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Monday, 31 May 2010
Page: 4691

Ms PARKE (6:16 PM) —I rise today to speak in support of the Appropriation Bill (No. 1) 2010-2011, Appropriation Bill (No. 2) 2010-2011 and Appropriation (Parliamentary Departments) Bill (No. 1) 2010-2011 that underpin the Labor government’s 2010-2011 budget. It is a budget that continues the Labor tradition of prudent economic management and necessary economic reform of unlocking productivity and locking in fairness, of making big-picture reform without fear or favour and of responding flexibly to prevailing economic conditions while remaining steadfast in the pursuit of our shared national interest. There is no better indication of the government’s commitment to these values and of its adherence to these qualities than in the 2010-2011 budget and in the relationship between this budget and its predecessor.

Last year the government responded to the most profound economic crisis since the Great Depression by embarking on an economic stimulus package that would both fuel and cushion the Australian economy. This action achieved its twin purposes. It underwrote the strength of the Australian economy, which grew 1.4 per cent in a period when the other advanced economies taken together contracted by 3.2 per cent. It did so by creating long-term improvements in our schools, on our roads and in our local communities through the Building the Education Revolution program, the Commonwealth-local government partnership of the community infrastructure program and black spot funding. It prevented the long and lasting damage that would have occurred without the government’s nation building stimulus, it prevented the recession that would have occurred without the government’s action and it kept hundreds of small and medium businesses alive that would have gone to the wall without the support of government stimulus.

In the last few weeks, I have visited Harmony Primary School, Spearwood Alternative School, Palmyra Primary School and Beaconsfield Primary School. In each case, I have met with staff, parents and P&C representatives who are looking forward to having the use of extensive new facilities in the next few months. In many cases, this much needed additional capacity and amenity represents the first significant capital works to have occurred at schools in my electorate in 20 years or more. For some schools, the new facilities will provide their first all-weather assembly space. I am also aware of primary schools that are having their buildings equipped to cater for their involvement in the fantastic Stephanie Alexander Kitchen Garden Program.

The Regional and Local Community Infrastructure Program has achieved a similarly successful provision of short-term emergency economic stimulus in the form of long-lasting community improvements. Under this program, the City of Fremantle installed solar panels on the roof of its community leisure centre. The City of Cockburn undertook extensive work to improve access and facilities at Bibra Lake—a beautiful and ecologically vital wetland in the heart of my electorate. The City of Melville put forward a range of projects, including waterwise improvements to the irrigation system used for the public golf course. The town of East Fremantle made improvements to disability access at community sports facilities and also undertook heritage restoration work.

Mr Deputy Speaker, when you consider the varied nature and benefits of all these projects—renewable energy, disability access, heritage conservation and improvements to environmental protection and public open-space amenity—and you then multiply this across Australia’s 700 or so local governments, you begin to see how the federal government’s action has reached into every corner of this country to support economic activity, to save jobs and to create much needed improvements to public infrastructure.

When I recently attended the opening of the refurbished Locke Park rotunda in the town of East Fremantle, the contractor who had undertaken the heritage restoration work told me that without the funding to local government projects he would have been forced to lay off five or six employees. I have heard the same thing many times in the last 12 months from workers and business owners alike.

It is crystal clear that the government’s decision to make good the collapse in private demand that followed the global financial meltdown has had a direct and dramatic effect in the Fremantle electorate, especially in the south and south-east where unemployment has been comparatively high. It is through this response, in cooperation with a go-ahead private sector and the resilience and optimism of the Australian people, that Australia now has the second lowest unemployment rate of all the major advanced economies. It is through this decisive response that unemployment, which was forecast to peak at 8.5 per cent, instead peaked at 5.8 per cent and is projected to return to less than five per cent. That is a remarkable achievement. It means that some 220,000 Australians were kept in work. It means that the personal heartache and financial trauma that would have occurred in Australian households in the absence of government stimulus was avoided.

