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Tuesday, 3 June 2003
Page: 15852


Ms PANOPOULOS (4:44 PM) —I rise to support the Appropriation Bill (No. 1) 2003-2004 and in doing so congratulate the Treasurer for delivering a strong and positive budget framed in a somewhat difficult international and domestic climate. The Treasurer's eighth budget once again illustrates this government's genuine commitment to solid fiscal management through providing a surplus of $2.2 billion whilst at the same time delivering personal income tax cuts to Australian workers. The broad economic and social canvass remains strong and in some cases has been strengthened through measures in this budget. There is increased expenditure to make Medicare stronger and fairer, increased funding to strengthen our tertiary education system and the prioritisation of defence and national security to combat the twin threat of the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and international terrorism.

At a time when comparable countries around the world are experiencing significant fiscal downturns, Australia's economy continues to grow. This is a direct result of the proud economic record of the Howard government and its commitment to maintaining economic security for Australia.

Other developed countries throughout the world are in deep deficit, including the United States, Britain and much of Europe. Delivering a significant surplus within the current context means that Australia is leading the way on the world economic stage. The economy is predicted to grow at 3.5 per cent, inflation remains in check and under three per cent and, importantly, employment growth remains strong.

Australia has taken all the necessary steps to ensure our community is safe. The budget papers support this notion. Not only has the government invested to make our community safe; it is has also ensured that the economic future of our country is safe.

We all remember very clearly the economic mismanagement during the Labor Party's years in office at the federal level. We need not be reminded of the persistent unholy trinity of high interest rates, high unemployment and budget deficits that occurred throughout these years. But we have moved on, thankfully. Interest rates are at record low levels and we long for the day when unemployment can fall to figures closer to five per cent—perhaps achievable when the Labor Party passes the government's unfair dismissal legislation.

Budget deficits are not the accepted norm for this government, with the Treasurer having delivered the government's sixth surplus budget. We have paid for our involvement in military action in Iraq, we have supported our farmers through a drought at a time when the farm sector has been particularly hard hit and we have announced significant new expenditure to strengthen Medicare and our tertiary education system. At the same time, the government has been able to offer nine million Australians income tax cuts.

This decision to offer income tax cuts has not been met with universal praise, least of all from members of the opposition. It is a somewhat curious state of affairs when the Australian Labor Party ridicule the government's intention of increasing the low-income tax offset for low-income earners and pour scorn on the government's intentions to increase the income tax thresholds that currently apply to taxpayers. Members opposite seem unable to remember their own party's jaunt with taxation relief: it came in the guise of a rollback and, like so many of the short-sighted economic policies in the party's history, it was doomed to failure.

Naturally, many people would prefer the recently announced tax cuts to be larger. However, I find the breathtaking hypocrisy displayed by so many opposition members, the member for Lilley for one, a little hard to take. Back in March 2001, which was not that long ago, the member for Lilley defended a $4 tax cut. The member stated:

If you are going to miss out on $4, that means a hell of a lot if you have a tight budget.

He added what $4 a fortnight or $4 a week really means to someone's living standards and criticised the Howard government, saying:

... they simply do not understand what a dollar a week, $2 a week or $4 a week means to someone who is battling.'

Members opposite were quick to describe the recent tax cuts offered in this year's budget as miserly. However, these members have incredibly short memories. When the Labor Party proposed their now famous rollback policy, which amounted to a $1 tax cut for Australians, the then leader, the member for Brand, said:

There is no doubt in my mind that this will be appreciated ...

Yet when the Howard government offers tax cuts to nine million Australians, in some cases of up to $573 a year and a special saving for low-income earners, the Labor Party turns around and describes this measure as miserly.

I am pleased to say to the member for Lilley and other opposition MPs that the Howard government does understand what tax relief means to Australian battlers. On 1 July 2000, the Howard government gave Australian workers the biggest tax cut Australia has ever seen. On 1 July 2003, the Howard government again gave Australian workers a tax cut. Opposition members have consistently and stridently criticised the government's tax relief measures in this budget. But it is $573 for someone earning $65,000; for low-income earners, the tax cuts translate to a $329 saving. No-one can honestly say that these are insignificant tax cuts. A practical conclusion we might draw from this is that personal income tax cuts of between $4 and $11 a week are not acceptable when the Howard government offers them. But when the Labor Party offers $1 a week, as it did under rollback, the Australian public and political commentators are expected to commend this generosity.

For those who still feel a little underwhelmed by the government's tax cuts contained in the recent budget, I can only state this:

There are many things that you would like to do, but there are not many that you can afford to do in the current circumstances ...

