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Monday, 25 May 2009
Page: 4104

Mr LINDSAY (5:22 PM) —I would like to report to the House that in my electorate I am picking up very deep concerns about the deficit and the debt that has been forced upon our country. People are wondering, ‘Has the government lost its way?’ People are wondering, ‘Does the government have a plan for how to deal with this debt and deficit?’

In question time today we saw some obfuscation, which would indicate that perhaps the government does not have a plan. The country looks like it is going to be in debt and deficit for decades to come. Of course, we will all be paying the interest on that, let alone trying to pay off the principal. That is going to be very difficult, not only for the current generation but also for our kids and grandkids, and I worry for them.

I have lived through a period during which our country was debt free. We were the envy of the world. Yes, people will say, ‘Well, there has been a global financial crisis.’ But other countries have approached this quite differently to the way that Australia has approached it. The policy choices that are available to governments are interesting, and it is interesting to look at the policy choices that the Australian government has adopted. Basically, this has been: borrow, borrow, borrow—if you want to hand out money, just borrow and hand it out. That has been very sad. I think that the Australian community has picked up that the two cash splashes that we saw have not been effective, and they are wondering why we borrowed the money just to hand it out to no effect.

The opposition, for its part, has also been articulating a policy by which, we believe, we could have got twice the bang for the buck for half the money. That is an example of policy choices that are available to governments, and it is a pity that we put our country so far into debt when it really was not necessary.

Specifically in relation to the budget, there has been a lot of talk by the government about infrastructure—nation building and so on. We have seen the parade of hard hats and fluorescent vests all over the country in the last week. People are being asked to believe that a lot of money is being spent on infrastructure. What they are not being told is the quantum of money—how it compares to the previous government, when it might be spent and how it might be funded.

In North Queensland, despite indicating otherwise, the Rudd government will spend less in 2009-10—that is, the next financial year—on road and rail infrastructure than the coalition committed when we were in government. The Rudd government will actually spend less on infrastructure in North Queensland. That is not what the government and their hard hats are telling us, but that is the reality of it. Projects like the Abbot Point coal terminal upgrade and the Townsville to Mount Isa rail corridor are stalled indefinitely—these absolutely nation-building projects in North Queensland are stalled indefinitely.

If the member for Kennedy was here, he would be saying, in a very loud voice, ‘Hear, hear!’ The North West Queensland Minerals Province, which he represents in this parliament, is a wealth creator beyond imagination—it has that potential. It is still largest prospective minerals province in the world today, but the rail and road corridors, which were identified by the former government under AusLink, have not received any funding. Trains have got to travel at 40 kilometres an hour in some cases—there are not enough passing loops. The rail itself needs replacing with heavier duty rail, but there is no money. It is a project that could begin more or less immediately. It is the same with the upgrade of the Abbot Point coal terminal, but where is the missing link between the coal fields and Abbot Point? There is no funding. It is such a shame.

In relation to the Bruce Highway, we find that the passing lanes that we so desperately need every five kilometres have just been forgotten about. This budget has been a bad outcome for North Queensland. Any North Queenslander who thinks that these infrastructure projects are going to have any sort of effect in North Queensland has got another think coming. It is such a shame that it is being put about that there is all this money when in fact there is not.

I am pleased that the member for Goldstein is with us tonight, because he has recognised the $60 billion black hole in the infrastructure packages. This surfaced just the other day. It is basically causing a raid on our superannuation funds. Less than 22 per cent of the new infrastructure spending will occur either in this financial year or in the next. The majority of it is going to have to be funded out of private sources, not out of government sources. The superannuation funds are paranoid about what the government might impose upon them and about what they might be required to do, because their obligation to those who deposit money in their superannuation fund is to get the best return, and sometimes public infrastructure does not deliver the best return. That is going to be a very significant issue, and we may well see that some of the projects that the government has announced will in fact never happen.

Some in the media and elsewhere would unkindly call that ‘government spin’, but perhaps it is not so unkind after all; perhaps it is something we as the Australian community should all face up to and understand that we are being sold a pup. Certainly, for my part, I am convinced that that is the case.

We looked at the cash splashes that occurred—one just before Christmas and one in April. There is no doubt that those around the world who know about these things basically cannot believe what they are seeing. Recently, I was speaking to a number of finance ministers in other countries, and they could not believe it when I told them that Australia’s response to the global financial crisis was to borrow money, hand it out and say, ‘Just go and spend it.’ Their instant reaction—in a non-political way, because they are remote from Australia—was: ‘Well, that won’t produce a stimulus at all. It will produce happy voters, but it won’t produce a stimulus.’ That is what has happened.

I will tell you what they did in Malta, and this applies particularly in my electorate. They immediately identified large employers in their country who may face difficulty in keeping their employees during the downturn in the global economy. Malta decided to support those particular industries to keep people in jobs and give them and their families security, but they did it for a very good reason: they believe that those companies will come out of this crisis in a far stronger position than they were in going into it. So there is a win for everybody—a win for the employees, a win for the company and a win for the country—but the key is to support those particular threatened companies so they can continue their operations.

I turn to my electorate and look at Yabulu, BHP Billiton’s nickel refinery. Our community has been very concerned. Currently BHP have a high-level committee looking at the future of the refinery. They are looking at options that range from closing the refinery completely or upgrading the refinery through to processing even more ore through the refinery. All options are on the table. But the financial press is beginning to write very concerning articles, saying: Yabulu is next on the hit list of BHP Billiton. I do not know whether that is true, because BHP have not made a statement, but, when you look at the world nickel price and the fact that BHP’s plant continues to trade at a loss, the future is not very bright. BHP have shut down the Ravensthorpe nickel mine and processing plant, which was feeding part-processed material to Yabulu for final processing. They shut it down, so that feed is no longer there. BHP are now basically processing dirt containing nickel that comes from places like New Caledonia, the Philippines or Indonesia. In fact, just as an aside, they are the largest importer of water in Australia because the dirt that comes in is 35 per cent moisture. That cannot continue. Yabulu has to be profitable. It has to have a good outlook. It is an old plant; it has been there for decades. The worry is that it will close.