That achievement, the maintenance of economic growth and employment strength in the Australian economy and the prevention of widespread economic harm to the Australian community, should not be overlooked or underestimated. Through the steps taken by this Labor government in partnership with state and local governments across Australia, with the goodwill and enterprise of Australian business and with the optimism and hard work of the Australian people, we have done remarkably well in remarkably difficult circumstances.

Now, a year later, the 2010-11 budget moves to address the short-term deficits that were necessary to keep the Australian economy going forward at a time when most other advanced economies were going under. It charts our passage back to surplus in three years, which is three years earlier than originally forecast. In that way, this budget builds on the achievements and meets the responsibilities of the government’s 2009-10 budget. The responsibility is to contract spending growth and to match any new spending with new savings, and we have done that. The way forward is to continue to address this government’s agenda for positive change when it comes to the 21st century challenges in health, productivity and energy policy.

Among those forward-looking changes, I am happy to highlight the following: the introduction of Australia’s first Paid Parental Leave scheme; the introduction of a resource super profits tax, which will ensure all Australians benefit fairly from the development of resources that belong to all of us, in the form of a tax scheme that will assist smaller companies and exploration projects; an unprecedented national health and hospitals reform package; a new instalment in the distinctly Labor project of providing adequate superannuation savings; and a further $650 million in renewable energy development as part of our $5.1 billion Clean Energy Initiative. These are all big picture initiatives that build from Australia’s world-leading position of economic stability and address the national and global challenges that we face in the decades to come.

The resource super profits tax is simply intended to restore balance and fairness to the arrangements that govern the use and development of commodities that belong to all of us and that we ought to manage as assets held at least partly in trust for the generations to come. The public share of resource industry profits has fallen from $1 in three to something like $1 in seven within a decade. That is simply not a fair balance between providing an incentive and a reward for resources companies on the one hand and ensuring that all Australians now and in the future benefit from our shared inheritance on the other. I note the proposed mining tax is supported by 20 leading economists and academics in a statement released on 26 May that says, inter alia:

… the current public criticism of the proposed tax has been dominated by misinformation.

Mining is different to other industries in that it uses and depletes natural resources. Some return on those resources should flow to the Australian public.

The proposed mining tax is also supported by the former head of the Minerals Council of Australia, David Buckingham, who has stated:

Given these profits are made principally from the exclusive right to exploit a non-renewable resource owned by the Australian people, such tax rates are far from unreasonable.

Mr Buckingham also pointed out the scare campaigns of the past on the petroleum resource rent tax and native title legislation. On those occasions also there were threats of lost jobs, projects, exports and national income. It was claimed that those proposals would ruin our economy. Of course, as he noted, nothing of the sort happened. Mining and petroleum industries went on to grow and prosper. It is pertinent to note that the Minerals Council itself submitted in November 2008 that there should be a shift away from state based royalty charges to a national profits based tax.

Australia’s natural resources are our common wealth and they are not inexhaustible. It is therefore entirely fair and appropriate that all Australians benefit from the exploitation of these natural resources, and that is why the government will apply the proceeds of the superprofits tax to build infrastructure in places that desperately need it, including in resource rich states like my home state of WA, and to support an increase in compulsory superannuation.

In my electorate of Fremantle the measures this budget contains in relation to health and superannuation are very welcome. The provision of $950 million to increase the capacity of emergency departments and to support the new standard requiring that patients presenting to emergency be admitted, referred, treated or discharged within four hours will improve the critical service provided by the emergency department at Fremantle Hospital. This is in addition to the $417 million to improve after-hours access to GP and primary care services and the $523 million for the training and support of Australian nurses. I also welcome the $19.2 million investment that the government is making to upskill more than 4,000 aged-care workers nationwide, and I know this already includes funds to train 23 new aged-care workers in my electorate of Fremantle.

