Note: Where available, the PDF/Word icon below is provided to view the complete and fully formatted document
 Download Current HansardDownload Current Hansard    View Or Save XMLView/Save XML

Previous Fragment    Next Fragment
Monday, 2 June 2003
Page: 15669

Mr HAWKER (7:48 PM) —I rise in this debate on Appropriation Bill (No. 1) 2003-2004 to support the eighth Costello budget. I congratulate the Treasurer on yet another excellent budget, one that I think every member of the government is very proud of. Also just in passing I must note a comment made by the member for Greenway. He lamented the fact that in New South Wales a toll is being placed on a road. I would hope that he might extend such remarks to the state Labor government of Victoria, which is now talking about trying to build the Scoresby Freeway. The Commonwealth promised $425 million to make sure of its being built. The state would only have to match that, but it is apparently not prepared to do so now and wants to have a road toll instead—and I am sure the member for Greenway would disapprove of that too.

As I say, this is another excellent budget by the Treasurer, ably supported by the Prime Minister and every member of the government. There are a few salient points we ought to reinforce yet again about the fact that this budget, contrary to the comments of some opposition members, reduces taxes—there is an income tax cut there—and at the same time continues to produce a surplus, which is sound economic management. It is sound economic management particularly given that there is a drought which has caused so much devastation across so much of rural Australia, given the fact that we have had to finance our part in the Iraq war and, of course, given that there has been a big increase in security spending. I know that all members would agree with the sentiments of increasing our security, but we also know that it has to be paid for. When you put all that together, I think it is a very impressive result.

It goes further than that. This budget talks about a 3¼ per cent growth in the coming year, and I think we ought to put that into some sort of context. While 3¼ per cent is reasonably impressive, when you look at other countries, particularly OECD countries, it is extremely impressive. Looking at the latest Economist and at the Economist poll of gross domestic product forecasts this year and next year, we find that not only does Australia come at the top alphabetically but it also comes at the top on the growth figures. You could not get a better example of just how high Australia is rated in the world when you read in the Economist that we are at the top of the table when it comes to growth in this year and in the next year amongst OECD countries. That is a measure of how this government is helping Australia to perform well above the average. Even the Reserve Bank—which is never noted for overstating the case—in its May Bulletin, in which there is the statement on monetary policy, makes the observation that the Australian economy `has continued to perform relatively well against the background of a difficult international environment'. That from the Reserve Bank gives support for the excellent work that the government, particularly the Treasurer, is doing.

We could compare that with some of the comments we have heard from the opposition. Frankly, all they talk about is wanting to increase the cost of health care. They talk about possibly removing the rebate on private health insurance. As everyone knows, that is just code for increasing taxes. Because we now have a significant proportion of the Australian population back in private health cover, to remove part of that would do nothing more than increase costs, which is the equivalent of an increase in taxes. Likewise, those opposite seem to have great difficulties with the excellent work that the minister for education is doing with his higher education policy—which I think is quite an outstanding effort. As has been pointed out in this chamber day after day, that policy is a way of allowing more Australians to get to universities. Yet the opposition seems to be constantly carping, bringing up negatives and failing to observe what clearly is a very beneficial policy for young Australians and, indeed, for the whole of Australia.

I would now like to turn to a couple of other issues. The first one is the question of budget equity and financing inside the parliament. I am sure that all honourable members will be quite interested in this and I hope that they will listen closely. Earlier this year I put a question on notice to the Speaker. I wanted to get some indication about the comparison between the budget of the Department of the House of Representatives and that of the Department of the Senate. From this some very interesting figures have come forth. I wanted to find out what the comparative budgets for the two departments in this building were, how they related to the number of members and senators and, particularly, what that meant for committees. As Chairman of one of the standing committees, I am very conscious of the difficulties House standing committees are facing in trying to provide proper backup and service to the members all-party committees. I think that all members appreciate the value of our House committees and support them.

These figures tell a very interesting story. Let us start from the premise that members and senators are treated equally in most ways. We have equal salaries and we have, basically, the same allowances, travel entitlements, superannuation and so on. It raises the question: how does that translate into the departments? Interestingly, if you look at the overall budgets for the departments' activities you find that, again, they are the same or almost the same. They are both just over $28 million. Then you start to think, `Hang on, what about when you translate back to the number of members and senators?' If you just do simple arithmetic you find that, according to the department of the House, it is $192,480 per member. The Department of the Senate seems to have some difficulty in answering that question. They say:

This figure is not related to the number of senators.

