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Monday, 16 June 2003
Page: 16495

Mr BEVIS (4:21 PM) —Budgets are quite rightly judged on two or three key criteria. They are judged on the extent to which they provide good economic management; they are judged on the extent to which they provide fair and equitable social justice for those in our society; and, if we are honest about it in this place, they are also judged on the political spin that you are able to give to these things in the environment in which we operate. This government has found over a series of years now that it can ignore the first two and rely on the third—with a compliant press gallery that does not delve too deeply into these matters, it can guarantee itself a public spin with a political take that it wants.

This budget took the economic management of Australia nowhere. There were no significant initiatives that dealt with economic management. There were sadly a number of retrograde social justice initiatives, and I intend to refer to a number of those. Before I do, I want to refer to the work of the Senate committee looking at poverty at the moment, because it relates directly to some of the concerns I have about initiatives in this budget that I think disadvantage those who are already in a disadvantaged position.

The evidence that has been given before that Senate inquiry should be compulsory reading for everybody in this place. Two and a half million Australians presently live in poverty. That is an increase of 134,000 Australians since 1995-96. There are nearly one million working families who are not earning enough to lift them above the poverty line. That is officially a million working poor. Our version of the American working poor now numbers one million people. In my electorate of Brisbane there are more than 4,700 families with incomes of less than $500 per week. That $500 per week is to cover all of their costs—the roof over their heads, the clothes on their backs, their children's education; all of the expenses that we know go to making a family's existence reasonable in our society. That is a small amount of money on which to raise a family, yet I have 4,700 families in my electorate whose income is less than $500.

On the other side of the coin, in the last five years we have seen the annual income of our nation's millionaires grow by more than 300 per cent—from $1.1 billion to $4.6 billion. In the life of this government, since John Howard was Prime Minister, we have seen the number of people in poverty increase by 134,000 and we have seen the wealth of the very rich in our society grow by 300 per cent over exactly the same period. The total earnings of the top five per cent of annual income earners is now $62 billion, which outstrips what the entire nation spends on all social security benefits and family payments. That is a cause of worry to anybody with a small interest in social justice issues. Yet in this budget we see an attack on core values that go to improving the lot of ordinary Australians—in health, in education, in skewed tax cuts and in Medicare in particular, but across the board. Because I have on another occasion had an opportunity to speak at some length about Medicare, I will not focus on that at the outset, although if time permits I will certainly make some comments about it. I want to refer, though, to a couple of other important aspects within the budget.

Education is, for me, one of the key issues confronting our society. One of the reasons I got involved in politics as a teenager was a very strong commitment to two things: a firm belief that every person in this country had the right to quality education to reach their potential and, equally important, a view that everybody in this country had the right to quality health care based solely on their health needs irrespective of their means—not related to their bank account or whether they had a credit card in their wallet—and background. We now see those fundamental beliefs that certainly motivated me in my youth—and I know many others as well—and that have been pursued by governments of both persuasions to varying degrees for the last 30 years or so undermined by this government and in this budget.

This government is making tertiary education more difficult for ordinary families to attain. If you happen to be particularly poor, there will be some support. If you are particularly rich, you can buy your way into a university course. This government has now opened the door for the rich in this country—and I have just described what this government has overseen in the last five years: the poor getting worse off, the number of working poor growing and the very rich prospering dramatically—to get two bites at the cherry when it comes to education. If they are smart enough and get a good enough mark, they can take a HECS funded place. But, if they are not smart enough to do that, they get a second go at it if they can afford to buy themselves a place. There is no equity in that; there is no principle of social justice or even labour market development that would justify such an outrageous practice being adopted by a government. Yet this budget is going to double the number of fully funded positions. It costs $150,000 at the moment if you want to get a medical degree through a fully funded position in a university today.

Mr Danby —How much was that again?

Mr BEVIS —It costs $150,000, and you will find that the government are saying that they will support someone by giving them a loan of $50,000. Most of those families I described who live in my electorate and who rely on $500 a week to live on—to pay for all their expenses—would think borrowing $50,000 for their child's education insurmountable, and it would be. Yet, if you are rich enough, you can buy your way in because this government has adopted a double standard. There should be one requirement for people gaining access to undergraduate courses—your ability. If you are good enough, you go; if you are not, you do not. And mummy and daddy being filthy rich is not a good enough excuse to get you in the door. The government think being filthy rich is the other qualification. Being filthy rich can buy you a doctor's degree now, and that is a disgrace. It turns 30 years of social progress in this country on its head.