These are not my words; they are borrowed from the member for Brand from October 2001. The fact is that, after paying for our significant military contribution in Iraq, after supporting our farmers—including the farmers in my electorate in the north-east of Victoria—through the worst drought in 100 years, and after injecting significant funds into our health and education systems, the Howard government can still balance the books, offer a surplus and return something to the taxpayer.

One of the important industries in my electorate that has been supported throughout this government's term has been tourism. The importance of tourism to local communities has been strengthened with this budget. Of particular importance to my electorate was the $56.2 million over four years set aside to establish the National Heritage List, including new measures for cultural heritage protection. The program Distinctly Australian will offer new opportunities to commemorate sites that are significant to our national identity. Prominent sites such as the Ned Kelly siege site in my electorate will have the opportunity to be further commemorated through the introduction and implementation of this new program.

The Howard government's many and varied funding initiatives for rural and regional Australia have proven to be a great success for the people of my electorate. Many local community groups, local shires and enterprising businesses have been fortunate enough to receive funding through such programs as Regional Solutions, the Regional Assistance Program, rural transaction centres and the Dairy Regional Assistance Program. In this year's budget, there is the formation of the Regional Partnerships Program which sees a number of these funding programs combined into a single master program. Funding of $277 million over four years will be available, and this includes an additional $62 million of funding. The formation of the Regional Partnerships Program will benefit those Indi businesses, community groups and local governments who until now have frequently applied for funding assistance through a number of other programs. Through the merging of these programs, there will now be a single application form which will make things easier and reduce the paperwork and the time that many organisations spend in applying for government funding. That is very warmly welcomed.

The Regional Tourism Program administered by AusIndustry had its funding boosted in last year's budget, and it has been of great benefit to the north-east. Several programs have been announced that have been of specific benefit to my electorate. The Commonwealth government boosted the RTP program in the 2002 budget with a commitment of a further $8 million over four years.

The effect of the bushfires on the local tourism industry in my electorate has been extremely severe. We were very pleased that the government was very lateral in its application to solving problems. I was very pleased to announce that almost $1 million of additional special funds that had been put aside have been allocated in cash grants to small businesses, including tourist businesses, within my electorate. The Regional Assistance Program is another successful initiative in generating employment in regional, remote and metropolitan Australia by encouraging local community action to boost business growth and create sustainable jobs. It provides the seed funding for innovative quality projects of value to the community, and funding is available to fund projects nationally.

Just last week, I announced federal government funding assistance for a particular local project that is very important to my electorate—that is, the North East Valley's Food and Wine Recovery project—through a successful application to the Regional Assistance Program. The funding to this project will assist our region to overcome a significant drop in visitor numbers following the recent bushfires by encouraging people to visit our area. I commend my local entrepreneurs and those who are focused on promoting tourism, particularly after the recent devastating fires. That project will receive $71,500 in federal government assistance to develop and implement a strategy for a vibrant, well-signed food and wine experience for the north-east.


Mr Quick —Madam Deputy Speaker, I seek to intervene.


The DEPUTY SPEAKER (Ms Corcoran)—I interrupt the member for Indi. Is the member for Franklin seeking to ask a question?


Mr Quick —Yes.


The DEPUTY SPEAKER —Will the member for Indi allow the question from the member for Franklin?


Ms PANOPOULOS —No, Madam Deputy Speaker. The federal government continues to promote the local tourism industry with continuing funding provided in this year's budget. But perhaps the greatest news in the budget for the electorate of Indi is the commitment of funding towards the construction of the Albury-Wodonga internal freeway. In this year's budget, there is a specific allocation of $10 million for planning of the Victorian section of the national highway through Albury-Wodonga and a further $15 million for the New South Wales section. Total federal funding for the road is set at $346 million. This commitment represents a great relief for the border community. Over 33 years of myth making has been put to rest. Finalisation of the planning aspects of the road are still under way. However, this commitment that the border community has sought for several decades is now a reality.

After over 33 years of promises, the internal freeway for Albury-Wodonga will finally become a reality. It was most unfortunate that the people of the border region had to wait over 33 years for finalisation of the highway's route and funding. But the decision to fund the internal road and to provide a second river crossing for Albury-Wodonga will, undoubtedly, provide the greatest traffic relief that the region has seen and will service the ever growing needs of one of the fastest growing inland cities of Australia. The decision will also ensure that the ability of the region to maximise on its unique location on the Hume Highway, on its unique competitive nature and on its ability to provide additional jobs will not be stifled by inadequate infrastructure. Another important aspect of the construction of this particular road is the recognition by the RACV and the NRMA that it will reduce accidents by 80 per cent. The Commonwealth's substantial monetary investment in this particular road development will help create employment for the region and help continue to attract investment in the region. Not only will it facilitate industry in the area; it will also assist the tourism industry.

