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Monday, 16 June 2003
Page: 16511

Mr SAWFORD (5:33 PM) —The budget brought down in the Appropriation Bill (No. 1) 2003-2004 is one that sanctions the charging of $100,000 degrees and a budget that trashes universal health care under Medicare. It completes the Prime Minister's personal wish list which he and his ministers have pursued during their three terms of government. In terms of health care, those three terms have seen the clock turn back to something approaching—though not nearly yet as bad as—the health care system in the final dark years of the Fraser government in which the Prime Minister was Treasurer. In those days, if you were rich, you had access to the best medical care available. Those on unemployment and other benefits—and remember this was a time of mass unemployment at levels not seen since—were given a paper card that allowed medical care as a charity. If you fell between those groups—and that was a large segment of wage and salary earning households—then health care was a major household expense which had to be budgeted for and was therefore often forgone. For some reason which escapes me, the Prime Minister and his government still cling to the view that the system was superior to the universal health care system, Medicare.

Medicare was introduced by Labor in 1984 and has remained a very popular publicly funded health program ever since. One of the main reasons why it is popular is that most Australians believe that their fellow citizens deserve the health care they require, not just the health care they can afford. Medicare is a program that is entirely consistent with the democratic and egalitarian nature of our society. But it is also a program that has stuck in the craw of the conservatives opposite for a very long time. It just does not fit with the preferred elitist model of society after which they hanker. Despite their protestations in various election campaigns, they have always had it in their destructive sights—and none more than the Prime Minister.

I do not need to quote the Prime Minister on this. There are hundreds of quotes attributed to him. His record of protest against Medicare is on the public record and cannot be denied. But, as we now know, words and deeds are two very different things with the Prime Minister. Throughout the past three terms, Medicare has been slowly strangled by the government, allowing schedule fees for GP services to slip way below a reasonable figure. Despite that, nearly 89 per cent of the GPs in my area bulk-bill. But they need some help. This has put enormous financial pressure on general practitioners and led inexorably to the current rapid decline in bulk-billing rates in many areas of Australia. That is exactly as the government schemed. The slow strangulation of our universal health care system led to the bulk-billing crisis, which then led to the measures in this budget to `fix it'. For that, read, paraphrasing, `Finish the job of returning health care to the elitist system which existed pre Medicare.'

The budget now offers the following: a charity health care card for those on pensions and benefits; the potential for private health insurance to cover the GP gap at ever-increasing premiums and an ever-increasing cost to general revenue; and a health no-go zone for those who have neither the charity card nor private insurance. It is this last group that will grow over the coming years. This group consists mostly of average wage and salary earners who will still pay their Medicare levy but who will be unlikely to get any benefit from it whatsoever. Many who currently have private health insurance will, for one reason or another, be unable to continue to pay the premiums. Why would a government slowly but surely destroy a successful and popular universal health care program? The answer seems to be as simple as it is difficult to understand—pure ideology.

The same ideology-driven public policy making is evident in higher education. As I said earlier, this budget means that universities—those old, posh, sandstone universities—will be able to charge $100,000 to $150,000 for their degrees. They will love it, won't they? In fact, why stop at $100,000? In truth, it will not stop there. This will mean that a two-tier university system will emerge similar to the public and private school system. Guess what? Just like the sandstone private schools, the sandstone universities will have the most students from the wealthy backgrounds and become the best equipped, the best resourced and eventually the preserve of the very well heeled—again, just like it used to be.

The Whitlam government opened up the universities with free higher education. That must have been a shock for some of the conservative elite. In fact, up until 1949, the private schools in Melbourne used to complain about the public secondary school system having an open curriculum, daring to compete with the private system. The shock must have turned to despair when the Hawke and Keating governments followed up with a massive expansion of university places. John Dawkins's egalitarianisation of the higher education sector in particular would have caused enormous consternation. How can it be surprising to anyone that the conservatives in government would again seek to turn back the clock? They did that with their very first budget when they cut $1 billion out of the sector—$1 billion. They have continued to restructure the sector in their own image ever since.

In this budget, they brought home the bacon—and the caviar. Once again, it is the well-heeled rather than the best qualified who will get the best education resources. If you are rich and stupid, there is no problem. If you are rich and thick—the Ardmona variety—you can buy a degree from the very best university. If you are less well off financially and smart, you will probably go to a cheaper university with inferior resources unless one of the better universities decides to offer some charity with reduced fees. That is the ideology kicking in again. Charity is a spoke in the conservatives' wheel because it is through charity that they can own the success of those from lower income backgrounds. Hence the influence of the church in charity and welfare.

