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Wednesday, 13 May 2009
Page: 3643

Ms BIRD (11:28 AM) —I rise to support the Nation-building Funds Amendment Bill 2009 before the House today. Before I proceed to discuss the reasons why I support the bill, I would like to address some of the issues raised by the previous speaker, the member for Goldstein, particularly the way he addressed this bill and couched it in terms of what he claimed was the government’s lack of coherence and planning in addressing the global economic crisis. I would say to the previous speaker—except that he has now left the room, so I will say it on the record—that, in fact, quite the opposite is true.

Let me deal firstly with his criticism of what he described as wasted cash payments—that is, the cash bonus payments made at the end of last year and in April this year. There is one reality about hard times, and that is that the confidence of the people in the community, on the ground in streets and suburbs, is one of the most critically important aspects of getting through difficult economic times sustainably. If people are walking around their suburbs seeing shops boarded up and shutting down, if they are walking around seeing houses on the housing market sitting there with the ‘for sale’ sign out the front month after month after month, unable to be moved, then the message at the community level in the towns and suburbs in which we all live will be that times are terribly hard and that they should contract their own engagement in the economy and their own spending in particular. It is critically important that governments intervene early to retain confidence amongst the population about our capacity to work through these difficult times. I have no doubt that the circumstances we face would have been far worse going into this budget if people in our communities had seen a large number of retail and hospitality workers out of work. Often employed as casual workers, they needed to get a level of income up to sustain them over the Christmas and Easter periods, the most critically important times for them, and their employment was supported by that cash bonus system.

It may not be the employment area given the most attention, but in my area, in the seat of Cunningham, retail is the biggest employer. We talk a lot, and quite rightly so, about the challenges facing our steelworkers and our coalminers, but the largest employer in my region is retail. Those retail workers are by and large some of the most vulnerable workers in our communities. They are women and young people in particular. They have as much right as any other worker in our economy to expect the government to support and underpin their employment during difficult times. That is exactly what that injection of money did in our economy—it supported those workers and those sectors of our industries in every one of our electorates in an important way, and that was reflected in our quite amazing achievement of growth in the retail sector compared to the rest of the world. So I really challenge the previous speaker’s argument that that was wasted and I think it is a complete abrogation of responsibility to the retail and hospitality sectors, industries and small businesses, and the workers that are engaged in those sectors.

The previous speaker did also say that we have lost 18 months in which we could have been progressing major infrastructure. I would simply say that I think that we have lost the last 14 years, during 12 of which they were in government. That is why it has taken us 18 months to progress on this stuff—because there was nothing done on infrastructure for so long. So it is a challenge this government has taken up, and taken up successfully.

This brings us to the bill which is before us today. The purpose of the bill is to repeal the credit of $2.5 billion from the 2007-08 budget surplus in the Education Investment Fund that was to have occurred on 30 June 2009, in order to make that finance available for the Clean Energy Initiative. This is an important commitment by this government and it does require, obviously, a redirection of funds. I think that the important thing to understand is that it does not, as the previous speaker claimed, indicate any lack of commitment to education and innovation by this government. There is still more than $6.5 billion in the Education Investment Fund for education and research infrastructure, of which $4.1 billion was committed in the budget last night, and also in the nation-building package that was announced by the Prime Minister in December 2008. The balance of $2.4 billion, plus investment earnings estimated to be around $630 million over the forward estimates, will be available for future education and research projects.

I want to put on the record today my great pleasure in the important commitment in the budget last night to the University of Wollongong of $43.8 million for an Australian Institute of Innovative Materials at their Innovation Campus. This particular investment will have so many flow-through benefits to my own local area, where we are struggling with the impacts of the global economic crisis, because it does a number of things. Firstly, it strengthens the position we have been developing as an area of innovation in manufacturing technology. We have a great manufacturing base. We have tremendous manufacturing skills. We have a world-class university, and we are matching all those in order to develop a region people will look to for innovations in manufacturing across the sector.

I am a firm believer in the future of the manufacturing sector in our community. I was part of the economics committee that looked at a report for the former Treasurer before the election called Beyond the mining boom—and how little we understood how prescient the choice of that particular investigation was. One of the clear things that came out for manufacturing beyond the mining boom is that Australia is well positioned in problem-solving manufacturing. We will not compete on mass production manufacturing but in terms of specific projects, problem-solving projects, high-end technology based manufacturing, we are well positioned to be world leaders with our absolutely tremendous tradesmen—trained, I will plug, through the world-class TAFE system we have in this country and also extended through the solid engineering programs at our universities. This extension of that in our region will start to take that research at the university and turn it into generic prototypes which actually have the potential to develop new export markets and new manufacturing processes for our industry. This is a really important initiative. This budget delivered the most in one hit to our region that has ever been delivered in a budget. We do not often see solid amounts of investment into the Illawarra region—certainly not in recent times—but this was a real commitment to our region and it was very welcome.

It should be noted that the government has also provided for a $12.4 billion long-term investment under the Primary Schools for the 21st Century program. It is very welcome in my area and across my electorate and Jennie George’s electorate, with $50 million for our local primary schools. As a former teacher I am a profound believer that the environment you provide for young people in their schools sends a very strong message to them and their parents about how you value that education, and the facilities that they are working in are a major part of that. Full commendations to the Prime Minister for recognising that it is time to move the physical structures of our schools into the 21st century—it is a tremendous program.

Also important is the Trade Training Centres in Schools Program. Again, that provides $2.5 billion over the 10 years to enable all secondary schools to apply for funding for trade training centres. The Prime Minister was telling the Wollongong forum he attended on Monday with Jennie George and me about how he and Wayne Swan went back to the old trade centre at Nambour high and were quite horrified to discover it had not changed a single bit since they had been in it. I think he did say that Wayne Swan had passed that particular program and he had not. But it is very true: if we want young people to engage in the modern manufacturing development and trades sector then we have to provide them with modern facilities in the schools to do that. That is a tremendously important program.

The reallocation of funds to the Clean Energy Initiative that is encompassed by this bill is really a significant direction for this country to go in. The government will be using this money to stimulate economic activity in a sector that will support new green-collar jobs. I want to commend that. In my own area, the South Coast Labour Council, under the leadership of Arthur Rorris, has been developing in conjunction with and with the support of the state government a green-collar future for the Illawarra positioning paper. I am sure Mr Rorris will be keen to have the federal government look at that as well. It is about, for example, creating industries in the manufacture of wind farms in the Illawarra region—matching our steel, our trade skills and our ideal positioning with port access with the capacity to be part of the growth of the wind energy sector.

There are some really good initiatives, and this is exactly what the Clean Energy Initiative is about. It will support clean technology in industries and assist Australia’s transition to a lower emissions path, a very important part of delivering on our commitment for 20 per cent of Australia’s electricity to come from renewable sources by 2020. This objective supports the Renewable Energy Fund and the Energy Innovation Fund by efforts to encourage deployment of renewable technologies, including through the Solar Homes and Communities Plan, which I know is very welcome in our area and is part of the proposal of the Labour Council for developing some important pilot programs in our area.

An important thing to acknowledge is that this component also includes $2 billion towards industrial scale carbon capture and storage flagship programs. My own area is a major coalmining area. While the vast bulk of our coal is utilised in the steel-manufacturing sector and not the energy production sector, we do understand how important this sector is to local economies and the need to find new, cleaner ways for coal fired power to be part of the solution into the future. That is what the development of these flagship programs delivers.

I commend the bill to the House. I think it is a really important initiative. It does not indicate a lack of commitment to education at all; I would be the first to say so if I thought it did, given my background. It is an absolutely important initiative and I commend the bill to the House.