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Thursday, 19 February 2004
Page: 25259

Mr ZAHRA (11:28 AM) —I want to read a few quotes into Hansard. The Prime Minister recently said that government schools have become too politically correct and too value neutral. This is what the acting education minister, Peter McGauran, had to say on the same subject:

... there is a worrying trend within state schools, that there is a jettison of traditional values and heritage of Australia.

He went on to say—

... there is a growing trend that is discernable to parents that too many government schools are either value free or are hostile to, apathetic to, Australia's heritage and values.

These were comments which many educators in my electoral district of McMillan, in both the public and private systems, found deeply offensive. I would suggest that only people who have not been to a public school recently could make comments like that about our public school system.

Mr Brough —Mr Deputy Speaker, I rise on a point of order. We are dealing with a bill about the financial relationships between the Commonwealth and the states. There are appropriation bills on the Notice Paper, and I am sure it would be far more likely to engender the support of the House if the member for McMillan were to bring these issues up when speaking on them. These issues are well outside the terms of reference for this particular bill.

The DEPUTY SPEAKER (Hon. B.C. Scott)—The member for McMillan would be aware that the bill before the House is the A New Tax System (Commonwealth-State Financial Arrangements) Amendment Bill 2003. I bring him back to the bill before the parliament.

Mr ZAHRA —Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker. I am aware that this is a bill relating to appropriations and financial matters. As you would be aware—and as the minister at the table, the Minister for Employment Services, would be aware—appropriations debates deal with a wide range of subjects.

The DEPUTY SPEAKER —The member for McMillan will come back to the bill before the parliament.

Mr ZAHRA —I think this is an important issue to discuss in the context of any taxation debate. The reason that we have taxation is for us to be able to provide important services to the people of Australia. Mr Deputy Speaker, if you are going to make a new ruling in relation to not being able to speak about the services that are provided by taxation in this place, then I would say that, in Yes Minister style, that would be courageous.

The DEPUTY SPEAKER —The member for McMillan will come back to the bill before the House.

Mr ZAHRA —You need to clarify this a bit more, Mr Deputy Speaker. If we cannot talk about education in a debate about taxation, what is the point of having this parliament?

The DEPUTY SPEAKER —The member for McMillan will come back to the bill before the parliament, the A New Tax System (Commonwealth-State Financial Arrangements) Amendment Bill 2003.

Mrs Crosio —Mr Deputy Speaker, I rise on a point of order. I have been listening to the debate and I understand the ruling you have just made. But what exactly funds education in this country?

The DEPUTY SPEAKER —The member for Prospect will resume her seat. The member for McMillan is speaking on the bill before the parliament, and I ask him to bring his comments back to that bill. I will hear his continuation.

Mr ZAHRA —It is a pretty straightforward proposition that I am putting. You cannot have a debate about taxation and about Commonwealth-state relations—

The DEPUTY SPEAKER —Yes, we can.

Mr ZAHRA —unless you are talking about the services they are supposed to be providing, and one of those services is education.

The DEPUTY SPEAKER —I accept that. The member for McMillan has the call.

Mr ZAHRA —Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker. It is important that we can talk about these issues in the parliament. Everyone in this place understands that funding to schools, including schools in the public system, is provided on a split basis between the state and territory governments and the Commonwealth government. This is a pretty straightforward proposition. I think everyone in our community understands it—everyone, it seems, except for people in the Liberal and National parties.

We need to be able to have a proper debate in this parliament on Commonwealth-state relationships in the context of education. In relation to education, one thing which is particularly important at the moment is the commentary that has been made about public schools—about whether or not there are values in public schools and whether or not public schools, which are funded under a Commonwealth-state financial relationship, are providing a proper education for Australian children. This is a fundamental thing for us to talk about in the context of Commonwealth-state financial relations.

This is something which concerns a lot of people from right across the electorate of McMillan—from up north in the Neerim district, up towards Noojee, all the way down south through South Gippsland towards Wilsons Promontory and all points in between. Schoolteachers, be they in the public system or in the private system, have been talking about the Prime Minister's negative comments about public education and what they mean in relation to education generally. This is an important issue—

Mr Brough —Mr Deputy Speaker Lindsay, I rise on a point of order. After making a pathetic attempt to bring some relevance back to the debate, the member for McMillan has now gone back to exactly where Mr Deputy Speaker Scott directed he was not on the subject. I ask you to bring him to the subject, which is Commonwealth-state financial arrangements.