I thought that that was exactly what the question was. They go on to point out:

The security costs for all of Parliament House, including its environs, are shared equally by the Department of the Senate and the Department of the House of Representatives.

That is interesting but not necessarily the same point. It is one thing that it is equal, but it does not go back to the question of senators and members. As we all know, there are twice as many members of the House of Representatives as there are senators. Yet the budgets are the same.

When we try to go back to what it means for committees we find that each department gives an estimate of the cost of committees, which is only part of this $28 million. I then asked the question: how many committees are there for each department? The Department of the House of Representatives has 28 committees and the Department of the Senate, in its response, says that it has 33. However—and it is important to note this—it says on its web site:

In October 1994 the Senate restructured its committee system by establishing a pair of standing committees—a References committee and a Legislation committee—in each of eight subject areas.

In other words, the same committee does two lots of work: legislation and references. So to count them as 33 is really a bit of double counting. If we bring them back to 25 we then can start to look at the budgets of the relative committees of the House of Representatives and the Senate. Remember: there are twice as many members as there are senators. According to the figures produced by the department of the House, the average actual budget per committee is $225,000-odd. The Senate tried to say that it was $245,000 but, if you cut the number of committees back to 25, the actual figure is $323,320, which is nearly a third, or nearly $100,000, more.

My point in asking this question was to highlight the fact that House of Representatives committees, if you look at it from one perspective, are working on very tight budgets. I think that those of us who are very much involved in those committees recognise that it is not easy. The committee secretaries have to share two committees nowadays, which they did not have to do in the earlier days, and that is putting a lot of strain on the staff. Of course, it means that the workload has certainly become far greater.

The question then is: if the Senate believes that it needs so much for its committees—nearly $100,000 more for each committee—why is it that the House has to make do with so much less? I think that is a very important question, and it is one that I hope will be addressed. Frankly, I believe that members of the House deserve better. I am not trying to suggest that the Senate does not need the number of committees it has or the resources it has. I just think that it seems a trifle curious that there is such an imbalance between the two chambers of this parliament when it comes to the resources that are being allocated to standing committees.

Mr King —Are you suggesting that we should abolish the Senate?

Mr HAWKER —I had a very interesting interjection there, which I had better acknowledge, but I do not think it is quite relevant to tonight's debate. I would now like to turn to another subject in the time available: the impact that bushfires have had on Australia this year, and some of the consequences of them. A very interesting conference was organised back in March. It was addressed by Dr Phil Cheney of the CSIRO. I think that anyone who has been involved with bushfires would know that he is probably Australia's most pre-eminent expert on the whole question of bushfires and bushfire control, having had four decades of experience working in that area. Dr Syd Shea, Professor of Environmental Management at the University of Notre Dame Australia and former head of Western Australia's Department of Conservation and Land Management, and Dr Kevin Tolhurst, of the Forest Science Centre at the University of Melbourne, also addressed the conference.

It was a very useful conference that brought out some of the frustrations that so many in Australia are feeling nowadays about the way the bushfires were allowed to occur—and I choose those words carefully—the impact they had and the reaction afterwards when so many of those who probably should have been a bit more open in admitting their failures and where things had gone wrong were doing so much to try to cover up—and I choose the words `cover up'—what has been a real policy failure in Australia when it comes to managing our fire prone forests.

At the conference, the experts were told that prescribed burning was the most effective tool for controlling major bushfires in Australia—something that most people know but something that has been constantly worked against by a number of policy decisions. Prescribed burning is also seen as environmentally beneficial, because it replicates the conditions under which Australia's forests and scrub lands evolved. There is no doubt, as the conference was told, that the devastation that occurred in eastern Australia's forests, parks and farms at the beginning of this year was cruelly exacerbated by the failure to conduct adequate prescribed burning. That is a very important point.

