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Monday, 25 May 2009
Page: 4037

Ms PLIBERSEK (Minister for Housing and Minister for the Status of Women) (12:25 PM) —This is a nation-building budget. It supports jobs now and delivers the investments needed to strengthen the economy for the future. In my remarks on these appropriation bills I will be speaking to my particular areas of responsibility, for housing and housing affordability, and to some of the special measures in the budget which are of particular benefit to Australian women, in my role as Minister for the Status of Women.

An historic $22 billion will be spent on infrastructure around the country—on road, public transport, clean energy and university infrastructure. Many of the projects outlined in the budget papers are in or very near my electorate and will have benefits for many of my constituents, including the extra $100 million for a state-of-the-art cancer centre at Royal Prince Alfred Hospital at Camperdown, which comes on top of the $50 million already allocated for this lighthouse project. The centre will be a wonderful benefit not just to the people in my electorate. Australians certainly from all over New South Wales and perhaps from other parts of the country will be able to travel to Sydney to get the integrated cancer treatment and support that this new facility will offer. There is also $70 million for the Garvan Institute at St Vincent’s Hospital, which was a part of my electorate until recently. Many of the constituents I have are still reliant on St Vincent’s Hospital, and the Garvan Institute in particular does wonderful work not just for the people of Sydney but internationally. The institute is internationally renowned for its marvellous work.

In the area of education $48 million has been allocated to the College of Fine Arts in Paddington, which is also now outside my electorate but many of its students are residents of my electorate of Sydney. Certainly having the fine-arts college in Paddington really contributes to the life and vibrancy of that suburb. An investment of $50,000 to $200,000 has been allocated to each of the schools in my electorate from the Building the Education Revolution package, which is exciting. In the first funding round announcements I have heard of the success of Annandale North Public School, Annandale Public School, Balmain Public School, Birchgrove Public School, Bourke Street Public School, Cleveland Street Intensive English High School, Forest Lodge Public School, Fort Street Public School, Father John Therry Catholic Primary School, Glebe Public School, the International Grammar School, Lord Howe Island Central School—Lord Howe Island experienced some very bad weather recently and the SES was needed there—Newtown High School of the Performing Arts, Newtown North Public School, Newtown Public School, Our Lady of Mount Carmel Primary School, which is celebrating its 150th anniversary, Rozelle Public School, Sydney Grammar School, Sydney Secondary College Balmain campus, Sydney Secondary College Blackwell Bay campus, St Brendan’s School, St James Primary School, St Mary’s Cathedral School, St Mary’s School and St Scholastica’s College. All of those schools were successful in the first round of funding from the Building the Education Revolution. I am very excited about the extra investment those schools will see benefiting their students but also benefiting their local communities.

The budget also delivered on tax cuts that were announced in last year’s budget, keeping our commitment to hardworking Australians. There will be a significant boost to small business by increasing from 30 per cent to 50 per cent the investment allowance for eligible assets, giving small business owners the confidence to invest in their businesses. We have heard a lot of anecdotal reports of businesses making investments in, for example, new transport and so on, which benefits not just the particular business itself but the suppliers of the goods from our local areas.

We have also delivered on pension reform. This is something that the opposition were very quick to embrace once they became the opposition. They had 12 years in government to deliver reform in this area but they were always too mean to do it. We have delivered an extra $32.49 per week for full-rate age, disability support, widow, carer and veterans pensioners, with couples receiving an extra $10.14. It is interesting also that, as well as never taking the opportunity to increase the age pension during their time in government, the opposition, when they became the opposition, as well as jumping on the bandwagon, saying that the age pension should be increased, did not just ignore the fact that they had had 12 years in which to do it but also excluded a vast number of pensioners. They agreed that there was work needed as to age pensioners but missed out disability pensioners, carers, veterans and other pensioners in their initial proposals. As well as pensions—which I will go back to in a little more detail later—500,000 carers around Australia will receive a new permanent carer supplement of $600 per annum to help them meet the significant financial challenges that they face. This is a much better approach than the one-off bonuses that were paid under the previous government on occasion, if the mood was there. This is something that carers can count on in the future.

