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Monday, 25 May 2009
Page: 4095

Mr TUCKEY (4:42 PM) —I rise to speak on the Appropriation Bill (No. 1) 2009-2010 and cognate bills. This is not a budget to save Australia; it is a budget that is designed to create the statistical impression of a government that should be re-elected. It is a budget that accepts that those who will suffer its burdens will not vote for 10 or 15 years. Further, it turns to every socialist option to achieve its purpose.

The Hawke-Keating government sold the family silver of government enterprise to fund its expanding expenditure and, of course, borrowed about $80 billion in the five years of that process. Now the Rudd government commits borrowed funds to recreate that situation. We are to have a new government bank, Ruddbank, which is already identified as a mates bank in terms of its preference for the ailing shopping centre and apartment sector. The Treasurer seems to have one special project in mind. But, for instance—and I do not think we should have the bank and I do not think it should have this idea—they are not around to try and bail out failed forestry companies at the moment. It is all about mates. One can only wait for some Labor luminary to have his unserviceable overdraft of around $16 million written off, as has happened in the past—nice to have a government bank!

Now we are going to return telecommunications to the government and union domination, through the so-called broadband initiative. Whatever involvement the so-called private sector might have, it is not to exceed 50 per cent. The government is going to run the shop on the instructions of the trade union movement. I can tell you, I well remember that situation when I was first elected in 1980, when in one small country centre there were 160 outstanding applications to get a telephone. And how did you fix that? You got onto one of the techies and gave him a carton of beer. That is how you did it. Do we want to return to that situation? The previous Telstra management quite properly declined to participate in this political process that fell approximately $40,000 million short of the capital needed. They were criticised for a non-conforming tender when in fact, after the government’s announcement that it would go it alone, it was clear that all the private bids were non-conforming.

The role of the Future Fund, a government statutory authority, in this matter further demonstrates the influence of government over a so-called independent statutory authority. When you can replace the chairman, a one-time chief executive of the Commonwealth Bank, David Murray, what more power as a government do you need? Telstra does not need to be involved in this uncommercial activity and, as the protector of superannuation of the public sector, the board of the Future Fund should be telling Telstra to keep out of it and get on with utilising its existing network and cash flow to make commercial, not political, decisions in the interests of its shareholders, of which the Future Fund is the largest.

Furthermore, think about history. Once this network is in place—and if it is ever built it will overcome all other networks; your telephone and everything else will work through it—when will you be told how much you are going to pay next year? You will be told in the budget, just as the states tell consumers about electricity and water charges and those other matters that are still government controlled. That is the situation. Not only will future Australians be subject to higher taxation and reduced government services as a result of this debt binge, they will have to continue to fund the losses and maintenance of nearly every budget infrastructure initiative.

Take public housing. The Western Australian government in its recent budget has had to allocate $8.3 million simply for repairs of public housing trashed by its occupants. We are never told of the costs associated with unpaid rent. This $8.3 million indicates an annual cost of approximately $80 million of similar costs around Australia as we proceed to build the 20,000 home units.

Today we were informed of the estimated cost of $4.3 billion for a single project for 50 kilometres of passenger rail in Victoria—double the cost, apparently, of building a railway line from Melbourne to Brisbane. And, of course, that is not in the budget yet—that is only the feasibility study. This government is proposing to invest $3.2 billion of that $4.3 billion. There are commitments for passenger rail in the Gold Coast, Sydney, Adelaide, Perth and Brisbane, totalling more billions. However, on the day these projects come to completion they will start losing money, as they always do.

Then there are school buildings. There is the government’s $1.2 billion Investing in Our Schools Program, which was funded with cash and gave school principals and local parents groups the opportunity to spend up to $150,000 on buildings or equipment. On that occasion state government building agencies insisted on managing these projects, which no doubt they will do again, thus increasing costs by multitudes of up to three and deducting 15 per cent for their assistance in forcing the cost of the projects up that high. Very few schools in my electorate applied for the full amount of $150,000, although some could have wisely spent more. But this budget forces them to take another $200,000. It is like feeding a pate goose: you have it forced down your throat whether you need it or not. And if you really think you can spend it you can put your hand up for another $2 million. When they were offered $150,000 many schools did not take the full amount, so why now are they told to get in and spend it? Of course they will spend it. Of course they will write letters of gratitude. But is it going to improve the education of the children as compared, for instance, with putting that sort of money into training teachers?