It is difficult not to conclude that much of the 1.6 million hectares of parks and forests that were destroyed this year could have been saved had proper prescribed burning been carried out. The question is: why was it not carried out? The three experts noted that there were limitations on the skills and, equally importantly, the resources available to conduct prescribed burning and that there were elements of community opposition to such burning. That is a nice polite way of saying that, as the delegates from fire affected regions put much more strongly, there has been a lot of ill-informed debate going on in Australia in the last few years, particularly from some of the green groups. They have been the ones most opposed to prescribed burning and, equally, those most vocal in trying to expand the size of our native forests and parks, at the same time not demanding of the state governments—because it is a state responsibility—adequate resources to properly manage them.

This failure of policies has brought about the devastation that we saw earlier this year. It is not just the devastation within the public land, but also the devastation on adjoining private lands that have been burnt out, and burnt out so comprehensively, in a way that has caused extreme misery for those who are affected.

The point that seems to get lost on some of these green groups is that, if the scale of human suffering—that is, the burnt out homes and the scorched farms—was terrible, the damage to the natural environment was awesome. It is a cruel reminder to say that millions of small marsupials and other native animals died in these infernos. The question is not what we did to try to stop it but what we did not do that allowed those fires to reach such horrific proportions. There is no doubt that one of the points that has to come out of the inquiries—one of which is being conducted by the House of Representatives—is that there are obligations on public land managers similar to those on private land-holders when it comes to helping prevent the spread of fires. Clearly the failure to prevent the build-up of fuel on neighbouring public lands was a significant factor in the intensity of the fires that struck in their own areas. What better example is there than Canberra, with over 500 homes lost?

But it was not only the fuel. A lot of these areas were choked with noxious weeds, providing a sanctuary for feral cats, dogs and goats, which in turn invade private property. It is not just the fires; it is all the other problems associated with the lack of resources to manage these public lands. That is the sad thing about it. The ACT Sustainable Rural Lands Group made a presentation. Their evidence was very similar to the evidence they gave to the ACT Coroner investigating deaths from fires in 1991. It really is quite tragic.

Unfortunately, nowadays we have state governments that are far more enthusiastic about creating electorally popular national parks than they are about funding the management of those parks. It has certainly come back in spades with these horrific fires and the tragedy that has come with them. Despite many warnings, people have refused to face up to this.

The question that often comes to my mind is this: why haven't the media joined in with the local knowledge and questioned state governments more? Unfortunately, it is hard not to conclude that this is just further evidence of the ever widening gap between the city and the country. People in the city no longer appreciate the experience of those in the country who have lived with fire all their lives, who know how to manage the risk and whose views are being increasingly ignored, at the peril of our parks.

One aspect is interesting, and I will develop this theme further on another occasion. The Institute of Public Affairs, in a recent publication, made the observation that only 10,000 hectares of Australia were logged in the last year, and 1.6 million hectares were burnt last summer. All this timber was either lost or partially destroyed. It does seem that we have an extraordinary imbalance. Pressure to reduce or eliminate logging in public lands is coming through from those who claim to be conservationists, yet at the same time they are quite happy to see the land locked up, with a build-up of fuel that creates these infernos when they come through every few years. It is important to remember that often they come through from natural causes, started by lightning and in other ways.

It is worth just looking back at a bit of history on this. The management of our public lands is not something that has come into question recently. Management through fire—the judicious use of fire—is something that has been around for a long time. I recently looked at a publication called The People of Gariwerd:The Grampians' Aboriginal Heritage. It is about the Grampians in western Victoria. This book documents some of what the early European settlers found when they came to Australia. For example, in 1840 one settler wrote:

... on our way we met a party of natives engaged in burning the bush, which they do in sections every year. The dexterity with which they manage so proverbially a dangerous agent as fire is indeed astonishing. Those to whom this duty is especially entrusted, and who guide or stop the running flame, are armed with green tree boughs, with which, if it moves in the wrong direction, they beat it out.

The book goes on to talk about firestick farming and how the Aboriginals managed this land. The question is: why have we forgotten this?

In conclusion, I would again like to say what an excellent budget the Treasurer has brought down and to again raise the question of why it seems that the Department of the House of Representatives is being treated less than fairly when it comes to the budget. Finally, to come back to the bushfires, I would like to say that I hope that, from these inquiries, particularly the House of Representatives inquiry, we are going to get some commonsense brought back into the whole question of management of public lands so that we can try to manage them better and not see infernos and the tragic loss of not only private property but also many of our native animals.