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Tuesday, 25 May 2010
Page: 4001

Ms OWENS (6:25 PM) —I rise to speak on Appropriation Bill (No. 1) 2010-2011 and related bills. I am proud to speak to this year’s budget, the third budget of the Rudd Labor government. They have been three extremely different budgets for different times, each responding to the circumstances we faced as a nation at the time. The first budget, still in the boom time before the global financial crisis really bit, began to tackle the barriers that faced the nation: a lack of investment in infrastructure over the decade of the previous government, investment in education which was falling behind the rest of the world and rising pressure on working families and individuals—all issues which impacted on the ability of businesses to get on and do what they do and on the capacity of families to do what they need to do.

In this place we must sometimes remember that, while the media tends to focus on us when we are here, people—individuals, families, businesses and community organisations—actually do the work. They build, they improve, they rescue, they support and sometimes they struggle. Governments are important, but we are not all-important. The global financial crisis has demonstrated to governments around the world just how much we can be affected by the actions of others. In this country, floods and fire have, in recent years, demonstrated how easily the best of plans—and sometimes our very lives—can be swept aside.

Nevertheless, governments are judged by whether their work generally improves the environment in which the community goes about its task. We are assessed on this in both the short and the long term. On coming to government after the biggest boom—there had been 20 years of it—and after 12 years of a conservative government, we faced some very significant structural issues. There had been a lack of investment in virtually everything: infrastructure and education, health, innovation, the skilling of our workforce, community infrastructure and the infrastructure needed to support developing businesses. We had lagging productivity growth. There was also significant strain on the volunteers and workers in our schools, hospitals and community clubs, who were putting more and more effort into holding things together to compensate for a lack of resources. Pensioners’ incomes had been whittled away over years. We faced extraordinary complexity in the way that the states and the Commonwealth interacted, with multiple sets of rules and regulations and a mismatch between who had the responsibility and who had the money. We had the blame game—something that there was a great deal of under the last government.

We had the problem of an ageing population, with rising health costs and all the associated cross-generational issues. We had a two-tiered economy—a booming mining sector which contributed significantly to those who worked in and around it and was great for the government’s bottom line, but which was impacting through the rest of the economy as inflation kicked in and interest rates rose, putting extraordinary pressure on homeowners around the country.

There was also pressure on working families, with strain in the family budget and increasing levels of personal debt. For me, however, the most surprising thing that we inherited was a lack of plans. The Howard government, after 12 years in office and 20 years of boom, did not actually have plans. The nation did not know where it needed to focus its attention. The government had no plan for infrastructure; no plan for capital investment in our teaching institutions; no plan to address rising health costs; no collective information on childcare needs, on skills or on housing; and no plan to tackle climate change. We were a nation with rivers of gold and the government left us with no plans. We were a nation of people, community groups and businesses working like crazy to keep our heads above water. Essentially we took over from a lazy government, a government with rivers of gold but no plans to set the nation up for the future, except one—a plan to drive down wages through Work Choices.

In our first budget just two years ago, we began investing in the nation’s future. We continued to invest through the global financial crisis and continue to invest through this budget in the foundations for a stronger, fairer economy and a stronger, fairer future for Australia. Budgets can only be assessed in the contexts in which they are delivered. The budget we have delivered this year would have been the wrong budget for the boom times of the past and it would have been insufficient to cope with the full-blown financial crisis of a year ago, but it is the right budget for this year. It is a budget for steady recovery from a global financial crisis not of our making and for a return to surplus. It is a budget that continues to prepare the economy for challenges ahead.

A quick look around the world at the condition of most developed nations shows them with substantial levels of debt—90 per cent of GDP or more; unemployment between eight per cent and 10 per cent; recessions; high levels of insolvencies in the business world; and repossessions of homes. Many countries around the world have faced significant loss of capital and skill base, and we could have suffered the same. We have not. In fact, our economic performance over the last two years is the envy of the developed world. The stimulus we put in place and the speed with which it was implemented was—despite the downside of the speed—the significant factor in keeping our people in work and our businesses afloat. That means that we are not now digging ourselves out of a deep hole. Our businesses have survived, our people have stayed in work, our assets are in place and we are in a better position to recover than most.

However, it is worth remembering that the economy is still recovering. We are in positive growth, but it is nowhere near back to where it was three years ago. At the time of the last budget just a year ago, it appeared that the global financial crisis would rip $210 billion off the forward estimates, and we are still down significantly on where we would have been without the global financial crisis. This is a responsible budget that will get us back in the black three years ahead of schedule and ahead of every major advanced economy.