The extension of the first home owner boost is the most significant new measure in my portfolio and it comes on the back of the terrific success of the first home owner boost. The first home owner boost has not just meant tens of thousands of young Australians are able to buy a home of their own when previously they had given up on the dream of home ownership; it also means work for tradespeople right across Australia. I see a lot of new developments and a lot of new building going on. I talk to builders and I talk to developers and they tell me that the first homeowners market, a negligible part of their work previously, has become a substantial part of their work. It varies, obviously, from state to state and from development to development. In many instances, they say, it is around 50 per cent—the lowest I have heard is now around 30 per cent—of their work and, up higher, 60 to 70 per cent of homes are being sold to first home buyers.

Of course, that has meant that the type of stock that is being built is different to what builders were building a few years ago. If you had a look at what builders were building a few years ago, you would have often seen four-bedroom homes with two bathrooms and a media room—large homes, typically aimed at homebuyers who had been in the market for some time and perhaps had older children or teenagers in the family. They are good homes for developers to build, because there is a higher profit margin in each house when you are building those larger homes. What we are seeing today is builders and developers really cutting their cloth to suit the market that is there at the moment. We are seeing more modest homes on smaller blocks of land, but they are a terrific way for someone to get into the housing market. They are a great way for someone who wants to buy a home of their own but is modest in their requirements to get into the housing market to pay off the bulk of that property and then think about something larger when their family begins to grow or their children are older.

The first home owner boost is staging down. We were concerned that ending the boost suddenly would have had difficult consequences for developers and builders and would have potentially caused a rush towards the end of the period. So this staging down militates against those two outcomes. It is also worth remembering that there will be an ongoing building effect from the first home owner boost beyond 31 December, when it ends, because people will sign their contracts on 31 December and they then have 26 weeks for those homes to be built. So there will still be building generated by the first home owner boost beyond the notional end date of the boost.

As well as that new measure, there are several other important ongoing commitments within the budget, including $4.95 billion over four years for the National Affordable Housing Agreement and $2.01 billion over four years for the National Partnership Agreement on Remote Indigenous Housing to address overcrowding, homelessness, poor housing conditions and housing shortages. Some of the worst housing conditions, some of the worst overcrowding, is in Indigenous communities, particularly remote communities, and it is absolutely critical to our Closing the Gap targets that we address these issues of poor housing conditions and overcrowding. We have also set aside $525.6 million over four years for the National Partnership Agreement on Homelessness, including $125.6 million for A Place to Call Home. A Place to Call Home, as you would recall, Madam Deputy Speaker, was a program that we went to the last election with, that we have now funded and that we are working with the states to deliver. Instead of homeless Australians moving into crisis accommodation and then moving on to transitional or medium-term accommodation and finally, perhaps, if they are lucky, getting longer term support through affordable private rental or public housing, A Place to Call Home places people who have been homeless immediately into the home that they will stay in for the long term. They get the support they need to stay in that property. For a victim of domestic violence it might be additional support workers to help with the needs of her kids and the counselling and support that is needed for her to re-establish her life. For people who perhaps have become homeless because of mental illness, it might be the personal support workers that they need to stabilise their condition and remain housed. Those houses then join the general pool of public housing in the state.

We have seen families moving into these A Place to Call Home properties already, as we have with our National Rental Affordability Scheme. The figure for the out-years for the National Rental Affordability Scheme is $1.04 billion. This is a scheme where, because of its initial 10-year commitment—each incentive is active for 10 years—the figures will change from year to year for the out-years of the National Rental Affordability Scheme.