As part of the government’s general commitment to productivity improvements and carbon emission reduction, this budget makes a further investment of $1 billion in rail freight infrastructure. Rail freight continues to be underutilised in Australia, despite the fact that it offers very significant environmental, safety and amenity benefits in comparison to road transport.

As a former community lawyer, I wholeheartedly welcome the provision of an additional $25,000 for the Fremantle Community Legal Centre. This funding is a small but important part of the largest injection of Commonwealth funding for legal assistance services in more than a decade. From 1 July additional funding in this area over four years includes: $92.3 million for legal aid, $34.9 million for Indigenous legal services and $26.8 million for community legal service programs. Having had the experience of providing assistance to people who cannot afford private representation and having had the experience of seeing the kinds of very difficult legal and personal issues that people have to confront and resolve—especially people who are disenfranchised, or newly migrated, or experiencing family breakdown or economically disadvantaged—I know that this additional capacity will make an enormous difference.

On this issue, I would also like to draw attention to the government’s new Access to Justice web portal, which is designed to enable people to find legal information and legal advice services in their local area. This forms part of the government’s Strategic Framework for Access to Justice and is an innovative 21st century component of the Commonwealth’s $1.2 billion for legal assistance services over the next four years.

I am glad that this budget with its strong emphasis on the domestic bottom line and on domestic capacity building nevertheless continues this government’s trajectory towards a higher level of international aid. The commitment in 2010-11 is for $4.3 billion, which is consistent with our path towards 0.5 per cent of gross national income by 2015-16. In the medium term I hope that Australia and other countries can reach the UN-endorsed contribution level of 0.7 per cent of GNI.

I commend the Parliamentary Secretary for International Development Assistance for his work in this area, which naturally has been in keeping with the incredibly high standard of service that he has given to this parliament and to this country for many years. I encourage all members to see the address that the parliamentary secretary, the member for Fraser, gave at the Australian National University last week on our engagement with Africa. The parliamentary secretary highlighted that Australia’s increased assistance ‘is about contributing more effectively to achieving the Millennium Development Goals and being a good international citizen in a world that is becoming ever smaller and more complex’.

Before leaving the subject of foreign aid, my attention has been drawn to a speech made by the member for Melbourne Ports during this debate on the appropriation bills in which the member was critical of the $12.7 million Australia gives to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, UNRWA, the agency responsible for the Palestinian refugees. The member stated, inter alia, ‘We need to look more closely at the endemic waste, corruption and misappropriation of funds that has plagued UNRWA and this kind of funding over the years.’

The member made similar claims in his speech last year on the appropriation bills, to which I responded in a letter directly to the relevant minister and copied to the member. However, given that the claims have again been made from a parliamentary platform and are now being circulated on the internet, I feel it is necessary to make a brief response in kind. My own interest in this matter arises from my experience of having worked directly for UNRWA in Gaza for 2½ years and from a desire to protect the work and reputation of a respected and longstanding organisation and its staff, who are good and committed people of integrity working in exceedingly difficult and dangerous conditions.

UNRWA’s work is subject to regular independent audits and reviews. This extensive oversight includes a biennial audit by the United Nations Board of Auditors, which is an outside and independently constituted organisation. UNRWA is also subject to regular reviews and inspections by the donor community, including the European Commission, the United States General Accounting Office and the State Department and the UK Department for International Development. I note that the US, EU and the UK remain three of the largest donors to the agency and continue to provide strong support for it. As I stated in my letter last year:

Australia can have no reason to doubt UNRWA’s long-standing commitment to and ready participation in the auditing of its finances and practices in response to the legitimate desires of donors to scrutinise how their funds are being used.

The Agency is a moderating and neutral force. If UNRWA can’t pay salaries, if it has to lay off staff, or to close schools and health clinics, the alternative to the population in Gaza will be the services offered by the local authority. It is surprising that people who are concerned about Hamas don’t seem to realise that if it weren’t for UNRWA schools, all children in Gaza would be attending Hamas-run schools.