I am particularly proud of the way that our community in Parramatta pulled together to keep people in jobs and help Australia avoid recession when the rest of the world was tumbling off a cliff. We saw people accept reduced hours, which was a wonderful thing, but they stayed in work, and we are in a very strong position to recover now. This budget builds on that strength to deliver for the people in my community in Parramatta while getting the budget back into surplus three years early, which is an extraordinary achievement. This budget converts Australia’s successes during the global recession into even lower unemployment for working people and families in my electorate.

I am particularly proud that this budget delivers on parental leave. It has been a long time coming. People in my electorate have lobbied long and hard for this, and Australia has lagged behind the world for a long time on it. Eighteen weeks at the minimum wage is particularly good for low-income workers, who are in the weakest bargaining position, and I will be very, very pleased to see it start at the beginning of next year.

I am also incredibly pleased to see the announcement of the increase in compulsory superannuation from nine per cent to 12 per cent. I remember when the last Labor government introduced compulsory super and how proud I was of that action. It was one of the great reforms of a Labor government. Many of us thought it would be difficult for it to rise from nine per cent, and, of course, it has been on pause there now for more than a decade. This is a significant reform. I know we will look back with great pride on the raising, albeit over several years, of superannuation from nine per cent to 12 per cent.

It is particularly good to see such a substantial increase in investment in health in this budget. I am particularly proud of the fact that the government has managed to make such substantial increases in times that are not what you could describe as being filled with manna from heaven. The global financial crisis has been a tough time for us all, even in this country, and I am particularly proud of the work that the government has done in health and what it has delivered in this budget.

The budget fully funds over the forward estimates the recently announced historic health and hospital reforms. The budget includes an additional $2.2 billion investment in the health system, which takes the government’s new investment in health reform to $7.3 billion over five years and $23 billion over the rest of the decade. The budget’s new health announcements include investments that will improve access to general practitioners and primary health care, including better after-hours services, 23 new GP superclinics and upgrades to around 425 GP and primary healthcare clinics across the nation.

This budget includes $523 million in additional support and training for our nurses, including aged-care nurses, who, as we know, are the backbone of our health system and have been underresourced for many, many years. Also included in the budget is a $467 million investment to modernise our health and hospital system through a new e-health initiative, which even the last government thought was well worth doing at the time. However, as we know, the opposition will now oppose this measure. It is, of course, a great measure. The ability to access and keep track of records is incredibly important, particularly for people in rural areas and people with chronic diseases, and it will contribute to better health outcomes for people around the country.

The introduction of personally controlled electronic health will mean less paperwork and better services no matter where you move in your life. The government is taking responsibility also for the majority share of hospital costs and full policy and funding responsibility for GP and primary care services and aged-care services. This will provide an increasing benefit to the states over time, starting with a guaranteed minimum of $15.6 billion in additional growth costs absorbed by the Commonwealth from 2014-15 to 2019-20.

I am puzzled by the opposition’s obstruction of many of these measures. They have already blocked improvements to dental health care and preventative health and they fought for months over the alcopops tax. They have vowed to withdraw funding for GP superclinics and e-health and they do not support the federal takeover. What they do support is anybody’s guess. We know that in government they ripped $1 billion out of public hospitals and they seem to believe that things are okay now. They are not. The health system, as we know it, needs substantial reform and this government is delivering it through this budget.

We have also continued our work on climate change in this budget, unable as we are to get the Senate to pass the emissions trading legislation. That is in spite of considerable work on and bipartisan support for an ETS at the last election and negotiations leading up to the second vote in the Senate. We have increased our funding in renewable energy with a new $652 million fund to support renewable energy and energy efficiency that will help households save on power bills. The government is committed to reducing our carbon pollution and tackling climate change. We can only wish that the opposition and the Greens had supported us in our intentions to introduce a carbon trading scheme for this nation.

The fund forms part of the government’s expanded $5.1 billion Clean Energy Initiative, which will provide additional support for the development and deployment of large- and small-scale renewable energy projects and the enhanced take-up of industrial, commercial and residential energy efficiency, helping Australian businesses and households reduce their energy consumption. The Renewable Energy Future Fund brings the government’s total investment in renewable and clean energy and energy efficiency to over $10 billion.