I have had the fantastic pleasure of visiting the first tenants under the National Rental Affordability Scheme in many locations around Australia—people who are moving into these homes. One family that I visited in Leumeah had been living with the fellow’s mum for about three years. They were a couple with two young sons aged 11 and 13 when I met them. It was a two-bedroom property. The boys shared a room. They were so proud of their room. They took me to their room and showed me their DVDs and sporting trophies; both of them are great young sportsmen. These properties through the National Rental Affordability Scheme were purchased by St George Community Housing in an existing development of about 150 units. St George bought about 50 units. Nobody could tell which were the National Rental Affordability Scheme properties; they shared all the same facilities as the other units in that complex. They certainly did not have any of the social difficulties or social stigma that we see in some of the large broadacre housing estates that were built 30 to 50 years ago. I cannot tell you how relieved this family were to finally have a place of their own. We turned up and there were rows of beautifully neat shoes, one next to the other, outside the door. I think I was possibly the first person who had ever walked on their carpet in shoes, they felt pride in the preciousness of having their own place so strongly. There is also the $459.8 million for the Housing Affordability Fund. It has been terrific to go and look at the sorts of proposals that have been funded under the Housing Affordability Fund and will continue to be.

Of course, Madam Deputy Speaker, the ongoing work that we are doing in social housing is more critical than ever now because of the jobs that it generates and the housing that it provides at a time when people, particularly in the private rental market, are experiencing great difficulties, as you would have seen on the front page of the Daily Telegraph today. We have set aside $6 billion to build 20,000 new units of public housing around the country and $400 million for repairs and maintenance. I opened the first of the new public housing dwellings in Yennora on the weekend. The builders there told me that 52 separate tradespeople had worked on that property, including three apprentices. One of their apprentices had been put on because of the stimulus package work that they had got. It is a terrific outcome for them and it was a terrific outcome for the family that were moving into that new property as well. Jobs have been the main focus of this budget, as well as the social housing stimulus package. They have been a very important deciding factor in all of the investments that have been made.

Because of my role as the Minister for the Status of Women, I want to conclude by speaking a little bit about some of the measures that are of particular interest to Australian women. The historic investment of $731 million over five years for a comprehensive paid parental leave scheme is something that has been welcomed around the country. It is extraordinary. I must say that in my role as minister I have received curious questions about our lack of a paid maternity leave scheme from women’s ministers from other countries in international fora. This is a scheme whose time has well and truly come. The paid parental leave scheme will apply to births and adoptions after 1 January 2011.

It is interesting to look at who already had paid parental leave—or paid maternity leave in this case. Approximately half of all women who were employed already had some access to paid maternity or parental leave as part of arrangements negotiated with their employers, either in the public sector or in some private sector jobs. But, if you look at who was getting that leave, you see that less than a quarter of women on very low wages were eligible for that type of leave, whereas about three-quarters of women on high wages were eligible. It was terrific that many Australian women had already benefited from these schemes, but disproportionately, of course, it was women who had been on higher incomes in the lead-up to the births. In fact, the lowest level of access to paid parental leave was generally in areas that were female dominated, lower skilled and highly casualised. Of course, our scheme will be a huge benefit to those women in particular. Also, of course, about 74 per cent of full-time employees had access to paid parental leave, compared with only 32 per cent of part-time employees. That, again, is an area where it is very important to see change.

Our scheme, of course, will also help self-employed parents, contractors and casual workers. It involves—as you know, Madam Deputy Speaker—18 weeks paid leave at the federal minimum wage, which is currently $543.78 per week. That period of leave can be shared by both parents. There is an income test of $150,000 on the primary carer’s adjusted taxable income in the previous financial year. Some families will choose to stay on the current arrangements and receive the baby bonus and a family tax benefit because, of course, by changing to paid parental leave the family will miss out on the baby bonus and family tax benefit part B during that 18-week period. Families will be able to choose between those two options.

It is also worth reminding people that there will be a review in a couple of years time about whether paid paternity leave is also something that should be a feature of the Australian system and whether employers should contribute continuing payments for superannuation. We know that women are retiring with less superannuation than men—generally for baby boomers it is about half. There is something that we need to do over the long term to reduce that discrepancy. The reform to the pensions has made a huge difference there. About three-quarters of the people on single age pension are women. The increase to the single age pension is going to make a huge difference to those living on it, many of whom are women. Also, two-thirds of carer payment recipients are women, so the changes to pensions and to those benefits will have an ongoing effect that will reduce poverty in areas that are particularly female dominated.