Another spoke in the conservatives' wheel is lower taxes—at least, that is what they say; the truth is very different. The Howard government is the highest taxing government in history, and that is a fact. The government gave the impression that the GST would replace a raft of other taxes, but it did not. Then, to add salt to that particular wound, the government inflicted additional taxes, including the sugar tax, the dairy tax and the Ansett tax. You name it, they have a tax or a levy for it. The government has increased the Medicare tax and has done absolutely nothing about bracket creep. In this context of higher secret taxes, the Treasurer offers a measly burger and milkshake tax cut—I am using Senator Vanstone's words—and expects gratitude for the contribution.

I can tell the Treasurer that this little smirk of a trick has fooled nobody. The average wage and salary earners in my electorate regard the tax cut as a joke and a bad gag. Mind you, I imagine that the tax cuts in this budget will be viewed much more favourably in Liberal-held electorates where many will benefit from cuts in tax of around $100 a week. I cannot see that it is fair to put $100 in the pockets of the well off in our society but just a few dollars in the pockets of those who are most in need. Perhaps that is just my ideology kicking in there.

Another part of my ideology that is evidently very different from that of the government concerns the role of government. I believe that one of the central roles of government is to undertake large-scale nation building—infrastructure projects that build the nation's collective wealth. There is barely a cent for such programs in this budget—not a cent. There is no—

Mr Billson —What about Scoresby?

Mr SAWFORD —Scoresby? I will come to that in a minute. There is no sense of building for the future—just a cheap tax cut stunt for immediate consumption and political smirk. Take the River Murray crisis, for instance. This has to be the most worrying national problem facing governments today, yet there is nothing in this budget to help fix it. Take Telstra, half owned by the public of Australia; there is nothing to stem the ongoing job losses, nothing to deal with the hopeless management and nothing to help build the infrastructure it needs to continue to grow and provide decent services to everyone.

Take the nuclear dump issue, on which the government is treating South Australia and South Australians with contempt. South Australia must not become the dump for all the other states' nuclear waste. Why should we? If this project is allowed to go ahead, a future government may well sell dumping rights in South Australia to foreign countries or even private companies. Of course, that is the idea. My constituents and the South Australian public generally are not fooled by the latest government spin that it will only be low-level waste. It will be medium-level waste, high-level waste and the waste of other countries; there is no doubt about that. People know that, once the area is established as a nuclear waste site, economic arguments and sheer opportunism will mean that it will become a dumping ground for all levels of nuclear waste.

My view is that every state and every country should be responsible for its own nuclear waste. That is the only way that we can be sure that the waste is being minimised and treated as carefully as possible. It is no different in that sense from general household and industrial waste. In Adelaide, the main city dump is at Wingfield, in my electorate. A few decades ago, Wingfield was a fringe residential area, but the dump has ruined the suburb and many surrounding ones, and no-one seems to care except the local residents.

I suggest that everyone would examine their dumping habits much more carefully if their rubbish had to be stored at a local dump just around the corner. Perhaps this point could be best explained by citing the case of Adelaide city's next dump at the Victoria Park racecourse in the heart of the leafy inner east. What is most surprising about the nuclear dump is the deafening silence of the state's Liberal MPs and senators. To my knowledge, not one of the government's 15 senators or members has had much to say about the defence of their state or—in the case of the member for Grey, Barry Wakelin—electorate.

The vast majority of South Australians do not want a nuclear dump in their backyard. We do not mind looking after our own waste, but we will not be a dumping ground for waste from other states and territories and other countries. The Liberal MPs and senators remain silent. Are they happy with the proposal or are they simply too weak and too compliant to stand up for the people who voted them into office? I would like to know—and I am sure the people of South Australia would like to know—what Liberal senators think of this—people like Grant Chapman, Alan Ferguson, Jeannie Ferris, Robert Hill and Amanda Vanstone. We all know that Nick Minchin supports this. Once upon a time, he used to be in touch with the electorate. He was a pretty good election strategist. But he has been up in the ministerial ivory tower for too long and he seems to have lost his touch.

Let me make a prediction. At the next election in South Australia, the federal Liberals will lose up to four seats. Let us look at the seats in the House of Representatives. We have the Speaker, the member for Wakefield, Neil Andrew, who will probably retire; the member for Mayo, Alexander Downer; the member for Makin, Trish Draper; the member for Hindmarsh, Chris Gallus; the member for Sturt, Chris Pyne; the member for Barker, Patrick Secker; the member for Boothby, Andrew Southcott; the member for Adelaide, Trish Worth; and the aforementioned member for Grey, Barry Wakelin. We have a redistribution. That is one seat gone. But there are four others to go. They will not win Adelaide, Makin or Hindmarsh, and they will lose Grey. They will lose seats because they have never stood up for the people in their electorates and they have never stood up for their state. Nick Minchin, once a good strategist, is so far out of touch—and does not recognise that fact—that it is just amazing. The whole point about representative government is that it is made up of members who are elected to represent local interests. On this issue, I think it is fair to say that the Liberal MPs and senators have failed. Nick Minchin has led them down the garden path to their oblivion. They will not succeed.

