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Monday, 16 June 2003
Page: 16545

Ms LIVERMORE (8:08 PM) —I would like to focus my speech tonight on those areas of the Appropriation Bill (No. 1) 2003-2004 where the government has failed not only Central Queensland but also the rest of regional Australia. The Howard government's budget proves its total disregard for regional Australia through massive funding cuts, underspending and a failure to invest in the future of regional Australia. This budget fails regional Australia in health, education, drought assistance, regional development, transport, tourism and regional access to basic government services. Central Queensland has had its basic Commonwealth services slowly eroded, until now even the most basic of medical and education services are a problem for the people of my electorate of Capricornia.

The people of Rockhampton have been given no good news from this budget. There is nothing to encourage them to think that the Lakes Creek Meat Works might re-open and restore the 1,000 jobs that were lost to our community last year. There is nothing to give them belief in the security of Telstra services and Telstra jobs in our region. As a result of this budget, our one remaining large employer and source of community pride, the Central Queensland University, is now the subject of a takeover. Make no mistake that this is what the government's higher education policy is—a takeover, a privatisation, of this nation's universities.

The education minister, Brendan Nelson, has announced that universities will be given greater power to increase fees independently. The budget revealed that government funding to universities is to go down. If you put these two things together, it spells the virtual privatisation of universities. Universities like Central Queensland University will be turned into places where only those with plenty of money can attend. In the Prime Minister's world, education is a commodity to be sold at the highest price possible and, because of the limited size of the domestic market, the universities will be forced to rely on attracting rich, overseas students. This will be done at the expense of local, poorer people who will not be able to afford a place at CQU or any other university in Australia for their children. The legacy of this will be that Australia will become a less educated society with fewer of the much-needed highly skilled people we need to ensure our nation's future growth and prosperity. As profit becomes more important than integrity and discovering the truth, the quality of teaching and research at our universities will inevitably be compromised. We are already seeing under the Howard government the emergence of a two-tiered education system which will deepen the divisions in our community.

Understandably, there are many in the community who will resist this attack on equity in our education system. Of course, the Howard government's response to student opposition to its new program is to try to eliminate the student associations at the various universities. There are clear signs already that unrest on campuses around Australia is starting to grow. More activities are in the process of being organised for this year. This issue has ensured that students from all campuses are working together and involving the general student population in their associations' activities more than at any other time in recent years. Who can blame the students? The simple message from the Howard government to existing and prospective students is: you will have to pay for your education and provide the extra funding to upgrade teaching at our universities.

Having said that, what does the government have to say about just how these same students are to fund their day-to-day living expenses? On this issue, the Howard government is silent. There is not one word on how students are to afford this. While the government may wish to ignore it, prospective students and their parents cannot. The Howard government's reforms proceed as though student income is not an issue. From the point of view of most year 12 students contemplating university, living expenses are an overriding issue. On top of the financial stresses endured while studying, they now face the prospect of a much bigger HECS debt at the end of their course. The combination of these imposts may mean that many bright students from less affluent families will be put off studying altogether. Only a small minority of students receive any government support for their living and study expenses. Most have to rely on their parents for support. Only students from relatively affluent and accommodating family backgrounds can experience the luxury of full-time study without worries about the cost of living and studying. For those from modest backgrounds, the proposed increases in HECS and, in the case of some high-demand courses, the proposed increase in the share of places allocated to those capable of paying full fees add another burden to the decision to take on university studies.

The Howard government is imposing its user-pays philosophies on these people. This budget does nothing for the children of the great majority of Australian families on modest incomes, no matter how good their year 12 performance. It only places even higher barriers against the participation in higher education of talented young people from less affluent backgrounds. These students and their families will be forced into massive debt for a university degree under these new arrangements. The government's plans will enable universities to increase fees by 30 per cent. This means that students could graduate with HECS debts of up to $40,000 or more. In addition, the number of $100,000-plus degrees is likely to double with an increase in full-fee places. Universities such as Sydney University and Melbourne University already charge full fee paying students up to $130,000 for degrees in veterinary science and law. These students and their families will be forced in the future to take out loans to pay for these $100,000-plus degrees and these loans will then be slugged with a six per cent interest charge. This is indeed a bad budget for Australian university students and their families.

This Howard government has turned its back on the thousands of aspiring students who, despite having the marks, are locked out of university because of a critical shortage of places. This year, more than 20,000 aspiring students could not get into the university of their choice. In this budget, the Howard government provided for just 444 new university places. This is just one more symptom of a university system in crisis.

In speaking about universities, we must remember that this is not the start of the Howard government's attack on tertiary education funding. They have been at it for years. They have cut $5 billion from university funding since coming to office. Our universities have been plunged into crisis by this government. Class sizes have blown out; buildings and equipment have been run down; our best and brightest teachers and researchers are going; and the morale of the staff left behind has plummeted. The 30 per cent increase in student fees announced in this budget means that, under the Howard government, HECS fees have increased more than 110 per cent. This latest rise will add $32 a week to average student debt.

Full fee places allow people with money but not the marks to buy their way into university ahead of students who have higher scores but not the funds to pay these very high fees. It matters not whether the family lives in Melbourne, Sydney or my home town of Rockhampton. If a student wants to go to university and the family cannot pay their way, the Prime Minister has said that the person is not good enough for a university degree. This is the most unfair change to Australian society in years. The Prime Minister has had his way and it is now user-pays universities for future generations of Australians. Many of the families I am talking about in Central Queensland live in rural areas. These people have enough to worry about and enough financial problems without this government now adding to them with its user-pays system that expects families to fully fund a university education for their children.