The DEPUTY SPEAKER (Mr Lindsay)—I thank the minister.

Honourable members interjecting

The DEPUTY SPEAKER —Order! Under standing order 81 the responsibilities of any person addressing the parliament in relation to the matter before the parliament are quite clear. The Minister for Employment Services is correct. This bill is a technical amendment relating to the GST, and the amendment moved by the opposition relates to the GST. It does not relate to education. I will not allow the member to continue. I will sit him down if he continues talking about education. He is to come back to the bill.

Mr ZAHRA —Mr Deputy Speaker, in deference to you and to the institution—

Mr Cadman —It is not a matter of deference, Mr Deputy Speaker.

Mr ZAHRA —Mr Deputy Speaker, who is running this parliament—the member for Mitchell and the minister at the table, the Minister for Employment Services?

The DEPUTY SPEAKER —The member for McMillan will resume his seat. If the member for McMillan is not prepared to debate the bill he will be no further heard. The member for McMillan.

Mr ZAHRA —Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker. You called me, and I got to the dispatch box and started responding, and then you sat me down again. I am happy to continue now, given that you have granted me the call. You have directed me not to speak about education, and, as that is the determination you have made, fair enough. I think you are wrong about that, but fair enough. I am happy to talk about other issues that relate to Commonwealth-state financial relationships, as these relationships affect not just education but also other important areas within the Commonwealth-state split responsibilities.

One of the areas where there is a split responsibility between the Commonwealth and state governments is transport. In the electoral district of McMillan we have seen one particular example of where there has been a breakdown in the effectiveness of the financial relationship between the Commonwealth and the state. We do not want to see this; we want to see good, effective partnerships between state and federal governments and good working of Commonwealth-state financial relationships. I think it is important for us to consider that in the context of this debate.

This is a bill which deals with the GST, and one part of the GST is the provision of funding to states. The states use that funding for a range of important initiatives, including education—which, I agree with your ruling, Mr Deputy Speaker, I will not mention in this place—and transport. Transport is something which is important and affects people in their daily lives. The GST provides funding to state and territory governments which may be used for things such as education and transport. One of the important projects in my electorate is the Pakenham bypass. You cannot go past the Pakenham bypass as a good example of how it is vitally important to people in the community, who rely on governments to get it right, for the Commonwealth-state financial relationship to work properly. This is a declared road of national importance project and, as you would understand, Mr Deputy Speaker Lindsay, these road projects are funded on a fifty-fifty basis—a shared basis. In fact, this is the epitome of what we are talking about today with the Commonwealth-state financial relationship.

The total cost of the Pakenham bypass project is $242 million. Half of the cost of that project is to be met by the state government, which has indicated that in its budget papers, and the remaining $121 million should be met by the Commonwealth. In the context of this debate—just to make it very clear why I am being relevant to this bill—the Commonwealth-state relationship is fifty-fifty towards the cost of this project. This is an important road project not just for the people of the Pakenham district, although they are the people who will feel the immediate relief and benefit once this bypass is constructed; the people of the Gippsland region will also be beneficiaries of this project. We are not talking about 10,000 or 20,000 people who will benefit from this Commonwealth-state relationship; we are talking about 230,000 or 240,000 people. So it is worth getting the Commonwealth-state financial relationship right, because a lot of people benefit when we do. You could not find a better practical example of what we are talking about today—the Commonwealth-state financial relationship—than the Pakenham bypass.

It is important that I put on the record the feeling in relation to this issue in the electorate of McMillan, particularly in the Pakenham district in the western part of the electorate of McMillan. People want to see the Commonwealth-state relationship work properly. We want to see it function as the people who hammered out the Constitution more than 100 years ago wanted to see it work properly and effectively in the interests of people. Whilst we are a long way along the road to getting the Pakenham bypass built, there is still some more work to be done—and, in this particular instance, the Commonwealth-state financial relationship is not working as well as we need it to. We have got a commitment of $121 million from the state government to fund their half of the Commonwealth-state relationship in relation to this project. That is half the cost. The federal government, which should be providing the other half, are indicating that they are in for only $100 million. As everyone in this place would know—as just about every single person in the Australian community would know, apart from very young children—$100 million is not half of $242 million. They are still $21 million short.