Reference is made again to the training facilities. Surely the first role of government is to ensure that there are sufficient qualified teachers in the relevant disciplines, science in particular. Prior to this budget, the Deputy Prime Minister and minister for everything else, Ms Gillard, lectured the parliament daily upon her education revolution. Yet this budget reduces the original commitment by $2 billion—probably because of a failure to get that money out on the ground. With her free computer initiative, for example, we know she has been told by New South Wales to go away. She estimated a cost of $1 billion when the total cost, taking installation, programming and maintenance into account, is more like $3 billion. However, in typical style we get covered assembly areas but not teachers.

Worse, students from rural areas contemplating a university education that might equip them to enter these disciplines have had their youth allowance rug pulled from under their feet. In a highly cynical move the government has changed the family income thresholds—and we heard the Deputy Prime Minister on this subject today—to make it appear that access is improved. Then they changed the qualifying criteria retrospectively. The previous rules to qualify for this allowance, which includes rent subsidies, were to enter the workforce to earn approximately $19,000 within an 18-month period. This allowed some young people to take quite high-paid jobs to aggregate the sum over 12 months.

But, whatever the circumstances, there is a serious situation where the government has changed the rules around their working arrangements. You might have a better income threshold, but if you have been working to those old rules you are now told that you have got to have two years gap and work 30 hours a week throughout that period. That is something like 75 per cent, I think, of the typical lower wage. Where do you get that sort of work in this environment? It is not necessarily available. But worse, those who have already done, say, six or nine months under the old system are being told to start again. They will be waiting three years, as a country student dependent on the rent allowance, before they can go to university.

It is all right for the Deputy Prime Minister to tell us who is rich and who is poor in the country. When your child has got to go away from home you double your household costs. If you are on a low income, without some assistance like youth allowance, it is just impossible. Even if you have been more fortunate and have got a higher income, it is not an expense that is incurred by someone who lives close to a university. This is the area of fairness and equality. I have often said that the richer you are, the closer you tend to live to a university. Of course, some kids can walk to their tertiary institution. Nobody knows that better than you, Mr Deputy Speaker Washer, when you think of the plush suburbs of Perth and how they surround the University of Western Australia. But, the minute you live further than 50 kilometres away, you have got to relocate. In some cases where wives and others have moved out, it has led to family breakdown and all sorts of issues of that nature.

That is just the start of it. The biggest con of all has been practised on our pensioners. You, Mr Deputy Speaker, and the shadow minister for infrastructure, who is at the table, are both aware there was considerable debate in the latter years of the Howard government about the disparity between the single pension and the double pension. The gap was just too large. It created a situation, for instance, where on the death of a partner there was a very large reduction—notwithstanding that the only savings within that household was probably a little bit of food. We were all conscious of it. The single pensioner could not survive; the safety net had failed them.

We talked about what needed to be done about that. We lost government and we saw the circumstances of a new government and a new budget. What was in it for the pensioners? Nothing. So what did we do about that? We shamed them into noticing the issue, and our then leader brought to this House a private member’s bill to put single pensioners’ income up by $30 a week. Having made the appropriate inquiries, this government eventually gets the message that it ought to be $32 a week. It then says to the other pensioners, ‘While we are doing this, we will just give you an extra $10.’ It sounds good. But now the phones are ringing because, as of 30 June, the $500 per annum bonus—$10 a week—is to be discontinued. You give them 10 bucks on one hand and take the 10 away with the other. In the case of the single pensioner, where the government was advised they needed $32 a week, they are getting $22 a week because they are taking that $10 back.