The government is going to increase HECS fees by 30 per cent. Actually it is not increasing them, because the way it will do it is allow the universities to raise them. By changing the policy and allowing universities to raise their fees by 30 per cent, we know that will occur. We have already seen the competition in the debate between some of the vice-chancellors about this. That increase will occur. At the tertiary end of education, this government's budget is elitist and rewards those who are rich irrespective of their intellect and, by virtue of doing that, makes it harder for ordinary working families to gain access to quality education irrespective of their abilities. Interestingly there was no mention of TAFE in the Treasurer's speech; there was barely a mention of TAFE in the budget documents. Both sides of this parliament need to focus much more on the important area of technical and further education. I look forward to Labor's policy on that being made public in the not too distant future.

The political spin the government sought to get out of this budget was very much focused around the $4 tax cut. Do not spend it all in one shop, Mr Deputy Speaker. Do not take that $4 a week tax cut and blow it all in one go; you want to save that up. I thought it was most interesting to see Minister Vanstone, only a day or two after the budget, demeaning the whole idea with her comment about being able to buy a hamburger and milkshake for $5. Providing a tax cut of $4 has done nothing to alleviate the burden on ordinary working families. The reaction I received in my electorate and as I travelled around the country was one of absolute disdain.

In yet another sign of this government's desire to help the well off at the expense of the rest of the community, the budget includes a reduction in tax on superannuation for the top four per cent of income earners in this country. Again, if you happen to be amongst that wealthiest group, the group I described before, whose wealth has gone up by 300 per cent in the last five years, this government is concerned that you are not rich enough. This government is concerned that you might be paying too much in taxes. This government, under John Howard, has said that it will actually reduce the tax on superannuation for that wealthiest four per cent of our population. We in Labor have quite rightly said that we will have none of it. Labor have quite rightly said that we will take that money and with it propose a cut in superannuation for all Australians—not just for the wealthiest four per cent in Australia. We will take that money and allow all Australians to benefit from it.

One of the things that this government has prided itself on since before the last election is the view that it has a franchise on issues of national security, border protection and things of that kind. I want to take one minute to refer briefly to that. When Labor left office, there were some 58,000 full-time troops in the Australian defence forces. Today that figure stands at just over 51,000. This government has cut the number of permanent forces in Australia by nearly 7,000 troops. There are 7,000 fewer full-time personnel, and the forces are now stretched very thinly as they go about their critically important tasks. The spin doctors in this government have managed to gloss over that in all sorts of rhetoric and all sorts of ways.

It is not just the permanent members of the force, as I know you would be aware, Mr Deputy Speaker. When we left office, there were some 3,500 Ready Reserves. One of the first decisions this government took was to abolish those Ready Reserves. When we left office, there were some 24,300 reserves. These were the part-time Army, Air Force and Navy personnel in uniform. Today, that figure is 21,000. In all, when we left office, there were 85,716 men and women in uniform in the armed services of this nation. Today, that figure is 72,366. There has been a very substantial cut. There are 13,500 fewer people in uniform today, yet this government parades itself as a government that has placed a priority and an importance on national security.

Let the truth be known. The government has required an ever decreasing number of people in uniform to do an ever increasing amount of work with fewer resources. This government's three-card trick in relation to defence has probably been a good lesson for students of politics. It is a great shame that its true record in these matters has not been fully exposed.

Against that background, we also now have a government and a Prime Minister who are so sure of themselves that they are rapidly losing touch with the Australian electorate and exhibiting all those traits of arrogance that incumbency tends to attract. A little while ago in the parliament, we saw reference made to the Prime Minister's overseas trip to Italy. The taxpayer paid $44,000 for the Prime Minister to stay in a hotel in Rome for four nights. That $44,000 would have paid for 1,750 bulk-billing consultations—bulk-billing consultations that this government is now making less available to all Australians. That $44,000 would have gone a long way to helping ordinary Australians see a doctor.

The government says that it costs a lot of money to go overseas, and so it does. And prime ministers have to travel in prime ministerial style, I am sure. But the Prime Minister could have slummed it a little. He probably did not need a room at $11,000 a night; he might have been able to get a room at $5,000 a night, for example. I imagine that $5,000 a night digs would not be too uncomfortable. If you had a room at $5,000 a night, then 1,000 bulk-billing consultations could have been paid for. The Prime Minister could have slept very comfortably, I am sure, at $5,000 a night, and 1,000 Australians could have had their medical bills met by bulk-billing with the savings.

