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Tuesday, 25 May 2010
Page: 4024

Mr WINDSOR (8:02 PM) —I support the Appropriation Bill (No. 1) 2010-2011, Appropriation Bill (No. 2) 2010-2011 and the Appropriation (Parliamentary Departments) Bill (No. 1) 2010-2011. I will make a few comments on the content of the bills and the surrounding policy that the government has developed. Firstly, I will make a few comments about the technical side of the budget. The outcomes are far better than I thought they would have been a year ago. In that sense, obviously the stimulus payments have made a degree of difference. Unemployment levels are much lower than were projected, and that is a very positive thing in any economy. The ratio of debt to GDP is good at 6.1 per cent of debt to GDP. In any advanced economy it would have to be considered, particularly after a global financial collapse, a good outcome. As a number of speakers have said, the ratio of debt to GDP is about one-tenth of the average ratio of the developed communities. In that technical sense, one would have to say those two things—unemployment and the debt to GDP—are positives for the budget.

Many people do have concerns, however, about the deficit, which is a bit over $40 billion. Again, that is something like $18 billion less than was projected last year. Even though we are all a little paranoid about debt, some degree of debt is not necessarily a bad thing. Most individuals carry some degree of debt. It is the capacity to repay that becomes important. Some of those ratios indicate that Australia does have the capacity to repay. I remember standing in this building a year ago when we were very concerned that the debt this year would be in excess of $200 billion. Even though it is a large number, we are now talking about $93 billion. In that sense, we can breathe a sigh of relief to some degree that mass unemployment has not occurred. The sorts of fears that a lot of us expressed a year ago in the unknown environment of the global collapse and how Australia would fare have been unfounded.

I know politics has to be played in discussing waste, mismanagement, inefficiencies of expenditures and how the stimulus packages were rolled out et cetera. but there is no doubt, in my mind anyway, that the injection of money into the economy has had a significant impact. We can argue that the Building the Education Revolution expenditures or the insulation expenditures were too large, too rushed or not administered effectively. The Ken Henry strategy of injecting money into an economy when there was great concern about the capacity of the private sector to keep the economy rolling has had a very real effect on the outcomes of the budget.

As I said, there will be arguments, and I would argue with the government about some of the building projects that took place. Now, since the global financial crisis has moved on somewhat—it may return, you never know; it depends what happens in Europe and other places—the debate tends to go back to how efficiently those massive amounts of money were actually spent, rather than to the real driver behind the Henry strategy, which, as I understand it, was for money to be injected into the economy within as broad a framework as possible. That involved an injection of funds into all our schools and our local governments, while, individually, people got $900—and there was a lot of argument about that.

There was also the insulation program. Although many of us would say that we should have programs that encourage renewable energy, the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions and efficient energy use, under the insulation program the process of injecting money into the economy was more of a priority than the cooling or warming of people’s homes. The election will be fought on some of these economic matters. But I do pay regard to those key indicators that I reflected on a moment ago.

Going to other issues within the budget, the big winner in terms of increased expenditure has been health. Health is one of those things that I think all of us realise acts like a continuous sponge in terms of money, and it is a very easy avenue for claiming political points from time to time as to the inefficiencies of various health systems. For instance, I remember that, when I first went into the New South Wales parliament in 1991, the proportion of the total budget spent on health was about 18 per cent. Currently—and obviously it is a much larger budget in New South Wales—the health budget is more than twice that. I think most of us recognise that you cannot have a budget in any of the states—or in the overall Commonwealth, for that matter—where more than 40 per cent of the total budget goes to the health area; otherwise, other areas will have to suffer. I appreciate what both the government and the opposition are trying to do in terms of reviewing the way in which health is administered. That will be an ongoing debate, one that will run through to the election. In the budget that we are talking about tonight, health has had an injection of about $7.3 billion.

The government’s broader policy platform, as I understand it, is to establish health regions and, to run those regions, have some sort of local or regional board control. I would like to put in a plug for the existing structure that operates in the New England electorate. The Hunter-New England region embraces a larger region than just New England; it also embraces the Hunter region, around Newcastle. I would like to congratulate those involved for the way in which that has been administered. I was one of those who argued against the larger region at the time, but I think there have been successes achieved. Not least of those successes is the relationship between the University of Newcastle, the University of New England in Armidale, which now has a medical school, and also the university department of rural health which is based at Tamworth. In terms of the training of medical practitioners and associated professions, particularly nurses, that relationship has been a real success story, in my view. I remember the Leader of the Opposition, when he was the Minister for Health and Ageing some years back, came to Tamworth and looked at the university department of rural health, and I think he could see quite obviously that that relationship was a very, very good one. As part of that program, eventually, a medical school was formed, and it will have a teaching relationship with Tamworth Base Hospital, Armidale Base Hospital and Taree base hospital, which is not in the electorate of New England.

Even though I applaud the moves on both sides to try and make the health system much more efficient and remove the blame game that continually goes on between the states and the Commonwealth, I would urge them to look very closely at what is working and what has worked in the past rather than just have a blanket approach for the Australian community—not have something new for the sake of having something new where there have been successes scored in the past.

