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Monday, 16 June 2003
Page: 16525

Mr NEVILLE (6:29 PM) —I normally would not have started my contribution on Appropriation Bill (No. 1) 2003-2004 with a rebuttal. Firstly, let me say that I have the highest regard for the member for Chifley. We have always been good friends in this place, and he always holds a reasoned and principled position on issues. However, I would like to take him to task on the health and education aspects of his speech on this bill because I feel that he has fallen for the rhetoric that his frontbench have been using. It is quite obvious that those who have been part of this rhetoric are not listening to what the bill says.

I will just touch on the point he was making about people earning under $32,000. He seems to be under the presumption that, if you were to earn above $32,000, you would be ineligible for bulk-billing. It is quite the contrary. I asked a bulk-billing doctor the other day how these new measures would affect him. He said, `I will be further encouraged to bulk-bill because I am going to be receiving more money for all the people in my practice who are welfare recipients. So I am going to be more inclined.' It is not just the people who earn under $32,000 who will be assisted; it will be all those who are on welfare payments and those who are on pensions.

I know of some practices that do not give any concessions to these people. This arrangement will encourage doctors to bulk-bill them. There are seven million of these Australians—not just the few on $32,000—who will now be eligible to receive a safety net treatment by way of the payment that will go to the doctor. It will start at a dollar in the capital cities; it will move to $2.90 in the outer regions of capital cities. I think in my area—I have not come prepared with the figures—it is up to about $5.90. In the remote areas of Australia, it is $6.50 or $6.90. That will make a huge difference, it will create a great incentive for doctors to bulk-bill, and it will put up to seven million Australians who are currently not receiving bulk-billing under an umbrella.

I come from an electorate where, because of a supply and demand factor on the one hand and the attitude of some medical practitioners on the other hand, I have the lowest bulk-billing profile in Queensland. I am not comfortable with that. But I think it is more a measure of the supply and demand aspect of doctors than of any sort of philosophy. I find that the bulk-billing doctors who are there are willing to take on more patients, if they can get more doctors. Contrary to the predictions of the opposition that bulk-billing will drop, I expect to see bulk-billing in my electorate rise, and probably rise quite dramatically. That is one area where we should put the record right and not pretend that people are going to be less well off. There will be no restriction on doctors who already bulk-bill from continuing to bulk-bill—and many of them will. In fact, some on the margins will be more encouraged to do it, knowing that the lower end of their market, so to speak, will be reinforced.

The second area is education. I think, again, the opposition are putting a totally false case. They are saying that, because fee-paying students will be admitted to faculties, this will somehow spell the end of HECS funded places. That is not true. HECS funded places are not staying at the same level as they are now. They are actually being increased. If the HECS funded places are increased, all the government is saying is that there will be a second avenue for people to undertake a degree and that, within the faculties, there will still be two scores. There will be the score at which the HECS funded places are cut off. I do not know what it is called in all the other states, but in Queensland I think it is called the OP score. If you reach the required OP score, you get a HECS funded place; but if you get an OP score that is just under that for a HECS funded place—in other words, you are a pretty talented student but did not make the cut—you can opt, if you like, to take one of these loans. The loans will be at 3½ per cent interest plus the inflation rate. That is a pretty reasonable interest rate. There will be a 10-year period in which to repay these loans.

The other thing the opposition are not talking about is that, if you are a reasonably talented student who misses out on one of the HECS funded places and you are prepared to back yourself—or your family is prepared to back you by guaranteeing the loan—and if after the first year you reach the grade point average of a HECS student, you will be offered a HECS funded place. In other words, if you get up to that level in your first year in a funded position where a loan has been involved, you will be able to move over to HECS and will only carry the debt for one year. If you reach that level at the end of the second year, you will be able to go onto HECS then.

So all it does is open up other avenues. This idea that dills who cannot get a reasonable OP score are going to get into funded places is wrong; it is not going to happen. The universities are not going to lower their standards to let in people who cannot reasonably undertake the courses. There will be a cut-off OP score which people must reach to qualify them for the course. It may not qualify them for HECS but it will qualify them for the course. I do not believe any university in Australia would be so silly as to have people who cannot reach a cut-off OP score doing the more difficult courses—law, veterinary science, medicine and so on—and try to get them through. That would be absolutely silly. It would lower the standard of the university.