The argument that the Commonwealth have used for justification for not funding their half of this Commonwealth-state road—as part of the Commonwealth-state financial relationship in relation to transport projects—is that they say the cost of the project has blown out. Maybe they have got a different idea about a blow-out of costs than I do. They say that the cost of the project was $200 million once upon a time, and they want to fund only $100 million of the project because they say that is half of what the project was once upon a time. This is the sort of debate that gets us nowhere in terms of convincing people in the Australian community that Commonwealth-state financial relationships can work effectively. I think they can and they should. They need to if people are to have confidence in our system of government in Australia.

It is all well and good for you Mr Deputy Speaker, and me, and for Minister Brough and my colleague and friend the member for Braddon, who are at the table, to reminisce about the good old days and talk about how, in the 1950s, my dad bought a car for 50 and there was a bloke who got a block of land for 10 in a country town in 1920, but it is not real life, is it? Real life is today, and the cost of the project today is $242 million. That is what it costs, and that is why the Roads of National Importance scheme has always had, as its intention, a manifestation of exactly what we are talking about today: a proper Commonwealth-state financial relationship—a partnership between the two main tiers of government.

It would be remiss of me, in talking about the tiers of government in the context of this debate about Commonwealth-state financial relationships, to not mention the third tier of government—if I might have your indulgence for just a minute, Mr Deputy Speaker.

The DEPUTY SPEAKER (Mr Lindsay)—You have had it all along.

Mr ZAHRA —It is the strong view of the local government in the area, the Cardinia Shire Council—who are a group of people who are not dominated by the Labor Party or, to my knowledge, by any other political party—which they have expressed in correspondence to the Prime Minister, that this important Pakenham bypass should be funded as a fifty-fifty project under the Roads of National Importance scheme. In this case we have got support from the local community and the local council, we have the state government putting in their half of this project under a Commonwealth-state financial arrangement, but we do not have the Commonwealth going the rest of the way.

I want to take this opportunity to talk about how important it is that we make these Commonwealth-state financial relationships work. For people to have confidence in our system of government, we have to make them work. People do not want to see the whole thing spoilt just because one level of government, one part of what should be a partnership, says that they will not honour their obligations. Really, that is what we are talking about today. When we talk about coming up with new tax systems, when we talk about making sure that states are able to fund their responsibilities and that there is enough money in the Commonwealth coffers to fund their responsibilities as well, we have to make sure that these things take practical form. A very practical form of this in my electorate is the Pakenham bypass—a very important piece of infrastructure for the Pakenham district and the Gippsland region.

We can talk about the implications of Commonwealth-state financial relationships in terms of the billions of dollars that they deliver to the states of Victoria, New South Wales and Tasmania and to the other states and territories of the Commonwealth, and we can talk about the other side of the equation in respect of Commonwealth revenue which comes into Canberra and so on, but people in local areas and local districts are most concerned about making sure that, where there is an opportunity for a Commonwealth-state financial relationship to take practical form in their local community, governments honour their obligations.

I make the point that in the Pakenham district, which includes the small areas around the township of Pakenham, people are not too thrilled with the idea that the Commonwealth government has a surplus of many millions of dollars. That is not something people get a lot of delight out of in an immediate way. They want to make sure that the Commonwealth honours its arrangement under this agreement. It is very straightforward: the cost of the project is $242 million; the state government is in for $121 million and the Commonwealth is in for $100 million; the remaining $21 million must come from the Commonwealth, if people are to have confidence in Commonwealth-state financial arrangements.

It is all well and good for the government to stand up and say, `We've got a surplus this year of $2,000 million'—or however much it is—`and it's important that we have good economic management and financial responsibility' and so on, but if, with a surplus of $2,000 million, the Commonwealth government cannot find $21 million to honour their obligations and fund important Commonwealth-state transport projects, then I think ordinary people in our community would take the view that the Commonwealth government are not really understanding the mood of people in local communities. I take this opportunity to call on the Howard government to honour their part of this important Commonwealth-state financial agreement relating to the Pakenham bypass and just get on with the job of building it. (Time expired)

The DEPUTY SPEAKER (Mr Lindsay)—I call the member for Flinders, and I am hoping that he will actually return to the bill.