I thank the member for Newcastle, who was here a moment ago, because one of the things that did come through in the budget was a $42 million cancer clinic for Tamworth. It is something that the community has been arguing for for a long time, and we believe that will be part of a new hospital redevelopment process which is much needed to assist with the training of the medical students from the University of New England as they come through to the teaching part of the hospital. So there will be a major redevelopment of the Tamworth Base Hospital, and the cancer clinic—of the $42 million, three-quarters came from the Commonwealth and the other quarter from the New South Wales government—will be part of that process.

On a broader level, there are concerns about MRIs. I think the minister for health really needs to have a close look at the provision of MRI services not only in our region but in many other regions. There is a need for more MRI licences across many regions in Australia and for Medicare rebates to be able to be accessed for MRI services. I think that is something that has to be looked at, particularly with the growth of cancer.

Before moving off the health budget the thing that I was a little disappointed in was dental health, which received very little mention and no additional funding. I think if we are serious about health reform, our teeth have to be part of our bodies. They are going to have to be factored in at some stage as they are actually part of us. They are a very important part for young people and old people. I am fully aware of why dental health has not been included in the Medicare arrangements and of the original history of the split-up et cetera. But it is something that the Australian people are clamouring for and the surveys that I have done in my electorate suggest that they would be prepared to pay more in their Medicare levy to have those services provided. There was money in relation to mental health but I still do not think we are doing enough there. I think we are all aware of the issues that are out there in our communities.

The government has formed a Renewable Energy Future Fund, and I believe the opposition is going to can that if it comes to power. There is a degree of hypocrisy and I think the government is going to have to start to get its marketing right. We have been through the climate change debate, the Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme and the various reasons for doing certain things and now the government is setting up a Renewable Energy Future Fund. I think somewhere around $600 million is being put into that fund to encourage use of renewable energy. In relation to LPG the Leader of the National Party highlighted the issue that a fossil fuel tax is going to be imposed on a renewable energy, that of biofuels. There is a degree of hypocrisy and there are mixed messages coming through here. If we are serious about renewable energy, why are we going to impose a tax regime on some sources of renewable energy and not on others? When people are trying to interpret these messages, particularly in regional Australia, they become a little bit concerned.

Then there is the mining tax. I am in favour of a rent resource tax. I did economics at university. I have never practised as an economist but I think anybody—including the mining industry themselves, the Minerals Council—who thinks about how to extract a rent from the use of a resource such as the mining industry would suggest that a rent resource tax is a much fairer way of extracting money than a royalty system. I argued from the start on this because the mining minister organised a briefing for me with some Treasury people and one of his own people to try to get my head around what the government is trying to achieve. It was easy to see that it was a very complicated arrangement. I do not think the government has marketed what it is trying to do very well at all, partly because it is extremely complicated and partly because it is rebutting some of the simplistic arguments that the opposition is putting up, as well as rebutting the fairly effective campaign from the Minerals Council.

One thing that seems to be coming through to me quite clearly is that the long-term bond rate, a rate of about 5.8 per cent, being a determinant of a superprofit really does need to be reviewed. If the government is serious about consulting with the mining industry it should be set on having meaningful discussions. I said to some of the miners in my area, ‘Don’t just leave this to the Minerals Council,’—because some people on the Minerals Council are more interested in the politics than solving the problem—‘Get your own figures into the debate so that the Treasury people and the people reviewing this can look at real companies and real outcomes in terms of what the rent resource tax will mean to those particular companies.’ I think the government has to be a little bit serious about having a look at the long-term bond rate as the determiner of the start-up point of a supertax, as they call it. As has been in the media in recent days, the 40 per cent for company losses seems to be an argument coming from the mining industry and others. That may well be something that could be taken off or reduced and would have an offset effect against the long-term bond rate start-up point.

Positives in the budget for the electorate of New England include the national broadband rollout. Part of Armidale will be one of the five sites chosen and there are a lot of very good people prepared to assist in relation to that. There is also the Murrurundi Tunnel. I heard the minister for mining talking about that today and that $580 million was being expended in the Hunter corridor. Part of that program, which has not been expended yet but is coming down to the wire, is to put a new tunnel or bypass over the Liverpool Range, which is on the edge of the New England electorate. There is other money being spent on the Hunter rail network.

The matter of a water study arose with the Prime Minister yesterday in question time. The government is putting $1½ million into funding that study to come up with some independent scientific rigor in relation to mining on the Liverpool Plains, where two companies propose to mine. I was very pleased to see there is about $1 billion in a program called Water for the Future. For the Barraba community, which I have raised on a number of occasions, the government is going to put money into some feasibility work in relation to that community. A long-term fix for the Barraba problem of lack of water may well come out of that particular fund, as could the augmentation for Chaffey Dam.

There are two other issues that I would raise briefly as time has beaten me once again. The major problem on the New England Highway that remains now is the Bolivia Hill. The minister for infrastructure is well aware of it. It is only about 1.3 kilometres long but is quite expensive to fix. However, unless it is fixed it will remain a real deathtrap. I once again implore the government to have a serious look at this piece of road. I believe the minister is coming up in the next few months to look at the Bolivia Hill. I also urge him to look at the Tenterfield bypass because a major tragedy is going to occur in that area if something is not done about infrastructure. (Time expired)