Another point the previous speaker made was that the universities are going to be forced to stay within a band of five per cent in the estimated numbers that go into each faculty. I queried that myself. I am on an advisory committee to one of the universities and I am a former member of the university council. At first blush I thought that was a bit unreasonable, but when you look through the thing you see that the universities that have undertaken over-quota enrolments are going to be allowed to raise their levels over that quota. It is not as if, as the member for Chifley said, they are going to be disadvantaged by a factor of, say, 25 per cent. They will have established that figure within their existing profile. So I do not see that as a problem. The opposition really need to have a good look at the budget bills and see all the positives in them rather than just trotting out the negatives all the time.

I want to talk about housing because it is a key worry of mine. In an area like Gladstone, which is in a state of rapid expansion, housing is an important issue. All forms of housing are important. In addressing this Appropriation Bill (No. 1) 2003-2004 I would like to talk about the funding arrangements between the Commonwealth and the Queensland government. Just under two weeks ago the Queensland government brought down its own budget. While the budget is still in the process of scrutiny and analysis, we find that Mr Beattie and his government will continue to heed some of the public criticism which has come their way in recent times. One such issue, which has hit the headlines in my electorate, is public housing.

Queensland Minister for Public Works and Minister for Housing Rob Schwarten is constantly harping on about the lack of funding under the Commonwealth-State Housing Agreement. Mr Schwarten has chosen to present his argument through the media. I hope that after I present the facts and figures in a clear light here tonight he might cease this shallow showmanship.

It is a widely recognised fact that housing is primarily the domain of state and territory governments. It is they that have the overall responsibility for the provision and distribution of public housing. The Commonwealth does far more than its fair share in housing programs, despite not having a dedicated department of housing. It funds each of the states and territories under the Commonwealth-State Housing Agreement. It also provides financial help through rent assistance programs delivered by Centrelink. For example, it is estimated that in 2002-03 Queensland will receive $468 million in rent assistance.

While it is easy to rattle off all the Commonwealth housing program funding provided to the states and territories, it is important not to lose sight of the fact that housing is all about people: it is about helping Australians find suitable accommodation and it is about putting roofs over the heads of Australian families in various circumstances—some in their own homes, some in rental accommodation, some in welfare accommodation, some in aged care. Housing is a whole range of things; it is more than just the narrow area of public housing, important as that is.

It helps to put this argument in context by looking at per capita amounts flowing into Queensland from the Commonwealth. For this financial year, 2002-03, the Commonwealth-State Housing Agreement will provide $54.96 for every Queenslander. If you hold that up against the national average of $52.44 per person, quite clearly the Queensland government does well out of that deal—$54.96 against $52.44. Queensland is doing better than the Australian average.

But wait, there is more. The Commonwealth-State Housing Agreement is a jointly funded program. The states contribute their own dollars to the agreement but, in Queensland's case, not all is as it seems. Looking again at 2002-2003, the Queensland state government will provide $17.96 per Queenslander towards the public housing sector, less than a third of the Commonwealth's contribution. The state government's allocation is also well below the national average of $18.34. All the other states seem to think housing is more important than Queensland does, so shame on you Mr Schwarten.

Let us turn to rent assistance and look at the way this is helping everyday Australians secure private rental accommodation. For 2001-02, Queenslanders received almost $463 million in rent assistance via Centrelink. That is the equivalent of 25.5 per cent of rent assistance expenditure for the nation, bearing in mind that Queensland accounts for around 19 per cent of our national population. Just imagine for a minute the burden that putting individuals, couples and families into private rental accommodation takes off the state's public housing system.