I turn now to the other areas in which this government has failed the rural people of Central Queensland with this budget. Let us first look at the debacle that this government calls drought assistance. Here was an opportunity for this government to do something meaningful for the rural people of Central Queensland and the rest of rural Australia. Again it has failed. Australia remains in the grip of the worst drought in 100 years. But this government thinks it is all over. This government in this budget has found savings of $160 million from drought funding by slashing 18 per cent from funding for assistance to drought-stricken families. In the ultimate act of political cynicism, total estimated Commonwealth drought expenditure to the year 2006-07 is $748.1 million. That is $160 million less than promised by the federal agriculture minister, Warren Truss, in February this year. On 6 February this year, the minister for agriculture said:

We estimate that the cost of the measures that have already been announced will go to around $900 million. But we have not limited the expenditure; we will provide whatever is needed to ensure that assistance to farmers ...

Now the $900 million has turned into $740 million, and the good people of outback Queensland around the towns of Alpha, Longreach, Barcaldine, Marlborough, Clermont and through up to Collinsville are left by this mean and tricky Howard government to fend for themselves.

A feature of this budget is the clarity of the Prime Minister's broken promise on drought aid. On 9 December 2002, John Howard promised $368 million in new drought support over three years. This budget shows that that promised support has been reduced to just $170 million. The only drought measure in this budget is a planned meeting to discuss the drought once it is over. This promised drought meeting is little more than a cruel joke for regional communities already forced to endure the worst drought in a century. A talkfest at some indeterminate future date is no help at all to the people of Central Queensland. Due to the agriculture minister's inability to work with the states and deliver timely and effective drought assistance, many farmers have missed out on help; others have received only temporary assistance. Those lucky enough to find their way through the administrative maze have been forced to wait long periods before receiving promised aid. It is important to point out that Mr Howard has not bothered to visit a drought-affected farm in Central Queensland. In fact, the only farm that John Howard has visited is in Crawford, Texas, in the United States of America.

It is these families—dudded out of their drought aid and forced to now pay full fees for their children to go to university—who ask, `What has happened to our fair society? What has happened to the Australia we knew?' They say, `What has happened to Australia? Will I have to think twice before seeking medical assistance for my family?' That is what most families in Central Queensland will have to do after this Howard budget. I do not want the people of Central Queensland to have a second-rate health system. For the past 30 years, Australia had what was recognised as the world's best health system. But the Prime Minister has never believed in Medicare and now sees an opportunity to destroy it.

I am sure the people of Central Queensland will remember when, in the 1970s and the 1980s, the current Prime Minister described Medicare as a `miserable, cruel fraud', `a scandal', `a total and complete failure', `a quagmire', `a total disaster', `a financial monster' and `a human nightmare'. The Prime Minister said he would pull Medicare right apart. He said he would limit bulk-billing to pensioners and the poor—and let doctors charge whatever fees they like for everyone else. We see all this now being attempted through this budget. With this latest package from the government, families who have two children and earn over the cut-off point for a health care card will pay even more to visit a doctor. And what is that cut-off point? This government says that it is $32,300, so any family with an income over $32,300 per year will be paying more to go to the doctor.

This government is so out of touch that it believes a family is rich if it earns over $32,300 per year. The people of my electorate know, as does the rest of the Australian population, that no family earning that amount of money is wealthy. These families struggle to make ends meet. But, as with university fees, John Howard has Australia marching directly down the road to an Americanised, user-pays, two-tiered health care system where your credit card is worth more than your Medicare card.

The changes to Medicare and higher education announced in the budget reinforce the ideological obsession that John Howard and Peter Costello have with transferring the costs of health and education from the government onto Australia's struggling families. This squeeze on families will increase families' costs far beyond any benefit from tax cuts, shift the government's deficit to the budgets of Australian families, and will make our society less fair as this government withdraws from its crucial support roles in health and education.

It is not only in the vital areas of health, education and drought assistance that this budget fails the people of Central Queensland. I will give examples of other shortcomings of this budget that have so badly let down regional Australia. The 2003 budget continues this government's relentless attack on the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. The budget further starves the ABC of the funding it needs to provide decent public broadcasting services to regional Australians. The Howard government has completely rejected the ABC's funding bid for extended regional coverage. Significant regional population centres will continue to miss out on ABC radio programming as a result of this budget. The government has rejected the ABC's bid to extend the reach of ABC services—such as ABC NewsRadio, Classic FM and Triple J—to many parts of regional Australia. The decision to reject extending ABC radio services affects at least 60 regional communities. My home town of Rockhampton will, as a result of this budget, continue to miss out on ABC NewsRadio. If ever there were proof that this government is not a government for all Australians, it is this determination to stop the ABC's radio services from reaching so many regional Australians.

While driving around regional Australia with their radios tuned to the local ABC, motorists in Central Queensland will be concerned about their safety on national highways, as this budget has frozen the funding of critical maintenance. Instead, in what has become a recognised sleight of hand, the mean and tricky Howard government will expect local councils to contribute to the cost of both the maintenance of national highways and the disaster mitigation arrangements, without any increase of federal funding for regional roads.

If a local government is hoping for some relief from the federal government, it will find that in this budget $17 million has been ripped from regional programs and a further $2 million has been cut from the Sustainable Regions Program—the funding for which has also been pushed out from three to four years under a smoke-and-mirrors trick to dud regional services. The great tragedy of all this is the continuing drift of population from regional and rural Australia to the capital cities. This is forced on many regional families as they see the city-country divide continue to widen under this government, reinforced by this budget.

I have never been more convinced than I am now, in reading this budget, that regional Australia will now see through the Howard government—a government big on talk and small on vision and real expenditure in regional Australia. This budget is a litany of broken promises, underspending and missed opportunities. It is clear proof that the Howard government has no vision or regard for regional Australia, and that the National Party, supposedly the party of regional Australia, holds no sway in the citycentric Howard government or its draconian anti-regional Australia budgets.