We have dramatically expanded the renewable energy target by four times to 20 per cent, so that by 2020 the equivalent of all household electricity will come from clean, renewable sources like wind and solar. We have made the largest ever investment in renewable energy technology development with over $2 billion committed to the development of wind, solar, geothermal and other clean energy sources. We have made the largest ever investment in clean coal with $2.5 billion committed to develop world-leading carbon capture and storage technology and we have short-listed four projects to move to the next stage of assessment under the carbon capture and storage program. We have committed over $5 billion in support for energy efficiency measures to help households and businesses cut their energy bills and reduce their emissions.

Of course this is not enough. The nation needs an emissions trading scheme to drive market innovation and investment. Without it, Australia will be frozen in the carbon age while the world moves forward. Australia thinks of itself as a country whose wealth is in the ground. We have done very well out of our soil and minerals, but I believe that our greatest wealth is that of our minds. We are an innately creative nation and should be leading the world in renewable technology as we once led the world in solar technology. The main purposes of an emissions trading scheme is to reward innovation that reduces our reliance on carbon based fuels and to put our greatest thinkers to work on developing solutions to tackle climate change.

Climate change is one of the great moral challenges of our time. The Liberals and the Greens opposition in the Senate, in spite of negotiations, has stalled some of the most important action that this government could take. For me, it will be one of the great disappointments of our first term in government that the opposition and the Greens chose to destroy our opportunity to act in a timely way on climate change. We now need to rebuild consensus, and there is a delay involved in that. But we must remember that we had consensus until the day that the leadership of the opposition changed, until the day that the vote took place in the Senate and the Greens and the opposition voted against the Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme.

The nature of Australian politics over decades has required consensus from governments and oppositions. With people choosing to moderate power by selecting different governments at state and federal levels and having a bit of a bet each way in the Senate, governments for decades have accepted that consensus is a reality in Australian politics. In some of the short periods of time—and we saw one under the Howard government—when governments act without that consensus, we find that a nation swings backwards and forwards between two opposing positions, as we have, for example, on Work Choices. The need for consensus has served our nation well and has kept us on a rather stable path over many decades. Consensus is important on something as important as climate change if major reform is going to stick through subsequent elections and changes in government. It is unfortunate that we now have an opposition that has taken us back to the Howard era, before the Liberals decided that climate change was real. We hear members of the opposition, including the leader, talking about climate change as ‘absolute crap’. It is really a tragedy that the Greens as well have refused to support the bill in the Senate.

This budget continues to make an unprecedented investment in the nation’s transport infrastructure as part of our broader efforts to build a more productive economy and a more prosperous society. Through our first two budgets and the economic stimulus plan, the government has put in place a nation-building agenda which has already delivered both immediate and enduring gains. The government’s quick and decisive response to the global financial crisis helped keep some 200,000 Australians in jobs and Australia out of recession. The focus has now shifted from supporting the economy to productive economic capacity so that we can grow sustainably with lower inflation into the future.

This budget expands upon this nation-building agenda in a number of really important areas. It boosts rail productivity, supports the growth of aviation, improves safety standards within Western Sydney and continues the overhaul of transport regulations. All these measures will help create a seamless national economy and boost long-term productivity. The Rudd government’s massive investments mean Australia is only now emerging from a decade of neglect of vital infrastructure, and we are making this investment in an economic climate that has seen substantial hits to the bottom line.

We have doubled investment in roads, quadrupled investment in rail and made the first significant federal investment in urban passenger rail. Nearly $1 billion will be invested to further accelerate the modernisation of the interstate rail network. This new money brings the government’s total investment in this vital piece of infrastructure to $8.9 billion. In addition, the government has allocated $70 million to complete planning on the Moorebank intermodal terminal project, a facility with the potential to create thousands of jobs in Western Sydney, take one million trucks off Sydney’s roads each year and transform the movement of freight across the Sydney Basin.

I am particularly pleased to see low-income workers and seniors in Parramatta receive the third round of tax cuts in three years in this budget. This third round of tax cuts will put money in the pay packets of working families in Parramatta every week, helping hardworking individuals and families to balance their budgets. For three years in a row the Rudd government has helped working families in Parramatta balance their budgets by delivering tax cuts. These cuts are delivered despite the pressures placed on the budget by the global recession. I am also pleased to see the increase in the amount of income a senior Australian eligible for the senior Australian tax offset can earn before they pay income tax or the Medicare levy. (Time expired)