You could argue that this is quite a bad negative for the Queensland government. If Queensland governments over the years had been keeping up with their responsibilities as all this new population moved to Queensland from the other states and had been reinvesting some of the funds that had come from that prosperity into public housing—and do not worry, Queensland governments of both political colours have skited over the years about just how well Queensland was doing, how this industry estate was expanding and how many cranes were over Brisbane and over Gladstone and so on—we would not be in the situation where the Commonwealth was having to pay 25 per cent of all rent assistance in Australia to Queensland. So our state government is really doing quite well out of the scheme.

Mr Schwarten, the housing minister in Queensland, has also kept quiet about the amount of support given by the Commonwealth to the Supported Accommodation Assistance Program—the SAAP that opposition members talk about quite often. For the past two financial years, the Queensland government has contributed less than 40 per cent of the overall funding for the SAAP—or a total dollar figure of less than $36 million, compared to $54.5 million from the Commonwealth. Again, the Queensland government is not pulling its weight. I am also told—and I do not know if this has been corrected over last year or two—that, up until recently, Queensland was the only state government that was not indexing that. The other states index that. Mr Schwarten might also note that, for 2000-01, the Commonwealth provided $200 million to Queensland under the Commonwealth-State Housing Agreement. By comparison, Queensland contributed $66.6 million—a third.

Consider this: in 2002-03, the financial year finishing now, Queensland will receive from the Commonwealth $202 million; in other words, the Commonwealth contribution has gone up $2 million. But Queensland will provide $65.93 million; in other words, they have actually dropped their contribution to this housing sector which they claim to be so interested in. So, if Mr Schwarten is unhappy about the amount of money for housing in central Queensland, it is well and truly within his power to do something about it.

We have been told—and I am quite sure Queenslanders have heard it ad nauseam over the past few weeks—that the Queensland government has tipped an extra $53 million into housing assistance programs for 2003-04, lifting the total annual allocation to $528 million. I can only hope that this is the case. Mr Schwarten has run out of excuses, purely and simply, because the Queensland government has access to a considerable amount of GST revenue allocated to our Sunshine State. Between 2000 and 2004 Queensland will receive about $22 billion in GST revenue from the Commonwealth. In 2003-04 alone Queensland is due to receive $6.2 billion in GST revenue, which is $197 million more than it would have received if that form of taxation had not been implemented. In other words, the state is nearly $200 million better off than it would have been under the old system.

I ask Mr Schwarten and the Queensland government: why won't you dedicate some of that GST funding to housing if it is such an important matter? Former Treasurer of Queensland David Hamill was well aware of the potential of the GST to help state revenues. In fact, in January 2000 he wrote to the federal Treasurer, Peter Costello, urging him not to grant exemptions. Listen to this; I will quote from the correspondence. This was a Labor Treasurer of a state government saying to a coalition Treasurer of a federal government, `Don't give any concessions on the GST.' His rationale was:

... broadening the existing list of GST-free items has the potential to adversely impact on the quantum of GST revenues that are available ... for the delivery of core services.

He recognised it and Mr Schwarten obviously recognises it, but Mr Schwarten and his government just do not seem to be prepared to put that amount of money into state housing.

I have had a number of encounters with the Queensland Minister for Public Works and Housing. We have a friendly relationship socially, but he seems to run vendettas against me on this issue in the local Rockhampton and Gladstone media. I keep saying that we are putting the money in, and I will continue to say it. The other thing he does not recognise is that a lot of young people—some of them battlers too—have chosen to move into new homes. The first home buyers grants scheme has provided $800 million to Queenslanders to buy their own homes. Imagine the amount of pressure that has lifted off both the public and private housing markets. It is also interesting that, under the first home buyers scheme, the Queensland government has received a stamp duty revenue windfall of about $400 million. Why wouldn't you put some of that back into housing for the battlers?

Overall, in commending the Appropriation Bill (No. 1) 2003-2004, I say that we have done well in housing and that the states should recognise that. We have certainly done well in education and we have done well in health. I hope that in the coming years the opposition will recognise this and, rather than just wilfully opposing these things like they did last year with the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme, will take a more positive attitude and—though they might not agree with them philosophically—let the benefits of these schemes flow to all Australians.