In contrast, we in Port Adelaide have recently campaigned successfully for significant new infrastructure which will ultimately be of great benefit to the entire state. That was a powerful grassroots campaign involving a diverse range of local interests, including residents, businesses, the tourism sector and the heritage lobby. The success was the announcement by the state government that the new road and rail bridges over the Port River would be opening bridges.

It was pivotal to the future of Port Adelaide that the bridges be able to open to allow large vessels like Navy ships and square riggers into the inner harbour. Closed bridges would have destroyed the inner harbour in the same way that the Jervois Bridge cut access to the harbour's original lower reaches, including the Port Canal and Port Misery, and bled the area dry. Without access to vessels, the heritage infrastructure became denuded and was eventually demolished or—in the case of the Port Canal—the area was simply backfilled. For decades it remained a desolate wasteland before recent commercial and housing developments. If the new bridges were also built to be non-opening, the same tragic fate would await the inner harbour. That is why the community was up in arms at rumours that the state government would renege on its promise to build opening bridges.

I do not think I have seen before in my life a community so united and angry as people were on this matter. The Treasurer, and the local state MP, Kevin Foley, Deputy Premier, broke the good news to a packed meeting at the Port Adelaide town hall. The new opening bridges will release the heritage heart of Port Adelaide from the suffocating heavy road transport and aid the development of its enormous tourism potential. It is the most historic port in Australia, still in its almost pristine original condition. Further, the new development will fit in very well with the new Alice to Darwin railway and the enhanced port facilities at Outer Harbour that takes Panamax vessels.

This is a very good illustration of the importance of the role of government in infrastructure development. These transport developments will enable local business to thrive and will allow goods to be transported more quickly, efficiently and with greater safely. That can only point to more jobs—I estimate 2,000 jobs, greatly needed—and better prospects. We should be looking at job dividends for any expenditure on infrastructure. That is what the government should be about—putting together the building blocks of a nation in terms of both its infrastructure and its social policies. I noticed that, when we talked about the Murray, the member opposite got a bit agitated. Are there any moves to buy back the licences for those inefficient rice farms or cotton farms?

Honourable member interjecting

Mr SAWFORD —Really? I did have a look. I will be fascinated to see what happens. I will be fascinated to see that. Unfortunately, the government—and this budget in particular—has destroyed a successful and popular universal health care system and in its place brought back the unfairness and the shame of what was there prior to 1983.

I remember what it was like in a doctor's surgery when I was a kid. I was lucky enough to win a scholarship from Rotary and part of the prize was five years of private health cover for me throughout my secondary and tertiary education—and it would have gone longer. My parents were both pensioners at that stage. I remember one morning we all came down with the dreaded lurgy. We all had an appointment to see different doctors at nine o'clock in the morning. I was seen at half past nine—it was a very busy surgery. I said to my parents, `I will come back at 10.' I returned at 10 o'clock, but they were still there; at 11, still there; at 12, still there; at one, still there. At two o'clock—after being there from half past eight—they were told to come back the next day. That is how people who did not have health cover were treated or if there was some doubt about whether they would pay on time. The government wants to bring that system back. I recognise it; I know it; I experienced it and I do not want that for anybody—certainly not for people in my electorate.

This budget has also taken higher education a few more steps back to its elitist, discriminatory past and removed the access and equity which came to characterise it with the Whitlam, Hawke and Keating reforms. The same thing has happened—more money is given to the richest private schools in this country than is spent on higher education. The richest private schools in this country get more money from this government than higher education. What an investment! Transferring money—this country was founded on egalitarianism, fairness and merit—from the public to the private good. The same thing has happened with education: the transfer of money from the public to the private good; the subsidy of huge numbers of Australian companies, of business transfers of money from public to private. I would hold my head down if I were you. Don't look up and deny that.

One of the great tragedies of this country is that we have allowed the conservatives to do this surreptitiously, sneakily, thievishly. Have a look at the minister for immigration—$100,000 donations, $10,000 donations, $22,000 donations. Ministerial intervention in immigration is absolutely appalling. I would have thought we should have gone back to the times when we had ministers who refused to intervene on migration cases and be susceptible to the corruption that obviously the Liberal Party and the minister for immigration have allowed themselves to be involved and enmeshed in. If that was one of our people and we were in government, every page of every newspaper would be outraged by what was going on. It is about time the media got stuck into Mr Ruddock and his corrupt practices.

This budget is about ideology. It is about the government doing some social engineering to return its own cream to the top, and to hell with everyone else. That is the conservatives' ideology and I am proud that the people in my electorate, at least, reject it.