. The unemployment rate is expected to remain steady and inflation is expected to be within the target band.

This has not come about by accident. It has come about by hard work and taking the tough decisions that have been necessary. The dividend for Australians is clear. Good economic management by the coalition has allowed for responsible extra spending on Medicare, universities and defence, as well as income tax cuts. In contrast to world trends, the budget remains in surplus, taking pressure off interest rates and keeping them low. This budget, in fact, represents the government's sixth surplus.

Let me talk about taxation. All Australians have contributed to our strong economy and now all tax-paying Australians will receive personal income tax cuts. From 1 July Australian taxpayers will share in personal income tax cuts worth $10.7 billion over the next four years. These tax cuts reflect the coalition's belief that whenever it can responsibly cut taxes and return money to Australian families it should do so. The government has a strong belief that any money left over in the budget—after providing for the important things like defence, health, education, support for those who need it most and paying back debt—should be returned to the Australian people. After all, it is rightly theirs.

In regard to health, the coalition is committed to improving access for all Australians to quality health care and preserving Medicare. This year the government expects to spend more than $30 billion on health care, which represents approximately one-fifth of total government spending. In the coming financial year the government will have increased health spending by around 65 per cent since the coalition came to office. The government remains committed to ensuring that Australians have choice in their health care. The government's 30 per cent private health insurance rebate and Lifetime Health Cover have helped increase private health insurance coverage to 44 per cent by December 2002.

Over the next five years the federal government will provide the states and territories with up to $42 billion to support the provision of free public hospital services. This represents a 17 per cent real increase in federal funding. But it is important that the onus of growing funding for hospitals be shared. According to the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare the state and territory share of total funding has fallen from 47.2 per cent in 1997-98 to 43.4 per cent in 2000-01, while in contrast the Commonwealth share has risen from 45.2 per cent to 48.1 per cent over exactly the same period.

The government's A Fairer Medicare package, an investment of $916.7 million, protects the rights of all Australians to affordable health care. This budget strengthens Medicare by further integrating prevention, health promotion and disease management within the health system—making prevention a fundamental part of Medicare. New measures increase the government's total commitment to the Tough on Drugs strategy, to over $1 billion for this very important area.

Let me now talk about education. Improving higher education is important to the future of this country. No Australian university has ever been listed among the world's top 100 universities. Australian universities need to be competitive, not only in Australia but also in the global community. They need to offer a world class education for the future of our country's youth. The government has committed to additional funding and the structural reform which is necessary for building the future of our universities and Australia.

Education creates opportunities for all Australians to improve their standard of living. The government will introduce wide-ranging reforms to ensure that the higher education system provides greater access to a high quality of education for all Australians. The government will invest an additional $1.5 billion in the system over the next four years to make this a reality. The features of the government's higher education reforms are many. They include a $775 million increase over three years from 2005 in base funding for universities, directly benefiting around 400,000 students; and $211 million from 2006 in further incentives to strengthen the quality of teaching and encourage diversity in the education system. People's education sets the foundation for their participation in the community and assists them in reaching their goals and aspirations.

I turn to the area of defence. Our nation's security is a key priority of the coalition. The government has provided additional funds to further improve the Australian Defence Force's capacity to protect Australia and our national interests. Funding has been committed to maintain critical defence equipment, support Australia's objectives in the war against terrorism, enhance our domestic security capability and boost personnel numbers. In this budget the government has increased spending on defence by $2.1 billion over the five years from the current financial year to enhance the protection afforded to Australia and its interests at home and abroad.

This increase includes many new elements, including an extra $156 million over four years to establish a new Special Operations Command that will enhance Australia's ability to respond to terrorist threats and boost Special Forces personnel by about 330. This budget will meet the increased needs of the Australian Defence Force in relation to their new strategic challenges and increased operational tempo. It reflects the government's determination to do its job of ensuring the safety of our troops by making sure they are capable and well-equipped to respond to new global security threats.