I regret the sustained campaign of misinformation that has been forthcoming from the Labor Party in relation to the significant and welcome reforms to the tertiary sector. Of particular benefit is the injection of a further $1.5 billion over the next four years into higher education. The freeing up of the sector represents a far greater flexibility in allowing universities to set fees. Far from discriminating against the smart poor, the Labor Party should listen to the comments of the Vice-Chancellor of the University of Melbourne, who recently stated that his university is considering lowering fees for poor students. Professor Alan Gilbert said the government's reforms:

... would be a means of a university like ours discharging its obligations to make sure that no student is kept from studying at the University of Melbourne by reasonable inability to pay.

I particularly welcome the additional funding of $122.6 million over four years for regional tertiary institutions and campuses. This recognises the unique contribution made by regional higher education institutions and campuses not only to their local communities and students in rural and regional areas but also to families living outside metropolitan areas who would like to see their young people stay in their towns and their regions. The campuses of La Trobe University in Wodonga, Beechworth and Mount Buller will particularly benefit from this injection of funds.

Unlike the member for New England, I have no reservations about the government's plans to abolish compulsory membership of student unions. If a student union does offer the benefits it claims to offer, I have faith in the ability and intelligence of university students to make that decision and voluntarily join their student union should they see fit. But it is up to them to make that decision and no-one else.

I would like to say a few words on the injection of funding into Medicare. The measures announced in the budget related to the strengthening of Medicare through a $917 million injection of funding. In no way does this compromise the universality of the Medicare system, as has been claimed by some members opposite. There has been much discussion regarding the federal government's proposed changes to Medicare, including misinformation from the other side. It is essential that people look beyond the sloganeering and negativity on the other side and see what is being offered.

Under the package, doctors will be free to bulk-bill whomever they choose. However, for the first time, the government will strengthen the availability of bulk-billing for pensioners and concession card holders, particularly those of us in rural and regional areas. The package proposes a range of initiatives, including higher incentives for GPs to bulk-bill concession card holders, funding for extra nurses in work force shortage areas and a long-term commitment to improving the number of doctors in rural and remote areas. The bulk-billing initiatives for doctors to treat concession card holders could be worth up to $22,000 to GPs practising in rural and remote areas. For the first time, these incentives provide for greater equity across Australia, something that the Labor Party's plan for Medicare does not even touch on.

The critics of this package have spoken of the death of bulk-billing and the creation of a two-tiered health system. Not only is such talk irresponsible; it is also unfounded. There is nothing in this package that will lead to the doomsayers' predictions. They think that the more often they repeat it, the greater their chance of convincing the unconvinced. Those who challenge the government's package and promulgate these myths need to spell out a clear alternative. The Labor Party's proposed package of pitiful reforms will do nothing to increase the level of bulk-billing, nor will it increase the number of GPs practising in rural and regional areas.

The Howard government retains the universality of Medicare, as Australians will still have access to the Medicare rebate. In 1983, Senator Grimes, the Labor senator representing the Minister for Health in the Senate, stated:

Under Medicare everyone will have a Medicare card and number and will qualify for the Medicare rebate.

Twenty years later, these fundamental aspects of Medicare remain constant and, through this government's package, have been strengthened. I must give comment to the Victorian state budget handed down by Treasurer John Brumby last month. This cruel state budget foisted on Victorians included massive increases in taxes and charges, including higher car registration fees, higher stamp duty, more police fines, higher land taxes and `new' freeway tolls, so to speak. The Bracks government also ditched a payroll tax incentive for businesses that employ young people. The Bracks Labor government inherited a $1.8 billion surplus yet, in true Victorian Labor style, they have dwindled this away to a paltry $159 million surplus in this year's budget, whilst at the same time increasing the tax burden on Victorians by more than $1,900 per household since 1998-99. Whilst the Commonwealth government proposes to cut taxes, the Bracks government wishes to increase them.

I commend and congratulate the federal Treasurer on this year's budget. It is responsible, and it is focused on providing essential services and making them accessible to those who need them particularly. It is good news for Australia. It is good news for the north-east of Victor-ia. Many constituents have contacted my office in relation to a number of measures contain-ed in this budget, and it has been very warmly greeted. It is no wonder that members on the other side do not like to hear the good news. They do not like to hear that this Prime Minister has an approval rating of 65 per cent and that this Government is not only delivering ec-on-omic security for this country but providing a future for all young Australians.