We learned today that the Prime Minister's desire for overseas travel is not just limited to the example in Rome. The Prime Minister has now notched up enough kilometres on his overseas trips to have gone around the world 22 times. This is one of the most travelled and most expensive prime ministers this country has ever had.

But it is not just in his overseas travel that this Prime Minister is extravagant, out of touch and arrogant. A year ago in the Senate estimates there were questions raised about the government's plan to purchase wine for the Prime Minister's use. A bit over $43,000 worth of wine was purchased. At the time, the Labor opposition in the Senate asked questions about these matters in the estimates and was assured that this very substantial purchase of 58 cases of good wine was intended to be laid down for long-term use and that it was a good investment. You would hope so, because at $745 a case you would want to have some pretty decent wine, not the sort of stuff you would quaff tomorrow—a good quality red, maybe; one that you would lay down for eight to 15 years.

We discovered only a couple of weeks ago that of those 58 cases of wine that were bought a year ago—we were told to be laid down—52 cases have been drunk. That is not bad. That is a dozen bottles a week. When you consider that the Prime Minister has travelled as much as he has, that he has to be in Canberra and that his residence is in Sydney, that does not leave too many weeks of the year to knock off the 52 dozen bottles, all of which were supposed to be laid down for long-term cellaring.

Last year, at functions paid for by the taxpayer, the Prime Minister has managed to drink about $39,000 worth of wine. That is more than average weekly earnings. The average working Australian does not get paid as much as this Prime Minister drinks in wine. I shudder to think what would happen if the Prime Minister did go out and buy some expensive wine to lay down. Obviously at $745 a case the Prime Minister thought this was the stuff that you quaffed down at each week's party—a case of it went every week! This is a Prime Minister out of touch; this is a Prime Minister who arrogantly flaunts his power; this is a Prime Minister who has little understanding of the lot of ordinary Australians.

This is a government and a Prime Minister which, in spite of that, have managed to get the spin right with the media. They have effectively done that by bludgeoning the ABC into submission. We have seen time and again ministers of the Crown make public statements directly threatening ABC programming and funding. This is conduct more akin to that of thugs than of parliamentarians. It is a worrying trend that our national independent broadcaster has for years now been subjected to that sort of pressure. I hope the government understands the important role that the ABC plays, gets off its back and allows it to conduct its affairs, as it traditionally has, as an independent broadcaster.

In the couple of minutes remaining I want to say something about Medicare because, together with education, it is the critical aspect of this budget and, sadly, so many Australians have been disadvantaged by it. Two years ago in my electorate 83.9 per cent of services were bulk-billed. Today, it is 63.9 per cent. There has been a 20 percentage point decline in bulk-billing in my electorate in just the last two years. Why? Because this government has failed to provide the financial support to bulk-billing. Many doctors in my electorate who are committed to providing the service, after years of effectively running at a loss, finally realised that this government was not fair dinkum and that, in spite of its repeated negotiations and comments, was not going to do anything to support and enliven Medicare. Many doctors, having come to that conclusion in the last 12 months, have decided to cease offering bulk-billing.

Many who currently offer bulk-billing in my electorate do so on a restricted basis. I know one place where even veteran gold card holders can only get bulk-billed Monday to Friday. So if you are a veteran and you get sick on a Saturday or Sunday you are just out of luck. These are the direct outcomes of this government's funding policy and attitude towards Medicare, which comes as no surprise from a Prime Minister who is on the record as saying that he would take the scalpel to Medicare. This government and this Prime Minister do not support what underpins Medicare, and they do not support bulk-billing. They have made no secret of that for the last 30 years. This Prime Minister made no secret of it, and he is now working to that long-held aim.

It is a little annoying to note that in the Prime Minister's electorate of Bennelong today there is still 81 per cent of services being bulk-billed. I guess for the Prime Minister it is not much of an issue one way or the other. But for people in my electorate it is. This budget has been a savage attack on fundamental social justice aspects of Australian society. It is a very bad, regressive budget and, whilst it does nothing to improve the economic position of the country, it actively seeks to undermine the social infrastructure that so many Australians rely upon. It deserves to be the subject of the scrutiny in the Senate that I know it will be subjected to, and I look forward to the amendments to a number of its programs coming from the Senate.