That is just the sort of situation that we see throughout these situations. There is no valid argument for this action. There are other opportunities for savings, including the restriction—now retrospective, of course—of the $20 billion cash splash. A young woman known to me got three of them. Farmers are telling me about backpackers that worked on their farms some months ago and who paid a bit of tax. This tax was fully refunded because of the period of their employment and the fact that they did not reach the threshold to pay tax. The envelopes are turning up at the farmer’s addresses. The envelopes have $900 cheques in them and are addressed to these young people from New Zealand and from all over the world. We did that and while, yes, some of the pensioners got that money, others did not. What was the better way to approach this very important subject?

It is an issue of order of priorities. Is it the government’s view that the construction of school halls and the building of passenger railways is more important than the provision of a security net to those who have already served our community through their labours, who have paid their taxes and who have—by their efforts—delivered a better living standard to future generations?

The government has created a committee to review the Australian tax system with the intention, I understand, of making it more simple. A good tax system should provide simplicity, certainty and equity. Yet it is reported that many more Australians will now be required to employ a tax agent to negotiate themselves through the complexity of this budget and its range of income and other means tests. For example, the income threshold for exemption on employee shares—a matter of great controversy, I might add—is $60,000. But it is $250,000 for non-commercial tax losses. It is $150,000 for parental payments. And you can take your pick of $75,000, $90,000, $120,000—or the doubling of such—for couples for matters related to Medicare and health fund rebates. In my mind, that hardly sounds like simplicity, certainty or equity.

There is also a veritable potpourri of tests relevant to salary sacrificed superannuation, foreign income et cetera. One of the most amazing is to differentiate between employer-paid superannuation contributions above nine per cent, except if that contribution is mandated in a union industrial agreement. In other words, if you have got an industrial agreement that says that you have got to pay 12 per cent, it will not be subject to the tax arrangements. But, if you are just a good employer who wants to help out and the circumstances allow you to do so and you say to the workers that you are going to give them an extra three per cent, there will be a special tax on that. You just could not believe that there could be this sort of commitment under the trade union domination of this particular thing.

The small and medium businesses are to get 30 and 50 per cent investment allowances, but, of course, this presupposes they have business opportunities to employ the new equipment they might purchase, the funds to make the purchase and/or a sympathetic banker to provide a loan at a viable interest rate. I especially mention viable interest rates. The situation is that, with the government pulling money out of our economy in tranche upon tranche of up to $700 million at a time, it is very difficult for the banks to compete in that marketplace. It is very difficult for the share market because the institutions, the big superannuation companies, are buying the government bonds. They are safe and return low interest, but they are secure. They are not investing in driving share prices up to a level that is of some significance for someone who has put their whole superannuation future into shares with the thought that, ‘They are blue ribbon and I can sell them, probably, at a small profit as I need the money.’ You wonder why the banks are charging 10 and 15 per cent. When they go overseas to borrow money the interest rate might be right, but there are the additional costs, hedging against financial currency movements et cetera. Nevertheless, there is a good news story for small business: the budget creates an advisory bureau. Small business will now be able to ring up a public servant to find out how to run their business. I am sure that is going to be a great help. We just go on and on.

Today in the parliament I put a slightly different meaning on the word ‘relevance’. I have been here since 1980. I know what relevance means in this place—the relevance of this House to be able to deliver answers through the media who sit up in the gallery bored to tears as to what the government is actually doing. The Prime Minister today could refer precisely to 3.8 per cent of GDP but did not know what the GDP would be, which might have allowed commentators to calculate the true size of that debt. He spoke for 10 minutes, and in the old days when I was here there would have been a mad rush by officials to provide him with that answer—which could now be got electronically. He did not want the answer. And this is the tragedy of this place. It has become irrelevant under this government.

If the Speaker thinks that he is constrained, he should read about the time when Billy Snedden was the Speaker—because when he was the Speaker he used the ultimate power of a Speaker. When ministers abused the rules of this place they were simply told to sit down, as I will now do. (Time expired)