Ultimately, UNRWA is not the problem and it is not the solution. The solution lies in the political sphere. In the meantime, one of the—if not the—most effective ways of providing badly needed humanitarian assistance—food, cash, jobs—and human development assistance—education, health care, relief and social services, infrastructure and protection—is by supporting UNRWA.

Australia’s generous contributions to UNRWA are extremely important, and I am assured that the Australian government maintains its full support and commitment to UNRWA.

Labor went to the last election promising to maintain a strong Australian economy and promising to position this country for the future. At the last election, we promised to address the policy neglect of the previous government in areas like education, housing infrastructure and health. We promised to withdraw our troops from Iraq, to apologise to the stolen generations and to introduce national numeracy and literacy standards for the benefit of the schoolkids of this generation and of those that follow. But, above all, we promised that our reform agenda would be built on the foundation of a strong economy, because a strong economy is essential to jobs, is essential to opportunities for young Australians and is essential to our capacity at all levels to protect, nourish and expand our common wealth.

That is Labor’s essential credo: to maintain and improve the things we all share; to maintain and improve public education, universal health care, fair working conditions, a strong safety net, superannuation and the environment. Those things belong to all of us. They are the bedrock of Australian society, of everyday Australian life and of Australian values—fairness, opportunity, cooperation, innovation and tolerance. Managing a strong economy puts families and individuals in a position to best pursue a productive and fulfilling life according to their own interests and on their own terms and it puts government in a position to safeguard and enhance the public goods that we all share.

In recognising the balanced achievements of this government, it is nevertheless important to remember that the opposition said it could not be done. The opposition said our abolition of Work Choices would damage the economy and cause unemployment to skyrocket. The now opposition leader said paid parental leave would be implemented over his dead body. The shadow Treasurer said that returning the budget to surplus in four years would be a good effort and something this government would be incapable of achieving. The truth is that we have delivered world-leading economic performance at the same time as we have delivered a return to fairness in the workplace. Those opposite said it could not be done—and we have done it. The truth is that we have delivered one of the strongest economies in the OECD, with the first pension reform in more than a decade and while making a huge investment in renewable energy development. We have managed an economy with the lowest government debt of all the major developed economies.

In this budget, we have set the course for necessary tax reform, with 12 per cent compulsory superannuation, reduced company taxation, better treatment of small business asset write-offs and changes to support lower-income Australians with an increase in the low-income tax offset to $1,500 and a decrease in the tax that applies to interest on savings. We have delivered one of the very few OECD economies to avoid recession, with an agreed deal on national health and hospitals reform, landmark funding support for after-hour services, nurse training and the personal and systemic efficiencies inherent in a voluntary system of electronic health records.

All of these things have been achieved against a background of events that no-one predicted at the end of 2007. These achievements—the world-leading economic management and the forward-looking reforms—have occurred against the background of a global financial crisis in 2008-09 that literally wrecked a number of major developed economies. Right now, the shock waves of that crisis continue to threaten the European economies. This instability only underlines the need for the prudent economic management that is a feature of this budget.

In the tradition of Labor governments, this government has undertaken the hard task of changing things for the better, even though change is always the toughest political road. It was the Hawke-Keating Labor government that introduced compulsory superannuation, and now we have set the course for an increase in compulsory superannuation from nine per cent to 12 per cent. It was the Hawke-Keating government that introduced the family assistance package in 1987, and now we are proud to introduce Australia’s first comprehensive paid parental leave scheme. It was the Hawke-Keating government that established Medicare as the national universal health care system, building on the Whitlam government’s revolutionary Medibank initiative, and now we have put in place a national health and hospitals framework that acknowledges and tackles the demographic changes ahead. That is our story. It is a good story and I am happy to tell it. I commend the Treasurer, his staff and his department for this balanced, responsible and forward-looking budget and for the incredible achievements of the last 18 months.