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Wednesday, 4 February 2009
Page: 328

Ms BIRD (9:10 PM) —I take the opportunity in this evening’s debate to support the Appropriation (Nation Building and Jobs) Bill (No. 1) 2008-2009 and cognate bills that are before the House today. I want to create a little bit of context around this in terms of what it is that we are actually dealing with in quite unprecedented circumstances.

In the last parliament, as well as sitting on the Standing Committee on Transport and Regional Services with my colleague the member for Hinkler, I sat on the Standing Committee on Economics, Finance and Public Administration. I am very conscious of the fact that in 2007 we became aware of some of the problems occurring in America. Indeed, we had a roundtable in this very parliament in August of that year to look at the subprime crisis in America and its potential flow-on effects to Australia. But little did any of the experts whom we spoke to that day, or those commenting around the world, understand the intricate connections that had been created in our world through the financial markets. And little did they envisage the flow-on effects that that would have, to the point where, as we are seeing now, most of our major trading partners are in recession, the IMF has adjusted its predictions regularly over the last couple of months, and this nation could have gone into negative growth in recent quarters. So, in circumstances in which there is no textbook and no opportunity to go and look at a previous decade and ask, ‘How did they handle it; what were their responses?’, governments are making the best-informed decisions that they can, well aware that they need to act quickly and well aware that these things can deliver an increasing life of their own.

There has been an interesting development in economic discussions over recent years with people looking at the psychology of economics, and words like ‘confidence’ have become critically important in the current context. Within that circumstance, the Rudd Labor government sought, at the end of last year, through the Economic Security Strategy, to invest some confidence through consumer spending back into our own economy. It was a large package and it was targeted at those people whom we felt were most in a position to spend the money. We are now faced with a new need to intervene and we have a package that operates at a two-step level. That is why I am strongly supporting it today.

The first step is to again reinject some money into the economy to bolster consumer consumption and confidence within the markets out there, particularly the retail, hospitality and tourism markets but also the construction markets. That part of the package is designed to get out there very quickly. That is why we are quite clear that we need this matter to be resolved by the parliament in a very quick fashion. Then there is the second part of the package, which lays the foundation for longer term activity in our communities. That is the infrastructure side of the package and, I point out, the skills side of the package in terms of the financial supports being offered to people undertaking study. The reality of that sort of investment is not only its importance in creating activity in our communities. I would argue that it is also well targeted because it fulfils a lot of the other productivity needs that we have for longer term wellbeing. It is also about saying to people that this is a period which we can get through. We have strong fundamentals in this country. We have a natural inclination in Australia to a free, competitive and entrepreneurial mindset. But we also have a profound distrust and cynicism about what you might call the sleazier side of rampant capitalism. So, regardless of who has been in government, we have always had the view that we like people having a go and we like people taking a risk. But we also think that government has a role to play in ensuring that those less admirable versions of this type of activity are regulated and controlled and that some protections are provided for people.

Those really solid foundations mean that we are in a good position despite the fact that we are facing unprecedented times. But, for government, that responsibility becomes even more critical at such points in time. It is very easy to manage effectively and well through good times. It is very easy in good times to be complacent and to get into a feeling that this will always be the way it is and that we do not actually have to look at whether we are investing for the future. And I would suggest that that is what happened in the previous government’s last couple of terms, because what they actually needed to be doing was investing in infrastructure and skills. We came to government on a promise to take up that task and, despite the difficulties that we face, we are still giving a priority, through these packages, to achieving that. That is what the investment in schools is about—not only in the capital but also in creating a modern schooling environment.

I come from a schooling background, and I want to move on to the issue of that part of the package that provides for investment for schools. I do this because, for a very long time, I have been of the view that it really is time for a major overhaul of the capital of our schooling system. I am very conscious that there was a huge investment into new schools and new school infrastructure in the 1970s as the population boom that had occurred began to come through our schools. If I look around my local area, I can identify quite a lot of high schools that were built in the seventies—and, indeed, a lot of primary schools that were built not so long afterwards. What that means is that all of those new schools are, en masse, hitting a point of being 30 to 40 years old, a point at which pretty much most places will need some major structural work done on them. Each of us, in our electorates, would be regularly visiting schools who want to show us that they are struggling with maintenance issues, let alone getting new infrastructure in place. I think it is a really useful thing for the federal government to do. It is looking to create the sorts of jobs that plumbers and carpenters and painters can do in our local communities. It is using this opportunity to address some of those problems that those schools are facing.

More importantly, I have long been of the view that our schools were built on an industrial model. They were built on the idea of the mass education that occurred after the Industrial Revolution. How can we tell that? Because they are all boxes. Everyone moves from room to room at the ringing of bells. There are little units of work of 40 minutes and the students are in little organised workgroups. That is the industrial model that people went out into the work world for. So it prepared them well for that. But that is not the world our young people are going out into anymore. It does not reflect the reality of what they will experience in the work world. It does not reflect the technology that they will interact with in all sorts of jobs. I had the plumber come to my house a couple of weeks ago. He had a laptop on the spare seat of the car, and that is where he did his quotes and so forth. It does not matter what job you do, you are going to have to interact with technology. You are going to work in flexible teams. You are going to work to different timelines and deadlines, not to set hours with the ringing of bells.

I have long had a real concern that it is difficult for our teachers to move beyond that model because the infrastructure around them is built on that model. So this massive investment in new learning labs, new libraries and new science facilities for our schools is really critically important. I have great respect for the member for Hinkler, but his description of this as ‘a lick of paint’ for schools, and the constant denigration amongst some of those on the other side of the House of the importance of computers in schools, just shows how out of date and out of touch he and his colleagues are with the world that our young people will face when they come out of schools. These are critically important investments for the future. For the Leader of the Opposition to say that he does not see any problem with taking this $14.7 billion package and slashing it to $3 billion just reflects, I think, that he has not got the idea either. And I am a bit surprised, to be honest with you, because I would have thought he was a pretty modern man.

When I saw my sons going off to school recently with a bunch of textbooks in their backpacks, I thought, ‘When in their working world are they ever going to do that?’ The only people I see doing that now are QCs on Macquarie Street in Sydney, dragging their bag of books behind them as they walk around. People do not do that any more. Our young people deserve this investment, and the opportunity that this package provides should be supported by those opposite. It is not cash in a flash. It is not a one-off. It is one of the most critical investments that we can make in our long-term future. It is sad, I think, that the opposition are going to oppose this. I think it is short sighted. I have heard many of them argue that there has not been sufficient time for them to consider this range of bills and to respond. There has certainly been enough time for them to decide that they are going to oppose the bills, lock, stock and barrel. So I would say to them that these are unprecedented times and that the principles that are laid down are pretty clear: act fast, inject money, boost and support your economy, and boost and support jobs. It should not be that difficult to see from the signs around the initial economic stimulus package—such as the retail figures that have been released today—that this activity works. It is valuable, it is welcomed by the community and I would suggest that these bills are extremely important at this time. They need to be dealt with quickly, and I would encourage those opposite to reconsider their position on them. I express my support for the bills.