I turn to national security. As you know, Mr Deputy Speaker, safeguarding our community from terrorist threats is a top priority for the government. That is why we are allocating significant new funding to domestic security initiatives to protect critical infrastructure and enhance our intelligence and protective security services.

Following the terrorist attacks of September 11 and the Bali bombings, the government provided additional funding of $1.4 billion over five years to upgrade security within Australia. This included enhancements to Australia's aviation security arrangements as well as new funding for defence, intelligence and law enforcement agencies. The budget builds on this commitment by implementing the government's Safer Australia package of $411 million over five years.

I would now like to move to an aspect of the budget that is particularly relevant to my electorate. In this budget the federal government has reaffirmed its total commitment of $445 million to the construction of the Scoresby Freeway—the most vital infrastructure project in Aston and the outer east of Melbourne. This commitment of $445 million consists of money already allocated plus $419.7 million over the next five years. It stands in stark contrast to the Victorian government which, only weeks ago in its most recent budget, again failed to provide any funding for the Scoresby Freeway.

I have been concerned for some time about the Victorian government's lack of commitment to the Scoresby Freeway, which has been shown by the ongoing delays I have highlighted in this House. My deepest fears have come to fruition with the Victorian government's appalling backflip over funding for the Scoresby Freeway and their decision to impose tolls on all vehicles. This was in spite of promising the people of Victoria at the last state election that they would not impose tolls. I join with the community in rejecting the imposition of tolls on the Scoresby. The Victorian government's attempt to divert funding from the Scoresby Freeway short-changes not just the local community but all the people who live in the outer eastern and south-eastern suburbs of Melbourne.

I understand the importance of the Scoresby Freeway project to the people of Aston. We need it built now. Residents have spoken to me about their dismay at the Victorian Labor government's decision. That is why I have been working as hard as I can to get that decision reversed. It is disappointing that the Scoresby Freeway did not even make an appearance in the recent Victorian state budget. As I said, this contrasts remarkably with the federal budget which, again, identified the full funding commitment of $445 million. We in the Scoresby Corridor have already endured a long journey on the road to the development of the Scoresby Freeway. Sadly, it appears that we still have some way to go—at least, that is if the Victorian government have their way.

Budgets are important. They are important not in themselves but because they enable the government to deliver practical measures as part of its agenda of national priorities. Late last year the Prime Minister outlined the government's key whole-of-government strategic priorities as we move forward in this term. In the area of national security and defence the budget demonstrates the government's commitment to confronting the threats of rising international terrorism and weapons of mass destruction. To support Australian families to better balance their work and home life, the budget takes pressure off the family budget by cutting income taxes for every Australian taxpayer. Embracing the challenges of our ageing population, the government is continuing to deliver quality assistance for older Australians by supporting increased health and ageing services, boosting Medicare and introducing tax cuts.

The government places a high value on science and innovation and, in this budget, continues its investment through measures such as increased funding for the CSIRO. This funding will support research, and advance new ideas and technology. The budget invests a record $15.8 billion in education, science and training as part of the government's efforts to provide Australia with a world-class education sector, which will help build strong economic and social future for Australia. The government's recognition of the importance of restoring, protecting and sustainably managing our unique environment and heritage is also demonstrated in the budget through initiatives such as the Envirofund and the Sustainable Cities package.

As part of the government's energy reforms the budget introduces new fuel excise arrangements that will promote long-term sustainability. Additional incentives will encourage the further production and use of cleaner fuels. With drought widespread, and in the aftermath of devastating bushfires, the government has strengthened its commitment to the growth and prosperity of Australia's rural and regional areas through measures like increased access to GP services. Finally, this budget provides additional funding to improve Australia's road system.

In short, this budget is part of the government's work in getting on with the job and delivering practical and responsible government in our national interest for the benefit of all Australians. Indeed, as the Treasurer said in his budget speech, this budget is a further step on the journey to securing Australia's future. That future has looked much better since the coalition came to government in 1996.

The SPEAKER —Order! It being 2.00 p.m., the debate is interrupted in accordance with standing order 101A. The debate may be resumed at a later hour and the member will have leave to continue speaking when the debate is resumed.