As the largest employer in the city of Townsville, if the plant closes it will have a devastating effect on our economy. Nearly 2,000 people are likely to lose their jobs. The money circulating in the economy will dry up. We have to be on guard about that. This is my point: this is a prime example of where the Malta philosophy would have worked, where the government could have gone to BHP and said, ‘Look, in this downturn we will give you whatever assistance is needed to ensure that your plant continues to operate and people continue to be employed.’ I call on the government to look at the options in relation to keeping major employers afloat and providing some certainty for families in places like Townsville, where so many people are threatened with the loss of their jobs.

On another matter, there are changes to youth allowance. That was canvassed today in question time. I do not think the government quite understand what they have done. I would like to read an email that I received during question time today while the minister was talking about this matter. This is an email from a person in Loxton, in South Australia, but it is typical of emails we are all receiving. It says:

The changes to qualification for youth allowance post 1 January 2010, as outlined in the federal budget, will be extremely damaging to country students. Currently a student under the age of 25 is considered independent of the parental income test if they have worked full time for 18 months since leaving school or worked part time for two years since leaving school or have earned $19,532. In the latest federal budget it is proposed that students, unless qualified by 1 January 2010, will no longer qualify as independent unless they have worked 30 hours a week for 18 months in a two-year period. The vast majority of country students will struggle to meet these new guidelines as full-time work is difficult to find.

I have James Cook University in my electorate, as has the member for Leichhardt, who is with us. We know how many students come from outlying regions. They will be affected. The email goes on to say:

The relocation assistance proposed ONLY APPLIES TO THOSE WHO QUALIFY FOR YOUTH ALLOWANCE. It is a double slap in the face.

However, there is a group of students that are even more disadvantaged than students completing secondary schooling at the end of 2009 and beyond who will be operating under the new qualification criteria. These are young people who have taken a gap year and are already six months into their 18-month program to earn $19,532—the current rules. They’ve had the rug pulled out from underneath them by having the rules changed on them midway. This group of students finished secondary school in November 2008 and would have been planning to start uni in 2010. What do they do now? What hope have they got to catch up the 30-hour a week average criteria with only 12 months left of their qualifying period remaining?

This is the difficulty that the government face in what they have done to students. They may be unintended consequences. If they are, then we have to see the government immediately moving the necessary amendments to have some kind of transitional arrangement put in place.

I turn now to the question of the reduction in the rebate for cataract surgery. This is a monumental mistake, and it is not being overly dramatic to say the government has decided to send some people blind. It has been the current government’s mantra to entrench the notion of a fair society. Certainly, the Prime Minister has said, ‘There is no greater touchstone for the whole debate about fairness than health and hospitals.’ Mr Prime Minister, please revisit this particular issue and understand what it means. Do you know that a cosmetic hair transplant will get a doctor a higher Medicare rebate than cataract surgery? How can that be? Where has the importance gone? Where have the priorities gone? Dr Bill Glasson, a respected surgeon, who takes his cataract surgery to regional and rural areas, said that he believes hundreds of people suffering cataract problems in rural and remote parts of the state could go blind following the federal government’s decision to cut Medicare rebates for surgery. Bill Glasson is not the kind of person who would overdramatise the situation. We have got to take notice of him and his colleagues in relation to what is what.

The rationale for doing this was that these days the procedure is much shorter and, therefore, it should be cheaper. This is false. If you visit any ophthalmologist you can immediately understand why it is false. I visited Dr Bill Talbot in his rooms in Townsville last week. He has a staff of 11 and 1½ doctors. He works from half past seven in the morning until half past seven at night. He does not get a break. He is a visiting medical officer. He does what he thinks he should do. He visits Palm Island to look after Indigenous Australians. He is a dedicated surgeon. He is not in it for the money. But, at the end of the day, he has to turn a profit to continue to provide the services that he provides to needy Australians. Cutting the rebate will make his business unprofitable. What does that mean? Staff will be sacked. Services will be reduced. He will not be able to be a VMO anymore at the Townsville Hospital. The public waiting lists will grow longer. What kind of an outcome is that? The government has got to revisit this.

Let us look at the impact on the patients. This measure will in fact undermine further the public confidence in Australia’s Medicare system. Patients without private health insurance undertaking cataract surgery in the private system will have to pay increased out-of-pocket expenses. People with private health insurance will have to pay increased out-of-pocket expenses. The cataract procedures will not be available anymore in rural and remote settings or in Indigenous communities—and they are the most vulnerable. There will be greater congestion in an already stretched public hospital system. There will be longer waiting lists. Think about this as an unintended consequence: for elderly Australians who cannot get a cataract operation, there will be a greater risk of falls and hip fractures as a result of poor vision. There will be greater risk of confusion and depression as a consequence of poor vision. There will be people living in fear of blindness. What kind of government does that to the people of Australia? It is not a compassionate government. It is not a government that cares about our health system. It is a government that must revisit this particular issue for the sake of all of those hundreds of thousands of Australians each year who have cataract operations. Finally, I commend the Combined Pensioners and Superannuants Association of New South Wales for their action. They have written to all members of parliament, and I ask the government to read their letter and take action.